It’s not very often I get into the FOMO-fuelled side of game collecting. But if there’s something I’m a huge fan of I’ll make an exception and be a sucker. During the final E3 as we know it, Devolver Digital premiered their last prerecorded lampoon of Nintendo’s Direct video series where new games and products get announced. Of course in their parodies they have their own zany storyline going on and do in fact, still tell people about the new stuff they’re publishing.
PROS: A fantastic shoot ’em up with some humor by the folks who gave us Gato Roboto.
CONS: The music could be better. The protagonists’ sprites look bland. Controversial launch.
SECRETS: There are a lot of unlockables for such a small game.
In a more controversial move, Devolver partnered with Special Reserve Games for the subject of this review. There would be two different physical releases you could only get through the SRG store, and once their fulfillment was made that was it. They did two batches, one during E3, and one a bit later. But that was it. The game’s branding even touts “Only Physical. Never Digital.” But going this route over a mass-market production also really limited the number of buyers, which no doubt would include many a scalper. Which there were. When the game got announced there were already listings on the site with insane prices.
But how is the game itself? If you were lucky enough to get an order in like I was, then you’ll find you’re actually getting a pretty great title. If you were not, however, not all is lost. I’ll be telling you why at the end of the review. Which will be shorter than usual, because the game isn’t very long. Made by Doinksoft, the studio that brought us Gato Roboto, Demon Throttle is a shmup. Or Shoot ’em Up if you will. It’s blended with some Run ‘N Gun elements. Your characters are on foot. You shoot demons down as if they were troops in Capcom’s seminal Commando. But by and large, it’s a shmup. The screen auto scrolls vertically, and you have free reign most of the time. It reminds me a bit of Dragon Spirit or Gunbird. Shmups where you pilot a person or creature instead of the more traditional spaceship or vehicle.
Where Doinksoft differentiates things further is in how the game plays. Instead of always hovering over everything you are still traveling on foot. So you’ll have to shoot not only enemies but huge swaths of scenery in the hopes of finding power-ups and life replenishments. You’ll find a lot of the staples you’d expect in the genre. There’s a temporary shield that acts as an extra point of damage. There’s a mace that acts as an orbiting option that can take out enemies. There are speed-up icons that make you move faster. And there are others that benefit your characters in different ways. That’s right, characters. You’re not just flying solo. You have to take control of two characters.
You get introduced to them in the opening movie. It’s made of cinema screens, replete with lo-fi voice samples to emulate the thrill of playing The Adventures Of Bayou Billy on the NES. You find yourself controlling a cowboy, who wants revenge on the head demon for “Kissing” his wife. You’ll also control a vampire who wants to get back four magical chalices the demons stole. And it’s here you’ll start the game.
The game is a short, but brutal four stages. You’ll go along blasting away demons and scenery until you get to the boss. It sounds par for the course, but remember you control two characters. You swap between them by pressing X. You can jump onto scenery or over bullets with B. Shoot with Y. While A fires off your bombs. The cowboy gets dynamite, while the vampire gets homing daggers. When piloting the cowboy you’ll shoot in a straight line. Six bullets at a time, and you can take five hits before dying. When using the vampire, you’ll get a crossbow that acts as a spread gun. And you’ll only be able to take four hits before going down. If both characters die, it’s game over. Demon Throttle has no continues.
The lack of continues or 1Ups really makes the game a challenge. Demon Throttle is tough. Fortunately, the game does have its own take on the Konami code called the DoinkSoft code in the manual. It doesn’t give you thirty lives though, it just starts you out with a shield for one extra point of damage on each character, and gives each of them two lives on every stage instead of one. The game is still going to kick your ass. Like many of the toughest shooters, it’s a game where the more you play it, the more enemy and power-up placements you’ll remember and improve over time.
The other feature that will help even the most frustrated player is the leveling system. Each of your characters gets experience points for killing bad guys. So if you try to kill as many bad guys as possible you’ll level up. Each character can get up to level five before being maxed out. And you’ll want to do that. The cowboy will shoot extra bullets and gain speed shooting. The vampire’s spread will be further and become more powerful. Each of the four bosses has a different series of patterns to memorize and maneuver around. Oftentimes, including moments of bullet hell.
When you finally do beat the game it’s probably not over. Because there are two endings. Remember those chalices the vampire wants back? Each stage has a secret stage in it a la Dragon Spirit where you need to uncover a stairwell. Run into the stairwell and you’ll be in an underground cave stage unique to each main stage. Defeat that stage’s boss and you’ll get the chalice. But you’re still not done because it takes you back to the current level’s midpoint and you have to finish that stage to go onward. So in a way, you actually have to beat 8 stages on two lives per stage. Four lives with the cheat code. Also, the stairs are in a different place every run. Beating the game unlocks a hard mode too, where you play remixed stages with far more enemies in them.
Over time and multiple plays, you’ll unlock a bunch of cute extras. With different screen borders you can enable before your play-throughs, as well as a sound test and even a bestiary. Once you unlock that, you can find hidden meat, or as my pal, Hungrygoriya says, “Meatsticks”. Find that, and then the game will put you into a random battle that plays like a turn-based RPG battle. If you defeat that monster they’re unlocked in the bestiary where you can read more about them. And I should mention if you have a friend over, you can play a two-player co-op mode where you each control one of the characters. One or both of you may like the CRT filter left on.
So DoinkSoft squeezed a lot of extra stuff to keep you going back to the game. Even a harder mode unlocks when you do manage to clear it. As with Gato Roboto, they went for a specific retro look. Where the previous game had a lot of monochrome DOS, Apple II, and Commodore 64 influence, Demon Throttle is very much an NES influence. There’s a similar color palette to it, the stages have that early NES look, while the pixel art for the enemies, bosses, and cinema screens are dead ringers. DoinkSoft clearly has a lot of love for the post-crash years of North American gaming. And as in Gato Roboto, they still appreciate crass comedy. Demon Throttle has its share of dirty jokes. And they’re pulled off well. In my several hours of playing through to the bad ending, I also never ran into any major technical issues.
The soundtrack and effects aren’t as memorable as they were in Gato Roboto, but they’re still good. They fit the motif of the game well, and the echoey effects that a lot of the NES games Rare made are here. Every now and again, there’s even a little bit of C64 SID influence, but it sounds very NES 95 percent of the time.
Now earlier, I said if all of this sounded good to you, you don’t have to fear that you can’t ever get it affordably. After playing through it on stream a nice person pointed out to me that there is a wider release coming and you can pre-buy that on Amazon. People who do will get a download code for Gato Roboto. What you won’t get in the wider release are the extras that the initial Special Reserve versions came with. And these extras were stickers and an instruction booklet for the base version, while the extra ten dollars got that stuff plus a fancier box for the premium version. The SRG limited releases were also numbered. Mine is 1,275 out of 10,000 for example. It’s a nice showpiece, but unless you just have to have every conceivable variation of every game for your Switch, just nab the wide release when it launches in September.
Overall, Demon Throttle is a fantastic time for any shmup fan or anyone looking for a retro-styled challenge. It’s just too bad that neither Devolver or SRG really made an equal attempt to let people know it wasn’t going to be impossible to find after enthusiasts and resellers got their copies. Still, if you stumbled upon my review, let people know they don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on something they can buy for $29.99.
The steep difficulty and potty humor won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But if some crass toilet or sex jokes on par with something out of Family Guy or South Park don’t bother you, you may want to give it a look. if you’re looking for a challenge not seen since the days of quarter-munching Toaplan games and not afraid to blister your thumbs, you might want to give it a try. Demon Throttle is a fantastic little game, marred by a marketing misfire. Hopefully, there will be an official “Hey! don’t worry guys, we made plenty!” follow-up campaign.
Final Score: 9 out of 10