Title: Shadow of the Beast
Developer: Reflections Interactive
Platform: Sega Genesis
Shadow of the Beast was made in 1989, originally for the Amiga but later ported to countless other platforms, such as the Atari ST, FM-Towns, TurboGrafix-CD, Sega Genesis, and many, many others.
My first introduction to this game was through the Sega Genesis version. I had played the sequel previously and struggled to find the original until the wonderful world of emulation was opened to me. Only 15 years later did I play the Amiga version, though I had watched several longplays of it prior.
Unfortunately, to match the NTSC console in North America when porting the game to the Genesis, the programmers had to increase the refresh rate from 50 hz to 60 hz without changing how long each frame was displayed. This made the game much faster, and subsequently pushed the difficulty to levels of insanity. The Japanese version of the game, which runs on a PAL console, was much more akin to the original Amiga version and did not suffer these issues.
Despite the glaring problems, I was immediately hypnotized by the game. It was simple and cryptic, yet deep and vast, depending on how you were looking at it. When I was exposed to the Amiga version, I fell into the same spiral of wonder all over again. I will touch on my experiences with the Genesis version, but I will mostly talk about the Amiga version, because while other ports of the game fixed the problems in the original release, the importance of the Amiga version given what it accomplished at the time, bad and good, deserve the most recognition. This game took guts to make.
Firstly, Shadow of the Beast was only coded by two people. British developers Martin Edmondson and Paul Howarth were 21 and 20 respectively when they coded the game. They included a little blurb about their frustration with piracy in the Atari ST and Amiga manual and how they were unsure if they wanted to program for those systems any longer. I wonder what they would say about the state of video game piracy today! Edmondson said they were really impressed with Liverpool based publisher Psygnosis at the time and wanted to make a “Psygnosis game” so they modeled the graphics in the same vein. When the Shadow of the Beast demo was pitched to Psygnosis, they enthusiastically agreed to publish it.
But this isn’t a story of two developers simply trying to emulate their heroes by making a game vibrantly dark, the developers wanted to make a game that pushed further than the known technical limits of the Amiga.
Probably the most groundbreaking aspect Shadow of the Beast achieved was the levels of parallax scrolling placed into the game. Parallax scrolling is where background images move past the camera more slowly than the images in the foreground, which creates an immersive illusion of depth in 2D gaming. This technique is commonplace now, but it was still a new frontier back then. There were a maximum of 12 separate levels of parallax scrolling, an unheard of amount for 1989. Combined with the 128 color maximum on screen, this game looked like nothing else at the time.
The developers wanted an action platformer that looked like it was being played on an arcade machine, and they achieved it. Scrolling ran at fifty frames per second on the Amiga, which was the speed of most modern arcade machines at the time. To my knowledge, this is the first Amiga game to have actually achieved this.
It would be blasphemy to not mention the soundtrack or the artwork in this game. David Whittaker made all the tracks in this game using nothing but a Korg M1 sampled over 20 Khz, which were incredibly high-quality instrument samples for video game music of the era, and even today the music does not sound the least bit dated, and is very engrossing. It has a very natural, ambient feel, but yet it is so foreboding sounding. This might be the most tense yet relaxing music to exist in the gaming world.
The artwork was done by British fantasy artist Roger Dean, as was tradition for most Psygnosis games. If you’ve seen the cover for a Yes album, then you know Roger Dean. This was arguably his most notable work, and it only added to the appeal of Shadow of the Beast.
This game was difficult though, very difficult. Even with the Amiga version running at the proper refresh rate, there was still incredibly fragile hit detection. You have to inch forward at some points or else you risk spawning a monster that will collide into you before you’re prepared to do so. The sprite size of your character is huge, so it is incredibly easy to get damaged unless you timed your attack nearly frame perfect in some cases. This game doesn’t just rely on having good hand-eye coordination, you are virtually required to memorize enemy spawn points from previous playthroughs.
Overall, Shadow of the Beast is more appreciated as a work of art than by standard definitions of gameplay. As much as I love this game, without the art, the graphics, the soundtrack, and the sheer courage to push the Amiga past its known technical limitations at the time, the game is just a basic side-scroller. I feel incredibly dirty saying that, but I have to be real with myself here. Despite all this, when I got to learn about the history of the game, and the work that was put into it, I developed a much deeper respect for the game. Shadow of the Beast is much more than its gameplay, and any deep dive into the game would clearly reveal this fact.
There are games that I go back and play roughly once a year, but this is a game I frequently watch a longplay of, or will loop the soundtrack while I am working. If I’m really feeling up for a challenge, I fire up the Genesis version and try to see how far I can get without dying. It’s always a game that I draw inspiration of and use as a measuring stick against other games, not just in atmosphere or style, but in the courage for a small team to take such a huge risk in making a game that pushed the limits and wanted to deliver in every conceivable way that a video game could deliver at the time, and they did that. The game series has a huge cult following and there’s still a buzz around it to this day, and that should speak volumes.