Thirty Thousand Streets

Sunday, July 26, 2009


An enduring, marginally endearing memory of my secondary-school era was of traipsing to my classmate Chris Pinchbeck's basement in Heaton Norris to play (or mostly watch him play, in all honesty) the new generation of computer games on his then state of the art Amiga 500.

Having not even graduated from the last generation of 8-bit gaming – a realm populated by machines such as C64 and even then venerable Spectrum 48k – I was gobsmacked at the sophistication of the graphics and sound-card, which seemed little different from arcade quality. My awed reaction to this new technology was probably comparable to that of say, the French infantry at the battle of Agincourt, finding themselves outgunned to an absurd degree by the English Longbow, a kind of "OMFG!" moment, followed by: "I gotta gets me one of these..."

One of the games that captivated me the most was 'Shadow of the Beast II' a sideways scrolling platform-cum-roleplaying game, where you controlled a ball and chain wielding beast man, questing through a perilous landscape to wrest your kidnapped sister from the clutches of some generic 'dark lord' type.

Gameplay was short in evidence, in all honesty, and the most expedient way of getting anywhere in it was the cheat where you asked a pygmy for ten pints and were rewarded with invulnerability. But where it did succeed was the gorgeous parallax scrolling graphics, which had a peculiarly lurid flavour – like wandering through a stack of seventies prog-rock LPs.

Indeed, the cover for the game was created by artist Roger Dean, responsible for amongst other things, the original Virgin Records logo and covers of various albums by bands such as Asia – which effectively informed the game's dark, vaguely psychedelic feel.

And having also designed their logo, Dean seems to have set a creative precedent for the label's house style, if not quite formed a creative partnership outright. All their games tended to feature baroque, ornate seventies-style letterforms in their logotypes, and seemed defined by a visual language more redolent of a florid Jack Vance novel, than a supposedly cutting edge games company. Indeed, as with the aforementioned SOTB II, they often seemed to indulge in graphical showboating at the expense of playability, must of the games usually being so-so to play, whilst remaining visually arresting (bar, perhaps Lemmings). And it's a trade-off that worked, really. Their unusual visual identity was immediately recognisable, and the company still has something of a cult following to this day.

Now. I own a much-loved promotional T-shirt for the first Shadow of the Beast game, which is now somewhat cracked and faded, so have set up a Google alert for "shadow of the beast shirt" which yesterday dropped this link into my inbox:

Which is basically a French fan/tribute site to the label, with a pretty comprehensive list of all the games Psygnosis produced, some of which induce some heavy waves of nostalgia in this blogger.

Amongst the oddities on display are Agony, a sideways scrolling shoot-em-up in which, in characteristically odd Psygnosis fashion, you play the chrome owl featured in their logo (rather than say, a spaceship) spitting bolts of energy from its beak. There's actually a video of someone playing it to completion on Youtube, and yes, it looks somewhat tedious after a while, but hey, great visuals! Here's a shorter clip:

Also included on the site are assorted press clippings and reviews from French gaming magazines. One review by 'Dogue de mauve' of War of the Worlds blast-em-up 'Walker' seems to sum up much of Pysgnosis's ouevre when he notes in the bulleted Top/Flop section 'le action est trop repetitive."

Inevitably perhaps, the things that most piqued my interest here were the promotional merchandise, such as various Roger Dean designed T-shirts for both Beast games, along with a Pygnosis logo-shirt. There were also a range of pin-badges (which you can see in the 'Goodies' section) that I'd reet like to get my feelers on (me and the rest of ebay, no doubt).

So there you have it. A blast of shameless nostalgia from my adolescence, which I hope you'll permit me, internets. And it is at the very least interesting to note, that while the playability of these games in question isn't in itself very memorable, the graphic language surrounding it is, as a retro-retro gaming oddity.

I'll leave you with the faintly homoerotic game over sequence from Shadow of the Beast II, which is kind of Dire Straits meets Michael Moorcock. Enjoy.

No comments: