On Shadow of the Beast’s title screen, a camera alternates between close-up portraits and full-body shots of the titular monster, its talons an ever-present reminder of violence. This series of shots may fetishize the creature’s muscles and power, but when the focus is on its face, the perspective seems to urge one to consider the possibility of the beast’s humanity. Whether Shadow of the Beast succeeds or falters as an action game, the visuals lend it a gravitas that deserves recognition in the history of side-scrollers.
A remake of a 1989 Commodore Amiga game (which is included as an unlockable), Shadow of the Beast is based on the classic video-game formula of moving side to side on one plane and taking out enemies as they come. A lot separates this contemporary update from its ancestor, including far more combat options (such as stuns, parries, and quick-time-event combos), arcade-style scoring, and an emphasis on climbing that recalls 2013’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate. The important difference between the two games, however, is the superior sense of wonder and horror in Heavy Spectrum Entertainment’s graphical art, which only falters with the occasional, and juvenile, splattering of blood on the camera.
It articulates a horrific but heroic myth underneath the clothes of a traditional platformer and beat-’em-up.
From a playing standpoint, Shadow of the Beast’s first level isn’t much more than a tutorial for controlling the beast, who’s led on a chain and collar by a demon, but the banality of the level is saved by poignant imagery. As you get closer to entering a temple, the camera switches from a generic side-scrolling view to more of a bird’s-eye-view angle behind the beast, as if to suggest that fate or some higher power is about to play a role in the proceedings.
The side-scrolling view returns when you, to fulfill the demon’s orders, must slaughter the monks inside the temple, and when you kill the final one, the conventional angle is left again, this time for a cutscene that emphasizes the mortality of the last monk, whose hand grabs the beast’s arm in the throes of death. The expression on the protagonist’s face shows a realization that he’s taken a soul, and he turns on the demon. When you leave the temple, an aerial angle reveals the religious structure on fire, revealing an irony: the desecration of a holy place as the starting point of potential salvation.
In the game’s penultimate level, the beast’s quest to kill those who enslaved him evolves as he learns about other lives affected by his enemies. To complete this level, you must come face to face with six heads planted on pikes, each visage representing a different culture. Like Link in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the beast represents hope for disparate communities, among them humans, giant walking insects, and other more undefined, grotesque creatures. Whether through hallucinations like this or striking background and foreground details such as tree roots shaped like hands with knuckles bent in agony, Shadow of the Beast surpasses its predecessor by articulating, often without a word, a horrific but heroic myth underneath the clothes of a traditional platformer and beat-’em-up.