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The timeline for this series has been somewhat jumbled, as I kept expanding the scope and adding more games to the list that were released before other games I’d already covered. But that’s all sorted out as of the last entry on Final Fantasy II, which released in December 1988. Now, we move into 1989 with Clash at Demonhead, a game by Vic Tokai for the Famicom/NES. It released in Japan on January 27, 1989, and was localized for a US release in December 1989. I’d never heard of it before researching early examples of Metroidvania design for this series, but apparently it got referenced in Scott Pilgrim. I was intrigued as I fired it up.

While Clash at Demonhead does resemble a Metroidvania in some ways, it’s actually a fairly different beast. At its core, it’s an action platformer, as many Metroidvanias are. But rather than explore a single, continuous world, as is Metroidvania tradition, Clash at Demonhead is separated into discrete stages, each representing a route on its map of Demonhead Mountain and the surrounding area. Players are shown this map every time they traverse one of the routes, and are able to select which route to take next from their current location. In this respect, I was reminded of Lord of the Sword, which similarly divided its world into roads and other paths that players must travel. Here, however, the map makes it much clearer where players are and where each route leads.

There are also a lot more of those routes. No less than 42 of them, in fact, each with its own number. Players must note these numbers down as they play, because the game refers to them often. An ally might tell protagonist Bang that he needs to rescue someone on route 23, or that there’s a hidden treasure on route 7 (I made these examples up to avoid spoilers), and if players haven’t been to that route yet, they’ll need to find it by exploring. With so many routes, of course, each individual one is pretty small, so travel isn’t as time-consuming as it might have been. But there are many different directions to go, and I was sometimes surprised to find routes I’d never actually traveled, because I’d chosen other routes that got me to the same place.

The routes are impressively varied too. A few do reuse certain sections, like a vertical climb in the shape of a question mark, but they do so with different color palettes, and changes in scenery from rugged wilderness to gleaming metal strongholds. Each route matches its location on the map too, whether it’s a forest, a rocky climb, or a flat desert. One route lies along a river, and sure enough it’s basically all water.

In true Metroidvania tradition, Bang will find important items and then take them to previously visited routes in order to open up new paths or otherwise advance the story. Few of these are actually upgrades that grant new abilities, though. Instead, new abilities come from time-limited consumable items. In the near-future setting of Clash at Demonhead, Bang is a highly trained operative, able to call upon support from his allies in the Saber Tiger secret command. In most locations, Bang can use a “shop call” item to summon the shop, which will then sell all sorts of useful equipment and items in exchange for the money dropped by defeated enemies.

There are a few special weapons that are more powerful than his default pistol, naturally, but the really important items are the suits. The Aqua Lung lets Bang breathe underwater (otherwise he takes damage constantly when submerged), crucial for navigating underwater tunnels. The jetpack lets him fly. The Super Suit lets Bang swim in lava, climb icy walls (he can mange regular walls on his own, although I foolishly didn’t realize that right away) and reduces incoming damage. The Hyper Boots are less critical, but increase Bang’s movement speed and jump height, which can make some routes a lot easier. I probably should have used Hyper Boots far more often than I did. Each of these runs out after some time, and Bang can only carry a few of each, so he’ll be summoning the shop often in order to stock up. But he can pretty much stock up whenever he wants. Sometimes the shop is out of a specific item, but for the most part Bang can get what he needs, when he needs it, without having to explore to find it first.

There are some more mystical abilities that Bang can acquire too, but I found these confusing at first. The hermit grants special powers, powered by “Force”, but for most of the game I only had the first of these powers (which is a glorified key). I didn’t understand that the rest of them are learned simply by gaining enough Force. I’d never accumulated much Force, since enemies only rarely drop the apples that provide a single measly Force point. I should have been guzzling the cheap Dyna Punch items from the shop to power up my Force, which would have let me access some useful powers. These aren’t required to finish the game, but the Teleport ability sure cuts down on time spent traveling the map, letting Bang instantly return to any map node he’s visited before. When some routes require the special suits to traverse, manually backtracking can be time consuming and expensive. But still possible. None of the hermit’s abilities (bar the first) are required to finish the game.

Controlling Bang felt a little awkward at first, but I soon came to appreciate the design. His default movement speed is quite slow, but that leaves room for strategic use of the Hyper Boots when he needs to sprint or make long jumps. When he fires his pistol, only two bullets can be on screen at a time, so spamming shots doesn’t work. When he lands from a high jump, he’ll fall into a crouch for a moment, which can throw off his aim. But enemies tend to move in slow patterns and fire slow-moving projectiles, so encounters end up feeling tactical rather than frantic. I had to aim my shots carefully, and anticipate where attacks would come from if I wanted Bang to be able to get out of the way in time. Understanding how the special weapons and suits work helps too, as does the realization that they should be used early and often, since it’s not hard to earn enough money to restock later.

In fact, Clash at Demonhead feels surprisingly forgiving, compared to many of its contemporaries. Most tough sections are made much easier with judicious use of the right items. Bang can take a lot of hits before going down, and if he does, players get unlimited continues from the last intersection they visited on the map. The password save system also starts players off at the last intersection with all their current items, making restarting after a break easy. At a time when many games opted for high challenge to keep players occupied longer, Vic Tokai seemed to want players to reach the end of Clash at Demonhead without too much fuss.

I did have some trouble with some of the bosses, though. Not because they’re hard, but because they’re confusing. It’s not always clear whether Bang is actually doing any damage to these guys, or what needs to be done for certain stages of the boss battles. I ended up looking online for hints for some of these, only to discover that I was doing things right already, and just needed to keep landing hits to emerge victorious. With unlimited continues it wasn’t hard to keep trying against these bosses, but Bang doesn’t recover used items when continuing, so I often depleted my stock as I tried out different weapons and suits. That necessitated a short break to battle some regular enemies and fill up on cash so I could buy more items.

I did appreciate how each boss is a character in the game’s story, and is happy to exchange some banter with Bang before the fight. There’s more story in Clash at Demonhead than I expected, and it’s pretty crazy. At the start, Saber Tiger have just completed a successful operation against the Demon’s Battalion, and Bang is relaxing on the beach with his girlfriend. But then he gets an emergency call: the Demon’s Battalion have kidnapped the inventor of the doomsday bomb, and taken him to Demonhead Mountain to hold the world to ransom. Bang is called into action again, but once the game proper begins the situation gets more complex. The Demon’s Battalion is a gang of colorful characters who Bang will encounter individually in different places, but they’re not the only villains. There are double crossings, mysterious allies, plot twists, and subverted tropes throughout. It’s not an extraordinarily gripping tale, nor a particularly long one, but it plays around with a large cast — large enough that I sometimes lost track of who was who — and I never knew quite what to expect next. Clash at Demonhead doesn’t shy away from silliness either, throwing in a lot of jokes and fourth-wall-breaking. I almost suspected that it was based on a manga or anime franchise, but as far as I can tell the setting and characters are original.

Apart from the bosses, I only got stuck once, but it was annoying. With so many routes in the game, if players miss something it can be daunting to figure out where to find it. I ended up consulting a walkthrough, rather than wandering the 40-odd routes blindly, but I probably could have made some educated guesses if I didn’t have the walkthrough on hand. And aside from this hurdle, I had a good time with Clash at Demonhead. I like the larger-than-life characters, each depicted with large sprites (kind of like The Magic of Scheherazade) to lend them a ton of personality. I like the way the land around Demonhead Mountain is laid out, with the routes depicting different terrain. I like the way Bang is free to deploy his high tech arsenal throughout the game, making it feel like he’s actually getting support from Saber Tiger rather than just tackling everything on his own. And I enjoyed jumping, crawling, climbing, swimming, and flying through the different routes, never quite sure what was going to happen next. If, like me, you never heard of Clash at Demonhead, it’s worth checking out. As far as I know it was never re-released in any form, however, so unless you find an original cartridge to play on original hardware, you’ll need to run it via emulation as I did. As usual for NES games, I used the Retroarch frontend and the Mesen emulation core.

I introduced this post with the announcement that I’d finally gotten my timeline in order for this series. Well, I have some bad news. While tracking down a fan-made translation for the next game on my list, I took a peek at the other games the team had translated. They hadn’t done very many, and yet I still found two more games that sound cool, but which released before Clash at Demonhead. So I’m going to go back and play those, before returning to 1989. Stay tuned!

Next on Console History: watch this space!