Toaplan was best known for their vertical shoot-em-ups in the vein of Fire Shark and Batsugun, but they were capable of making other types of games over their ten-year lifespan. Hellfire and Zero Wing were framed horizontally, Snow Bros. was essentially their take on Bubble Bobble, Wardner was an conventional action-platformer, and Knuckle Bash was an even less likely beat-em-up. Demon’s World falls into the unconventional zone for Toaplan, being an auto-scrolling run-and-gun that stretches to be as Halloween-esque as possible, mashing together all sorts of monsters and ghouls into one of their quirkiest arcade adventures.
Demon’s World is an odd duck of a game, but it can at least be called a “shooter.” It’s one of those rare sidescrollers where, despite being on foot, your character keeps moving forward automatically because demon slaying is serious business. The player one character has shades and a mustache (both of which the lamer player two lack), so he demands respect. He’s lugging what looks like a Ghostbusters proton pack, but shoots missiles by default and it’s light enough to allow for a high-reaching double jump.
Floating power-up icons change your weapon to bombs, three-way shots, pink lasers, and a “V” which gives you an actual Ghostbusters-esque energy stream, albeit with average range. All weapons work best for different situations, but the three-way generally provides you with the most security to compensate for the inability to aim upward. The pink laser becomes useful in later areas where you’re forced through narrow corridors and power matters more than coverage, and the blue proton stream helps to clear a few segments that barrage you with weaker enemies. There’s not much reason to stick with the missiles and the bombs are almost worthless like the Ghosts ‘n Goblins torch, but weapon icons float over the screen frequently.
In contrast to Toaplan’s usually serious and futuristic designs, Demon’s World takes a more cartoony appearance with its characters. It’s not Contra in any sense except you’re holding a gun, and it has a bit more in common stylistically with Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but again, the choice of weapon indicates a somewhat more modern era. However, it never gets more modern than the first area town, and even the buildings look somewhat old-fashioned as if it were based on the Old West. After you clear it, you’re mostly wandering through forests, islands, Japanese villages, Chinese fantasy lands, and even a full-on castle as the final setpiece. You start with pink ghosts wearing nice hats and soon encounter the likes of gargoyles and Frankenstein’s creatures, but eventually take on possessed Japanese lanterns, jiangshis (Chinese hopping vampires), possessed suits of armor and whatever other Scooby-Doo costumes you can imagine.
It’s a bizarre anachronism gumbo that defies the usually futuristic designs of Toaplan’s catalog, and some of the enemies are some of the cartooniest sprites they’ve ever created. This lends an interesting touch of personality, though it’s somewhat countered with fairly straightforward backgrounds and the occasional creepy skeleton boss fight. You’re avoiding boulders pushed by goblins one minute and fighting a floating corpse in Native American regalia the next. You also fight a samurai skeleton after dealing with a wave of those one-eyed Japanese umbrella demons. The tone can be a little bizarre to say the least.
At least the difficulty remains consistent. Death sets you back to a checkpoint, but usually not much farther than three screens back. Your weapons don’t have any additional power levels, so you’re not any worse off in firepower if you have to continue. You can collect P-icons that allow you to take a hit if you grab three of them, but nothing more complex beyond that. As long as you’re persistent, Demon’s World feels beatable up until around when you fight the Chinese dragon boss (the first of three dragons, strangely enough).
After that, it cranks up the heat around the last quarter of the game when invincible blue fires start spitting out while attempting to jump over water gaps. Then along comes this giant Metroid ripoff spawning smaller Metroid ripoffs which take too much punishment and need to be goomba-stomped to efficiently destroy. The castle at the end forces you to jump over large blocks pushed by winged goblins and contains two dragon boss fights, the former which breathes fire streams in a painfully narrow hallway and the latter spitting out a difficult rain of projectiles. The final boss is easier than the last dragon, although its appearance as a lumpy zombie encased in some sort of pulsating flesh cage is a ghoulish contrast to most of the generally lighthearted enemies.
Demon’s World makes no bones about its subject matter: Shooting monsters and little else. No dodge mechanics or scoring system, just a one-or-two player romp through an improbably diverse stretch of geography blasting baddies to the beyond. It’s not Toaplan’s most exciting game or their craziest, and it seems to be lesser remembered among their fans. Nonetheless, it’s something different from what they normally did, and it’s an enjoyable enough romp for the Halloween season, even if it’s debatable whether or not dragons are Halloween appropriate. There’s been worse from this fallen shooter team, so if you’re already used to the adventures of Sir Arthur, the Belmont bloodline, and Rick Taylor’s Terror Mask-fueled nightmares, it’s worth looking into the sole video game outing of Shadestache McGhostbust and his dorky partner/brother/son/whatever.
Demon’s World received just one Japan-only console port for the PC Engine CD (under the Japanese name, Horror Story), and the graphics are spot-on similar. It also gets an enhanced soundtrack which, while good, might make one wonder why this game wasn’t just released to the normal PC Engine when its assets could have done just as well on the normal PCE. It also jumbles up the order of the stages for some bizarre reason, starting out with the Chinese segment before the Japanese one and ending up at the Western town as the third level. It adds a skeletal cowboy boss who floats in a figure-eight, firing bullets and summoning scorpions, and it adds a cavernous final level in between the last dragon and the final boss.
Despite the level shuffling, the extra boss and level make this the definitive edition, though unless you really liked playing the arcade game, there’s a good chance whatever price you find for it would be more frightening than cowboy skeletons covered with scorpions.