Metroidvania Gaiden: Clash at Demonhead

Old videogames are often very strange, sometimes to the point of inscrutability. There's a very good and very simple reason for this, though -- ambitious game designers have been around far longer than the technology to realize their ambitions has. It's not like early developers were content to simply rip off Pac-Man all the time; for all the derivative software that's flooded the market since time immemorial, there have always been games that push the limits of technology in an effort to create new and innovative experiences. That's why the Atari 2600 was packed with games like E.T., or the NES with Bokosuka Wars -- they made perfect sense in their designers' minds, but something was lost in the translation to game code.

Clash at Demonhead isn't quite that baffling, but it's definitely an oddity in the history of the NES. The underlying concept is somewhere just this side of genius: an almost totally open-ended platform action game, driven (but not dominated) by a plot. The game itself, unfortunately, is a gentle trainwreck.

It just might be the best trainwreck ever, though.

Clash at Demonhead
[ Vic Tokai | NES | 1989 ]

Demonhead's developer, Vic Tokai, was never much of a creative powerhouse. Tokai's games were often charmingly ambitious, but they lacked somewhat in the polish department. Case in point: Demonhead, easily the best thing the company ever published, yet with graphics that were about three years behind the times, and shamefully janky play control.

As a result, Demonhead never quite reached the audience it really deserved. That's why I had to use a picture of rock band The Clash at Demonhead from Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3 for the header this time, rather than official game imagery -- apparently Scott Pilgrim is the world's only source of Demonhead-related art. Even if it's only tangentially related. I even had to create the game's damn Wikipedia entry myself, and everything has a Wikipedia entry.

Yet while the logical conclusion to draw from all of this would be that no one likes Clash at Demonhead and it was completely poopy, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's one of the NES's greatest cult favorites. And what fun is life if we can't draw conclusions based on a few limited personal experiences?

Demonhead is one of those games like River City Ransom or The Guardian Legend that always gets a few insistent votes whenever the subject of "best NES game ever" comes up. Like those other titles, it's one of the very few NES games that actually plays better now than when it was first released. The clumsy graphics and rough play control are a little jarring, sure, but it's easier to appreciate some of the game's more forward-thinking elements now than it was in 1989. Appreciating Demonhead's finer points requires a fair amount of determination to get past its quirks. But it's worth the trouble.

See, Demonhead is goofy. Its visuals are goofy. Its title is goofy. Its slightly epic story was goofy. Its box art is really goofy. And that intrinsic goofiness is a large part of why Demonhead is so enjoyable. (Except the box art, which is just shameful.)

Demonhead is best taken as a broad satire of anime conventions. The hero's design is straight out of the '70s, a little Rick Hunter, a little Captain Harlock, all the way down to his Roy Fokker-esque buddy Joe and the scar on his cheek. The plot is a convoluted fake-out despite the fact that there are maybe 50 lines of dialogue in the entire adventure. And when you finish the game, heroic Billy "Bang" Blitz proudly vows to use Science for Good, in the best ABC After-School Special tradition.

Unlike with, say, the Mega Man games, it never felt like the Vic Tokai guys took their creation too seriously. Where you couldn't help but feel that Capcom wanted you to be genuinely shocked that Mr. X was actually Dr. Wily with a bad false beard, Demonhead doesn't play anything straight. When Joe is killed, there's the usual angst about how Bang will come back to rescue him. But if you do come back for Joe, his health continues to degrade with each visit until ultimately he's little more than a skeleton who assures you that, yes, indeed, he is in fact quite dead.

And how seriously are you supposed to take a game where the in-game dialogue screens say TALKING TIME? Not damn very, that's how seriously.

I guess it's possible that I'm completely wrong about Demonhead's satiric elements, but you know, don't shatter my illusions. In any case, the game surely went over better in 1989 Japan than in 1989 America, where only a tiny number of Protoculture Addicts had the slightest clue what anime actually was -- and even they usually called it "Japanimation." If Demonhead sold maybe 10 copies in America, it must have sold like 30 or 40 overseas. Success!

Of course, there's also the matter of a little thing called gameplay; in Demonhead's case, it's pretty good. The hit detection is sloppy, the controls are odd, the power-ups a bit oblique, and there's plenty of backtracking in order to find the proper path. Other than that, it's great! In a subjective sense of the word "great," obviously.

Demonhead's structure is very unusual -- it consists of 43 "levels," which aren't start-to-end challenges in the traditional sense but rather open routes between junction points. As such, all but a few levels can be traversed in either direction, and once a route is cleared players can select their next route from the map select screen.

Bang himself doesn't really power-up too much. He can buy special gear from the shop on Route 5 (after a few visits, the shopkeeper proudly introduces his infant daughter to you), but these items are limited in use and each one is only necessary in a single spot or two. Continues are unlimited and exact very little in the way of penalties; any difficulty experienced in the game stems from its expansive design and the fact that NPCs give you a clue once and that's it. There's a great deal of wandering about involved in completing Demonhead, and since Bang never really grows in power the difficulty level is flat.

The highlights of the game are definitely the TALKING TIME sequences and the encounters with the completely bizarre boss characters. The bosses can be challenged in practically any order, and tend to be a little harder than necessary thanks to the control issues. It's a very open game, a style that's rarely been duplicated in a platform-style title; the Shaman King: Master of Spirits games for GBA do a completely mediocre job of it, though they lack the charm and insanity that makes Demonhead so unexpectedly brilliant.

For all its jankiness, Demonhead was packed with curious little details that more than made up for the poor animation. Evil panda-twin collective Pandar abducts Bang's ladyfriend and challenges him with a ransom note printed on a sheet of panda-art stationery. Bang himself is clumsily animated and awkwardly designed, but he has different sprites for each of his special costumes -- including portraits in the TALKING TIME boxes that reflect his current suit, and teary expressions of pain when the player causes him to jump headlong into a low ceiling. And the enemies are downright inexplicable, from the monkey/lion hybrid in a bowler cap to the ice-tossing yetis to the annoying demon guy who earthquakes your ass down the mountainside.

In other words: Demonhead may be technically lacking, but it's a lovingly crafted game, a daringly-designed adventure and a hilarious piss-take on anime clichés all at once. If you've already played Demonhead (and given a fair shot) I'm certainly not telling you anything you didn't already know -- but if you're new to the game, or did one of those "download every ROM ever dumped and give each one 30 seconds to win your affections" tours of illegality and wrote Demonhead off as another crappy slab of NES hackery, give it a shot. Look past the technical deficiencies, appreciate the retro-anime vibe... and take copious notes, 'cause there's a lot of backtracking, and not much hand-holding to coddle you through to the ending. With the right mindset, you'll be dazzled by one of the most original NES games ever made.

That's right, I said dazzled.

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