Agony (1992) By:Art & Magic / Psygnosis Genre:Shooting Players:1 Difficulty:Medium Featured Version:Commodore Amiga First Day Score: 93,136 Also Available For:Nothing
Shmups have come in all manner of shapes and sizes over the long years of their existence, which is as many years as videogames have been around themselves, in fact. Most of them put you in command of an aircraft or spaceship, some cast you as a lone wizard or warrior of some sort, taking on the evildoers on foot, but there have been very few animal-based shooters. The Amiga is home to two notable examples however, both of which were released in the same year. Almost certainly the most memorable of the two, all things considered, was Agony. Even on a system not particularly associated with arcade-style shooters, it earned attention from all quarters, at least here in the UK during what was probably the genre's heyday. Most marvelled at the impressive artwork, both promotional and in-game, but how does it stand up today?
One of the most memorable things about the actual game itself was that it cast you as a barn owl of all things. This ghostly flapper, however, was actually a wizard apprentice named Alestes, and the game's six stages comprise a test devised by his master. Success means being granted the secret of Cosmic Power which I'm guessing must be pretty cool. The stages are all horizontally-scrolling and, much like everything else about the game, they are Gothic fantasy themed and filled with scary creatures and monsters aplenty. Given the setting, you might expect Alestes' means of dealing with these foul denizens to be magical, but it's actually a bit more novel than that - he, taking advantage of his host's unique abilities, instead uses echo-location 'waves' which, unbeknownst to countryside-dwellers nationwide, apparently have destructive powers!
The size/power of the wave can be increased by collecting power-ups (check out the difference in the screenshots) and you can also collect swords which act as barriers above and below Alestes, and there are also eight magic spells you can use. The effect of each is temporary but they include projectile attacks and shields so they're mighty useful. In all, you should have enough to take on the ghastly creatures found here which are a mixture of animals like spiders and fish and stuff (probably evil versions), and more nightmarish monsters, presumably visiting from hell. They come in a variety of sizes with some of the larger ones even producing smaller ones, and the end of each stage is home to the biggest examples yet. Alestes' flappy host isn't durable though, and will explode in a puff of feathers if touched by any enemy or the bullets they spew forth, but he does get a few lives and restart points are generous, so it's not all doom and gloom.
It's actually a rather easy game for the first three or four stages, but there is a sharp increase in difficulty towards the end. Agony was always more about the aesthetics than the gameplay for most gamers of the day though, and those aspects still impress. Technically it's mostly excellent, featuring gorgeous backgrounds, fantastic static artwork between stages, imaginative enemies, lovely owl animation, and smooth parallax as he flies through the stages. The music includes a Tim Wright piano composition for the title/intro screens as well as in-game tunes, and it is also superb. It's a little loud but it's also dramatic and atmospheric and suits the action very well. There is a bit of flicker when things get busy and many of the enemies don't stand out much against the backgrounds, but they are about the only negatives as far as the audio/visuals are concerned.
I actually thought the lovely level graphics might impair the gameplay at first, but despite the extensive scenery you have full use of the entire screen - only the enemies and their bullets cause damage, although you'll also have to deal with elemental attacks during the last few rather more hellish stages. It's definitely a more enjoyable game than I was expecting though, given its tarty reputation. The setting/theme - particularly the player character - makes it more appealing than would've been if it was yet another military or space-based shooter, and it's nice to play an example that isn't ultra-hard too. It's pretty generic from a design point of view, admittedly, but the Amiga isn't exactly heaving under the weight of quality shmups and Agony is a unique example with really nice audio/visuals. It's almost more a work of art than a mere game...
RKS Score: 8/10
Gameplay Video: here's a video of the whole game being played by one of the talented fellows at World of Longplays (check out their great channel here). Oh, and don't watch if you want to avoid spoilers!