Saturday 31 October 2015

Shadow of the Beast for the Commodore 64

It's the time of year YouTube video game channels jump on the Hallowe'en bandwagon, so there's no reason why this blog should be any different. As an all-round wuss when it comes to horror, there will be no latter day zombie games or their like here. Instead, I'm delving back to the past, to a time when scary games were ... not that scary, actually. One such is Shadow of the Beast, a title that was a big deal when it first emerged in 1989 on Commodore's Amiga. It later spawned a mini-franchise.

Released as the age of the home computer was coming to an end and the era of the games console, in Western Europe at least, was beginning, Beast was a landmark title for a number of reasons. For starters, it was arguably the most visually arresting game on the Amiga. Not just because the sprite work was beautiful - it was - but also for doing something console gamers from the NES onwards took for granted: it not only had smooth scrolling as the screen moved left to right, but had multiple layers - parallax scrolling - moving along at varying rates. Then there was the soundtrack. Beast's opening and in-game music knocked gamers' socks off. A sort of panpipey reverb piece when action went underground, a slow-build crashing anthem out in the open. For Amiga owners it was among the very best and technically accomplished pieces their machine could offer at that time. The only downside was the game play. Beast was by no means a bad game, it was just a little bit dull. Plot-wise, it didn't really matter. Something about being kidnapped as a kid, being experimented on and becoming a key minion for the eponymous Beast, and then rebelling when you find out what the boss had done to you. This gives you license to thump gorgeous-looking enemies, go up and down ladders, solve very simple puzzles, and that was about it. It worked well as a tech demo - it didn't take much to wow the punters 26 years ago. The game itself, however, was very limited.

Nevertheless, despite starting life as a showcase for what could be done with the then cutting edge hardware, over the following couple of years it got ported more or less everywhere. Even the Spectrum got an outing. Where the home computer ports were concerned, it tried stretching their guts in some way. Not so with the consoles who could handle some of Beast's signature tricks with ease, but we're not interested in them. The version we're looking, and arguably its best iteration, was the one to be found on the Commodore 64.

Of course, it didn't look gorgeous. Far from it. The C64 was often graced by games with some of the blockiest graphics of the day. Very few exist that could be described as pretty. Not that it mattered, just as the Speccy had a tiny colour palette gamers then took these quirks of their machines in their stride. Nevertheless, Beast was very, very impressive. The multi-layered scrolling was in. The interpretation of the Amiga's music via the celebrated SID chip was nothing short of stunning. And, incredibly, rather than redraw the sprites from scratch they were ported down from the Amiga and re-rendered. They looked a bit washed out, but you could tell this has been done. It captured a sense of the same technical virtuosity of its more advanced sibling. And game play-wise, it somehow worked better, despite being virtually identical. Perhaps it was because there were fewer levels (the C64 game hit the shelves without the horizontally-scrolling shooter section included in the Amiga version, though - weirdly - they were crammed into the Speccy and Amstrad versions) and a higher capacity to absorb damage - 25 as opposed to 12 hits could now be sustained. The collision detection seemed a touch improved as well, and overall it was quite a relaxing game. Of a Sunday morning it would serve as a relatively short, mindless, but entertaining diversion - especially once it was mastered, which didn't take long. At least that's what I thought of it back then.

Yet what was especially interesting about Beast was its release as one of the few C64 games to get a cartridge-only release. In late 1990, in an attempt to cash in on growing console mania, Commodore repackaged the C64 hardware in a console casing. Known as the C64GS (Games System), it took cartridges - and Beast was part of a handful of games released by Ocean to accompany the launch - but did not have the facility to link up a keyboard or tape deck. Because it was aging, and because you could get a proper C64 without amputated features for about £20 extra, the system was a dismal, dismal failure. However, the cartridges were compatible with the vanilla C64 via one of its expansion ports round the back. What Beast on the '64 was then, more so then its Amiga parent, was a game of transition. It fused together the past of where British gaming was and the direction it was heading. As a tech demo, it pushed the C64 to its limits, and while brilliant and ingenious in and of itself, it looked pretty ropey compared to the rising 8-bit consoles, let alone the Sega MegaDrive, which was available via import stockists. In that respect it pointed to the past. This was as good as the beloved C64 could get. Yet, inadvertently, it served well as an advert for Commodore's console rivals. Being on cartridge, it loaded virtually instantly. There were no long-winded loading times via the tape deck. No horrendous multi-loads because the computer's RAM was too small to hold the game. For C64 owners - though cartridge games were available early on in the 64's life - Ocean's range of triple A titles (plus compilations also available on cart) came as a revelation. They may have been more expensive (Beast retailed for £20), but they promised a more convenient game playing experience, a more efficient one - as tapes were notoriously unreliable - and offered the potential of games that would be plain impossible using the limited storage medium of the older methods.

That this fusion, this uneasy synthesis should find itself exemplified in a C64 game whose protagonist is spurred on by the truth of his own human/monster hybridity is a nice coincidence the programmers could not have known. Beast marks one of the peaks of C64 gaming. It was digital pride before the inevitable fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice - thanks :)

Richard S.