Thursday, December 12, 2019

Game 122: Demon Attack

Imagic was the second ever third-party developer for the Atari VCS, and was composed of ex-Atari and Mattel employees. Their first of many games in 1982, and one of their biggest hits, was Demon Attack, a Galaxian-style vertical shmup. Atari sued over alleged similarities to Phoenix – another Galaxian-style vertical shmup which Atari had exclusive VCS distribution rights over, but I played Phoenix prior to this entry and didn’t see a strong resemblance apart from the broad genre format and some vaguely bird-like demons.

The manual describes what little plot Demon Attack has to offer – you are marooned on the ice planet Krybor, where legions of snarling demons from who-knows-where hover ominously. You must attack them with your Laser Cannon, or be destroyed! Of course, you’ll be destroyed anyway, but it’s the principal of dying with the highest score.

As with Atari’s own games on the system, Demon Attack has a selection of game modes, albeit a conservative 10, which is a bit less than the median multi-mode Atari game, and tiny compared to the excessive 112 in Space Invaders. The first eight are simply the full set of combinations of three settings:
  • 1 player / 2 players alternating
  • Normal shots / tracer shots
  • Normal play / advanced play

Tracer shots would be better labeled “guided shots,” and cause your in-flight projectiles to move left and right with your cannon. Your base also moves considerably faster. “Advanced play” essentially means beginning on wave 9, where demons are worth 30-120 points (the scores max out at 35-140 on wave 11).

Modes 9 and 10 are a “special” co-op mode where control of the laser cannon alternates between players every four seconds. Mode 9 otherwise mirrors standard gameplay, and mode 10 features tracer shots for both players, but is incorrectly labeled “advanced play.” Nice try making a novel co-op mode, but alternating control was lame in Space Invaders, and it’s still lame here.

Difficulty switches affect how aggressively the demons fire. I preferred playing with the harder, more aggressive demon setting.

At the time, the closest point of comparison on the platform would have been Atari’s Space Invaders, but there are significant differences. Space Invaders had 36 invaders on screen at a time, which moved in a simple, uniform pattern. Demon Attack only allows up to six demons on-screen at a time, in three ranks, and only one is ever an active threat at any given moment, but they swoop around the screen, back and forth, up and down, in erratic and difficult-to-predict patterns, even pursuing the player and leading the player in their shots.

Mode 1: Demon Attack

Mode 1 is the standard game, starting with easy waves which gradually become more difficult, and with normal, unguided shots.

For the first few waves, only three demons will be on-screen at once. Two demons will never occupy the same rank, and only the demon in the lowest rank will ever fire on you. They’re pretty wide targets, but their unpredictable swooping motions make hitting them a challenge. The easiest time to hit them is also the riskiest; the vanguard demon will hold still before and during firing. If he stops directly above you, and you fire first, you’re all but guaranteed to hit, but you risk getting hit back if you can’t move out of the way fast enough, or if the fire pattern forces you into a corner. Kill the shooter, and either a new demon will spawn in its place, the demons above will descend and the next-lowest demon will become the new shooter. There will be five demon reinforcements per wave, for a total of eight demons.

It’s important to always bear in mind that only the vanguard demon is a threat. The rest are harmless targets of opportunity, though they are more difficult to hit.

Starting on the fifth wave, hitting a demon will cause it to split into two smaller ones; a feature likely cribbed from Space Invaders Part II. These pairs will always occupy the same horizontal scanline, moving up and down in perfect synchronicity, unless you kill one of them. Small demons are worth double the points.

Whenever you split a large demon, the small demon which goes off to the left will be designated a shooter. It won’t actually shoot at you unless/until it’s in the vanguard (i.e. if you split a large demon in the rear ranks), and until then, it will just flutter around, even more difficult to hit than the large ones. The small demon which goes off to the right will NEVER shoot at you.

If two small demons are in the vanguard, the shooter will fire, with a bit less firepower than a large demon, but they’re all the more dangerous just for being trickier to hit. Kill the shooter, and the other demon will swoop down at you. Kill the non-shooter, and the shooter will stop shooting and swoop down at you. Likewise, if one small demon is in the vanguard (i.e. you killed its partner previously), it will swoop down at you.

Killing the swoopers is optional, as they die when they hit the floor, but is key to getting a high score, because they’re worth quadruple points. They swoop fast, and their back-and-forth, downward, parabolic motion means some very tricky timing is involved. But, unlike fluttering demons, they’re predictable. Once I figured out the timing to hit them reliably, and the sound effects proved useful in nailing this, I did this as much as possible. In fact, I found this much easier than hitting the final Space Invader.

I managed to reach wave 11, where the scores max out at 35 points per large demon, 70 points per small demon, and 140 points per swooper. At this point, it wasn’t long before survival was just too difficult; the demons’ shots would often track my laser cannon, which at close range was really quite deadly, and I’d lose lives faster than I could gain them.

Mode 5: Advanced Demon Attack

This is the same as Demon Attack, except that it appears to start at wave 9. Large demons split right away, point values are 30-60-120, and by the third wave they max out at 35-70-140 and the demons move and fire with fast, aggressive patterns characteristic of the standard game’s 11th wave.

It also didn’t take long before UFO-like demons started appearing, which are the worst kind of demon in the game. They’re large, which means more firepower, but they pulsate, which makes hitting them a nightmare.

By skipping the earlier, easier stages, you also have less of an opportunity to rack up extra lives.

Mode 7: Advanced Tracer Demon Attack

Oh, boy. The tracer shots here take some getting used to, but are so overpowered when you do. I could probably play this mode forever, but I eventually got bored, and quit once I hit 100,000 points. It’s because of this that I didn’t bother posting about mode 3, which is just tracer shots with the standard difficulty.

Tracer shots move in-flight with your cannon, always being horizontally aligned with it. This does necessitate a different strategy; you can no longer fire at a demon and move out of the way, because this will also cause your shot to move out of the way. But with guided shots, it’s a bit easier to hit the demons which AREN’T firing at you, which I often found to be the more optimal strategy. When facing demon pairs in the vanguard before, I’d prefer to target the shooter and then turn its partner into a swooper. In this mode, I’d prefer to target the fluttering partner and turn the shooter into a swooper. In either case, my strategy for hitting the swooper was the same – hold still, wait until it’s about to fly above me, and shoot straight.

GAB rating: Good

Demon Attack is top-tier for the VCS, though that’s only saying so much. I had fun with it, and Imagic did more than enough to make it stand out among a sea of Space Invaders and Galaxian clones despite the system’s limitations, but it’s hard for me to get excited about it in 2019 when Galaxian, Galaga, Centipede, and Phoenix are readily available on MAME. Even in 1982, the Atari 400/800 line would have offered a superior arcade-at-home experience, albeit at a high price. Had I owned an Atari VCS back then, I would have been pleased to own both Space Invaders and Demon Attack, as both games have strengths over the other. It’s just a pity that Space Invaders’ best feature, two-player simultaneous play, isn’t part of this game, or it could have been the ultimate Invaderslike.

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