Monday, May 6, 2013

Devil's Crush (NAXAT Soft, 1990)

In my last review on Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja I waxed nostalgic on the days of arcades. These days, there are many who don't even realize that arcades have actually been around longer than the existence of the video game industry. What could people possibly do in an arcade without video games? Well, once upon a time, arcades provided entertainment through mechanical means, rather than digital. I am of course referring to pinball. Pinball machines were once a mainstay of pop culture. Almost every bar or nightclub would have at least one in a corner somewhere.

These days most people only experience pinball through their digital recreations. Video games have long tried to capture the essence of the pinball experience in digital form. Most of these try to either recreate actual pinball machines, or create new designs that at least could possibly exist in the physical world if anybody really wanted to build them. But in the world of video games where anything is possible, why limit yourself to the constraints of reality? Why not try to push things a bit farther and see what happens? Well, a couple of decades ago, a company called NAXAT Soft decided to do just that.

Devil's Crush for the TurboGrafx-16 (or PC Engine if you're on the other side of the pond) was the second of a handful of imaginative pinball games made by NAXAT back in the late 80s and early 90s. The first of the series, Alien Crush, actually got a modern remake on the Wii a few years back. There was also a port of Devil's Crush for the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, the pond thing again) renamed Dragon's Fury.

What makes these games different from other pinball games is that the tables are filled with living crawling creatures that you battle with the pinball. This entry into the series has an occult theme, so the table is populated with monsters, demons, dragons, hooded monks, sword wielding knights, and other such beings. They don't just hang around in one place either, they wander around the board as would be expected from a standard video game enemy. Striking one of these creatures will usually cause the ball to bounce off as if striking a standard pinball machine bumper, and will destroy or damage whatever was struck. Many of them will respawn once you've destroyed the entire group, allowing the game to continue indefinitely until you eventually lose. The larger creatures that require multiple hits to destroy will look different after each hit, showing more and more damage, to both allow you to track your damage, and encourage you to keep at it. One of the largest is a face of a woman in an armored helmet, who transitions into the face of a dragon after enough shots.

The main table consists of three interconnected areas, each about the size of the screen. As the ball travels up and down the table, the screen will smoothly scroll to follow it. Each of these areas has its own set of paddles. This allows you to play in different areas at different times and changes the feel of the table depending on which set you are currently in. If the ball slips past the paddles it moves down to the next lower area, and the ball is only lost when it slips past the bottom-most set. As you can imagine, trying to keep the ball at the top of the table is a good strategy to adopt early, and learning how best to get the ball up to higher areas is one of the more important skills to develop in this game.

In addition to the main table, there are also sub tables that act as bonus areas. If you manage to get the ball into the right spot at the right time, you are taken to an entirely new single screen area with what feels like a boss battle. These screens generally have one or two larger enemies to do battle with. You'll stay in this area either until the enemies have been defeated, or until you miss the ball and it rolls off the bottom of the screen. Either way, the ball is then returned to the same spot on the main table, and the game continues on where you left off. These screens are always exciting, and offer a great change of scenery seldom offered in a pinball game. It's yet another example of how a pinball machine in a video game shouldn't have to follow the same rules that the real machines do.

Without a doubt, the single most important aspect of a pinball video game is the physics emulation. It's something that even modern games can get still wrong. When I first played Devil's Crush, I was worried about how well it was going to handle this on 1990 technology. Somehow they managed to pull it off wonderfully. Those pixelated sprites zoom around the 2D table with all the weight and friction you'd expect. You can even start a game in slow mode to have a little extra reaction time, without sacrificing the physics reactions.

Graphically, Devil's Crush is what I'd imagine a 16-bit Gauntlet release might have looked like. It's dark and creepy and just crawling with evil monsters of all sizes. The creatures themselves remind me a lot of the Doom series. The sound is mostly your typical pinball sounds with the occasional monster noise. A large skull near the bottom of the table lets out a menacing laugh every time you lose, making it all the more satisfying each time you manage to nail it with a well aimed shot. There's not a lot of variety in the music, but the few tracks they have are great! The main song that plays while in game is the closest FM music can get to gothic progressive metal. Imagine a synthesized blend of Nightwish and Symphony X. Somewhere on the net there has to be a recording of some random band covering it, but I haven't gotten around to looking for it yet.

I had a TurboGrafx-16 back when they were still the new thing, but I never played Devil's Crush on it. Actually I never heard of it until I got a Wii and was researching virtual console games. It was the second virtual console game I downloaded, right after Super Mario Bros. 3, and I've enjoyed it ever since. If you're looking for a realistic pinball simulation, this isn't it. But, if you want to see what pinball could be without the constraints of reality, Devil's Crush is an addictive place to start.

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