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Clash At Demonhead (NES) artwork

Clash At Demonhead (NES) review

"Even though it stumbles now and then, I think Clash at Demonhead is a game that people should seek out. It stands as a true example of forward thinking that was hampered by the technical limitations of the 8-bit era. "

One of my favorite things about evaluating retro games is finding features and game mechanics that were ahead of their time. Every now and then Iíll come across a game that has interesting design elements that sit right next to modern titles, and thatís what I found in the case of Clash at Demonhead. Although itís a rather obscure game in the NES library, this action game from Vic Tokai is just a couple steps away from being the first entry in the open world subgenre.

The brilliant Professor Plum--inventor of the ominous sounding Doomsday Bomb--has been kidnapped by the Demonís Battalion. Only the Sabre Tiger Squad, led by our hero Bang, can ascend the mountain of Demonhead and find the professor before his weapon is detonated.

Thatís the setup for Clash at Demonhead, and in a time when good language translations were rare I got the impression that whoever localized this game had a lot of fun in doing so. The in-game dialogue is chock full of personality and charm, seemingly missing a lot of the strange translation hiccups that were so common during the NES days.

As I played the game and came to grips with everything it allowed me to do, I was impressed with the level of freedom I felt. Demonhead is broken down into numbered routes which can be selected at different intersections. The map features around 40 areas, and many can only be accessed by finding secret exits or pathways through some of the larger routes. Considering that Clash at Demonhead first came out in 1989, itís amazing to see a world thatís so open for exploration, especially if you have the tools for the job.

With the right items, Bang can traverse areas that appear to be impassable or even lethal at a first glance. Diving under the waves with the aqualung opens up alternate routes, hidden treasures, or shortcuts. Falling into a pit leads Bang into an underground path that leads back to the beginning of the area as opposed to the certain death found in other games. Even apparently dead ends may actually just be your cue to climb up a wall to find new challenges. The vast amount of traversal options makes Clash at Demonhead feel wide open when compared to most other games on the NES.

When it comes to actually making progress through the games story, that wide open feeling rapidly vanishes. Certain events will occur when Bang crosses a route, but only once he does so in an approved order. For example, itís impossible to get to one of the first boss levels unless Bang first runs into his friend Michael on route 3, which in turn leads him to a sprite on route 17 that opens the way forward. Many of the levels seem to exist only as throughways, but occasionally important events will occur within them, and I ran into many instances where I was constantly backtracking, trying to trigger the next event that would lead to a boss or cutscene.

I wouldnít have minded the aimless wandering if the action in Clash at Demonhead was unique or fun, but itís merely serviceable. Most of the enemies are little critters that move in erratic patterns and hop around just enough to become a nuisance. Bang canít aim his shots, which is a personal pet peeve of mine when it comes to side scrolling action games. I felt a great desire to avoid most of the enemies, but killing them is important, as they will randomly drop money and apples. The money is vital to progression, as the shop that Bang frequents not only sells cool gear like the jetpack and health items, but the micro recorder that spits out save passwords. Apples increase Bangís ďforceĒ, which fuels the special abilities he learns during the game, including a handy teleport for fast travel.

The game has less than impressive graphics, but great art design goes a long way toward masking that fact. The entire game is rendered in a very Ď80s anime style that was thankfully kept intact. The character sprites for Bang and the handful of allies he finds along the way are large and expressive, with Bangís huge mane of spikey hair a highlight. He has a large number of animations for a game of this time period, especially considering that his individual pieces of tech drastically change his appearance. The personality displayed in the design and animation for Bang and some of the larger enemies distract from the fact that the backgrounds are dull and lack the detail found in many other leading action games on the NES.

I just wish that the music had even a fraction of that charm and personality. The soundtrack for Demonhead truly grates, with no memorable songs to be found. Moreover, the soundtrack restarts anytime the screen changes. Considering how quickly Bang can move from screen to screen, this becomes enough of a problem that Iíd recommend putting this game on mute and perhaps throwing on some classic NES soundtracks in the background.

Even though it stumbles now and then, I think Clash at Demonhead is a game that people should seek out. It stands as a true example of forward thinking that was hampered by the technical limitations of the 8-bit era. Itís also gratifying to discover that this game is much more than just the source material for a winking in-joke in the Scott Pilgrim comic book.


AlphaNerd's avatar
Freelance review by Julian Titus (April 29, 2013)

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