At VGJunk today: the game of hopscotch taken to a deadly extreme in Spacy Industrial's 1990 arcade don't-step-on-the-cracks-em-up Evil Stone!
Spacy Industrial? That's an interesting name. Are they the manufacturing arm of the Space Navy? I guess we'll never know, as Spacy are a mysterious company with no other games to their name and no mention I could find of who their staff members may be. They appeared, dropped Evil Stone into arcades to resounding lack of interest and then disappeared, presumably back into space.
So, Evil Stone, then. It seems wrong to affix the moral notion of evil to a stone when a stone is incapable of having any ethical alignment. You might think differently if a volcanic eruption has recently propelled a boulder onto your dog, but I think we can all agree that stones cannot be evil. I think there's supposed to be a comma in the title: Evil, Stone makes much more sense, because the game's got plenty of those two things.
Somebody's opened the Hell Gate. Bloody typical. Now there are Demons and Ghost everywhere, and who's going to have to clean up this mess in a manner that reminds me of - but I'm sure won't be as much fun as - an episode of Trapdoor? That's right, muggins here. Not the old man, he's just some old man, although he does give the task of "having back the order of heaven" to us, the player. In arcade games there's often little indication about why you, specifically, are the person most qualified to save the universe, but in Evil Stone you're actually told why you're the right man for the job. It's because you're "the man who carries on Buddha's cherished desire." Well, that's all right then.
Once you've inserted your credits and hit start, the game begins and you're treated to a nice top-down view of a Japanese-style shrine gate and some floating paving slabs. What a strange-looking landscape. I wonder where we are?
A Hell World of Most Scandalous Scene, huh? It sound like a pit of damnation where your soul is forced to read awful "true life" gossip magazines for all eternity.
Here upon the Hell World's poorly-maintained patio, the action of Evil Stone can begin, and it's going to take some describing. On a basic level, it's the same as most action videogames of the time: defeat the enemies, reach the end of the stage and fight a boss. However, the hero of Evil Stone cannot walk wherever he likes, thanks to the gaps between each floating stone. Your only movement options are the ability to jump either left, right, up or down - no diagonal jumping, which will be much more of an issue later - between the stones. You can jump to an adjacent stone, or jump over a gap one stone wide, and that is it.
For example, you can jump over this one-block gap to reach the next section of the stage, but that's the furthest you can jump, which meant that ninety percent of my time playing Evil Stone was tapping the jump button. The other ten percent was me looking up synonyms for the word "jump."
Monsters abound, as you might expect from Hell World, like this rather fine-looking skeleton chap. The cape really give him that extra bit of je ne sais quoi, you know? It might be a Hell World but that's no reason to let standards slip.
If you thought the tightly restricted movement was odd, the combat is where Evil Stone really takes a turn for the unusual. Not so much when it comes to you defeating the bad guys - you kick them in the face, just like Buddha would have wanted - but when it comes to getting hit. You see, the hero of Evil Stone is completely immune to all all attacks from the monsters. This skeleton can jam his scythe where the sun don't shine but our hero will merely be knocked back, and there you have the crux of Evil Stone's gameplay. The only way to die is to fall off the stones, either because a monster pushed you over the edge or, and much more likely, because you spent too long standing on one of the crumbling bricks that make up the vast majority of the later stages.
It doesn't take long for the game to start setting up areas where enemies lay in wait to poke you to your doom, like these horse-men and their extending spears. The horse-men don't seem any more thrilled about it than I am, although that's understandable. They came to Hell World after seeing a advert for jobs as horsemen of the apocalypse, only to realise when they arrived that they'd deeply misunderstood the nature of the position.
Waiting at the end of the Hell World is a boss, a large cyclops with extending limbs and a fetching orange miniskirt. Pretty standard fare as guardians of the dark netherealms go, although the real villain of this fight is that one block towards the bottom of the screen that looks different to the others. That's a collapsing block, and it will fall apart if you stand on it for longer than about a second or so.
The actual fighting part of the fight wasn't so tough, though, because I've managed to collect enough "P" icons from defeated monsters to learn a new move! Now our hero can fire an energy bolt after charging up by holding the attack button for a moment, and as you can imagine a projectile attack comes in very handy. Your special move changes as you collect more power-ups, going from a single shot to a three-way forwards blast to one that moves in a cross pattern. The single shot is more than enough to beat this cyclops, though. Shoot it once, jump over the other side, wait for the cyclops to follow you and repeat until Hell World is but a distant memory.
Stage two is "A Cave Into the Human World," and where the road to Hell World was paved with good intentions, the road to the human world is paved with enormous staring eyeballs. It's not so much a cave as it is some nightmarishly vast accumulation of internal organs, which is a visual aesthetic I'm happy see. It beats the usual forest world - fire world - ice world cycle, anyway.
As you can see, the more open areas of the first stage are already a distant memory, and from here on Evil Stone's levels are all about negotiating narrow pathways and disintegrating masonry.
There's also a greater emphasis on shooting demonic frogs with destructive blasts of your accumulated life-essence. I mean, it's not the singular focus of Evil Stone from here on out but there is a significant increase in anti-frog activity. I need to jump over there, you see, and I could do without landing on a frog when I do so. Even worse, I could get trapped between two frogs. When this happens - with any enemy, not just frogs - your characters is passed back and forth between the two monsters for a while, with you having no control over what's happening, until you're deposited somewhere else at random: usually off the edge of the stage, naturally
Two bosses for stage two, as a pair of fire-breathing ogres stand guard at the entrance to the human world. Furious demons who will destroy all those who dare to trespass in their domain, sure, but they were kind enough to cover their shame with those loincloths so they're okay in my book. Because they take it in turns to breath fire, defeating them is a simple matter of jumping in front of the one that's not currently trying to incinerate you and shooting at it. The problem with that is I managed to run out of time doing so on each of my playthroughs. Fortunately I managed to cheat and turn the timer off. I have enough pressure in my life without bullshit time limits, you know? There's not even any reason for there to be a time limit, it's not like our hero has a cake in the oven he has to get back to or anything.
So, with the unlimited time cheat firmly in place, I managed to chip away at the bosses until they were dead and I could move on to the human world.
I think that's a little harsh. It's not all vanity here in the human world. We have ice cream and videos of cats doing stupid things and the music of Iron Maiden, too.
I know it said we were going to the human world, but it was still a surprise to see a modern city down there. Not as surprising as it will be for the residents of said city when I mess up a jump and they find the remains of a Dragonball Z cosplayer splattered across several blocks, though.
The most common enemy in the human world are these axe-wielding grannies, or trolls, or whatever they are. I suppose being a troll and being a grandmother aren't mutually exclusive. Baby trolls have to come from somewhere. They brought two axes each, but because our hero is not harmed by any attacks they might as well be carrying brooms or rubber chickens or something, which makes them seem less threatening even if they do appear to be composed of pure rage. Evil Stone has a good set of nicely-drawn monsters all around, actually, with the less-common Eastern themes of things like oni, kappas and tengus all present and accounted for.
Hey look, it's the head of the demon army, ba-dum tssh. All he really does is spit out rocks and literally roll his eyes at the player, which felt a little condescending. I'm not going to take that from a boss that looks like a novelty plant pot.
The switch from hopping across floating blocks to suddenly being on firm, flat ground took a bit of getting used to, as did my new attack option: with the timer disabled, I had enough time to grind up to the next power level, Unfortunately, this replaced my three-way forward shot with a cross-shaped four-way blast, and the spread shot would have been far more useful in this situation. I got through it in the end, however, mostly by forcing my ki down the boss' ears.
Erm, thanks? I think? It's true, I am not mean. I am very generous when it comes to giving out deadly fireballs.
Stage four is titled "The Angry Waves of the Dead Spirit World," which is pretty metal as titles go and you're not even reading this, are you? You're still staring at the lovingly-rendered buttocks of our hero in the screenshot above, aren't you? It's okay, I understand. They are quite distracting, like two firm cantaloupes nestled in a silken bag.
By this point, the arrangement of the block in Evil Stone's stages have taken on a more convoluted shape. Because you can't jump diagonally, sometimes getting on the correct path to proceed can be... well, I won't say "a puzzle" because that'd be giving it too much credit, but you do have to think two or three jumps ahead, especially towards the end when almost every block will collapse if you stand on it for longer than the briefest moment. It seems that Spacy did intend for there to be a puzzle element to the gameplay but chickened out, refusing to make the commitment to either all puzzles or pure action. As a result Evil Stone feels like a half-hearted compromise where neither the action nor the "puzzles" are interesting enough to keep you engaged once the novelty factor starts to wear off. It doesn't help that it's brutally difficult even for an arcade platformer - by the end enemies are constantly appearing and there's no solid ground to stand on where you can charge up your special attacks, and it ends up feeling like an ironic punishment. All those times I've complained about games that kill the player in one hit and along comes Evil Stone, where no hits can kill you... but you'll die anyway after the enemies have gloomily bounced you back and forth like a beachball listlessly thwacked around by the crowd of a midweek third division football match.
This boss attacks by throwing his own head at the player. I wonder how he figured out he could do that? Maybe you just know, deep down inside, if your head is a) detachable and b) will regrow even if you accidentally throw it onto the neighbours' roof or similarly inaccessible place.
Next up is "A Cave Into the Heavenly World," and as the garden path to heaven it's surprisingly bleak, with sinister robed monks and these bizarre flying xenomorph-bat creatures. Now I understand the benefits of the cross-patterned attack, though. Maybe it even does extra damage because these monsters are some kind of star-vampire.
The stage's most impressive monsters by far, and probably the coolest freaks in a game packed with weirdos, are these green gremlins. Having forgotten to bring their twin axes and lacking the ability to create magical energy bolts, the gremlins turn to the hardest, spikiest projectile available to them: their own skulls. That's right, they attack by removing their own skulls and throwing them at out hero, and best of all there's an animation that shows the floppy skin of their now boneless heads crumpling onto their shoulders like a wet dishrag. How great is that? Super great, that's how.
The boss is the Toxic Avenger. As nice as it is to see that Toxie's still getting work, his attempts to smash me to my death with a morningstar show a disappointing lack of heroism from the so-called Monster Hero.
I do hope you're not trying to take credit for all my hard work, old man. If you were, things would get personal and I'd hate to have to launch a tirade against your ridiculous hat. Let me do all the fighting, and you stick to what you do best - carrying cups of tea around without using your hands.
The God World is Tipperary, then?
The final stage, as you might expect, is a culmination of all the vicious tricks and traps that Evil Stone has to offer, with barely a non-crumbling block to be seen and some treacherous and twisted paths liberally sprinkled with monsters. Fortunately, I have managed to tip the odds ever so slightly back towards me by collecting enough power ups to unlock the final martial arts technique, one that will surpass even the four-way shot. But what could it possibly be? A screen-clearing smart-bomb attack? A barrage of homing missiles?
Nope, your leg gets really long and you spin around in a circle. Is this why martial arts always keep their most ancient and powerful techniques a secret? Because they look dumb as hell?
You know, this place is kinda boring for somewhere called God World. God World sounds like a Christian theme park, and as crazy as it sounds I think even a Christian theme park would be more interesting than this. It's nothing but crumbling blocks spaced out in a semi-maze-like arrangement that's not difficult to negotiate but still manages to be aggravating. Then again, I could be making passionate love to a beautiful, intelligent woman who loves me for who I am and even that would be aggravating if Evil Stone's "jumping" sound effect played every four nanoseconds like it does in this bloody level.
It's the end of stage boss and this is God World so... this is God, then? He doesn't seem very godlike. I can't imagine God having hair like a carton of french fries, or being defeated by a man whipping his floppy, fifteen-foot-long leg around in a circle. It's not even a very interesting fight: the boss launches some projectiles, and you mostly ignore them as you concentrate on not standing on the crumbling blocks for too long, occasionally unleashing a spinning kick. If you can manage to keep your concentration for long enough, victory will be yours - the Hell Gate is closed, the Earth is saved and everyone goes out for celebratory chocolate milkshakes.
Okay, I'm starting to dislike you, granddad. What's your problem now?
Oh, I see. Wait, no I don't. What are you talking about? What is going on? Look, make it simple for me and show me what else I need to kick, then I can get on with the kicking and we can start to put this increasingly tedious game behind us.
Kicking an old man? Now this I can get a handle on! I think this boss is supposed to be the same old man who's been jabbering at me nonsensically via the cutscenes. I know he's difficult to recognise without his trademark daft hat, but he's got a beard and the same robe. It's the "why" that's the real question, though, and I have no clue why I would be fighting the old man. Just before this he tells the player to "repent for your thoughtless act," which makes no sense considering I was hand-picked by this old geezer for this mission and anyway, I don't think "kicking a senior citizen" can ever fall under the category of repentance. Whatever the reasons - I'm going to simply assume my elderly mentor is kind of a dick - we must do battle. He fights by throwing orbs of rich, tomato-y plasma around, to which I responded by jumping around and kicking. Bet you never saw that strategy coming, huh? And so it goes on for what feels like far, far too long, until you land enough hits and the whole thing just fizzles out.
Yeah, no thanks to you. Do I at least get some kind of reward?
Ha ha, a reward? Not a chance, you don't even get a ride home and the game ends with our hero jumping from space back down to Earth, or whatever that planet is - a planet where the continents look a bit like Earth's but subtly different, as though affected the the geological forces of a million years. That'll be the sequel, then. Evil Stone 1,000,000: Kick the Future.
Maybe I played Evil Stone while I was in a bad mood or something, but the overall feeling I took from it was mild annoyance. I'm not entirely sure what it did wrong to get on my nerves so much. The gameplay is decent enough if a little one-note, the graphics and monster designs are fun and I should at least give it credit for being fairly unique. There aren't many games out there with a similar style of gameplay, although given how quickly I got fed up of jumping everywhere that's probably a good thing. Hearing the jumping sound effect - a noise that sounds like a dog with a sore throat giving a feeble "woof" - roughly twenty billion times certainly didn't help, either. A lack of excitement and an off-putting difficulty level topped off a slightly below-average experience, so Evil Stone definitely isn't something I'd recommend. Then again, what do I know? I don't trust my own opinions half the time, so you probably shouldn't either. Play Evil Stone and you'll probably love it, especially if you're really into bad translations and even worse paving.