Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Agony (Amiga)

Today I'm taking a look at classic Amiga shoot 'em up Agony, another game request.

I have played this before, but fortunately I always got wiped out about 10 seconds into level one, so everything past that will all be new to me. If I can get that far.

I love flashy intro logos when they're done right, with a bit of dramatic music in the background. In so many games I can't skip the things fast enough, but in this case they've managed to use this sequence to build up some atmosphere and add a bit of class to the game.

Bonus points for starting with a 'plug this shit into your speaker system and turn it up loud' image. I'll do that!

Alestes metamorphoses into an owl. The time to fight has come.
The game starts with beautiful piano track by Lemmings and Shadow of the Beast 2 (and 3) composer Tim Wright. Honestly, this is the last kind of music you'd ever expect to hear in a shoot 'em up, but it sounds fantastic. Here, have a youtube link, listen to it yourself. Weirdly this isn't what the song was supposed to sound like; the developers swapped in better quality piano samples, but apparently one ended up in the wrong octave. Personally I think the song sounds better with the mistake.

This screenful of text seems to be all the story the game's willing to share with me. No idea who Alestes is, or who we're fighting, or why. But it's a shoot 'em up, so it's not like it matters.

Agony Amiga level 1 loading screen
If all games had loading screens that looked like this, I wouldn't complain so much about loading times. That's some of the best artwork I've ever seen on an Amiga, or any 16-bit system for that matter.

Agony amiga psygnosis owl animation
Holy shit that looks awesome. The animation of the owl and the waves is near flawless. Hey wait, is this game about the actual Psygnosis logo owl?

I had to cheat a bit to get this animation looking right, because the game flickers between two gradients in the background to create the illusion that there's more colours on screen than there actually is. The rest of the screenshots will have less shades because they'll only catch one of the backgrounds, but this is what it looks like to the player.

Damn, I think I've figured out why they called the game 'Agony'. This music is making my ears bleed. It doesn't help that they tricked me into turning my volume up. Here, listen to it yourself on youtube if you're curious. Orchestra hits are not a substitute for a melody!

Sadly these flying enemy super-fish don't have any animation, and my owl's energy bullet attack is a bit underwhelming. It kills them in one hit sure, but it doesn't exactly glow with pure destructive fury.

No no, don't make the enemies the same colour as the background! How is it even possible to have an art team this talented, and make that mistake? It's not like they don't have the colours to spare, those floating alien muscle-fish stood out just fine.

I think they want me to collect that green flask. Well, if they insist! Fortunately my rate of fire increases as I get closer to enemies (I'm guessing it's because there's a limit to the number of owl bullets allowed on screen) so getting past the potato monster to make my escape wasn't a problem.

The potion turned out to be a power up for my... I dunno, is it an eye beam maybe? Anyway I've got bigger bullets now and can deal out more damage. Also I just learned that this scenery is actually all safely out of my way in the background. I've got the full run of the screen, with nothing to crash into but enemies.

Oh right, I can crash into flasks it seems. That thing just took out my owl in a single collision! What kind of game tells me to pick these things up one second, then kills me with one 10 seconds later?

Oh wow, the owl's respawn animation is just as awesome as its regular one. I'm still mad at you though Agony, don't think that a sparkly owl is going to be enough to win me back over.

I've lost my weapon power up, though at least it let me continue where I left off. Having to start the level again from the beginning would have been a pain.

You can tell this is a Psygnosis game just by looking at it, it's got a certain airbrushed style to it. I feel like I'm flying through a Shadow of the Beast level. Which is interesting because this was actually made by Art & Magic, and Shadow of the Beast was made by Reflections.

It's okay, I'm pretty sure that thing's dead. And those fish down there can't even reach me, so I don't know why they're still bothering to jump up. Are their fishy lives so boring that they have to entertain themselves by harassing owls?

I... have no idea what that boss is meant to be. An ice sculpture of a dolphin maybe? It doesn't move, just fires bullets and marbles at me. Unfortunately I can see them clearly against the background for once, so I've got no one to blame but myself if I fuck this up.

The bullets are slow and the marbles follow an arc, so I think I can do this. It'd be nice if the guy had a health bar on screen or something though.

Agony Amiga level 2 loading screen
Beating the boss means I've earned a new loading screen! I'm honestly glad, because it means a break from the level music. This loading music is way more chilled out, and has significantly fewer orchestra hits.

Shame they couldn't have thrown in a password, or maybe a save feature though.

Oh no, I'm not falling for that again. I'm not going near any potion bottle without a big red arrow pointing at it. Especially if there's ghosts coming out of it.

I haven't got a problem with these enemies firing off bullets in eight directions, it's a shoot 'em up tradition, I just don't get why they made them a dull brown colour. Because I'm struggling to see them, and that's kind of a problem as it only takes a single hit to blow up my owl.

It's not technical limitations surely, as I'm dodging bright yellow bullets at the same time. Did they playtest the game before putting the final backgrounds in or something?

Okay, I'm just going to hold the firebutton down now and dodge the yellow things, because I can barely see these enemies anymore.

There's actually four of them on screen right now, believe it or not. Oh sorry, five of them. I just spotted another one poking his head in on the right.

The level two boss actually moves around a bit, unlike the first one, which makes it a bit tricky to dodge his boomerangs. Fortunately my attack fills half the screen now, so it'd be pretty hard for me to miss the guy.

Agony Amiga level 3 loading screen
There's a lot of trees in this game I've noticed. Definitely a bit of a forest theme going on.

That's weird, anything green gets the colour drained out of it when it reaches the bottom third of the screen. It's probably a side-effect of whatever colour trickery they're using to squeeze so many tones out of the hardware, but it makes me feel like I'm playing a ZX Spectrum game or something.

Oh, the level three boss has an lightning fast tongue attack that instantly kills my owl? Well that's nice to know. I respawned right in the same place, but now I'm left with a weaker gun, and one hit point to last me the rest of the game. Unless I can find a way to earn extra health my chances don't look good.

Hang on I've just noticed I've got the number 03 in the top left corner. That's been at 00 for most of the game, but suddenly it's changed. What could that mean? OH, it's how many seconds of invulnerability I have left, obviously.

Agony Amiga magic spell menu
On a different playthrough I finally figured out what the number actually meant. It's the timer for the magic spell I have active. Oh, and I also figured out I have magic spells. Would have been nice to know that first time around, though they're so rare they probably wouldn't have made much difference.

Using up my plasma shield spell gives me a few seconds of screen clearing ultimate power before I go back to the drudgery of everyday swamp combat. Should have saved it for the boss fight really.

Anyway, back during my first attempt I managed to kill the boss and earned myself another loading screen.

Agony Amiga level 4 loading screen
The level four loading screen shows a rickety rope bridge stretching off across a massive drop. Of course it leads to a tree, where else would I be going in this game?

The game's getting a bit more frantic now. Well, cluttered more than frantic. You couldn't call the game a full throttle thrill ride, but it's reasonably slick. It's just not in any rush.

What does it say on that grave stone? "Here lies the Bitmap Brothers 1989-1992"?

Whoa, does that I'm mean I'm actually killing the ghosts of the Bitmap Bros here? I guess it must be a joke about how they're taking the Amiga shoot 'em up crown away from the Bitmap's Xenon 2. Though considering this came out the same time as classic shooters Project X and Apidya, I'm not sure it'd could even claim to be the best shoot 'em up released that month.

Project X
Just to put Agony into some perspective, here's Gradius inspired space shooter Project X. The background looks pretty flat compared to Agony's parallax scrolling, but on the other hand objects are actually clearly visible against it! It doesn't have any music in game, so it's got Agony beaten in that department.

The gameplay actually makes Agony seem ridiculous easy by comparison though, as making any headway against later enemies becomes nearly impossible if you're killed and lose your power ups. It's like the game's saying "Oh, you're struggling are you? Here, let me turn up the difficulty for you."
Sting 'em up Apidya combines Agony's hard to see enemies with Project X's flat background and challenging enemies, and then also throws you back to the halfway point of the stage if you're killed just to make absolutely sure you don't accidentally complete a level. Continues, difficulty options, and a Chris Hülsbeck soundtrack help ease the pain though.

You know, suddenly I'm feeling a lot better about my chances in Agony. Sure it's only got three lives and one hit kills, but it's far less frantic and punishing so far than its competition. Maybe with a bit of luck I can even finish it.

And then three seconds later I'm instantly blown to feathers by an enemy I couldn't even see. Careful study of my screenshots revealed no clues to what hit me, though I'm guessing it must have dropped in from above while I was hanging around up there to avoid getting fried by the flame jet.

That's it then, I'm all out of lives and there's no continues. Game over!

Agony Amiga level 6 loading screen
I gave it a few more tries, but I only got worse at that game the more I played. Getting killed and losing some power-ups isn't an unrecoverable screw up but it definitely makes things harder. Apparently the level 6 loading screen is the burning tree image from the start of the game, so I'll just stick this screenshot here and pretend I was able to get to the last level.

It's funny, but I think the biggest problem with Agony is actually the music and graphics. They get in the way of what actually seems at its core to be a fairly well made shoot 'em up for the time. Sure it's slow paced and a bit simple, but I found it way more entertaining than something like Kolibri, Xenon 2, or James Bond Jr.

By the way if you want to hear that awesome theme performed with real instruments, Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir actually nicked it and released it on their Stormblåst album under the title 'Sorgens Kammer': Apparently they left it off the re-recording of the album when they found out that their keyboardist had plagiarized the song.

You can find more images and read about the making of Agony at artist Franck Sauer's website:


  1. Hey Ray!
    I have seen that you played arcade games before, so I have little recommendation for you. Lets give Shock Troopers a chance. It is run-n-gun arcade game similar to commando or mercs with top-down view for neo geo arcade machines. But this time please dont consider using more than 1 credit as cheating. Use at least 5 credits. With only 1 you wont make any significant progress.

    1. Addendum:
      I know that you had negative experience with Mercs, but I promise you that Shock Troopers is much more enjoyable game. BTW If you will encounter any problems with playing it in emulator, download neogeo bios first and put it in folder with rom.

    2. Hey, I'll give any game a chance. Especially a flashy looking action game. Might take me a while though, as my requested games list is getting long.

  2. Surely this deserves the "nice art" tag?

    1. Honestly I forgot about that tag. I used it in the dark ages of the site to label posts that just had a single screenshot and no text, before I figured out I was just wasting everyone's time by posting them.

      If any game deserves the tag it's this one, but the idea of going through 700 other posts and tagging them as well doesn't really seem that appealing. Still, if it's worth doing I should probably get around to it at some point.

  3. Thanks for making this nice and interesting review. Too bad you didn't get to the 6th level, you could have used cheats ;)
    There's a making of the game on my website if you're interested:

    1. Nah, I kicked my addiction to cheats years ago. Maybe if I hadn't been so reliant on them as a kid I wouldn't be so terrible at games now.

      Wait, hang on... you're the guy who animated the owl! It really is incredible work, all of the art is, and it's nice to get a chance to see how it all got made. I had been wondering about whether all that dithering on the loading screen images was done automatically or by hand.

    2. Thanks for the nice comments :) Keep up the good work, you've got a nice blog there. Cheers.


Semi-Random Game Box