Thursday, October 3, 2013

Forgotten Gems: Monster Party

Welcome back for our second entry in 2013's Halloween Month! We'll be celebrating Halloween until the actual night itself arrives, so stay tuned here each week as RR keeps this party rolling! And speaking of parties....

When I was a kid, once I had my own NES, I was able to rent a game for it at least once a month or so. At the local All The Best Video where I lived, they had a surprisingly decent game rental selection for a small town, and their NES stock was, I'd wager, at least 100 or so games deep at one point in time. Sufficed to say, from about late 1990 to mid-1995, I rented myself a fair share of games. I'd even go so far as to say that over that time I probably rented well over half of what they had available. Every once in awhile we'd rent from a different store, but it was usually All The Best, and so I got well acquainted with their rental section. 
I was the kind of kid that would check something out just to check it out, and playing game roulette was pretty much like any other form of gambling: sometimes you won big, sometimes to lost hard.

The worst game I ever rented, hands down, was "Defenders of Dynatron City". Now mind you, I rented some really shitty games, games that were barely playable, crappy stories (if there even was one), you name it, but I almost always stuck with them and tried to beat them if I could. I didn't mind if a game was "bad" as a child, I just loved playing video games. But there was one in particular that stuck out as just pure, unadulterated horseshit, and even in my childhood innocence and tolerance, this was one stinker that I just couldn't put up with. It was so bad, I only played it one time after renting it, and only for about an hour before I probably literally said "fuck it" (to myself, quietly of course). Honestly, I might have to do a whole article on that shit-fest someday, as obviously I'm already having flashbacks and going on about it way too much.

But of course, for every stinker I rented, I'd have to say that there were at least two decent games I'd also get, I lucked out in usually having some pretty good taste. A lot of times, all you had to go on to key you off on what you should try, was box art. Box art back in the 8-bit era genuinely was ART, literally it was typically hand-drawn, some cool image to draw you in. Sometimes the image was a total lie and the game was crap. Other times you lucked out and the image was a preview of how awesome the game was going to be. Every once in awhile, I'd really strike gold, and get a game that, at least to me, was pure awesomeness. One such game was an obscure little nugget by the title of "Monster Party".

Wouldn't box art like this just grab your attention?

Just look at that box art. One quick glance at it should be all you'd really need to see why I was instantly attracted to this game. Hell, if I'd never played this game in my life and saw this cover today, it'd STILL draw me in. To be fair, not all those monsters pictured are actually in the game. I'm not sure there was a Gillman, nor a Yeti/Sasquatch/Whatever that thing is, or Dracula. But that hardly matters, what matters is that that art is freakin' awesome, and seeing it at 10 or 11 years old, I absolutely HAD to play it.

For a bit of background, the game was developed by a group called Human Entertainment, creators of the equally bizarre NES game "Kabuki Quantum Fighter", as well as the Japan-only Fire Pro Wrestling series, and the slightly more well known Clock Tower series which would later appear on the original Playstation. It was published by toy company Bandai, who had a video games division mostly used to promote their properties like Mobile Suit Gundam.  The game originally released in the states in June 1989, but I didn't personally play it until probably around 1992 or 1993, I'm going to say. As for the game itself, in a nutshell, the story features a young kid named Mark, who is on his way home from a baseball game, when he was suddenly happened upon by a gargoyle of a fellow called Bert. Bert needs his help in ridding his home world of evil monsters who are out of control. Mark says "No thanks", but Bert convinces him it's totally kosher, grabs him, magically fuses with him so they are one being, and away we go to "Dark World".

I still think this is a cool title screen. Just look at it.

One look at the title screen, with it's weird but oddly cheery music, that toothy-grinned monster face, and a parade of monsters that pass by the screen if you wait awhile (all of which are bosses later in the game). Just look at that green slime, and even the Jack O'Lantern icon with which you choose "Start" or "Continue". This game right from the get go just kind of screams "Halloween Game!", which is why I'm here talking to you about it now. Catchy music? Check. Cool looking title screen? Check. Jack O'Lantern? Check. Parade of interesting monsters that makes me want to see more? Check. Everything in order to make me super interested in this game, right from the first screen. So you press start and.......

My very first "What the hell?" moment in a video game.

As you can see, this is the very next screen you get after pressing start. I must tell you, as a kid I had never ever seen anything like this in a game before. I was so momentarily shocked to see a dripping blood-filled screen with bloody skeletons, that I'm pretty sure I must've done a double take, and then looked over my shoulder to make sure my grandmother didn't see. Because if she had, it might've been game over before I even got to really play the thing. Deep down inside, I was probably excited (if not also a little scared) by this image, but even though I should have known better, seeing this didn't prepare me for what would come...

Look how deceptively happy Dark World looks....

So the very NEXT screen you get to, is the first level, and you are immediately smacked in the face by an overdose of bright and colorful and cute. I was probably as genuinely surprised by this as I was by the bloody screen before. The music is bright, chirpy and bouncy, there's hot pink in the background, the platform blocks are smiling at you. I mean what's a few flaming ninjas trying to kill you and human legs sticking out the ground trying to kick you between friends? Even the first boss encounter is fairly tame, a talking plant that spits bubbles at you. The gameplay was solid, it seemed fun, I could get over the weirdness of going from bloody bones to happy faces. What the hell, I was digging this game. And thus I was totally suckered in, just like the game wanted me to be, totally unprepared for what happens when you reach the screen above....

What the $@*#?

So like I said, you get to this huge, weird looking tree with happy faces all over it, which comes at about the stage's half-way point, everything seems normal, hunky dory, no problem. Then you take a few steps from left to right on the screen, and suddenly the game has a flashing lights seizure. When the lights stop flashing, it goes from cute to what you see above. Gooey, gory, grotesque and just....goddamn. Again, as a kid, I had never seen anything like this in a game before, and even that "Round 1" bloody bones screen before had not prepared me for the "GOTCHA" transformation moment this game pulls on you in the middle of the first level. It isn't just that bright colors and happy faces are replaced by slime and bloody skulls and melting zombie faces. The happy, bouncy music also changes, to a slow, dark, brooding (and awesome) piece that really sets the change in tone, even more so than the graphics. Just so you know, this is the only time anything like this happens in the game. The rest of the levels, while all unique and bizarre in their own right, stay what they are the whole time. But then again, to be fair, I've never played any other game where something like this happens. So just for this first level shake-up alone, the game is noteworthy. But that is hardly all.


This is one of the "bosses" from the game, in fact the second one you happen upon before the level goes batshit. This one picture pretty much tells everything you need to know about Monster Party. It has a quirky but dark, sense of humor that pervades throughout, and an overwhelming (but still cool) cloud of "What the hell?" weirdness that just kind of hangs over everything. The way the game works, is that you play as Mark most of the time, but can change into Bert buy getting the occasional "Dr. Mario" looking pill capsule, that will temporarily transform you. Of course, you WANT to play Bert as often as you can, because he's a cool dragon/gargoyle man who can fly and shoot beams from his eyes. Mark is cool too, but I mean, really, he is just a kid with a baseball bat. As Mark, you hit things with your bat, or as you quickly learn is better for boss encounters, you hit projectiles that some enemies shoot back at them. As Bert, of course, you flap around and try to shoot them from a distance with your beams. As for those boss encounters, the way this game handles bosses is a bit different from most, as with the exception of the very last boss, there are no real "end of level bosses". Instead, there are rooms scattered throughout the level you can enter. Some have nothing in them, but a few (usually 3-4) in a given level will hold a boss you must defeat. You have to destroy all the bosses in a level to get the key to open the gate at the end and move on. And of course, all of the bosses are very, very strange.

This guy seems harmless, but he's a real asshole.

The "Sorry I'm Dead" monster is more of an in-game joke than a "boss", as it's already dead when you get there, and you get a little question mark power up from it (usually) for doing nothing. But the other bosses in the game, with only one real exception, you actually have to fight. Some aren't so bad. Others, like this Jerk O'Lantern above, can take some real effort (and patience) to beat. He in particular jumps around the room and shoots tiny pumpkins at you in various directions. The bosses in this game vary wildly, and most are weird as hell.

Yes, that is, in point of fact, a fried prawn.

The picture above shows a boss encounter from the second level. The background is a visual homage to the 1980s "The Fly" remake, and the boss itself consists of three different kinds of giant friend Japanese food that you must fight one at a time, as they bounce around the screen trying to kill you. Other bosses include a mummy that throws it's wrapping at you, a giant spider that wants to drink your blood, a zombie rock star with a killer mohawk, a super annoying dragon, the Grim Reaper, and even an adorable kitten that turns evil and throws TINY KITTENS at you, which you have to bat back at it to kill it. Yup.

Another thing about the game's bosses that should be noted, is that each of them says something right before the battle starts, and a lot of the quotes are very off-kilter or even cheesy. For instance, at one point you fight a Sphinx statue that complains it's legs have fallen asleep. There is a giant Samurai ghost who tells you he's a slowpoke, which he is. A minotaur that yells "MOOOOVE IT!" (get it, MOO?), before hurling cows at you.  A giant Pharaoh head that exclaims "Oh boy, Mark soup!". And perhaps the most dastardly of all, a pair of zombies that rise up out of the ground, and tell you to "Watch My Dance". The reason this is dastardly, is because you naturally assume that like all the other bosses, you have to beat the shit out of this boss until it dies. Problem is, you beat it and beat it and beat it, and they just keep getting back up and dancing some more. Quite frustrating. It isn't until you give up in exasperation and just sit there for a minute, that you realize these zombie guys never once attack you. Literally all they do is dance. And if you watch them dance long enough, their song will end, they'll melt back into the ground, and you get your reward. "Watch My Dance" indeed.

Bert in action, against some dastardly phantoms.

It kind of goes without saying by this juncture that Monster Party is one of the single oddest and most outrageous games ever made. The fact that so few gamers have probably ever heard of it, let alone played it, makes that both better and also worse. Better because it's like this awesome secret that only you and a few others have shared. But also worse because it's a good enough, and weird enough game that you know it's a secret other people NEED to get in on. Any gamer worth their salt, as far as I'm concerned, needs to check this game out. It's hard as hell (especially towards the end). And it's even sadistic at times if you don't know what you're doing (such as with the goddamn haunted house maze level). As you can see, you're able from level one to build up a lifebar that stretches the whole length of the screen almost. But the trick is, it's harder than hell to actually KEEP it anywhere near full, and you don't regenerate much health between levels. This game is, in fact (while I kinda hate the phrase), the epitome of "NES hard". But it's still totally worth playing. It puts you through eight stages of hell. But it's a hell that if you're persistent enough, and also a bit lucky enough, you'll maybe get through, and be glad for it.

So in the spirit of Halloween, and in the spirit of just "What the hell?", try to find a way to play this rare gem, and give it a whirl. Or else you might make Bert really sad. And you don't want that. Stay tuned for the next entry in our Halloween celebration! Until next time, Happy Haunting!

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