When we think of jaw-dropping graphics squeezing every last bit of power out of the hardware of their particular generations, it's easy to think of the likes of Shadow of the Colossus and FFXII on the PS2 or Donkey Kong 64 or Battlefield 3 or Heavy Rain and so on and so forth. But back in 1989, you needed an Amiga if you wanted to play the best looking games, and there was one publisher in particular who could be relied upon to provide gamers with a retina-popping spectacle.
That publisher was Psygnosis, and perhaps their greatest early triumph came in the form of Reflections Interactive's Shadow of the Beast.
As Jon will no doubt talk about in greater depth in this weekend's Why We Love..., Psygnosis' formation was geared towards helping the best indie games out there find a home at retail. Remember, this was a time long before Steam, the PSN, or Xbox LIVE, when games were still very much a niche part of the entertainment sector rather than the industrial cultural powerhouse it is today. Marketing was everything: you had to make your game pop on the shelf, and you had to fill the box with interesting materials.
So along trotted this game that cast you in the role of a man named Aarbron, a poor chap who was kidnapped as a child, and transformed by the incredibly evil Lord Maletoth into a beastly warrior-slave through nefarious magical means. One day, Aarbron watches, powerless, as a man later identified to be his father is executed by Maletoth, triggering something of a memory flashback. Breaking his chains and seeking escape, Aarbron swears revenge on Maletoth for all that he has done, and sets off on a side-scrolling action-adventure to kick some serious ass.
First and foremost, Shadow of the Beast gave Amiga owners what they'd be crying out for: a game that really pushed 16-bit power and showed off what the Miggy could do. The Amiga 500's release was met with a veritable swathe of cheap 8-bit conversions and recycled cash-ins. Put simply, Shadow of the Beast blew them all away. One of the first games to throw layer upon layer of intricate parallax scrolling into the mix, it could feature up to twelve layers moving at different speeds, adding a greater sense of depth to the 2D proceedings. You can check out some of the coding tricks that the developers used by clicking here.
Of course, it helped that everything looked fantastic too. The backgrounds were extraordinarily detailed, the player character's animations was utterly sublime. Enemies were incredibly varied, and often vast in size, decked out across a colour palette that used the full spectrum to deliver a beautiful game that constantly dazzled and surprised the eyes. Not that it stopped with mere sight - David Whittaker's atmospheric soundtrack had an almost New Age, tribal feel to it, with pan-pipes and layered percussion driving the game forward in exceptional quality for the time.
Sadly, though, Shadow of the Beast was an utter bastard to play. Old-school games were hard, but this took the piss even back in the late-Eighties. The game gave off the illusion of offering the player multiple routes through it levels, but generally one would discover that the game was fairly linear. If you went off the beaten path or had neglected to fully explore a certain area, you'd more often than not come up against a blocked path or a locked door, only to find that the sole way through required you to pick up an item an hour or so back. Bereft of the ability to return, you'd basically just have to start that whole chunk all over again.
Only having twelve lives was something of an issue as well, although some of the ports upped the number to 25. Combat was fairly straightforward, but the odds were often frequently stacked against you as the screen flooded with foes, and those twelve lives rapidly disappeared. Powerups could replenish the number, but they were few and far between. To make matters worse, if you lived in North America and had bought the SEGA Genesis version of the game, the 60 Hz refresh rate that the system forced upon games caused the shoddy port (which hadn't been altered to compensate for the shift from 50 Hz) to run nearly 20% faster, creating one of the hardest games ever made. Ever! To be fair to the game, though, it could have been much worse; it's sequel had insta-fail puzzles that forced you to start the entire game again if you screwed up the first time around.
But brutal games invariably attract those of a stubborn disposition. The fiendishly difficult becomes a barrier that must be scaled, and so Shadow of the Beast and its sequel, rather in the manner of From Software's Souls duo, sold pretty well indeed. Much of that would have been down to Psygnosis.
Psygnosis did a number of things to make the box stand out on shelves. The first order of the day was getting Roger Dean - the fantasy artist responsible for the cover art of a number of bands' albums, including Yes! - to do the box art. The second was slapping the biggest price tag that Amiga software had seen on it. At £35, Shadow of the Beast was one of the most expensive packages out there (remember this was back in 1989). Eager gamers could delight in the t-shirt that came inside the box, sporting the box art on their chests, but even so it was something of a premium rate.
A benchmark game, then, but a rather flawed one, Shadow of the Beast was the sort of game that you showed to a friend to make them green with envy. As someone who first started gaming properly on the Mega Drive and never owned a SNES or C64 or Amiga, I was just happy to be able to play arcade releases in my living room. even then, however, the home cmputers were forging ahead, putting other platforms to shame, and delivering where it counted. A glance at Battlefield 3 today tells you that not much has changed really.