[This article was written as part of the Make a Wish Week Amigathon. Donations are now being accepted to help fulfil the dying wishes of terminally ill children.]
Sounding more like the name of a developer outfit rather than a game, Devious Designs from Image Works is what happens if you forget to remove your copy of Tetris and Spiderman from your teleportation booth before projecting into the unknown. I’d wager you won’t have played anything quite like it before.
You take the role of super-suave and sophisticated 007 impersonator J.J. Maverick whose mission it is to push, pull, drop or chuck a range of Tetris style blocks into a translucent grid to populate a predefined formation. At which point the blocks flash and vanish from the scene rewarding you with the vista of an exquisitely drawn backdrop – kind of like a platform-puzzler advent calendar, only without the chocolate.
What on earth for you may well ask? Not for the good of your physical or mental health that’s for sure! Albeit splendidly executed, the dystopian Bladerunner-esque animated introduction alone doesn’t offer too many clues. I’ll let the manual explain your unique predicament:-
“Dr. Devious, the world renowned abstract scientist, has gone insane! No one really minded when wild geometric cloud formations appeared over his laboratory, however, there were a few objections when the Pentagon became a square and the Kremlin was cubed!
Dr. Devious’ obsession stems back to his acquisition of a cubist painting by Picasso which he hung in his laboratory. He was so inspired by this painting that his love for geometric forms became obsessive. Then, one morning, a sinister idea leapt into his mind, he would invent a machine that could cube the Earth!
But before he can implement his plan, he has to experiment, so he tests his machine on world famous structures and objects. When he is satisfied with his machine he intends to proceed with his evil master plan.
You play J.J. Maverick – the only person that can stop the Doctor cubing the World!”
Huey Lewis would have said “it’s hip to be square” and let it slide. Apparently we’re not singing from the same hymn sheet, preferring our landscapes just the way they are. Well it makes a refreshing change from rescuing your stereotypical girlfriend from a stereotypical gang leader villain who lords it over a stereotypical derelict New York suburb set in a post-apocalyptic climate of despair.
Conceived and designed by Scottish double act, graphician, Bob Stevenson, and coder, Peter James Baron, with music courtesy of Martin Walker, Devious Designs was published by Mirrorsoft and released for the Commodore 64, Atari ST and Amiga in 1992. Despite benefitting from the backing of a major publisher, it remains an obscure title few people have heard of.
Ramping up the challenge, you’re not only up against a strict time limit, but also an array of the Doc’s peculiar flunkeys who try their damnedest to thwart your attempts to de-cube the wonders of the world for future generations of snap-happy Japanese tourists.
Armed with a fireball blaster contraption you go about your block rockin’ business bumping off dragons, grim reaper tornados, Cossack dancers, and stomping Gozer dog-goblin creatures as and when they get under your feet, yet the main focus is always on plugging the gaps like a jigsaw puzzle.
Nevertheless, certain levels offer some cranial respite in that you’re only tasked with catching individual blocks as they rain from the heavens. Each one intercepted slots neatly into an empty space in the frame, for example to bridge a gap allowing safe passage.
“Devious Designs has a simple plot, a simple aim and, what with the clues to the different strategies you need to employ, you don’t have to use too much brain power – ruthlessness with your joystick is far more effective. So, unless you have real concerns about the future of the spherical earth, Devious Designs isn’t likely to keep you interested beyond a couple of hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon. In a nutshell, in fact, you’d have to be a real square to want to play this.”
61% – ST Format (March 1992)
Blocking your progress, so to speak, as you plough through the 59 thematically and geographically shifting levels of intensifying difficulty, you’re allocated a modest 6 lives, and have a ticking clock and ‘hurry-up’ demonic cloud, fiery face or droning Dr. Devious to contend with if you happen to take too long to solve a puzzle. At least by way of consolation, unlike many of these clock-watching foes you may have encountered in other games, this one isn’t invincible. Even if you manage to dispatch these pests, however, the time pressure persists… run out of sand and it’s Goodnight Vienna!
Dr. Devious’ boxoid terror knows no bounds and thus you’ll find yourself trotting the globe to all the major countries recognised for their associated monuments and cultural icons that can be safely crowbarred into a puzzle game without bursting at the seams. In Germany, for instance, you’ll find yourself unveiling a Volkswagen Beetle, a Yin-Yang symbol in Japan, a double decker bus in London, a gondola in Venice, the Statue of Liberty inside the Big Apple (literally), and an elephant-sized Big Mac in Hollywood.
Salvador Dali and his ‘Persistence of Memory’ surrealist masterpiece make an impromptu cameo appearance in the Spanish arena, while in Paris the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile can be spotted lurking in the background. In the Arctic where you begin your journey you’ll find an igloo sequestered away behind the grid of blocks, a computer monitor in the Japanesy chips and circuitry themed mission, a Parthenon inside Atlas’ shoulder-mounted globe in Greece, and the Kremlin nestled between conjoined Tetris pieces in Russia. Naturally in Australia everything is upside down and a kangaroo is your prize for solving the cuboid conundrum.
After every 10 levels, the game decides it’s not a puzzler after all, but a single screen shooter as it upscales the sprites and pits you against Dr. Devious himself. Seemingly having modelled himself on a malevolent reinterpretation of Einstein, he jets around his playground in a rocket-propelled armchair dropping bombs left, right and centre. Blast him enough times and he’ll eventually keel over, releasing a clone of himself to return afresh to couch potato another day.
Right before you thrash your head against the ill-fitting block that broke the camel’s back in sheer frustration at some of the fiendish joystick-wrangling puzzles, it’s worth remembering that Lemmings-style password screens complete with cryptic level names are interspersed between the stages to offer you the means to return to your current state of progress at a later date, so you don’t have to leave your computer switched on indefinitely. Quite a relief considering how many levels there are at your disposal.
“Each level has a distinctive background and soundtrack appropriate to the part of the world the cubed object comes from, and the objects themselves, once completed, are superbly drawn. The variety of levels and the relief provided by the shoot ’em up sections makes Devious Designs worthy of a place in the collection of anyone who enjoys brain games.”
87% – The One (December 1991)
Joystick controls are relative to the orientation of your super-spy protagonist so left can be down if you happen to be walking up the left hand side of the screen, or up if you’re hanging from the ceiling. Suitably, jumping will propel you outwards in the opposite direction to the platform on which you’re standing, and back left, right, up or down again to the ground. Which reminds me, I must read ‘Falling Sideways’ again at some point. Farcical, fantasy sci-fi nonsense at its finest.
Yes, depending on the particular gravity physics of any given level, you can climb the platforms every which way (and loose), hence the allusion to Spiderman at the beginning of this review. Perhaps the similarities between the acrobatic agility and animation of Maverick and Peter Parker should come as no surprise given that coder Pete Baron was simultaneously working on ‘Spiderman: Return of The Sinister Six’ for the NES. Any adventitious (or deliberate) Marvel-ous ‘leakage’ was certainly fortuitous for Devious Designs.
Bullfrog’s Flood or Globdule from Ex Animo would be another relevant corollary. This sticky wall mechanic isn’t merely a gimmick; aligning yourself over an empty part of a grid allows you to drop blocks precisely into position in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible, or wipe out baddies from a safe vantage point untouched by their reach.
One of three modes will be active during play; walking, grabbing or carrying. Which one is in effect is determined by your proximity to the available blocks at any given moment. Away from the blocks the fire button shoots your weapon, while standing adjacent to – or on top of – a block it’s used to pull, pick up and release them. It’s even possible to stand on certain blocks and pull them through mid-air simultaneously.
Power-ups periodically descend from the skies to offer a helping hand and vary the gameplay dynamics. These can encompass bombs, faster shots, extra red-dotted blocks to automatically fill in gaps in the matrix (though also destructible if they become a hinderance), 1up mini-JJs, dynamite to clear the screen of assailants, and extra time.
“Enjoyable, more challenge than Anneka Rice, and excellent graphics – a worthy reward for struggling through the levels. Yes, it is eccentric, esoteric and some other words beginning with ‘e’ and ending in ‘ric’. But the 50 levels there are take so much playing, the hair-pulling factor is never less than enormous and you so won’t stop playing it for hours – if the joystick doesn’t go through the monitor first. The best puzzle game to appear on the ST for ages.”
82% – Atari ST User (February 1992)
If you’re a fan of action puzzle games and exist in an alternative parallel universe where Lemmings hasn’t been invented, Devious Designs is right up there with the best of them. It’s original, boasts dazzling pixel art visuals, beautifully smooth, quirky, Sensible style ‘micro-men’ animation, and a medley of theme-appropriate music to acclimatise you to the diverse assortment of destinations.
It’s tightly assembled, and the controls are dependable and well considered, which explains why Pete still earns a living as a busy games programmer since emigrating to New Zealand in 2006.
Where it comes apart at the seams somewhat is in its lack of gameplay variety. Once you’ve mastered the off-the-wall (hoho) control mechanics and got over the novelty of blending Tetris with James Bond, you may well discover that your motivation to keep progressing dissipates exponentially.