I’ve never been the greatest fan of Shadow Of The Beast in its earliest incarnations.
The box art, the fantasy art inspired graphics and that scrolling definitely made for a heady mix on release. It was a mix that, for me anyway, the games could never hope to match and indeed, didn’t. Try as I might, there was little in the way of joy I could squeeze out of them. At their best they felt so much like faintly average platform games in a fancy coat and each iteration appeared to do little to change my opinions.
Yet, despite this, if you asked me to pin down what Shadow Of The Beast was, is, or should be, I would find myself pausing, not entirely sure of myself. It’s a videogame that exists in an almost liminal space, a hazy moment of nostalgia, a work of visual art in the transition from 8 to 16 bit, of a moment when the bedroom coder would be giving way to studios and brands and the videogame industry itself would never be the same again. That’s what Shadow Of The Beast is, something more than a videogame. It’s a point in time.
It helps, I’m sure, that the videogame part is so skeletal. There are a thousand ways to expand on it, a thousand different directions you can explore. My problem with it has always been that because it is so much less a videogame and more a moment, I’ve never found myself interested in anyone revisiting it. When a reboot was announced for the PS4, my first reaction was little more than “Why?” and a shrug.
With each trailer, all so focused on the combat system present in the new game, that why became overwhelming. Whatever Shadow Of The Beast is, it is not this, I thought.
And so I very nearly passed on the rebooted game entirely. In these times of videogame abundance it’s never been easier to pass on something. I understood that the team behind the reboot weren’t just doing this on a whim but still I thought “what use is Shadow Of The Beast in 2016? The moment for it has long gone.” and put it out of my mind.
This is, I’ll admit, hugely unfair. There are a great many fans of the videogame out there and not everything has to be for me, it’s perfectly okay for it to be made for them, whoever they may be. For me, Shadow Of The Beast’s time was on the Amiga and the Amiga is long dead.
I’m not sure what made me give the new version a punt now. Boredom, maybe? Out of all the videogames I could have been playing on the PS4, I guess there was still this curiosity around the game there. Like, how do you make a playable game out of Shadow Of The Beast? Can you even make a half decent game of Shadow Of The Beast?
I went in with low expectations, 30 years having done little to dim my memories of trying to get to grips with playing the original.
The thing is, it’s not half bad. It’s rough around the edges, it’s clearly overambitious, it’s slightly broken at times. These are pretty much all the qualities I admire in a videogame, you know? But what really took me by surprise was how, yes, this felt like it could be, should be, Shadow Of The Beast. That was not a feeling I was expecting to walk away with at all.
It is at its heart a slightly daft combo based scrapper game, tackle a bunch of enemies and try and come out with the highest score from each assault. It’s a game about punching things, mainly. Just, you know, it looks like a modern Shadow Of The Beast. It feels nice to play. It has the right sort of slightly strange Roger Dean painting come alive vibe that makes it slot neatly into the box labelled “Shadow Of The Beast”.
It is amply mysterious, slightly off kilter and sinister. There are moments of frustration as it’s clear that ambition beat resources at times – the tutorial is very full on, the bosses are, well, very videogame bosses but there’s something about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on that just works and it works in a way that, in my not so humble opinion, earns the right to the name Shadow Of The Beast. That’s more than enough, you know?
There’s a moment on the first stage where the camera pulls back as you climb this hill towards a very Roger Dean fortress. You remain in control the entire time, the beast becoming smaller as it climbs into the distance. Seconds later, it jolts you into a battle with some hooded folk but for that brief moment I could see where the game is reaching toward. That thing where no matter how scrappy the videogame turned out to be, you can see the thought and the consideration. How the game wanted me to feel bled through to reality and it just worked. The world felt so large, so overwhelming and I was only a tiny, inexplicable, part of it.
It was the vibe I would get from staring for far too long at the box art, that vibe of somewhere quite strange, of inexplicable structures, of mysterious forests and of course, of beasts.
It took just a moment to sell me on the game because sometimes, it’s the smallest things that endear me to something. Sometimes that’s just a small moment of the sublime in a scrappy videogame. Sometimes that’s so much more than enough. I know I’m easily pleased but I’ve enjoyed my time with the game. It might seem like small praise but it just feels right, like Shadow Of The Beast has finally found its videogame. And I dunno, I’m not sure I could ask for anything more from Shadow Of The Beast in 2018.