Review: Shadow Of The Beast (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (issue 17)

My Review

Equipment

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62
  • Automation Menu Disk 356 / Flame Of Finland 26A/B, Medway Boys 87
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

If you’re reading this website then it’s very likely you already know about Shadow Of The Beast – a game which anyone who had a home computer in the early 90s will remember for its stunning graphics. Amiga owners got it first, with ST owners having to wait a year longer – an age when you’re 10. The game was absolutely epic – some of the best presentation seen outside of the likes of Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair (which, let’s face it, were not games). Amiga owners had a full year to show off their game with its amazing graphics and sound – but when the ST version came out it was perhaps a bit of a shock to those who had seen the Amiga version.

The sound certainly wasn’t too far behind in the intro. Once out of the intro and into the game the differences become more apparent, with the Amiga’s numerous layers of parallax scrolling not entirely replicated on the ST (though to be fair it makes a valiant effort), we also lose a big chunk of the top of the screen (the area with the beast logo and life counter) to shrink the play area and keep speed up. Scrolling is less smooth but the bigger difference is the main character’s animation being far more jerky (and to their credit ST Format address the shonky animation – they didn’t always do that). The colours are also a lot more limited, the ST’s 16 simultaneous colours vs the 32 of the Amiga – where the Amiga could have two or 3 hues with a good range of colours to create detail, the ST could only manage two main hues with a small range of detail colour, and usually one hue was reserved for the player. The music stopped too, with just a few chip sound effects to wake you up where the Amiga carries on playing that wonderful music. In many ways one could argue that this was the game that confirmed the Amiga’s superiority (sorry to say that in an Atari ST review). It must have sold a hell of a lot of Amigas.

Now that’s not to say the ST version looks awful. The developers used the machine as best they could within its limitations and took on a mammoth task translating the Amiga version with all its extra colour and dependence on the Amiga’s custom hardware to the ST – you can clearly see why it took a year. Most ports up til that point weren’t hugely different – not much effort was generally put into using the Amiga’s custom chips when it was easier to just write code that makes the 68000 do everything – that makes the code more portable between the two machines and thus you can get two versions out with less work, which makes good commercial sense. It has since been shown that Beast could have been better, though…

Have a look at what you could have won…

Now clearly that video is just a tech demo, it’s not a full game which requires collision detection, controls, etc (it’s likely that in a demo certain corners were cut because you don’t have to allow for the player controlling anything) so it’s hard to say that the game could have looked exactly like that, but it’s running on a 520STFM and it’s smooth. The difference is enormous, and perhaps the dev was in over his head (not unlikely given the game was a year late). One should however also credit the fact that this is something built 25 years later when developers had a far better understanding of how to extract more from the machine, and weren’t working under commercial time constraints – with a labour of love and no time limit you can get a lot more done.

Unfortunately the differences don’t stop at graphics and sound. Fairly early in I encountered another difference – the well you go down – on the ST you can get to the bottom and wander around but can’t get through the door, but on exiting it just tells you it’s an uncomfortably warm day, while the Amiga version doesn’t let you off the ladder but does hint at the need of a key. It makes me wonder what else got lost in translation. Further in I encounter missing enemies, it’s clear corners have been cut to get this out the door.

More egregious is the responsiveness of the controls. Because the range of your attacks is quite short but enemy movement quite fast (and in some cases quite cheap – random spikes appearing out of the ground are definitely cheap) your window of time to hit an enemy is pretty short. On the Amiga I was generally able to hit enemies on time from the word go. This was not the case with the ST version because the game ran so sluggishly (although there is quite a lot of variation depending on how much is going on on any given screen – it slows to a crawl when the really big sprites come out). Beast 2 solves this problem with a weapon striking out over a longer range which makes the ST version more playable (it also helps that it’s a far better port – still a little jerky and not as colourful but much closer to the Amiga game) so perhaps the developers learned some lessons.

The Verdict

Clearly the Amiga game isn’t perfect, it’s a tech demo and that’s ok, the art looks gorgeous, the music is wonderful and the game creates a great atmosphere. There’s value in that, the game isn’t super-inspired but there’s enough there that you can have some fun with even if I’m not generally a fan of single-plane side-scrolling punchers. At the time those visuals will have wowed people because of the huge sprites and the technical quality of the audio would have had jaws dropping, while now 30 years later the thing that gets our attention is the art. The art style is what makes a game’s visuals stand the test of time, not the number of huge sprites or how many polygons it has or being 4K or how many teraflops the console powering it requires. And in this case the art is gorgeous.

The problem however is that in a game that lives and dies on its art, visual and sonic, if transplanting that art loses significant amounts of quality then the game doesn’t really work anymore as it doesn’t have gameplay chops to back it up (and in this case the gameplay is worse, adding insult to injury). Worse still, the C64, while blessed with chunky pixels and rather rectangular trees, does a better job of retaining the spirit of the Amiga version than the ST does. Certainly I’d rather play that version, which is a damning indictment of the ST conversion.

How is the C64 version so good?

So, should you play it? Well, probably not if you have an Atari ST. The Amiga version is worth a go as a gorgeous tech demo, and you’ll have some fun with it. I’ve not yet played Beast 3 so can’t comment on that but I will just say that it’s probably wise to skip Beast 1 and go straight to 2 as it’s a far far better game, and the ST version is a far better conversion with its speed and lag issues less of an issue due to the longer-range weapon.

Resources

Manual: https://thecompany.pl/manual/190_shadow_of_the_beast-manual.pdf

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