In the realms of Commodore 64 fantasy horror titles, there are few that can touch Cosmi’s 1983 release, Beyond the Forbidden Forest. It was not only terrifying but addictive, making the most of limited colour and sounds to create quite an unsettling experience. But there were two other games back in the 8-bit heyday, well one actually as Spellcast was never finished, that set a young, fertile mind into overdrive, and that was Paolo Galimberti and Idea Software’s Moonshadow released in 1990.
Booting this up, a slightly underwhelming intro screen with scrolling text describes a world where a luminous moon protects it’s inhabitants and the onset of a lunar eclipse spells pestilence and death for all. A dark satellite that empowers the Great Earth Snake, Septerios, looms large and when the the lunar cycle is complete, it’s time to pay the ferryman. Only you, as a shirtless wonder, can enter the dark maze to destroy the serpent within before it is too strong to overcome. Spooky.
It might be more Hawk The Slayer than Jason and The Argonauts, but the pretext bears a lot of relation in to how the game actually plays, and what to expect. The maze alludes to Moonshadow’s Metroidvania structure while the imminent blackout refers to the time limit in which you have to complete your task.
Jumping bareback into the first screen, our scantily-clad protagonist is initially indistinguishable against the colour scheme of a tree. Thankfully. it’s the only time this is noticeable as completely black backgrounds allow the rest of the palette to command. Hues of green and purple provide vibrancy and the game runs extremely smooth between flicking from screen to screen, as there is no scrolling, apart from the water, or parallax for the game to grapple with.
Along with our character, enemy sprites are unspectacular in design but drawn well as bats swoop, roots flail and goblin-type creatures rush you. Platforms show some nice touches such as faux shading to add depth and the twisted trees contortions look menacing. There’s also the occasional use of hi-res graphics that can be seen in the gargoyle statues. Animations have some nice flourishes as follow throughs after hurling a projectile add some real weight, with collectibles and an in-game map being clear and detailed.
The world is essentially divided into three sections, the outside, the castle and the caves with changes in colour denoting where you are. This introduces new enemies and hazards along the way to give a sense of advancement, despite some of the backtracking you will have to do – this is a Metroidvania after all. The on-screen UI in the top and bottom of the screen display item and weapon selection, with the impending eclipse played out in real-time. The only gripe is player health is conveyed via a dagger that incrementally moves towards a heart as you take damage. As movements are quite small, this can be hard to keep track of, especially in more hectic parts.
While the graphics might not rank alongside some of the most intricate works in the Commodore library, they seem well thought out as elements combine to make the art more compelling than it has any right to be. As a result, the world feels organic, helping to immerse the player in this fantastical race against time.
You could argue that being a jack-of-all-trades results in being a master of none. But Moonshadow’s score shows Galimberti certainly excels in this department, having stayed with this old dog since the first play in 90’s. Winding and reverb heavy bass synths add menace while the various melodies flow into each other to create something memorable and atmospheric. There are plenty of time changes to keep things interesting and some more eclectic moments are reminiscent of that old Italian flair shown by Goblin in some of Argento’s giallos, although a few do miss slightly.
Sound effects work is minimal but projectiles land with a satisfying thud, or bleep depending on the enemies they make contact with, and flames bellow from underfoot. This is all well and good but the standout feature really is the soundtrack and it doesn’t receive as much credit as it probably deserves.
Even with 150 screens to battle through, at it’s dark heart Moonshadow is an action-platformer and leans more on the Metrodivania-lite side of things as backtracking will become relatively minimal as you die, retry and ultimately get familiar with the layout. And you will die, a lot. But until you master the limited inventory slots, learn what enemies are employed and where, there’s an abundance of exploration to be had.
While controls are responsive and combat relatively gratifying, some of the mechanics aren’t without issues, with certain platforming sections being a blight on the title. You’ll be hopping from ledge to ledge one minute and frustratingly hitting another the next. Steps are a huge problem. if the jumping angle isn’t right, you’ll be bouncing up and down and forced to line up vertical jumps to ascend. Other times, you’ll be leaping like a salmon. This inconsistency really hurts the flow of the game and can result in some extremely annoying situations as you get enveloped by fire or hammered by enemies. The placement of platforms can also be problematic as their layout isn’t as well thought out as other components of the world. Over jumps and the occasional cheap death means starting the lunar cycle all over again and a small bit of forgiveness in this regard would have gone a long way.
Combat and enemy AI is, again, a little inconsistent. Adversaries have their pathing but their triggering behaviour to instigate attack patterns can differ wildly, especially when it comes to those bloody bats. Goblins will probably be the biggest bane as they make a beeline for you but collectible weapons like the Axe or Light Ball can make short work of them, as long as you line it up correctly.
However, Moonshadow feels coercive as you inch forward each time, with the incredible atmosphere calling you back for repeated attempts. It’s a world you want to explore more of, finding it’s secrets and becoming as efficient as possible as you work out how to unlock access to new areas. The lack of checkpoints or a password system exacerbates the already hard difficulty, meaning this will be dismissed by some but appeal to the hardcore in equal measure.
For the full review, including trivia about the game, check out the video below!
In the end, the Commodore 64 half of Idea’s debut releases certainly isn’t a perfect romp by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, there’s an underlying influence at work that makes it a fascinating yet almost self-harming experience. If you invest the time and forgive the shortcomings, you’ll find malevolent forces under the surface that just won’t let go.