Friday 6 November 2015

Snes Review - The Chaos Engines (Game 092)

'The Chaos Engine' is a conversion of a top down shooter that many consider to be one of the best games on the Amiga.  But, with an infamous difficulty, is it all style over substance, or an intriguing story at the expense of variety? 

Developed by The Bitmap Brothers
Published by Renegade   
Released in 1993

How important are stories in games? This was a question pondered by two game critics, whilst reviewing the same game for two different magazines. The game in question was 'The Chaos Engine' and both were playing the same Amiga version. 

'The Chaos Engine' is a top-down shooter that could vaguely be described as a cross between 'Gauntlet' and 'Smash T.V.', except with far less enemies on screen. You have to guide two guns-for-hire through four levels, shooting hundreds of monsters from a skewed overhead perspective.   Each level has multiple paths, but to open the exit door the player must activate a stipulated number of "nodes" which are hidden in the depths of each stage. The levels take you through forests, swamps, factories, with different monsters inhabiting each one. 

The reason for all the monsters is actually explained in the introduction sequence. It's a story that's created by splicing ideas from Edgar Allen Poe with the writings of HG Wells and borrowing heavily from William Gibson and Bruce Stirling's novel 'The Difference Engine'. 'The Chaos Engine ' shows the aftermath of a Victorian-era experiment gone terribly wrong. A scientist sponsored by wealthy Baron Fortisque has created the titular 'Chaos Engine' a machine that can manipulate time and space. However a malfunction means that it is turning locals into de-evolved monsters, while sucking Jurassic beasts from the past and throwing them into the present. With the world facing ruin, six bounty hunters are hired to destroy all unwanted beasts and stop the Baron. It's an outrageous plot seeped in steam-punk imagery and justified by head of Bitmap Brothers Mike Montgomery, because "a game is a game it's not real life. It's a steam-punk era there is no realism to that in a certain respect".   So you have to ask is there a need for a plot at all? 

Ben Styles from Amiga Computing certainly thought so.  "The story behind a game has always been very important to me. If the storyline is weak then the game becomes just that - a game. But if there is a plot to get your teeth into, you're prompted to think about the game and become more involved than you usually would." Stuart Campbell was of a very different opinion when he discussed the game for Amiga Power magazine.  "It's the plot, it doesn't matter. Not mattering is its job. The only reason plots exist are to provide employment for down on their luck writers, desperate to earn a crust writing instruction manuals. You run about and you kill stuff, that's all you need to know."

For Stuart Campbell, just having the Bitmap Brothers name on the box was enough to guarantee sales. As Technology commentator Tony Horgan recalls "the three man development team known as The Bitmap Brothers were sold as the pop stars of the gaming world, complete with moody hands-in-pockets press shots". Evidently Mike Montgomery was frustrated that publishers were often credited for a developer’s creativity and wanted the public to know who actually made the games. "Looking back, we were very arrogant. You don't go into a record shop and buy an Apple record, you buy a Beatles one. We wanted to be the stars, so we spent a lot of money getting photo-shoots done and we sent them to magazines." It was an egotistical approach that clearly worked on the Amiga audience though, as a "Bitmap Brothers" game sold regardless of its review scores.

However, their quest for notoriety wasn't appreciated by every gaming publication; Super Play in particular seemed pretty irked by their fame hunger. "Most video game programmers are happy to remain anonymous apart from the credits at the end of their games, not so the Bitmap Brothers who insist upon getting their mugs in anywhere and everywhere. Their desires to be famous aside, they do make good games [...] and everyone you can recognise as a Bitmap Brothers game". With a unique visual style and a dependency on loud aggressive (sometimes licensed) music, the trademarks of The Bitmap Brother’s games make them very easy to spot. According to Mike Montgomery "the philosophy of The Bitmap Brothers was always great music, great programming, great graphics and great sound. Not one thing makes a great game, it's all these together."

The Bitmap Brother's games prior to 1993 all shared a metallic look, even though the game styles and even the setting were radically different.  But, the movement away from this cold futuristic aesthetic was a very conscious and deliberate choice.  As 'The Chaos Engine' artist Dan Malone notes "[‘Speedball 2’] had the same forced plan view, so we had to make it less shiny.  It wasn't a plan to do a steam punk game in particular; it came about mainly from loads of books and artists I was into at the time. Alongside 'Speedball 2', 'Chaos Engine' stands out as a particular favourite of mine".

The while the Bitmaps’ iconic art style looks very good in static screens, the backdrops of ‘The Chaos Engine’ are extremely sparse, with some sections almost seeming to take place against a blank background. This would be forgivable if the game was generating the levels as you progressed but unlike similar games, nothing is randomly generated. The locations of monsters, treasures and nodes never vary, every time you play the same stage it's identical. 'The Chaos Engine' stages were designed by Simon Knight who would hand Dan Malone a map on paper, which Dan would then build from the tile set he had created. Apparently there was little scope for deviation from these preset designs. According to Dan Malone "I tended to move things around a bit in order to maximise the look and feel which would lead to a bit of a dispute". 

True to the Bitmap formula, ‘The Chaos Engine’ feels unforgiving especially on the first few attempts. Getting hit a few time means losing a life, lose too many of those and its back to the title screen. There are no continues here which means that anyone who dips into the game for a short session will likely see no more than the first stage. The difficulty of the game was something Montgomery has since criticised, admitting to Retro Gamer magazine that like the majority of his games 'The Chaos Engine' is excessively punishing. "All of the Bitmap Brothers games, they're probably a bit too difficult" he said. "The reason for that was we designed games that we wanted to play - for us it was actually quite hard to think that somebody would want to play something that's easy." It's a difficulty that really boils down to the enemies being too strong. They can simply keep walking through anything you throw at them and sometimes it seems like there isn't enough screen space to kill them before they reach you. So to succeed you must remember where they will appear from and start shooting them as soon as they appear on screen.

So, it takes multiple plays to memorise the enemy locations, but this is also the games' undoing. The more you play 'The Chaos Engine' the more you realise that it's actually really repetitive. There are no puzzle elements beyond finding keys to open level sections. Most of the game-time is enemy management, which is a flamboyant way of saying "pressing the fire button a lot and pointing your character in the direction of an enemy”. Mastering this concept and knowing where the monsters will appear is all you need to finish the game. Once the stages are memorised, and that won't take too long, it is actually possible to see the story's conclusion in an hour. As Zy Nicholson remarked in his Super Play review "four worlds of four sub levels doesn't amount to the biggest game ever." Anyone who has played a game like this before is likely to see the conclusion within a few days and that length may have been perfectly acceptable for a £20 Amiga game, but with 'The Chaos Engine' demanding over £40 to get in good condition on eBay you'd be forgiven for wanting a little more. Replay value comes from the two player option though.

Always intended as a co-op game for two players, six selectable characters are paired. Characters fall into one of three groups with the Navvie and Thug being the tanks with lots of health, the biggest guns, and the slowest movement. The Brigand and Mercenary are your all-rounders, while the Gentleman and Scientist are agile but weak. 
Each character also has a unique special move, which range from bombs that clear a screen of enemies to maps that show the levels layout. Coins are scattered across stages and in a RPG-lite way these allowing you to buy character upgrades changing a character's stats and the power of their weapons.
With the stages and enemies predetermined, you would be right in thinking that a game designed for two to play at once doubles in difficultly when played alone. Fortunately if no one is holding the second controller the computer will take on the roll.  "You can opt for a CPU controlled companion whose behaviour is remarkably convincing" noted Super Play. With AI that was created based on observing play testers, your computer companion will follow where you lead, shoot the enemies you miss but they will never use their special ability. Instead the player can choose when this is activated, meaning there's a tactical advantage to picking two characters that have the opposite stats to one and other. This way you'll have access to a special ability to suit any situation. Perhaps its perception, but the enemies don't increase in strength to match your increases though. So while the opening stages call for the double act to use all their special attacks, by the third world you can get through whole stages without needing to use any special ability at all. 

Although the game of course is best known as an Amiga title, it was designed from the outset knowing that success in the home computer market would likely take it to the more lucrative consoles. "We were an [Atari] ST and Amiga Company" says Mike Montgomery "but by the time we got to 'The Chaos Engine' most of our games had been on other formats, so we did actually think when we started that we should be gearing it towards consoles as well". Indeed some have cited the Snes version as the best one since it was based on the superior Amiga A1200 version yet ran faster. There have also been cosmetic tweaks that increase the amount of game you can see on screen. Health bars now overlay the main game window, rather than take up a large area at the bottom of the screen. It also felt that the Snes version had more enemies in some of the levels than the Amiga original. However this came at a cost to performance and the Snes version experiences a fair bit of slow-down when the screen is full of enemies.   Richard Joseph's background music also sounds incredible on the Snes; "a selection of thumping techno-ish pieces that really add to the pace of the game" agreed Zy Nicholson. Some of the music has even been altered ever so slightly, with new instruments added and minor tweaks to the arrangement. Clearly effort has been made to play to the Super Nintendo's strengths without compromising the quality or losing sight of the original Amiga versions' merits.

Sadly the Snes version lacks the spoken animated introduction seen in the CD32 edition, however it has retained the spoken conclusion with an impressively animated talking head. You have to remember that this was an era when a page of text saying "You Win" was considered a suitable payoff for the effort put into finishing most games. With the exception of big budget RPGs and flagship Nintendo titles, you would be lucky to ever see a credit roll. Considering the space limitations of a cartridge, The Bitmap Brothers should be applauded for including something as elaborate as synthesised speech. Clearly they wanted a suitable narrative payoff, which would no doubt have pleased Amiga Computing reviewer Ben Styles with his love of stories in games. Without the story would people have still played 'The Chaos Engine'? Probably.  Although The Bitmap Brother’s fame didn't extend across the pond, many people still bought 'Soldiers of Fortune' which was the American name for ‘The Chaos Engine’. Positive review scores in EGM and Nintendo Power drew in an audience and these reviews never focused on the games story. "This is a hard as nails 'Total Carnage' a-like, for those who love big guns and big bangs" wrote one reviewer. Whether that's enough really does depend on if you like initially frustratingly hard game play, that bizarrely quickly becomes easier and more repetitive the further you get into the game. If it is, then the intriguing story is a nice bonus. 

Where did I get this game from?
If you're in Norwich and love video games you should always head to a game shop called Regen Gaming. Even if you're not in Norwich you should look at their website (they can post after all). Unlike other independent shops, they don't charge The Earth for common games under the mistaken belief that any game from the last millennium is worth a small fortune. Realistic prices, good quality games and amazing staff are the reasons I always go in when I'm nearby. 'The Chaos Engine' was a game I picked up on my last visit. 


  1. Firstly - you mean Conversion not conversation in your opening sentence??

    That said, I used to love this game - great fun but bl**dy difficult to play almost punishing in fact. Also a good iconic look and feel to it.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and for pointing out the typo - I really must get better at proof reading!

    I had forgotten how hard this game initially is, but much more manageable when you get into the groove.


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