You may recall that in Monty Python's take on the story of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, Arthur got into an argument with a snooty French castle keeper about how coconuts could have randomly fallen into England; the Knights of the Round were chased off by a vicious and carnivorous but otherwise completely normal rabbit; and the group escaped from a monster because the animator drawing it keeled over a heart attack. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is STILL a far more accurate representation of the story of King Arthur and his knights than Knights of the Round, an old Super NES game which was loosely inspired by the same legend.
King Arthur is best known for yanking the mighty sword Excalibur from a stone, which automatically made him the King of the Britons. In Knights of the Round, there is thankfully no crazy minigame where you repeatedly press the button ridiculously fast to draw the sword from the stone. Arthur begins the game with Excalibur firmly in hand, and uses it to hack down the minions of evil attacking Camelot. Through ten levels, Arthur takes Excalibur and gets medieval on the (expletive deleted) of everyone in sight who dares raise a blade against his citizens in his kingdom!
You shouldn't let the lack of an Excalibur-drawing minigame fool you, though. There's going to be a whole lot of good old-fashioned, rapid fire button beating in Knights of the Round! The game is an old-fashioned arcade beat 'em up from Capcom with nothing to make it stand out other than the Arthurian legend motif. Those who played King of the Dragons will be able to identify with it immediately, and people like me who saw brawlers hit their stride with Capcom's classic brawler, Final Fight, will recognize Knights of the Round as Final Fight with a fourth of the gameplay depth.
Yes, the lack of depth works against Knights of the Round. You get one special attack which isn't at all necessary to beat the game, and it depletes your energy every time you use it. But really now, have you met a whole lot of people who play brawlers for strategic gameplay depth? Sure, depth - as well as the slight shred of a plot which can be seen in a precious few brawlers - can preserve the shelf life of a brawler. But the main calling card of the traditional arcade brawler isn't depth. It's the right - nay, the SACRED DUTY - of the brawler fan to let off steam by just forgetting any artistic merit a game could have and just go on a one or two-man rampage, turning all comers' faces into oatmeal!
If King Arthur isn't your favorite character, that's not much of a problem. Arthur is merely Mr. Average in Knights of the Round. He's neither here nor there, but I've found him to be my most troublesome character because he's not the master of any of the traditional brawler traits. He's strong but not strong enough, fast but not fast enough, and has range but not enough. So to assist him, Arthur also has the help of his loyal knights Lancelot and Percival. Lancelot is of course the greatest knight of all time, and in Knights of the Round he's the speed and range guy. Brawler fans at this point are, through a meticulous process of elimination, coming to the conclusion that Percival is the mighty glacier - the guy can't move worth a damn but will rip, tear, and cut you a new one if you accidentally step on his toes.
And there you go! I just explained the entire game! But since Epinions is a harsh mistress and we've both clearly got time to kill, I'll fill you in on all the other pointless details. The only thing besides the medieval motif which really sticks out from Knights of the Round is that there is an RPG-like level-up system. Kill guys, collect power-ups, get stronger. Nothing to it! The progression of levels is very well done, and it's even-handed enough to allow at least one or two level-ups per level. Bonus points for the details - Arthur, Lancelot, and Percival start out looking like fairly scrawny fencers, but as they level up, they grow armor and eventually even shed that as they grow ripped.
There isn't much variation on the bad guys. You'll get some pretty ridiculous foes to fall to Excalibur's blade: Knights with big swords, jesters, peasants, and fat dudes. Like any good traditional brawler, Capcom grants the demand for variety by swapping occasional names and color palettes. There are times you'll see a bad guy attacking a helpless knight and be called to rescue the helpless guy. It's best to rescue the helpless ones; not only is it just plain right to do, but the game will dock you lives if you don't.
The true weakness of Knights of the Round is the lack of depth. I've played quite a few half-(expletive deleted) brawlers in my day, but Knights of the Round really sets the standards back. For Merlin's (now there's yet another missing character) sake, you can't even throw enemies! The most you'll remember is being the victim of cheap shot after cheap shot. This is most apparent when you're trying to come to the aid of one of the aforementioned helpless knights - as you approach, you'll get stabbed from the front before you even think you're in range. When you get up and try again, you'll just get stabbed again. The hit detection in general just sucks, and there will be a lot of times when you end up taking a few hits because you thought you were out of harm's way by merit of being far enough north or south of an enemy to avoid him. This is particularly bad during boss fights.
Speaking of boss fights, those things are an exercise in tedium and repetition. They all go by pretty much the same way: The boss attacks with a very ranged attack which can damage you from halfway across the screen, and so you'll find yourself mounting air assaults a lot, hoping to god you land close to him just when he finishes one of his attacks to you can strike him without any repercussions from being too close. When his health gets about halfway hacked down, he calls in the cavalry, and so you get to deal with ordinary bad guys while the boss beats the hell out of you.
The graphics in Knights of the Round definitely fit the medieval motif, and there's plenty of detail in the characters. The coolest feature of these graphics is the way the characters grow physically whenever they level up. But other than that, they're standard brawler graphics. There isn't a lot of color, which is appropriate given the setting, but there isn't a ton of animation, and the enemies are mostly palette swapped. The short bursts of blood and sparks are nice touches, but the designs are far too generic to warrant any mention. Some of the bosses have creative designs, but that's it.
The sounds run the gauntlet from forgettable to annoying. The music is generic and doesn't even sound like it changes most of the time. The only sound you'll remember is the way your blades sometimes scrape against enemy armor, which is memorable in much the same way fingernails scratching a chalkboard are memorable. It ranks among the warning beep from Katamari Damacy and the crying of Baby Mario in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island as one of the most annoying video game sounds of all time, and that's saying something.
The controls are awesome once you get used to the terrible hit detection. Percival moves slowly when he starts out but gains a bit more speed if he walks uninterrupted for a couple of seconds. Knights of the Round is played within the simply constraints of a jump button and an attack button, so you won't have to worry about making any errors. The only real problem I have with the controls is that when you jump on a horse, you have to press the jump button to turn it around.
Knights of the Round is not a good game by any stretch. But it was never meant to be a good game. It was made in the era before video games were brought into discussions about serious art, and it was meant to be a stress reliever. There are certain games which should be played and seen purely in that respect, and this is one of them.