Friday, January 27, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #7 - Monster Party

Monster Party (1989)
Publisher: Bandai

(Bert: “Don’t worry! With your weapon you’ll be able to destroy them easily.”
Mark: “This isn’t a weapon, it’s a bat!”
Bert: “Bat! Batter! Anything is ok! Anyhow, let’s go!”)

Monster Party. What the hell, Nintendo?! WHAT THE HELL.

By 1989, the Nintendo Entertainment System was a household fixture. Every single kid had wanted a NES when they came out in 1985, and four years later almost all of those kids, by virtue of a thousand mowed lawns, a hundred thousand papers thrown haphazardly into yards, or two weeks of relentless whining to their parents, had acquired one. Nintendo was starting to clue into the fact that their core demographic, by a colossal margin, was eight- to twelve-year-olds, and that without necessarily intending to, they had become a Family-Friendly Company. Nintendo was, by 1989, a huge proponent of videogame censorship (see “Games To Play Before You Die #4: Maniac Mansion”) and had laid down strict precepts on what they would or would not allow to be associated with their brand, both internally and in games by third-party developers.

Which is what makes Monster Party such a bewildering creature. Make no mistake: Monster Party was censored - considerably - between Japanese prototype and U.S. final version. That it manages to be the most nightmarish and profoundly disturbing game for the NES even after it got past the censor’s iron gauntlet calls into question why it was released at all, even in neutered form.

Monster Party is a latter-day younger sibling of Castlevania, if Castlevania had been designed by Ub Iwerks while on a four-day hallucinogen bender. The game is pure 1980s punk rock (literally: one level boss is a giant legless punk rocker) and it is absolutely, unapologetically insane. Let’s look at the evidence:

Mark, the child hero of Monster Party, is kidnapped by a dragon from another dimension named Bert, with whom he proceeds to fuse. Mark doesn’t gain dragon-powers of any sort, but rather transforms for a while into Bert whenever he eats enough pills. The first set of monsters that confront Mark are as follows: a floppy-haired Japanese gangster ghost on fire, a human-faced dog creature, and what appear to be pairs of legs sticking out of the ground from the waist up. This is not counting Mark’s first boss battle, which occurs incongruously enough at the beginning of the first stage, against a giant man-eating pitcher plant. Roughly half-way through the first of eight stages, as he passes a cheerfully-grinning anthropomorphised tree, the screen flickers and Mark finds himself, Silent-Hill-style, in a Boschian hellish landscape, with bleeding skulls replacing happy-faced blocks and blood-vomiting severed heads appearing in the background. It’s so hellish, in fact, that Mark soon stumbles across a giant spider boss who apologises for being already dead, having been torn limb from limb by the denizens of this videogame gehenna.

Along the way, Mark encounters enemies straight out of a Hallowe’en fever dream: a pumpkin-headed mummy, a haunted well that throws plates, a giant demon cat, a cow man who attacks with smaller cows, a massive wooden robot, a samurai, a caterpillar named Rolls Royce, umpires, witches, masked elephants, sea serpents, and an enormous tempura shrimp, which transforms into an onion ring and finally into a shishkabob. Finally, after defeating the end boss, Mark is sent on his way by Bert with a gift, which turns out to be a beautiful princess, who abruptly transforms into a rotting revenant. Mark freaks out, jumps in the air, his skin melts off... And he wakes up in his bed, the entire adventure having been nothing more than a dream. Except that, as he opens the door to leave for school, he finds a very menacing Bert standing there, Mark’s bat in hand, to pressgang him into service again.

It’s hard to know where to start with Monster Party. The game itself suffers from a number of design flaws (it’s difficult to strike enemies while playing as Mark, as his baseball bat is only a few pixels in length, and a bug in the game’s seventh level causes the player to become stuck without any way of progressing if all three bosses are defeated rather than just the first two) and one wonders just how much QA testing the game underwent before it was unleashed on the world. Despite a few creative decisions as far as level design is concerned (level 7 scrolls upwards, level 8 starts on the far right and scrolls left, and of course there’s the demonic tonal shift in level 1 as described above), the actual gameplay is repetitive and not particularly challenging. More than anything, Monster Party plays and feels like the product of some stoned college student with an encyclopaediac knowledge of horror movies, cartoons and Japanese mythology throwing everything they think is kinda cool into a blender and setting the whole thing to puree. What it does not feel like, not even remotely, is a game released by a sane, sober videogame company who is eminently aware of their own reputation as an industry leader.

Monster Party would never make it to market today, but 22 years ago it somehow slipped through the cracks and found its way into the basements and living rooms of countless prepubescent boys. Are we richer for it? Has it had a lasting cultural impact? Was it a great, or even a good, game? The answer to all three of those questions is: probably not, but Monster Party was a thing that happened and there’s no going back now.

(In the original Japanese Monster Party prototype, the pitcher-plant boss more closely resembled Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, and was flanked by a gigantic microphone and speaker, alluding to the film’s musical numbers.)

Triptych: Chun-Li and Blanka

"Flash Kick" by Anthony Wu

"Blaunkius" by Duzty

"Chun Li and Blanka" by Bobby Chiu

Triptych: I Watch Way Too Much TV, You Guys

(Click for full-size)
"Parks and Recreation" by Bill Mudron

"The Mighty Boosh" by James Gilleard

"The A-Team" by Dr. Faustus AU

Triptych: a PhD in Mycology

"The Hardest Part" by Zac Gorman

"Mario M.D." (t-shirt) by Faniseto

"Dr. Mario ID Badge" by Mark Welser

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #6 - Phantasy Star

Phantasy Star (1988)
Publisher: Sega
Designer: Rieko Kodama

(“Some cats, if they eat a certain type of nut, they become huge and
can fly. It’s really very wierd (sic).” -- NPC in the town of Abion)

Between 1986 and 1988, a trio of flagship titles for what would become three of the most beloved Japanese RPG franchises were released: Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. While Final Fantasy landed on North American shores in 1988 and Dragon Quest (retitled Dragon Warrior for the English-speaking market) followed suit in 1989, Phantasy Star beat them both to the punch by nearly a year, effectively earning itself a reputation as the first JRPG to cross the Pacific.

Although it bears many of the hallmarks of classic JRPGs - random battles, overworld maps, HP and MP, character levelling, and increasing item strength and magic potency - Phantasy Star innovated on a number of fronts. To begin with, dungeons were presented in an unique first-person perspective; since the Master System was not powerful enough for true first-person 3D, the game’s designers presented a smoothly animated pseudo-3D effect, giving the impression of 360-degree motion. Monster sprites and combat attacks were animated, which was largely unprecedented at the time.

Perhaps the aspect of Phantasy Star with the most enduring impact, however, was the shift in tone from a medieval, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired environment to one with heavy sci-fi overtones. Later Final Fantasy games would mine this anime-esque juxtaposition of fantasy and science fiction to the extent that it would become one of the series’ defining qualities, but while the Light Warriors were toying around with the notion of airships and floating castles, Alis Landale and her crew were flitting from planet to planet, warding off robot-cops with small arms.

The game’s protagonist Alis was female, and female protagonists in video games were few and far between in 1988 (even Samus Aran had to trick players into presuming, at best, androgyny until the very end). In a field which was, and continues to be, predominantly male-oriented, lead designer Rieko Kodama joins a short list of female game designers from the era, which includes such luminaries as Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams and Wizardry designer Brenda Braithwaite. Commenting on the role of women in her games, Kodama stated in an interview that “one thing I always have in mind is that I don’t want to include any elements that would treat women unfairly in my game. It’s not that I create games with a message of discrimination against women or wanting to eliminate gender-role, but I’m careful not to treat them unfairly.”* Alis was neither scantily-clad nor a sex symbol; rather, she was a strong and determined heroine with a mission, caught up in a drama compelling enough to draw in players regardless of gender.

Phantasy Star has spawned more than fifteen sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, most recently with 2011’s Phantasy Star Portable 2: Infinity for the PSP, but it’s important to convey just how critical the first entry in the series was when it first came out. For many non-Japanese gamers in 1988, Phantasy Star was their first encounter with a console roleplaying game, and it made a spectacular impression. It set the stage for Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and is perhaps lesser known than those two games today simply because the Master System didn’t enjoy the same popularity, historically, that the NES did. That it managed to spark a legitimate franchise is all the more impressive considering the fact that the games were often relegated to Sega’s latter-day consoles: the Game Gear, Sega Saturn, and Dreamcast were all recipients of exclusive Phantasy Star games, and it wasn’t until remakes and collections of earlier games started to make their way over to the GameCube and PlayStation 2 that the majority of RPG fans discovered Phantasy Star’s vast, undiscovered world.

(Upon release, Phantasy Star retailed for $69.99, with some outlets selling the game for as much as $80. By comparison, the typical Sega Master System game sold for $29.99, and the system itself retailed at $99.99, making Phantasy Star one of the most expensive games ever sold.)

Showcase: Michael Jackson Cereals by Michael De Pippo

"Beat Bits"

"Frosted Mini Thrills"

"King of Pops"

"Smooth Crimino's"

I'm in a Michael Jackson mood today. Also a breakfast cereal mood.

[MJ's Cereals by
Michael De Pippo

Triptych: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

"Paku Paku's" (t-shirt, no longer available) by Faniseto

"Tix Are For Ticks" (t-shirt) by Stuart Down

"1.21 Jigga Wheats" (t-shirt) by Brave Anderson

Triptych: Mad Man With A Big Blue Box

"Nouveau TARDIS" (t-shirt) by Stephanie Irigoyen

"Time Lord and Proud" (t-shirt) by Jerry Nowlin

"The Legend of the Doctor" (t-shirt) by Rippletron

Triptych: Those Cursed Turtles!

"Heroes In A Half-Shell" by Dan Hipp

"What Donatello Thinks" by Derek Toye

"Minimalist Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" by Lafratta Creative

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #5 - NetHack

NetHack (1987)
The NetHack DevTeam

(The original NetHack)

(“In short, NetHack 3.1.3 is the most elaborate role-playing environment you are ever likely to explore.
This is a place to return again and again, each time for a different experience. You're really going to
have to play it for a year or two and see for yourself.” -- David Gerrold, author)

(“You fall into a pit! How pitiful. Isn't that the pits? You land on a set of sharp iron spikes!
The spikes were poisoned! The poison was deadly...
Do you want your possessions identified?" -- Yet Another Stupid Death)

Even if you’re an avid player of roleplaying games, you may not be immediately familiar with the roguelike subset of the genre. Roguelikes possess a number of defining features, including randomly generated maps, permadeath, turn-based combat, and items with hidden attributes. They are traditionally single-player and almost always involve straight-up, hack-and-slash dungeon crawls with the goal of levelling up, acquiring items, and killing monsters, foregoing any of that pesky “plot” business which only serves, in the end, to distract a player from their hacking and slashing.

As roguelike RPGs go, NetHack is pretty much the definitive item. While it wasn’t the first (that honour goes to 1980’s Rogue, of which NetHack is a descendant, although roguelike elements started appearing as early as 1975 in the likes of Adventure and Dungeon,) NetHack is the one with the most longevity, the one that gained the most dedicated following, and the only one still in active, open-source development to this day, making it the oldest game to continue to receive updates and bugfixes. As it is continually supported, NetHack has evolved, although the core gameplay, mechanics and atmosphere of the game remain; one fascinating aspect of the game is that these layers may be peeled back or completely stripped away and the remainder can still be considered, in a functional sense, wholly NetHack.

(NetHack For Windows)

For a game that has earned itself such an enduring legacy, the earliest versions of NetHack were not exactly visually impressive: they offered simple, black-and-white ASCII graphics, with the @ sign representing the player and various other characters making up the dungeon features, monsters, items, treasure chests and so forth. It could not be strictly dubbed a text adventure, but it was about as close as one could get and still feature a GUI. This ASCII version is still available and preferred by many NetHack fanatics, but over time the NetHack community began to release clients of the game with updated graphics, beginning by merely adding colour and extended ASCII characters before moving on to a top-down tiles mode for windows-based operating systems. More recently, NetHack has transitioned from the top-down view to an isometric view (as seen in the Falcon’s Eye and Vulture’s Eye ports), a semi-3D view by way of Neognud’s interface, and even, in NetHack3D, a first-person view. It is important to note that these various ports and interfaces are all assembled around the basic NetHack source code and the game is played exactly the same, no matter which interface is used.


NetHack may not be the most user-friendly of games, but it has an addictive quality borne of its immense depth and substance which more than makes up for it. As with the typical RPG, players begin by selecting their race, role and alignment. They are then assigned a deity to which they are beholden and are tasked with recovering the Amulet of Yendor from the lowest reaches of the dungeon. Along the way, they will encounter monsters, side quests, shops and loot; gain experience and level up both their characters and their pets; and, if they are lucky, recover the Amulet and ‘ascend’ after sacrificing it on their deity’s altar. The replayability factor is high, since, as mentioned above, each level of the dungeon is randomly generated, character death is permanent, and games are unsaveable. And the game makes you work to uncover its secrets: with no rulebook and ‘spoilers’ of the game considered anathema to the serious player, aficionados of NetHack can spend years attempting to unlock all that it has to offer and still find themselves surprised by something.

(Falcon's Eye)

NetHack started as a Unix binary and has always had a following of primarily Unix and Linux environment users. It has made the transition to other platforms over the years, and the current version is available to download for Windows, Mac, DOS, Windows CE, OS/2, Atari, and Amiga. An official port called iNetHack has been released for iOS devices, and unofficial versions are available for the PSP and Nintendo DS. You can also play a Java-based version of NetHack, entitled NetHax, in-browser.

(Although Diablo - a bona fide roguelike which owes a considerable debt to NetHack - has earned a name for itself in North America, the genre itself is generally underrated. In Japan, however, the popularity of roguelike RPGs has skyrocketed, thanks in large part to spin-offs from the Pokemon (Pokémon Mystery Dungeon), Final Fantasy (Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon) and Dragon Quest (Dragon Quest: Shōnen Yangus to Fushigi no Dungeon) franchises.)

Showcase: Harry Potter Beers by Anita Brown

"Sorceror's Stout"

"Amber of Secrets"

"Pilsner of Azkaban"

"Goblet of Lager"

"Porter of the Phoenix"

"Hefe-Blonde Prince"

"Deathly Hops"

I would drink these! Especially the Goblet of Lager. Lagers should always be drunk from goblets.

[Anita Brown on Behance]

Triptych: Sonic BOOM!

"Arguile" by 5eth

"Lightning Kick" by Luke Chueh

"Static Hollow" by Martin Hsu

Triptych: Zombies Ate My Neighbors!

"Zombies Ate My Neighbors" by beyx

"Zombies Ate My Neighbors" by Drew Falchetta

"Zombies Ate My Neighbors Minimalist Poster" by Chris M. Miller