Games and their creators have always tried to push the technical boundaries of what was thought possible with a given technology.
Clever and innovative people would often utilize the hardware and software in new ways, not done before, opening up new possibilities to enhance and push products ahead of the competition, standing out from the crowd.
Quite often we see these pioneering products lacking in other aspects, making the products as a whole, a lacklustre experience.
Shadow of the Beast was one of those games that really pushed the existing technology and did it really well, it were received with initial praise, great reviews and critical acclaim, but how does it fare from a “modern retrospective”.
If we were to peel back the layers, ignoring the technical achievements, examining Shadow of the Beast as “just another” game, did it fulfill its role as a great action-adventure platform game or did the technical achievements hide a game that left things to be desired.
Shadow of the Beast
Martin Edmondson, the co-founder of Reflections, a British video game developer which started out in 1984 creating games for the British developed BBC Micro and Acorn Electron, had just completed his first 16-bit title, Ballistix, with Paul Howarth when the two sat out to develop their next, and what would become their biggest game yet.
What initially started out as a parallax test, testing the Amiga’s Agnus chip would end up bringing life to one of the best looking and most graphically complex games for the Amiga 500.
Shadow of the Beast was initially meant to be released for both the Amiga and the Atari ST, with the Amiga version written first, pushing its technical boundaries with up to 12 levels of parallax and up to 128 colors on screen at a time – all this while running at silky smooth 50 Hz (or 60 Hz in North America). The Atari ST showed a simpler graphically complexity, but still looked good (the standard ST color palette was limited to 16 colors on screen at any time). Shadow of the Beast would end up be the best selling Atari ST game for two years.
An Atari 8-bit version would never materialize, though a demo, was produced. It’s hard to say how far the development got when the publisher, Harlequin, collapsed in 1990.
The Amiga version of Shadow of the Beast was published in 1989, by Psygnosis, after 9 months of hard work.
It quickly became the game that showed off what the Amiga 500 really was capable of – with its complex parallax scrolling, given an unprecedented depth to the otherwise flat 2D playfield and colorful atmospherics and beautiful art directed fantasy/sci-fi backgrounds, it leaved no one unimpressed.
The music, featuring high-quality instrument samples, was produced by David Whittaker. The music changed throughout and solidified the different atmospheric settings the game had to offer.
Aarbron, our protagonist, was kidnapped as a child and corrupted through magic into a monstrous warrior-servant, for the evil beast lord Maletoth. Aarbron’s memories of his human life return when he watches a man being executed, a man he later recognizes as his father. This prompts Aarbron to seek revenge on Maletoth. A long, dangerous journey ensues, with Aarbron forced to battle his way through both hostile terrain and Maletoth’s forces. He eventually confronts one of Maletoth’s minions. Defeating the creature and Aarbron is freed from his curse – the eponymous “Shadow of the Beast” and returned to his human form.
Shadow of the Beast was at first pretty unforgiven, but fairly quickly went from hard to average in difficulty as soon as you learned and mastered the mechanics of the game. Shadow of the Beast featured 6 levels and no checkpoint or save feature but could after some initial learning and mastery be completed pretty quick (in under 30 minutes).
Each level saw numerous traps and an array of enemies, big bold sprites, some half the size of the screen, popping up, trying to get the best of you.
Both Shadow of the Beast and its sequel Shadow of the Beast II, from 1990 received praise and were critically acclaimed. Shadow of the Beast III from 1992 received mixed reviews. None of the sequels brought anything new to the table and interest with the franchise faded as new genres and platforms arose.
The first two Shadow of the Beast games were ported to a vast array of systems but none of them would outshine the original Amiga version – The FM-Towns version had better music and sound though.
Shadow of the Beast III was only released on the Amiga.
While the first 2 games were released in a “long box” format, which included a T-shirt and in a standard upright box, Shadow of the Beast III, from 1992, were only released in the standard upright box, and only for the Amiga 500
A (somewhat opinionated) retrospective
Playing the game now, 30 years later, might make it hard to really judge it from a objective perspective – but in retrospect, when looking at other great games of the same genre and from same the era, Shadow of the Beast, in my opinion, comes out a bit pale – it is nonetheless a technical testament not only to the Amiga but also to its creator Edmondson’s and Howarth’s skill set.
Gameplay-wise Shadow of the Beast really didn’t bring any innovations with it, it was almost like the designers took enemies (and mechanics) from existing games, redesigned them a bit and just scattered them throughout the levels – none of the enemies have anything unique to this game, and maybe because of the extremely well-directed, and at times almost “Gigerish”‘ artwork on the backgrounds, I have a desire for the enemies to be more than they are.
Another thing I’m missing is a connection and empathy towards our protagonist, Aarbron, he’s just this weird static creature with a bad run cycle, which never seems to return to an idle state, also the controls leave things to be desired – The same can be said with the enemies, very limited animation and life – it’s like all the energy went to the atmosphere of the game, leaving the “animated” dead and “charmless”.
It might have been an artistic decision to leave out effects, keeping the game aesthetically clean, but I would really have loved to see some kind of effect when hitting enemies, killing them, etc.., just to give the game a bit more dynamic and life – it just feels so lifeless.
By all means, the game is still very enjoyable today, but in some way it just feels more outdated, less fun and way more rigid than other games in the genre, released for the Amiga in the same time period.
Shadow of the Beast’s cover art, which is absolutely stunning, was designed by British artist Roger Dean, who has also did the cover art for a bunch of other Psygnosis titles