Release Date: July 18, 2006
Ever play a game that just fails everywhere? A game that tries but fails to make good use of a license, with graphics that completely fail at their intent; sounds that sound, well, stupid; and the end result being a playable but not worthwhile experience? The Game Boy Advance version of Monster House is one of those quick cash-in games that fails at the most basic levels – being entertaining and making sense. It's only good for kiddie fans of the film, and anyone else who buys it and realizes that there are no refunds once you open up the game. Most of you who even bothered to read this review can just leave this at that. If you want to hear how this game manages to soar over E.T. or Ultimate Duck Hunting, go on ahead.
The story closely resembles that of the movie. There are obviously plenty of diversions and changes to twist things up since two hours of film don't make for too much gameplay, but there isn't much to it. You're basically shuttled along from objective to objective with increasingly contrived reasons ("Find a bathroom, it's the only safe place in the house," then "Find the blueprints for the house, you'll need them to destroy the furnace!"), and, well, that's basically it. It's a large, two-dimensional house in which you walk around "trying" to find things; generally, where you need to go is at least somewhat shoehorned. You may have played a very similar – but much more enjoyable – title four years ago called Luigi's Mansion. Replace Luigi's vacuum with squirt guns, and you've basically got how Monster House plays. For the massive house design, this offering is essentially linear, with few deviations. There's a pretty nice mini-game after you beat the main game ... if you can.
The graphics, in true licensed game tradition, are one of the nicer aspects of the experience, but they aren't exactly excellent by any means, as they're sprite-based, with purely sprite-based effects. You shoot things with your water guns, and the items fall apart. Chests open in a couple of frames, and your characters regularly look at the screen and open their mouths wide but don't scream, which makes them look quite odd. It seems like A2M was trying to remind you of the graphical style of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, except that they just don't manage to exude the same charm. They do their job, and that's all they do. You don't get a cartoony feel out of it as much as a "bad-attempt-at-cartoony" feel, and the results just don't impress, even though they're perfectly fine in screenshots.
Sounds are, well, sounds. Honestly, they could have done a lot worse (say, adding in sampled voices), but they're still basic, passable, and unmemorable, except for the regular motifs from the film, and even these sound rather poor.
The controls try to be simple, but typically are just annoying. Whoever thought that you could fight with squirt guns and not be able to aim diagonally should look at games from 1991. "Locking" your aim to go in one direction with the R button doesn't always work like it should, and contrary to expectations, the same button is used to interact with the environment. The A button is used to use items, and these include items with limited numbers of uses (like DJ's camera). With supply drops being rarer than they should be, the effect is positively infuriating until you get used to it. Switching characters, which is critical given your lacking life bar, does not work if you are pushing any other button – again, infuriating. You will also use the dash function whenever you don't want to – and by the way, you never will. I found myself running right into monsters, pits, and walls more than actually going exactly where I wanted. The menu controls also typically fail to impress, and the menus themselves don't look too nice, either.
Overall play quality is quite generic Zelda-like play with no real evolution. Skull – the local video game nerd who's obviously read manuals on how to deal with living houses – tells you what to do, and then you figure out which door to unlock or block puzzle to solve in order to progress. Your advancement is impeded by conveniently immobile desks and locked and steel-bolted doors, and the game produces difficulty solely by making sure you will never, ever find needed life and ammo power-ups, except when you go to bathrooms to save – no toilet humor – or are in the worst possible position to take advantage of the always-poor controls. You will also find that, while the characters have their cosmetic differences, if any one of the three loses his/her entire life bar, the game ends immediately. This is much more frustrating than it sounds.
Monster House has a few modest things going for it, if you can tolerate it. First off, it's unique from all the other versions of the game in that its adventure leanings do manage to evoke some Zelda feel, despite being much slower than any Zelda title I've played. Second, if you can get over the frustrating controls and purely arbitrary difficulty, you'll find that this game is surprisingly and impressively long. In several hours of play, I only got through roughly half of one floor, and there are 10 floors in all. A2M spent the time to throw in a fairly nice bonus mini-game and a "Hard" difficulty level after you beat the game. Monster House does reward some pattern recognition ("That treasure chest is blocked by immobile desks, but there's a door next to it. Hey, this room leads to a hall that leads to that door!"), and the game's plot, while derived from the movie's, follows its own angles as well.
Overall, Monster House simply does not manage to impress in any area except length, in spite of reasonable attempts at making things work. The controls are just too shoddy, the graphics and sound don't make up for it, and the basic concept has been explored all too many times as it is shown here, with no real evolution presented. It's a licensed job to the purest and won't impress outside of that context. For most people, this title isn't worth the bother. Older and more skilled players will find the sources of difficulty easily worked around and the game otherwise not worthwhile, while kids may find it too difficult, especially compared to the console releases.