06/12/2011

MONSTER IN MY POCKET (NES)

This makes it three Konami games in a row at VGJUNK, but I'm fine with that. There's a lot to love in their back catalogue, and during the mid-Eighties and early Nineties Konami were a developer of both prodigious output and rare consistency: even when they weren't creating bona fide classics like Castlevania, Gradius and Contra their titles were almost always fun, interesting games. This, though: this could be a real test - a licensed game based on a... a toy line. Nightmarish visions of Transformers: Convoy no Nazo and Barbie Vacation Adventure swim up from the murky depths of my tortured psyche, but surely if anyone can produce something better than the usual tat, it's Konami. At least they've got an interesting license to work with in 1992's NES platformer Monster in my Pocket.

"Monster in my Pocket, as cute as can be" went the advertising jingle, except it didn't because that was the song for Puppy in my Pocket, or possibly Pony in my Pocket. I forget. What I do remember was that the prevailing trend amongst toys of that time was miniaturisation, and a wide array of teeny-tiny toys appeared on the market: Kitty, Pony, Puppies, Monster in my Pocket, Mighty Max and Polly Pocket, Micro Machines - the toy companies of the day really ran with it. Maybe their research showed that sure, kids loved Optimus Prime - but the only thing stopping them from accepting him as their personal saviour / spirit animal was that his bulky size meant he couldn't be conveniently slipped into a pocket or up your younger brother's nose. So, toys got small and my favourite amongst all these tiny plastic gewgaws was the Monster in my Pocket line.

Of course it was. If you've read any of this site before, you'll know I love horror and monsters and all that spooky jazz, so this range of inch-high plastic monsters taken from movies, legends and mythology was like crack to me. I collected them all and loved them all, even the multi-coloured and increasingly desperate later series. I mean, where else could you get an honest-to-god toy based on the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? That's a level of cultural obscurity not often seen in collections of lumpy rubber monster toys.
And that's all they were: lumps of rubber. No articulation, no special features, just solid figurines that happened to be the perfect size and density to throw at people (again, younger siblings are recommended) without worrying about hurting them too much. Not too exciting as action figures, then, but here's where Konami swoop in and save the day by releasing an NES title that brings these tiny terrors to glorious 8-bit life.

First you must choose your monster. The available options are the Vampire, here looking rather dour with his subdued blue palette, and Frankenstein's Monster, simply called The Monster in this game, I imagine for brevity's sake. They're going to be out there risking life and (reanimated) limb, and you don't want to waste precious time by having to shout "Frankenstein's Monster!" every time you need to alert him to danger.
Go ahead and pick one. They both control the same and have the same moves, so it's all down to whether you feel more comfortable as a virgin-molesting haemophage or dead bits sewn together and resurrecting in an unholy mockery of life.

The villain of the piece appears on TV and threatens our heroes, kicking off the game's plot and reminding you that yes, these monster are tiny. If you're wondering what terrifying monster the villain is supposed to be, he's the Warlock, master of dark magic. I know he looks like a crooked politician from a '50s movie, but evil sorcery is his bag. You see, the story of Monster in my Pocket (the comics, at least) was that the Warlock summoned all the monsters for a meeting with the intention of shrinking all the "good" monsters who wouldn't join his side. The spell went tits-up, all the monsters get shrunk and they end up living with some suburban kid and battling each other for the chance to regain their former sizes and get back to whatever gloomy crypts or swamps or French opera houses they called home.

Of course, you have to have good guys and bad guys in a toyline targeted at boys, because no male kid wants to hear about a world where all the monsters go on picnics together, discuss Proust and learn lessons about friendship. So, some monsters were arbitrarily chosen to be the goodies, notably the Vampire. He's the heroic leader of the Autobots, sorry, the good monsters, which seems rather at odds with the traditional depictions of vampires. I can't think of many other cartoon heroes who needed to regularly consume the still-warm blood of the living, and even less that managed to get elected to the position of "leader" despite the handicap of them bursting into flames in sunlight. Even more baffling is that the Warlock managed to get all the monsters together for a meeting in the first place. It sounds reasonable, until you realise that one of the monster is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. How did the Warlock convince him to turn up? A hand-written invite? Promises of a fight with King Kong? Maybe he used the classic Bugs Bunny ruse of dressing up as a sexy female T. Rex in order to lure him there. What I'm saying is that the Warlock is a dangerous man who will do anything - and I mean anything - to get what he wants, and the poor T. Rex's fragile psyche be damned.

And here we are in the first stage. I guess the Vampire was in a rush, because it looks like he only managed to get into the top half of his formal eveningwear and had to leave his pyjama bottoms and slippers unchanged.
Right then, what do we have here? Well, it's a side-scrolling action platformer. You knew it would be, I knew it would be, there wasn't much chance it'd be anything else. Standard platforming rules apply: move around, jump over holes, hit enemies. In this case you can even double-jump, something of a rarity in this era of gaming, and you attack by throwing an arc of energy a short distance in front of you.

The Monster is exactly the same, except blue and with legs long enough to put most catwalk models to shame.
The first think that struck me (besides the Monster's well-proportioned gams) was the graphics, which by NES standards are excellent. MIMP was released at the tail-end of the NES' lifespan, and Konami's years working with the platform are very much evident. Everything is bold and colourful, with detailed sprites that look just like those rubber monsters of my childhood. There's even some (swoon) parallax scrolling going on here.

The enemy roster in the first stage is full of the lower-level MIMP villains - witches, zombies that guy in the screenshot above who looks like a tiger carrying a dildo but is actually the Beast, as in "Beauty and the". The real star is the stage itself, though - the Vampire must make his way through a suburban house. This is considerably more difficult when you're only an inch tall, and Konami do a good job of getting that scale across.
Almost as good as the excellent graphics is the music, of which the stage one theme is a highlight.



If there's on thing you can almost always guarantee from a Konami NES title, it's that the music will kick ass, and MIMP does not disappoint.

Even more exciting (to me at least) than all that is the first stage's boss, because it's Spring-Heeled Jack. Spring-Heeled Jack was my favourite MIMP as a child, because my mother's love of horror and the occult was almost as strong as mine and as such I had ample material from which to read about this bizarre slice of Victoriana. If you've never heard of Spring-Heeled Jack, he was a semi-legendary British figure who gained his reputation (and his name) by scaring the bejeesus out of people and then bounding away, clearing walls and rooftops with impossibly tall leaps. He was like a Victorian version of Batman, if Batman was a terrifying prankster who occasionally spewed electric fire from his mouth. No one ever really figured out what the hell SHJ's deal was, although theories range from mass hysteria, to a bored aristocrat who lost a bet, to Satan himself. I was utterly fascinated with him as a kid, so being able to own a toy of him was both fun and made me feel like some guardian of the ancient knowledge of the past.

In the game, his jumping powers are intact and he hops around the room hurling daggers at you. He's pretty easy to beat, but I won't hold it against him. I still love you, Spring-Heeled Jack.

Stage two sees the Vampire continuing through the house, this time in the kitchen, and the sense of scale works even better here as you make your way through the giant teacups and flaming oven hobs. This is where the game really hits its stride - the controls are smooth, the enemy patterns and level designs are interesting and for once it's not so difficult it'll make your reproductive organs explode. What it feels like most is a much-simplified and easier-to-control version of Castlevania. Check this out:

Those axes flying in arcs, that giant heart, it just screams Castlevania. The Vampire even makes the same noise as Simon Belmont when he takes a hit.

In what is a rare case of monster confusion, I thought at first that the second boss was the Swamp Beast: he looks sort of dribbly, after all. But what self-respecting swamp monster would live in a freezer, I wondered, and then I realised he's actually Bigfoot. I was thrown off by the fact his feet aren't all that big, I guess.

It's out onto the means streets for stage three, and the evil monsters are relegated to secondary threat status behind swarms of roving golf balls. They roll after you, but that's okay because you can double jump. Simon Belmont couldn't do that, now could he?

The second half of the stage takes place in the sewers, where former Greek god Triton has fallen on hard times and is reduced to leaping out of the sewage at Vampires who are just trying to enjoy a peaceful ride on an empty Coke can. I think we can all understand Triton's anger and cut him some slack.

More watery terror in the boss battle as the dread Kraken rises to, erm, listlessly flop its tentacles around. Its heart doesn't really seem in it, you know? Again, this is understandable - his gargantuan size was how the Kraken defined himself as a monster, and that's been taken away from him. No wonder he's a bit blue. Man, this is getting depressing. I hope at least some of the monsters are having a nice time.

Not these Redcaps, though. Look at their anguished faces as they struggle to escape this pit of spikes. They get their name by dying their hats red with the blood of the innocent, though, so I suppose they deserve it.

This stage stakes place on a construction site (and yes, there is a lift section), which is filled with cranes and exposed girders. You also come across the Hindu deity Kali, who for some bizarre reason attacks you with a grappling hook. Given that she's (sometimes) a crazed goddess of death, you'd think they'd have given her a weapon with a bit more bite. Maybe they were trying to play it safe after there were some complaints about the MIMP toys from Hindus who weren't impressed with their holy figures being referred to as "monsters". I'm surprised there weren't any complaints about the inclusion of the Great Beast of Revelation in the toyline - if there are people out there in this fucked-up world stupid enough to ban Pokemon for "promoting Zionism", then you'd think there'd be people who'd get terribly upset about the idea of little Jimmy playing with a little plastic doll in the form of Mankind's Ultimate Ruination.

The boss is a Gremlin riding a hook which, at this scale, would be no use to anyone on a construction site. Where did you get that tiny hook, Mr. Gremlin?

What do you get after a construction site? That's right, a Japanese garden. No, I don't know either. What I do know is that it has some of the best music in the game:



The difficulty level begins to increase here, and while in never reaches the usual height of almost-unbeatable challenge that you'd expect from a NES game, it still ends up being pretty tough.

Not so tough is the boss. It's five Medusas, or more accurately one Medusa with four incorporeal clones. Simple wait until the real Medusa fires her (suspiciously Gradius-looking) ripple laser at you, avoid it so you don't get turned to stone and then whack her with whatever the heck your attack is supposed to be. I know it's meant to be some kind of energy arc, but I'm choosing to interpret it as the Vampire flicking a sachet of ketchup just in front of his face.

Look out, Vampire! There's a dinosaur behind you! The T. Rex can breathe fire, which I dimly recall being explained in the Monster in my Pocket comics as a side effect of Rex being brought back to life by nuclear testing. Later on, he eats an alarm clock. I think. Something to do with radioactivity in the glow-in-the-dark paint.
I'm a little disappointed that Rex is just a standard enemy, because surely Godzilla a fire-breathing dinosaur would have made a better boss than a gremlin.

All the heavy-hitters of the Monster in my Pocket world are out in force for the final stage: that flying green fellow is the Great Beast himself, who was one of the rarest toys in the line. Even Satan himself isn't strong enough to be the villain of this piece, but soon you'll be fighting the Warlock. There's just a boss rush section to go first. Yes, you have to fight all the previously-defeated bosses again and no, it's not much fun, although any opportunity to see Spring-Heeled Jack again is a welcome one.

And here is the Warlock. His tactics? Hover around and shoot lightning. After seeing the Vampire lay waste to pretty much every single monster ever, the Warlock should have a more substantial plan than "I dunno, lightning?". It's not like vampires are short of weaknesses, either. Why not lure him out into the daylight and fire magical garlic at him, you dolt? Having played Castlevania recently, I was not expecting the final battle to be this easy, but there you go. The Warlock is defeated, and the Vampire has destroyed the one person who might have some insider knowledge on how to return the monsters to their normal size. Oops.

Peaceful days will now return to Vampires and Monsters, apart from all those monsters that I killed. And the T. Rex: he's, like, a force of nature, man. Nothing can make him peaceful. So, that's Konami's Monsters in my... Wait, hang on...

The Warlock isn't done with you yet, and he suddenly appears on TV, threatening you and shooting laser from his eyes like a party political broadcast from the Megalomaniacal Wizard's Alliance. Hey, if you've already made a sprite for a giant Warlock head in a TV, you might as well get as much use out of it as you can. He's even easier to beat than this first form, and once he's down the Monsters in my Pocket are safe once more - until the dog starts chewing them, at least.

Yet again, Konami manage to keep their standards high with another title that is well above average. There are several issues that keep it from being a genuine classic - it's pretty short, there's a fair amount of sprite flicker, the two playable characters are functionally identical and there's little variation - but it's a very solid effort none-the-less. The two big ticks in its favour are the bright, detailed graphics and the catchy-as-hell soundtrack, and the luckily the gameplay is pretty tight too, with special praise for the fluidity of the controls.

In conclusion, Monster in my Pocket is definitely worth playing if you've already exhausted the more well-known NES platformers - just don't be expecting an undiscovered gem of Castlevania standards. As for me? I'm just happy that there exists a game in which you can fight cryptozoological mysteries, scriptural harbingers of the apocalypse and the monsters of Victorian literature all in one place.

3 comments:

  1. I was obsessed with Monsters in my Pocket! I had Great Beast, for some reason him and Behemoth were my two favorite. Way back when I first heard there was an NES tie-in, I figured he would be the boss of the game. But Warlock? I think they could have come up with a bit more of a creative storyline, but those toys were so cool. It was fun not knowing which ones would be in the box.

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  2. Jonny: Yeah, the Warlock is hardly the most imposing villain they could have chosen. I guess he rose to the top because he's the most intelligent?

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  3. Loved, well, STILL love Monster In My Pocket - I remember being slightly gutted that this game was only on the NES, as we didn't know anyone with a NES...

    Here's where I get pedantic as well - those aren't Red Cap, they're Baba Yaga (Russian flying witch cannibal thing). Just thought you'd want to know.

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