Friday, 24 March 2017

Chapter XXXIX: Shadow of the Beast II

“We only live to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting”. - Kahlil Gibran

“Beauty isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing” - The Neon Demon


I could be here all day quoting sources to prove the point I’m trying to make. Are graphics important in a videogame? Yes, yes, and yes. And if you think they aren’t, go back to playing Pong. Like the poet so beautifully explained, one cannot deny the importance of aesthetics in everything. The debate wherever looks are important in videogames is old as the medium itself and really deserves a firm and irrefutable answer: “Of course they are you philistine!”. There were many games through the short history of our favourite hobby that showed this, but none did it better in my mind than Shadow of the Beast II.


This game was supposed to be one of the first to be covered in this blog, but the text always ended up being way too sappy and reflected on my childhood and teenage platonic love interests, and not only it was quite embarrassing, but I think no one has patience for that. But it’s such the importance of this game on my gaming education, it was the first one I thought of writing about.


I wrote about my first exposure to the blissful Amiga graphics through another game, but if there is one game that is representative of the big step-up in visual technology of this medium, it was Shadow of The Beast II. For most people it was actually the first one in the series, but I only played it many years after through emulators.


I could get all technical discussing the aesthetic merits of the game, mentioning parallax scrolling, copper effects, but then it would only show that I have no idea of what I was writing about. Psygnosis games had covers designed by artist Roger Dean for a some time, but the Shadow of The Beast series nailed that aesthetic better than any other game from the company. This guy is so good that I made me listen to Yes with hopes that I would find the perfect audio companion for these amazing alien landscapes. But I came out disappointed, not only because I’m not that much into prog-rock, but because the game’s soundtrack, composed by Timothy and Lee Wright manages to achieve that affect way better. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


The intro is probably my favourite at the time, and still one of my favourites ever. Keep in mind that in 1990 the sound of crying babies wasn’t still overused in horror videogames, specially because having sound as a tool to convey atmosphere was still a new thing to game designers. It was so convincing that one of the first times I was playing the game my mom came into my room asking what was happening. I showed her the intro and ever since then, at least for a short while, every time we had guests my mom asked me to play that intro. She would watched proudly the reaction of the guests to this amazing piece of technology we had in our houses. Who cared that it was a baby being kidnapped by a kind of pterodactyl in a Siberian-like hellhole?


Even though it’s one of the best looking games on the Amiga, even the most die-hard fans must agree that when it comes to pure gameplay Shadow of the Beast II is lacking in several areas. The main problem is that the game is too hard. And not “Dark Souls” hard, or even “old-school arcade” hard. The game was borderline impossible. So much that the only way to play it is by typing one of the most famous cheat codes, “Ten Pints”. And even then, it was still hard, as it was entirely possible, and mostly probable that the character would fall to a trap and end up stuck in some pit.


Even at the time many critics dismissed this game as being all show and no substance. Well, even though that’s a fair criticism, I argue that style is also substance. But still, could have this game been better? Yes, way better, but there’s no denying of the impression it made on everyone who played. It can be argued that it’s predecessor made a bigger impact, but having not played it until much later, I cannot make a firm answer.

I haven’t played this game since then. It’s time to know if it’s still the prettiest girl in town of if it has grown up to become a bored housewife with five children and a double chin.


The first thing I had to check was to see if the intro sequence still held up. First, I’m almost 100% sure that the first part of the sequence, with the evil wizard turning into a bird wasn’t on the game I had 25 years ago. And to be honest, that little sequence actually looks kind of silly and takes some of the gravitas of the whole scene. I still think it’s a very eerie intro, with some fantastic sound effects for the time. The part after the claw erupting through the ceiling and then fading to black, it’s incredibly effective, and it was probably done due to technological limitations, since it would look kind of silly seeing the big pterodactyl taking the baby away on 1990 technology. It would even look silly today, which it’s something I would hope game developers took notice. Sometimes it’s best to leave things to imagination. I’m talking to you Bioware. And it’s not about the sex scenes. More of those are welcome.


I knew the game was hard, but for some reason, probably arrogance for being an adult, I thought that I could persevere for a while and get something done without resorting to cheat codes. I was very very wrong. The game isn’t just hard, it’s bloody impossible, and I can’t seem to survive more than I would playing a Cave shoot-em-up with my eyes closed. There’s some consolation in the fact that we can go either left or right at the start of the game, having the choice if we want to die at the hands of cavemen, flying piranha, or at the hands of...literal hands coming from behind trees. I can only imagine the poor people that bought this full priced on 1990. At least the game came with a “free” t-shirt. There are some longplays on youtube without activated cheat codes, but I’m not entirely convinced they were done by real human beings.


Visually the game totally holds up. I love the Roger Dean inspired graphics which are even visible on the parallax scrolling. Now that I can look at things more impartially, there’s no way this game is even among the most technically impressive on the Amiga. The main sprite in particular is way too simple, with a weird yellowish brown colour that doesn’t mesh well with the surroundings. And I hope this didn’t sound racist. One thing that kind of compensates for the stupid difficulty is how great the death screen looks. A very ripped man being smitten by a sunray, while some really smooth guitar solos can be heard. If I ever die, I want to go exactly in this manner.


Since I’m not a replicant with engineered reflexes, I will resort to the “Ten Pints” cheat code, also known (since now) as the 5,68 litres code.

My first try got to an early demise when I fell down to the sewers in the crystal caverns. Since my character is immortal but can’t exactly fly, his fate was worse than death, and I’m sure he would spend all eternity in those sewers thinking how great it would be if he was parched by a solar ray while a sweet guitar solo played in the background.


I knew this game was filled with these traps, but I didn’t expect to get to one so fast. All my other tries ended in the worst way possible, either by being stuck on some other pit or involuntary smashing a rock that was mandatory for the success of the quest. What kind of land is Karamoon where there’s a big shortage of rocks but a big surplus of acid, flying piranhas and pervy tree hands?

Not only is Karamoon way more dangerous than either Caracas or Johannesburg, but it’s even more so when the first part of the quest is to collect 36 gold coins. Can’t our character get a safer job instead? I tried to ask for work in the local tavern, the Karamoon Oasis, but the owner replied “I don’t understand that”. With that kind of attitude it’s no wonder the place is empty and therefore he doesn’t need extra human resources.


This is that kind of game that only survives on nostalgia. Unlike some other games I’ve covered in this blog, like Rodland and Ruff n’ Tumble, there’s no way I would recommend it to someone nowadays without the proper context. If this was a hard sell back in 1990, it’s even more today. It’s like having an highly venomous panda baby at home. I will not play this one again so soon, but I’m glad it’s part of my gaming upbringing and the history of our beloved machine.

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