It’s only forever, not long at all

Doyens of style, Reflections, aptly demonstrated the extent to which we can be emotionally manipulated by the harmonious presentation of a single static image framed with rousing complimentary audio. Their illustrious Shadow of the Beast II electric guitar solo death scene is the exemplary paragon. It’s an evocative artistic pastiche so notoriously effective you’ll know immediately the one I’m referring to.

On an equal footing is the serenely theatrical introduction Art and Magic hatched for their Amiga shoot ’em up, Agony, published by Psygnosis in 1992. Much like the Reflections scene, it’s deceptively simple, lacking any hint of animation, albeit drawn in the Amiga’s enhanced HAM mode.

A hauntingly mellow piano piece composed by Tim Wright augments the gravitas of a still backdrop depicting a mystical, desolate landscape. Norwegian black metal band, Dimmu Borgir, appreciated it so much they re-recorded the track, renamed it ‘Sorgens Kammer’ (chamber of sorrow) and released it as their own! You’ll find it on the original press of their 1996 album Stormblast. There’s no greater form of flattery, so the ancient aphorism teaches us.

Almost defying the absence of motion, a decaying, gnarled tree blazes before an ominously looming, umbrous mountain as the florid heavens burn in synchrony, overcast with an unnaturally crimson swell of clouds.

Curiously the overscan, half-brite tableaux has its foundations in reality; a photograph of a Redon sunset taken by Agony artist, Franck Sauer, from one of his previous homes. Redon is a ‘department’ of Brittany, northwestern France, should you be wondering. Flames were added later given that Redon hadn’t succumbed to an arson attack. These were replicated using the castle fire scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a reference.

Deluxe Paint III and oodles of creative expertise took it from there. You can read the complete story covering the game’s genesis over on Franck’s personal home page, as told by the man himself. Which makes me wonder why you’re reading my waffle on the subject.

Without singing, dancing or erupting with fireworks or pyrotechnics we immediately know we’re not in Kansas any more. Whatever was about to follow, it was imperative that it be exceptional to maintain this laden spirit of anticipation. Unfortunately, Marc Albinet’s scene-setting animated introduction proposed to accompany the game was entirely cut on quality and disk capacity grounds.

Before being axed by Psygnosis producer Steve Riding, a handful of magazine critics had the honour of judging the lost intro for themselves. Assuming they were reviewing the finished article Amiga Action reported, “As expected from any new Psygnosis product, there is an absolutely eye-boggling, brain-numbing intro sequence.”

It doesn’t sound like they had any qualms concerning the quality of this element of the game so perhaps Art and Magic (formerly ‘Ordilogic’, the team behind the technically and visually impressive Unreal) were being overly self-effacing. What is clear is why 1mb RAM is the minimum requirement for running this ambitious title. Believe it or not, that could be pivotal back then.

According to Franck, the intro’s inclusion would have obliged delivering Agony on four or five floppy disks, rather than the three ultimately settled upon. This would have made the proposition economically unviable had it been sold for the standard price of a premium retail release, i.e. £25. Actually, we know that plenty of 16-bit games were distributed on far more disks, so you have to suspect that eating into profit margins was the more pressing dilemma for publishers, Psygnosis. Business practicalities predominated, artistry was the casualty.

What became of the excised prologue? I was curious too so naturally put the question to Franck…

“Unfortunately I spoke with Marc a few month back about his intro and he was unable to find any of the original material. So probably lost forever I’m afraid. This is unfortunate and although I think it wasn’t totally finished when it was dropped from the game, he had a lot of material covered already.”

What transpired in place of a bona fide multimedia prologue sequence was a couple of lines of text superimposed over the title screen image. Not exactly elucidating the premise we’re informed that “Alestes (our protagonist) metamorphoses into an owl. The time to fight has come.”

And we’re off. It makes sense (kind of) if you study the manual first. Anyone with a pirate copy who hadn’t read any reviews would have been very confused. Then I don’t imagine that would have been a major consideration for the people investing their heart, soul, blood, sweat and cash into producing the game. And they certainly did – it’s a work of art!

Let’s unravel the plot together…

“Grand Master Sun Wizard, Acanthropsis stood on the crest of Bromire and sighed into the cool, morning breeze. For a few brief moments his steamy breath danced above his furrowed brow before being whipped away on the wind towards the dark and distant mountains of Krocott.

As the first rays of the sun brushed Acanthropsis’s wizened face, and bird-song announced the dawning of a new morn, he knew that this was the day he was going to die.

Staring at the welcome sunrise and drinking in its power-giving warmth, Acanthropsis couldn’t help but fear the inevitable. His mind replayed the last few fateful hours in haunting colours.

It was in the twilight hours of this very day, while he was working in his inner sanctum, that Acanthropsis discovered the power; the power that had been eluding him for so long: Cosmic Power.

Years of research and experimentation had at last come to fruition; but at what cost? He stood amid the mystical light of his mighty sorcery, watching it play on the dank, stone walls of this sanctum, and was in awe of the great power welling up inside him. He bathed in the light for what must have been hours, little dreaming of the cost.

Slowly, the memories faded and Acanthropsis looked once more on the mountains of Krocott and their now sun-drenched peaks.

He knew now that the price for such a discovery was his life but that he had to pass on his knowledge, before he died, to one who was worthy.

He thought of his two apprentices: Alestes and Mentor. Both greatly skilled in the art of magic and both equally deserving of Cosmic Power. The Grand Wizard would have to devise a test for his two understudies… and hope that one of them would fail.”

Obviously what he plumped for was transforming Alestes into an owl, daring him to fly the gauntlet; a mortiferous organic assault course devised by Mentor. It’s so bizarre you can’t help but suspend your disbelief and gleefully jump onboard. ‘Alestes’ is actually an African genus of fish, which isn’t especially relevant so I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Knock off the ‘s’ and we arrive at the classic Japanese series of top-down shmups developed by Compile and published between 1988 and 1993. That’s probably not especially germane either.

I have to say that naming an apprentice ‘Mentor’ is a tad awkward, though I’m sure we can live with it. Mentor translated from French is still Mentor so nothing was lost in translation. *Shrug*

In any case, it’s refreshing to read a game plot that can’t be casually diminished to ‘goodies versus baddies fight to the death’. I think I’d rather be Mentor given the choice. He gets to sit back, command an army of mutants and wait patiently for Aleste to fail. Mentor wins by default if Aleste loses. If he vanquishes all Mentor’s disciple minions Aleste will have to confront their master, weary and battle-scarred.

Nevertheless, there’s no time to ponder the ethics of inequality. A brief Louvre-quality panorama of tumultuous waves goaded into frantic hysteria by portentous skies supplants the inferno and we’re thrust unceremoniously into the breach. You can understand how the graphics alone occupy 3.5mb worth of disk space.

A jarring juxtaposition of thunderous Armageddon-infused orchestral music vies to keep pace with the rapturous onset of torrential rain. Jeroen Tel’s in-game soundtrack, the introductory piano piece by Tim Wright, intermission and finale music provided by some more of the industry’s leading musicians (Martin Iveson, Robert Ling, Martin Wall, Alister Brimble, Matthew Simmons) amount to 1.5mb of audio data. It’s tough to explain to anyone not familiar with the technology why back in 1992 this was considered a statistical PR slam-dunk. I won’t even try.

“The sound, frankly, is where it all goes horribly wrong for Agony. It opens promisingly enough with an exquisite piece of piano music which bears lengthy listening, but start the game and your ears assailed with what sounds like a hyperactive five-year-old wearing boxing gloves discovering the ‘orchestra stab’ effect on his big brother’s Casio keyboard. Later levels introduce the same effect but with bass drums and electronic bagpipes. Eek.

Psygnosis advertised the game as having ‘an exorbitant soundtrack’, and they were right – if they paid any money for all this stuff, they were done. There are a few sound effects in the game too, but as you will have the sound on your monitor switched off by this time, you will never hear them, so I won’t bother mentioning any more about them.”

Amiga Power (78%, May 1992)

Now the waves are alive, multiple crests and troughs jostling in all directions to escape some unseen menace beneath. I can’t recall witnessing waves that look quite this authentic in any other game of the era. ‘Mesmerising’ is the word I would have used to describe them back then, and they’ve stood the test of time.

Oddly the rowing boat in the foreground stays perfectly still while the frenzied waves billow and crash around it. Hopefully, that has been dragged ashore and so was resting on solid ground, rather than an oversight that someone forgot to animate.

Three layers of glorious parallax scrolling comprise the vista, creating a believable semblance of depth in an environment you have to keep reminding yourself is merely 2D. Trees, shipwrecked galleons and other vessels, fishing nets and rocks sweep by set against a seamless gradient copper effect backdrop lit by the ebbing light of an unearthly moon. Thanks to a variety of clever boundary-pushing techniques, up to 144 colours can be displayed on-screen simultaneously.

Whilst the scenery can seemingly monopolise the playfield, it’s purely there for aesthetic reasons of a window dressing nature. We can’t collide with it so have the entire screen at our disposal to manoeuvre within, making the game far easier than all those claustrophobic futuristic sci-fi shmups that channel the player into narrow passageways… and then smush you into a hard surface with a mechanical plunger of some kind. R-Type being the prime example.

We have six levels in all to conquer, each revolving around a different topological theme; mountains, sea, forest, highlands, and fire. Not at all unusual for a game of this genre, however, Agony’s day-night cycles, weather effects and animated backdrops do make it stand out from the crowd. Amongst the most notable Kodak moments are beauteous, gushing waterfalls, dinosaur skeletons, wildly swaying bridges…

…apertures in rocks that create a window to the world partially obscured behind, hysterically convulsing trees, eery, lingering colonies of bats, and more smouldering trees engulfed by raging wildfire.

Other background animations go a step further, edging towards discoverable Easter egg territory. If you can spot these whilst fending off Mentor’s pantheon of pliable puppets you’ll be familiar with…

  • The unicorn that is repeatedly struck by lightning, yet takes it all in its stride.

  • A fire-breathing dragon perched upon a rocky outcrop.

  • A He-man wannabe who summons the transference of supernatural power from the gods above… or perhaps from Greyskull.

  • A cheeky gravestone inscription that reads “Here lies the Bitmap Brothers 1989-1992”. I gather the tongue-in-cheek inference is that Agony is so stupendous it would be the death of Bitmap’s contribution to the shmup category i.e. Xenon I and II, and the developers themselves. It would be interesting to find out if they responded in kind. A war of pixels!

You don’t have to be overly observant to notice that Alestes appears to have broken loose from the Psygnosis logo to rise to Mentor’s challenge. This wasn’t a stipulation of Art and Magic working with the Liverpudlian industry icons, more of a mutually beneficial homage.

Its velvety smooth animation inspired by the opening scene from animatronic Bowie vehicle, Labyrinth, Aleste is a hypnotic wonder to behold. As the star of the show centrepiece, quite rightly the bulk of Agony’s animation frames are dedicated to the convincingly fluid flight path of our hero. A fitting tribute to the nocturnal Strigiformes known for their gracefully slow, silent flight… and being harbingers of death for many cultures!

Aside from his natural wing arc animation, Alestes respawns following death as a shimmering duel outline before fading gradually into his more full-bodied guise. On the same spot he died we should note. We’re never transported backwards to retrace our steps. Nobody needs that, it’s an irritating remnant of arcade games that seek to prolong our coin-munching relationship with the cabinets.

That’s how we re-enter the fray. Leaving it to begin with is equally spectacular. One hit and we instantly disassemble, our bones strewn in all directions. What’s left of Alestes de-materialises into an ethereal phantom before reforming to fly another day. I’m sure he’ll fly harder next time.

Turn Alestes into a demo scene presentation and this one sprite alone would have us transfixed by the tussle between talented artists and the limitations of early ’90s computer technology. What was remarkable about this era of technological evolution is that so often the developers won, coaxing the Amiga to accomplish things it didn’t know itself were possible.

Still, in Agony’s case, something had to give and that was the time and resources invested in the motion of the Roger Dean style enemy sprites. Incidentally, he was responsible for the Agony title font, though not the box art; a piece recycled from the Spectrum game Planet of Death provided by Tony Roberts. It also featured on the cover of Glen Cook’s fantasy novel ‘The Tower of Fear’, first published in 1989.

Many of these adversaries are composed of various shades of a single hue, and glide blindly across the scenery seemingly propelled by the wind rather than any frames of real animation that would suggest locomotion under their own volition. In most other, less refined Amiga games the glaring contrast wouldn’t be quite so apparent.

Is it just me or do those tree-houses look like two-faced witches?

 

Our rival apprentice’s army of conjured tormentors is an inventive assortment; quivering spectre blobs that regurgitate Bitmap Kid’s raspberry whirlwinds, flying goat-serpent hybrids that point at us like Adam as seen in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ Sistine Chapel High Renaissance ceiling painting…

…flying bugs, leaping fish, moon-walking pterodactyls…

…koala gremlins, and horse-faced super-fish with Popeye biceps.

“It seems that Psygnosis have finally got rid of the Beast-ghost and other ‘looks-pretty-but-where’s-the-game’ products. The screenshots will indicate the quality of the graphics, but thankfully there’s more to Agony than that, with fast-moving playability putting it on a level above the vast majority of similar games released on the Amiga.

Perhaps not a classic, it should still be given shelf space by anyone devoted to blasting games.”

CU Amiga (85%, February 1992)

Concluding each meteorologically themed world is an unholy mutant guardian. Up first is a water sculpture would you believe. Emerging from the sea contorting into an ephemeral swordfish tsunami it fires various sized ballistics, though in such a predictable pattern it poses little threat. Armed with a levitating sword satellite or two we only have to make continuous contact to hastily reduce its vitality and order it into a soggy grave.

Later bosses pose more of a hazard while by no means are unbeatable. There’s the tree-trunk torsoed rockman who lashes out with his morning star mace…

Michael Chiklis during one of his less Fantastic moments?

 

…a dragonfly tooled up with an unfurling, retractable, never-ending party streamer tongue, a boomerang-tossing bug-back rider…

…and finally our unlikely nemesis, Mentor, who under normal circumstances would be a fellow student.

Like the intro, the disappointing finale sequence equates to no more than a few lines of text superimposed onto another overscan static image.

“The spirit of Acanthopsis appears and gives you the scroll that reveals the secret of cosmic strength and world creation.

You will have to hide this mighty secret in a safe place to preserve the peace forever. The end.”

You’ll recognise it from one of the previous level interludes, minus the harpy and dragon. An immaculately hand-drawn, atmospheric masterpiece that deserves to be framed and mounted for all to appreciate. Funnily enough, you can do precisely that should you agree.

“I really liked the dramatic, orchestral soundtrack, and the difficulty level seems to be pitched just right – you’re hooked early on and left with an aching trigger finger. My only criticism is that there’s not a great deal of depth to the whole thing.

All in all, Agony’s a luscious, painfully fab game, but perhaps the best thing about it is the fact you don’t get a free Roger Dean t-shirt. (just joshing).”

Zero (87%, April 1992)

For an owl we’re surprisingly well equipped to take on the forthcoming apocalypse – typically we’d be hunting insects, other birds and small rodents such as mice and rats. Aleste begins with a modest plasma wave of some sort (owls don’t use echolocation), blasting out a single horizontal barrage. Only a limited number of these can occupy the screen at once so it pays to shoot opponents at short range if you can dodge out of harm’s way before being overrun. Owls being farsighted you might want to keep your specs handy!

Potions foraged from the landscape boost our firepower, expanding the scope of the default weapon, while harvested scrolls are deployed to cast spells. Activated by holding down the fire button, or pressing space to bring up a selection menu, we have a fair range of options at our disposal; plasma shields, rotating fireballs for defence, smart bombs, an enemy-freezing gadget, black magic seekers (aka homing missiles), temporary invulnerability, and backwards/reverse fire.

Unless we switch to space bar spell mode, the obligation to hold down the fire button prevents us from auto-firing without a designated joystick function. Getting a handle on rapid-fire freedom becomes all the more critical when you realise that Aleste can only endure a single hit before nosediving to the ground minus his bag of bones.

With five lives and three continues to spare, coupled with backtrackless respawns, it’s not lifespan per se that will hinder us. With each death our weapons are downgraded a notch, leaving us vulnerable when the party starts to get overcrowded. Not least alleviated by our wide wingspan and therefore large hitbox.

“You keep your finger held down on the fire-button, waggle the joystick around and occasionally cast a spell. There’s no excitement, no addictive qualities whatsoever and at the end of the day no game. You would have thought that Psygnosis had learnt its lesson after Shadow of the Beast and Shadow of the Beast II, but no, all the ironically titled Agony seems to be is a £26 demo that looks like a peacock but plays like a stoat.”

Amiga Format (60%, June 1992)

Partly due to the superb, reliably responsive handling of Alestes with no ‘congestion drag’ courtesy of programmer, Yves Grolet, even less able shoot ’em up dabblers should stand a reasonable chance of completing Agony with a bit of practice, which is a mixed blessing I suppose. It’s a very short game once you’ve memorised the low IQ AI attack patterns and discovered the spells menu; a caveat that raised doubt over the question of value for money amongst some critics.

“Well, it is not as good as Apidya, but then that was obvious from the start. But then, I thought the same about Project X – I really was not expecting this to come anywhere near it. Certainly, that is much more of an arcade game, and intro aside it stomps all over Agony sonically. Graphics-wise, Project X is big and bold and has more variation than Agony, but for the parallax and between-level scenes and general sheer prettiness of it, Agony comes out comfortably on top.

And as for gameplay, Project X has more to it, but it is not the one I have been playing the most. In fact, it is still lying in the corner where I threw it in a furious tantrum after yet another bout of independent power-up selection screwed up my chances of reaching the third level again. Agony won’t ever leave you sweating and breathless, but it will make you feel good, and only you can decide which of those things is most important to you personally. Me? Well, I am not quite sure. I hate to admit it, I really do, but think I can feel a bit of a cop-out coming on…”

Amiga Power (78%, June 1992)

Supporting two floppy drives with an additional HD install option, long load times needn’t be a bugbear. Especially given the treat that awaited each intermission; another exquisite landscape image accompanied by some of the most enchanting melodies ever to have emanated from an Amiga.

In terms of gameplay, Agony wouldn’t have caused Irem too many sleepless nights. Held aloft next to the competition it’s mechanically rather limited, repetitive, predictable, and a push-over for battle-hardened shmup fans. Yet it was critically acclaimed, counteracting the derision. Agony received scores from 60% to 93%, sold in the region of 20,000 copies, reaching no. 34 in the sales charts in May 1992, and is fondly remembered by many retro gamers today despite these drawbacks. It currently clocks in at 7.73 out of 10 based on 237 votes at Lemon Amiga, placing it above R-Type II, but not R-Type, Apidya, Disposable Hero, Silk Worm or Project-X. Look upon it as an ‘experience’, a sublime expression of artistic flair and it’s a totally divergent, triumphant proposition. One that flaunts the astounding capabilities of the Amiga – and those of the gifted developers who were able to harness its potential – as succinctly as Shadow of the Beast.

Piloting an owl (as much as a bee) and the Psygnosis mascot, in particular, remains a novelty all these years later. My only regret is that we weren’t able to steer the elegant pioneer well clear of Sony when they made their unrefuseable buyout offer back in 1993. Rest in peace Psygnosis.

3 thoughts on “It’s only forever, not long at all

    • May 31, 2019 at 8:11 am
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      Cheers, always nice to hear it’s appreciated. 🙂

      Great find! I hadn’t come across this site before now, and those sketches aren’t included in Franck’s article. If it turned out that a fully animated intro was going to be too ambitious, still images extracted from it with annotated text might have been the next best thing.

      • May 31, 2019 at 12:33 pm
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        I find it by accident some long time ago, those sketches were found by Marc Albinet in his basement probably also by accident 🙂

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