Review: Tales of the Unknown (The Bard’s Tale) (NES)

By Drew Wilson

In this review, we check out the NES port of a famous old RPG game, Bard’s Tale. The game is famous for being a “must play” game. Because this is supposed to be a “must play” game, we decided to play it.

The NES port of Tales of the Unknown – The Bard’s Tale was released in 1991. It’s one of the earlier known first person tile-based dungeon crawling RPG games out there. It was initially released on the Apple II.

The story is a little different than most other games of it’s time. The Bard is out for some adventure as long as a good drink is involved. That’s more or less what the storyline is.

You start the game off creating your party of 5 characters. They can be of a number of different classes. Each class has their own strengths and weaknesses. When you are done, you leave the guild hall and enter the overworld area. This overworld area is inhabited by monsters, but the stores and other locations in this alley are necessary for your survival. There’s the temple for healing. There’s the council hall that is responsible for allowing you to level up if you’ve obtained enough experience points. There’s an items shop. There’s a weapons and armor shop. There’s also a bar that allows you to, if you have a bard in your party, to reload on a drink to allow him to sing in combat.

There’s various enemies one can encounter. When you are starting out, it’s wise to simply stick close to all of these amenities and just wander around. That way, you can grind up your characters so you can survive wandering further out after a few level ups.

One thing that is somewhat unique to this game is the fact that armor is defined by armor class. The lower the armor class, the stronger the armor. This is kind of counter-intuitive compared to many other games where higher numbers (like higher defense values, higher armor value, etc.) means better protection.

It is also important to know what certain spells do. One spell can dispel any apparitions summoned by monsters. These apparitions are otherwise incredibly difficult to defeat otherwise, so finding out what spell works against them can be crucial.

Eventually, you’ll want to find a bar that serves grape juice. When you do, order it and you’ll be given access to the cellar – the next part of the game. From there, you can continue your adventures.

I personally couldn’t get much mileage out of this game. Once I was able to grind my way up to being able to easily survive the overworld, surviving the cellar was still difficult. On top of it all, even when you are defeating these monsters, you hardly got any experience points that sufficiently allowed you to level up. I was able to survive enough to see the third floor, but that’s as far as I got. After that, the game gradually became less fun – so much so that I simply stopped playing after a while.

Another gripe I have about this game is the fact that the menu system is extremely convoluted. In order to do much of anything, you had to go through menu after menu after menu just to, say, give money from one character to another.

I thought the balance was too heavily tilted towards the enemies. With experience points that seem to be scarce and monsters that have no problem taking you out after a short series of encounters, the difficulty of this game is a little excessive.

Graphically, my research told me that this was ground-breaking. It may have been in it’s initial release, but by the time we made it to this port, the graphics were somewhat crude compared to other games like Captain Skyhawk or Mega Man 3. I think the graphics could have used a little facelift that makes this game comparable to other games that have been released by that point in some fashion, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I get that it’s pseudo-3D graphics on the NES, but I thought the graphics could have been better.

The music is good at first, but it get’s a little repetitive after a while. When not using Bard songs, the different songs have a tendency of sounding like mere variations of each other (minus the first dungeon music it seems).

Overall, if this is one of the greatest games of all time, this port clearly doesn’t show it. With convoluted menu systems, sub-par graphics, and an balance heavily favoring the monsters, this game may only be playable by die-hard RPG dungeon crawling players. For everyone else, I’d suggest passing this one by in favor of better made games.


Furthest point in game: Found the exit in the first dungeon back onto the surface, but stopped playing shortly after that.

General gameplay: 12/25
Replay value: 4/10
Graphics: 4/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 44%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85

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