Deviants is an 8-bit flipscreen arcade game from 1987, written by Colin Swinbourne et al, released on the budget label Players for Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64. Here I’m reviewing the Spectrum version, which is playable on 48K or unchanged on 128K save some extra title screen music. Deviants was also a memorable covergame for Sinclair User magazine. That version featured a custom loader with scrolling text plus a simple pattern-recognition game playable during loading.
I don’t have an Offical Top Ten Speccy Games and if I did there’d be at least eleven, but Deviants is one of the games I’ve most enjoyed playing and replaying down the years. Comfort gaming, if you will. At risk of giving a hostage to fortune, I’ve got several posts planned about the game. Since it’s pretty damn obscure by modern standards I wanted to start by providing a straight largely spoiler-free review and an impetus/opportunity (mostly theoretical, I realise!) for others to experience the game as intended. This multi-post approach is one I also hope to take with other favourite Spectrum games in the future, so if you’re wondering where the reviews for Dizzy games, Chaos or Lords Of Midnight are… well, that’s your answer*.
OK, on to the game in question. Once loaded whichever release of Deviants you’re playing presents you with a high score/options screen, neatly bounded by moving pipework. The faces of your character an un-named “Star Warrior” and one of the titular “Deviants” loom large. Keys are mostly redefinable (except pause) and strangely dated-seeming for ’87 the game is begun not by pressing fire, but “S“. That convention died out a couple of years previous and is paralleled by the requirement to use Enter to pause, plus “C” to continue. Odd clunky choices.
Starting the game triggers a skippable scrolling text backstory which includes some gameplay instructions for the bomb minigame*. The game proper is a single-level* flip-screen platformer exploration of the Deviants’ asteroid, with the intent of arming the 30* bombs placed by the Star Warriors who came before. Different areas of the Deviants’ asteroid have different graphics/architecture and movement around it is further facilitated by the teleport system.
The teleport system is a delight. First it confuses you, then it clicks. Teleporters all have 8-character names. Standing on a teleporter and pressing down takes you to a screen where you can input the name of any other teleporter and instantly be transported to that pad. Here’s the wrinkle though (skip paragraph to avoid minor spoilers). Teleporter names aren’t unique, instead there are usually 2 pads with the same name, but one is dominant, one recessive. This is a really cool concept, probably my favourite mechanic in the whole game and one I’ve never seen anywhere else. It means that you cannot reach certain pads, even though you can teleport away from them. It also means the first time you discover a teleport pad if you’re doing well for ammo and energy a bold course of action is to try teleporting to the same place! Indeed, you begin the game stood on “CERBURUS“, teleporting immediately to “CERBURUS” takes you 2 screens to your left to the dominant pad of that name.
The asteroid is populated by the skeletal so-called “Deviants” who pose a fairly limited threat. Rather than actively attacking, they merely run back and forth on their platforms or up and down stairs. Should you get in their way they run straight through you ghost-like and a clicking noise alerts you to the loss of energy that accompanies this (6-12-ish providing you’re not running together). Only one type exist and killing them takes 4 shots from your rapid-firing weapon. They do not respawn under any circumstances and their ashes fall to the floor on death.
You can have a maximum of 200 Energy and 200 Ammo which means you’ll need to regularly replenish these in order to fight the Deviants. Energy can be fully restored by passing through a special archway of which there are only a handful. Ammo capsules which restore 100 bullets (excess ammo is lost) are a common sight in the first half* of the game but absent later. This leads us to something that I haven’t told you yet about the game.
Deviants cheats. Not dramatically by dealing quad damage like Shin Akuma or Shao Khan. Not by having bad collision detection or unresponsive controls. No. Deviants cheats by design, like a text adventure or Resident Evil game. The Deviants themselves as described are a minor threat. The game’s challenge arises from impassable barriers with tantalising glimpses beyond. When I’m trying to sell someone on Deviants’ merits I refer to it as being almost a Metroidvania. However what powers you need you start with and many of the barriers you pass are less of a challenge than they first appear. Deviants establishes its ground rules, lets you play, then quietly breaks them here and there. For example (spoiler) you need to know that it’s a resource-limited survival game, even though nothing in the first half* of the game gives you any reason to suspect as much. In his “8 Rules Of Writing” Kurt Vonnegut said “Give your [players] as much information as possible as soon as possible”. Kurt Vonnegut wouldn’t have endorsed this game.
To defeat Deviants you first need to master the bomb-arming minigame (or use a Suggested POKE from below), once done that allows you to properly explore much more of the map. The minigame presents you with 6 “valves” which can be flashing or not. Their start state is random and you need to set them all to be flashing. Keys 1-6 on the keyboard flips the state of 2 or 3 different valves simultaneously. E.g. press 1 to flip valve 1 and valve 4. Once you’re used to which key does what you can do it in a couple of seconds. Unfortunately, there’s a 30 second timer which will detonate the bomb if you fail to arm it properly, killing you and ending the game. This is pretty harsh for the first few playthroughs when all you want to do is get the hang of how the minigame works.
Once you pass Deviants’ biggest and second-most unfair challenge* the sequence of gameplay changes slightly. Instead of simply running behind crates, grabbing excess ammo and arming bombs willy-nilly, you find yourself having to backtrack regularly for bullets or healing.
Controls are simple, run/jump left and right, shoot, roll. Rolling doesn’t do much, you can’t avoid taking damage or anything. It does stop when you reach the end of a platform though so when exploring it sometimes makes sense to roll around to avoid falling off a long way down through multiple screens. The game map loops horizontally, but not vertically, hence the need for the teleport system to get higher up again.
There’s much less graphical variety in the later parts of the game, which makes mentally mapping your route more difficult and it’s here when you’re hunting for the last few unarmed bombs that the game can become slightly tiresome. However, the non-respawning foes effectively provide a trail of breadcrumbs allowing you to know where you have and haven’t been so catching sight of a pair of running Deviants functions as a clue where to go.
I haven’t really spoken about the graphics, but they’re gorgeous. Using colour on the Spectrum isn’t easy to do well and the great multi-coloured chunky designs used are really eye-catching. I particularly love the pipework and the yellow/green crystals. The animation on the seemingly-rotating teleport pads is a neat touch too. I’m not sure why your character is a green dude, but I can dig it. The sci-fi font looks great, very metallic.
Deviants is low-threat, medium-to-low frustration fun. I’m highly partial to a good exploration-platformer and that’s what you’ve got here. It’s a shame it lacks any actual secrets or little one-off statues or things, but the effort gone into the layout especially of dead-end screens somewhat makes up for that.
Highly recommended with a POKE for a new player. If you enjoy this game or similar, I’d also recommend Spooked (another Players game) and the excellent Spanish Tres Luces De Glaurung aka Conquestador [sic] both of which I hope to one day cover. I’m interested in hearing similar game suggestions too.
Here’s the The RZX Archive‘s full playthrough of Deviants on YouTube:
You should be able to manage your own Energy and Ammo fairly easily. If you need POKEs for those, check The Tipshop (but be warned, you’ll probably spoil the Teleporter names for yourself in the process). These POKEs to assist with the bomb-arming minigame make Deviants much more accessible though. Only use one or the other, I’d recommend the first to be honest.
26524,0 Bombs automatically arm themselves when you pass through them
26575,0 Infinite Time To Disarm (gives you a chance to learn the bomb game rules)
See World Of Spectrum, The Tipshop and The RZX Archive for maps, tips, instructions, artwork and more. This article is possible thanks to them and fans who’ve contributed to their sites through the years. Thanks too to the authors of RealSpec my emulator of choice.