Sunday, April 12, 2009

Shape Shifter

ICOM Simulations
Super CD-ROM

What first made Shape Shifter so alluring to me back in '92 were its apparent similarities, visually and conceptually, to The Legendary Axe, one of my favorite TG-16 titles. Screenshots showed a barbarian fellow wielding a battle axe as he fought off giant spiders and the like in forests and caverns. I figured SS would take the excellent basics of LA and place them in a Simon's Quest-type adventure setting. I was right in my assessment, and the quest lived up to my expectations.

Shape Shifter utilizes its broader theme to explore a wider variety of locales than Axe. In addition to the expected jungles and caves, you also pay visits to an underwater city; an ancient, cannon-equipped sky fortress that houses living weapons and monstrous sentries; and even the surface and interior of the moon.

Of course, the forest sections flanking the first town get the most attention thanks to their stunning parallax. But while the game presents many such beautiful areas to explore, my favorite zone of all is the anything-but-gorgeous sewer system beneath the first town, which not only looks extremely cool in its griminess but also makes you fight awesomely appropriate enemies in sewage serpents and enormous cockroaches.

The makers of the game put a hell of a lot of effort into enemy design. There are lots of interesting creatures to defeat in every new strip you reach. Sometimes a particular beast will simply be a one-off treat; the daunting Triceratops that roams the jungle area is a great example. He's not even a boss; it's just that the designers thought it'd be neat to have a cool creature like a Triceratops come rumbling along from out of nowhere.

The lumbering fellow is pretty easy to take down, but that isn't the case with every creature you come across. Another great one-off monster, a skeletal beast that awaits you in a sky tower near the end, is invincible to your attacks, and you have to pull off a bit of shrewd trickery to get the best of him (check out the bell hanging at the top of the structure's interior...).

Not to be forgotten are the formidable bosses, screenshots of whom provided me with extra incentive to purchase the game back in the day. The giant spider, the dinosaur skeleton, and the infamous mud monster seemed so huge and impressive in the many magazine shots they occupied.

Those are actually early-game foes. While some of the later bosses might not make as much of an impact visually, they sure as hell make you work hard to defeat them. The green blob tinkering with the underwater city's airtubes might not look particularly daunting or even do very much, but the fact that he's in a spike-lined chamber with powerful fans blowing you every which way makes the fight against him both stressful and exhilarating. The giant head ruling the moon's core also plays breeze games as you attempt to batter him.

During most of those memorable boss fights, you'll be treated to an intense musical track heavy with violin and augmented by lines of ominous bass. At other points, you'll hear some great guitar leads (the best of which comes in the middle of the rustic forest theme). Piano-based melodies accompany beautifully melancholy moments, like when you tread past the beggars to the east of the first town.

During that beggar scene, you get to see some evidence of the attention the designers devoted to little touches, minor things that help make Shape Shifter an even greater and more engaging adventure game. You can slaughter the vagrants if you so choose, but if you approach them in peace, they'll simply hold out their cups, in each of which you'll drop a single gold piece. Interaction with the bizarre characters you meet is a very interesting element of the experience. You'll need to transform into a panther to be accepted by the cat-folk and their cunning ruler, but other characters will attempt to hack you up if you take on such a form in their presences.

The forms themselves are much more interesting than those in many other transformation-themed games, and they're incorporated as much more than simple novelties. Unlike Night Creatures, in which you morph into weak-sauce creatures like badgers and owls for no more than ten seconds or so, Shape Shifter grants you the ability to turn into fearsome beasts (a panther, a shark, a rock troll, and a dragon), and requires you to master the use of all of them. The panther's deadly claws and fantastic leaping ability are necessities for surviving the peaks of the Eagle Mountains, while only the shark form will do for the battle with the aqua-lizard, as you must evade the reptile's efforts to blast and impale you while launching timely and accurate shots of your own.

The panther is often the object of criticism because people can't seem to figure out how to avoid falling from platforms with him. The game's controls do require some practice, but once I became competent with them, I found them remarkably smooth, and I was able to one-life the journey. There are few video game characters who are as much fun to control as SS's full-power panther, who lunges ahead at light speed, ripping other beasts apart with his claws. Of course, your human form is no slouch either, and he eventually dons suits of armor and powers up his arrows into energy shots.

If you do master the controls, you'll be treated to some fine dramatic moments, including the cat-ruler's act of betrayal and an encounter with your horrifyingly mutated self. ("An illusion, you say? Can an illusion do THIS?")

Then, of course, comes the confrontation with the Dark Ones.

The last three battles are long and tough, but if you persevere and emerge victorious, you'll be treated to a killer rock song during the end credits and cool old-painting-style cinematics the likes of which the game opens with (and that make for a very refreshing departure from the usual anime-themed event scenes).

Now, I actually do have a complaint or two to make about the game. I don't like the fact that you can save in only one spot. The least ICOM could've done is make it easier to return to said spot from great distances, as Dragon's Curse's respective designers did with that game. Another very minor concern to note is that, while it's cool that you get a fifth undocumented form towards the end, the form itself is a little bit lame and superhero-ish; but again, that's a very minor gripe, and the last few fights end up being enjoyable anyway.

If you're up for a challenge and you're willing to put in some practice, and if the concepts I've described sound intriguing to you, go ahead and purchase the game. It really is brilliant, definitely one of my favorite Turbo titles of all time.

(If you find yourself struggling with any aspect of the quest, you can refer to the walkthrough I wrote.)

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