I might be rubbish at games, but me and brutal platformers have some history! Of course, stuff like The Perils of Willy on the VIC-20 was just a normal platformer when I was spending dozens and dozens of hours playing that. Same when I got to Willy’s better-known adventures on the ZX Spectrum a couple of years later, or stuff like Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC. I reckon stuff being “difficult” rather than just par for the course started with the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and definitely its sequels, if we’re counting those as an evolution of the platforming genre. Castlevania was definitely a tough old platformer, and the Mega Mans went even further, refining difficulty as a badge of honour. Me and platforming went our separate ways a bit for a while, but I remember Rayman on the PlayStation was too hard for its own good, as were moments in Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube – a game I love and hate in equal measure! Coming quickly up to date (as this wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson), the same is true for Cuphead, Hollow Knight and Shovel Knight’s gorgeous, punishing adventures. And, of course, we have the more retro-looking modern branch of cruel platformer too, with the likes of Celeste (though I’m not a huge fan of this despite several attempts to be on several systems), the minimalist N++, which I’ve played to death on the Switch, and the undisputed heavyweight champion, Super Meat Boy, where you – a cube of meat – are literally a celebration of tough-as-nails platforming death!
Super Meat Boy is a very apt place to start (several hundred words later) as we turn to brand new ZX Spectrum platformer Danterrifik III, because unlike its early eighties forebears, its singular mission is exactly the same – it just wants to destroy you, in very rapid succession! I must confess that at the time of writing (although this will definitely get fixed very soon) I’ve never played either Danterrifik or its sequel, both released in 2020, also for the Spectrum, but can provide a quick recap from the cassette inlays… In the first game, protagonist Dan wakes up in a cemetery having been turned into a skeleton, and he’s making his way through hell (probably literally) to recover his soul, his body and his identity. In part two, he’s lost in the labyrinth of his own mind and pitted against both the satanic dangers of hell and his own surreal hallucinations. Some serious ZX Spectrum colour insanity too from what I can tell!
The setup for this, Danterrifik III, is a little less well signposted! No cassette inlays this time, and before I first played all I had were some words on a map I found on the wonderful Spectrum Computing website that I assume was from one of the incarnations of the creator, David Gracia. And I quote…
DAN HAS ESCAPED FROM DANTEMONIUM
BUT THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE
A HAPPY ENDING.
WE HAVE RECOVERED
OUR SADISTIC IDENTITY.
WE HAVE PAID FOR OUR
VIOLENT ACTS IN THE PAST.
TO BE CONTINUED…
DAS LEBEN IST NICHT
SCHWACHE VERZEIHEN. “FUHRER”
Doing a bit more digging now, we get a bit more information (or just different nonsensical words, depending on your point of view) and a much better translation of that German than my original attempt… Life does not forgive weakness [that’s the German bit]. Dan will have to pay for all his unpunished acts. Dantemonium [sounds like a song by Fields of the Nephilim] will be his place of reception as punishment. And apparently these are the words of the high priest of the German Catholic Church. But fear not, we’re getting to the meat of the game now… “Dan will face all kinds of physical and mental torture. The only option to get out alive is to escape from the Dantemonium Cathedral, where all kinds of monstrosities and despicable beings are housed who have also paid for their actions in the past, and have been locked up to unleash their heinous murderous instincts. Can Dan regain his identity and find out what happened to him? Why has he been locked up in a German Church called Dentemonium?”
Now that we’re completely clued up on why we’re here, you start the game in black and white, and you’d better stop trying to work out if that really is a Nazi bishop holding a decapitated head over there and move sharpish because there’s three bats about to fly at you and claim the first of your 99 lives! Reminds me of the Atari ST Turrican II demo from a Zero magazine cover disk – you know you’re in trouble when a game gives you 99 lives! That said, just to ramp up the difficulty a bit more, it’s two for one because every time you die you lose two lives!
What follows is some of the most fiendishly difficult platforming I’ve ever come across, where you’re not just looking at pixel perfect positioning, but split second timing too, with some of the tiniest windows you can imagine to react and move in and out of the tiniest of spaces before death comes knocking! And this might be one of about twenty such timing and moving conundrums of a single screen, so you’re going to be spending a lot of time just perfecting them, one at a time, usually at the expense of many of your lives until you’ve got it right, and then working out how to do the next in the same way, then pairing them together until you’ve made it across to the exit. And then doing it all over again across each of the 25 sadistic screens!
As well as platforms that have been shaved down to almost the point of impossibility, you’ve got all sorts of enemies to contend with, from giant spiders and vampire bats to scarred, disembodied heads, glowing demonic eyes, spikey mines floating about in the water (or is it blood?) and various fanged monsters. As well as your usual flames and spikes and moving objects you really shouldn’t touch! Dealing with all of this isn’t quite Mario, but you have a very predictable jump that’s also loose enough for some very necessary and very frequent mid-air adjustments that combine to make this feel almost as much a puzzler as a platformer. Despite that, the hit detection is going to have you seething, but I reckon as cruel as it is, it’s pretty much always fair once you’re aware that even a sniff of danger is killing you!
Everything is black and white (or white and black) with more or less red depending on the screen you’re on, very similar to something like the relatively recent Downwell if you’re familiar with that, though I was often put in mind of the old Spectrum Nemesis the Warlock in graphical style too. The opening screens are mostly black detail – some nice crumbling brickwork, church pews, church windows, murderous nazi bishops, etc. – on a pure white background with the odd red flame. Then you get red being introduced as liquid, often filling most of the screen, and then you’ll get white stone platforms on a mostly black brick background, again with the odd red highlight. The only real variation I remember is a grey minimalist impression of Hitler at about the halfway point! It mostly works really well, especially when it’s just white behind everything, though I did find a couple of screens a bit busy, possibly not aided by my red-black colourblindness. One thing’s for sure – you’ll forget you’re playing on a Spectrum because I’m fairly certain this is how it’s supposed to look whatever the platform. All in all very intricate, very stylish and very bold though, and as well as the slightly jarring appearance of blocky Hitler or a giant swastika, there’s a few really nice surprises to be found, if you have the time or inclination to get good!
While sound effects are as minimal as blocky Hitler’s moustache, the in-game music is absolutely incredible! This is about as close as I’ve heard the Spectrum coming to the Commodore 64’s SID chip, in the way you sometimes got it sounding like it had all kinds of channels playing at once when in reality it was all smoke and mirrors! It’s as sinister as it is impressive too, ranging from Castlevania-esque gothic flourishes through to a more thoughtful ebb and flow, before a classic Spectrum drum roll launches us back into the dense main melody. And somewhere it there it’s subtly restarting and looping again, but it really is as seamless as it is varied. Now I’m thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any better in-game music than this on the Spectrum, and even if the brutality of the gameplay isn’t for you, you’ll want to play for the soundtrack alone!
At this point I was planning on saying I got as far as Hitler then gave up – I just wanted to give you that screenshot! But arguably harder than that young pretender Super Meat Boy or not, I’m a Perils of Willy veteran and there’s no way I’m being defeated by only 25 screens worth of the purest torture! That said, being a Spectrum game, unlike Super Meat Boy there’s no checkpointing, and modern life demanded I use the modern concession of a save state at the end of every one of those screens from Hitler onwards. All the same, that took me pretty much all of those hundred lives, as well as several hours of tearing my hair out, just to “cheat” my way to the ending. Speaking of which, I don’t know what it was about the last screen proper because most of the preceding few screens had really turned every move into a puzzle, but working out the correct timing as you leap around this upside-down bloodletting (to avoid spoiling my favourite bit completely) between a load of floating monsters was just completely bonkers to me, and having done it once after dozens of goes, I’m not sure I could ever repeat it.
And I never plan to repeat it! But I do plan to seek out the first two games to find out how bad they hate me too, and it sounds like there’s more to come, so keep watching the skies in the direction of Spain for more of this insane sado-masochistic old-school and then some platforming brilliance!