Thursday, 26 February 2015

Crap Games #8

Shadow of the Beast (1989)
By: Reflections / Psygnosis Genre: Fighting Players: 1 Difficulty: Hard
Featured Version: Commodore Amiga
Also Available For: MegaDrive, Master System, PC Engine CD, FM Towns, Lynx, Atari ST, C64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum

If you could go back in time to the end of the 80's and took a stroll to your local computer retailer (and yes, those little independent shops did used to exist), there's a very good chance the window displays would include, amongst other things, an Amiga running Shadow of the Beast. Its release was very quickly followed by all and sundry heralding its wondrous audio/visual delights and, naturally enough, many shop keepers swiftly seized upon these qualities in an attempt to sell more Amigas. Who could blame them? It certainly made an impressive sight. Before too long, however, the game developed a reputation of being all style over substance. Some even called it a glorified tech-demo. Not that anything is wrong with tech-demos of course, they've been used to sell hardware since there has been hardware, but most of those aren't then put on sale as full games at about three times the price of a normal release...

Scary red dragon dropping... bombs, apparently!
Yes, very oof! Games at this kind of price (£30+) were beyond even the price of most console games at that time, never mind the home micros - that was supposed to be one of the advantages of owning one! A game at that price would need to be astonishingly good in all ways, and SOTB apparently was not, eventually earning as much scorn as praise from disgruntled gamers. It did at least have a nice, detailed back-story though. The instruction booklet actually warbles on for some pages but the abridged version is thus: Many years ago, on a moonless night, a small child was stolen away from its unsuspecting parents and given to the priests of the 'Beast Lord', Maletoth. Here, he was slowly transformed into a strange creature of incredible power, agility and strength, and his past memories were wiped. For many years he served as warrior messenger for the heinous Maletoth until one day he discovered the truth of his past and vowed bloody revenge.

This is about as complicated as the stages get...
This aspect of the game is superb. The graphics, music, presentation, even a detailed story, but upon starting the game you'll soon find that Aarbron's quest is a rather tough and incredibly simple one. It begins against a nice picturesque backdrop from where you can move either left or right. As soon as you start moving, terrifying enemy creatures begin appearing which should either be avoided or taken out. Aarbron doesn't have a particularly varied technique for doing this though - he can perform a punch while standing/running or a kick while jumping, and that's about it. He starts the game with just one life but twelve hit-points. Most enemies fall to a single strike but contact with any of them, or indeed any of the less-organic hazards, obviously knock these off one at a time, and once they're gone, so is Aarbron's chance for revenge.

One of the lovely pieces of artwork in the game...
His quest is spread over five main areas in total. The first one is the 'home' area you start on with its grassy plains and mountainous horizon and it's from here that the other areas are accessed. Left of your starting position is the forest and its maze-like stage inside an apparently huge tree, and right of your starting position is a daunting grey castle which leads directly on to an underground shmup section through which Aarbron flies with a cannon tucked under his arm much like the sunglasses dudes from Forgotten Worlds (although there's no twirling here). Make it through this section and the last awaits - a spooky graveyard containing all manner of ghastly horrors. All of these except the 'home' area feature a giant boss guarding their exit too, and these abominations can be a real challenge. Luckily, there are a few items dotted around that should help with at least some of them!

I must be lost, I've no idea where to go next...
Collectibles are not exactly falling from the sky here but it is possible to top up Aarbron's life-meter now and then, and there are also a couple of projectile weapons that last for a set number of shots as well. Despite this, it's still a really tough game, and that was one of several major criticisms of SOTB once players had gotten over the dazzling aesthetics. The constant walk, punch, walk, punch, walk, punch (ad infinitum) gameplay was extremely repetitive anyway but Aarbron walks quite quickly and the many enemies appear on screen, usually moving toward him equally quickly, so you usually get very little time to react. Plus, many of them have attacks (such as swords) which far exceed the reach of your own meagre punch, and many traps, such as fireballs, bouncy things, or spiky things thrusting out of the ground or ceiling, appear before you can avoid them. This, combined with slightly 'sticky' controls, makes SOTB a rather frustrating experience.

Two sword-wielding bipedal rhinos stand in my way...
It was famous for those remarkable audio/visuals though, and they at least live up to their hype for the most part. Reflections even make a point of mentioning some of the key figures in the instruction book. There are apparently 13 layers of parallax scrolling, 128 colours on screen at once, and everything's running at 50 frames per second. There are even some 132 different enemy monsters in the game which consist of walking, crawling, and flying creatures of all shapes and sizes which, along with the gorgeous backdrops, create a superb atmosphere. It's not just the graphics either. There is a fantastic soundtrack by David Whittaker, too, consisting of twelve moody tracks which add a lot to the experience. It really is a lovely looking/sounding game, but that's probably part of the problem - expectations of the game itself were now unrealistically high as well, and it disappointed.

A green snake/trumpet patrols the castle grounds...
A bit of effort has been made, by way of nice story/artwork screens, to fool players into thinking this is an arcade adventure but it's not nearly as deep or involving as you might initially think. There is still a fairly strong urge to keep playing, mainly to see more of the lovely graphics and hear more fab music, but I think all but the very most determined players will soon tire of the constant unfair deaths. There is no doubting that all of Shadow of the Beast's innovations were of an audio/visual nature - the gameplay really is as basic as it comes for this type of game, playing like a fantasy-themed take on something like Kung Fu Master. That alone doesn't really make it crap if you ask me, but the unfairly harsh difficulty lends more weight to that assessment and makes the game the same thing today as it was back in 1989 - a nice (if expensive) demonstration of what the Amiga can do and a landmark title, but an annoying and rather average game.

RKS Score: 5/10


  1. I couldn't agree more with your assessment after playing this steaming pile last year. I pity the poor Speccy owners who didn't even get the nice sound and graphics.

    1. They ported THIS to the Spectrum? Geez, talk about missing the point.

    2. The Spectrum version's fairly amazing... Got it back in the day, it was the first Speccy game I played that had music whilst the game was running, rather than just on the title screen!

      Looked fantastic as well, massive sprites - mostly just one colour (yellow or blue) but massive and detailed all the same. It's about the only version of this game I've ever enjoyed.

    3. Ah, good old Speccy and its monochrome graphics, I love them :)

  2. While I can't account for the Amiga game back in the day. I did buy this when it came out on cartridge for the C64 (must have been £25-30!!) and it did not disappoint. played this game over and over, yes it is hard, but didn't stop me and my friends sinking hours into it figuring out the best routes.
    You Amiga people don't know you're born!!

    1. I'm an aspie so I'm slow to grasp figures of speech, but I'm pretty sure that metaphor made no sense to *anybody*.

  3. Hi Mr. Wingnut - I know what you mean, during the initial 'wow' frenzy, this was ported to all manner of systems. I've not played the Speccy version but I'm confident I wouldn't like it much :P

    Hi Garry - I believe the C64 version of this was also a technical marvel but didn't you get fed up with the unfairness and repetitiveness? I'm not quite sure what your last sentence means but I'm guessing it doesn't mean 'Amiga people are great' :)

  4. I played through this on the Sega Genesis (aka MegaDrive). I don't recall if I used the high score cheat or not... I want to say no, because at its very core, the game is all about memorization. You inch forward a little, punch an enemy that pops up in the exact same spot every time, rinse, lather, repeat. Once you've learned where everything is, you can pretty much play blindfolded.

    Shadow of the Beast is odd, in that it started my lifelong love affair with the Commodore Amiga but can't stand on its own merits. It looks like a progressive rock album cover come to life, but it's about as tolerable as Yes's Relayer put on infinite repeat.

    I'm also pretty sure it inspired the Neo-Geo release Magician Lord, which made the same mistake of offering sumptuous graphics with little in the way of gameplay to back it up. At least that only cost a quarter to play, rather than the hundreds you would have needed for an Amiga back in 1990.

  5. Hello Mr. ArugulaZ :) You must be a pretty talented gamer if you got anywhere with the MD version, I hear it's even harder than this one. I imagine the Amiga version brought a lot of new fans to Commodore's splendid micro though, which I suppose was its purpose really. Good point about the album cover too - I can see it now that you say it :)

    As for Magician Lord... I quite like that, although it does share some problems with SOTB and isn't very forgiving. I think less people noticed though, as most Neo Geo games looked really nice but were quite shallow gameplay-wise :)

  6. as in, amiga people didn't know how good they had it! young people today!! grumble....grumble.....
    no loading times, gorgeous graphics and multiple hours of playtime, it was a win for me on the C64
    I will concede that the megadrive game was a disappointment when I played it later

  7. Haha, oh I see :) Well, I got an Amiga rather late, I was a Sega fanboy in those days, but I know what you mean. I haven't been brave enough to try the MD version of SOTB yet but I hear it's even harder :(

    1. I feel like chiming in here. I went back to play the Genesis version of SotB and as I'd mentioned earlier, it's all about memorization. Aside from a minor slip up with the massive boss in the well (when you get the fireball power up, DON'T use it on anyone else!), I was able to make it pretty far... maybe a third of the way through. I don't know how difficult the Amiga version is, but I can't imagine what would make the Genesis version that much tougher.

      One oddity is that the Japanese version of the same game is more faithful to the Amiga game visually. Characters have more color, and potions that were a dull yellow in the US release were returned to their blood-red hue. I don't know why the American game feels like a test run for its Japanese counterpart, but it bugs the piss out of me.

  8. Apparently it's the US version of the MD game that's tougher due to a mishap in the conversion process - the 50/60Hz thing wasn't handled correctly making the MD version run faster than the Amiga one. Enemies approach you quickly enough as it is without the game running faster! I'll try it one day but I'm not too fussed to be honest. This version annoyed me enough :P

  9. Woah! harsh words about the game. I agree with you to a point yes it was sexy as hell and difficult nay impossible to boot but, I still enjoyed it. No I could never complete the game or get any way near it like my mate could but it still occupys a place in my heart.

  10. Haha, I don't hate it, I have no desire to play it again. SotB was a great game to have running in a computer shop's window (as it was in my local shop) but to play? Eurghh!