Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Coin-Op Review: 'Demon's World' (1990)

Think you've played every great 2D, horror-themed action-platformer from the early 1990s? Well, you haven't if you've never gotten your hands on this preposterously underrated Toaplan title starring an avatar that looks WAY too much like the Unabomber for it to be just a coincidence.

By: Jimbo X

The great thing about retro gaming is that there's so much great stuff out there that we'll be rediscovering awesome shit for years - hell, maybe even decades - before every hidden gem is uncovered. And that's especially true when it comes to arcade games, because I assure you, there are WAY more that got released than any of us managed to play back in our youths.

That's why it does the heart good to hit up the emulators from time to time and play through a couple of totally random games. Granted, most of the time you just wind up with really bland, generic Pac-Man and Raiden clones, but every now and then you'll stumble across a totally overlooked mini-classic that you can't believe hasn't been celebrated ad nauseam by the retro gaming elites. And that's how I became aware of the existence of Demon's World, an absolutely fantastic action-platformer from Toaplan, that's basically the combination of Ghosts 'n Goblins with Metal Slug

You have to be a hardcore retro gamer to know about Toaplan. While most regular folks have never heard of Truxton or Hellfire or Fire Shark, old school arcade purists tend to consider them one of the most painfully underrated developers in the history of gaming. Indeed, Toaplan is responsible for two of my all-time favorite shooters, Grind Stormer and Batsugan, which are so damned obscure that a lot of well-versed SHMUP fans have never even heard of 'em before. Hell, most people don't even KNOW that Toaplan were the guys who made Zero Wing, because I'm guessing most people out there on the Internet think the whole "all your base" shit created itself, but I digress.

Despite its super-generic title, Demon's World (not to be confused with Konami's Devil World, nor Capcom's Demon's Crest) is actually a damned solid side-scrolling shooter that kinda' sorta plays like a drunken orgy of Contra, Castlevania AND Gradius. Even for its timeframe it's unbelievably difficult, but thanks to the advent of emulators, we can now play the whole thing from start to finish without cashing out $20 worth of tokens. And if you've never played it before? Old Jimbo's quick overview will give you all the incentives in the world to hunt this sucker down for yourself ...

In defiance of genre conventions, you're asked to input your initials at the beginning of the game. Also, you might notice your avatar looks a LOT like Chuck Norris, but trust me, it gets even weirder from there. Additionally, the game DOES offer a two-player mode, but I've never played it cooperatively before. So it could be as good as the one-player mode, substantially better or substantially worse - I can't tell you, so ask somebody else. 

The opening cinematic shows a buncha' people fleeing from a horde of monsters overrunning what appears to be a (literal) ghost town, filled with dillapidated, crumbling Western-ish buildings, which have giant signs for "Rodeo" and "biggest Bar biggest," because the Japanese don't care that much. The game begins without any formal explanation of who the main character is, but it doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that he's got a bad ass 'stache and a LOT of weapons, and that means some ghosts and goblins are about to get royally fucked up shortly. 

In the first stage, you blast away a couple of pink ghosts wearing cowboy hats, so I guess the level is a canonical Western-themed tourist trap, I suppose. Power-ups constantly float across the screen, Contra style, and you'll have to use your double jump to catch most of them. Anyhoo, your upgradable weapons are as follows: a triple scatter shot, a rocket launcher, a lightning gun, bombs (which have the worst range by a considerable margin) and these funky laser arrow thingies. All of the weapons can be upgraded to shoot faster with wider ranges, too, so mixing and matching - while not an integral part of the game - is oftentimes advantageous. Like in Castlevania, you can collect hearts, but they don't restore your health. They just add more points to your score, and no matter how many of those fuckers you horde, one hit is still enough to kill your ass dead. Of course, there is a major exemption to that, but we'll cross that proverbial bridge when we get there.

It doesn't take long for the game to start throwing a TON of different enemy types at you. Frankenstein monsters, skulls that cry deadly tears, midget Draculas, hell, even a couple of JASON VOORHEES imitators enter the fray just seconds into level one. Also, you have to dodge a lot of rolling barrels, too, which is probably harder than any actual enemy in the game you have to fight.

It isn't long before you grab hold of the power-up armor, thankfully. Basically, this stuff works just like the suit of armor in Ghosts 'n Goblins, powering up your abilities and allowing you one extra hit before plopping over dead as a doornail. But best of all, the power up transforms your costume into a grey hooded sweatshirt that makes your avatar looks just like the fucking Unabomber, and it's goddamn hilarious.

After you bump off a couple of obese gargoyles and fire-dripping ghosts, the background turns into this grassy terrain in front of a mountain with an ominous purple sky. You have to cross a creaking bridge and platform over tricky flame-shitting demons, but thankfully you can jump on their heads, Mario style, for a little added step to your bounce.

Then killer plants start bursting out of the ground like in Ghouls 'n Ghosts and you have to jump across tree limbs while mini-dragons chase you (and this is HARD as fucking shit like you would not believe.) Now we've got zombies tossing boulders at you, and as the backdrop transitions to a desert like setting, a buncha' vultures start dropping rocks on your head. Eventually, this paves the way for the game's first boss fight, against a skeleton Indian ghost who drops giant-eared tiki statues on you.

I told you I had reservations about fightin' that ghost Indian!

Next up, we're in a Mexican-looking pueblo. Horse-drawn carriages immediately attack, as do platoons of annoying ass bats and more fucking runaway barrels. After that you have to platform across rocks over an ocean, and the music changes to this funky, warbled tropical beat and it's great. Also, you can now jump onto balloons and float over obstacles, which is a cool little touch, but really tricky to pull off in execution. You hop over some crabs with skull heads and maneuver around giant tiki statues that puke molten lava on you, then these trees shoot porcupines (maybe even Critters?) at you. I mean, your character does sort of resemble the space bounty hunters from the first two movies and all. Then you do some more tricky balloon platforming and blast through wave after wave of one-eyed gnomes before entering an area glutted with dilapidated pagodas.

You can safely traverse the muck pools by using the ducks in Raiden hats as stepping stones. After that you have to avoid punji sticks and kamikaze crows, then these skeletons start shooting at you with bows and arrows. Judging by that spooky, tinny Asian restaurant music, I take it those enemies are supposed to be Chinese?

The Devil's Rain starts falling out of the sky, which thankfully, you can blast out of the sky rather easily (can you name any other game where you have to shot rain droplets with rocket launchers?) Then you get attacked by long-necked demon geishas and what I can only describe as possessed umbrellas. After that, paper lanterns and ghost school girls come after you, and the rain starts teaming up in circular wheels that chase you down like heat-seeking missiles. This is a segue to the game's second boss fight, this one against a samurai skeleton with a spear who tries to bite you. Alas, despite taking a billion hits to kill, he really isn't that much of a challenge to polish off.

Now you have to platform across boats while orange demons shoot fireballs at you that look suspiciously like pieces of fried chicken. Then a pirate ship emerges. Time to shoot some rapier-brandishing skeletons en masse. The insanely hard ocean platforming sequence continues, as you have to use those balloons to dodge sharks and ridiculously hard to predict horizontal scrolling fireballs. Then a buncha' blue demon heads start materializing everywhere, and your only way to avoid them is to hold the fire button down and constantly hit every button on the directional pad simultaneously. You think I'm joking, but you play this shit for yourself and find out.

Now killer butterflies and Chinese kids on tricycles start attacking (interestingly enough, this is where the PC Engine CD port begins - no clue why, that's just how them Japs do it, I reckon.) You shoot more fan-carrying geishas and platform over clouds, periodically having to hop on and over these annoying petals that open and close in oddly timed intervals. Then dragons attack you, but every time you shoot them their bodies shrink a little. The boss fight here is against a giant golden dragon, who spits smaller dragons at you, whose heads you have to jump on so you can shoot him in the head.

Another ocean stage awaits. This time you have to hop over ice shelves while suicidal squids and gigantic jellyfish that look like Metroids try to chew your asshole off. Eventually you will encounter these giant jellyfish blobs that shit smaller jellyfish at you, and this is easily the most bullshit part of the entire game, because it's practically impossible to avoid taking at least one hit depending on where the things spawn. After that, thankfully, it's back to more rudimentary blasting action, as you enter a graveyard and immediately start mowing down shambling zombies sans heads.

Why the Japanese have such a fervid fear of possessed umbrellas, I'll never comprehend.

This heralds the return of those ghosts in cowboy hats, who are now green, for whatever reason. These new Dracula enemies also debut, which turn into four separate homing bats when killed. There are more porcupine trees, more golden goblins and even a passage where you have to hop over columns while avoiding sentient knight helmets, which has to be an oblique "fuck you" firmly directed towards Capcom, isn't it?

So you enter a castle and full-suited knights attack you. This is a prelude to a boss fight, this time against a smaller, fire-breathing dragon that looks more like a crappy Play Doh dinosaur than the more traditional mythological beast we fought in the last stage. After that you get on an elevator and fight these blue guys wearing metal suits. I've no idea what the hell they're supposed to be, so don't ask. However, I will tell you these fuckers like to push giant blocks at you, and you have to duck at JUST the right moment or else the constantly scrolling screen will push you right into some insta-kill spikes. Needless to say, your timing has to be pitch perfect here or else you're deader than Harvey Weinstein's OK Cupid profile.

You do some more jumping over, around and underneath weirdly shaped blocks and barriers and platform over ghosts carrying caskets while shooting the firebird enemies that emerge from the lava pits below. Yeah, not that you need me to tell you this, but this shit is hard as fuck, too. Then you jump over the roofs of several houses and fight sleeping orange vampires who are morbidly obese and more sword-toting skeletons. 

Then there's ANOTHER gnome-block pushing sequence over lava pits, and it's so insanely hard I'm running out of ways to tell you it's an insanely hard game. Then there's another boss fight with a cartoon dragon, except this one pukes projectile orbs on you instead of a direct line of fire. And after that? You jump down a hole into a cob-webbed cavern and prepare for the game's final boss fight ... 

... which just so happens to be against this weird monkey mummy stuck inside a pulsating spider-like womb who shoots blue flames at you. Well, despite his wacky appearance, he's actually pretty easy to kill, and after that the screen starts rolling right to left and you have to jump your way to safety. That triggers the game's final cutscene, as you watch the castle implode behind you, Castelvania style, while your avatar joyously jumps up and down. During the credits, he grabs a balloon and flies by sepia tone screen shots of all the previous levels in the game, and that's all your quarters are going to get you this go-at it.

Yep. Nothing weird about watching a pixel-art Theodore Kaczynski celebrate an imploding building. Nothing weird about that at all.

All I can say is damn, this is a fun game. It's an absurdly difficult blast-a-thon that's hard for all the right reasons. It's a game that's doable, it just takes well-honed reflexes and just a little bit of rhythm to get through it - unlike so many other games in the genre, it isn't cheap, it's a title that rewards you for timing and memorization.

As briefly mentioned above, the game did get ported to the PC Engine CD, albeit under a totally different title - Horror Story. Essentially, it's the same game, but for whatever reason, the order of the stages is all out of whack. Oh, and the final stage is way longer, but I'll let you compare and contrast this shit on your own time.

Going back to what I said at the beginning of the article, Demon's World really is a hidden gem of horror gaming. It's an immensely enjoyable monster mash with great visuals, plenty of humor and a ton of replay value, and that co-op mode seems like it would be an absolute hoot and a half to experience. I never saw the arcade game in the wild growing up, so there's no nostalgia driving my adulation of the title; it's just a flat-out fantastic, Halloween-flavored game that you definitely need to check out at some point during your All Hallow Eves sojourns. I mean, what in life is better than pairing an hour or two of this game with a big bowl of candy corn and a replay of Halloween II at 2 in the morning? That's right, fucking nothing, and if you haven't gotten a load of what Demon's World is offering you, you're not just missing the boat - you're missing the whole damned armada.


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