Origins of Shadow of the Beast
It all began in 1989 with developer Reflections Interactive showing a tech demo to British publisher Psygnosis. With Psygnosis impressed by what they saw Shadow of the Beast was originally released on the Commodore Amiga and was graphically mind blowing for the time. With several colours on screen at once as well as up to twelve levels of parallax scrolling backdrops, the game looked like it was from an arcade machine. Martin Edmonson, one of the founders of the company, was fond of very difficult video games. He wanted to be challenged and have to play a game multiple times to be able to master it. The score for the game was composed by David Whittaker, which was very atmospheric and left a lasting impression on fans. The cover art for the game was from the talented hands of Roger Dean who was well know for working on album covers for Yes, Asia, Budgie, as well as several others. Roger Dean merged a stone age look with technology to create a very unique look to the cover of Shadow of the Beast. He would also later go on to redesign the logo for Tetris.
While the graphics and music were phenomenal, the game itself was quite challenging. Shadow of the Beast is an action platformer with some light exploration. This was one of those games that plunks you in an open area and you assume you just head to the right like every other platformer. Well my friend, this will end in your eventual death. With this game only giving you a single life and limited health, this would be the lasting relationship where you die a lot and restart right at the beginning. There are no continues and checkpoints in this game, so you only have one shot. The series would become infamous for this design choice. You learn by playing and after a lot of pain and suffering, going to the right of the screen it may finally click that in fact you were supposed to go left all along. That’s not to say the game is made easy still. Horrible things will happen to you in this game that will make you go into the fetal position. Random bat creatures will attack you, spiky roots will surprise you, and the bosses in this game are just horrific. Should you survive long enough you will encounter a cool side shooting section, only you need to be pretty spot on with your dodging. You will also gradually upgrade your abilities enabling you to tackle the bosses in the game. Shadow of the Beast by far lives up to the challenging expectations Martin Edmonson wanted. It really is a game you will learn gradually through trial and error but once you have conquered the experience you will be rewarded with the most inspirational, rewarding screens: “Congratulations, you have freed yourself from the Shadow of the Beast.” I mean come on, what were you expecting, a parade? Through the trials of difficulty I had playing this game on the Sega Mega Drive one thing that stuck in my mind throughout the experience was, “Damn this game looks and sounds good.”
As for the story you play as Aarbron, kidnapped at childhood and magically turned into a monstrous servant to serve the evil beast lord Maletoth. After witnessing the execution of his father, Aarbrons memories return leading him to seek revenge on Maletoth. Aarbron has to battle through Maletoths forces eventually coming to blows with a giant who is so large in the game you only see its feet and club which it tries to squash you with. After defeating the giant Aarbron is freed of his curse, or so we are lead to believe. The plot is detailed in the instruction manual but during the game on Mega Drive its unclear what’s going on.
Shadow of the Beast was ported to practically everything except my toaster at the time including Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Master System and even a PC Engine version which is considered the definitive edition with even better graphic, animated intros and CD quality audio. Of all the ports it was the Sega Geneisis version that was the most controversial. Shadow of the Beast was first ported to the Mega Drive in Europe which runs at 50 Hz refresh rate when the game was ported to the Genesis in NTSC region it needs to run at 60 Hz. The conversion team didn’t change the amount of time each frame remained on screen. So when the refresh rate increased to 60 Hz the game ended up running 16.7% faster than the original, making the already difficult game even harder. A lot of Americans possibly threw their TVs out the window for this reason.
Shadow of the Beast was very popular with gamers so the sequel came out only a year later releasing once again on the Commodore Amiga. The game was very similar to the first in design allowing you to explore right and left from the get go. Once again go to the left and get going. The game is still an action platformer but there’s a lot more puzzles this time which only give you a single chance to get them right, once again leading to a lot of frustrating deaths that take you right back to the start of the game. It’s very unclear what order your supposed to do certain sections in the game leading to a lot of trial and error. Once you figure out the correct path this game like the first can be finished in less than hour easily. The graphics were still incredible whatever system you played on and the game had more of a dark stone age feel to it this time around. The game would include a lot of text dialogue this time as well. Tim Wright would now compose the musical store and the soundtrack in this game is by far my favourite in the series as well as in games generally.
This time Shadow of the Beast II ported to Atari ST, Mega Drive/Genesis (no issues this time) and a very unique port on Sega/Mega CD – for reference you can read my review here. The Sega/Mega CD port featured a new soundtrack as well as voice acting along with FMVs. The game was also enhanced graphically, Aarbron wore armour now instead of running around in his pants like the other versions. Some of the games more difficult sections were also tweaked to be more forgiving. Interesting note: Psygnosis packaged the first the two Beast games with a promotional T shirt and artwork from Roger Dean.In this outing Aarbron is now in half beast form on a quest to save his kidnapped sister. You wander the lands of Kara-Moon looking for the Beast Mage Zelek who is a servant to Maletoth with his trusty mace. Along the way you meet a variety of colourful characters both friend and foe.
Shadow of the Beast III was released exclusively for Commodore Amiga in 1992. A Mega Drive version was developed but unfortunately never released or even surfaced online which is a shame. Shadow of the Beast III was quite uncommon. A lot of gamers were put of the difficulty of the first two games in the series and since it was only available on the Amiga even less people played it. The game this time was set across four distinct areas, essentially feeling like four large levels whereas the first two games felt like one single long level. Once again there was more of an emphasis on puzzles but that didn’t mean the game was easy. The tough action was still present with constant enemies on screen and difficult boss fights. Tim Wright returned to compose yet another phenomenal score. Unlike the first two games the third game didn’t come with a T shirt but instead a promotional badge. In the final chapter Aarbron is on a quest to defeat Maletoth once and for all. Running around with his little hat and backpack this would see the story finally conclude. Although it was nice to see the entire trilogy appear on the Amiga it was a shame the game never got a port to the Mega Drive. Had that happened I would’ve had the trilogy on that system.
Like a lot of old Amiga classics, Shadow of the Beast would then fade into obscurity and remain in the hearts of those that played the games as a very good looking set of games but with incredible challenges. Over twenty years passed and Matt Birch founder of Heavy Spectrum would look to made a next gen remake with the blessing of Martin Edmonson. Matt Birch states he’s a big fan of the original games and hopes to bring the challenge of the original to a new generation of gamers. As of writing this article I am yet to play the final product but I have demoed the game at EGX 2015. And it definitely showed promise.