08/09/2017

DEMON BLUE (AMIGA)

Today’s game is an Amiga platformer called Demon Blue, released in 1992 and developed by a company called Hirographics, and I’m going to guess the design process was “I’ve drawn a bunch of weird creatures. Well, better make an Amiga game about them!” Also, the name Demon Blue makes me think of Scottish pop-rock band Deacon Blue, who are probably most famous for their 1988 single “Real Gone Kid.” Then again, I might just think that’s Deacon Blue’s most famous song because it was on those Boots adverts. Hang on, where was I? Oh yeah, Demon Blue. Is it named after Deacon Blue? Who knows, but what I do know is that you spend the game playing as a small blue demon head.


This demon head, to be precise. Good lord, this thing’s hard to look at. Not because it’s especially ugly, although it is – it looks like a facial prosthetic from a particularly bad episode of Star Trek grew feet and tried to escape – but because of the expression it’s wearing. I feel like the demon head is judging me, somehow. That’s the diabolic visage you see when you’re in Hell’s waiting room and the demon in charge of new arrivals is checking out your internet search history.


Before we get to the gameplay, I’d just like to say I like the vaguely M. C. Escher-ish look of the game’s logo, and there’s almost as much fun to be had trying to parse exactly how these letters are shaped as there is in playing Demon Blue.


Here we are at the very fist screen of the game, and it’s weird. You can see that it’s weird. Lantern-jawed angels with dangling, fleshy hoof-feet? That’s weird. Eyeball monsters riding atop oversized mushrooms? Also weird, but admittedly less weird than the angels. At least Demon Blue himself doesn’t look quite as intimidating as he did on the title screen. His expression has softened into a smirk, and now he resembles a bootleg Kirby more than anything else. Will his brightly-coloured platforming antics be as much fun as those found in a Kirby game? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.
Oh, and please note that even though this is the very first screen of the game, that door says “EXIT” on it. This will be important later, so if you do decide to play Demon Blue make sure you remember where this door is.


As for the gameplay, I said Demon Blue was a platformer and I meant it, because jumping is all that our hero can do. No special moves, no different running speeds, no climbing or swimming, just jumping. You do a lot of jumping in this game, so it’s unfortunate that Demon Blue shouts “ey!” every time he jumps. It’s an annoying noise when you first start playing; by the end of the game it’ll have you browsing Amazon for ear protectors.


As I say, all you can do in this game is jump, but you might have noticed that there are enemies all over the bloody place. Does this mean that our friend Blue has no way to fight back against those who would oppress him? Well, yes and no. There are three basic types of monster in this game. The first are the ones that stand or hover in place, maybe bobbing up and down a little. The angels fall into this category, as do the carnivorous plants. There’s no way to harm these enemies (at least, not that I could figure out) and they’re really more obstacles than enemies. Touching them will drain a bit of your health, and thankfully Demon Blue give you a fairly generous health bar.
Enemy type number two is typified by the creature on the right of the screenshot above. The one that looks like a tongue sticking out of an arse with googly eyes perched on top. Yeah, that thing. These enemies can be defeated simply by jumping into them. You touch them, they explode and you don’t lose any health… so I guess they’re not really enemies at all, are they?
Then there’s the third kind, an example being the red M&M up above our hero or the giant wasps that patrol certain screens. These enemies will make an effort to come and kill you, tracking you down so they can rub their deadly bodies against your character, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They can’t be killed. They can’t be bargained with, they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, remorse or fear, and they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. It makes sense that wasps would fit into this category.


In short, the answer to the question “does Demon Blue contain combat?” is no, unless you’ve got a very flexible definition of what constitutes “combat.” I say it’s a platformer, but I suppose you could equally call it an avoid-em-up, because most of the gameplay revolves around making your way through the maze-like environment while touching as few things as possible.


The goal of all this wandering is to find the eight keys that are scattered around the map. Once you’ve got all eight, that exit door on the first screen opens up, and you can walk through it to freedom. Here’s a key now (the first one I managed to find, even) and this gives up an opportunity to play a little game I call What’s Killing Demon Blue? Some of the thing on this screen will hurt you if you touch them, while others will not. Try to guess which ones are harmful. The angel is a "free space" kind of deal, because I already mentioned that they’re deadly and it makes sense that they’d be trying to harm Demon Blue because he’s, you know, a demon. Okay, do you have your answers ready? If you said “I think that large blue wyvern that seems to be throttling itself with its own tail looks dangerous and also a bit kinky,” then you’re wrong. That thing’s safe, and you can even use it as a platform. “What about that sword, then?” you say, but no, that’s also safe. However, those squatting gargoyles – the things that look for all the world like immobile statues that exist as decoration – those will drain your health, and because the gap between the ceiling and the gargoyles is so narrow you’re definitely going to get hurt here.


Thus, the first thing you have to do when you start playing Demon Blue is learn what will kill you and what won’t. As a general rule of thumb, if it moves, it’s deadly, although that doesn’t always hold true. At least this large woman with the sunglasses is safe to stand on. Just… don’t try to figure out the anatomy of her torso, okay? Even I, a loner who spends his time writing about forgotten Amiga games, know that a woman’s breasts don’t grow directly out of her armpits.


Once you have figured out what’s deadly, you can concentrate of the real meat of the Demon Blue experience, and that’s the exploration. The eight keys are scattered far and wide over a gameworld that’s not only fairly large but often has multiple different exits on each screen, some of which can only be reached by approaching them from a different screen. If you’re planning on finishing Demon Blue without resorting to cheats then drawing a map is a must, something that’s doubly true because all the screens look the same – that is, like the illustrations from a cheap pack of tarot cards came to life and tried to found a society based upon the great and noble theme of hovering platforms. There are no new backgrounds or enemy types to be seen once you’ve travelled beyond the first ten or so screens, so keeping track of where you’ve been can be a bit of a pain.


On top of that, Demon Blue will throw the occasional bit of pure bullshit at you, like these pillars that have invisible pathways through them. Well, some of them do. Most of them are solid. I’d recommend you make Blue jump into every single tower of unblinking eyes that you see, but that would mean you’d have to hear him shout “ey!” even more than necessary so you’re going to be having a miserable time no matter what you do.


Is Demon Blue a miserable time, though? Once you get down to actually playing the game, I mean? I’ll be honest, it’s not great. Considering the game consists almost entirely of jumping between platforms and avoiding enemies placed in ways that give you almost no room to manoeuvre, the fact that your character handles like a carrier bag filled with jack-in-the-boxes does not make for the most engaging gameplay experience. Demon Blue is an awkward jumper, and a lot of the time your movements feel fuzzily defined. Will you land on the edge of a platform? It’s often hard to tell, especially when you’re jumping between screens, and because a missed jump often means falling for several screens or landing in a pit full of monsters, this lack of precision can become annoying.


It doesn’t help that Blue keeps jumping as long as you hold the button down, and there was more than one instance of me making a short jump and not letting go of the button quickly enough, causing our hero to leap straight off the platform I just landed on. Oh, and getting Demon Blue to jump straight up is a pain, too: if there’s a platform to your side, you’ll automatically jump diagonally towards it even if you’re not pushing the joystick in that direction, which obviously hampers your ability to hop over enemies or scope out the next screen. I also had a real problem with Blue banging his head (or, erm, his body, I guess) on the lip of platforms just above him, which causes him to fall straight down. You know, now that I’ve gotten around to writing this down the flaws in Demon Blue’s core mechanics sound game-breakingly bad, but they’re perhaps not quite as terrible as all that. It was an occasionally frustrating experience, but I didn’t hate it or anything, perhaps because when I got the jumping right it felt smooth and the platforms were laid out in interesting patterns without it ever being unclear about how to get from point A to point B.


I thought I’d be more pissed off about the relentless enemies and lack of safe screen space meaning that you’re constantly taking damage that you can’t avoid. I usually hate being forced to take damage that can’t reasonably be avoided, and it does become a bit wearying in Demon Blue when you walk on to a screen like the one above and see a dozen things that are going to hurt you because Blue’s jumps have all the aerial precision of a piano falling from a helicopter. However, scattered around are energy bottles that give you all your health back, and it felt to me like if you were dedicated enough to learn Demon Blue’s tricks and traps thoroughly enough to beat the game, then you’d know where all the energy bottles are and they’re spaced in such a way that you’d always be able to keep your health topped up. Think of them less as health refills and more as fuel for Blue’s cybernetic innards, that’ll soften the blow.


More than anything, Demon Blue is a good argument for videogames having some sense of structure to them. It’s all well and good saying “here’s a big map and a vague goal, now go and explore,” but when it’s done too loosely you end up with a saggy, uninspiring mess. The Metroid games make a similar formula succeed by always giving you something to work towards – the next boss to defeat, a new item to collect which in turn unlocks new areas. Games like Demon Blue don’t have that, and as a result it’s hard to get excited about slogging through a barely-changing warren of tunnels for which the only reward is more barely-changing tunnels.


I did have some fun playing Demon Blue, though. More than anything, it’s enjoyable as a sort of digital safari, and by far the most compelling reason to keep moving through it is to see what weird creatures you might happen across. For example, I dropped down a chasm and landed in a room which has all the hallmarks of being a boss fight but without any of the actual fighting. As far as I saw this monster is a one-off, a bouncing creature made from beetle legs and an old lightbulb that stomps around in this pit, trying to crush Blue. Naturally Blue can’t fight back so all you have to do is climb those platforms and escape, but finding a strange new monster was worth the health I lost. It’s only on reviewing these screenshots that I noticed the monster has a teeny-tiny face right at the bottom, which is sad: I had though it was a nightmarish amalgam of random insectoid parts, but now I can see its head I have to assume it knows what a grotesque freak it is, the poor thing.


It helps that the graphics are nice. Sharply detailed, colourful and possessing a sense of genuine strangeness when it comes to the creature designs, Demon Blue is definitely visually interesting enough to soften the blow of the mediocre gameplay. That said, it may look nice but it also looks familiar. Hmm, what could this be reminding me of?


Here’s a snippet from Hewson’s 1989 Amiga action game Stormlord. Now, I’m not saying that Demon Blue’s creators ripped off the “fairy women arching their backs and bulbous mushrooms” aesthetic from Stormlord, but that’s definitely what it was reminding me of and I’m glad I figured that out. It would have been driving me mad for weeks if I hadn’t.


After I’d been wandering around for a while, gathering up the odd key here and there, it struck me that I had no idea what was going on. Like, what even is this demon I’m controlling? What is it the demon of? Based on the title screen I’d guess it’s a demon that inflicts one minor but very specific annoyance. The demon of the headache you get from staring at a computer screen for too long, that sort of thing. So I thought I’d check out the game’s manual to see if I could learn a bit more, and I was not disappointed.


It turns out that I’m controlling the demonic reincarnation of a dead Scottish child who drowned while bunking off school. I’m not sure that playing hooky is a spiritual defilement so severe it deserves the punishment of being transformed into a limbless, grunting football, but here we are. God is truly wrathful, and apparently he bloody hates fishing. The thing is, the manual also suggests that “Harrison” can be reborn on Earth by finishing this game. The theology here is baffling, it really is.


I don’t really want to make a dabbing reference, but I know that if I don’t others will so yes, that statue kinda looks like it’s dabbing.
After a couple of hours spent exploring, dying, turning on a cheat for infinite health and exploring some more, I managed to collect all the keys. If you’re going to play Demon Blue, I would highly recommend giving yourself infinite energy. Overcoming the challenge of the gameplay isn’t nearly as much fun as wandering around unimpeded, gawping at the décor.


Here we go, then. I’ve got all eight keys, the door is open and Harrison can return to the land of the living, presumably forever bearing deep mental scars after his ordeal. We don’t get to see any of that in the ending, mind you. Is there an ending at all? Sort of. Grammar pedants may want to look away now.


*You’re.
And so Demon Blue ends on a poetical note, with a cheeky rhyme that promises the developers next game will kick your, well, I’m sure you get it. I have no idea if that’s true, because I don’t know what the developer / coder’s next game was, but I hope it was better than Demon Blue. It’s not that this is a bad game, per se – it’s just that the majority of the fun you’ll get from it doesn’t come from the gameplay but from the bizarro monsters and strange setting. Honestly? That’s good enough for me. There are plenty of good platformers out there, but it’s rare that I get to traverse platforms that look like Santa Clause with a bad spray tan.

3 comments:

  1. The developer Hirographics next game was the Commodore 64 port of Trolls. The games programmer David Mowbray next game was a Spy vs. Spy clone called Double Agent.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love how the name "Hiro"graphics and the manga-style eye in their logo sort of implies that they're making Japanese-styled games, while the finished product has absolutely nothing to do with Japan and instead looks like one of those weird airbrush paintings on the side of old vans.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just keep trying to read the name as hiroglyphics.

      Delete

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