Given its technical prowess it wasn’t at all surprising that the Amiga quickly emerged as the ultimate sacrarium for the audio-visual treats known as ‘cracktros’. The miraculous feats seamlessly executed by demos such as ‘Desert Dream’, ‘Jesus on Es’, ‘State Of The Art’ and ‘9 Fingers’ still baffle and enrapture fans of the scene to this day. Nevertheless, the one that made the greatest dent in my psyche growing up was ‘Shadow of the Beast’ released by Reflections in 1989.
In contrast to the vast majority of demos, Beast regales an uncondensed tale of intrigue that has been correlated with the work of the American fantasy author, John Crowley, and centres around supremely weighty themes such as suffering, slavery, sacrifice and revenge. It’s quite likely also the most expansive demo in Amiga history; the unabridged ‘longplay’ can be found on YouTube if you have a spare half an hour to kill. I don’t know which game this might have prefixed back then – it would have occupied dozens of disks!
“The first one was really just a technical demonstration of what the Amiga could do, and how pretty it could look.”
– Martin Edmondson, interview with Alan Boiston for Team VVV
In large part its success can be attributed to the lack of limitations levied on its architecture and aspirations. Foregoing the tradition of coding with a view to porting a presentation to every platform under the sun, Shadow of the Beast was created from the ground-up in the space of nine months, solely as an Amiga release, despite the Atari ST basking in an imposing 60% share of the market at the time. This precariously maverick approach meant it could play to the Amiga’s strengths and simultaneously suffer none of the compromises foisted upon it through the necessity of porting code from the technically inferior Atari ST. Almost as an afterthought, the Shadowy one was later translated to every conceivable platform from the ZX Spectrum to Fujitsu’s PC variant, the FM Towns, although by that stage the customary damage had already been (un)done.
The awe-inspiring – and often unprecedented – mechanical wizardry under the hood reads like the spec sheet of a high performance sports car. 2.2mb of luscious graphics, 900k of audio sampled from an industry-leading Korg M1 keyboard, no fewer than 13 distinct layers of parallax scrolling running at 50 frames per second to conjure the illusion of three dimensional depth in a two dimensional world, a colossal 350 scenes majestically illuminated by a staggering palette of up to 128 colours at once.
No wonder the initial run of 20,000 units sold out in three days! Peculiarly for a demo (which were often acquired through mail order for £1 a disk), Beast was offered as a beyond-retail price commercial release clocking in at £35, though for that you did get a poster and t-shirt in the double-sized box featuring original artwork by the legendary fantasy (and Yes/Asia prog rock album cover) illustrator, designer and publisher, Roger Dean. These collectables alone now sell on eBay for the cost of a small island resort, assuming you’re lucky enough to find someone willing to part with them. In fact, hunting down a complete boxed edition has become somewhat of a holy grail for retro gamers, second only to acquiring Roger’s ‘retreat pod’ chair design, which appeared in the movie, ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
Roger’s depictions of ‘Karamoon’ for the Beast cover art are a blend of science fiction and organic landscapes, which ironically developed from the foundations of reality. In his own words, “For almost every landscape I’ve painted, including the floating rocks I’ve done
so often, I can say where they came from in the real world. It’s about taking reality as a launch pad for ideas.”
On that note, believe it or not, the Delphian alien creatures he actually envisioned as ordinary, common-or-garden dogs. To me they were always a Mechano lizard-antelope hybrid and a decrepit veteran infantryman suffering from advanced kyphosis.
What I see as a beguiling tour de force, Roger himself isn’t particularly enamored with, instead favouring the cover he devised for the sequel. Art is all in the eye of the beholder it seems.
Other Psygnosis titles have proven to be equally popular amongst collectors, in large part owing to Roger’s radically unique and thought-provoking artwork. Roger’s design concepts will forever be inalienably entwined with the – sadly now defunct – publishers, not least because he also fashioned the iconic font and owl mascot for their lustrous metallic-fantasy logo. It’s the ex officio stamp of quality, in terms of presentation and style at least.
Reflections founders, Martin Edmondson and Paul Howarth are the multi-talented conjurors responsible for Beast’s programming as well as its striking visuals. Martin cites the inspiration for the ethereal panorama of the plains, hostile subterrane and unearthly sprites as the artwork of the fantasy and sci-fi illustrators, Rodney Matthews and Roger Dean. Many critics also note the parallels between Shadow of the Beast and the work of Swiss surrealist painter, H. R. Giger, in particular where it echoes the design concepts implemented in the movie, Alien.
The visuals as enchanting and atmospheric as they are, are comfortably equalled by David Whittaker’s mesmerising Vangelis-esque symphonic electronica soundtrack. Its constituent elements can lucidly be pinpointed as woodwind (with a heavy emphasis on panpipes) and percussion instruments, guitars and so on, yet all were sampled from a sole Korg M1 keyboard, and the synthesised output recorded at 20 kilohertz to ensure optimum quality. There are no fewer than 6 environmentally dynamic, distinct, ambient scores which further branch into sub-themes to imbue each immersive vista with a unique temperament and identity.
The demo itself leaves unanswered many questions concerning the plot. To fill in the blanks you have to turn to the manual.
As a child our protagonist, Aarbron, is kidnapped by the minions of the Beast Lord, Maletoth, and whisked off to the Necropolis temple where he is surrendered to the mages of darkness. Deep below the temple in the Chambers of Creation, Aarbron undergoes a savage metamorphosis by way of hypnosis, brainwashing and magic potions concocted from the blood of exotic animals, to become a hideous, yet powerful, agile and swift saturos hybrid wearing only a loin cloth to preserve his dignity. You’re kind of an ‘Altered Beast’, which is apt given what follows.
He emerges from Lacuna, Inc. as a warrior-messenger all set to dance to his new master’s tune. Regrettably for the humans of Karamoon it’s a Danse Macabre in that it entails their own sacrifice on the altar.
One day Aarbron is instructed to put a man to his death who he recognises all too late as his own father. His childhood memories come flooding back, overwhelming his senses, delineating the impetus for his revised raison d’etre; he rebels against the powers that be and sets off to avenge his father’s death and escape the enslavement of his mutated current form.
What ensues is a choreographed battle royal ballet starring Aarbron as the demi-hominid lead, aided by a gargantuan supporting cast of 132 villains, measuring up to an imposing 220 pixels by 150 pixels in stature.
Zombies, ghouls, insects, throbbing eyes, snails, lizards, demons, devils, spiders, bats and dragons all have their part to play, stalking the open wooded plains, lurking in the deep, dark recesses of the root-strangled caverns, or patrolling the claustrophobic acropolis. Aarbron’s journey of self-discovery sees him follow the breadcrumb trail through a pastiche of medieval to futuristic sci-fi-alien tableaus.
Curiously, the predictably patterned enemy routines invoke memories of the ghost of 8-bit games past, whilst the airborne jetpack scenes are almost a homage to Capcom’s 1988 coin-op arcade game, Forgotten Worlds.
The introduction and cutscenes are comprised of static images underscored with a succinct text narrative much like early text adventure games such as Infocom’s ‘Journey’ or ‘Dungeon Quest’ by Image Tech, that would light the fuse and leave the rest to your imagination. It’s a juxtaposition of retro and contemporary gaming themes that will leave you pondering which era you currently occupy. Particularly appurtenant given that the coders, Martin Edmondson and Paul Howarth, couldn’t decide either. What right does a Zeppelin blimp have to nonchalantly sail by in the background of an olde worlde fantasy realm like Karamoon? Which time-travelling magician gave rise to the jetpack and plasma rifle? (sampling its acoustics from the movie, Alien). Befittingly it does hammer home the notion that this isn’t an epoch or region we have ever visited.
Aarbron’s crusade for freedom and vengeance culminates in a frankly feeble assault on the foot of your nemesis of all things. Presumably Maletoth is attached to the other end, though you can never be entirely certain as this is the only part of his anatomy that will fit on screen. Given that little else makes much sense in Karamoon, he could quite easily be engaged with a disembodied appendage of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus variety.
Neatly sidestepping Maletoth’s behemothic foot and club, Aarbron slays the tyrant and restores his true human form. Martin and Paul clearly ran out of disk capacity by this stage seeing as they wrapped up the entire epic shebang with the every-expense-spared line of text, “Congratulations! You have freed yourself from the shadow of the beast!”
To fully appreciate how truly ground-breaking Shadow of the Beast was back in 1989 you only have to look towards the rival titles that would have lined the shelves of your local software haunt at the same time. Amongst the highest rated (according to their Lemon Amiga scores) are Maniac Mansion, North & South, Scary Mutant Space Aliens from Mars, Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, Stunt Car Racer, and Starflight. No doubt all fabulous (darling) in their own right, held up beside Beast’s trailblazing visuals and soundtrack, they appear primitive; embarrassingly they just aren’t in the same league.
No other tech demo comes close to capturing the essence of witnessing for the first time such preposterous computer-aided sorcery. The Beast grasped you by the throat, drip-fed you a meagre sliver of plot with a faint promise of exegesis should you choose to pursue its snare down the rabbit hole. It goaded you to relinquish control of your senses to its other-worldly, hypnotic allure. Resistance was futile.
Just imagine what might have been feasible had Reflections pushed the boundaries that little bit further, adapting Shadow of the Beast into a fully fledged, playable, joystick-thrashing, button-mashing game. We would have gobbled up the panoply like marble-starved Hungry Hungry Hippos. We can but dream…