As far as obscure releases within the NES library go, Devil World is certainly one of the most interesting. Originally released in Japan in 1984 and in Europe in 1987, this is a title that to this day has never been available to purchase in North America — not even through the wonders of Nintendo’s Virtual Console service. Nintendo of America originally passed on the title at the time of release due to self-imposed rules it had on the use of religious icons and themes appearing in its games. The subsidiary's stance has evidently relaxed since then, yet Devil World nevertheless remains in the depths of unreleased game hell in the region; policies are clearly more relaxed in Europe.
With that said, the fact that a Nintendo-developed game contains such overt religious symbols is rather surprising. Designed by Shigeru Miyamato and then-newcomer Takashi Tezuka, Devil World isn’t an in-depth critical work that explores the underworld. Instead, it’s merely a PAC-MAN clone, albeit a rather creative one that exudes more charm than you’d expect from a game with such a sinister-sounding title.
However, that’s not to say that Devil World is all lollipops and rainbows. In fact, it’s pretty punishing as far as the gameplay is concerned. The basic premise evokes that of Namco’s yellow, pellet-gobbling mascot in that the main goal of each standard stage is to collect objects known as Boa-Boa dots, which are scattered across various dungeon mazes. You play as Tamagon, a miniature dragon who is tasked with collecting these dots as a means through which to “attack the Devil World”.
Whereas PAC-MAN doesn’t hold back when it comes to munching pellets, Tamagon has the good grace to only do so while holding a holy cross, an item of which you’ll find plenty in the maze. Once firmly in his grasp, a mystical power compels him to not only eat delicious Boa-Boa dots, but to also shoot flames from his mouth. The latter comes in especially handy given that each stage is littered with enemies, and the only way to temporarily halt their advance is to roast them. Doing so will even turn certain enemies into fried eggs — we can’t help but think that both Miyamoto and Tezuka were under the influence while making this one.
It’s a premise that sounds straightforward enough, but what sets Devil World apart from its obvious source of inspiration is the way in which the stages behave. The view of the playing field isn’t fixed in place, and instead the level will scroll in one of four directions as chosen by the Devil himself. Those that have played any Super Smash Bros. game since Brawl will likely be already familiar with this chap — he’s that pain in the backside who pushes part of the stage out of view.
In Devil World, he’s doing more or less the same thing, although his primary goal here is to crush poor Tamagon between the edge of the screen and a wall. Naturally, this has a pretty big impact on the way in which you play the game; how you go about collecting Boa-Boa dots is always influenced by the direction in which the stage is moving, and some foresight on your part is required if you want to avoid inadvertently trapping yourself. The mazes are surprisingly intricate in certain stages, featuring long stretches of wall that will speed up your journey to the afterlife if you don’t take care.
There are three different types of stage that crop up per round, thus ensuring that there is variety, albeit in a rather formulaic way. Upon completing the first stage — which revolves around eating Boa-Boa dots — you’re next tasked with collecting four bibles and placing them into the Devil’s seal in order to close it. Bibles dish out the same fire-breathing powers as crosses, so you’re still able to attack enemies in this stage should you need to. Following this, a bonus stage will appear in which you have to collect up to six bonus boxes. Here, you’re able to control the direction in which the screen scrolls by walking over arrow panels on the floor; only through the efficient use of these can you acquire everything.
Although it may be a very simple concept, especially when compared to modern games, Devil World is nevertheless very playable and challenging as a result of its unusual gameplay mechanics. The game can be played cooperatively with a second player, which makes it a little bit easier (although you can hinder and even kill each other if not careful) and an ideal choice if you want something simple and easy to understand. The charming visuals and upbeat soundtrack should be at odds with the theme of the game, but they actually just make it that bit more appealing when played today. The repetitive nature of the gameplay and stage format, however, may prevent Devil World from holding your attention for very long.
It’s all too easy to label Devil World as a PAC-MAN clone given its obvious similarities, yet to view it as only being that would be a huge mistake. This is a game that takes the basic formula of the arcade original and builds upon it in an inventive and unique way; the scrolling maze mechanic inserts an added layer of challenge that can be remarkably difficult to anticipate and overcome. It does become a bit repetitive over time, however, due to the fact that the stages are very similar throughout and always presented in the same order. Despite this it’s the challenge that will keep you coming back, not to mention the quirky theme that’s arguably more interesting as a result of it being something you wouldn’t typically expect to find in a Nintendo-developed game.