Some videogames were sometimes described as "a little odd" upon first inspection. This was true when they debuted, it remained true during the Great Crash of 1984, and remained true when the NES became a household name. But after repeat playings, the odd, sometimes seemingly drug-inspired stuff takes a backseat and goes virtually unnoticed and uncommented upon later. One prominent example of this is Super Mario Bros. Here's a game that features some really wacky stuff on first inspection - namely a plumber that could grow to twice his size by snacking on mushrooms and could shoot fire out of his hands after picking a glowing flower - but after a few plays, became completely commonplace and not out of the ordinary in the slightest. Twenty-nine years after its release, no one bats an eye at the psychedelic leanings of the Mario saga, even after some of the later games featured even more blatant drug references: "Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy" in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, anyone?
Then there's Monster Party, released by Bandai for the NES in 1989. On first inspection, it seems like yet another dime-a-dozen platformer, one of the hundreds that are available for the NES. And yes, it does seem a little odd. But when you delve into the game and start to realize exactly how much LSD must have been consumed during the brainstorming sessions, "a little odd" doesn't even begin to cover the true insanity that this game represents. And this insanity is what Monster Party is remembered for, when it's remembered at all.
The tone is set by the title screen, a leering monster face drooling green ooze with the words "Monster Party" hanging between its jagged teeth. Behind this face, a constant parade of bosses from the game tromp by. Press start, and the opening cinema starts up. The further into it you get, the more you begin to realize that this isn't going to be a normal platformer.
In the opening, you're introduced to the main characters of the game. There's Mark, a human boy toting a baseball bat, and Bert, a flying gargoyle-esque monster from the Dark World. Bert encounters Mark after falling from the sky, an event Mark witnessed as he was walking home from a baseball game. Mark, who is a friendly and inquisitive youth, immediately strikes up a conversation with this imposing and menacing-looking figure from beyond the stars. Brave kid. Had it been me, I probably would have run off screaming. If Bert's appearance hadn't been enough to frighten me off, what he asks Mark to do would have done it: he wants Mark to come with him to his home planet and fight the evil monsters that are out of control and have apparently taken over. Mark, the little kid with a baseball bat. One would think that Bert would have approached guaranteed world-savers, like a ninja clan or a shirtless, machine gun toting warrior for this job, but maybe he was on a deadline or something. "Grab the first kid you see that's carrying something resembling a weapon and get your ass back here pronto, Bert! You're getting paid by the hour here and we're on a budget, so don't spend time sightseeing or looking for more obviously skilled warriors with actual weapons!"
Mark, being a bright kid, points out the obvious flaw in Bert's plan: he's not armed to the teeth with the latest military hardware, he's carrying a freaking Louisville Slugger. Maybe it's useful for chasing burglars out of your house or beating the annoying yippy neighbor dog that keeps running out to attack your ankles every time you walk by its yard, but using one to take on a legion of evil monsters that have enslaved an entire planet? That, to paraphrase a famous film character, ain't my idea of courage. It's more like suicide. Bert doesn't seem to think this is a big deal, though, exclaiming "Bat! Batter! Anything is OK!"
Y'know, Bert, if anything will truly do while taking on the scumdogs of the universe that have conquered your homeworld, how come the LASER THAT YOU FIRE OUT OF YOUR HEAD isn't good enough? I've wondered this for years. That's not to say that Mark's bat doesn't have its uses, like knocking enemy projectiles right back at them, but still.
A moment to address something else that's been bugging me for years... Bert. What the hell kind of name is that for a somewhat evil and badass-looking flying monster? Why not something that sounds menacing or kind of creepy? Eh, it's not a big deal. It's just odd. Anyway, Bert then grabs Mark by the arm and flies off with him. Then he tells Mark that this will be a dangerous mission, and that they stand a chance of survival by acting together. When Mark asks how, Bert says "Like this!", then fuses himself and Mark into one being.
"This is how Mark's adventure began."
So how does this fusing work out in the game? Simple: one of the three power-ups Mark can find is a pill. A generic two-tone pill, the kind you might see in a bottle of medication. Grab this, and Mark transforms into Bert, who can fly and shoot the aforementioned laser out of his head.
Two things I want to point out here:
1. Bert is powerful enough on his own that he didn't need Mark in the first place! As you progress through the stages, his laser gets even more powerful, even splitting in two, while Mark remains at his original power level. So just why the deuce was it necessary for Mark to come on this trip?
Don't answer that.
2. You transform into Bert by popping pills. POPPING PILLS. And this passed Nintendo's censors how exactly?
...then again, that shouldn't be a surprise. Look at the infamous Ring King blowjob, or Nintendo's own Dr. Mario, which encouraged kids to play with pills. Nintendo may have declared that they had a huge puritanical streak later on, but in the late '80s their censors sometimes fell asleep at the wheel.
The next power-up is a heart, which refills your life bar. Luckily enemies respawn, so you can keep going back and forth, killing the ones that drop hearts over and over again until you've maxed out your life bar. Well, most of the time anyway. Some of them eventually stop dropping hearts and you have to move on. The third and last power-up is a question mark, which is covered in detail further down.
The controls are rather basic: jump with the A button and attack with the B button. If you duck, you can make Mark and Bert crawl slowly across the ground, inchworm-style. Mark can jump fairly high, and can swing his bat while jumping. He stops in his tracks if you swing the bat while walking, so be prepared for that. Bert can shoot his laser while moving, and can fly by repeatedly pressing the jump button.
So the opening ends, and you press start. Then you see a row of skeletons, half-submerged in a lake of blood. This isn't the stage, either: this simply tells you you're about to start the stage! And you see it before every single stage. Gotta admit, that's an ominous sign.
Your first stop on Bert's homeworld is a place referred to as the "Dark World", although as far as I can tell, Bert's homeworld is called the Dark World and this is just one small section of it. Thing is, this "Dark World" is anything but dark. A cheery theme is playing. Smiling happy faces dot the landscape, on trees and on blocks. Some of them are winking, some of them resemble this popular emoticon: ^_^ But on closer inspection, something seems... off here. The sky is a menacing red. Flaming Japanese schoolboys (and when I say flaming, I mean they're ON FIRE) jump from block to block throwing flaming spears. Strange legs kick into the air and must be "spanked" with Mark's bat to be destroyed. It's actually quite unsettling.
Then you reach what I call the "fat cactus.", actually a Japanese haniwa statue (much like the Cactuar/Sabotender from the Final Fantasy games.) The second you try to go past it, lightning flashes and all hell breaks loose. The happy faces MELT, and their skulls are revealed, sitting amidst a now blood-drenched landscape. More monsters - giant tentacled eyeballs and human-faced dogs - join the fray. A dreary dirge replaces the upbeat tune that was playing moments before. It's quite surprising the first time you see it.
From this point, the levels get more pedestrian. A lot of old standards (sewers, lakes, pyramids, caves, etc.) are trotted out. A few stages, such as the Haunted Mansion and the Oriental-themed cloud city, are a little more unusual, but nothing quite comes close to matching the surprise of the melting happy faces from the Dark World. The Haunted Mansion is worth mentioning since it's a maze that you can easily get lost in. There's only one boss in the stage, so you've got that going for you, but trying to find your way through the maze is a royal pain in the ass. There are some neat wind sound effects in that stage, though.
Luckily, the bosses more than make up for the lack of wackiness in the level settings. The minor characters are worthy of note - some, like the tiny shark with the giant fin on its back in the Dark World Lake stage and the umbrella bats in the Dark World Cave stage, are worth the price of admission - but the bosses and their opening taunts are what make Monster Party shine.
Stage 1: The Dark World
The Man-Eating Plant
This giant venus flytrap greets Mark with the words "HELLO! BABY!" (a reference to Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, perhaps?), then starts flinging bubbles at him. Knock a few of them back into this overgrown weed to continue.
The Giant Corpse and Fly
"SORRY, I'M DEAD.", indeed. Just wait a second and it vanishes.
The Pumpkin Ghost
"PLEASE DON'T PICK ON ME." this bastard whimpers before he starts flying around chucking little pumpkins at Mark. This is the first true challenge you'll face.
Stage 2: The Dark World Dungeon
Bounce her little snakes back into her to kill her. Yawn. Next.
"LOOK OUT BABY. HERE I COME." What is it with these things calling Mark and Bert "baby", anyway? Defeat the fried prawn, then fight a blood-drenched (or is that ketchup?) onion ring. Defeat that, and face a shiskabob.
The Haunted Wishing Well
Not too tough, this well just throws plates at Mark. Apparently it's a reference to the Bancho Sarayashiki ghost story. PROTIP: Use Bert to fight this thing, as it's a lot easier.
Stage 3: The Dark World Cave
"MOOOVE IT!" Ha ha ha. *shrug* This thing throws cute little cows at you. Just bunt them back into their master to defeat him.
The Guardian of the Giant Sphinx
Now just why is this thing with its sleeping legs in the Dark World Cave? Shouldn't it be in the Dark World Castle Ruins, aka the pyramid stage?
The Giant Spider
Just beat the crap out of this thing with Mark's bat and it'll die soon enough.
Stage 4: The Dark World Castle Ruins
The Samurai Ghost
"I... AM A SLOWPOKE." You have to give him points for honesty, anyway. Bat his swords back into him.
The Giant Cat
Awww, how adorable. Then it shows its true face. Whack the kittens it sends after you back into it.
The Punk Rockstar
"FACE THE MUSIC!" *groan* A straightforward attack works best here.
Stage 5: The Dark World Lake
The Dancing Zombies
"WATCH MY DANCE." Listen to these guys, because if you attack them you'll be here forever. One of the most perplexing bosses in the game until you figure that out.
The Mad Javelin Man
If you can get to just the right angle, you can knock his javelins right back into him.
Stage 6: The Dark World Haunted Mansion
The Chameleon Man
Kind of confusing at first. Just find the right head and whack away at it, ignoring the others.
Stage 7: The Dark World Tower
Royce the Caterpillar
So his name is Royce, and he attacks by rolling. He rolls... rolls... Rolls Royce, get it? Get it? Hit him as he's rolling towards you and if you time it right, he'll pass right through you.
The Grim Reaper
"WELCOME! ENTRANCE TO HELL." Now how'd that slip past... never mind. This guy's tough! No surprise, given the Grim Reaper's track record in videogames. Smack the heads he throws back into him. PROTIP: Use Bert here too.
The Giant Spider, Part Deux
Who cares about this guy? You've already got the key, so get to the exit!
Stage 8: The Dark World Heaven's Gate
The Annoying Dragon
I hate this thing. It'll wear you down quick, so stock up on life before you go fight him. He's actually located to the left of your starting point in the stage, so don't overlook him. Also calls Mark "baby."
Werid hand...creature thing. Standard procedure, hit the projectiles back at him.
The Pharaoh with a Snake Body
"OH BOY! MARK SOUP!" Despite moving fast, he's a bit of a wuss.
Dark World Master
"YOU BEAT EVERYBODY. BEAT ME AND YOU CAN LEAVE! COME AND DIE!" If you know where to strike, he's a pushover.
You have to fight all of the bosses in each stage to proceed to the next. Each will drop a question mark when defeated, which you must pick up before leaving their chamber. Sometimes you'll get an added bonus for grabbing the question mark: bonus points, life rejuvenation or a Bert transformation. Killing all the bosses in each stage will net you the key to unlock the exit. There is an exception to this rule: Stage 7. Due to a glitch, fighting all three bosses there will cause you to lose the key.
Also keep in mind that there are more doors than bosses in each stage, and unless you know where the bosses are, you have to investigate each one. The ones without bosses just say "EMPTY." and sometimes contain a question mark, so they're worth checking into anyway.
The ending is actually kind of disturbing. In what's probably one of the most graphic endings in an NES game ever (although not beating out the exploding Hitler head of Bionic Commando), Bert gives Mark a present as he is returned to Earth. Mark excitedly opens the present, and a beautiful princess pops out. Then floating zombie heads appear, the princess changes into a rotting corpse, Mark freaks out and as the heads fly around him, he starts decaying too.
But then... silence. Mark wakes up, at home in his bed. It was all a dream!
...until Mark opens his door to find Bert standing there with his bat, looking like he's about to beat the crap out of Mark. Seriously. He has this look on his face that says "You owe me money, so pay up before I use this bat to shatter your legs." He then asks Mark if he wants to go again. The credits roll, and... did this mean Monster Party 2 was in the works? Maybe, but I doubt it.
There is a password feature. The game is easy enough that you can finish it in an hour, but having a password feature is a nice bonus.
Unsurprisingly, Monster Party came and went in the U.S. without much notice. The generic box art did nothing to help its case, I'm sure. It's a shame, as it is one of the most unusual titles to ever show up on the NES. One would have expected this to have been released in Japan, but for some odd reason it never surfaced there. That's a shame: a Japanese magazine did run a preview of the game, showing an even wackier title: for example, the Man-eating Plant seems to be a singer in the preview. In fact, the place where its speaker would have been is still there in the final release, apparently just covered over with black tiles. But you can stand on it, proving its existence.
Twenty years after its release, Monster Party has gained a tiny cult following among NES fans, but don't expect to see this showing up for the Virtual Console anytime soon. I doubt Nintendo would allow it now, at least not without some drastic changes. Luckily, the cart's still readily available in the wild and online, and more often than not can be found for less than ten dollars. But hey, since Bandai is now partnered with Namco, maybe they can give it a re-release with Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (a game which is often compared to Monster Party).
Yeah, like that'll happen.
Japanese Prototype Screenshots