Like Violence Fight and Crime Fighters, Monster Maulers is one of those games where the title pretty much sums everything up. There are monsters, and you must maul them. Maul them good, for (as the game tells you) freedom and justice. Just why are there monsters everywhere that need a good mauling is explained in the rather wonderful intro sequence:
As you can see from the video, the whole thing is played out as if it were an anime or a super sentai show like Power Rangers; indeed, the game's Japanese title is Kyukyoku Sentai Dadandarn, which translates as something like "Ultimate Squadron Dadandarn". They even get their own goofy yet hot-blooded theme song, and that means Monster Maulers is off to a damn fne start. The basic plot is that a goup of villains fires six monsters down to Earth from their bitchin'-cool skull-based spaceship, and the Monster Maulers have to defeat them. The villains seemed to have been... inspired, shall we say, by Yatterman villains Doronjo, Boyacky and Tonzura.
You might recognise Doronjo from Tatsunoko vs Capcom:
They even have the same skull motif. Nice one, Konami. The Monster Maulers themselves, while posing less risk of inciting a copyright-infringement lawsuit, are still a pretty odd bunch.
In the middle we have Kotetsu, a Japanese fellow who has apparently "combined various Oriental martial arts to become a killing machine". I have no idea what's going on with his outfit. He's not, as I first thought, holding an American football (which might explain some of the random bits of armour he's wearing) but a gourd full of what I can only imagine was enough booze to make him thing that the "loincloth and corset" outfit was a good look. Kotetsu is the all-round character, with a fireball that can be fired at three different angles and a Psycho-Crusher-type deal that comes in very useful. Overall, he's probably your best choice for mauling monsters.
On the left is Eagle, an American pro wrestler whose body is described as "perfect". Well. Of the three characters, he's arguably the one with the best dress sense, but that really isn't saying much. However, he does perform the famous Hulk Hogan pose in his introduction, which means he's alright by me. Also, he has a Blanka-style rolling cannoball attack.
Finally there's Anne, a British girl who is defined mainly by two things: one, she appear to be wearing a pair of red knickers on her head and two, she has a rather peculiar fighting stance:
She scuttles along sideways like that, showing what I believe is her mastery of Chafing Leotard Style Kung Fu. Yowzer. She's got an air fireball, and she can triangle jump off walls, which can be very useful for dodging her opponents, but overall she just doesn't seem strong enough.
Well, that's our heroes introduced. All I can say is it's a good job the universe they inhabit has need of a super-squad devoted to fighting monsters, because I can't really see where they'd get a job otherwise looking like that. But who will they be fighting? Well, let's look at the monsters!
You get to choose your first opponent, so I went for the Dragon. The gameplay is most like a standard Street Fighter style beat-em-up: you can move left and right but not up and down, and you have three attack buttons for light, medium and heavy attacks. Special moves are pulled off in the same way as Street Fighter, too; literally the same, in the case of Kotetsu's fireballs.
I knew the game was off to a good start with the intro, but it got even better when the first attack I made was to jump onto the Dragon's head, grab him and repeatedly headbutt him, and that felt pretty good. The Dragon is the first of several cameos from Konami's Gradius series, in this case being based on the Intruder enemy from Gradius II and Salamander. He's not just a red Dragon though, oh no; he can change into at least two other colours (white and blue), changing his attacks from fire to ice as he does so. Also, he can block attacks with his ear-flaps, which is downright adorable. Kotetsu's upwards fireballs are a real help here, and it's not long before the Dragon is defeated and it's on to the next opponent.
Fungus here is a gloopy, gloppy slime man with gills for eyes. Gills for eyes creep me out, man. Imagine if you had lungs where your eyes should be. He's got a great stage, though; check out that giant piranha / coelacanth thing in the background. He's vomiting up a stream of water while he's underwater! That's amazing, and it makes me wish he was my opponent instead of the slightly dull Fungus.
Next up is Diablo, a Chinese style demon who has copied Kotetsu's loincloth-and-anklewarmers look. He summons a giant pagoda, which is pretty cool, and he fights a lot like Blanka, which is also pretty cool. He's got the same somersaulting hard kick, and he can also turn himself into a Tasmanian Devil-style tornado. I tried offering him a nice, tall glass of OJ, but he wasn't having any of it. When you defeat him, he is rather gruesomely pecked apart by a flock of crows.
At the start of the next stage, your are confronted by a large, man-eating plant called Spider Wort, who summons a stream of little reptillian monsters who look like a nightmarish version of Pac-Man. Once he's dealt with, it's on to the star of the show; the Moai.
You might well recognise this Easter Islander, as he is something of a staple of the Gradius series, appearing as a normal enemy and a boss. He's even branched out into the Parodius and Castlevania games, but in this incarnation he's that bit more impressive because he has a body. I absolutely love his status picture next to his health bar, which has captured an expression of such wearied disdain that it makes you wonder how many other superheroes he's defeated in the past. Maybe he thought fighting one person would be easier that battling a laser-armed spaceship, but he was sadly mistaken and soon he goes down.
Centaur is, well, a centaur. A bright red centaur, no less,and he fights exactly as you would expect a horse to fight, with lots of flailing legs and whinnying. He's even got a mask that you can knock off! For some reason, you fight him in Iraq. Maybe he counts as a weapon of mass destruction. Looking at these bosses, it makes you wonder where the villains got them from in the first place. Was there a monster jumble sale? Perhaps is was some supervillain equivalent of one of those "Lucky Bags" that were always so disappointing as a child. I wouldn't have been disappointed if I'd got an evil centaur in my Lucky Bag, mind you.
On to the final monster, and they've saved the best 'til last.
First up, you must defeat the Serpent, a hideous biological hybrid of various organs who can shoot mutant sperm-tadpoles at you through holes in his sides, making him a pretty grim boss to fight if you suffer from trypophobia. He's not much of a challenge, though, and soon you reach the main event:
Brainy is my favourite boss by a long way, which really is an achievement in a game where you can also fight an Easter Island statue (sorry Moai, you're just not this cool). Why is he so great? BECAUSE HE'S A FLOATING BRAIN WITH ONE BULGING EYEBALL. I shouldn't really need to spell it out for you. If what wasn't enough, his arms are made of eyeballs. As I mentioned at the start of this article, punching eyeballs is one of this worlds great pleasures, so Brainy is assured a spot at the head of the table at the Association of Cool Monsters Annual Fundraising Dinner (they're raising funds for millions of punch-proof contact lenses). Not only that, but he's got a couple of other things going for him; one is that he's based on the Salamander boss Brain Golem. The other is that his stage music is a remix of "Poison of Snake", also from Salamander / Gradius, heard here as the version from Gradius V:
Sadly, Brainy must be destroyed. But of course that's not the end of the game, and our heroes fly up to the villains' ship for a final showdown.
Sadly, the game loses its way a little here. There are a few short side-scrolling sections in which you are attacked on all sides by various robots, and you also have to defeat the robots of the three villians. Now, I love robots, but after the likes of Brainy and Moai, they're just not as interesting, particularly when they're your final opponents.
The first villain (the skinny one) appears in this hot-pink ED-209 clone called Ducker, based on the Gradius enemy of the same name. Most of his moves revolve around kicking and flamethrowing, and I defeated him in much the same way as Dragon; I jumped up, grabbed him and headbutted him into submission, an act made extra-satisfying by the fact that it was accompanied by a clanging sound effect of the kind you might expect to hear when a man bashes his skull against a big metal robot.
After that is Robo-Ape, piloted by the fat villain. He's a robot gorilla, so I think you know what to expect. That said, his best move is when Robo-Ape picks you up, the hatch opens and the villain punches you in the mouth. What was the point of the giant gorilla-bot, then?!
Finally, the Doronjo-type lady appears in the Cosmic Tank, a floating pink chair with drill-arms that looks nothing ike a tank. I was hoping for something a little more grand and dramatic from the final battle, so the Cosmic Tank is rather a let-down. With a final mighty effort, Doronjo is defeated and the Earth is safe once more. Huzzah!
So, that's Monster Maulers, living up to its name, although perhaps they should include (Also Robots) at the end. It's a damn fun, if very short, blast of beat-em-up action that has a lot going for it: The controls are good, the sprites are excellent (and GIGANTIC) and the music is some of the best I've heard recently. Also, if you're a Gradius fan, then it's definitely worth a playthrough to see all the references, and to kick a Moai in his big granite face. It's just a shame that the last stage is such a letdown. Overall, though, Monster Maulers is worth a credit or two of anyone's time.