Menace: Commodore Amiga

Menace: Commodore Amiga
Menace: Commodore Amiga

Insert Disk collects Menace for the Commodore Amiga.

Today’s retro game review is Menace for the Commodore Amiga. This retro gaming classic from DMA Design and David Jones is now a legendary must play retro game. Menace kick started David Jones empire that would later go on to release games such as Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto. Menace is on the surface a typical side scrolling shooter of the 80’s very much in the vein of games such as R-Type. The smooth scrolling, interesting soundtrack from David Whittaker, epic boss battles all make this a retro game that helped put Psygnosis on the gaming map.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. I’m rather pleased that we’re travelling back in time to revisit a game that is somewhat of an origin story for the industry. A humble game that set a bedroom coder on a path that would change British and particularly Scottish influence on gaming culture for decades to come. Welcome to the 1988 classic for the Commodore Amiga, it’s time for Menace.

For many reasons Menace is somewhat of a landmark game. On a personal level it was one of the first shoot ’em ups I played on my Commodore Amiga 500. I wasn’t great at it but it was incredibly addictive. Perhaps more interesting though is the impact it had on the games industry.In 1987 R-Type was storming the arcades with its smooth scrolling and fast paced shoot ’em up action. Although itself nowhere near the first shoot ’em up R-Type did help re-invigorate the genre and caught the attention of gamers. One of those gamers was David Jones. At the time just another gamer of the ’80s… but thing were about to change. David had a few skills with a computer and set about designing his first serious video game for the Commodore Amiga platform. He founded an at the time little known company called DMA design and in 1988 released Menace for the Commodore Amiga. The game fell under the publication of an up and coming group from Liverpool, England known as Psygnosis. Rather than being released under the full Psygnosis banner though, Menace was released under the Psyclapse subsidiary label. An alternate header used for a very limited number of releases. The game reportedly sold 15,000 copies earning Jones around £20,000. By my estimated the equivalent of £50,000 in today’s money. The equivalent of around $65,000. Not bad for a game made in a makeshift home studio.

With Tony Smith overseeing the graphics and the now legendary David Whittaker creating the musical score the game was a very competent first foray in to the industry. So, what’s it all about and how did an obscure indie game go on to be the origins of something much larger. After much searching I finally managed to get my hands on a near mint version of the first pressing of Menace. Inside we find a few answers. Back then disk space was at a premium as was the effort required to build in any back story to the game. As a result the manual will tell us all we need to know.

There’s a well written briefing and explanation of the bosses. There’s also some rather comical back story. My favourite line has to be. “To get you in to the planet undetected we have captured and harnessed a giant space slug from the Aldabran galaxy. These creatures frequently roam near to Draconia. You will be placed in the mouth of the creature in a standard short range fighter. The slug will be remotely guided to the planet, and at a convenient location the mouth will open to allow your escape to the planet. From here on in it will be up to you. We hope the slug is not used for target practice by the Draconians, as has been known to happen”. The collectables are explained well and the back page even has a quick reference guide to getting you up to speed with the additional weaponry and shields.

So, what’s Menace like to play? Well, here’s where you’re going to have to look at the game through two very different lenses. The lense of a first time player from 1988 and the lense of a more contemporary gamer looking for some retro game fun. If I start with my opinions as I saw the game with fresh eyes in 1988. First of all, the music is fantastic. There’s not huge variety here but enough variations on a theme of the dark and gritty guitar to really make this soundtrack memorable. It remains suitably dark, action packed and really quite moody. David Whittaker clearly knows his stuff and Menace is just one in a long line of successful scores. It holds up well today and worth a second listen. As for the sound it would generally have been greeted with positive views upon release. With the music being so strong some of the weaker sound effects get by on the merit of the general sound execution. In particular Menace features voice sampling. Although not unheard of around this time it was used here to great effect. Who can ever forget that “Warning, warning….” message? Graphically the game was fairly decent too for a small indie release. There’s some decent variation in the general level mobs but it’s the boss fights that will forever stand out as the iconic visuals of Menace. Getting to the end of each stage is still a treat just to see what oversized monster is waiting for you. It’s now a tried and tested formula and very pleasing, it all feels very solid and old school.

If I did have any criticisms of the gameplay it’s that it can become a little repetitive. Generally speaking the levels are broken down in to sections of enemy which have a somewhat fixed path formation. Once you learn the formation you can simply rinse and repeat your way to victory. As the waves themselves repeat within a stage this is much more noticeable. But hey this was designed in David Jones bedroom as a first release so I think we can cut some slack here. Another feature that perhaps divides players is the power up system. Once you kill a batch of enemies they will drop a power up icon. To cycle through the type of power up you will have to shoot the icon multiple times. This can get very tricky if you’re going for the shield pickup as you’ll need to really hit the rapid fire and also leave enough space to collect the item. It’s certainly not a broken mechanic (and is even still used in shoot ’em ups today). It’s just a little tricky to pull off in Menace.

In terms of a physical release the first printing of Menace is really great to see. For collectors like me this really is something akin to visiting a museum of lost treasures and a real treat to have in the collection. Ian Craig’s cover illustration is pure 80’s sci-fi and really harks back to that golden age for Psygnosis where the cover art to their games really helped them stand out from the crowd. It puts me in mind more of an album cover than a game cover. You will of course get the game in all its glory on a 3.5 inch floppy and a rather homebrew style manual. Psygnosis were taking no chances and really hammered home the anti-virus message in several places.

What I really enjoy about this box is how solid it feels. Even though it was published in 1988 the extra thick cardboard with lamination makes this one feels as if it has just time traveled several decades to be with us as good as the day it was released. With its iconic artwork you can imagine this cover being in a frame behind David Jones desk. Now, if you’re viewing this game through the eyes of a more modern gamer you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Needless to say that since 1988 shoot ’em ups have come a long way. Although I really have a nostalgic attachment to Menace I must agree. If you didn’t know the story behind it and have access to modern shooters then yes, it’s easy to conclude that this was just another shooter from the ’80s. But Menace was a seed for greater things to come.
From this one game David Jones had the entrepuneureal insight to build an empire.
From DMA design came Menace.
From Menace came Blood Money.
From Blood Money DMA became a household name.
Once establish Jones and DMA unleashed one of the most influential games of the 90’s. The juggernaut that was Lemmings.
You can even see the influence of Menace on level 14 of Lemmings “Menacing”. A landscape reused from Menace.
From there DMA went on to release a little game called Grand Theft Auto.
David’s journey from bedroom coder to gaming legend didn’t stop there though. David isn’t just a game designer, he’s a driving force of gaming and tech. Founder, Creative Director: DMA Design 1988 – 2000. Founder, Creative Director: Realtimeworlds. Co-Founder: IRT Survey Ltd. Creative Director of Reagent Games (best known for the Crackdown series). Director: Denki Ltd. Co-Founder of Cloudengine (now acquired by Epic Games). Director, Cloud and Esport Strategies for Epic Games. Oh, and Jones old company DMA: Now Rockstar North.

Once David had a couple of hits under his belt he decided to run rampant over the Scottish game and technology scene and has had a most extraordinary influence on the gaming industry which in itself is a story that really requires a full length documentary to cover. Seriously, Google him and you’ll find a trail of his exciting works. His CV reads like a candy land of gaming history. It’s for this reason that fans of his work hold Menace so dearly. Is it the best shoot ’em up ever, certainly not. What it is though is a game coded in a bedroom that on a wing and a prayer started something very special. It’s that dream that you can make something of worth and be remembered for it.

Personally I’ve really enjoyed getting back in to Menace. It oozes 80’s nostalgia and good times. You’ll may have to pay a hefty price for a first pressing big box edition these days but Menace did also see multiple budget releases if you are that way inclined to track this one down. For fans of David Jones work though Menace was just the beginning. The gaming world saw something special in this unsupposing indie shooter, something to believe in. Was it the handcrafted visuals, the soundtrack or David’s business skills? Whatever it was, Menace demanded a sequel. Join me in the next episode to see how the game would be followed up by one of the Commodore Amiga’s most brutal and best loved shooters. Warning… warning… First there was Menace.

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