Retro Review: Demon Attack (Atari 2600)

Demon Attack

Release Date: 1982

Developer: Imagic

Publisher: Imagic

Imitation is considered the sincerest form of flattery. In video games nowadays, it’s seen by many as derivative and lazy. Back in the second generation of home video game consoles, it was almost inevitable. Imagic’s Demon Attack at least imitated with some style.

Back in the early years of home video gaming, ideas for new games came in fast and furiously. At the time, the only “games” available were all variations of the granddaddy of video games: Pong. Of course, any variation from that game was awesome. For a couple of years, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, otherwise known as the 2600) had only original games in its library. They had titles like Air-Sea Battle­, Street Racer, and my favorite at one point, Adventure.

Soon enough, however, the lure of playing arcade games at home began to infect Atari. It began with 1978’s Space Invaders, Atari’s port of the Taito arcade juggernaut. The port was wildly successful, convincing Atari to port other arcade classics to the VCS. Soon enough, successful ports of Asteroids, Missile Command, and Defender followed. The original titles didn’t wane, but the arcade ports got the majority of the notice.

With the creation of Activision in 1980, the third-party developer was born. With it, the need to make compelling games followed. Eventually, games began to appear that seemed somewhat similar to other games. It’s not easy to make a case for Activision’s Megamania being anything more than a stylized rip-off of Space Invaders. On top of the similar gameplay, the player’s ship looks like the USS Enterprise. So there’s two re-appropriations for the price of one!

Imagic, the second publisher to gain prominence as a quality third-party publisher, followed closely with its take on the “aliens attacking our planet” gameplay, Demon Attack. It was the publisher’s first third-party title for the VCS, and it was a great entry. Atari, however, wasn’t as keen on it as the gaming public was.

The premise of Demon Attack was as simple as most games back then. The player controlled a ground-bound cannon that could slide left and right. Above him or her, enemy demons would materialize and attack his cannon. The player’s goal was to eliminate as many of the endless waves of demons as he or she can. Because the game followed the arcade logic of “play until you lose”, the game would never stop adding waves. The later waves of demons featured different attacks and were more difficult to take out. Eventually, the player would succumb to the onslaught, left with nothing but a high score to measure his or her success in dispatching the demon hordes.

The similarities to Space Invaders abound in that above description. Demon Attack, however, differed quite a bit from Taito’s original. Instead of a square formation of enemies, Demon Attack never featured more than three main enemies at a time. In another departure, the three enemy demons flew around in fluttering patterns that did not allow players to predict their movements and lead shots into them. The different demon types would also exhibit different attack patterns. Some fire small clusters of shots at the player; others shoot heavy lasers that are more difficult to dodge. Still others split apart when hit by the player, creating two new, more elusive targets to account for. And others may attempt to beeline toward the player in a kamikaze-style attack.

The differing mechanics of the enemies made Demon Attack a more intense game than Space Invaders. Imagic’s use of sound ramped up the intensity, making the game’s background sounds pitch up as more demons join the fray. The demons’ warping-in sounds add to the intense cacophony, and the sound each individual demon type makes when destroyed is pretty satisfying.

Graphically, the game is pure Atari VCS plainness, but with some extra flair. Developer Rob Fulop knew how to extract power from the VCS when needed. The demons themselves have pretty intricate animations for the VCS, adding a cool contrast to the all-black background.

Demon Attack was a resounding success. Imagic sold over 2 million copies of its debut title, enough to convince it to keep at it. It was also enough to incur the wrath of Atari.

The makers of the VCS were already in a protracted battle with Activision over the concept of third-party publishing. It was something Activision practically invented and Atari was not prepared for. With Imagic also dipping into the well and finding success, Atari needed a way to temper their success. Fortunately, it found a way. Demon Attack, as cool and fun as it was, looked very similar to Phoenix, another Taito arcade game that Atari had secured the home rights to. With that ammo, Atari sued Imagic. Though the games were different enough to possibly pass scrutiny in the courts, Imagic decided to settle.

Things didn’t go any better for Imagic after that. Though they released some more successful games, most notably Atlantis and Cosmic Ark, the Video Game Crash of 1983 struck them hard. In total, Imagic would release 24 games before disbanding under a veil of secrecy. None of those titles reached the heights that Demon Attack had.

Does it still hold up? Yes, but in small does. Remember, this game came out in 1982. The vast majority of games that came out in that period were arcade-style games that had only one goal: beat the high score. There is fun in that, but it’s limited by the player’s attention span. What amounted to hours of twitch gameplay back then is usually reduced to a few minutes’ worth of fun.

Playing this game legitimately now is nearly impossible unless you have the original hardware. The game did release on a multitude of consoles and home computers back then. The list includes the Atari VCS/2600; Mattel Electronics Intellivision; Magnavox Odyssey2; Atari 8-bit computers; Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64; Tandy TRS-80; Texas Instruments TI/994A; and IBM PCjr. If you have one of those handy, you can (hopefully) find a copy and play. The game was never featured in any Atari collection because it was a third-party title. If you want to play Demon Attack now and don’t have one of the original systems for it, emulation is your only choice.

Is Demon Attack good enough to fire up Stella and play the ROM? I think it is. Yes, it’s a product of its era and best played in small doses now. But it is a great game regardless. As an imitation of another game – whether Space Invaders or Phoenix, it’s a great form of flattery.

Good: Awesome twitch gameplay; great sound effects and graphics for the platform

Bad: Extremely repetitive; only goal is to beat high score


Final score: 7.5/10

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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