As holidays go, Halloween is definitely the one most likely to throw up a cheap, unauthorized copy of something that already exists. You might want to do your trick-or-treating dressed as Freddy Krueger, but the official costumes are expensive and that "Knife-Hand Killer" set looks almost as good. Do you want to drink from a plastic cup adorned with a poorly-painted picture of a skeleton king who is definitely not the same as the one from The Nightmare Before Christmas®? October is the time to do it. It's a season when wonky, ugly things that aren't quite right are forgiven, because that's what Halloween is all about. Anyway, all this is my very roundabout and tenuous way of telling you that today's game might not be 100% official. It's TCH's 1994 arcade harpoon-em-up Monsters World!
The title may say "Monsters World" but that picture tells me that it should really be called "Skydiving Ghost." You've probably also noticed that this title screen looks, without wanting to sound too cruel, a bit shit. You know what else was released in 1994? Darkstalkers, and while it's perhaps unfair to compare TCH to the mighty Capcom you'd have thought they could at least have chosen a colour palette less reminiscent of a low-rent fast-food establishment.
Before I get into Monsters World, a brief explanatory detour. Do you remember the Pang series of games, also known as Buster Bros.?
Developed by Mitchell (who also created arcade punch-em-up Funky Jet) and published by Capcom, the Pang games thrust the player into the relentless white-knuckle adventure that is popping bubbles. The gameplay is simple - a bubble bounces around the screen, and you have to pop it by firing your harpoon directly upwards. Pop a bubble and it splits into two smaller bubbles that continue to bounce around the screen, pop those bubbles and they split into two more bubbles and so on until the bubbles reach their smallest size and you can destroy them entirely. Remove all trace of the bubbles within the time limit to clear the stage and oh, don't let a bubble touch you because you will die.
It makes you wonder if you should really be bursting those bubbles, given that skin contact with them is instantly fatal, but I'm sure that the Buster Brothers have everything under control. They wouldn't have given that child a pneumatic spear-gun if he didn't know exactly what what he doing. So that's Pang / Buster Bros., and any article about Monsters World requires a brief balloon-popping history lesson because this game is such a thorough rip-off of Pang that even Oasis would think it's a bit much on the plagiarism front.
As you can see above, Monsters World does attempt to put its own stamp on the Pang template, and that stamp is a great big Halloween-y thing carved from pumpkin flesh and draped in bat guts that brands the word "SPOOKY" deep into anything it touches. The bubbles have been replaced by the monsters of the title, in this case starting off small with spherical jack o' lanterns and the scorpions that pop out of them.
The graphics are different but the gameplay is identical to the Pang games, or at least I think it is because Monsters World has a few extra complications that I don't recall seeing in Mitchell's originals. There's a jump button, for one thing, and another button that lets you dash to the side much faster than your usual waddling speed in order to avoid falling monsters or, as was more common while I was playing, to dash into them and kill yourself. I don't remember either of those being in any of the Pang games I've played, so if TCH added them specifically for Monsters World then fair play to them, but I'm hardly an authority on bubble-bursting arcade franchises.
Monsters World's kleptomaniacal tendencies aren't limited to the gameplay, either. I'm sure you've noticed that the background of the first stage is a giant rotting hand. It's difficult to miss, what with it being huge and mouldering and all that. Well, I spent enough of my youth gawping at the covers of horror movies to immediately recognise that hand, because it sure as hell wasn't made specifically for this game.
I present to you the VHS cover of the 1989 movie House III, also known as The Horror Show. I've never actually seen House III, but it stars Lance Henriksen so it's probably worth a shot. Actually, scratch that, I just remembered he was in Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld. Whatever, forget about Lance Henriksen, now you know why Monsters World's opening background is an image of a zombie's hand on a plain black backdrop instead of a picture of a place or something that makes even the slightest amount of sense - the guy in charge of the graphics just happened to have his latest Blockbuster rentals sitting on the desk next to him while he was "designing" stage one.
Stage two's background is a fifty-fifty split between tranquil moonlit graveyard and slavering baboon head, so obviously my first thought was that the developers had turned to classic deranged primate movie Shakma for inspiration. I can't think why else they'd include a baboon in a horror-themed game once they've already demonstrated a willingness to steal so shamelessly. Maybe the background artist was attacked by a swarm of vicious monkeys on his way home from the aforementioned trip to Blockbuster.
These bleeding eyes and their associated piggish nose aren't leaping out at me as being stolen from any particular film, so I'll take this opportunity to talk about Monsters World's gameplay. It's (drumroll, please) okay. As average a game of Pang as you're ever likely to play. It controls alright, aside from your character's occasional issues with climbing over obstacles, and it even has a decent difficulty curve. The design of the stages is hardly thrilling, especially early on - that's stage four pictured above, and the only additions to the playing field are those two grey strips that the bubbles / giant skulls will bounce off of - but it's solid enough.
Naturally there are power-ups to collect, all of which are taken directly from Super Pang, and they're useful but hardly imaginative. There are pick-ups to slow down or freeze the bouncing Halloween freaks, protective shields and items that change the properties of your grappling hook, such as giving you the ability to fire two harpoons at at time. Unsurprisingly, the best power-up is a gun. A rapid-firing, three-way-spread laser, in fact. You don't get to use it often, possibly because you can only borrow it while the guys from Contra aren't using it.
Okay, now this background I do recognise. It's the artwork for the home video releases of Evil Dead II!
Only the developers have mirrored it to produce some kind of demonic Rorschach test effect. "What do you see in this one? Evil Dead II's DVD artwork? Interesting, interesting," says the imaginary psychiatrist in this situation. Maybe that was TCH's plan to deal with accusations of plagiarism - look, buddy, we just drew some skulls, if they make you think of Sam Raimi's horror-comedy masterpiece then that speaks more of your mental condition than our inability to have an original idea.
Oh look, it's the ghost from the title screen. He's been squashed a little compared to his appearance at the start of the game, presumably because the developers though they should try and make these spooky bubble-substitutes at least vaguely round. He also occupies the top spot of the poppable monster hierarchy, the wellspring from which all the other creatures flow. In case you're wondering, the lineage is dorky lemon ghost, giant skull, disapproving Frankenstein heads, fat pumpkins and finally spiders. There are also bats, smaller skulls and the odd scorpion to deal with, but mostly it's that one main set you'll be firing at.
I wasn't kidding about those disapproving Frankensteins. They don't look happy to be involved in this bootleg arcade game, do they? It's probably down to their lack of overall Frankenstein-osity. If you removed the neck bolts and the frankly lacklustre stitches from this sprite, you'd be hard-pressed to figure out that it was supposed to be a reanimated golem formed from necrotic human flesh. He's got a better skin tone than I do, for pity's sake.
I suppose I should mention the mad-eyed vampire woman in the background. She does look familiar, which I think is because she reminds me of the vampire girl from Fright Night, but I'm not certain if I've seen her before. If she was stolen from something else, I think her hair will help us narrow it down to "something from the eighties," at least.
At least some of the backgrounds are original, (as far as I know,) and these backdrops that show a location instead of something traced from slasher movie's VHS cover are definitely preferable. Just look how Halloween-y that is! A dark purple sky, a mysterious house overlooking a cemetery, floating grey bars with a kid who looks like smooshed-up version of the guy from Space Harrier, it's got the lot.
Or how about doing battle with a rain of spiders on Spookticus IV, the desert planet of blue moons and castles that seem to have forced themselves up from the very ground on which they rest? Actually, I don't think that's a castle, it's the primary residence of some particularly hard-working termites.
What about the pyramids? Pyramids are scary, right? They're where mummies are from. Of course, those pyramids are really far away so we're unlikely to disturb some ancient Pharaoh's slumber, but at least we'll get some nice holiday photos.
This screenshot also gives me a chance to mention the monks, the wonderful and friendly monks upon whom I came to rely. There's one now, in the bottom-right of the screen, looking like a Jawa or, given this game's established horror movie thievery, the dwarf slaves from Phantasm. I've been playing a lot of Blood recently, so my first response to a brown-robed monk was to try to set him on fire, but I eventually learned that the monks will mind their own business and blunder around the stage, removing any monster-bubble they touch. I have no idea what triggers the appearance of these most benevolent brothers, whether they are aiding me in my time of need or just kicking arse for the Lord, but I ended up being very glad to see them.
Later stages have more gimmicky layouts, often with plenty of these destructible yellow platforms in play. You might even need to use a little strategy later in the game, especially when it comes to collecting power-ups. For example, one of the power-ups you can collect is a box of TNT, which has the effect of popping all the monsters down to their lowest, usually spidery, forms. Sounds great, right? The stages in Monsters World have time limits, sometimes very strict time limits, and while picking up some TNT and getting most of your monster-popping done in one fell swoop might sound terribly convenient you do also have to remember that once you touch that dynamite, those two bouncing skulls suddenly become sixteen tiny, difficult to hit spiders, all raining down on your barely-protected head.
Sometime the way the power-ups fall mean that it's impossible to avoid collecting the TNT, which is a problem because most of the time it's more trouble than it's worth. Another power-up that can be a pain in the arse is the "flame column" thing - once collected, it changes the behaviour of your harpoon so that when it hits a surface above you, it solidifies and stays in place as a barrier of flame for a while.
This can be handy, because enemies burst when they touch the side of your weapon and if there's a wall of fire hanging around then they might well fly into it. However, you can only have one fire-wall on-screen at a time and they don't disappear until a certain amount of time has passed or an enemy has touched them. This means it's far too easy to set up a fire barrier only to see another enemy coming for you that you can't shoot because you're still waiting for your first shot to disappear.
Even that power-up has its uses, though. Take stage thirty-eight, for example. I nearly gave up here, trapped as I was in a narrow, spider-filled space with no real chance of escape. Eventually I figured out that I had to quickly grab the flame-wall power-up and gradually head right along the bottom corridor, placing spider-proof barriers as I did so. It still took me plenty of attempts even when I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but for a moment Monsters World felt like a proper game that had a smidgen of depth beneath it's airbrushed-on-the-side-of-a-carnival-ghost-train horror stylings.
It didn't last long, and stage thirty-nine's big twist was that the player starts at the top of the screen and drops down, meaning that if you're not paying attention you'll fall onto a skull and die instantly. Fantastic. I'm more interested in the ominous figure lurking in the background. Uncle Fester ditched the robe and got ripped, and now he's coming for you!
Okay, that's probably not Uncle Fester. It's Genericus, Lord of the Average Demons, The Lurker in the Background, Bane of Novelty and Defiler of Places Not Quite Important Enough For Satan to Bother With. There's not much work for Genericus, so he just spends his time pottering around the dark dimensions and working out.
The previous screenshot said "Last Monsters" on it, and stage forty is indeed the final stage of Monsters World. Super Pang's Tour Mode also has forty stages. Huh, what a strange coincidence. Anyway, if you were expecting some kind of boss battle from Genericus you'll be disappointed, because the final stage consists of a bog-standard bout of monster-popping played out as the big bald demon looks on. He seems annoyed, I guess because you're destroying his matryoshka doll monsters, but he's also not annoyed enough to do anything about it. As an idle man I can empathize, but it doesn't make this final stage any more engaging.
Genericus must have had something to do with what was going on, because once you've finished stage forty the game ends and you see the demon's flesh melt away in a scene that implies the developers understood the concept of animation as being a series of pictures that are quickly displayed in order to create a sense of motion, but they didn't quite know how to put it into practise.
That's it for Monsters World, then, and as bootleg arcade game go it wasn't bad. Obviously I'm biased, because I love horror-ific and Halloween-y things so much I spend a month writing about nothing else each year, but if you're going to give Pang a hasty makeover you might as well dress the whole thing up with the leftovers you'd find in a party supply shop's bin on November 1st.
With pilfered but acceptable gameplay, a monstrous coat of paint and even a two-player mode, Monsters World is not a game to set your soul ablaze but it is a game that might see an hour or two fly by enjoyably enough. If this has convinced you to give it a go, please let me know if you figure out which Looney Tunes cartoon the laugh that plays when you collect an extra life is taken from. I think it's Daffy Duck, if that helps.
The end of an October article can mean only one thing: it's time to check the Halloween-O-Meter! What does it say today?
Eight out of ten for Monsters World, which doesn't quite reach the level of Olli and Lissa 2 simply because the gameplay itself isn't especially spooky. Pumpkins, giant skulls, artwork stolen from the Evil Dead movies: these are all wonderfully Halloween-flavoured things, but splitting monsters down in a ghoulish parody of nuclear fission simply isn't "of the season" enough for the top marks.