It's October, and you know what that means: it's time for VGJUNK's second annual Spooktacular Hallowe'en Videogame Month! It's my favourite time of the year, the one little beacon of (eerily orange) light in my otherwise mundane life, and by God I'm going to enjoy it and possibly dress up as Wario. Much like last year, for the rest of the month VGJUNK will be focusing on all manner of ghoulish and grotesque videogames from years past, starting with today's macabre offering: Toaplan's 1990 arcade run-n-gun Demon's World, AKA Horror Story (play thunderclap.wav here for full immersion)!
You may not know about Toaplan, but they were a Japanese developer best known for their work in the scrolling shooter genre. Their most famous game is probably Zero Wing, due almost entirely to its enshrinement in the Meme Hall of Fame as "the game that "All Your Base" comes from". Personally, I remember them mostly from their punishingly difficult (to the pre-teen Megadrive player I was at the time, at least) shooter Hellfire. That's not important now though, because Demon's World isn't a space shooter but rather a Contra-esque run-n-gunner about one very serious man's quest to rid the world of anything that isn't made of sparkles and rainbows.
Speaking of cuteness, the Demon's World is also a super-deformed world. The intro shows some chubby townsfolk being scared away by a jolly green demon who is clearly having the time of his unholy life. Forget about him, though - what is that girl in white carrying? A transparent cricket bat? Some kind of giant tuning fork? Actually, it looks like a crutch, although she obviously doesn't need it as she's running away just fine. I like to think she's been fiddling her benefits with a fake leg injury, and once all this is over the DWP are going to be calling on her to demand an explanation.
But forget those random plebs and meet our hero! Demon's World offers not so much as a morsel of plot, so I'm going to pretend that this shades-wearing hardcase with the blonde crewcut is Duke Nukem's father. Let's call him Hank, shall we? Hank Nukem here is a no-nonsense badass with a blue jumpsuit and a burning hatred of all things supernatural, a result of a childhood incident on a fairground Ghost Train involving a clown later referred to by a judge as "a significant threat".
Hank's first opponents are those pink ghosts. I don't know what kind of situation you have to die in to come back as a bright pink ghost wearing a leather hat, but I'm sure it's an interesting tale, possibly involving a certain kind of club for gentlemen. I must admit, I really like these guys - they're clearly ghosts and therefore place highly on the Hallowe'enometer, but they're much more interesting (and stylish, with their little hats) than the basic floating white sheet.
Making your way through the ghoul-filled city streets is a simple matter: you've got an attack button and a jump button, and if you've ever played a game where you can both jump and fire you'll know exactly what to do. You can also defeat enemies by jumping on their heads, Super Mario style. That doesn't surprise me - Hank is the kind black-hearted rebel who'll use any means necessary to destroy his enemies, including but not limited to stomping their ectoplasmic brains out. There's a double-jump, too, although it takes some getting used to as you have to perform your second jump very quickly after the first, unlike most games where you can wait until the top of your arc. It takes some getting used to, but mastering it is vital because there's a lot of (groan) fiddly platforming.
Oh, and Jason Voorhees is there too, which means I am officially sold on Demon's World already. There are few things more emblematic of the Hallowe'en season than Friday the 13th's iconic teen-murdering hockey fan, even if his trademark machete is now an axe and his yellow sweater is rather more cheerful than befits the mood. Judging by the obviously-superior metric of how many times rip-offs of him have appeared in various videogames, Jason is Japan's favourite slasher star, just head of Freddy Kruger.
Demon's World is all very straightforward, as I'm sure you can tell. Shoot enemies, don't fall into the yawning pits that litter every horizontal surface, try not to get hit. The main gameplay difference from something like Metal Slug is that the screen scrolls constantly, forcing you ever onwards in your quest to destroy the Demon World.
After the city you find yourself in the Old West for some reason, where the dangers are less demonic and more landslide-based. Hank's not prepared for this - his totally-unrelated-to-Ghostbusters gun-and-backpack combo can deal with the ghosts, but a four tonne boulder to the head is going to put a dent in even Hank's carefully-laid plans.
And then there're these little guys. Native American cactus-men? With teeny-tiny axes? And sunken, eyeless sockets set deep into their grossly swollen heads. Hmm. Nope, I have no idea what they're supposed to be, but I'm sure glad they're up there and I'm down here.
Your first boss is Chief Floating Skull here, a hovering headbone in a headdress who has the power to summon stacks of big-eared moais. He's not much of challenge, although he is a welcome break from the continual scrolling. Sorry, Chief, but that's all you are to Hank: a pit-stop, a restroom break on the grand quest that is his life. Now you know how all his girlfriends felt.
Fire rains from the sky. Hank remembers his time in 'Nam, the smell of napalm, the screams of his buddies. Tears spring at the corners of his eyes, and he's thankful that he's wearing shades. Then he shoots a ghost in the face with a laser.
Now we're in some kind of haunted Japanese village, located a short walk from the Old West. I see, it's starting to make sense now. The way I figure it, Demon's World isn't a statement of the demon's evil intentions: no, it means a Demon's World like a Disney World. You see, Hank is actually in a huge theme-park/lasertag game, with each of the levels being a different zone. This explains why none of the demons really seem too focused on destroying the world, as well as why Japan and American are within walking distance of each other. Crafty work, Toaplan, but you can't fool me.
The enemies here are mostly taken from Japanese mythology, including my favourite - the completely un-terrifying umbrella monster karakasa-obake. Born from the Japanese notion that all that is required for an item to become demonically possessed is for it to stay in one place long enough, karakasa are umbrellas that are, like, really old. This somehow makes them come to life, with one big eye, a long flapping tongue and a foot to hop around on.... and that's it. They're just living umbrellas and fill me with roughly the same amount of fear as a nice warm bath and a cup of tea. Why, they're bordering on adorable! Shame I have to mow them down with my missile launcher to proceed really, but I'm sure if their ashes hang around for long enough then they'll come to life too.
Another boss, and another floating skeleton with no legs. This time it's a samurai, presumably because you don't get many Roman legionaries in small Japanese villages. He seems much more serious than the other cutesy enemies in the stage, but it's hard to be scared of something that looks like Victoria Beckham at a costume party. Oh, and I'd just like to point out that the heart in that picture is an item - Hank isn't blowing the undead samurai a kiss or anything. I mean, he might be doing that but it isn't represented by a heart icon. Whatever Hank gets up to in his own time is his business and no-one else’s.
Yo ho! It's a pirate-themed area, complete with a ghost ship and yet more floating skulls. At least these ones have pirate hats, as well as what may be an eyepatch but I suppose could also be an empty socket. Most of this level consists of hopping from lifeboat to lifeboat, struggling with the unusual jumping mechanics and trying to keep an eye on where the next skull is going to float in from. Skulls on their own, though: really not that menacing. And what did they do with the huge pile of headless skeletons that I presume are a byproduct of creating an army of floating skulls? I've seen enough old cartoons to know that they're probably using the ribcages as impromptu xylophones, at least.
After the sea comes China, a mysterious and haunted land filled with pudgy zombie kids riding around on tricycles like a cross between Mr. Vampire and The Shining. Hank has never seen those films, of course. He has no time for entertainment, for fantasy: there is no room within him for anything but his demon-slaying cause.
A Chinese stage needs a Chinese boss, and what could be more appropriate than a Chinese dragon? Not very Hallowe'en-y I hear you cry, but look closely and you'll see that there's another dragon poking out of his mouth, and I'm sure you'll agree that the ability to attack by vomiting out serpents is plenty grotesque enough. Unless that's how Chinese dragons give birth, in which case Hank has stumbled upon one of the rarest, most magical moments in nature. Either way, that dragon's getting shot, and Hank can continue onwards.
More inter-island platform jumping, this time with the added distraction of a shower of squid. Again, squid aren't something that spring to mind when I think of demons, but maybe they're vampire squid? Actually, I think vampire squid are far more disturbing than any enemy in Demon's World, except maybe that unidentifiable cactus thing. What the hell was it?
The final stage is a Western-style castle, so if Devil's World is like Disney World then I guess this is the Cinderella Castle, only with added vampires and goblins trying to push you into spike pits. On the plus side, it is far more reasonably priced.
The midboss is another dragon but compared to the last one he's something of a runt, with noodly arms and stubby little wings that couldn't lift a paper bag. He's the Rick Moranis of monsters, the Woody Allen of wyverns. He looks like a younger version of Singe from Dragon's Lair, before middle age caught up with him and he developed a paunch.
Into the final stretch now, and things start getting really difficult as there's a section involving jumping across fire pits with the aid of grim reapers balancing coffins on their heads. While it's certainly convenient that Hank's assault on the castle coincided with the reapers' hurried removal of all the coffins from the castle's crypt, it's still a frustrating sequence made worse by the awkward jumping mechanics. In my opinion, the whole game would have been much improved with less platforming and tighter controls, but I can't get too mad about a game that features such an adorable anthropomorphic personification of the inescapable shadow of our own mortality.
There's one last dragon to kill before the final boss, and he's a far tougher prospect than the last one. Unlike that previous pantywaist, this dragon's got working wings, horns, the whole shebang. Of course, this doesn't faze Hank. Nothing fazes Hank. Just look at the expression of calm determination on his face as he jumps right up to that dragon's face: he knows he's going to win, and there's nothing this pissant dragon and his army of coffin-carrying reapers can do about it. That's the power of self-confidence, my friends, as well as the power of high-yield laser weaponry.
Right after the dragon, you drop down a pit to face the true final boss, which is some kind of undead lizardman thing in a biological-looking flesh net. Compared to the previous cutesy style of enemies, he seems somewhat out of place. There's not much else to say about him, really: he just sits there and throws fire at you while Hank sends him to the afterlife or the after-afterlife or wherever it is these kind of guys go when you fill them full of missiles.
Mission accomplished! Hank destroys the demon army / wins the game of laser tag and the castle crumbles in the distance.
Fantastic. You get a brief scene of Hank grabbing a balloon and floating all the way back to the start, a game over screen and, well, nothing. That's the end, and it only adds to what feels like Demon's World's strange, almost... unfinished quality. There's no plot or cutscene, and no delineation between stages: once the boss is dead, you just keep on scrollin' from where you left off. The music is above average, but the only sound effects are your gun firing and your jumping noise. The graphics aren't bad, and some of the monster designs are cute and interesting, but at the same time a lot of it feels bland and empty. Overall, it gives the impression of a game that's not quite all there, either through being unfinished or underfunded or whatever.
Overall, Demon's World / Horror Story isn't a bad little game, with decent enough music, graphics and enemy design to forgive the slightly wonky controls and overabundance of platforming sections. Give it a go if you're a fan of run-n-gun games and you fancy fighting Jason Voorhees and the occasional dragon instead of the usual military types, but don't be expecting some hidden Metal Slug-calibre gem.
But wait! As it's the Hallowe'en season, each game this month will be receiving a rating based on how Hallowe'eny they are. Not how good or bad the actual game is, but how thoroughly it is infused with the dark spirit of this eldritch season (or how many adorable pumpkins and ghosts it features, whichever is more appropriate). So, let's see how Demon's World scores on the VGJUNK Hallowe'en-O-Meter!
A good result and a solid start to the season, Demon's World is pushed high by the inclusion of a slasher icon and the coffin-bearers, although it loses a point for containing not one single pumpkin.
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