Wings of Death (Commodore Amiga) Retro Game Review  by@stefanopavone

Wings of Death (Commodore Amiga) Retro Game Review

The game was released for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga 16-bit computers in 1990. The premise involves a wizard named Sagyr (pronounced “Sah-gear”) who seeks revenge on the evil witch Xandrilia for transforming him into a shapeshifting winged creature, a hybrid between a dragon, wyvern, griffin and phoenix. The player must traverse seven stages which start off hard and get increasingly difficult to the point of extreme sadism. The game consists of a unique powerup system commonplace in most shoot-em-ups (mainly Japanese bullet hell games)
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Stefano Pavone

Retrogamer and Champion of the Obscure and Defenceless

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Wings of Death is a 1990 bullet hell shoot-em-up game released for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga 16-bit computers, developed by Eclipse Software and published by Thalion Software. What is unique about this game is that it came on a “dual boot” floppy diskette, which allowed two separate versions of the same game to coexist on the same disk together, making the game cheaper to duplicate and sell.


The premise involves a wizard named Sagyr (pronounced “Sah-gear”) who seeks revenge on the evil witch Xandrilia (pronounced “Zan-drill-ear”) for transforming him into a shapeshifting winged creature, a hybrid between a dragon, wyvern, griffin, and phoenix, in addition to saving the world. To do so, he must traverse seven (7) stages which start off hard and get increasingly difficult to the point of extreme sadism.


For the purpose of this review, I will cover the Amiga version using my custom-made 2-button arcade joystick.


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The Game

This game, as is common for its era, uses multiple floppy disks, as hard disk drives were not commonplace until the Windows 95 era - in this case, it uses two (2) 3 1/2” double-density floppy diskettes, with the introduction and ending sequence on the first diskette and the second disk containing the game itself.


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When the game boots up, the player is greeted with the above image. Pressing any key on the keyboard or clicking the mouse will take the player to the opening credits accompanied by a very adrenaline-surging score by Jochen “Mad Max” Hippel. Pressing a button or key here will take the player to the main menu (after the player has swapped out the first disk for the second one).


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Each option is self-explanatory - the player can start a new game or continue a game if they run out of lives. The game is generous enough to provide the player with four (4) continues, the usage of which will take the player back to the beginning of the current level. The player can view the high scores, game information (credits) or choose between sound effects and music (the “Music+” option allows for both simultaneously, which is unusual for games from this era). Typing the word SPELLBINDER here enables a cheat mode, and the screen will flash red to confirm the correct code entry. With this cheat mode enabled, the player can do the following by pressing the respective keys on the keyboard (in parentheses):


  • Change weapons (F1 to F5)
  • Change power level for the current weapon (1 to 5)
  • Change defensive powerup (F6 or F7)
  • Activate temporary invincibility lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds (F8)


The Powerup System

The game consists of a unique powerup system commonplace in most shoot-em-ups (mainly Japanese bullet hell games, from which this is indirectly inspired). The player can use between five (5) different weapons:


  • Split Fire - this is the player’s default weapon and initially fires a projectile in a straight line. Fires multiple triangular bullets at a 180-degree angle when fully upgraded.
  • Circle Blast - this fires a smaller and faster (but less powerful) projectile. Fires multiple circular bullets at a 360-degree angle (omnidirectional) when fully upgraded.
  • Power Beam - this is the most useful weapon in the game since it is the only weapon that has native fully automatic fire (does not require an autofire powerup) - it fires a deadly arc-shaped beam of energy in straight line and fires up to four (4) beams at various angles when fully upgraded.
  • Dragonfire - this is the most powerful weapon in the game, capable of killing most enemies in a single shot and can make quick work of bosses, defeating them in a matter of seconds - it fires a small flame and fires a pair of large jets of fire (which then split into opposite directions) when fully upgraded.
  • Thunderball - this is the most unconventional weapon in the game, as it is powerful but requires some trickery and expertise to master. It fires a volley of fireballs in a straight line when first picked up, and when fully upgraded, will fire a single line of fireballs which then splits into a pair of two separate volleys at right angles (90 degrees).


The player character will change shape and size to determine which powerup is currently equipped. Powerups can be upgraded by collecting an icon bearing the current powerup’s symbol, and this can be done up to four (4) times. Collecting a different powerup will not only grant the player a new weapon but will also reset the power level and necessitate collecting multiple icons of that weapon to upgrade it, so keep that in mind.


The Player’s Defences

No game would be fair without some form of self-defense for the player. In this case, the player has three (3) defenses available to find and collect:


  • Destroyer - this is a simple defense, orbiting the player and destroying enemies it comes into contact with - the most common defense.
  • Hunter - this actively seeks, locates, and destroys nearby targets in addition to enemies further away (sometimes going off-screen to do so) - less common than the Destroyer but more common than the Shield. The Hunter and the Destroyer are mutually exclusive (picking up one will result in the loss of the other).
  • Shield - this grants the player temporary invincibility for about 20 or 30 seconds (the player will flash when invincible) - there is no damage recovery in this game (the player will continue taking damage for as long as they are in constant contact with an enemy or a hazard), so this defense is quite valuable, although scarce.
  • Smart Bomb - this is the rarest of them all. It destroys all enemies currently on the screen.


Other Pickups

  • 500 Ball - this simply adds 500 points to the player’s score. Very common and harmless.
  • Wings - this gives the player a speed boost, allowing them to move and fly faster.
  • Skull - AVOID THIS!! This pickup will nullify ALL upgrades to the player’s weapon and take away any defenses they have (including shields and speed boosts), resetting them to their initial state.
  • Heart - this resets the player’s health to its maximum value.
  • Ankh - this gives the player an additional life and is one of the rarest pickups in the game.
  • Autofire - this equips the player’s current weapon with fully automatic fire. Picking up another Autofire powerup (or a different weapon) disables this.


Now that the basic mechanics are covered, let’s explore the game’s levels.

Stage 1: Sagyr’s Castle

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This level is fairly easy and gives the player ample time to get used to the game’s mechanics and difficulty. It is set in the protagonist’s castle and is populated primarily by evil statues and the occasional golden eagle, which will drop powerups when defeated. Sometimes the player will come across an entire formation of enemies - destroying the whole formation (killing every single enemy) will also drop a powerup. This stage’s hazards include fire and deadly statues and it is one of the best levels in the game.


Boss: 3-headed Hydra

Weakness: Head(s)

Recommended Weapon: Power Beam

Stage 2: The Jungle of Mutants

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This stage is a good showcase for what I consider to be the game’s main weakness: a gratuitous usage of vivid colors (most of the game’s stages look too garish and cartoony) resulting in the enemies and the background blending in with each other, making it difficult to evade projectiles. Natural hazards include deadly poison plants, rainbow pollen, and giant mosquitoes. About halfway through the level, the player encounters a giant ladybird which neither harms the player nor can the player harm it. This is one of the weaker levels in the game, in my opinion, due to the garish palette.


Boss: Obese Beetle

Weakness: Jaws

Recommended Weapon: Dragonfire

Stage 3: The Lethal Swamp

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After a brief visit into Hell for the color-deficient, we return to a much more subdued palette and environment for this third stage. This is where the difficulty begins to increment significantly after the first two levels’ somewhat easy ride. Enemies include giant floating Emperor Palpatine heads, angry mosquitoes, eccentric skeletons, and possessed swords that can attack the player from behind. Hazards include puddles and lakes of deadly bubbles.


Boss: Legless Skeleton

Weakness: Floating Head

Recommended Weapon: Either Dragonfire or Power Beam

Stage 4: A Scape of Fire

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The difficulty begins to increase with this stage, and the lack of health-based pickups (energy or life) does nothing to alleviate the constant projectile dodging the player will undertake for the majority of this level, which has a half-volcanic, half-Greco-Roman theme to its design. This is usually the point where even the most experienced of players will run out of their initial set of lives and get a game over, where they must choose between settling for a high score or continuing at the expense of a clean slate (their score is reset to 0 with each continue used). Hazards include pools of lava, jets of hot liquid magma, and active volcanoes complete with eruptions. Enemies include angry clouds, oversized mosquitoes, and ifrits (red gargoyle-like demons in Arab mythology).


Boss: Cacodemon

Weakness: Whole Body

Recommended Weapon: Dragonfire

Stage 5: Cold Lands of Doom and Despair

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As the name suggests, this stage has a very arctic theme to it. The player will be encountering all kinds of ice-themed enemies along the way, including frozen skull faces which spew fireballs and lethal possessed snowflakes. Natural hazards include Olympic torches, deadly frozen flowers which spew projectiles, and what appear to be a cross between a caterpillar and a pig in a blanket. This level does have a nice artistic touch involving frozen faces visible in the background (see the screenshot above).


Boss: Angry Q*bert Lookalike

Weakness: Whole Body

Recommended Weapon: Dragonfire

Stage 6: Crystal World

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This is the penultimate (second to last) stage of the game, and the difficulty is near its peak. As the name implies, the player is in a crystalline dimension. This level has very few powerups (and is full of hidden skulls), but it compensates with an abundance of shields and defenses. This time, the player can easily die due to too many sprites appearing on the screen at once and unleashing projectiles which are nearly impossible to avoid completely as opposed to the earlier stages’ garish colors. Enemies include flying skulls and angry scarabs, while natural hazards include glowing lava lamps and some of the crystals themselves.


Boss: Dragon

Weakness: Head

Recommended Weapon: Either Dragonfire or Power Beam

Stage 7 (Final Stage): Xandrilia’s Domain

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This is it. The last level of the game… and the difficulty is now at its apex, bordering on sadistic - this stage is a true test of the player’s skill, reflexes, and perseverance. There are enemies coming from all sides, next to no powerups, very few health-based pickups, and only a single defense and shield. The architecture is a fusion of the majestic and the infernal - this stage is full of natural hazards. Upon reaching Xandrilia’s fortress, the final boss of the game will appear in the form of a demonic dog along with possessed masks - defeat it, and you’ve won.


Boss: Single-Headed Cerberus & Evil Face Masks

Weakness: Head (Cerberus), Whole Body (Masks)

Recommended Weapon: Either Dragonfire or Power Beam


Here’s the ending sequence for those who find this game too hard or are simply too lazy to try:


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The ending text is transcribed here due to its questionable legibility thanks to the pseudo-medieval font used throughout the game:


“Congratulations! You managed to get even with evil Xandrilia. Finally, you have regained your own form again and fame will follow you throughout her domain for the rest of your life!”


Presentation

The game’s presentation is very well developed and well executed for this era. The rudimentary cutscene at the end, in addition to the improvised opening credits when the game begins, does give this game a more epic scope and feel and is a sign that the developers care about their product. This is a game that was made for the 16-bit machines, and it shows, although there is a lack of optimization for the Amiga version since the Atari ST is the lead platform, which was commonplace in the era of these games. Porting aside, it is a very well-crafted effort.


Graphics (Detail, Color)

The game’s graphics are nicely realized and very well detailed. However, the color palette is inconsistent and can vary from level to level - this is more prominent in the early stages, where the colors used can cause enemies, hazards, and projectiles used to blend in with each other and make the game unnecessarily difficult. In the levels where the colors do have the right combination, however, every detail is vibrant and easily identifiable, and every enemy and hazard pop out at the player. The player sprites themselves are also uniquely colored, drawn, and shaped (in addition to having different sizes depending on the player’s weapon), giving the game some visual variety.


Sound (SFX, Music)

The game’s soundtrack is by Jochen “Mad Max” Hippel, a composer who is quite well-known on the Atari demoscene for converting SID tunes from the C64 to the Atari ST’s YM2149F chip, which is similar but not identical to the AY-3-8912 chip used in other computers of the time such as the MSX series, Amstrad CPC and 128K models of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. As a result, the game’s soundtrack fares better on the Atari ST than on the Commodore Amiga, which utilizes mostly samples in addition to the actual recorded sound of varying quality as opposed to a series of bleeps and bloops.


Sound effects are limited mostly to muffled explosions when enemies die, a voiceover announcing whatever items the player picks up, and an evil laugh that plays whenever the player loses a life or collects the dreaded skull pickup. The game does have music for nearly every setting, though - the opening credits and ending sequence have their own music, as do each of the game’s seven stages, in addition to a funky drum beat when the game loads the next level.


Controls

The controls are smooth and responsive - maybe a little bit too responsive, particularly when equipped with multiple speed upgrades, which could result in the player flying into enemy projectiles and/or hazards instead of trying to dodge them, which could be problematic in some of the levels with more garish color palettes, as everything just blends in together.


Like most games from this era, only a single-button Atari-style joystick is supported, which is curious because, by this point, games were evolving to the point that usually overcame such a limitation, and the Atari ST and Amiga could support two (2) separate fire buttons (compatible games could use a Sega Master System/Mark 3 controller as it shares the same pinout save for an additional pin wired up to accommodate a second button) as well as the MSX computers (whose controllers were not compatible, as they were wired up slightly differently).


The one complaint I do have is that the fire button must be pressed manually (and constantly) to ensure rapid fire, so this game is best played with a joystick or gamepad that supports turbo fire. I also feel that this game would have been more playable with a mouse instead of a joystick, which would have allowed a greater freedom of movement and precision.

Gameplay (Difficulty, Fun-to-Frustration Ratio)

The gameplay is highly reminiscent of bullet hell games, and as such, places emphasis on speed and skill, and the enemies will always appear in the same predetermined paths in the exact same sequence, eliminating any strategy from the player’s part and proving the very definition of insanity. The difficulty for the game is also a potential deterrent, as it starts off fairly challenging in the first stage and quickly becomes brutally difficult, and the final stage is the epitome of shoot-em-up gaming sadism. An option to choose the difficulty (easy, medium, or hard) would have been beneficial and could have made the game more accessible to a larger audience.


The game’s strength lies in its powerups and upgrade system - the player MUST level up their weapon if they are to succeed and emerge victorious, with the Dragonfire (which can kill most enemies in less than a second) and the Power Beam (with its multiple arcs of energy at various angles) being the best weapons in the game. The weakest weapon, in my opinion, is the Circle Blast, as it does insufficient damage in its initial state, meaning enemies cannot be destroyed quickly enough to upgrade it. There is some strategy for the game’s bosses, though (the Stage 2 boss requires the player to circle around and go behind it in order to evade projectiles before coming back to the front to attack it, ditto the Stage 5 boss).

Overall

Wings of Death is a semi-classic from the peak era of 16-bit home computers, and it would not have been out of place had it originally been an arcade game. Rather than make the usual ST-to-Amiga quick port, the developers actually tried to make some use of the Amiga’s expanded capabilities, including the sampled sound and larger color palette. It sold well enough to warrant a sequel the following year (1991) in the form of Lethal Xcess (AKA Lethal Xcess: Wings of Death 2), which had a futuristic sci-fi theme and involved Sagyr fighting Xandrilia’s descendants in the far future. However, that game did not sell as well, largely due to the difficulty being even more cruel and sadistic than that of its predecessor.


A lot of games made in the West (and even in Eastern Europe due to the proliferation of copies and clones made behind the Iron Curtain) ran the gauntlet from excellent to average to abominable, many of which were ported from one machine to another without optimizing the target system’s specifications and capabilities. Wings of Death, however, shows the potential that these machines have when coded properly and when ported with optimization in mind, rivaling some Japanese games in terms of addictiveness and atmosphere. This game is a must-have if you like a good challenge and a shooter with a unique medieval theme, regardless of whether you have an Atari ST or Commodore Amiga.


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Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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