Games That You Should Try Again


The Demons to Diamonds box

This tremendously clever game by Nick Turner (Super Breakout, Snoopy and the Red Baron) was released for the Atari 2600 VCS in 1982. On the surface, it comes off as just another simple shoot-'em-upward, albeit in Dante's shooting gallery.

The player moves his laser gun back and forth along the bottom of the playfield, blasting the horizontally drifting demons above. While that alone wouldn't have been terribly original, the game is conclusively kept from being Space Invaders MLXXXVIII by some inventive twists.

The default / lower gun is mostly maroon. When you've selected a two-player variation, the upper gun, which faces downward, is largely lavender. The players can be mutually deadly or not, depending on the game number. The paddle controllers afford extremely precise aiming and dodging; when the game is being emulated, mouse control is just as effective. You get five guns and no extras. Oh, stop it. I don't wanna hear your whining. This is a man's game. If you can't handle it, play something that's "primarily designed for children in the six-to-twelve age range."

Oh, wait. That's how this one is described. Well, I don't know why. It starts out easy, but after four or five waves, it gets tough enough for any alleged grown-up, such as my own persistently game-proficient self.

Each demon materializes somewhere along the vertical center, ultimately transforming into one of three things. This is where the cleverness comes in. If you shoot a demon of the same color as most of your gun, he'll turn into a diamond, which will jump immediately to one screen edge or the other. There it will linger for an unfixed (and sometimes hilariously maddening) interval before it flies across the playfield and shatters against the opposite border. If you nail it anytime before it hits, you'll earn ten times more than demon points. Both kinds of target are worth progressively more at greater distances from your gun.

If you shoot a demon who doesn't share your taste in color, he'll turn into an indestructible skull (the worst kind, as I'm sure you'll agree), light-gray and gliding on crossbones. Unlike the demons, this pasty jerk will actually fire at you. The nerve! The way I imagine it, he's spitting his teeth out. This is perfectly plausible, as he doesn't need them, lacking a stomach.

Demons to Diamonds screen shot 1

The third thing that a demon can turn into is another demon. This wouldn't be important, or even noticeable, if he stayed the same color, but he doesn't. When he reaches the border that he's been heading for, he changes, turns around and usually moves up or down a row. (Mythological creatures are nothing if not fickle.) Now one of your prey has become someone to avoid shooting.

Here's a good strategy, then: Provided that you've got the red gun, which is usually the case, try to keep from firing at a red demon who's nearly reached the periphery. He's about to turn lavender, so if you're a split-second late, you'll have a skull on your hands. So to speak. What's trickier but just as useful is to avoid firing through the center, where you might hit a newborn demon before you even get the chance to notice who he takes after.

The skulls are stationary at first, but they move sideways with rising frequency as the waves progress. Each mobile skull skulks back and forth along the full length of its row. All the same, it might not even reach its first border, as it will self-destruct after a random amount of time. Keeping your gun intact might therefore appear to be nearly effortless; surely, you can simply leave the lavender demons alone and avoid moving beneath the cruel craniums. These things are much easier said than done, however, especially as you advance to more crowded waves. I've found no limit on how many skulls can exist at once. My guess is sixteen. I'll tell you why in just a bit.

Each of your laser beams will vertically cross the entire playfield if you hold down the button long enough; it will vanish without completing its trip the instant you let go. You can therefore choose between skewering the whole screen with one protracted shot or unleashing several reduced beams with manual rapidity. Since you're not obliged to wait for each blast to hit the far border before you can fire again, you're granted an exceptional degree of control. It's even possible to halt a shot in progress when you realize that you're about to hit a demon of the wrong color.

You can also briefly steer the beam to either side before it runs its course. This certainly helps when you're trying to shoot one of the darting diamonds. Better still, the tip isn't the only lethal part. Guiding the beam into a target at any point along its line of death will do the trick.

Demons to Diamonds screen shot 2

You'd think that your quarry would be a demon of the other color, but you're eradicating your own kind, so you evidently get to play the bad guy. As a matter of fact, the demons aren't giving you any trouble. They're just out for a stroll. You truly are the interloper here. How dare you sully my article with your traitorous eyes? I will not aid your vile betrayal! Well, maybe you've just disguised your gun to catch them off guard.

Even when a demon hasn't been skull-converted by a bad shot, one of the teeth-spitters will sometimes appear out of thin air, presumably to keep the too-easies away from the game when your aim has consistently been on the nose...cavity. It will often show up to the extreme left or right, where you're tempted to position the gun whenever your eye's on a diamond that hasn't begun its dash across the screen. One might say that the skulls can appear out of the blue, since that's the color of the side borders. Aren't I witty?


Well, fine. Moving onward: Since we're avoiding the edges -- as well as the center, where the demons first happen -- another good tactic is obviously to favor the reasonably wide areas in between. The teeth fall extremely fast, so keep yourself keenly aware of each skull's location (including where it's headed, if it's moving) until it dissolves. That way, you won't be wiped out while you're focusing on the demons. The distinctive tooth-spitting sound will tell you that at least one skull exists, in the event that you haven't peripherally noticed any during a teeming later wave.

The analogue controls enable swift evasion, but long survival depends on resisting the impulse to fiercely spin the paddle (or jerk the mouse). The gun will end up at the border, where you're most likely to get a tooth right in the muzzle. Make your dodging just as precise as your aiming.

The demon character is amusingly animated; he looks like he's laughing verrrrry slowly. Of course, I'm just assuming that's his mouth. It could be his gut jiggling up and down. What do demons eat, anyway? Angels, most likely. Good for them. Someone has to keep the damn angel population under control.

The demons and skulls gradually increase in number and speed from wave to wave. An appealing aspect of the game is that every creature nevertheless appears at random and drifts at his own pace.

When no further demons are forthcoming in the current wave, the random skull arrivals cease. As you blow away your final target, strengthen your focus and prepare to zip out of the way of a tooth; skulls increasingly emerge just as new waves begin. This is one element with which Turner has kept us from playing indefinitely (while we're scoring any points, at least), along with the eventual influx of skulls into the nearest row and our inability to manually de-skull the screen.

Demons to Diamonds screen shot 2

In counterbalance, the skulls will stop showing up altogether if you shoot nothing for a while. As you can see here, once there are sixteen demons on the playfield -- two per row -- it's been filled to capacity and you're in what amounts to a pause mode, just as when any wave is nearly depleted. Now you've simply got a highly unconventional aquarium on your screen. The program never taps the CPU on the shoulder and says, "Hey! Do something rash!"

So while you can't exactly play forever, assuming that you partially define "playing" as "shooting things" when you're talking about a shoot-'em-up, you can keep the game going perpetually. You just won't score any points or have nearly as much fun. The interaction has been reduced to your mere taunts: "Don't be fooled. I can kill you anytime I like, Missster Demon...if that is your real name."

Speaking of conversations with fictional characters, I've written before about how I play games in the same way that I do everything else I enjoy: I have fun in the moment, taking pleasure in the very process of, say, writing a song or an article like this one, rather than rushing to yield a finished product (or, once it is done, caring about its reception -- from anyone but myself, anyway). It's the actual process that one trades his time for, after all. It took me years to learn this lesson. In the case of a game, the way I really enjoy the Now and avoid getting frustrated -- stress ain't good for ya, and besides, it lies opposite from fun -- is by appeasing myself with the fact that I'll be able to start over and get even with whomever last killed my on-screen counterpart. The suspension of disbelief is already involved when one plays a video game; part of the brain thinks that it's really happening.

Here's why I've brought that up. At first glance, the fracture-proof skulls in Demons to Diamonds deny the player such vengeance. He can't even the score (as it were) if his adversary can't be destroyed. In truth, retribution is easier to achieve than in most other games. Simply wait for the skull in question to spontaneously combust. Then say: "Hah!" I tell ya, it works. You can follow it up with anything you like: "Now you're dead. Oh, that's right. You can't hear me. You're dead." Here's another fun one: "Hmmm. One of us is still here. I wonder who...oh, it's me. Look at that. Well, you're skulls. What have you got to live for anyway? I mean, really -- what do you do when I'm not here to spit teeth at? Just roll around all day? That's a life, is it?"

The sounds that are actually in the game are also awesome, in that timeless, super-engaging Atari VCS way. I admit that I wouldn't have argued with fewer high-pitched squeaks, but there's nothing to stop the player from lowering the volume a bit. At least the gun's demise gives off a deep, explody rumble as a consolation prize.

Anyway, if you'd really like to play an endless game and you don't mind that it won't be terribly exciting, clear three or four waves to get past the easy stuff, and then simply wait out the skulls, dodging their poorly brushed projectiles, until they've been wholly supplanted by demons. Now nail just a single demon and, if feasible, its consequent diamond. If the replacement character is a skull, you can easily steer clear until it self-destructs.

When it's done so, watch for the emergence of a new demon, which will ensure that another skull won't appear instead. When you're back to an exclusively demonic screen, repeat the process. Not bad, eh? Another OC&GS exclusive! I should subtitle some of these articles "Stuff That You Won't Find in Manuals."

Demons to Diamonds screen shot 4

Even if you prefer to find a more gratifying middle ground, it's a good idea to resist shooting a bunch of Wave 5+ demons in short order, as random skulls will then appear so frequently that there will be no safe spots on the screen. Blast two or three demons and let their replacements materialize before going after more. When you absolutely must move from one side of a skull to the other, be swift and accurate.

As we've seen, there's a great deal more depth to what initially appears to be an everyday demon-hunting range. This is a very sturdily written game; Turner worked out a lot of details that would have broken the fun if they hadn't been handled astutely. Thanks to the gun's ability to wipe out several suitably colored demons in rapid fashion, it's easy to get hooked. When you use the mouse, it almost feels as if you're swiftly erasing demons who've somehow managed to invade a spreadsheet. This is much more fun than filling it with numbers.

I can understand why they called the game Demons to Diamonds, considering the only logical alternatives. Demons to Other Demons isn't especially stirring, and Demons to Skulls sounds anticlimactic. When you're already dealing with demons, mere skulls don't seem all that daunting. You'd probably prefer skulls to demons. Well, before discovering the former's tooth-spitting habits, anyway. I know that I'd rather be a demon than a skull. It seems like I'd have more energy.

If you haven't played Demons to Diamonds, give it a chance. If you have, only to quickly dismiss it, give it a longer chance. For my part, I'm still waiting for the sequel, Demons to Diamonds to Dental Appliances. Those skulls have to run out of teeth eventually.

Uploaded on 12/24/15
Written by Chris Federico
Image sources: Playfields = CF
Box = Digital Press (cleaned up by CF)

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