Knightmare – The birth of an unlikely MSX hero

Year: 1986 |Publisher: Konami|Developer: Konami|Original format: MSX | Version played: MSX

Released the same year as SNK’s Ikari Warriors, Knightmare could be argued to be one of the formative entries in the run ‘n’ gun genre. But I’m not so sure. Unlike that particular branch of the shmup family tree, you don’t wield a gun, you’re not playing as a derivative of Arnie or Sly, and the pace is too slow to be described as running. Instead, I think it fits into an even narrower sub-genre shared by the likes of Sega’s Gain Ground, Tecno Soft’s Elemental Master, the obscure Twinkle Tale or the even more obscure Undeadline. Fantasy themed, vertically scrolling shmups where you control a boots-on-the-ground warrior, who wields either medieval weapons or magic attacks, in games that often feel cross-pollinated with RPG tropes.

I’m not sure what you’d call this genre but I think it may well have begun with Knightmare, a shmup that started life in the home rather than the arcade and feels noticeably different to its Konami MSX stablemates like Gradius or Salamander in that space, and ships, are nowhere to be seen.

Knightmare is also notable because it’s the first game in a trilogy that continually reinvents itself and plays around with genre conventions. The mythical theme and characters remain through all three games, but the gameplay style wildy changes from one to the other. The sequel, Maze Of Galious, is a non-linear exploratory platform game packed with secrets, and was a huge influence on La Mulana. While the third and final game, Shalom, evolved again into a text heavy adventure-RPG.

I can’t think of many (any?) other game series that so radically change from one entry to the next, so I’ll be covering the Knightmare trilogy with great interest over the next three weeks on this blog. But for now, let’s concentrate on that first entry. Although it’s easily the most simple and straightforward game in the series, it’s by no means uninteresting.

I won’t get too bogged down in the plot of Knightmare, as there really isn’t much of one to speak of. It’s standard “rescue the princess: fare, with a Greek myth theme, so you’re battling through a few stages to rescue Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. And, well, that’s your lot!

I find the main character, Popolon, much more interesting though. On the packaging he looks like a generic medieval hero and not much different to one you’d have seen on an Atari 2600 box half a decade earlier. But in game he’s much cuter and more in keeping with the charming Konami aesthetic of the era. A short, dumpy knight with bright blue armour and characteristic devil horns on his helmet, Popolon is a cute and accessible gateway into this otherwise hostile world. You’ll love the little blue bugger and you’ll want to protect him throughout his impossible quest.

Impossible is the word! Despite the cute presentation, this game is called Knightmare for a reason. Sure, the first level is good fun with a nice, gentle difficulty curve, but from stage two onwards, Konami takes the gloves off and gleefully thrashes you with its bloody bare knuckles. What makes it so difficult? For starters, Konami is pretty tight fisted with the extra lives. You get three as standard, and can earn an extra one for every 100,000 points scored, and there are no continues. That alone makes it pretty hard going, and mortal players will struggle to get past stage three.

Of course, this being the Eighties and the developer behind the most iconic cheat code ever made, you can activate some extra lives and invincibility by holding down certain keys on the keyboard before beginning. Konami also made their own MSX cheat cartridge in 1985, called the Game Master, which allows you to select your starting level and up to 99 extra lives in several Konami games. It also has a handy screenshot tool built in, which I used for the purposes of this blog post. The Game Master cheat cartridge has a much longer title in Japan. Called Konami no Gēmu o 10-bai Tanoshimu Kātorijji, it literally translates as “Cartridge to enjoy Konami games 10 times more” and I think that might be both figuratively and mathematically accurate in the case of Knightmare. I never would have seen the back half of the stages without it!

Intermission… Although Konami has never ported Knightmare to any other system, and never remade it, they did re-release the original on floppy disk in 1989, complete with enhanced music, unlocked by plugging in the sound cartridge that came with Snatcher. There’s also Knightmare Gold, a pretty snazzy fan-made patch that upgrades the game for MSX2, adding smooth scrolling, Konami’s enhanced music, more detailed sprites and a wider colour palette. I’m not really a fan of the new look Popolon but this is a cool patch nonetheless and well worth checking out.

Played with a few extra lives and the level select in your arsenal, Knightmare becomes an achievable, highly enjoyable but still very challenging shoot-‘em-up. Though it’s a simple game on the surface, the way Konami takes all the on-screen elements and moves them around in different patterns and speeds, eventually makes Popolon’s quest a nightmarishly difficult gauntlet.While the screen itself scrolls upwards at a constant rate, the on-screen sprites all behave quite differently and when combined together they can create a sort of frantic, moving maze of death that need to be carefully weaved through without taking a hit. Some enemies simply march down the screen, while others will shoot bullets that slowly drift towards you. Other enemies will behave more erratically, moving around the screen in an unpredictable pattern. Some make a rapid beeline towards you. There are the really annoying cloud enemies, which drift innocently from side to side but will bolt straight down the screen at speed if you happen to shoot them.

So there’s a lot to avoid!

But within that shower of death there’s a lot to collect too. Power-ups come in a couple of forms. There are the chess pieces, which are hidden behind question blocks on the floor and need to be shot to reveal the piece within. Find and collect a rook and you’ll get 500 bonus points, a knight will instantly eliminate all enemies and bullets on screen, while a queen pauses the action for 30 seconds and the ultra rare king grants an extra life. There are also invisible question blocks that are revealed by shooting in their location – something I am 100% certain was an inspiration for the treasure chests in T&E Soft’s Undeadline.

Occasionally a crystal ball will also float around the screen. Some of these contain power-ups that can grant you a shield, make you invincible or deadly to touch, while others contain new weapons. Shooting the crystal before you collect it will change its colour and the power-up within, just like the bells in Twinbee, and can seriously turn the tide in your favour. Since the chess pieces are always in fixed positions, and the crystals float around, each encourages and rewards you for sticking your neck out and weaving through the fire.

With bullets and hazards to avoid, enemies to shoot and tempting power-ups to collect, all positioned and moving in different patterns and speeds, it’s not long before Knightmare becomes a complicated patchwork of high speed risk and reward. On a technical level it’s supremely impressive how many different sprites Konami manages to get moving on screen at once – and at good speed on a humble MSX1 – but on a human, play experience level… In short, it’s bloody hard! But it’s so well balanced between the threats and the treats (at least with extra lives enabled) that playing it puts you on a proverbial knife-edge. You constantly feel just one little slip up away from death, but when you get in the zone and play skilfully enough to reach the next checkpoint and then the next, it’s undeniably exhilarating.

Now I’m not saying that Knightmare is the best vertical shmup ever made, but it might well be one of the high points of its day. 1986 also saw the release of Star Soldier, Zanac and Taito’s little remembered Scramble Formation, while Twinbee and Terra Cresta had released just the year before. With the exception of Twinbee, which was unusually innovative for the time, there’s a clear standard running across the shmups of the year. Tropes, a clear set of standards and conventions, were emerging, and while all of these games were very good and very important in the evolution of the genre I can’t help but feel that Knightmare stands out from the crowd because of its original theme and finely crafted challenge.

Or at least it should have stood out. Maybe if it had been released on the NES or in arcades, it would be recognised as one of the greats today or might have had more of an influence outside of the ultra niche fantasy RPG shooter. Instead it remains a little gem for those in the know, for MSX aficionados and barely anyone else. Yet despite its lack of impact on the historical stage, it did lead the way for Konami to create its much more influential sequel, Maze Of Galious in which Popolon would return and Aphrodite would graduate to a much more equal, playable role. More on that next week!

FIVE LITTLE THINGS ABOUT KNIGHTMARE THAT I RATHER LIKED

1. As a character, Popolon has instant appeal and I really think he deserved to have more success outside of the Knightmare trilogy and MSX. He did go on to be a playable character in the original Parodius though and, more recently, he made a surprising appearance in Konami’s Pixel Puzzle Collection on iOS.

2. Each stage of Knightmare has a unique boss, with their own appearance and attack patterns. Not that impressive now, but in 1986 and on MSX that was pretty impressive! Especially when you consider that this entire game fits in just 32kb!

3. If all the pressures of the difficult gameplay weren’t enough, after a while Knightmare starts to throw stretches of water at you that can only be crossed if you hit the question block in time to activate a bridge. On later levels, those blocks are invisible so you have to scramble around to find them amid the chaos and danger. Those bastards!

4. When you shoot a skeleton, they separate into two pieces and eventually reform. It’s a nice little touch underscored by a fun cartoon aesthetic, and one that’s expanded upon with equal charm in Maze Of Galious.

5. Hit F1 to pause the game and Popolon gets under a comfy looking duvet and drifts off to sleep. Aw!


Finally, how about some music from Knightmare…

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