Bahd to the bone

But deliver us from evil, For thine is The Realm, And the axes and the faeries, For ever and ever, Ame… vikings.

*ahem*

Hewson’s 1989 puzzle-platformer, Stormlord, tells the tale of Rose The Faerie who once lived in peace and harmony in ‘The Realm’ with her fellow faerie guardians. Everything was peachy until wizened old crone, Queen Bahd, had a twisted brainwave; capture and imprison all the inhabitants, then sap the life-force out of the splendiferous hamlet of Llyn Cerrig to restore her own vitality to its former glory. That’s a lake in Anglesey isn’t it?

To save the day (and the faeries), a fearsome viking warrior known as Stormlord is drafted in. Airlifting him to safety, talons gripping his ripplingly muscled shoulders, Mael Dvin – ‘the great eagle’ – accompanies our protagonist hero on his treacherous quest.

Stormlord 2 rewinds the tape obliging us to rescue the faeries all over again, minus the looming threat of the repulsive ‘Black Queen’ (that’s not a racial slur, honest). As she was vanquished in the first outing, instead it’s her loyal followers who take up the faery-tormenting mantle… because they were inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth and now it’s considered an amusing pastime?

Porting part two to the Amiga was outsourced to Ziriax coder Peter Verswyvelen, graphician Kim Goossens, and First/Second Samurai designer/coder Raffaele Cecco. As Peter explains in his interview with Dan Waddington for Lemon Amiga, their interpretation threw the baby out with the bathwater, starting afresh with new graphics, sound and mechanics. All that was retained is the plot – really a rehash of Stormlord 1, and barely any different to that of the 8-bit sequel.

Incidentally Stormlord 1 was reviewed for Amiga Computing by ‘Mild Green’ who awarded it an outstanding score of 94%. Mild Green as in “mild green fairy liquid”? I suspect someone’s having a giraffe…

“Something terrible has happened in Fairyland. I mean to say, evil queens, incessant thunderstorms and various species of itinerant thugs and no-goods is one thing; a man can learn to live with that, but locking up all the cute nymph-like fairies in outsize bubbles is another bowl of washing up completely. Your mission, and Mr Stormlord’s, is to rescue said nymphettes and ultimately engage the wicked queen in battle for the party leadership.”

It emerges that subsequent to his victory in the first fairy-tale’s finale, Queen Bahd escaped rather than being slain as assumed. Now she’s back for vengeance… with the cavalry in tow. Bigger, Bahder and now with Beelzebub for backup! Llyn Cerrig’s faery guardians now find themselves imprisoned in Satan’s Palace. Reprising your role as Stormlord, guess what his mission is?

Hewson – resurrected as 21st Century Entertainment post-bankruptcy – published the game for the Amiga in 1992, along with its variants for the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and Atari ST. Yes, that’s right, 21st Century the pinball people from Blewbury, Oxfordshire.

Inline Software, Inc. were instead responsible for distributing the Apple Mac iteration, produced by an independent team, albeit recycling Kim’s graphics. Deliverance failed to make the transition to the Mega Drive as its predecessor had.

As you’ll discover if you read the interview artist Kim Goossens conducted with Amiga Lore, Hewson gave Peter and himself the green light to let their imagination run riot once they’d seen the off-plan concept art Kim devised. One of the few requirements of the brief was to preserve the continuity of their reasonably recognisable character. That said, the 16-bit interpretations of Stormlord 2 came to be known simply as Deliverance, dropping the subtitle entirely.

8 or 16-bit, Stormlord 1 is a visually impressive game given the era and limitations of the host platforms. Aloof, snarling, Deliverance picks up those restraints between thumb and forefinger, holds them at arm’s length for a cursory inspection, and flings them towards the crematorium’s gyrating flames in utter disdain.

Everything is magnified, brighter, bolder, more extreme. Seemingly represented by a dwarf in the 8-bit games, Stormlord is now a fearsome, battle-hardened soldier of the highest order. Our faery damsels in distress are hardcore too – patience not one of their virtues, they explode if we fail to liberate them quickly enough.

Pre-conscription Stormy was training to be a dental nurse. Old habits die hard. Graboids too.

In the absence of a soundtrack beyond the title screen, Bent Nielsen’s sound effects needed to resonate with voluminous presence… and they do. Stormlord’s every step pounds the stone floor like the footfall of a gruff, heavily armoured witch slayer on a mission. Which is apt. His swooshing axes carve up the atmosphere with the authority of a contract killer in melee mode, exploding in a thunderous ball of flames whenever hurled at ape-like grunting beasts. Roaring furnaces crackle frenziedly, emitting an almost palpable heat.

What’s clear from level 1 – set in Satan’s Palace – is that the evil overlord of the underworld is seriously into wardrobes. They’re everywhere you look. Not that he’s some kind of debonair fashion mogul – you won’t find any clothes in them at all. He doesn’t just ‘go commando’ underneath, he’s stark naked, full stop.

Never give up hope – you’re special someone is out there somewhere.

No, what he likes to store in his cupboards are keys to the multitude of doors segregating the quarters of his igneous stomping ground. What he didn’t factor in was Stormlord’s inquisitive nature and propensity to pilfer them (or jump out of his skin when alternatively all he finds is a deadly spider!).

Nope, Narnia’s not in this one. Next!

This is about as puzzley and cerebral as Deliverance gets – it’s an unadulterated, hack ‘n’ slash action game with no grander pretensions than dozens of similar traditional platformers. It’s closest correlative would be Gods; a game the developers openly admit to have been inspired by.

One area where Deliverance attempted to improve upon Bitmap Bros’ chart-climbing hit is in its approach to wayfaring; a notoriously problematic aspect of most 8-way scrolling platformers. Stormlord tackles the issue by deploying re-collectable markers to highlight points of interest he might want to revisit. How effective this turns out to be is debatable – I’ve never heard anyone speak of engaging these orbs, and as a kid I wasn’t even aware that you could press F1 to drop them.

Deliverance is much more of a dramatic spectacle than the ploddingly-paced Gods, not least where the gratuitous torture scene backgrounds and topless goddesses are concerned. These were considered sufficiently controversial at the time for the developers of the Mac version to censor them with green blood and bikinis respectively.

A similar step was taken with the Genesis port of Stormlord 1, also known for its scantily clad faeries. For any SEGA fans who couldn’t bare (!) to live without naked faery boobies there was the option to source the UK Mega Drive port as that was granted a reprieve from censorship.

“Brutally difficult to play, Stormlord has superb 16-bit graphics and at least two features that set it apart from other action-adventure games. Yet all that most video-game fans have heard about it is how the folks at Sega insisted that a naked female statue in the game be electronically clothed for the sake of decency.”

– Entertainment Weekly’s 75% review (21st June 1991)

Aside from adopting its demand for pixel-perfect jumping precision, the efficacy of Deliverance’s controls is also superior to Gods. You can actually jump straight up!

*Gasp!*

Where Gods excels is in the variety of weapons and adversaries. Stormlord swings his axe or slings the same axe through one of two arcs; near or far. And that’s it. No upgrades are available until you reach the fourth and final level where you can collect airborne cherubs to boost the potency of an entirely different weapon, which we’ll get to later.

In accord with Gods, Deliverance is ridiculously difficult and the game-play repetitive. A drawback not remotely alleviated by the commendable AI of your opponents, or measly three life allocation with no continues to fall back on. In the first game you had three times that, making you feel like an honorary cat… of sorts.

All you have here to stave off turning skeletal (check out your decaying avatar in the HUD) are health-restoring coins found scattered about the environment. Well, you can also just stand still to recuperate… if you have a spare eternity to forfeit.

Boss battles are equally impressive in either title. Gargantuan and inventive, though often minimally animated and harbouring a conspicuous weak spot, making the route to their demise all too predictable.

Ha!, made you flinch! You’re not a statue after all!

Less so in the first encounter, the dragon behemoth’s scaly skin disintegrates revealing his skeleton beneath. He could easily have pulled off a lazy vanishing act to keep things simple without straining the CPU, yet the extra mile was certainly travelled for art’s sake.

I’m not so sure the steam-powered whirligig hands boss armed with daggers works quite so well. It’s different, I’ll give it that.

Other welcome signs of attention to detail include the stone-carved gargoyle’s eyes glowing crimson to signal that a lethal arrow is about to enter from off-stage. A clever aid as well as a visually appealing touch. The faery in the HUD winking at us upon collection of each of her pals is completely pointless, yet equally satisfying.

I won’t lower the tone with constipation jokes. It hadn’t even occurred to me.

More critical to Stormlord’s progression (or lack thereof) are his foes, and some of those have a habit of stopping you in your tracks too. Especially in the Enchanted Forest where wooden log platforms spring to life as sentient serpent-like creatures whenever we approach. To pass over the unruly bridges they must be axed into submission, from then on lying flat and still.

Likewise, deceptively static branches break loose from trees, transforming into killer stick-men. It’s as if the Ents have gone rogue!

Not so compelling are the trunks themselves. They’re clearly digitised photos – ‘blended’ with more orthodox pixel art they stick out like a sore thumb, sabotaging the exquisite artwork seen elsewhere.

Peter and Kim mention in their interviews that they ran short of both time and money and thus had to compromise on their initial vision. This is a good example of one of the shortcuts they felt obliged to take.

Another notable one was the longevity of the game – originally it was to encompass 10 levels, constructed in just 6 months. Ultimately it was whittled down to 4, the final one a disappointingly hollow side-scrolling shoot ’em up in which you fly a mechanical pterodactyl rescued from an overblown insect captor at the end of the preceding level.

Meet the Pterominator!

This kind of abrupt shift has worked well enough in other platformers, usually as a bonus level. Here however it’s too rushed to be believable. Backgrounds scroll by so slowly it feels like you’re anchored to a cloud while enemies scoot by taking potshots at you. It’s an experience not too dissimilar to the Tomy Turbo Dashboard racing ‘simulator’. Far from a compliment!

What would you expect to find if you somehow made it to heaven and then travelled all the way to the end? Whatever you said, wrong! It’s a levitating half-human-Budda-half-jackal-hybrid – the Egyptian god of death and embalming, Anubis, I suppose. Except this rendition fires homing missiles and only his head is animated – another time-saver no doubt.

I can’t believe it’s not Buddha.

Always nice to brush up on your knowledge of ancient mythology while you obliterate the bad guys, although you do have to wonder what any of this has to do with snuffing out malevolent witch-queens or the devil. Maybe that was to be reserved for level 10 – one of 6 that only ever existed in the minds of the developers.

If that’s the case, the game was published half finished rather than abridged. Perhaps it would have made sense to construct levels 1-3 and 10 to at least fit the plot if that’s all time and resources would allow.

C64 Stormy squares up to Queen Bahd for the final showdown.

Sadder still, because Deliverance is harder than an Adamantium rottweiler I can’t imagine many people realised they’d been short-changed until the longplay was uploaded to YouTube in 2008 (congratulations Retroplay!). Then again, given that Stormlord 1 had no real conclusion either – simply looping back to the start upon completion of level 4 – it’s an entirely congruous way to wrap up the sequel.

Reviewing the game for Zero magazine in June 1992, the future Mrs Jonathan Ross, Jane Goldman, wasn’t sufficiently invested to care one way or the other. Her 72% assessment concludes…

“All told, Deliverance isn’t horrendously bad or deadly boring, but then it’s also several squillion light-years away from being ‘one more go’ fodder. Stormlord certainly had its faults, but it had oodles of charm and that certain something that had you coming back to it time and time again – two things that its sequel is sadly lacking.”

Speccy Stormy contemplates his next move. Can you hear the cogs grinding?

I should point out that Jane is known for much more than being the wife of Jonathan Ross and is very talented in her own right. Not just because it’s the politically correct thing to do, but because it’s also true.

In any case, I can’t say I’d argue too vehemently with her. Deliverance was no doubt prime bait for aesthetically attuned rubber-neckers at the time. In retrospect, however, the wow factor is short-lived, largely overshadowed by tedious, excessively onerous game-play with a ‘missing in action’ denouement. Despite its (caveat-ed) superiority to Gods, it’s Gods that steals all the headlines, seizing its dubiously earned place in the Amiga hall of fame.

2 thoughts on “Bahd to the bone

  • February 3, 2019 at 7:14 am
    Permalink

    A kind of story I like to read, good work 🙂 some time ago on Lemon Amiga forum was thread about Ziriax and I hear there similar story 🙂 I am not sure if nowdays any publisher would give developers a total freedom to turn one game into something else. While Deliverance might feel too short and bit rushed I still like it,
    controls and graphics are great point of that game. I also remember that in old press there were previews of Stormlord2 for Amiga.

  • February 4, 2019 at 2:52 pm
    Permalink

    I’ll have to look that one up. Sounds like it could be an interesting story to cover if it hasn’t already been done in depth. Yes, I think it made sense to upscale the game for the more capable platforms. Quite often we got exactly the same game on the Amiga as we did on the 8-bit platforms in terms of mechanics and design, just with better graphics and sound. A real waste of potential! I remember being blown away by Deliverance at the time, then I played it and realised it handled especially well too. Yep, they really went the extra mile.

Leave a Reply