Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Forgotten Gems: Monster Bash

The Halloween Countdown marches on, and this week, it's time to try something new, and delve in the world of computer gaming! 

Once upon a time, there was a company called Apogee. They were founded in 1987, and developed computer games, mainly for the burgeoning DOS format of "IBM Compatible" home computers. They would later come to be more famously known as "3D Realms", when they shifted from making 2D to 3D games, and under this moniker, they made what was probably their biggest hit, Duke Nukem 3D. But BEFORE all that, and the mess that followed in the decade-plus after, those of us who were into PC gaming in the late 80s and early 90s, knew them best as Apogee.

As for myself, I originally got into PC "gaming" in the mid-80s, a bit, with the old Tandy 2000 computer my grandmother owned, as covered in this article. They were VERY simplistic, mostly educational software games, running on what was essentially a cassette tape drive, to a very Game Boy-esque "black and green" monitor. We only had that computer for a relatively short while, and then like the Atari 2600 we also had around that time, they both seemed to just disappear. Thinking about it now, it strikes me that considering we were fairly poor, in the midst of one of our big moves, my grandmother may very well have pawned both items for extra cash, and THAT'S why they disappeared. Either way, as covered before, I didn't get another game console until the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, and we finally got another home computer, I'd like to say around 1993.

Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, 1992

It was when we got that 386 IBM Compatible, that I'd really say I got introduced to the world of PC gaming. For one thing, I "inherited" some PC games that a cousin of mine used to own, mainly old RPGs like Times of Lore, Bard's Tale, and most importantly, Sorcerian, which I'll have to cover someday. There was also a period of time, when I was grounded from playing NES for like 2 months or so, because my grandmother got pissed that I played Super Mario Bros. 3 for around 3 hours. The irony of this period, is that practically RIGHT after I was grounded, we went to Wal-Mart and she decided to buy me Mario Teaches Typing, which to her was just an educational game, but to me it felt like I got to cheat because it was "Still Mario". We also got other PC games in '93 and '94, like a cool collection of old Atari arcade classics, and Mario is Missing.

But circling back around to the part where Apogee comes in, during this time, we used to frequent a store called the "98 Cent Store". And for whatever reason, at the front of the store, near the check out stands, there was a rack of floppy disks for PC, a buck a pop. It was this rack that became my introduction to Apogee, and the reason these games were so cheap was because they were what was known at the time as "Shareware". What "Shareware" was, was a business model some companies used at the time, kind of a prototype to the downloadable demos of today, where you could get the first part of their games, either for free through the mail, or in my case for a buck at some store. And the way it worked, was that they would set these games up in three parts, and you got that first part to try, so if you liked the game, you could order the REST of the game through the mail.

Very archaic by today's standards, of course, but back then, it was a pretty damn good deal, especially because the first "part" of the game that you got, was usually a good 8+ levels or so. So between 93 or 94, and later into 95 and early 96, my friend Harold and I discovered many great games through Shareware, in an era when most people still didn't have internet. Some of these games included an obscure platformer I found called Elf Quest, a little jump'n'shoot type game called Crystal Caves, some of the original Commander Keen games, and the first Duke Nukem game (spelled "Nukum" for some reason). And eventually, we even played our first ever 3D PC game, the shareware for Wolfenstein 3D. Probably doesn't sound like a big deal now, but back in 1996, the fact that we were playing a 3D game on my crappy old 386, to us, seemed huge. We played that first part of Wolfenstein WAY too much. But the two games that stood out most to me then, and still stand out to me the most now, were Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure (shown above), and the game we're here to explore today, Monster Bash.

Super scary.

Now unfortunately, I didn't get the game with this awesome 90s cover art. Nope, because I got them at the 98 Cent Store, they just came in little plastic slip cases, basically. I think it's safe to say that while my grandmother wouldn't have had any problem with the cute Cosmo, if she had been able to tell just what Monster Bash contained, she might not have gotten it for me. Released in 1992 and 1993, respectively, they were both side-scrolling platformers, attempts to cash in on that genre's popularity on home consoles.

They even both, technically, fell under the early 90s craze of every company trying to invent their own "mascot" game, in an attempt to grab some of that "Mario success". But while Cosmo was a "hop n bop" type game, where you jumped and bopped on enemies heads to defeat them (most of the time), Monster was a different beast. You could NOT jump on enemies heads, instead using the handy-dandy slingshot pictured above. But the part my grandmother wouldn't have approved of, was that when you shot enemies with your slingshot, they didn't just go "poof" like many cartoon games did. They went SPLAT, with gruesome effect.

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts, This Kid's Got Guts!

The "gimmick", I suppose, about Monster Bash, is that it's a cute looking platformer, yet it also features a healthy dose of blood, guts, gore, monsters literally falling to pieces, etc. For the early 90s, at 11 or 12 years old, I was really impressed. I've never been "into" gore, mind you, but it was just shocking, and new. I don't mind telling you that there was more than once that I played this game, when I would look back over my shoulder to make sure my grandmother wasn't watching me blow up a zombie, or seeing me crawl under gut-wrapped spikes. In all fairness, the blood and "gore" of the game is STILL very cartoony, but it was games like these that gave birth to the modern games "Ratings System", because parents were unhappy that games with gore or excessive violence were being sold as "kids games".

Even when being cute, the game was kinda messed up.

So, to give a quick lowdown of what Monster Bash is all about, you play a kid named Johnny Dash, who has a new pet dalmatian named Rex. One night, Johnny wakes up to find Rex is missing, and with the help of a friendly "Bed Monster", he discovered that Rex was dognapped by the vile Count Chuck, along with dozens of other helpless cats and dogs, to fulfill some nefarious plot. He travels to the "Under World", in his PJs and armed only with a slingshot, to go get his damn dog back, and teach that punk ass Chuck a thing or two.

Seriously, don't feed 'em.

So there I was, booting up this game all about a kid fighting monsters, in a time when I was my MOST obsessed with everything monsters and mythology. I've said before, and it bears repeating, I REALLY should have rented Castlevania during this time, and I have no idea why I never did. But when this game loads, it already sets the mood with a black silhouette of a witch flying across a full moon. On the title screen, you hit "Enter", and you get treated to an animation of Johnny shooting a zombie right in the face, who explodes in a gross SPLAT, as the screen is covered in blood. The first level, starts with thunder and lightning, and wind blows leaves by you on the screen, as you see creepy mountains and trees in the background. You make your way through a graveyard where hands reach up from graves to grab you, and Zombies and Skeletons pop up to kill you. The game really lays it on thick with the mood, in a good way, right from the very beginning.

As you can see above, this game was absolutely made with a Halloween theme in mind, as you literally collect what basically equates to Halloween candy, like Hershey's Kisses and Sweet Tart looking things, etc. You start with a single rock shot for your slingshot, but can upgrade to a three-way rock, and later even more ridiculous things, like homing rockets. The basic rocks themselves actually have a lot going on, as they fly in a semi-realistic arc that you can somewhat control, and they can even ricochet off of walls and hit enemies from behind. The basic point of every level, is to explore all around (with various hidden pathways and secrets to find), freeing the kidnapped pets from their cages. Once all pets are freed, you can go to the exit, and move on to the next stage.

The three parts, with the three main bosses of the game.

Of course, I only had the Shareware, so it was only the first part of the game, and at least as a kid, I never actually did manage to beat it (though I DID manage to beat the Shareware of Cosmo). The game is not an easy one, though it is (mostly) fair. Later in our teens, thanks to the internet, Harold and I were able to find the full versions of these games, and I'm pretty sure Harold has possibly beaten Monster Bash, though again perhaps not, because it gets rather hard. And the game even has different difficulty settings, so you can choose for it to be harder than normal.


And Werewolves...

And Chucks, OH MY!

So above you can see the title screens for all three parts of the game, the first being the one I owned. If you ask me, Johnny is pretty damn confident for a kid fighting blood-thirsty monsters in a dark nightmare world, in his pajamas (and cool 90s backwards hat), with a SLINGSHOT. Kid's got a pair, I'll tell ya. Not to get too Spoil-tastic on you, but from what I've seen, when you finally face Chuck himself at the end of the game, he really is kinda just hangin' around...just like in that picture. Though in fairness to his lazy ass, the boss fight itself does look pretty tricky.

Even though I never beat the game (or even the Shareware), Monster Bash always stuck with me for it's uniqueness, and the impression it made on me at a young age. I don't often think that classic 2D games can or should be remade in 3D, but this is one game I think would lend itself to 3D pretty well, because the mix of colorful and dark and spooky would make a wonderful contrast in HD, and the slingshot weapon mechanic could work very well in 3D. Especially considering what eventually happened to 3D Realms, I doubt it'll ever happen, but you never know. Apogee still exists in SOME form, or at least it's property rights do, and crazier things have happened.

One can always dream...

But for now, if you've never played Monster Bash, you're actually in luck, as it's at least partially available right now, for free, and legally to boot! You can download the Shareware version of the game from 3D Realms/Apogee themselves, or at least their old site, as well as many other games, by going HERE. And for the more computer savvy out there, there are sites for so-called "abandoneware" or "freeware", where if you're adventurous, you can in fact find the full games. There is also a very nice, fairly easy to learn and use "front end" program, called DOSBox, which allows you to play old DOS games on Windows. Once you learn how to set it up, you can basically use it like console emulators (not that I know about such things), and you can even use controllers for a lot of these old games!

Try the game for yourself, you'll have a real BASH!

So give it a whirl, or if you're not so inclined, at least go check out a playthrough video of it on Youtube. It's a great little slice of the early 90s, when platformers were king, and gaming was still obscure enough that you could have a cute PC game with gory effects. It's tailor made for Halloween time, and if memory serves me, though I could be wrong, I THINK that I actually may have gotten this game around Halloween time back in 1993! Let's pretend that I did, because that memory seems the most fun.

I'll be back with the last big article for the Halloween season, so stay tuned!!

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