When Innerprise Software and Critical Design’s The Plague released on the Commodore Amiga in 1990, the scowling barbarian that adorned the front cover piqued my interest while browsing the local musty computer shop. The promises of “Incredible Arcade Quality” and “Joystick-sizzling” action, whatever that means, resonated as the gloriously colourful screenshots popped from the back of the box.
With the packaging declaring ’only you can purge the planet’, I was duty bound to take up their instruction and part with the cash.
The set-up of The Plague, as well as the box artwork, could have have come from any straight-to-video B grade action movie from the 1980’s. After a genetic experiment goes wrong, the population transform into hideous mutants and only our no name hero can contain the threat, by exterminating them all.
Firing this up, the digitised artwork is translated into a title screen. There is no intro and very little options, with the player only given the ability to play the game with music or sound effects, or no sound at all. It’s clearly a budget release but the bold claims of ‘joystick-sizzling, mind-captivating, fast-paced excitement’ were still to come, weren’t they?
Blasting our way into the first level, the colour palette of 42 colours is well-chosen. The graphics are vibrant, chunky and drawn to a pretty good-standard as our first wave of amphibious space men line up to be the first victims of the genocide. Unfortunately, our main character is less representative of the rabid cover art and more like a two-bit, swede-headed He-Man reject. The running cycle is smooth but jumping is a rigid affair and on the whole, our protagonist lacks any nuance in the animation or art department. Projectiles are simple with even your oversized charge shot lacking any flair.
Where The Plague does up it’s game slightly is the enemy design. Clearly inspired by hokey sci-fi films from the 1950’s and some more horrific asides, a mixture of flying beasts and ground troops jump in to thwart our progress. There’s a decent amount of variety as you lumber through the levels towards some bosses that would look more at home in a shoot-em-up as they hover and attack. There are a couple of genuine highlights such as the giant metallic wasp or the hulking storm troopers to help stop the game devolving into too much graphical tedium.
The environments don’t offer as much diversity with repeated sprites and hazards meaning the levels aren’t that distinguishable from one another, making them feel more like a progression than a change. Stone structures and wooden platforms will be an all too familiar sight, while certain backgrounds will provide some good eye candy in parts, with the crucified lizards being a particularly nice touch. Dark and stormy skies help provide contrast although the lightning effects are underwhelming. The gameplay experience is stable, with little slow down and fluid scrolling, but more advanced effects such as parallax would have been a welcome addition.
The Plague has the occasional nice flourish but it’s lack of finesse really hurts in selling this alien world to the player. A savvy choice of colour is certainly the highlight in what is essentially a competent, occasionally impressive, but mostly mediocre, graphical presentation.
While graphical highlights are few and far between, the majority of the sonics really excel. Ron Klaren’s title theme starts with a crash of thunder and ominous drones build until a fast-paced drum loop kicks in. The reverb heavy chords have a nu-romantic touch to them and prove to be extremely effective.
The main game theme is suitably atmospheric as synths are given the mod wheel treatment for some nice changes in pitch. A standard four beat allows some great melodies room to breathe, and in turn, are quite catchy. On the downside, this theme is repeated throughout the entire game time making the player yearn for more tunes built on the solid foundations. Sound effects work is sparse and perfunctory, making the world feel empty. As a result, playing the game with music is the best option but without sound effects, guns lack impact and environments any real character.
From Midnight Resistance to Contra, the run ’n’ gun genre is a thrill for those looking for an arcade fix. An additional bold claim the box art throws at you is ‘Unbelievable Arcade Action’. It’s certainly unbelievable…unbelievably mundane.
Scrolling left to right in time honoured tradition is to be expected but the lack of any multi-directional shooting is disappointing, especially when many levels offer the ability to fight along a higher or lower plane. How effective this design choice is though is questionable as most of the time there is little incentive to hop onto the higher tier, apart from when you’re forced to do so by environmental hazards.
This results in the action feeling one note and occasionally frustrating as while the majority of the enemies will appear to the left or right, the lack of agency over where you shoot means those coming from above are curiously difficult to attack. There are two differing three way shot power ups but they feel rather arbitrary. They’re actually needed to shoot certain enemies on ledges in order to progress instead of temporarily empowering the player and thus mixing up the game’s dynamic. Run out of special ammo, and you end up hopping around like a salmon caught in a net.
Enemy AI is simple, normally attacking in waves on standard pathing. The sheer number of foes will keep you on your toes and boss fights fall into a familiar routine as they normally have one attack pattern. This doesn’t mean the game is easy though. Enemy placement can be cheap and platforming requires some pixel perfect jumps. This isn’t helped by the jumping arc itself being a little stilted and having to press fire, plus up or down, on the joystick to navigate tiers can prove tiresome and annoying. Later levels up the enemy frequency with their teleports proving difficult to predict. Failure to react in time will result in more punishment than a prostitute’s first night on the job, as threats come from all angles.
For the full review, including trivia about the development of the game, check out the video below:
As a generic run and gun, enjoyment can be found in The Plague. It has a good sense of style and there’s no doubt the game has some raw talent behind it, but that potential fails to be fully translated into the final product. Parts of Critical Design’s world are intriguing but the bog-standard gameplay mechanics, general banality and cheap enemy placement that…plague it…really pushes it into the realm of mediocrity. The promised ‘joystick-sizzling’ action is lukewarm at best.