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Backlog Challenge 2014 - Clash at Demonhead

Saving the world through backtracking.
Saving the world through backtracking.

Clash at Demonhead


Before anyone asks, yes, I'd heard of this game before I read Scott Pilgrim.

Taking a step back for the sake of perspective in any field can be an extremely illuminating experience, and in addition to general ease of access (I mean come on, who doesn't still own a full complement of game consoles stretching back decades?) it's been one of the primary reasons that so many of the backlog games I've tackled this year have hailed from the 8- and 16-bit days. Generally speaking, the further back you go in gaming history the rougher overall design gets, reflecting the unique combination of uncertainty and freedom bred by the lack of successful formulas to follow at the time.

Clash at Demonhead (also known as Dengeki Big Bang! in its country of origin) is exactly this variety of rough-around-the-edges: Handling is extremely off, with high and loose jumps an awkward mismatch for slow and stiff running speed; Prominent - though admittedly not required - aspects of the game are barely if at all touched upon in the game itself, leaving their discovery largely to chance; If my count is correct there are only three songs in the entire game, each as aggravatingly repetitive as it is ultimately catchy; Even locating many of the bosses required to defeat the game is left up to persistence and good fortune, not a clue to their locations to be found. And yet, for all of these problems, I can't help but love this game.

It's exactly that sense of experimentation and freedom that make the off-the-beaten-path nature of the game as endearing as it can be infuriating. I went all-out trying to recreate the experience I would've had playing Demonhead as a child at its retail release, with nothing but a notebook, a pencil, and my wits to guide me to victory. For the most part this worked in my favor and deepend the sense of accomplishment as I stumbled from event to event, but on a few occasions I was forced to consult an FAQ for a hint, more often than not to verify whether the strategy I was using on a given boss was actually working.

It wasn't.

Oh well, nobody said becoming a secret agent and fighting your way through several monstrous "governors" to get at their possibly demonic, possibly alien boss and rescue the inventor of the Doomsday Bomb (for peaceful purposes, I'm sure) would be easy. If that sentence sounded absolutely bonkers to you, don't worry. That means you're still sane. You have to admit, though, that sounds like the best bad movie plot you've ever heard, and I'd be lying if I tried to claim that it had nothing to do with my becoming enamored with the game during my month with it. Tone has historically shaded my opinion of games considerably, and Clash at Demonhead's evokes equal parts classic Metroid and Troll 2 in all the right ways, right down to the clunky dialogue. USE SCIENCE CORRECTLY!

But Demonhead's got more going for it than just a heaping serving of narm charm. Despite the complaints I led off my impressions with, there's a decent bit of forward thinking going on under the hood here. Items with power meters that you can stash back in your inventory for further use before fully expending, a shop able to be summoned from nearly any area (provided you've got the associated item), and water that drains health to move through as opposed to causing instant death or having zero effect at all are uncommon sights for games from this era and welcome additions to the adventure. Fairly aggressive off-screen respawns of the increasingly erratic enemies are a stark reminder that you're still in the early days. You know what though, game? That's just fine. If you get to unendingly resurrect monsters if I juke just a pixel too far, then you won't mind if I just make those static health drops reappear ad infinitum. Deal? Deal.

After a lot of trial and error - including one full restart because I didn't know that there was a shop location on the map - I blundered my way through Demonhead, disarmed the bomb, and enjoyed one of the most concisely bizarre endings to a game I think I've ever seen. All par for the course after fighting countless goons with heads shaped like sex toys and drinking sodas sold at retail for magical power. One day I'll come back to this game with a full guide to make sure I didn't miss anything, but for now, mission accomplished.

CHALLENGE: cleared