It doesn’t feel like I’ve been collecting retro games for that long, but I guess it has been a little over 10 years. Those were the days. It seemed like there was an unending supply of gems to discover hidden behind every rock. These days, it feels like I’ve only got sports games left to collect
Monster Party was one game that I tripped over in the NES library. I don’t recall how I came across it, but I do remember being infatuated with it. I almost feel like I was too kind to it originally, but I’m getting ahead of myself. It sticks in my memory because of its bizarre atmosphere and personality, and because it had a hilariously off-the-mark intro cutscene that I actually wrote about in a separate article. Yeah, but as for the game…
IT WAS A GRAVEYARD SMASH
Monster Party puts you in the role of Mark, a kid who has to learn to say “no” to strange bird demons that fall from the sky. He’s whisked away to a horrific realm of monsters, where he’s required to defeat an assortment of awesome bosses. Seriously, one is just tempura, it’s amazing.
On a standard level, you’re required to beat three bosses to gain keys to the level’s final door. There are a few stages where this is changed up a bit, but that’s what you’re doing for the majority of it. Each of the bosses are hiding out behind a door, and there’s a bunch of empty ones scattered about as well to… confuse you? Most of the boss battles are all-out slugfests, but a few of them just require something else of you. One of the bosses are even dead by the time you get there, and apologizes for its faux pas.
There’s not a lot to the bosses, but there’s a decent variety to them, and it’s hard not to be charmed by their bizarre designs. Few of them are actually horrific, a lot of them parody famous monsters, and some of them are just bizarre. I don’t really want to spoil them, but they’re worth seeing.
As Mark, you’ve equipped with a bat, which can be used to either bludgeon enemies, or deflect projectiles back a them. That’s a pretty neat trick, but the bat swings slowly, and the hit detection isn’t always favourable, so it can be dangerous. In fact, even hitting enemies with the bat can be tricky, since it doesn’t have very long reach
It’s because of this that you’re better off spending as much time as Bert as possible. You transform by picking up unmarked pharmaceuticals dropped by enemies. Bert can both fly and shoot fireballs, and while the fireballs aren’t necessarily any more powerful than deflected projectiles, they’re much easier to aim and use. Pills aren’t too difficult to come across, so it’s not out of the question to always have a transformation available to take on a boss with.
There’s also question marks that enemies sometimes drop, which will either refill some health, transform you into Bert, or just increase your score. It’s, um, a bit weird, especially since your score doesn’t do anything. You’ve got unlimited continues and could just grind out a high score if you really felt the need to, so it’s really just an antiquated system that they tacked on.
As a whole, Monster Party kind of wobbles if you lean on it. It exists in this weird spot where the game works well enough, but a lot of the mechanics don’t seem well thought out. Actually, there’s a problem with a lot of the systems in place, so I’ll try to cover what I can.
For the typical grunt enemies, very little work has been done to make them interesting or unpredictable. You can separate them into a few categories, which we’ll label as roadblocks, pacers, and chargers. Roadblocks sit in place and either just try to obstruct you, sometimes by moving up and down, other times by firing projectiles at you, while a few are just completely stationary. Pacers move back and forth in a set line, and they always, always stop and change direction in the same place. Dealing with these guys is as simple as standing outside their range and waiting for them to come to you. Finally, chargers move in one direction and never stop. These range from tables that fly at you, to enemies that bomb you from the top of the screen, and other floating enemies that move directly towards you.
Bosses are less predictable, but they’re not designed in a way that necessitates skill to beat. Most of them have patterns that, at some point or another, can’t be avoided, regardless of how spry you are with a controller (though that will have an effect on how much damage you take). It’s largely just a matter of how much health you go in with.
Speaking of which, your health bar is pretty non-standard. You start off with only about a third of it filled, and it’s up to you to fill the rest of it. You can do this by picking up hearts dropped by enemies, getting lucky with the question mark pickup, or finishing a level, which provides a small health bonus. You probably won’t ever see it completely filled unless you start grinding.
Which is another weird facet. I’m sure most retro gaming hobbyists are familiar with grinding out pickups from enemies; even games like Mega Man reward you for repeatedly killing baddies. However, usually this is random, with enemies dropping useful power-ups only occasionally. In Monster Party, however, if an enemy drops a power-up, they’ll continue to do so every time you leave the screen to respawn them. For hearts and pills, this has a limit to prevent you from just filling your health gauge every time a convenient dispenser appears, but that kind of just provides you with more incentive to squeeze them until they’re dry.
As for the question marks, simply exiting and entering any door has the potential to spawn that punctuation, which means that if you’re low on health, a way to address that is to just repeatedly hop through doors until you get the right pick-up. That can take a while, but with no proper enemy farming, what else can you do? Git gud?
LITTLE GAME OF HORRORS
Still, even with all its flaws, it’s hard to not feel some affection towards Monster Party. It’s a goofy little game, and while it feels thrown together, at least there’s some heart mixed in there, as well. It’s also pretty friendly, providing unlimited continues, a password system, and absolutely no instant death.
That’s perhaps why it’s also over so quickly. The password system may be a bit useless, since completing the game in one sitting isn’t exactly a monumental undertaking. It took me somewhere under two hours in this last playthrough, and I wasn’t exactly rushing. On top of its sometimes head-scratch inducing design flaws, it’s not exactly a top shelf game. But for a game that lingers in the mid-tier, it’s one of the more worthy titles.
It’s also fun to note how much it managed to skirt by Nintendo’s rigid censorship policies at the time. There’s a tonne of blood in it, depictions of crucifixes, and even manages to drop the H-E-double-hockey-sticks bomb. That doesn’t mean it got through unscathed, though. Someone’s lawyer got a hold of it and stripped out some of the more copyright infringing monster designs, which may explain some things. It’s just a weird game altogether.
This review was conducted on an NES with a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.