ST-urday #021: Demo Derby Gamma: Blackjack Edition

Hello there, all you ST fans and SEO victims looking for online blackjack. This turned out to be an inauspicious week, to put it mildly. French developers tend to pop up almost as frequently as UK companies do for this feature, and at least one of today's game is of French origin, so I felt it prudent to say something regarding the presently-ongoing kerfuffle over in Paris. Stay strong, and stay safe, mon amis. I realize a goofy little blog about a decades-dead computer system that was briefly big in Europe is hardly the place for contemporary news (especially the contemporary part), but I've been informed that the best thing to do is acknowledge it, condemn it and continue on as we always have.

On a lighter note, I've gotten pretty far into Toby Fox's Undertale. I won't hope to match the eloquence of Austin Walker's review, so rather than a proper review I'll be writing a sort of two-part article on it a little later: the first half will be the usual screenshot-focused Comic Commish that doesn't leave the tutorial area so I can designate it as a "non-spoiler"(ish) space to discuss the game's mechanics and themes in general, and then I intend to expound on the whole game further in a "post-script" text-heavy second half once I've beaten it and have the full picture to work from. It's a game that inspires a lot of introspective discussion on the conventions of the JRPG genre and the necessity of conflict in video games, to put it in essay terms. I'm hoping the final article won't be too essay-like, though. I hate essays. All those words.

Demo Derby Gamma: Blackjack Edition

Since we've reached episode twenty-one of ST-urday, I'm loosely basing this Demo Derby's coverdisk selection method around the number 21. I once again called upon mainstays ST Action and ST Format: ST Action #21 debuted in January of 1990, while ST Format #21 was published in April of 1991. Two games each, seven screenshots apiece. (Yes, I realize that totals 28 rather than 21, but what's a session of Blackjack without going hopelessly bust a few times?)

For the sake of variety, I also looked into a few other ST coverdisk magazines: the only other English-language ones I could find with coverdisks for their 21st issue included Zero, a precursor to the ribald, joke-y PC Zone (which would give a young Charlie Brooker his start). Zero was apparently pulled from shelves for a time after putting a risque strip poker game on one of its coverdisks. Alas, that was not the 21st coverdisk (and I really don't need a repeat of the Lady Sword incident regardless); instead, the 21st had a demo of Mindscape's Knightmare, which we already covered on the final day of the Estival ST Festival, and Robotz, which appeared on Demo Derby Beta. I also investigated ST Review, which is even more focused on technical/production programs for ST than ST Format. Their 21st coverdisk was entirely application-based, and it's hard to get any of that to work properly in an emulator.

Switchblade II

Anime-style artwork again! In the early 90s in the UK, anime was like this mysterious thing full of swords, gore and explosions that only cool kids knew about. How times have changed.
Anime-style artwork again! In the early 90s in the UK, anime was like this mysterious thing full of swords, gore and explosions that only cool kids knew about. How times have changed.

Gremlin Graphics appears once again on this feature, like a tiny hairy man on the wing of an airplane to whom you cannot stop paying attention. 1991's Switchblade II, the sequel to Switchblade (doy), was yet another by-product of Europe's affinity for the 1989 Capcom hit Strider, which was adapted for the European home computer market shortly after its initial Arcade release.

Switchblade II has its bionic hero, Hiro, fight across side-scrolling 2D stages set in some dark, apocalyptic future filled with mechanical animals and a whole bunch of metal crates. (Don't even get me started on how short its start-to-crate score is...) It's not a bad game from what I can tell playing this short demo, but like the ill-fated Strider II/Strider Returns from UK devs Tiertex, it's a far cry from the Capcom classic that inspired it.

But hey, did Strider Hiryu ever have a robotic cannon arm? I didn't think so. Take that, Capcom! Maybe you should've thought of giving one of your classic characters a robot gun arm to... oh.

Welcome to the Switchblade II demo! Check out all this crappy kerning. Work in progress, folks.
Welcome to the Switchblade II demo! Check out all this crappy kerning. Work in progress, folks.
Welcome to the cyberpunk future. It's fairly blue. That enemy down there actually has a surprising amount of design attached to it: it plods slowly long left and right, giving you an opening when its back is turned, but when it faces you it can shoot a laser horizontally or missiles at a slight angle upwards, making it a dangerous foe to face head-on at any elevation. Not a big deal, but it's a good note to start on. Also, it looks like a baby Heavy Lobster from Kirby Super Star.
Welcome to the cyberpunk future. It's fairly blue. That enemy down there actually has a surprising amount of design attached to it: it plods slowly long left and right, giving you an opening when its back is turned, but when it faces you it can shoot a laser horizontally or missiles at a slight angle upwards, making it a dangerous foe to face head-on at any elevation. Not a big deal, but it's a good note to start on. Also, it looks like a baby Heavy Lobster from Kirby Super Star.
Switchblade's main weapon is his knife, which arcs out in much the same way that Strider Hiryu's cipher blade does. It's also far more devastating than the hero's ranged weapons.
Switchblade's main weapon is his knife, which arcs out in much the same way that Strider Hiryu's cipher blade does. It's also far more devastating than the hero's ranged weapons.
Hiro's other weapon is this arm cannon. It's less damaging, but the range comes in very useful. You may have noticed the two segmented gauges at the bottom: left is health, right is ammo. Red indicates depletion for both.
Hiro's other weapon is this arm cannon. It's less damaging, but the range comes in very useful. You may have noticed the two segmented gauges at the bottom: left is health, right is ammo. Red indicates depletion for both.
This non-descript metal platform to the right is the exit to the next area and... what is going on in the background?
This non-descript metal platform to the right is the exit to the next area and... what is going on in the background?
Big visual clue here. Two, actually. The left passage is the critical path, but the right wall is also destructible. Each room down here is surrounded by ceiling and floors, which you can just about see on the right. Of course, if you don't want to spend valuable time looking for visual cues, you can just swipe at every wall you see. Works for Zelda.
Big visual clue here. Two, actually. The left passage is the critical path, but the right wall is also destructible. Each room down here is surrounded by ceiling and floors, which you can just about see on the right. Of course, if you don't want to spend valuable time looking for visual cues, you can just swipe at every wall you see. Works for Zelda.
All right, we've explored most of the mechanics demonstrated here, but I wanted to end with this adorable 1-Up token. When did 1-Ups stop being cute doll versions of the protagonist, anyway?
All right, we've explored most of the mechanics demonstrated here, but I wanted to end with this adorable 1-Up token. When did 1-Ups stop being cute doll versions of the protagonist, anyway?

Prehistorik

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The late 80s/early 90s saw a wave of caveman platformers for reasons that - like the time period setting itself - are largely lost to history. Core Design's Chuck Rock, Hudson's Bonk and Data East's Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja to name but a few. Oddly, they seemed to die off just before Jurassic Park came along, so either that's some crummy timing for all the barely evolved loinskin heroes out there, or it meant that the game done changed by the idea that we can combine dinosaurs - the real reason anyone would want to set their game in prehistory, despite the inherent anachronism of pitting cavepeople against them - with people holding guns and/or Jeff Goldblum without worrying about including ugly, hairy, half-naked neanderthals for thematic consistency.

Prehistorik was French developers Titus Interactive's contribution to this neolithic overcrowding, and despite its characteristically cartoonish Gallic presentation it's a far more realistic take on early mankind's fight to stay alive in a less than civil time. The bearded caveman hero of Prehistorik is looking for food across its various regions, hunting the wildlife and scavenging for meat, fruit, milk and martinis. Only the bare necessities for survival. It's not quite the same as Adventure Island, where the constant intake of food kept the possibly-diabetic Master Higgins alive, but rather the player explores a level for as much food as they can find and bugs out of there before a time limit expires. The more food they find, the bigger the score bonus, though it won't mean a thing if they can't survive the dangers and escape in time.

I'd imagine more people are familiar with the later games in this series, where it eventually broadened from being exclusive to European computers to globally-released Game Boy and Super Nintendo games. To this day, it's probably Titus' most recognizable franchise. Either that or that Xbox RoboCop game that almost drove Alex Navarro insane.

The demo actually drops us in level 3, rather than level 1. I'm not sure why demos sometimes do this, given that you're disturbing a carefully-laden difficulty curve. I'd assume it was because of one of two reasons: this stage was one of the few that had already been completed, or that the first level (and maybe the second) had already been released as a demo and ST Action's publishers required something exclusive.
The demo actually drops us in level 3, rather than level 1. I'm not sure why demos sometimes do this, given that you're disturbing a carefully-laden difficulty curve. I'd assume it was because of one of two reasons: this stage was one of the few that had already been completed, or that the first level (and maybe the second) had already been released as a demo and ST Action's publishers required something exclusive.
Animals emerge from caves as soon as you appear on their level, and can either be ignored or bashed. Most any animal in this polar setting can be hunted for food, but all of them need to be incapacitated with the hero's club first. This shaman fellow over here will appear briefly and give the hero one of a number of power-ups if he's bashed in time, from an axe weapon upgrade to a shield that renders him invulnerable for a few seconds.
Animals emerge from caves as soon as you appear on their level, and can either be ignored or bashed. Most any animal in this polar setting can be hunted for food, but all of them need to be incapacitated with the hero's club first. This shaman fellow over here will appear briefly and give the hero one of a number of power-ups if he's bashed in time, from an axe weapon upgrade to a shield that renders him invulnerable for a few seconds.
No idea what this thing is. An abominable snowman? I'm inclined to go with
No idea what this thing is. An abominable snowman? I'm inclined to go with "breakfast".
Every cave can be entered, and usually has a handful of food items as well as bats and spiders. You can't eat spiders - even hungry cavemen have standards - but the bats are fair game. Literally.
Every cave can be entered, and usually has a handful of food items as well as bats and spiders. You can't eat spiders - even hungry cavemen have standards - but the bats are fair game. Literally.
It's not evident in a static screenshot, but these two platforms are bobbing in a really erratic pattern. No call for this, honestly. Good thing the demo gives you plenty of lives.
It's not evident in a static screenshot, but these two platforms are bobbing in a really erratic pattern. No call for this, honestly. Good thing the demo gives you plenty of lives.
This polar bear didn't take kindly to being bopped on the head. I don't take kindly to it co-existing with penguins. I suppose it's better science than humans co-existing with dinosaurs.
This polar bear didn't take kindly to being bopped on the head. I don't take kindly to it co-existing with penguins. I suppose it's better science than humans co-existing with dinosaurs.
There's just enough time to grab every food item, speed run over all the platforming parts and get out via leopard-print hang-glider, but most players will have to cut their losses at some point and just sprint to the end with whatever they've found. It's an eloquent way to design levels: players determine their own level of difficulty, and the greater focus on the risk/reward dynamic makes subsequent revisits more eventful. Like beating a Super Mario 3D Land stage with or without the hard-to-reach collectibles.
There's just enough time to grab every food item, speed run over all the platforming parts and get out via leopard-print hang-glider, but most players will have to cut their losses at some point and just sprint to the end with whatever they've found. It's an eloquent way to design levels: players determine their own level of difficulty, and the greater focus on the risk/reward dynamic makes subsequent revisits more eventful. Like beating a Super Mario 3D Land stage with or without the hard-to-reach collectibles.

Moonshine Racers

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Ah, the American South, as seen through a European filter colored by far too many Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard reruns. Where every Sheriff is overweight and kind of a jerk, and every good old boy is busy trying to move possibly fatal contraband liquor without the Sheriff's knowhow. Divorced from this element, Moonshine Racers is a fairly generic racing game in the style of OutRun or Rad Racer with their low "behind the car" perspectives that allows the player to see the upcoming course as they rush to meet it. It takes a page from Chase HQ's book, only switching the player's role from law enforcement to criminal and forcing them to not only beat the timer but keep ahead of the authorities. Well, authority. It's just Fat Sam the Sheriff, really.

Moonshine Racers is the product of Millennium Interactive, who we've encountered twice now in ST-urday: Kid Gloves and Yolanda: The Ultimate Challenge, from Demo Derby Beta. I apologize profusely to those of you living in the southern United States.

The Moonshine Racers demo (and presumably the real game) begins with this cute rundown of all the
The Moonshine Racers demo (and presumably the real game) begins with this cute rundown of all the "players" in this little show. Ike's our moonshine producer and contact, Billy Joe is the transporter and our protagonist, Scraps is our talking dog, Tucker is the local barkeep to whom we are delivering the hooch, Sheriff Fat Sam is the local law enforcement and Petula is his daughter and radio operator.
There's also Rommel, which is a tad on-the-nose for an imperious cop's dog if you ask me. What is this, True Romance?
There's also Rommel, which is a tad on-the-nose for an imperious cop's dog if you ask me. What is this, True Romance?
Immediately, the type of game this is becomes apparent. The game never quite makes it clear if we're the only moonshiner out here or if we're racing a bunch of rival bootleggers to Tucker's Bar.
Immediately, the type of game this is becomes apparent. The game never quite makes it clear if we're the only moonshiner out here or if we're racing a bunch of rival bootleggers to Tucker's Bar.
Another aspect I'm having trouble figuring out is how the car's temperature works. This old jalopy is prone to overheating, and the vehicle gets hotter whenever it collides with something or drives over a hazard like the incoming inexplicable road detritus. The driving itself is fairly standard stuff: there's a manual gear change from
Another aspect I'm having trouble figuring out is how the car's temperature works. This old jalopy is prone to overheating, and the vehicle gets hotter whenever it collides with something or drives over a hazard like the incoming inexplicable road detritus. The driving itself is fairly standard stuff: there's a manual gear change from "lo" to "hi" to be aware of, and you can bash a number of opponents without flipping over, but beyond that it's your regular OutRun style racing.
Man, I keep forgetting you guys vote in your top law officials. Weird. Though given how Fat Sam is the type of right-wing fascist that would name his rottweiler after top Nazi brass, maybe it's for the best that there's some democratic process to remove him.
Man, I keep forgetting you guys vote in your top law officials. Weird. Though given how Fat Sam is the type of right-wing fascist that would name his rottweiler after top Nazi brass, maybe it's for the best that there's some democratic process to remove him.
Looks like them Duke boys got a problem with their motor, what with it being on fire and all. Dang if they ain't suddenly regrettin' loadin' up the back of their pick-up with potables made almost entirely out of kerosene.
Looks like them Duke boys got a problem with their motor, what with it being on fire and all. Dang if they ain't suddenly regrettin' loadin' up the back of their pick-up with potables made almost entirely out of kerosene.
Naturally, this demo only ever goes one of two ways: you reach the end, where the NPCs break character to tell to you to buy the full game dagnabbit, or your vehicle takes one too many hits and decides it's done being functional. If I were more attuned with racing games, I could give you a better idea of whether or not this was a worthy
Naturally, this demo only ever goes one of two ways: you reach the end, where the NPCs break character to tell to you to buy the full game dagnabbit, or your vehicle takes one too many hits and decides it's done being functional. If I were more attuned with racing games, I could give you a better idea of whether or not this was a worthy "role-reversal" follow-up to Chase HQ. I will say that it seems way too busy, with all the talking heads along the top and the vast amount of random crap on the roads to look out for.

Gods

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I did want to get around to Gods eventually, and doing this short demo version is perfect because I don't particularly care for the game, despite it being yet another incredible-looking The Bitmap Brothers joint. After Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine, both of which are presently available on Steam, Gods might have the highest profile of the remaining games in their library, having been released on both the Genesis and the Super Nintendo: a fairly unusual occurrence for a UK-developed game.

With Gods, The Bitmap Brothers brought out the usual assortment of non-video game talent to help out with the presentation: Simon Bisley, a talented comic artist and the inspiration for Simon Pegg's character from Spaced, designed the game's box art while John Foxx, originally of Ultravox and credited as Nation XII here, composed the catchy - but fairly incongruous to Ancient Greek gods - synth music: Check out this trippy theme music.

The demo doesn't have music, but it does show off some of the game's unusual features. The most touted of which at the time was how the game will configure its own difficulty to match the player's skill, spawning fewer enemies when they're taking too much damage and the inverse when the player's doing too well. It's a take on a universal, adaptable difficulty level that I've never really seen performed satisfactorily, even when it was tackled by the more modern Max Payne 2. There's something frustrating about being lulled into a false sense of superiority and having it ripped from you by an unnaturally difficult ambush, not to mention that feeling of being condescended to when the game "goes easy on you" because you're sucking so bad. Gods can be a bit on the obtuse side too, as so many Amiga/ST games seem to be, and the movement of your burly hero is sluggish as heck. Like I said, not really a fan.

Welcome to Gods! Like a lot of demos, it just dumps you here with no instructions. Perfect. Don't need 'em.
Welcome to Gods! Like a lot of demos, it just dumps you here with no instructions. Perfect. Don't need 'em.
The scrolls reveal their messages across the bottom of the screen in this hard to read
The scrolls reveal their messages across the bottom of the screen in this hard to read "angled Greek". Enemies spawn immediately and you don't have a weapon, which is where that knife comes into use.
Gods is deemed an action platformer game, but there's more than a perfunctory puzzle element to it as well. I'd say it's around Doom level, with all its keys and switches to hit. This lever removes the spiky floor maces there, but not all levers are beneficial.
Gods is deemed an action platformer game, but there's more than a perfunctory puzzle element to it as well. I'd say it's around Doom level, with all its keys and switches to hit. This lever removes the spiky floor maces there, but not all levers are beneficial.
Remember Dizzy and its limited inventory system? Gods's works in the same (mysterious) way, but it chooses to make inventory management involve ducking and hitting the shoot button to switch between items. As you might've gleaned, that can run into control issues when you're trying to destroy all these pint-sized enemies running around. Fortunately, picking up extra weapons adds to the hero's thrown spread, allowing him to hit enemies coming at him from above and below without adjusting his own height.
Remember Dizzy and its limited inventory system? Gods's works in the same (mysterious) way, but it chooses to make inventory management involve ducking and hitting the shoot button to switch between items. As you might've gleaned, that can run into control issues when you're trying to destroy all these pint-sized enemies running around. Fortunately, picking up extra weapons adds to the hero's thrown spread, allowing him to hit enemies coming at him from above and below without adjusting his own height.
The key leads to the Armoury, allowing us to rob the place. The skull is one of the three key items we need, while we get an additional two power-ups and... another key. That's good puzzle design.
The key leads to the Armoury, allowing us to rob the place. The skull is one of the three key items we need, while we get an additional two power-ups and... another key. That's good puzzle design.
As you can kinda see, the hero now has three daggers and a sort of fireball thing. They all get added to the spread.
As you can kinda see, the hero now has three daggers and a sort of fireball thing. They all get added to the spread.
The demo stops shortly after your visit to the store, which allows you to buy power-ups which changes the direction of the spread: the standard three-way, a focused direct shot and one that aims directly above and below if flying enemies are proving too difficult to hit. Man, imagine if Castlevania had a system like this? Those birds wouldn't be as much of a nuisance, for one.
The demo stops shortly after your visit to the store, which allows you to buy power-ups which changes the direction of the spread: the standard three-way, a focused direct shot and one that aims directly above and below if flying enemies are proving too difficult to hit. Man, imagine if Castlevania had a system like this? Those birds wouldn't be as much of a nuisance, for one.

That about wraps up another Demo Derby edition of ST-urday. I wonder if I shouldn't do a little more legwork next time and find some particularly noteworthy coverdisk exclusives to highlight, rather than follow the site's blueprint of a Demo Derby and fully exhaust a single disk's content before moving on. I'll think of something.

Until then. we'll have another six weeks of one-offs to look forward to. See you then.

(Back to the ST-urday ST-orehouse.)

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