Frankenstein: The Monster Returns (NES)

I’ve been on a bit of a Frankenstein kick this week. Specifically, director James Whale’s 1930s blockbusters Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel is a landmark in the histories of both science fiction and horror, but it was these two Universal productions that seared the image of the titular mad scientist’s gruesome creation into the public consciousness for generations to come. The films hold up remarkably well, too, owing to Whale’s stylish direction, Jack Pierce’s makeup (which is much easier to take seriously in black and white), and Boris Karloff’s inspired turn as the misunderstood monster.

Booting up a Frankenstein game was the next obvious step. But which one? The creature’s many appearances as Dracula’s flunky in the Castlevania series hardly do him justice, and while the 1994 big screen revival Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein spawned a number of game adaptations, these naturally don’t feature that iconic Universal character design. I ultimately settled on the Tose-developed, Bandai-published Frankenstein: The Monster Returns for the NES. This 1991 North American exclusive puts the green-skinned fiend we all know and love front and center on its cover art. That’s got to be a good sign, right?

Alas, this rather cool cover is where Monster Returns parts ways with the classics. It’s a thoroughly unimpressive game with the sole saving grace of a cheesy B-movie sensibility that kept me giggling all the way to the end credits. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because I reviewed NES Rambo just last month. By way of analogy, Frankenstein here is to Castlevania as Rambo is to Zelda II.

Monster Returns has you guiding a brave warrior lad (whom you get to name) on his quest to save the maiden Emily. She was carried off by an inexplicably resurrected Frankenstein after he laid waste to her home town. And yes, the creature is referred to as Frankenstein throughout. This is normally where I would go off on tangent about how Frankenstein is technically the name of the man who created the monster as opposed to the monster himself and yadda yadda, but what’s the point anymore? People have been calling him Frankenstein since the nineteenth century. It’s high time for me and my fellow pedants to own up to the fact that we’ve lost this particular micro-culture war. The monster’s Frankenstein now. Deal with it.

Besides, the name issue is the least bizarre thing going on in this story. Consider that this incarnation of Frankenstein is apparently some sort of megalomaniacal super wizard who can control the will of every other monster in the land and access the twisted “evil dimension” where the game’s climax takes place. Yeah.

Consisting of a mere four smallish stages, Monster Returns can be viewed as criminally brief for a title that would have retailed for around fifty 1991 dollars. Then again, its gameplay didn’t exactly leave me clamoring for more. On paper, it’s a fairly standard side-scrolling action-platformer with a heavy emphasis on combat over precision jumping. Your pursuit of Frankenstein begins in a devastated village before moving on to a marshy forest, a castle, and the aforementioned evil dimension. Each area has between two and three boss monsters to battle with a few screens of regular cannon fodder enemies separating them. You’ll square off against many of the usual spooky suspects, such as a grim reaper, wolf man, and vampire.

Your hero is unarmed at the outset, forced to take on the armies of the night with only his fists and feet. He’ll soon come across foes that drop clubs when defeated. These bludgeons seem like a godsend until you realize that sustaining any damage causes them to fly out of your hands and land back on the ground. I was worried that this weapon dropping mechanic would be a thorn in my side for the remainder of the game. Thankfully, you acquire a permanent, undroppable sword at the end of the first level. Beyond the sword, you can find the occasional power-up that lets you shoot fireballs either straight ahead or in a triple spread pattern. Again, though, these precious ranged attacks vanish the instant you take a hit, meaning that only players who’ve already memorized the game will be able to hold onto them for more than an instant.

Combat is nothing to get too worked up about, regardless of which weapon you’re packing. If you’re able to keep a ranged attack, you should be able to mow down anything in your path effortlessly. Failing that, the enemy patterns, including those of the later bosses, are quite basic. Your character is also a resilient fellow, with a decent-sized health bar and the ability to tote around a stock of healing potions. Factor in the password system and there’s really not much to impede your progress.

In fact, the only stretches of the game that retain any degree of challenge after a couple hours’ practice are its two abominable platforming segments. One sees you jumping between distant lily pads in a swamp. Failure condemns you to an optional underwater boss battle based around what are easily the worst swimming controls I’ve encountered in my nearly forty years of gaming. You have to play it to believe it. The other is a rope swinging challenge lifted straight out of Taito’s Jungle King, except the collision detection makes zero sense and you’re sent plunging into a pool of life-draining goo for the slightest “mistake.” I can’t imagine what Tose was thinking when they cooked up these incompetent interludes. Never again will I accuse the Double Dragon franchise of having the worst tacked-on platforming.

Short, simplistic, and sporadically obnoxious, Frankenstein can’t even fall back on slick graphics or catchy music to elevate it to the realm of the average. A few of the backgrounds make effective use of perspective to create the illusion of depth, I suppose. That’s it. The game would be a total loss if it wasn’t for its uproarious cut scenes. There’s a surprising amount of dialog included and all of it is ridiculous. The MVP has to be my boy Frankenstein, who constantly hurls verbal abuse at you from the sidelines. He is one sassy ghoul and not even his own underlings are exempt from his mockery. For a dude who once famously declared “fire no good,” he sure can dish out the burns.

Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is my kind of trash: The garish, loopy, laugh-out-loud kind that doesn’t demand much in the way of time or effort. Sure, I can see it making for a pretty disappointing addition to the average kid’s limited game collection back in the early ’90s. Here in the present day, however, it’s awfully hard to stay mad at something this silly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famicom)

The fools! They said I was mad! Mad! Well, I’ll show them! I’ll achieve both endings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Two full playthroughs! And it will be the more difficult Famicom version with its extra levels and enemies! Then we’ll see who’s mad! Ahahahahaha!

Whew! Sorry. I don’t know what came over me there. Just had to get that out of my system, I guess. I’m alright now. Really.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 work Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an awful lot going on in and around it for a short novella. This tragic tale of an upstanding London physician who seeks to free himself from his base, “evil” impulses through means of an experimental chemical concoction has seemingly attracted as many interpretations over the years as it has readers. There’s the classic psychological take, of course, which posits that Jekyll’s stubborn insistence on denying and suppressing his shadow side rather than healthily integrating it into his greater personality was his ultimate undoing. Many also cite it as condemnation of rigid Victorian social mores, where an outward façade of performative respectability frequently masked the messy reality of the human condition. It’s also been approached as an addiction allegory, a commentary on the British class system, a symbolic representation of the relationship between England and Stevenson’s native Scotland, and more.

It’s enough to make you wish you could reach back through time and interrogate the author himself in order to determine what he really had in mind. In this same vein, I’d love to be able to ask the uncredited development staff at Advance Communication Company what they were thinking when they birthed their 8-bit adaptation of Stevenson’s opus onto the Famicom over a century later in 1988. In its own bizarre way, their Jekyll Hakase no Houma ga Toki (“Dr. Jekyll’s Hour of the Wandering Monstrosity”) is almost as difficult to pin down as its literary inspiration.

Houma ga Toki (which I’ll refer to using its North American title from this point on for simplicity’s sake) is a truly a game unlike any other for the system. This isn’t just because it’s a case of a 20th century Japanese video game developer drawing on 19th century English language literature for inspiration, either. This happened more often than you might think. Two completely unrelated games based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hit the Famicom in 1989 and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes also made multiple appearances on the platform. No, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is special because it’s the earliest example I can cite of a developer attempting to use the medium of gameplay itself to depict a conflict taking place within a fictional character’s psyche. Despite its very real flaws and horrendous reputation online, the mere fact Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all things pioneered techniques which would make critical darlings of titles like Silent Hill 2 and Celeste decades later is worthy of acknowledgement and, I dare say, respect.

As usual, though, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to be that most common of things: An 8-bit side-scrolling action-platformer. The plot focuses on Henry Jekyll’s attempt to make his way across town on foot from his laboratory to the church in order to attend his own wedding to his fiancée Millicent, an apparently mundane task which will still end up taxing the player’s skill and patience to a prodigious degree. Incidentally, this notion of Jekyll having a love interest named Millicent is a clear reference to the 1920 silent film version by Paramount Pictures. This is the only instance I spotted of a callback to any other specific prior adaptation of the tale.

To reach the church, Jekyll has only to walk from left to right across a total of six stages representing different parts of town. These include a village, parks, a graveyard, and several different street scenes. These stages themselves are the reason I recommend you skip the 1989 North American version of the game altogether and stick to the Famicom original. For unknown reasons, publisher Bandai opted to remove two entire levels from the NES release and fell back on lazy repeats of the village and cemetery areas to pad the final product out to an acceptable length. That’s a full third of the game gone! Most speculation I’ve see about this change centers on a specific lady character who appeared in the cut levels and would beckon Jekyll into her home to restore his lost health off-screen. It’s thought Bandai staff may have been concerned this would be perceived as an illicit sexual encounter and consequently run afoul of Nintendo of America’s strict family friendly content guidelines. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. Why would this necessitate removing whole stages instead of just the offending character? Why would it be a problem at all when Nintendo had already famously included a virtually identical suggestive healing scenario in their own Zelda II: The Adventure of Link? We may never know for sure. In any case, avoid the butchered NES release at all costs.

No matter which version you’re playing, you’ll find Dr. Jekyll’s walk in the park to be, well, no walk in the park. There’s a veritable mob of relentless enemies standing between him and wedded bliss. In an amusing twist on the usual action game formula, the majority of them are not out to harm Jekyll per se. Instead, most of the threats he’ll encounter simply annoy the good doctor. He’ll be forced to confront obstacles like pushy pedestrians, bratty kids with slingshots, defecating birds, pesky insects, ill-tempered dogs and cats, a gravedigger carelessly tossing clots of dirt over his shoulder, and a terrible singer who fills the screen with hazardous musical notes. Most of these deal little to no damage to Jekyll’s health meter and instead fill up a second “stress” meter on contact. Maybe it’s because I use public transportation a lot in real life, but I find Jekyll’s struggling to keep his temper in the midst of his boorish neighbors to be extremely relatable. Play as Jekyll is completely defensive in nature, with the player striving to reach the end of the level while ducking or jumping over hazards and taking on as little stress as possible. There’s no fighting back, apart from the option to use the doctor’s cane to swat the occasional stinging bee out of the air. When the stress meter inevitably fills up completely, Jekyll will fall prone and assume the form of his alter-ego Hyde.

The Hyde half of the game bears much more resemblance to a conventional action title. That said, it remains deeply odd in its own way. The setting shifts from a sunny morning in jolly old England to a darkened wasteland of dilapidated ruins populated by vicious monsters. The instruction manual refers to this place as the World of Demons and careful observation reveals it has the exact same layout as the normal London of Jekyll, just redrawn in a more menacing style and scrolling in reverse from left to right. Think of it as a twisted mirror image, not unlike Edward Hyde himself. I can’t help but wondered if this World of Demons and its inhabitants is intended to be a real place or if these levels are simply a symbolic representation of Jekyll’s “inner demons.” I lean toward the latter interpretation, but it will likely remain a mystery indefinitely unless one of the game’s anonymous creators steps out of the shadows for an interview someday.

The screen scrolls automatically for Hyde, which is potentially quite dangerous. If he should ever reach the spot in the World of Demons corresponding to where Jekyll transformed, he’ll be killed instantly by a bolt from heaven, as this apparently represents evil triumphing over good. Before this can happen, he’ll want to kill as many demons as possible. Each one destroyed will lower the stress meter and emptying it completely will trigger the return to Jekyll form and the world of daylight. Playing as Hyde is therefore all about killing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hyde has two attacks at his disposal: A basic short range punch and a boomeranging fireball attack called the Psycho Wave which can be tricky to aim at times, but is a much stronger option overall. You’ll also need to make sure you minimize contact with the enemy while you’re blasting away, since all damage in the World of Demons is deducted from the health meter and if it runs dry, the game is over.

This regular cycling between passive avoidance and furious aggression is what constitutes the core of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. You persevere the best you can as poor put-upon Jekyll, getting pestered, bullied, and literally shit on (in the case of those birds) at every turn until you just can’t take it anymore and unleash your raging id in the form of Hyde to rampage all the pent-up stress away. Just make sure Hyde never gains the upper hand for too long or you’ll regret it. All bets are off in the sixth and final stage, however. Here, the rule prohibiting Hyde from outpacing Jekyll is suspended and it becomes an all-out race to the finish. Whichever persona reaches the church in their version of reality first is the victor and the player then receives one of two different endings.

If you’ve never actually played the game before and don’t recognize it from its appearances on countless “worst of the NES” lists, you may well come away from my introduction and summary thinking it sounds pretty fantastic. Unique and varied gameplay? Intriguing themes? Wicked sense of humor? Formidable challenge? These are all present, to be sure. Jekyll and Hyde even looks and sounds the part thanks to some nicely detailed graphics and an atmospheric score by Michiharu Hasuya (the only individual confirmed to have contributed to the game) that lend both the light and dark versions of London considerable presence. It’s only when you sit down with controller in hand and attempt to actually enjoy all of this that cracks start to show as the game gradually unveils its own hidden evil streak.

First, we have glaring control issues which leave each character hobbled in his own blatantly unnecessary way. Dr. Jekyll is undoubtedly one of the slowest characters in gaming history and far too much of the challenge stems from the fact that he can never manage more than a stiff waddle regardless of how much mayhem there is to dodge in his immediate vicinity. Now, I do feel I understand and appreciate the intent of the Jekyll gameplay. The developers are deliberately baiting you, trying to make you feel just as harried and irritated as your defenseless avatar. You “win” these sections by not taking the bait and remaining cool and calm as you patiently navigate the maze of enemies and hazards in your path. To excel as Jekyll, you have to think like Jekyll and retain your composure in the face of every setback. I get it, but it’s still no excuse. I’m confident this idea could have still been effectively realized even if Jekyll were able to move around at an acceptable pace. His agonizing slowness smacks of padding and not an essential design element.

On the other hand, Hyde’s weakness is not his speed, but the clunky way the game restricts him to moving about within a limited area. There’s a sort of invisible wall running down the center of the screen which confines Hyde to the right side at all times. This is not only arbitrarily constricting, it also leads to bad outcomes in the few areas where it’s necessary for Hyde to leap over holes in the ground. If he should bump into the unseen barrier while in the air, it can funnel him straight down into the gap.

Terrible enemy placement is another constant problem. The Jekyll sections are guilty of overusing one specific baddie to the point of absurdity: The Bomb Maniacs. These jerks appear in droves in every single stage to plant bombs right in the doctor’s path. The bombs themselves deal by far the most health and stress damage of anything in the game and their blasts must be evaded at all costs. To do this, Jekyll will usually need to turn around immediately and trudge back the way he came. The result of all this is an already ludicrously slow protagonist being bogged down even more. It’s sometimes possible for minutes to go by with the screen not advancing so much as an inch as a fresh Bomb Maniac continually appears the instant the previous one’s bomb finishes exploding. Adding insult to injury, the explosions themselves are as deceptive as they are devastating due to having hit boxes massively larger than their on-screen graphics. Jekyll can be standing inches away from the blast and still receive damage. Again, the Hyde levels have their share of sloppiness, too. Fast moving flying enemies can sometimes spawn in right behind Hyde when he’s near the top of the screen, leaving him effectively no time to dodge them.

This all obviously comes off as highly inconsiderate and amateurish design, but the restrictive movement and nasty enemy placement aren’t even the game’s biggest flaws for me. No, what hurts it more than anything else is simply that’s it’s terrible at communicating its own rules. Similar to Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this a game that’s impossible to pick up and enjoy without a thorough understanding of its many unorthodox mechanics. This, along with the bandwagon effect, are the primary reasons for its exaggerated infamy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t a Super Mario Bros. style experience where you can just shove the cartridge in, power on, and start having fun. No, you need to read the instructions first. It wouldn’t be so bad if the ones provided were competently done. Unfortunately, even the official manual omits key information.

Take Jekyll’s cane, for example, which is often dismissed as being useless except for swatting bees. The cane’s other function goes completely unremarked upon in the manual. To wit, you can whack pedestrians with it in order to increase Jekyll’s stress level. Why would you ever want to do this? Because there are times when it can actually be beneficial or even necessary to transform into Hyde, as successfully completing a Hyde section of the game refills the health meter and clears away all enemies and obstacles which were on the same screen as Jekyll when he initially transformed.

Similar confusion surrounds Hyde’s punch. It seems at first like it’s simply a weak attack that’s completely superfluous in light of the Psycho Wave. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that the punch is primarily a defensive tool. It can deflect many enemy projectiles if timed properly. This application is so obscure and non-intuitive that I didn’t even stumble across it until after I’d already completed the entire game twice! Perhaps most negligent of all, there’s no indication anywhere in the North American instructions that the standard rule about Hyde not being able to progress further than Jekyll no longer applies in the final stage. There’s no logical reason the player should expect this to be the case, so you would think it to be at be least be worth mentioning. Nope. Without knowing this, it’s unlikely most players would ever encounter the final boss as Hyde and receive the better of the game’s two endings. Just awful. To its credit, the manual for the Famicom version does at least hint at how to achieve the Hyde ending, although it does an equally poor job of explaining the cane and punch.

Want to know the strangest fact of all regarding this case? I quite enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Enough to recommend it to any patient, open-minded gamer up for a challenge. Despite what you may have heard, the more complete Famicom version is a long way from being from the worst option available for the system. Sure, it’s needlessly opaque and it burdens its players with some profound balance and control issues. If you somehow manage to make peace with all this, though, you may just find yourself won over by its creepy mood, quirky humor, and groundbreaking take on the psychological themes of its source material. Imperfect as it is, somebody behind the scenes was working from a vision and it shows. After all, only Jekyll can reach the final stage of the game, yet he must ultimately accept the duality of his existence and enlist the help of Hyde in order to achieve the best ending. Carl Jung would be proud. If anything, I’d classify this one as an acquired taste and place it in the same “weird, maddening fun” box as Fester’s Quest and Silver Surfer. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying a sip.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is equal parts trick and treat, so on that note: Happy Halloween to one and all! It’s going to be a long next 364 days….

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action-platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time and the power-up system, which involved your dragon sprouting extra heads, is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal blue dragon difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in gold dragon”mode, where you have better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons which will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form, is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

Monster Party (NES)

Nothing weird going on here. Nope.

That’s right, it’s Monster Party! If there’s one game on the NES 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 home world.

So, uh, yeah. There’s your story.

Once the game proper begins, you’ll find Monster Party to be 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 very complex or challenging. Layouts are straightforward, enemies follow basic fixed patterns which 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 which lead either to pointless empty rooms that just waste your time or to a boss fight. The average level has three bosses who must be defeated in order to acquire the key 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 which 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 place. 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 pharaoh 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 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 which 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 made in Japan, but never released there. A prototype for an unreleased Japanese version exists and studying it reveals 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 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. Batter up!