Nothing weird going on here. Nope.
That’s right, it’s Monster Party! If there’s one game for the NES that’s remembered today not for its gameplay, story, audiovisual excellence, or sequels (there were none) but purely for its almost overwhelming eccentricity, it’s this 1989 offering from publisher Bandai. I just wish it was as well-designed as it is insane.
Monster Party’s opening cut scene introduces us to Mark, a seemingly normal kid walking home after dark from a baseball game with his trusty bat in tow. Yes, kids really used to do stuff like this without anyone calling the authorities. It was grand. Anyway, Mark stops to admire the beauty of a shooting star in the night sky, only to be shocked when the “star” lands right in front of him and reveals itself to be a bird man from another planet. Named Bert. Of course, Mark is completely unfazed by all this and asks “What’s up?” Yeah. Bert explains that his planet has been overrun by evil monsters and a little kid with a baseball bat is exactly the sort of mighty warrior he needs at his side to retake it. Before Mark can get a word about this in edgewise, Bert grabs him and they merge together into one being (!?!?) before flying off to Bert’s homeworld.
So, uh, yeah. There’s your story.
Once the game proper begins, you’ll find that Monster Party is a side-scrolling action-platformer, which was sort of the default genre for games at the time. You start out controlling Mark, who can run, jump, crouch, and swing his bat. It’s a pretty typical moveset, but there is one nice touch: With the proper timing, the bat can be use to deflect enemy projectiles, which serves the dual purpose of defending Mark and dealing heavy damage to the enemy.
Picking up a pill icon dropped by defeated enemies will transform Mark into Bert for a limited time. Bert can fly and has a ranged laser attack, but he seems to be a little slower than Mark and he can’t deflect enemy shots like Mark can with his bat. This makes some enemies easier or tougher to defeat based on what form you’re currently using. It should be noted in Bert’s favor, though, that his ability to fly can completely trivialize some levels of the game, as in the case of the seventh stage, which is the only one laid-out vertically.
One of the first things you’ll notice playing through Monster Party is that the levels and enemies really aren’t that complex or challenging. Layouts are straightforward, enemies follow very basic fixed patterns and aren’t really programmed to take your movements into account, and your health bar is absolutely massive, spanning the entire screen horizontally and potentially allowing you to survive dozens of hits when full. It all seems very easy. That’s because this game is really all about the bosses. Every level has doors scattered about that lead either to pointless empty rooms that just waste your time or to a boss fight. The average level has three bosses that must be defeated in order to acquire the key that opens the door to the next level.
Unfortunately, most of the bosses fit into two categories: Stationary ones that shoot at you and mobile ones that shoot at you while moving back and forth across the screen horizontally. Sure, they all look different, but once you’ve beaten one, you’ve kind of beaten them all.
The game also doesn’t seem to have been tested very thoroughly. There’s an annoying glitch in level seven that prevents you from completing it if you defeat all three of the bosses, which you’ll recall is the goal of each level! Instead, you’ll need to either leave one boss room of your choice unentered or die and restart the level. This is such an obvious error that even minimal playtesting should have quickly picked up on it.
Graphics and sound are all over the map. Sprites for Mark, Bert, and most standard enemies are average, while the more detailed boss sprites tend to look quite good. Some stage backgrounds look great (I especially like the pulsating purple lighting in the cavern stage), but the majority are on the generic and forgettable side, like the forest and sewer. A couple of the musical tracks stand out as very eerie and memorable, though the score as a whole didn’t stick in my mind. Do yourself a favor and dial the volume down during the sixth level, though. Instead of music, you get an attempt at an ambient howling wind effect playing in the background of this stage and it’ll kind of make you want to claw your own eardrums out.
On the whole, it sounds like a rather flat and uninspired game without a lot to recommend it over the system’s many superior platformers. Honestly, if I’m being objective, this a completely fair and accurate assessment. Monster Party is a wholly mediocre game.
But it’s just so freakin’ weird, you guys! Like Super Back to the Future Part II, another average-at-best platformer I played recently, Monster Party is still worth your time just to get a look at the next crazy thing it has in store for you. Dogs with human heads, walking pairs of pants (maybe they’re supposed to be invisible men but I like my take better), a killer kitten, a severed Egyptian pharoah head with blood gushing from its neck stump, and so much more. The enemies in Monster Party are unlike those in any other NES game and have to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, the designers did a great job making it likely that you’ll be able to see them all in a reasonable amount of time, since this is a fairly quick and easy game to complete. The eight stages are short, continues are unlimited, and health is abundant. This makes Monster Party more of a light romp than a protracted struggle, which is great because the novelty and humor never gets a chance to grow stale and the player doesn’t have to invest hours mastering game mechanics and stages that really aren’t that great in the first place. With all this in mind, I recommend everyone play through this one at least once just to soak in the pure WTF-ness of it all.
One last thing I should mention involves Monster Party’s history. This is a rare example of a game that was made in Japan, but never released there. A prototype for an unreleased Japanese version exists and studying it reveals that the game was originally intended to contain many more parody elements than it ultimately did, with bosses based on famous monsters from films such as Gremlins, Alien, Little Shop of Horrors, Planet of the Apes, and many more. In the end, these were all changed to original creations, probably due to fear of potential legal troubles. Personally, I’m glad it worked out this way. Although recognizable movie references would have been amusing in their own right, they probably wouldn’t have left as strong an impression on players as the completely random and inexplicable crop of bosses that we actually got. It’s a rare case of last minute changes made under duress actually working out for the better.
So give Monster Party a shot sometime soon. You have nothing to lose but your sanity.