“First, there was Menace… Now, Psygnosis presents… A DMA Design game… BLOOD MONEY!!!”
…is the legendary opening volley of digitised, sampled speech, which left you in no doubt as to what you were about to play… or read my review of. All very conducive information if you happened to have inserted a disk into your Amiga completely at random, or you’d bought a shoebox full of unlabelled floppies at a car boot sale I suppose. Thanks guys!
Blood Money is the cutesy, multi-directionally scrolling shoot-em-up sequel to Menace and was released for the Atari ST, Amiga, Commodore 64 and DOS platforms initially in 1989. As you’d expect for a Psygnosis release, the presentation is slick, the graphics and animation stylish, and the sound polished within an inch of its life, but does it have game-play to match? Read on to find out…
“No!”, is the bottom line. I realise we’re busy people, and time is money!
If you enjoyed Irem’s Mr Heli you’ll feel right at home here. Programmer, David Jones, admits this was the ‘inspiration’ for his second game for DMA, but speaking candidly, is that really the right word for it? Blood Money is fundamentally Mr Heli without legs.
Even so, cutesy helicopter-based shmups were a novelty back then (as they are now come to think of it), so this still felt like a new twist on an already crowded genre filled with R-Type clones.
Of course, appearances can be deceptive so don’t be fooled; Blood Money is no cakewalk despite the quaint visuals, and Ray Norrish’s sublime, melancholy, chill-out trance mix soundtrack.
The game encompasses four sprawling levels set around disparate themes (air, water, ice and fire), which you can choose to tackle in the order of your preference to a certain extent, depending on the state of your finances given that visiting some planets is more expensive than others.
Buoying the variety factor, each switch of scenery brings with it a different mode of transport; helicopter, submarine, space suit or fighter jet. Each of these vehicles comes equipped with unique attributes and weaponry, and they can be further upgraded with power-ups such as bombs, reverse missiles, multiple warheads, and shields, which you can purchase from various death-dealing emporiums dispersed throughout the landscape.
Alien butchery doesn’t come cheap; to earn enough money to fund your quest, you must slaughter everything in your path. As the E.T.s shuffle off this mortal coil, they relinquish coins which you are free to collect to swell your blood-soaked coffers. You’ve deposited your cast-off clothes and shoes at ‘Cash 4 Clothes’ and been remunerated at £5 a kilo, right? Well ‘Cash 4 Kills’ operates along very similar lines, hence the name, ‘Blood Money’. Strangely enough, no-one seems to knock on my door asking if I have any alien cadavers I no longer need, so maybe there’s a gap in the market for me. Ka-ching!
While the action isn’t frantic, congeneric to an arcade, bullet-hell blitz shooter, the difficulty curve is as steep as Canton Avenue, Pittsburgh. This is somewhat a result of the game being so claustrophobic; once you factor in all the obstacles encroaching on your personal space, the effective play area is minuscule, so you’re required to make snap judgements, execute them immediately, and with impeccable precision if you’re to avoid incineration.
It doesn’t help your cause when you consider that mere contact with most adversaries and inanimate objects alike will snuff out your lights instantaneously. This is despite the game incorporating an energy bar that suggests life and death may oscillate on a sliding scale.
That very astute, weirdy-beardy bloke hit the nail on the head when he wrote in the bible, “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to make any progress in Blood Money”. I may be paraphrasing somewhat.
Correspondingly, it’s not always entirely clear where the backdrop ends and the foreground begins, causing you to either take evasive action unnecessarily, or perish hurtling headlong into an outcrop of rock.
Whenever you kick the bucket, you lose all your hard-earned power-ups, though luckily you don’t have to endure the double humiliation of starting the level again from scratch.
The game is infinitely more fun when you chuck into the mix an extra human player, though I’m not entirely sure how much easier co-op play makes the game given that it introduces the added dimension of squabbling over limited coin collectables. Surviving the four leviathan stages hinges upon snatching enough moolah to be able to upgrade your weaponry. Slice the available resources in half and evidently you also slash your budget in half.
“Blood Money is synonymous with that intro, the one with the pumping dance anthem, sampled digital speech (all 250k of it!) and treacherous asteroid field encounter animation. The one you still cite obliquely from time to time amongst your non-techy friends and colleagues, who assume you’re two blades short of a rotorcraft.
The second biggest unanswered question is, “why does your ship seem to seek out the asteroids like a magnet rather than taking evasive action?
For those of you down under, they may assume your “biggest unanswered question is, where is the dunny?” and helpfully point you in the direction of the nearest restroom. Pair that with “there’s a whole lot more coming” and they’ll either escort you there themselves post-haste, or duck for cover!
For any trivia fans, the “where is the money?” sound-bite was lifted from a news broadcast that took place during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in light of one of his many political scandals hitting the headlines; the November 1986 Iran Contra Affair. The same news snippet is sampled in Earth, Wind and Fire’s track, ‘System of Survival’.
The origins of the line, “there’s a whole lot more coming”, and the female voice that lends the “yeaaaah, yeaaaah” interjection aren’t clear, though the same samples appear in Cosmosis’ 1998 track, ‘Pigs in Space’, and Epic MegaGames’ 1992 DOS title, ‘Jill of the Jungle’ respectively. Most likely they were taken from a stock sound samples library disc.
The other speech sample heard in the introductory animation, “oi you, shut your mouth and look at my wad” doesn’t seem to be so fondly remembered. Do people miss it? Is the reference so obvious people automatically know where it’s from?
Whatever the case may be, they are the words of a fictional caricature known as ‘Loadsamoney’, a comedy creation devised by British comedian, Harry Enfield, and first unveiled on Channel 4’s ‘Saturday Live’. Astonishingly he went on to release the 1988 no. 4 chart hit, ‘Loadsamoney (Doin’ Up The House)’, and milked it senseless with a live sell-out tour. That did happen, honestly!
The underlying ‘Hit It’ composition was sampled from the beginning of the 1988 Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock track, ‘It Takes Two’.
We have British artist, Peter Andrew Jones, to thank for the box art illustration; it’s an adapted variation of that devised for the 1973 novel Protector by Larry Niven.
Ray Norrish’s in-game music track was included without consent in the 1995 Amiga game, ‘Tower of Souls’, developed by Parys Technografx.
The AT-AT-esque adversaries that appear early on are brought to life by Tony Smith with a whopping 18 frames of animation and became the inspiration for one of DMA’s later Amiga games, Walker.
Blood Money was also released for the Atari ST, DOS and Commodore 64 platforms, and several notable variations exist between the ports. The C64 game incorporates a simple loading screen game to keep you amused while you wait for the main event, though the option to select the order in which you tackle the levels has been cut.
The DOS port includes no music, only primitive sound effects, where the Amiga version features both, though only one or the other can be selected at any given time. Ordinarily this would be seen as a major failing, here it’s a bonus as the same track is repeated throughout the entire game so will have you tearing your ears off in frustration if you don’t opt to mute it. Likewise, the C64 version is a one-tune wonder and you can’t engage sound effects and music simultaneously.
The Atari ST interpretation dispenses with the Amiga’s iconic asteroid field sequence, runs more slowly and Ray Norrish’s acoustic masterpiece has been switched with a very poor substitute composed by Paul Tonge.
The difficulty level was drastically ramped up for the Amiga version ensuring it earnt every ounce of its reputation as a ‘Marmite’ game. Furthermore, it showcases an advanced colour palette and makes use of a blitter rather than hardware scrolling to ensure sprites are drawn quickly.
If you didn’t get round to reading the manual when you first played Blood Money, or weren’t in possession of one because you were a dirty rotten pirate, you may have missed the crux of the premise.
You’re not laying your fragile life on the line, blasting aliens to save humanity from some nefarious doom-monger, or to rescue a beloved damsel in distress.
Instead you play as the bored Venusian oik, Spondulix (19th century slang for money as it happens), who having tapped a wad of ‘bread and honey’ from Mummy and Daddy, jets off to the holiday planet Thanatopia to seek thrills and (blood) spills by embarking on an intergalactic safari hunt… while punters pay to watch the carnage on the satellite TV channel, ‘ASP’.
I’m having flashbacks of a muscly man in colourful, skin-tight lycra running, running, always running. I can’t fathom why, I’m sure it will come to me.
I’ve studied a bit of economics so I’m in a prime position to impart a nugget of wisdom here. Any theme park that hails killing off its guests as its USP should probably seek to re-evaluate the core concepts of its business model. There, you can have that one for free.
None of this is spelt out in the game’s opening preamble so could potentially strike you as a clever plot twist. It does make you wonder though why DMA didn’t keep it under wraps entirely. It would have made a gratifying Easter egg of a reward for dedicated gamers who have suffered (and I mean suffered) through to the bitter end.
For those of us who had done our homework, or knew a die-hard shmup aficionado who had already beaten the game, the punchline would have landed with all the impact of a joke you’d penned yourself.
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t such a shot in the foot for DMA. When your game is harder than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson attending a nail-eating convention, togged up in an Ironman cossie, who is ever going to witness this denouement to discover whether or not it’s a worthy finale?