by Jess Hart
Welcome to The Lesser Canon, a series where we examine pop culture artifacts of varying quality and slim acclaim which have nonetheless left fingerprints on the geek zeitgeist. Today we're going to tackle an NES classic that could only have come from Americans translating a Japanese game translating American action films through a lens of Japanese storytelling: Vic-Tokai's 1989 supernatural spy adventure Clash at Demonhead.
Released under the name Blitz Big Bang in Japan, the game follows Bang, a secret agent of S.A.B.R.E. (Special Assault Brigade for Real Emergencies) tasked to rescue Professor Plum before the evil skeleton Tom Guycot can use his Doomsday Bomb.
The names in this game are absurd in a way that only a classic Japan-to-America translations can be.
Bang has to collect six medallions divided up among the seven governors of Demonhead (yes, one of the bosses doesn't even have a medallion) while simultaneously stopping the awakening of an evil demon trapped within the mountain. As his journey unfolds he learns to use magical Force techniques (yes, like a Jedi) and obtains upgraded equipment to unlock a variety of new abilities. The bomb ends up being made of alien technology, the aliens (who created humans 1,000 years ago, apparently) are tired of humanity's violence, Bang disarms the bomb and saves humanity, and he decides he needs to make a video game based on his adventures. Tale as old as time.
What makes Clash at Demonhead stand out -- other than that it's referenced as a band name in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- is that it is a nonlinear adventure platformer wherein the player chooses their route throughout the game between stages, with over 40 different available paths to take and multiple hidden points throughout stages. Far from being the standard "move right and shoot" platform adventure, Clash at Demonhead took a huge step toward what gamers nowadays would know as an open world.
Vic-Tokai was coming hot off the success of innovative games like Bump 'n' Jump and Golgo 13, eschewing the copycat model of most studios emulating hit titles with minor tweaks and instead looking for new ways to use the video game format. As bizarre as the story and setup for Clash at Demonhead may be, the sheer quantity of equipment, abilities, paths, and options available extend the playability of the game far beyond that of a linear platformer, and allow for a variety of playing styles to be used to complete the game. Twitchier players can opt for the faster-moving, rapid-fire equipment upgrades, while more methodical players can suit up with tougher armor and bigger guns, and out-of-the-box thinkers can improve Force skills and come at the game with a variety of special moves. The Governors can be defeated in any order, the story progresses gradually based on your achievements, and the mystery of Demonhead (however insane it ends up resolving) keeps the player invested in pursuing the goal of the story. It is, in essence, a prototype of the action RPG style that will eventually evolve into Mass Effect, Fallout, BioShock, and so many others.
Though it didn't exactly set the world on fire with greatness and launch a storm of sequels, imitators, and spin-offs, Clash at Demonhead remains an innovative entry in NES history and a huge swing for Vic-Tokai to take out of nowhere. Though oft-forgotten and seldom-missed, Clash at Demonhead holds a special place in The Lesser Canon, serving as a glimpse of what gaming would look like in the future.
Jess Hart is the lead word scribbler at Dying of Exposure. Having read more books than is reasonable and being an old man he enjoys both literature and classic video games (and model-T fords, waving at leaving ships on the docks, and the stick and hoop game).