Clash at Demonhead is 8-bit gaming at its most charmingly eclectic. Developed by Vic Tokai and known as Dengeki Big Bang! in Japan, Clash is a metroidvania-style game with open-world platforming and nonlinear progression through its quirky world.
Unlike many of the earlier metroidvania games, it has an anime aesthetic and an intricate plot with a fair share of unexpected plot twists. Clash embraces its anime core with tongue-in-cheek dialogue and some of the most memorable boss battles of the NES era.
In terms of zaniness, Clash has no parallel. In terms of identity, there isn’t any other NES game quite like it.
The game starts out with Big Bang chilling at the beach with his girlfriend. Bang, who’s a member of the elite Saber Tigers, gets an emergency call informing him that the inventor of the Doomsday Bomb, Professor Plum, has been kidnapped. The Doomsday Bomb is literally that; an Earth killer. Bang rushes to battle (which is further emphasized by the fact that you don’t “start” the game, but rather “attack” it in the opening menu).
In the first stage, a skeletal figure tries to rush Bang with an aerial swipe. It turns out he’s the main villain of the game, Tom Guycot, the chief of the seven governors. “Talking time” commences, which are similar to manga panels where the characters engage in conversation. Guycot taunts you about your objective to retrieve the kidnapped Professor Plum. You have to find the medallions which are guarded by the governors, which he doesn’t think you can achieve.
Thanks for telling me exactly what I need to do video game villain!
Similar to some of my favorite games of the era like Zelda II, The Battle of Olympus, and Goonies II, Clash’s sidescrolling action has areas you can tackle in any order you’d like. The overworld map consists of 42 routes. The routes generally have you going from one end to the other, clearing out enemies, and procuring wads of cash. Some of the areas have multiple levels that take you up into the mountains, sink down into the ocean depths, and barely cross deadly lava pits.
The navigation can be a bit confusing on the overworld map since the actual routes only have their numbers show up if you’ve selected the area (I wish, similar to the way it is in Bionic Commando, destinations could have had numbers on top of them). In this case, a trusty paper-and-pen come in handy to chart the way. To alleviate some of the difficulties of backtracking, which you’ll have to do quite a bit, you gain special Force powers from a magical Hermit that allows teleportation to any route Bang has finished.
Yes, magic. The mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, weird anime moments, and platforming gaming helps weave together a gaming chimera that at times can feeling unwieldy, and others, refreshingly innovative.
The best part of the game is the strange bestiary of enemies, from persistent missile heads that cause big blasts, hopping monkey-like beasts that seem uncannily happy, and tiny helicopter heads with oversized eyes. The boss battles steal the show and are easily some of the most memorable villains of the NES era. Similar to anime episodes, each of the governors trash-talks Bang before the fight and are as defiant as they are absurd in their conception. There’s Pandar, who makes a clone of your girlfriend to attack you. Once you see through the illusion, Pandar tries to strike you with a column of panda heads. There’s Governor Flea Man who’s actually the size of a flea and jumps all over the place, unable to damage you because he’s so minuscule. The more you hit him, the bigger he gets until he ends up being one of the toughest bosses in the entire clash. I guess size really doesn’t matter.
With each boss, it’s almost like the developers were trying to outdo each previous design. Gajara is a horned dinosaur head riding a hover chariot that launches streams of fireballs to burn Bang up. Killer Shark has piranha hands and fires a trio of piranhas while teleporting from one side of the underwater structure to the next. Governor Kinokonma throws his mushroom head (complete with a cyclops eye) at Bang and tries to decapitate him. While the governors do have their patterns, there is just as much randomness to their attacks, meaning battles require more than memorization. It’s not possible just to mash the NES buttons and hope to emerge victorious.
Fortunately, as a member of the Saber Tigers, there are equipment upgrades to assist his journey. Decades before A Link Between Worlds made all items purchasable, Clash allowed players to buy their weapons at a portable store they can call from anywhere on the screen as long as they have a shop call (it’s important you always keep at least one in your inventory). By far the best items are the boots and rocket pack since both increase speed and mobility. The crystal armor ups defense and the big shot gives your shooter a power boost. You can also purchase ultra food that raise health and dynapunch to give you additional force. Even in the shop screen, Clash does things a bit differently. The shopkeeper is trying to make a living for his daughter, Suzy, who’s happily sitting in the corner. You pick up money from enemies, but you can also win it by gambling gold in the casino at Susie’s Exchange Shop. Again, these could have been generic screens, but the fact that Vic Tokai gave each screen a unique character is pretty cool.
Bang gains more health bars as he defeats certain governors. His Force powers also increase and these include micro power, which allows Bang to shrink and travel through tiny corridors; teleport, which lets you transport anywhere you’ve already been; and karate power, granting temporary invincibility and making some of the tougher battles more bearable. You can feel him getting stronger, and weirder, throughout the journey.
While the game lets you go anywhere you’d like, certain sequences have to be triggered for the story to progress at key moments. There’s a fairy called Faysha who’ll often prod you in the right direction by opening closed passages. There’s also a random ally named Michael who pops up from time to time to tell you where you should go.
No anime would be complete without its share of tragedy and Clash is no exception. One of your companions, fellow Saber Tiger, Joe, tried to stop Tom Guycot, but took a bad beating. He’s lies in a debilitated state at route 32, fatally injured. “I let you down,” he says, wounded.
Bang and Joe can talk multiple times, with Bang reassuring him each time he’ll return. Sadly, Joe’s condition gets worse until all that’s left are a pile of his bones. I was shocked, even if the remains are only sprites. While Joe’s corpse actually grants you additional items, I was outraged at what Tom Guycot had done to my friend.
Time for payback.
As Bang gets closer to gaining his revenge against Tom Guycot, he confronts a one-eyed demon who claims he’s reborn through human greed and deceit. The battle that follows is short as the demon destroys you one with blow. There’s no way to win this fight. You have to die, which, from a gaming perspective, is the perfect way to demonstrate the demon’s strength. It also shows how Vic Tokai wasn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and acknowledge that a game death isn’t actually a real death. After you continue, Bang concludes he can’t win and retreats.
In tropic anime fashion, it’s time to regroup and find a way to defeat the invincible enemy. The fairy, Faysha, urges Bang to get some advice from the Hermit. The wise old Hermit tells Bang he needs a secret weapon to face the Demon again.
Sword of Apollo, here we come!
On his way to a rematch, Bang meets Tom Guycot. But it’s not a battle to the death that awaits. Tom has been badly injured by the Demon. In one of the biggest surprises of the game, the character I thought was the main villain of Clash dies from the wounds the Demon inflicted. The most interesting part is that during the “talk time,” I almost felt pity for Guycot and how pathetic his death was. This was the guy I wanted to crush just a minute ago.
Gaining the Sword of Apollo evens the odds and while it’s a hard fight, at least your blows land. After defeating the Demon, the last remaining goal is to make sure the Doomsday Bomb doesn’t go off and destroy the planet. Once you rescue Professor Plum, he sets off a suicide bomb, killing himself in the process.
Had we just failed our mission?
When you defeat what you think is yet another final boss, you meet an alien being who reveals they were the ones behind the entire conflict. “A millennium has passed since we made you humans, and it seems we’ve made a mistake,” the alien states (I could almost imagine hear its voice in a diabolically robotic tone). “Mankind will destroy its own civilization.”
Clash actually has two endings and in one of them, you fail to stop the bomb. The planet explodes and the ensuing The End screen is a big “git gud” scolding from the developers. It also means the alien was right. Humanity brought about its own destruction.
In the second ending, which is the “happy” ending, Bang is able to dismantle the bomb in time. The Hermit arrives on a cloud and offers to take Bang on as a pupil. Bang declines, stating, “Sorry, I’m going to make a game based on my adventure.”
I laughed hard, grateful for Bang’s choice.
Bang then “realizes” what’s most important to him and stands dramatically with his girlfriend Mary by his side.
I can see why almost anyone who’s played Clash at Demonhead holds it in such high regard. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s even pays homage to the game in his Scott Pilgrim series. While the game isn’t without its flaws (repetitive music and somewhat floaty controls), it does so many things right that long after the clash is over, you’ll be like me, engaging in talk time with friends, telling them why humanity is screwed unless everyone races toward Demonhead.