2006 – Swords and Sandals: Gladiator

The mid-2000s was when Flash games began to break into the mainstream, with games like N (2005), Dad ‘n Me (2005) and Line Rider (2006) earning awards and headlines across the world. It was also the rise of online game portals, offering thousands of Flash games (sometimes licensed, often stolen) for users to play freely, earning ad revenue from page views.

One of the titles that dominated these games portals was Swords and Sandals, a game about making a goofy-looking gladiator and fighting a series of turn-based battles in an arena, earning XP and gold to level up your stats and buy better gear for the next fight.

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The core of the combat is quite simple: characters can move forward or backwards, charge, taunt and attack. Quick attacks are easier to land but deal less damage, heavy attacks are the opposite. Each action drains stamina, which can be recovered by resting. It’s easy to learn and presented in a very accessible way.

Stats play a central role, as a character with no agility will walk very slowly, while an agile one can close large distances in a single leap. If you lose a fight, your character dies and gets deleted, so there’s an addicting roguelike aspect of dying and trying different builds, or competing with friends to see who can get further.

The sequel, Swords and Sandals 2: Emperor’s Reign (2007) expanded the game, offering more interesting playstyles and challenges. In the first game it was easy to win by focusing only on damage, but now a slow brute would be easily destroyed by a gladiator with a ranged weapon or a spellcaster. It also added the ability to use special attacks, enchant your weapons, buy potions and entertain the arena’s audience to earn better rewards.

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The full game required a paid subscription at the Playaholics game portal, and was quite long and grindy, with hundreds of battles and dozens of arena masters. But the free demo was a short and satisfying challenge that became extremely popular across other portals, with crazy numbers like 37 million plays at Y8.com.

The third game, Swords & Sandals III: Solo Ultratus (2008), would introduce a new art style and different races, more weapon and armor types and a large cast of unique arena champions to defeat, such as cyborgs and demons. Moreover, the game now has four skill trees, split into melee, ranged, magical and survival skills.

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Focused on players that would enjoy all this depth and try to defeat every champion (hopefully paying for the full game), Solo Ultratus embraced min-maxing and lost some of the accessibility of the first two games, especially on its menus. Still, it was a very popular title, and got a multiplayer version called Multiplae Ultratus.

After exhausting the arena battles, the series then began to diversify itself with several spin-offs – S&S: Crusader (2008) is a simple strategy game based around army battles; S&S IV: Tavern Quests (2009) became a multiplayer boardgame similar to Mario Party; S&S: Mini Fighters (2011) marked the end of the Flash age and the shift to mobile; S&S: Medieval (2017) moved the series to the middle ages; S&S: Pirates! (2018) is a competition against other pirates to rule the seas and S&S: Spartacus (2019) is a side-scrolling action game.

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Since 2017, the developer has been re-releasing the games on Steam, remastering some of them as “Redux” versions. This includes previously mobile-only entries like S&S V: Grail of Antares (2012), which combines the arena battles with turn-based dungeon exploration.

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The reception of these remasters has been mixed, as they suffer from inconsistent art styles, balance issues and newly introduced bugs. While the originals were also very flawed, these issues were easier to overlook in a 2006 Flash game. With Flash now dead, the best way to revisit the series is the 2019 S&S: Classic Collection.

Overall, Swords and Sandals holds a weird spot in history: it was more popular than the vast majority of games (in 2010 its website claimed the series had over 350 million plays across multiple game portals), but most people only played the demos. It was the perfect game for its era, but it’s hard to define its legacy.

Of course, much of its appeal was tied to its accessibility, novelty and the fact that anyone with Internet access could play it. Nonetheless, there’s a solid core gameplay loop underneath it, and a certain earnest charm that only Flash-era games can provide. Felipe Pepe

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