18/10/2012

FRANKENSTEIN: THE MONSTER RETURNS (NES)

Before I get started, let's discuss some Frankenstein semantics. Whenever you talk about Frankenstein, someone will invariably pop up and say "Frankenstein is the name of the creator, not the monster," and that's true. Insufferable, but true. Think of it this way, though: Victor Frankenstein gave the creature life, which kind of makes him its dad. And what do you get from your dad? Well, in my case I got a receding hairline and an unfortunately large nose, but I also got his surname. So really, isn't the creature's name also Frankenstein? It's good enough reasoning for me, so I'll be referring to the monster as Frankenstein for the duration of this article. This is partly because everyone in the game calls the corpse-jigsaw-infused-with-a-blasphemous-mockery-of-life Frankenstein, but mostly because I'm going to be writing his name a lot today and if I can shorten it in any way that'd be great. Hell, I'll probably be calling him Frank before all this is over, we'll be like old pals.
Why so many Frankensteins today, you ask? That's because I'm looking at TOSE / Bandai's 1990 NES monster-mash-em-up Frankenstein: The Monster Returns.


Oh yes, very dramatic. Frankenstein has returned from the grave, and he's angry. You can tell he's angry, because the first thing he does after clawing his way out of the ground is burn down a village.


So, we're not going for the "misunderstood, tragic and almost pitiable" version of Frankenstein with this one, huh? It's all razing villages this and kidnapping girls that.


It's never really explained why Frankenstein kidnaps young Emily - he does say he "will take this girl for his own," which has some rather unpleasant connotations, but mostly he just seems to enjoy acting like a prick. Whatever the reason, I don't think the Bride of Frankenstein is going to be pleased when her husband returns home with a pink-haired anime girl under his arm.


Frankenstein: The Monster Returns' map screen is kinda pushy, don't you think? I'll head to stage one in my own damn time, just give me a moment to examine the map. Yep, I see the problem here, whoever built this place got it all back-to-front - that castle is supposed to go on the clifftop with the village huddled below in its ominous shadow, not the other way around. Dracula would never put up with that arrangement, now would he?


The game begins, and it's immediately apparent that Frankenstein is that good ol' NES staple, the side-scrolling action platformer. You're playing as the nameless, cape-wearing hero, and it's your mission to rescue Emily by traversing the stages and punching any enemies that come near you, like those purple... things... hang on, what are those things? Zoom in and enhance!


Okay, so that didn't help. At first I thought they were wolves, because they're fast, low to the ground and travel in packs, but on seeing them in jumbo-vision I think they're meant to be some kind of insect. Maybe. Whatever they are, they're rather difficult to hit and Frankenstein begins with our hero being knocked around by a swarm of unfathomable wolf-beetles. Eventually you'll figure out the timing required to kill them, preferably with a swift crouching punch as they dash toward you, but as soon as you've gotten used to your fists one of them drops a weapon for you to collect.


That weapon is a club. A no-nonsense, no-frills caveman's club, the kind of weapon that Fred Flintstone would scoff at as being outdated. A flaming torch I could understand, I mean I am hunting down Frankenstein after all, but a club? Oh well, beggars can't be choosers and it does give me a bit of extra range.


But wait, it gets better for the humble club - upon bashing an enemy's skull in, prehistoric-style, a red orb appeared and when I collected it the club gained the ability to fire projectiles. Nope, you've lost me. Is this what wiped out the woolly mammoth? Long-range bludgeoning?
At least the rapid-fire club is a vast improvement on the standard clobbering version, and the ability to shoot projectiles makes the game a lot easier and frankly much more palatable. If you get hit, you lose first the power of clubjectiles and then the club itself, so once I'd gained this new ability I suddenly became incredibly careful lest I lose my new-found strength as I battled through the village infested with purple things and pot-bellied demons.


Hey look, it's me, but purple and gooey! Bonk goes the club, down goes my gelatinous doppelganger. If only all life's problems were solved so easily. There's also a house in the background, and without really expecting anything I pushed up to enter the door. Suddenly, I was in a house with an old man.


Bear in mind that I'd just burst into this man's house unannounced, dishevelled and brandishing a gore-soaked cudgel. I thought he took it rather well.


Um, yes, I know all this. I watched the intro, remember? Operation Rescue That Girl I Don't Know And Have Never Met is in full swing already. Thankfully the Elder's senility hasn't completely addled his mind and before I leave he gives me a potion which I can use at any time to replenish my health. He's got nothing else of use for me, so it's time to return to the streets.


The streets which, given that the village was supposed to have been destroyed by fire, look remarkably unscathed. I suppose that's the benefit of building everything out of green rocks.
Here I've stumbled upon the first boss fight, and it's against Death itself. I mean, I guess it could just be any old skeleton in a bathrobe - I don't want to sound like a boneist but they all look the same to me - but given that he's twirling a scythe around I figure it probably is the Grim Reaper. If the village was just destroyed I suppose it makes sense that Death would be hanging around, probably tutting at the extra workload and ringing Mrs. Death to let her know he'll be home late tonight.
This is yet another example of Death, the eternal foe, the inescapable executioner, reduced to working as a lackey for another monster. It's usually Castlevania that keeps him busy, but as Dracula is only resurrected once every hundred years the Grim Reaper has to fill the intervening time somehow. This is far from his most impressive showing, however - he doesn't even attack you unless you're standing right next to him, preferring to teleport around at random in the vain hopes that he'll bump into you. Just bop him with the club when he gets to close and you won't have a problem.


After conquering Death, I took a few steps forward and fell into this enormous hole that somehow our hero didn't notice. At the bottom of the pit waits the true boss of stage one, a vicious four-legged demon with the lower body of a horse and the torso of a gargoyle. What name could possibly convey the raw ferocity of such a monstrous fusion of horse and demon?


Yep, that'll do it. Also, I can't run away, you dolt - I just fell fifty feet down a sheer pit.


Contrary to what his goofy name may suggest, the Great Demon Horse does actually look quite impressive. He's big, he's multi-coloured and he can leap around with the best of them thanks to his horse-legs. In fact, he's so proud of his jumping abilities that he does little else, and that means you'll be fighting him in mid-air. This is where Frankenstein: The Monster Returns can get a little iffy, depending on your situation. Scenario one: you have a projectile weapon. Well god damn son, it's your lucky day! Just jump up and fire some shots and the Great Demon Horse will fly into them eventually. Scenario two: you only have the club, or even worse, your fists. Suddenly the game switches from trivially easy to challenging bordering on frustrating, because getting close enough to hurt the boss without taking damage yourself can be a tall order. The most important thing to remember about this boss fight, and every boss fight in the game, is that if you get your attack in first then the boss will temporarily be unable to hurt you. Luckily, by double-tapping jump you can perform a jumping kick, and for most airborne bosses the best strategy is to jump-kick towards them, hopefully hitting them first and allowing you to pass through them without taking any damage. It's tricky to get the hang of, but once you've got it down it's surprisingly reliable.


Once you've managed to send the Great Demon Horse to that big glue factory in the sky, the first stage is over and Frankenstein pops up to give you some lip. He's definitely not the grunting simpleton from the movies, but I think it would be a bit disingenuous to say that this Frankenstein is faithful to the book. It's been a while since I read it, but I'm pretty sure Mary Shelley did not include any Demon Horses in the original work.


Stage two begins in a forest, and the gods have smiled upon me because I've been given a sword! A sword that can shoot fireballs! As soon as I started using it I picked something up that changed my sword into a mace, but the concept is still the same and being able to launch magical fire is useful for defeating these pink demons. Of course, all these demons do is rush across the screen as fast as their chubby fuchsia legs can carry them, so it's much easier to just climb to a higher platform and watch them run past you.


I found some bloke hanging about on top of a cliff. Assuming he was a boss, I immediately started firing magic at him but he ignored my social faux-pas and started chatting to me. And here I was, all prepared for a duel to the death. I suppose I'd better listen to what he's got to say, it's the least I can do after trying to set him on fire.


Buddy, if you were mortally wounded by the Demon Horse then I think you're going to have to relinquish your title of "Blademaster." I'm sorry, that's unfair - he's clearly a blademaster, and the only weapons available for use against the Demon Horses were clubs. The poor guy was out of his depth.
His brutal and pointless death is my good fortune, however, and before I leave him to the vultures he gives me a potion which restores my hit points and increases my maximum health. I didn't ask the Blademaster why he didn't drink the life-giving elixir after his battle with the Demon Horse. That would have been rude.


A little further into the forest and I'm attacked by a tag-team of bosses: a humanoid unicorn with tree roots for legs and an ethereal woman who has been nailed to a tree. They're the original odd couple! The ghost-woman's lack of mobility is her downfall, and you can simply stand on the platform opposite her and hammer the fire button until she's dead. Unicorn Man isn't much tougher, as long as you remember to jump over him when he charges.
Upon defeating the pair, they reveal that they're not really bad guys after all and that they were placed under a spell by Frankenstein and forced to do his evil bidding. Clearly, his relaxing trip to the grave has done wonders for Frank's powers and he's gone from simply being big and powerful to gaining mastery over the very forces of nature. He must have done an Open University course or something.


Some platforming follows, and there's a surprise waiting if you mess up your jumps and land in the swamp:


Another boss fight! Frankenstein's woodland brainwashing program was nothing if not thorough, and now you have an underwater battle with a merman to contend with. Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is not stingy with the boss battles, and that's fine by me as long as I still have a projectile weapon. Did I mention that being able to shoot energy from your club / sword / mace makes things a hell of a lot easier? All the merman does is bob around gently, so you can stay at the other side of the screen and turn him into fishcakes. Unlike the last boss, he doesn't go on about how he was enslaved by Frankenstein's dark power. I guess mermen are just bastards.


Moments after you emerge from the swamp, Medusa appears and starts threatening you. The actual stages in this game really are just brief interludes designed to get you from one boss fight to the next as quickly as possible. Did someone at TOSE open a suggestion box for possible bosses and then just didn't have the heart to reject any? That'd explain why I just fought half a ghost-woman bolted to a tree.


Medusa's sprite looks good, at least - they've really captured the snake body well. It's weird to be fighting Medusa outside, though, and even weirder to think that I've fought Medusa so many times that I have developed a set of assumptions about where those fights should be taking place.
Once again, the boss eschews any effective fighting style they might have used - Medusa, for example, seems reluctant to try turning me to stone and instead contents herself with bumping into me and then slithering away. It's like I'm being flirted with by a schoolgirl.
Upon being clobbered, Medusa reveals that she too was under Frankenstein's thrall. Being hit by lighting grants life to dead flesh, and also bucketloads of charisma, apparently. Frank then shows up for some of his now-customary between-stage banter.


Hey, that's not banter, you're just being an ass. Whatever else you can say about Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, it's really making me root for the hero. I'm enjoying these little cutscene, you know - they're hardly masterpieces, but for a NES game they're well-presented and the developers were at least trying something a bit different, using little animations in various parts of the screen and not just sticking with the usual "still picture above some text" model. Without them, Frankenstein would be an extremely average and thoroughly typical NES action game... and that's exactly what it is, but at least the cutscenes give it a degree of charm and even a tiny bit of self-identity.


Stage three begins, and everything's gone a bit Ghouls'n Ghosts as our hero is chased through a graveyard by a winged red demon. It's typical that moments after I praise the game's art direction, I run into this cemetery where all rules of scale and perspective are completely abandoned. No-one needs a nine-foot tall gravestone, that's just showing off.


The graveyard is only the gentle introduction to the main part of the stage - a haunted castle. It might even be Castle Frankenstein, who knows? Not me, that's for sure, because the game never mentions it. I have no idea why I've visited any of the locations I've been to so far. I know I'm following Frankenstein, but normally I'd expect that to mean "reach his fortress and defeat him" whereas in this game I think I'm literally about seven paces behind Frankenstein at any given time. This would explain why Frank is always hanging around between stages to goad me, and also why every time I see him he's still carrying Emily. He hasn't reached a place where he can stash her yet!
Oh yeah, the castle. I think TOSE had planned to liven up the gameplay here by sprinkling in some elements of item-gathering and exploration, but after realising that might take some effort or ingenuity or skill they just binned the whole thing off. Well, not the whole thing: there are a few leftovers. For starters, you're supposed to find a key and use it to unlock secret doors which will grant you items and help you to progress. To find the key, walk right and enter any rooms happen across. It's sitting there in a chest, not guarded by so much as a gorgon or a gargoyle or anything. Ah, but finding the key is supposed to be easy - the real puzzle is finding the secret doors! Thankfully, you're given a hint by what looks like a Boglin eating the Rosetta Stone...


...and by "given a hint" I mean "told the exact answer." There are pictures of keys on the walls. Stand between two of them and press up. Holy shit, you've solved the ancient riddle which has vexed the minds of mortal men for lo these many aeons! Your "Welcome to Mensa" gift pack will be arriving any day now. Go forth young man, and claim your glittering prize!


Actually, as rewards go the ability to shoot three-way fireballs is pretty good.


The upper floors of the castle are rather more... I was going to say "opulent," but I think having radioactive green walls and bright crimson carpets rules that particular adjective out. The statues are nice, or at least the would be if they didn't come to life and try to murder you by slinging rocks at your head in a dramatic inversion of the whole David-and-Goliath thing.
There are bosses, too: halfway up you'll fight the Gatekeeper, a floating head-and-hand combo whose death somehow causes a staircase to appear, allowing you to reach the very top of the castle and the proper boss.


It's the Dark Warrior, a noble champion who keeps up the "Dark" part of his name by forcing you to do battle with a bunch of living statues before he'll get off his shiny blue arse and deign to fight you. At least he remembered my name; that's the kind of personal touch that I really appreciate from my supernatural killing machines


Once again I am amazed by the gulf between the challenge with and without a projectile attack. When you've got the three-way fire, this fight isn't any more challenging than that Grim Reaper from way back in stage one: the Dark Warrior teleports around, and while he will try to attack you from range his attacks are nullified if you hit him first, causing him to teleport away and repeat the procedure. Of course, if you only have a melee weapon then things'll be more difficult, because as he teleports you have to stand near enough so that when he reappears so you can hit him, but not so close that he teleports inside you. Nobody wants that, least of all the lesser demon that has to clean the Dark Warrior's armour.
Overall, though, the Dark Warrior isn't much of challenge for someone who calls themselves the Dark Warrior, and once you've beaten him he reveals himself as yet another contrite pawn in Frankenstein's mad scheme to slow you down by throwing all the monsters at you. The Warrior informs you that Frank has escaped to the Evil Dimension. Based on past experience, I naturally assumed that the Evil Dimension is some kind of Butlins-style holiday camp, but apparently I'm wrong. So what is it, then?


Frankenstein is king of the monsters now. His family would be so proud, if he hadn't killed them all.
The Evil Dimension is the final stage - giving Frankenstein: The Monster Returns a grand total of four stages - and I'm honestly looking forward to what constitutes "Frankenstein's most powerful monsters," given that I already killed Medusa, Hellish Knights and Death. Perhaps there will be a robot.


Well, the Evil Dimension is certainly living up to its name, and I can state with some certainty that the background in here is really cool. This place doesn't just look evil, though, and Frank's minions have really stepped up their game by spewing a vast tsunami of projectiles at you whenever you approach them. It's here that my biggest issue with the game became a real problem, and it's that when you're fighting enemies it's far too easy to accidentally step back a short distance, which causes the enemies to respawn. It forces you to jump headlong into danger, and when there's this much stuff on the screen that wants me dead it's hard to work it in my favour.


Suddenly a werewolf leaps from the darkness, rambling about my guts and reminding me of that Doom comic. You know the one.


As per the werewolf's request, I fought him. Turns out the best way to kill a werewolf is to repeatedly jump up and kick it in the face. It probably doesn't work so well on actual wolves, but if you ever find yourself trapped by a pack of ravenous wolves in the Siberian wilderness I suppose you could give it a go.
Mere moments after killing the werewolf, another of horror's most famous monsters decides to have a crack.


It's a vampire! A vampire that teleports across the room, opens his cape and shoots things at you. I know I've been comparing things to Castlevania a lot recently, but it's not just me, right? This fight could be placed at the end of any Castlevania game and you'd barely notice the difference, besides the extra control you have over your jumps in Frankenstein making it much, much easier.
After doing battle with these two, Frankenstein's Hallowe'en quotient has taken a dramatic upward spike, but it feels kind of wrong. Frankenstein shouldn't be in charge of Dracula: the whole system's is topsy-turvy! Frankenstein is a lumbering right-hand-man at best, useful for his strength but not his leadership qualities. I feel unsettled by this, but perhaps a brief section swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine will perk me up.


No, it didn't. Our hero is no Spider-man, and given the biological nature of the environment I think it's probably wise that I don't ponder what these dangling strands actually are.


A painful end, huh? I finally caught up with you and that's the best trash-talk you could come up with? I mean, I wasn't expecting Shakespeare but "a painful end" seems a bit redundant - I already figured you weren't going to kill me by wrapping me in a duvet and giving me hot chocolate.


So, you finally get to fight Frankenstein in all his stiff-kneed glory. Seriously, the poor guy can't bend his legs at all. Victor must have set him up with a duff pair of gams. For all his earlier bravado Frank is a pushover, with a combination of flying kicks and hitting him in the back being enough to see you through. All he does his hop around and swing slow punches at you, although in his defence he must be tired - he's been carrying Emily around for the entire game. With some concentration and decent dodging skills, Frankenstein will soon be no more and the world will be safe from his monster army.


Well, that might have been helpful to know five minutes ago. I love the hero's "I defeated him with my sword" line, because it's difficult to imagine him saying without a big, stupid grin on his face only for his moment of triumph to be cruelly washed away.” I need to use fire? But... but... my sword..."
Emily, sensing that this idiot needs a little help if she's ever going to escape the Evil Dimension, restores his sword's fire-launching powers and round two can begin.


Man, being killed by a sword really piles on the pounds, huh? Frank is huge now, and his hugeness comes with the ability to launch his fists like bloody Mazinger and also to vomit a constant, nigh-unavoidable stream of tomatoes at our hero. This is a much, much more difficult fight than any in the game so far, and it's a good job I saved all my health potions for just such an eventuality. In fact, using the health potions anywhere but here is bad idea because each time you drink one it reduces the maximum size of your health bar.
Even with all the extra health, it's still a difficult battle because your usual tactics of getting the first hit in and enjoying the stunlock are ineffective. In the end it became a straight-up race to the bottom of our respective health bars, with me giving up on dodging Frank's orbs and Frank, for his part, sitting there while I launched wave after wave of fire magic at him. The fact that Frank takes visible damage was a nice touch and eventually, with only three dots of health to spare, I managed to overwhelm him and defeat him for good.


You know earlier, when I wondered if there would be a robot? Judging by this stilted text, it's me, I am the robot. It all worked out in the end, though: I'm safe, Emily's safe and I can escort her back to her ruined village so she can help with the task of burying her dead loved ones. Yay?
You know, I ended up having more fun with Frankenstein: The Monster Returns than I expected to. It's no hidden gem, but it's much better than I anticipated an obscure, TOSE-developed game would be. You might have noticed that I haven't really talked about the gameplay much, and that because there really isn't that much of it - you walk around, kill some monsters, occasionally jump over things. The controls are decent, the action is decent, the collision detection is decent - it's not much to get excited about, but I think the setting, tone and cutscenes give it that little extra boost that made the whole thing worthwhile. Music aside - it's utterly forgettable, as evidenced by the fact I can't remember any of it - the presentation is Frankenstein's strong point. TOSE tried something a little different, and it paid off. I was interested enough in what was going on to want to see the next level, the next boss, the next cheap shot from Frank.


It has its flaws, like the dull music, frustrating enemy respawns and occasional slowdown, but I think the one that most people will struggle with is the wildly-fluctuating difficulty. The best comparison would be Gradius: when you're all powered up it's mostly a doddle, but as soon as you get hit and lose all your abilities you're in for a world of pain. Overall, though, I'd say Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is worth a go, because it's a rare joy indeed to whack Death with a caveman club.

As for the Hallowe'en-O-Meter, I think Frankenstein has earned itself...


...an eight! It's got Frankenstein, vampires, werewolves, skeletons and indescribable purple things that scuttle along the floor like something out of Trapdoor, but no blood and none of those orange things, what are they called, you know, the ones you carve faces into? Yeah, those things. None of them.

4 comments:

  1. Great article, I was laughing the whole way through and it's nice to learn about a promising NES game that I somehow never heard of! Could that final battle might be the only(or at least the most high-resolution) example of male nudity on the NES in the west?

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    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the article! I think you might be right about Frank's nudity, but at least it's a very tasteful nudity, positively statuesque.

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  2. "hang on, what are those things? Zoom in and enhance!"
    Laughed very much at this. Imagining an over-excited Harrison Ford crouched in front of his futuristic console only to be foiled by eight-bit graphics.

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  3. This was one of my favorite games in the NES. I think the music was amazing and fitting.

    ReplyDelete

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