Battle Master: Commodore Amiga

Battle Master: Commodore Amiga
Battle Master: Commodore Amiga

Insert Disk collects Battle Master for the Commodore Amiga.

Today’s retro game review is Battle Master for the Commodore Amiga. This retro gaming classic is a great example of the adventure exploration genre from the 90’s. Choose from several warrior classes an battle your way across the large kingdom to become the dominant clan and the Battle Master.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s episode. One of the great advantages of gaming is the ability to travel to far away fantasy lands and go on epic quests. Today we are going to attempt just that in today’s retrospective of Battle Master for the Commodore Amiga. Battle Master was released for the Amiga, Atari ST, Sega Genesis and DOS PC back in 1990.

Whilst not particularly well known today I wanted to revisit Battle Master as I see it as one of the forgotten classics. I’m sure that many of you will have fond memories of this game, others will be experiencing it for the first time. So let’s see what’s included in the package. The full sized box is very solid with excellent cover art, a well printed glossy manual with detail of the weapons, monsters, items and back lore of the fantasy realm. There’s the ever present warranty card, I think I’m still yet to ever have posted one of these back. More important though is the single 3.5 inch floppy disk. In addition here is probably the most interesting box content. It’s the A3 sized laminated map containing all of the major locations in the game and acts as an extra tool to help get you immersed in the world of Battle Master. The rear of the box really sells this game. It promises. Top quality arcade action.

A huge, detailed world fantasy world to explore – complete with castles, villages and underground mines. 16 different leaders from 4 different races to choose from. Devious puzzles, fiendish traps and countless magic objects. Fight, negotiate or trade extra troops. Adopt your own battle formations. The game certainly talks the talk, we’ll see later how this all plays out. You’ll notice on the front of the box the promotional sticker for Free accommodation for a great escape. If you remember back to the Theme Park Mystery episode we collected our first coupon. Collect 5 of these and you can redeem the coupons at over 200 locations in the UK.
With Battle Master you will find the coupon on the back of the manual, so to get that free accommodation you’re going to have to sacrifice a rather nice piece of art to do so.

The worse crime against the game packaging though is the promotional sticker on the front of the box. I dare say that it will peel off without damaging the artwork below but it’s probably not worth the risk. As you’ve noticed the artwork itself is actually an exceptional piece of cover art.
The artwork is by Cypriot born artist Chris Achillios. Over the years Chris has worked on numerous pieces of fantasy artwork. If you’re in to this type of art I would highly recommend checking out his website for his full portfolio. You won’t be disappointed. So, on to the game. As you boot up you’ll see a digitised version of the cover art. It’s reasonably well imagined but I believe that the Amiga palate could have actually produced an even better result.

The setup screen allows us the basic options of choosing our leader for the quest. There are 4 basic races of human, elf, dwarf and orc. The manual states that there are differences between the races although I didn’t really experience this effect in game. Humans are supposed to have certain advantages over elves, elves over humans etc. As this didn’t really seem to have much effect I would suggest just picking your favourite. What does matter though is the class you pick. I tend to pick the wizard class as they seem to have better projectiles for killing enemies at range. Once you’ve got your team together it’s on to the core game play. This is the view of the game you will see for about 99% of your time. The view is top down and allows you to control 1 member of your group, this is indicated by the red arrow over his head.

The aim is to eliminate a target number of the enemy, there’s no on screen counter for this but this is explained in the game manual. The enemy themselves can be seen on the radar map at the bottom right of the screen.
The sidebar also show your stats of health, morale and skill. Overall though it’s really only the health bar that you will want to keep a regular eye on. Before long you’ll be free roaming around the map, using the radar to help guide you towards the next pack of enemies. One thing that you’ve perhaps noticed is the overall level of graphics and sound. For the Commodore Amiga I would describe them very much as entry level. When you compare game like Shadow of the Beast to Battle Master there’s a rather large gap in quality.

My assumption as to why this might be and that comes down to the publisher PSS. They were know better for games on the Oric microcomputer as well as other lower spec machines and mostly top down war strategy games. What looks to have happened here is a combination of moving up to a more capable system but also the way the game would be marketed. The two main releases of the game were on the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. For those of you that know your history you’ll know that these two machines had architecture that was more compatible than most and relatively easy to cross-port a title. Back in the day companies often developed for one machine and then made a quick port to the other. Even Sega got in on this action by porting Altered beast from the Atari ST to the Amiga rather than from the Mega Drive / Genesis systems.

In my view it’s likely that the development of the game took this route. The game would need to run on the least capable of systems (arguably either DOS or the Atari ST). This would explain why the Amiga version also seems to have been slightly hobbled when it comes to the graphics. The extended colour palettes capable certainly weren’t used here. Considering PSS’s legacy working with ports and less powerful systems I think it’s safe to assume that this is at least partially how the game was developed. However, graphics aren’t everything, we need to look at the game play. The gameplay itself is rather a mixed bag, the choppy frame rate can make it difficult to engage the enemies with any strategy. It invariably turns in to a case of either picking off enemies with projectile at distance or running up close enough to the enemy and spamming the fire button in the hopes of landing a hit.

The maps are a decent size for this type of game and all have a reasonable layout. What is frustrating about the game though is the number of cheap deaths in the game. You can be walking along quite happily and then all of a sudden.. Death. There’s not a lot that you can do about this as the traps spawn at random locations at random time. So these trap features aren’t easily avoidable, you will just have to play the game a few time, memorise the locations and then never cross these paths. Personally I felt that this feature actually detracted from the game play. The idea of booby trapped rooms itself is a good one. The execution though just doesn’t add to the adventure as the death always feels very cheap and unavoidable. After each stage you will return to the map screen where you will find that you have branching path ways. Here I can either go to Dorin’s Devle or Duham. In this case I’ve chosen to go to Dulham, with a name like Dulham I’m expecting great excitement.

After a quick loading screen we reach our next destination. You’ll notice a nice change in the graphics, away from the dull browns and greys in to a greener environment. Although still very tile based in appearance. You’ll also notice what’s going on here. It can get very confusing as to what’s happening. My team are down at the bottom, I’m controlling the character with the red arrow whilst the computer assists with the two companions.
Unfortunately the enemy look absolutely identical in every way. Before long there is so much action on the screen it can become very confusing as to where you are and who you are attacking. Even a simple sprite palette swap would have helped greatly here. Throughout the game you will be exploring different house, caves and other locations.

You will be picking up extra food, armour, keys, rings, amulets and a range of other items. The game has all the elements of a great RPG similar to Ultima and other popular series of the time. The problem with Battle Master is that it never seems that necessary to collect most items other than keys, armour and food. You’ll find that you collect lots of items, equip them in the menu screen but find they only have a very nominal influence on the game play, if at all. Pressing spacebar will take you to the menu screen. From there you can bring up the inventory. There’s a complete list of you findings including weapons and food. Here for example I’m able to equip the lesser shield ring.

Interestingly here is possibly the laziest description of an item I’ve ever seen in a game. Just a label of “Food of Some Kind”. It’s not very helpful and I’m not even sure if this was an in joke by the developers or they just forgot to go back and name all of the game attributes. You can also click on the profile of your character. This open up a secondary stats screen. Here you can view your characters health, morale and skill. In theory this should be a very useful screen in an RPG adventure. However, I personally found that other than the health bar these statistics didn’t really seem to influence the game play. Supposedly you are levelling up your stats as you play. You will be hard pushed to see the effect of this stat progression as you are playing though.

Battle master is a case where all the right elements of the game are in here, it’s just that they don’t all come together very cohesively as one piece. So overall we’ve got some dubious graphics, limited sound and the game play is a little lacking in places. However, for whatever reason I really enjoy playing Battle Master. It’s challenging (not necessarily in the right way) but it did keep me coming back for more again and again.
I’ve been playing Battle Master on and off since I was about 10 years old so I will fully admit that at least part of the enjoyment here (at least for myself) is nostalgia. In short bursts it’s a fun game to re-visit and a decent experience as long as you don’t compare it to the more grand adventure titles it was up against in the 90’s. This is throw away fun but really good throw away fun. Aside from nostalgia though why am I showing you Battle Master as a collectable?

Well, one of the games developers Mike Simpson is actually still involved in the games industry. He’s currently the creative director of the creative assembly. Now, you’ll probably know these for titles such as the Total War franchise. It’s interesting when you look through his LinkedIn profile how much he has achieved through the years. Even being the studio manager at Psygnosis and this was back in the day when classics such as Shadow of the Beast 2, Bloodwych and Microcosm were around. So this is a person that did go on to dare I say, better games and influential in his own right. It’s interesting to go back further on Mike’s profile when he actually mentions his time working for PSS and Mirrorsoft and openly states that some of the earlier games were made for as little as £3000 and developed in just 3 months.

He does go on to say that some had a larger budget. It’s always interesting to see how someone that went on to such great things would still include this early work on his profile. It’s a nice piece of nostalgia that shows the progress of a developer in the gaming industry. You don’t have to start out at the top, you can start out with a game like Battle Master and work your way up. This is an additional reason why Battle Master is interesting, at least from a historical perspective. So, if you’re thinking of collecting this one how much is it going to cost you? The online auctions sites suggest that this title isn’t currently gaining in value. Anywhere from £10-£15 is about fair in the UK for a good complete copy, for the US that’s around $15-$20. Of course that is for the Commodore Amiga version.

There is a Sega Genesis version of the game. Expect to pay around $5 or £7 at current exchange rates. The reason that the genesis version is interesting to us here in the UK is that Battle Master was never released by Sega in the PAL territories. This poses an added inconvenience for collectors here in Europe. I have played the Sega Genesis version Battle Master and I can conclude that there is virtually no difference at all between them. If anything the sound is very slightly better on the Amiga version but there is very little in it.

Battle Master probably won’t be the most exciting game in your collection but it is at least interesting from a collecting point of view. The game boasts a lot on the box and possibly falls a little short of expectations.
However, the box, the manual and the map are all excellent quality and provided me with that nice warm feeling of old school gaming nostalgia. As a package Battle Master is well worth tracking down.

The overall game build is perhaps lacking in places but Battle Master is a game I come back to time and time again. If you spent just 5 minutes trying this one you would happily put it down and never come back to it, play 20 minutes though and you’ll find yourself coming back time and time again, wanting to progress to that next level and finally complete the game. For the reasonable price of picking up a copy of the game I’d give Battle Master a recommendation for anyone looking for some simple adventure fun.

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