I'm back after my short break feeling relaxed, reinvigorated and ready to delve once more into the vast abyss of retro gaming with a look at the 1987 ZX Spectrum haunted-anagram-em-up Demonslair!
Is that the demon to whom this lair belongs? I hope so, he looks like a friendly sort. A demon who runs Hell's catering facilities or bingo halls rather than participating in the day-to-day torturing of sinners, who makes the same lame jokes every day as you pass him on your way to Azargath the Defiler's Pit of Torment but you laugh anyway because he's just a nice guy.
Written by prolific Spectrum coders the Shaw Brothers, Demonslair was only ever released as part of a compilation called Fishpaste Volume 2, which might clue you in that despite its title this game isn't aiming to terrify the player or anything. The Shaw Brothers also produced a game called Invasion of the Intergalactic Mutant Halibut (From Mars), which has no bearing on this game but which I felt compelled to mention anyway. I could complain that these halibut can't be intergalactic if they're from Mars, but I think that would be a little churlish.
Once you've selected your control method and started the game, the scene is set by some pretty terrible poetry. Here, I'll write it out in full for you:
To find the wizard whos the best
you must continue in the quest
Find the password hidden there
and venture onward to Demonslair
Terrible rhythm, pedestrian rhymes, I give it 3 out of 10. At least it informs the player that they're a wizard and they need to find a password, which is more help than you get from most Spectrum games.
Here's the first screen of the twenty-six you'll need to clear to finish the game, and it's immediately identifiable as a Spectrum platformer. There's the player character, the robe-clad, wand-wielding wizard, at the top left, a status bar that takes up a good chunk of the screen, hovering lumps of scenery and a cavalcade of enemies that are weird almost to the point of abstraction, all rendered in the familiar black-backgrounds-and-neon-sprites style that makes almost every Spectrum game look like an extremely low-res photo of a rave. There are two doors on the screen, so naturally the aim of the game is to get from one door to the other while touching as few of the enemies as possible. The wizard doesn't have any offensive spells that he could use to defeat the monsters, but he can fly, which is a pretty impressive trick to have. There's no jumping between platforms in this one, because the wizard can freely move left, right, and up, and if you let go of the joystick while you're in the air you'll float back towards the ground, making Demonslair feel more like a maze game than a traditional platformer.
After screen one comes, as you would expect, screen two. Each screen has it's own unique name that scrolls along the bottom of the status bar. This one's called Gallows Hill. I think I could have guessed that.
Getting through Demonslair isn't as simple as making it from one door to the next. That would be difficult enough thanks to the abundance of large, erratically-moving enemies like the turnip-headed executioner (whose axe is far too small for the job at hand) and the bright blue ape skull, but in an added twist there's also a word game to play. Each screen contains four letters - A, G, H and N in this case - and your wizard must collect them all to make a key appear. Then you can pick up the key, and then you can go through the exit door. However, you have to collect the letters in a specific order to spell a certain word, usually one related to the screen you're on or the general swords-and-sorcery vibe of the game. On Gallows Hill the word you need is very obviously HANG, but sadly it's not always that straightforward.
That's Demonslair, then. Collect the letters to spell the required word, pick up the key and get out of Dodge. It's simple, sure, but that's to be expected from a ZX game of this vintage and it all works well enough. Your wizard is responsive and the collision detection - always a worry in games like this where your health drains as long as you're in contact with an enemy - is excellent. There's a lot to like about the presentation, too, or rather there's a lot for me to like. I don't expect everyone to share my fondness for the slightly wonky terrors of the night that pass through the world of Demonslair, but c'mon, look up there: that skeleton's doing the dance from Thriller! That's just A Nice Thing to see, if you ask me.
There's not much else to complicate the gameplay of Demonslair beyond the wizard's ability to pick up food to replenish his health. That yellow thing on the far right is, in fact, a banana. The green lump above it may look like some nutritious broccoli, but it's actually a decomposing head that will harm you if you so much as brush the hem of your wizardly robe against it. Thanks to the simplistic graphics there can be some confusion over what's what in the world of health-restoring produce, but if it's not moving and it's not clearly a piece of scenery then it's probably worth trying to pick it up. All in all, Demonslair is very reminiscent of Olli and Lissa 2: Halloween, another ZX Spectrum collectathon that I wrote about during the last Halloween season. If you've tried that game and you liked it then hey, think of Demonslair as an expansion pack.
Now the skeleton appears to be skanking, right on top of a bowl of fruit and next to a floating armchair. Is this his eternal curse, to be forever busting out high-energy dance moves wherever he goes, be it near a witch's cauldron or inside a fruit salad? How cruel. I'd put him out of his misery, but I'm a flyin' wizard, not a monster-slayin' wizard.
I ran into trouble once I reached the Haunted House, where - hang, is that a toilet in the top-right? You know, I reckon it is. I think I'd risk living in a house full of vengeful spirits if it mean I was the only person in the Dark Ages to have indoor plumbing.
Where was I? Oh, yes, trouble. It was the letters that caused the problem here, because I couldn't figure out what word I was supposed to be creating. O, O, R, T, so, ROOT, right? No, it's not ROOT, and TORO didn't seem likely, so I just had to try each combination of letters until I managed to fill in the right word. The word was TORO... except it's not, because one of those Os is a C, the difference between the two rendered almost unnoticeable by the font. The actual word is TORC, which I would have gotten had the C not looked like an O that forgot to zip up its fly. That's not a boast about my vocabulary, I just read a lot of crappy fantasy novels as a kid.
My exertions in the Haunted House finally proved too much for the wizard - one too many collisions with the flying heads and not enough ice lollies and pints of ale collected - and I was faced with the game over screen, which also features some poetry.
In my eyes there is sadness
in my heart (heart symbol) there is pain
ye evil forces are victorious
press a key to try again
I don't recall giving the writer of Demonslair permission to use quotes from my embarrassing teenage poetry for the first two lines, but they're redeemed by their decision to include an icon of a heart after the word heart. You know, just in case you forgot what a heart looks like.
I did indeed press a key to try again, mostly so I could prove that I wasn't kidding about being able to pick up ice lollies for extra health. There's something very pleasing about the image of a wizard eating a popsicle. Merlin with a Calippo, Gandalf enjoying a refreshing rocket lolly while the Hobbits look on enviously, the greedy little bastards.
I must confess that I had to use an infinite health cheat for the latter portions of Demonslair, no so much because it was too hard but because it was taking forever. It is a hard game, as Spectrum games generally are, but it's not brutally unfair or anything. My main failing was my lack of patience - because the enemies move around so much and in such random patterns, a lot of the game is spent waiting for the bad guys to move into specific positions that allow you to nip into the many narrow corridors and small alcoves without smashing into them. Sometimes this can take a long, long while as you wait for an especially intransigent giant spider to move away from a letter, or rather it feels like a long time in what is ostensibly an action game.
Bloody hell, look at the size of that slice of cake! This screen is called Through the Great Hall, which must surely be short for "On Your Way Through, Eat That Great Big Slab of Cake in the Hall"
I really like that every screen is named, probably more than is appropriate, and I think I've figured out why - the names remind me of levels from Quake. Here are six names, see if you can guess whether they're a level from Quake or one of Demonslair's screens.
1. Satan's Swamp
2. The Grisly Grotto
3. The Wizard's Manse
4. Citadel of the Dead
5. The Tomb of Terror
6. The Sorcerer's Henge
There are still a few screens to go, but Demonslair has revealed everything it's got under the hood by now, so am I enjoying it? I'd say yes, I suppose I am. It controls well, it's got flailing skeletons, and the word puzzle aspect adds a little something that stops it being too basic so yeah, not too bad. With a little work it could be something even better, mind you: the unpredictability of the enemies works against the game, as does the way the letters are spread across each screen. More linear areas with foes that operate along stricter patterns might have helped. A better solution would have been tighter level design - enemies can't move past letters, so as you collect them the screen becomes harder to navigate as the enemies have more space to roam. If this was a more prominent part of the game - managing the baddies by not releasing them until the right moment or allowing you to plan your route better - it could have made for a much more interesting gameplay dynamic, but alas, you're left at the mercy of the monsters' unknowable whims.
A couple of other screens worth mentioning now, starting with Neptune's Domain. Neptune's fingers are very wrinkly, which will happen if you spend your whole life in the sea.
Then there's Underneath the Cross, a bizarre and faintly sacrilegious scene dotted with Stars of David and dominated by a scene of crucifixion. Then you look a bit closer and it doesn't seem much like a crucifixion at all, with the "victim" striking a strange pose that's hardly that of a man suffering the unendurable agony of being nailed to a big bit of wood. In fact, he looks more like he's posing in front of a cross in the manner of a million tourists who have pretended to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
More huge fingers poke up from the bottom of the screen. As there are only two of them, I have to assume they belong to Satan and he's throwing up the metal horns.
The final screen is the Demonslair itself, and if it's not very demonic it's at least appropriately odd - the floor's made of hearts, presumably ripped from the chests of their still-screaming former owners, there are underwater trees and a bowl is daintily perched atop a phallic stone monument. The demon face from the beginning of the game makes a reappearance, so I suppose he must be the demon who owns this lair, or possibly shares the lair with his identical twin. Even in its last moments Demonslair doesn't offer up any new surprises, so once you've collected the final word (TEAR, if you're interested) the game is over and your reward is, you guessed it, more poetry.
You are the finest wizard of all
by reaching your final goal
Tears and anger lead to despair
but not for you in Demonslair
The first couplet makes no grammatical sense, "all" and "goal" don't rhyme and the last two lines sound like something Yoda might say, so this final poem is nicely in keeping with the other two and it's better than a simple CONGRATULATIONS. I think I'll finish this article off with a verse of my own.
It's nothing special, this is true,
Much waiting and surprises few,
It's not the best, but to be fair,
I enjoyed this game of Demonslair.
Man, poetry is hard.
P.S. The Quake levels are numbers 2, 3 and 5.