Swords and Serpents was developed by Interplay and published by Acclaim in the US in 1990. It came out in Scandinavia in 1991, and several other countries in 1993. It’s a retro Wizardry clone, and does feature a map (although it does not show all details about the world.
As Wizardry clones go on the NES, the game is pretty kind. You level up as a group, which helps keep your party at the same level. There’s a premade average adventuring group that’s a decent group to complete the game. Grinding is lighter than say the grind in Wizardry, or the Deep Dungeon series. You can fairly easily start to explore once you hit level 2, and cautiously expand outward when you hit level 3. The map helps you not get lost, and makes it easy to pick up the game again if you stop playing for a while.
A lot of these early games are hard to recommend to someone with “modern” tastes. After all, sprite based 3D tends to be clunky and provides usually pretty terrible draw distances. Late in the game, many games dissolve down into horrible slogs through annoying mazes and masses of difficult enemies. Death tends to come quick and brutally. On the other hand, the music sometimes is amazing, and sometimes the cryptic clues and dark corridors are fun to explore.
On the other hand, the game has clunky controls especially from a modern point of view. For example, let’s look at some basic exploring and shopping. To heal yourself, you hit B for a menu (unmarked save for which player is controlling the menu.) Then you pick a character (mages and non-mages are included). Then you pick a spell from that list to cast, and a character to cast it on (spells you can’t use outside of battle are included.) To check your inventory, you hit select, pick one character, and select the character in question. To check your gold, you check the “group” option in the select menu. To shop, you enter a shop, hit A to bring up the shopping menu, pick the first character you want to shop with, pick buying or selling, and then scroll through the options. Despite the clunkiness, it is nice to see that the equip and selling menus let you page through your characters instead of making you back out and pick a new character.
Battles are unusual. You press A for a basic attack, or hammer it to possibly get extra attacks. “A” and a direction allows you to “aim the attack” at a body part, possibly for extra damage. As you do this, various party member names light up (as you go through the turn order.) You can hit B (when you have a mage selected in this manner) and pick a spell from the menu to cast. Meanwhile, in semi-real time, the enemy attacks. Stop attacking, and the enemy will stop attacking as well. Enemies are large and have several frames of attacking and idle animations. There are almost no numbers displayed on the screen and almost no menus unless if you’re trying to use magic.
A final annoyance is probably due to a cost saving measure. You cannot save the game using a battery. Instead, you have five passwords. Each character has a password, and the game itself has a password. These are fairly long and complex. Obviously there’s ways to avoid having to enter passwords, but saving everywhere isn’t really great if it’s accompanied by having to write down 5 passwords.
All in all, Swords and Serpents is a game that feels like it was polished heavily. The graphics and the game play are obviously aimed to make this Wizardry clone stand out from other games. Unfortunately, limitations of the era and game play decisions makes the game feel archaic and awkward. Is it fun to play? Yes, the early areas of the game are pretty fun to play. However, I could see the game wearing out its’ welcome, and I could definitely see people not finding the nostalgic fun in the game. The large animated sprites and less painful game play does make the game a lot more appealing compared to something like Bard’s Tale. Since you can have each character controlled by a character, you can have a fun time fighting through battles with others, which is a unusual feature in the era.