Mash of the sprite-ans

If as a kid you were gripped by the silver screen, stop-motion interpretation of Perseus’s savage-slaying, princess-rescuing pursuits, you may be interested to know that in 1991 Gremlin had a shot at recreating his adventures for the two main 16-bit gaming platforms of the time.

Drafting in Optimus Software (of Dizzy/Seymour fame) to convert the Greek mythology, they didn’t go so far as acquiring an official movie license. Why would you when you could produce a title based on the same characters with no such expense or legal complications? No-one owns the copyright to stories as old as Methuselah after all, and it’s Perseus we wanted to be, not actor Harry Hamlin. Zeus might have made a useful consultant, though he was tied up with a prior engagement, unfortunately.

 

We (or just me?) longed to tame the winged, immortal wonder-horse, Pegasus, and soar into the sky to do battle with the Kraken hellion from the deep.

To learn the secret of its weakness from the Stygian witches and put its Kraken’s heel to the test. Petrify its impenetrable flesh with Medusa’s decapitated head until it crumbles to harmless dust, washed away by the lapping waves beneath. Ultimately to free Andromeda and marry the beautiful damsel in distress.

En route to the final encounter, we daydreamed of duelling with giant scorpions, slaying the twisted satyr-like creature, Calibos…

…and Medusa’s double-headed canine guardian, Dioskilos, before confronting the serpent-infested Gorgon-wench herself.

A bit of help from the gods would be appreciated so we’d gladly have accepted Zeus’s offer of a divine helmet, conferring the power of invisibility, an enchanted sword from Aphrodite, and a reflective mirror-shield from Hera.

Massage all that into a playable action game and you’d certainly have a chart-stormer on your hands. Perseus could run, jump, hack and slash his way around various platforming segments on foot a la Rastan or Black Tiger. Then swoop into the sky on horseback, deploying Pegasus as a living, breathing miraculous weapon to tackle shoot ’em stages akin to those seen in Psygnosis’s Agony or Thanatos.

Making this dream a reality was apparently exactly what Optimus had in mind, for it was they who approached Gremlin with the proposal. They weren’t commissioned by the publisher to develop someone else’s concept as was often the case.

Story-wise nothing aligns with Clash of the Titans. For a start, Satan doesn’t feature in Greek mythology, yet he’s the chief architect of mayhem and menace, and Perseus’s nemesis in the game. Naturally, Beelzebub is the final and most ferocious of the end of world guardians. Similarly, Chan the Sorcerer – Perseus’s ally and mentor – appears to be an original invention. He sounds more Chinese than Greek in fact.

“After many years of fierce battling, the five planes of existence were invaded and made corrupt by Satan. He wasted no time in filling them with his own creatures, foul abominations of nature. It seemed that nothing would be able to ever regain and save the ancient worlds.

Then, when it seemed that the world was Satan’s possession, Chan the Sorcerer dreamed of a Winged Horse, guided by a brave warrior, travelling across the four planes and reaching Hell, then going on to battle through Hell and defeat Satan himself. Perseus, a young and battle fresh soldier has a similar dream, except that in his dream, he is riding the winged horse, Pegasus. Perseus travelled for many weeks to reach the castle of Chan, situated high in the mountains.

Chan knew of his approach, and prepared his magical winged horse for him. He also created as much magic as he could muster, and spread it throughout the four planes, so that Perseus might benefit from it, if he ever reached them.”

Pegasus you might like to know is the offspring of Poseidon and Medusa, born from the Gorgan’s neck upon her beheading by Perseus. I’m not sure how that works exactly, it wasn’t covered in my biology lessons.

There’s some debate amongst scholars as to which hero from Greek mythology can lay claim to house-training Pegasus, Perseus or Bellerophontes. Popular movies such as Clash of the Titans cemented the Perseus connection in people’s minds, though the older texts concerning Pegasus’s origins and escapades revolve around Bellerophontes. Both versions appear to be equally valid as they emanate from the original literature, not the minds of movie and game producers, so there’s little point arguing which is right. If the experts can’t decide I’m going to leave it there.

What I suspect wasn’t strictly inspired by cannon Greek mythology is the game’s tendency to switch halfway through to opponents and backdrops that appear to be more of a homage to Turrican or R-Type. Mostly the scenarios are very low-tech, befitting the era. Then all of a sudden we’re enveloped by industrial mechanical structures whilst fighting a caterpillar track tank guardian, jetpack propelled beasts and those scurrying mini ED-209s from Turrican, or dodging projectiles launched from space-aged turrets. I bet they were snapped off the Death Star’s outer shell.

You’ll notice that Turrican also influenced the weapon system. Our sweeping laser curtain, screen-clearing manoeuvre for instance is clearly a throwback to Factor 5’s bio-engineered mutant warrior run and gun hit. Likewise, smart bombs are another way to kill everything on screen with minimal effort.

Other adversaries are much more appropriate, appearing to have been plucked straight from Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts. Giant scorpions…

…living cognisant statues…

…harpies…

 

…and skeleton swordsman spring to mind. Ray Harryhausen would have loved the silky smooth animation I’m sure, although his more stilted stop-motion technique certainly has a charm all of its own.

Unfortunately (?) there’s no gaming counterpart to Bubo the mechanical brass and iron owl. He was kind-of-sort-of the Jar Jar Binks of his day.

I can’t decide if the overgrown worms are Graboid escapees from the Tremors movie.

Or if the creatures that look like stooped over beaked tortoises are supposed to represent the vulture that transports Andromeda in a human-sized birdcage as seen in Clash of the Titans, or the Skeksis reptile-birds from Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal.

Speaking of which, crystals serve as the means of upgrading our weaponry as well as replenishing health. Some can simply be scooped up from the landscape, whilst others are shaken loose as a byproduct of dispatching enemies. Find the right keys and these will provide access to secret areas stuffed to the rafters with even more crystals.

Collecting 30 results in the emergence of a magical sword that conjures a lingering fireball similar to the ring of fire force-fields chaperoned by eagle outriders to protect us during the flying sections. More pedestrian artillery consists of beams, daggers, pulse arcs, and pulse waves, and some of these can be modified to include multiple shots of whatever variety.

Pegasus comprises five themed worlds, the five planes of existence alluded to in the manual, defined by their geography and climate; swamp, ice…

Robert Patrick, is that you?

 

…desert, war, and finally hell, which is a tad warm as you might have guessed.

 

Each world is broken down into five flying levels and five running levels, making a grand total of fifty, with a mammoth obstacle of the bossy variety putting in an appearance every ten levels. Which explains why it even takes a competent player nearly two and a half hours to complete the game. That counts me out of the running.

Our quest gets underway with an introduction screen presented in HAM mode depicting a digitised image of Perseus. It wasn’t pretty back then and hasn’t aged well at all. Luckily the rest of the graphics comprise more traditional, hand-drawn pixel art that is much more endearing. It still feels fluid and contemporary now thanks to its mostly continuous scrolling (some vertical progression is ushered in with the push-scrolling technique).

Some of the backdrops are beautifully enticing, further enhanced by multiple layers of believable parallax-scrolled scenery. Particularly effective are the various depths of stratus clouds that drift by at alternating velocities.

Thunder and lightning complete the sense of foreboding malaise, while outcrops of mountains can consume as much as half the screen. These funnel Perseus into a narrow channel, thereby engendering the perception of claustrophobia. You don’t crash and burn instantly upon touching them luckily. Not that you’d want to linger too long mind you while being jostled by their rocky outcrops like a harassed pinball.

Also from the roll-call of neat touches, Perseus when beginning a level fades into the scene faster than the environment, creating the illusion that he’s running in thin air blessed with supernatural powers. Well, he’s got the gods in his corner so why not.

Being such an Olympian-sized game it’s helpful that a password system is available. After every ten levels – like a gift from the gods – a secret code is revealed to allow us to resume our game at a later date.

Ironically this value for money is the main drawback. Pegasus is a colossal game, though featuring very little variation there’s insufficient encouragement to keep us returning to finish it, even when using save states. Each genre is well represented and the controls – while they could be slightly more responsive – are generally very reliable.

Critical response at the time was similarly underwhelming, the consensus being something along the lines of “very nice, but already got the t-shirt. Predictable. Next.” Scores ranged wildly between 48% and 89%. Some reviewers castigated its mundanity, then oddly enough awarded it a respectable grade.

“It’s a good game, but not very original – this particular game style has been around for years, and no doubt will continue to be. You could easily say ‘seen it done it’ – there is an ocean of similar games out there. The horizontal scroller format is very popular, and combining it with a platform-style game is novel, but not inventive enough to take this game up out of the mediocre.”

Amiga Format (61%, December 1991)

“Despite the pretensions to mythology and the olde worlde scenery, this is a game of power-ups and wave upon wave of attackers. Shoot-’em-ups like this stand and fall on how well the attack waves have been designed, and despite the fact that it’s been improved since we first saw it, there’s still too much looseness about the deal.

There’s not really enough strategy involved in the way you move, and the nasties are just too small and fast to be massively avoidable. The fact that a number of collisions are allowed before a life is lost reinforces the feeling that progress is more a matter of luck than joystick skill.

Although the most simplistic, the platform level is probably the most fun. Not only does the landscape scroll, but a flip-screen system is used for vertical movement, giving more of an arcade-adventure feel (though movement is always to the right, so it’s not as if there’s much exploring to be done). Compare this sequence though (with its incredibly poor sword-fighting system) to First Samurai’s sword-swinging antics and it starts to look more than a little bit dated.

And yet, Pegasus does offer a fair amount of enjoyment. The beautiful backgrounds are worth persevering for, the scenery for the Hell levels being particularly outstanding. And the limited continue facility is a boon.

But in the end, Pegasus feels more like a pot-boiler than one of Gremlin’s premier products. I guess not every game can be a real corker.”

Amiga Power (69%, December 1991)

“As you can tell, I’m not exactly enamoured with Gremlin’s latest, and it just doesn’t measure up to the likes of Switchblade II and Lotus II. If that much-needed boost of variety had been incorporated then Gremlin would be on to a winner, but, as it is, Pegasus is dull and repetitive fare.”

CU Amiga (48%, December 1991)

“So, it’s a scrolling shoot-’em-up, it’s pretty good, and, er, that’s it. On balance I’d say that Pegasus has the edge over Thunder Jaws for two reasons. One, it’s a lot nicer to look at and the graphics have obviously had a lot of work put into them and two, it’s that little bit faster and smoother which in turn makes it a smidgen more playable.

If you’re thinking of buying a shoot-’em-up this week, then you could do worse than to splash out on a copy of Pegasus. Very pleasant indeed.”

Amiga Computing (80%, December 1991)

Curiouser still is the picture of Erland Van Lidth De Jeude alongside the game’s preview article in CU Amiga (page 57). He played Dynamo in The Running Man and died shortly after from a heart attack, if you’re not familiar with the name.

He has no connection to Pegasus. Also, why’s he clutching a touch screen tablet device years before they existed? I suspect the simple answer is that he’s a secret time-traveller and was caught off-guard with evidence of his covert operations.

Looking over to the adjacent page you realise that the picture was snagged from The Wanderers along with another one from The Warriors to accompany a preview of the upcoming Double Dragon 3 game from Storm. Neither are particularly relevant, they just share a similar theme of gang violence. I suppose screenshots of the actual game must have been thin on the ground at this point so these were useful fillers. Still doesn’t explain the tablet thing though so my hypothesis stands. Erland who plays ‘Terror’, the leader of the Fordham Baldies doesn’t use much of anything that’s hi-tech in the movie what with it being released in 1979.

Pegasus though, I think that’s the topic, isn’t it? It’s disappointing that it doesn’t feature any music beyond the title screen, only sound effects. These are meaty enough, albeit predictable and repetitive. You’d be best advised to play some separate appropriate background music and turn down the volume on your TV or emulator.

If you remember playing the demo in the run-up to the game’s release you’ll know that Pegasus did include a musical accompaniment at that stage; the score from Supercars II. This was also published by Gremlin so they had the rights you see.

Optimus must have realised that they couldn’t have the game running at 50 frames per second with up to 20 sprites on screen simultaneously as well as playing continuous music. Remember hardware limitations? Those weren’t the days.

Eventually confronting Satan on his home turf it becomes apparent that he’s not such a formidable foe after all. Once defeated, mirroring the finale of Clash of the Titans (and the original source material), Perseus and Pegasus are transformed into constellations to honour their prodigious feat of selfless bravery. Only not by Chan the magician seeing as he’s a game character not in any way related to Greek mythology.

You’d have to hope that Satan stays dead because I wouldn’t want to go through that epic saga again. Also, I doubt an astrology star sign would be able to put up much of a defence against a repeat offensive from the Prince of Darkness. Didn’t think of that now did you, Chan?

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