Back in the halcyon days of the NES, there were a ton of developers cranking out games for the little gray box. Aside from the visionaries at Nintendo and the studios like Konami and Capcom that would later becomes AAA developers themselves, and even in those aforementioned offices, there was a tough balance to strike between putting out games that followed successful-but-saturated formulas that might not stand out and trying to get too creative and getting bogged down in your own ambition. We’ve all seen games in our time that tried too hard to think outside the box and just got lost entirely, but sometimes, just sometimes, a developer manages to get take elements of what we know works and add just the right amount of new creativity, and in 1989, relatively obscure studio Vic Tokai happened upon a pretty tasty recipe in today’s game, Clash at Demonhead.
Clash at Demonhead features you in the role of Bang. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Bang, get your jokes out now, I know I did. Bang is The Only Man for the Job™ that is thwarting a doomsday plot to blow up the earth with a massive bomb called the Dead End. You’ll avert the apocalypse by obtaining six medallions scattered throughout the land that are required to defuse the device by defeating the bosses that have pilfered them. What we have here, then, is a mix of side-scrolling action and non-linear adventure, as the game world here is broken up into a number of interconnecting stages called routes, and you’re allowed to decide your own path through the routes to locate bosses, upgrades, and allies along the way. It’s a little bit of Castlevania II mixed with a pinch of Metroid with a scoop of Contra.
Unlike Metroid, though, where you’re all alone to figure out which way is up, or Castlevania II, where you get the vaguest of hints, other characters do make appearances at times to tell you which way you should be going, and not like “hey, maybe you should check out the area around the southeastern lake”, but actual concrete directions like “hey, go to Route 15.” Now, the manual suggests you take the time to write these pointers down when you’re told them, and quite honestly, that’s not bad advice, as you’re only told these things once, and there’s no notepad or clue list to pull up if your forget where you’re supposed to be going. You’re even equipped with a map you can pull up with Start to see what route you’re on and where you’re going, but unfortunately, the routes aren’t numbered unless you’ve just finished a stage, and even then, you can only see which routes are adjacent to you. That said, that’s still more navigational help than you got in those other two games, so every bit helps.
Another layer of the gameplay is the inclusion of items you can purchase like special weapons, boots that increase your speed and jumping power, a straight-up jetpack, and food you can munch on to regain lost energy. You can pick up cash from defeated enemies and spend them in a shop you can actually call on, which drops an icon on-screen that will take you right to the shop, as long as you’re above ground. While that’s a cool feature, you have to actually buy these shop calls yourself; if you forget to re-up while you’re shopping, you’ll have to physically travel to the shop’s location, which is very inconvenient if you’re on the other side of the map and in need of supplies. Not only that, the shop won’t always carry certain items in stock all the time, so if you’d like to buy a jetpack and the shop just doesn’t have any, too bad. Oddly enough, this is also where you buy Microtransmitters, which provide your (extremely long and unwieldy) passwords. Aside from money, you can also collect Force points, which can be used to trigger a handful of magical abilities if you’ve rescued a certain character. Some of these are particularly useful, like Energizer, which refills your lifebar entirely, instead of one bar at a time like the food or collectible hearts, or Teleport, which allows you to warp to any route that you have traversed from start to finish already.
Of course, this being a game from the NES’s Golden Age, the difficulty level is going to be a make-or-break issue. Clash at Demonhead isn’t nefariously brutal in its difficulty like Ninja Gaiden, nor does it require nearly Jedi-level reflexes like Battletoads, but it’s not quite a cakewalk. In a weird sort of way, I wouldn’t describe it as hard, per se, but it’s certainly frustrating at times. There’s not really many insta-death pits or overpowered enemies, and you yourself can soak up quite a bit of damage, but at the same time, it’s a good thing you can take a lot of punishment, because this game is masterful at the strategy of “slowly but surely pecking you to death over time.” Most enemies fire projectiles at you at pretty much the same speed you move at, and don’t usually have a tell as to when they’re going to attack, so there’s going to be a lot of times when you’re trying to jump to shoot at an enemy in the air and walk right into a bullet. Being in the water slowly drains your health unless you manage to skip along the surface, and even if you can nail that timing, your jumps are gonna put you in the path of every enemy’s projectiles along the way.
Another issue is the hitboxes; your hitbox is massive, but the enemies have hitboxes that pretty much require you to hit them dead center, which makes dealing with bouncing enemies or ones that fly in an annoying circular pattern as they move toward you an absolute crapshoot, which wouldn’t be as bad, but you can only have a couple of your shots on-screen at a time, so you can’t just unleash a wall of fire for them to plow into. You can duck enemy fire, but unless there’s an ocean of clearance space between you and the bullet, you’re going to get hit, even if it’s clear that it passed over your hair. That’s not even getting into some of the jumping; some jumps require you to be nearly pixel-perfect in your takeoff point, or else you just won’t make it. Now, if you have a jetpack, that becomes less of a problem, but even then, you start to wonder why they put these precision jumps in the game at all if they allowed you a way to bypass them entirely. However, even with all these complaints, they’re more of ones that’ll make you mumble curses under your breath as you progress instead of throwing the game out the window.
There’s a pretty quality visual style here. Most of the important moments in the plot are handled with a split dialogue screen featuring the characters’ portraits on opposite sides, and Bang’s anime-esque facial expressions are a highlight. The dialogue itself is competent, there aren’t any particularly glaring translation errors or nonsensical lines, but obviously, this isn’t a Metal Gear Solid game. You’d also be advised to at least read the manual before playing, if for no other reason than characters pop up that are never explained in the game, and while you’re probably here more for the gameplay than the story, it does help make things feel a little less incoherent. One thing that needs pointing out is that this is one of the rare NES games to feature multiple endings, which change based on the result of a puzzle at the end of the game, and although one feels, well, kinda unfulfilling, it does add some additional stakes to the proceedings, which is always welcome.
Historically, Clash at Demonhead is in a weird spot. It’s clearly very good, and most everyone who’s aware of its existence agrees on its quality, and it does an admirable job combining non-linear adventure with a semblance of a plot and some enjoyable action sequences. It’s not quite quiet enough to be a truly hidden game, I don’t believe, but it’s also not really widespread enough for “cult classic” status, but ultimately, wherever you want to place it, it is certainly a well-made, ambitious romp that doesn’t get too cute that the hardware couldn’t accommodate what the developers tried to do or the gameplay, and despite the occasionally annoying aspects in the difficulty, it’s certainly beatable without outside help or divine intervention. I highly recommend it for action fans, NES fans that might not have stumbled upon it, or anyone who just wants to know what the band in that god-awful movie was referencing.
Non-linear design encourages exploration, a litany of useful items for purchase, handles its plot very well.
Clunky password system if you’re playing it legit, you may get lost if you skip over certain dialogue, and the Death by a Thousand Cuts difficulty can get aggravating.