Clash at Demonhead (NES)

So meta!

I’m off to spend the a few days vacationing in Astoria, Oregon tomorrow (Goonies never say die!), but I still had time to play through one more game last night: Clash at Demonhead for the NES! Clash was developed and published by Vic Tokai and debuted in Japan in 1989 under the title Dengeki Big Bang! I feel like I’m super late to the party on this game, since I can recall Clash being one of the earliest NES titles to develop a reputation as a cult classic back in the early days of the retro gaming Internet, along with River City Ransom and a select few others. Better late than never? Not always….

Clash at Demonhead is a side scrolling action platforming game with an open-ended level layout and exploration elements, similar to Nintendo’s celebrated Metroid and Tecmo’s NES version of Rygar. You guide secret agent Billy “Big Bang” Blitz (does he work in porn in his spare time?) through an utterly mad world of rejected googly-eyed Mega Man enemies and hostile cartoon animals in an attempt to stop a group of weirdo terrorists from blowing up the entire world with a “Doomsday Bomb” for reasons so ridiculous that I won’t spoil them for you here. In order to defuse the bomb, you’ll need a total of six medallions held by the game’s various bosses (“governors”) and that means scouring the game’s 42 interconnected levels (“routes”) in order to find them all. It’s a lengthy quest for a console game of the time, but thankfully there are passwords (accessed through an item sold at the shop) to save your progress.

Bang has a pretty robust moveset to start out. He can walk, jump, crouch, and shoot straight ahead, as well as being able to swim around in bodies of water and climb on certain walls. Various special consumable items you’ll be able to purchase from a shop as the game progresses will add new movement options, such as flying around on a jetpack or even swimming in lava thanks to an armored “super suit.” While the ability to shoot your gun upward would have been nice, the control options you get are not bad at all.

Oh, and there’s also a magic system.  That’s right: This game has robots, ray guns, doomsday bombs, and a bearded mountain hermit who teaches you magic. There are five abilities in total and they include shrinking to fit through narrow passages, levitation (which is honestly a little redundant when you consider that the jetpack is so easy to acquire), teleportation to warp instantly from level to level, and more. It’s just too bad that you’ll probably want to save all of your limited magic points (“force”) for teleporting. The other powers are kind of neat, but nothing can compare with the massive convenience of being able to cross the entire map in an instant without needing to traverse a half-dozen stages or more in-between.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up Clash at Demonhead is that the game is bright, colorful, and very peculiar. The story, setting, and characters are clearly intended to be a simultaneous parody of and homage to a style of comedic action anime that was well-established in Japan at the time, but was virtually unknown in the West prior to the international debut of key breakout series like Dragonball and Sailor Moon later on in the 1990s. Certainly, the game’s distinctly non-anime North American box art is a good indicator that the publisher was aware how little experience most of us had with this sort of thing. I get the feeling that a lot of people who first encountered this game around the time of its release would have been pretty intrigued by its wacky, characteristically Japanese style. Clash doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The game’s setting is pure lunacy and resembles the planet Eternia from He-Man and the Master of the Universe far more than it does earth as we know it. Character designs and animations are exaggerated and slapstick. Dialog breaks the fourth wall. There are even some play elements that seem to subvert and mock video game clichés, like a boss battle you can’t win and a totally optional sidequest and boss that rewards you with…absolutely nothing. Combine all this with the fact that non-linear adventure style games like this were slim pickings on the NES at the time (despite the success of Metroid in 1986) and it’s easy to see why Clash’s nostalgia factor is so potent for a lot of people. It would have been very a very memorable title indeed.

Unfortunately, with me having no nostalgic ties to the game, Clash at Demonhead just comes off as sort of…well, bad. It’s bad. It’s a bad game. There, I said it. Now that you’re sufficiently incensed, I’ll explain. It all comes down to three things for me: The stiff controls, the wonky mechanics, and the subpar presentation.

For starters, the core action platforming gameplay, the thing you spend the entire game doing, just doesn’t feel very good due to how Bang controls. His walking, jumping, and shooting feel awkward and occasionally unresponsive. His hit box also seems like it’s significantly larger than his actual sprite. Many enemies and projectiles also seem to have strange hit boxes, and you’ll often find yourself taking damage from things your eyes are telling you that you shouldn’t.

Water in this game is also surprisingly hazardous, despite Bang’s ability to swim. As in many games, being submerged in water will cause your health to slowly drain away to simulate drowning. So far, so good. Unlike in any other game I’ve ever played, however, this process starts the instant Bang’s head dips below the waterline, which happens automatically whenever you jump into a body of water unless you execute a rather tricky double jump off the surface, which is tough to pull off consistently. There’s no “breath holding” period, the damage just triggers instantly even if you immediately bob back up to the surface. You can get around this by wearing a diving suit but it seems strange and counter-intuitive to require one just to negotiate the water’s surface safely.

Clash at Demonhead largely looks and sounds terrible for a 1989 release. On the plus side, the graphics are colorful and Bang himself has a ton of cute animations (like a panicked expression when slipping and sliding on ice) that add a lot to his character. I really like the way that wearing a diving suit or a jetpack will cause his sprite to actually change both in and out of cut scenes. Sprites on the whole, though, are on the crude and ugly side, just like the simplistic and highly repetitive background graphics. Many enemies, especially flying ones for some reason, also suffer from choppy animation which can make attacking and avoiding airborne targets more iffy than it should be. While we’re on the subject of repetition, Clash at Demonhead’s shrill score is just godawful. When people complain about how the music in old video games was just a bunch of discordant blips and bleeps, it’s not Final Fantasy they’re talking about, it’s Clash at Demonhead. The track that plays in the final enemy stronghold as you’re on your way to defuse the Doomsday Bomb is one of the most atrocious attempts at music I’ve ever heard in my life. I actually stopped what I was doing for a bit just to marvel at the sheer incompetence on display, which is not what most composers are really aiming for, I think. Even if you think that comparing a smaller project from a third party developer like Vic Tokai to something like Metroid is unfair, Rygar by Tecmo, another game with a similar overall design that came out two years prior, looked, sounded, and played leagues better than Clash at Demonhead. It may be weird and it may be funny,  but under the hood Clash is all flash.

I will credit Clash at Demonhead with one thing, though: It did inspire me to take my “retro gaming” to a whole other level. While playing, I first attempted to simply remember which of the game’s 42 routes was which, since the in-game map screen shows the overall layout, but doesn’t display the route numbers. When I got to the point where a character told me that my next objective was on route 27, though…Well, let’s just say I spent entirely too much time wandering around trying to remember which one that was again. I consulted the manual only to find that there was no map at all there, just a suggestion that you draw your own and label the routes yourself. I almost hopped online to quickly search up a complete route map but then I found myself thinking: Back at the time this game came out, I probably would have just taken then manual’s advice and made my own. So that’s what I ended up doing instead. Now I have my very own hand-drawn, physical map of Clash at Demonhead on a piece of lined paper. It may be ugly, but it works and it’s mine. I can barely remember the last time I drew my own map of a video game, and I found the whole exercise to be oddly engaging. I suppose it made me feel a little more like an active participant in the exploration aspect of the game.

If you’re looking for game in the Metroid mold, Clash at Demonhead is still going to be very far down on my list of recommendations, but I did manage to have some fun with the crazy setting and characters, the humor, and the process of exploring the game world. It’s very rough around the edges and by no means an essential experience, but I’d say that if you like your games weird and you can get it cheap, you might as well give it a go.

As for me, I’ll be waiting for you in my desert fortress on route 33!

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