Release Date: July 18, 2006
Many, many classic games, particularly of the late 1980s and early 1990s, have seen their legacies bastardized in the world of children's licensing. Most popular, obviously, is the Super Mario Brothers formula of running and jumping on platforms of various size and sturdiness, whilst disposing of enemies via plumber-assisted head trauma and/or flaming nose mucus. Likewise, the basic premise of The Legend of Zelda is often used, particularly with the great number of games that partake in that overhead-isometric roaming that's all the rage in portable games lately.
Other games don't get quite that recognition, even though most people would agree they're instrumental in video games being as successful as they were right after the crash of 1983. One of those games is Robotron 2084. The "run and gun" genre saw success in the arcades, and dual-joystick setups prevailed for several games afterwards, most notably Smash TV and its spiritual sequel, Total Carnage. After that, however, the genre faded into obscurity, never to be heard from again. In a classic moment of "you got chocolate in my peanut butter" levels of inspiration, A2M has taken two very, very unlikely partners – Smash TV and the recent kid-versus-creepy-haunted-house flick "Monster House" – and combined them. The results are surprisingly solid, for what on other systems seems to be an obvious cash-in ploy.
For those who haven't seen the movie, "Monster House" is the story of, uh, a monster house. It's not a house that's "extreme to the max," nor is it a house that has a family of monsters living in it a la The Addams Family; instead, the house itself is a monster, the literal personification of every creepy house to which kids have been. See, the old Nebbercracker house is haunted and eats anything that ventures on its lawn. Toys, pets, small children, law enforcement officials – anything is fair game. Early one Halloween night, the house eats three young kids, a mistake it won't get to repeat again. See, these kids have squirt guns, and they know how to use them!
Yeah, so it sounds pretty cheesy, but most children's movies don't have the most logical plots when held up to a microscope. What it all comes down to is that DJ, Chowder, and Jenny have ended up deep inside the Nebbercracker house. In order to defeat its monstrous child-eating ways before hordes of Halloween trick-or-treaters wander blindly to their consumption, they resolve to storm down to the house's furnace and put it out … because the furnace is always evil. The house, obviously, doesn't want this, so it sends wave after wave of bewitched books, creepy clocks, possessed plates and spellbound seating after them.
Each of the kids has a special default weapon. DJ's squirt gun is the epitome of average, being fast and strong without being all that fast or all that strong. Chowder's gun works more like a shotgun, having a slower rate of fire but issuing small spreads of water with each shot. Jenny, on the other hand, has dual-handed water pistols, allowing her to fling weak bursts of water like a machine gun as she runs around. If it weren't obvious by this point, the only way this game could be anything more like Smash TV is if instead of a creepy haunted house, the kids were dressed like American Gladiators and forced to fight for their lives in a vaguely Running Man-like scenario.
Top-down view with ability to move and aim in different directions? Check.
Power-ups apparently lifted straight from Smash TV directly, including a spread shot, multi-hit spinning death shield, smaller player-invincibility-granting shield, and super-damage rocket launcher (read: "water rocket")? Check.
Swarms of generic baddies of varying types, including but not limited to:
- The generic grunt who takes one or two shots to kill and does little more than draw your fire away from other enemies,
- the exploding baddie who wanders around for a few seconds and then explodes into a rain of shrapnel,
- the wall-mounted device which rains bullets and pain on the heroes, and
- some sort of boss creature that does little more than move around in a maddeningly repetitive pattern, spawns more generic enemies, and takes approximately 5,000 shots to kill?
The graphics are just about as good as they're going to get on the Nintendo DS. The polygons aren't completely polished, but they do show a fair amount of detail, and even their respectively tiny portrayals in the game itself are easy to recognize. There are only a few small flaws with the graphics engine. For one, it appears with all the things that Monster House borrowed from Smash TV, it seems to have gotten the substantial drop in framerate with swarms of enemies on screen. The action doesn't typically get that hot and heavy, but when it does, you'll swear you stepped into a John Woo bullet-time-laden movie. In addition, the later levels introduce pits in the ground, which, instead of dropping a player's health like getting hit, kill them instantly. The problem is, with the dark palette the game bears, you’re likely to write off the pits as another ignorable floor decoration until the point you fall into one in the middle of a heated melee and get thrown back violently into the "select your character" screen.
The sound, on the other hand, hearkens back to the days of the GBA. Sound effects that are low quality at best and fade into nothingness at worst, a handful of poorly digitized sound clips, and a soundtrack consisting of three or four pieces of music best described as "annoyingly spooky" mean the game leaves much to be desired in the audio department. On the other hand, "annoyingly spooky" is a step above the "ear-shatteringly painful" sported by many Game Boy Advance licensed titles.
Controls take some getting used to at first, but they work incredibly well when the learning curve is passed. Similar to many top-down DS games, the control pad moves your character about (or, for left-handed people, the face buttons do the same thing) while the stylus is used to control what your character is doing. In this case, it's used to aim and fire in the relative direction of your stylus. On the touch-screen, the game displays a somewhat-crude enemy radar, showing the boundaries of the level and any enemies and power-ups in the vicinity. Thus, your aiming is influenced by where your stylus is placed in relation to the middle of the radar, or, just as accurately, the middle of the screen. Rub near the bottom, and you'll shoot downward; rub near the top, and you'll shoot upward. Just like the graphics, though, there's a bit of an annoying factor as well. As water guns, your weapons will gradually run out of pressure and must be pumped up Super Soaker-style to keep working effectively. This is done by rubbing your stylus up and down over a water gauge on the side of the touch-screen – a "feature" that stops the action notably at its best, and can lead to hand cramps and character death at worst.
Unlike many licensed games, Monster House seems to have its difficulty well in check. At the beginning of the game, you can pick from the typical "easy/normal/hard" setup, with each difficulty setting feeling roughly like its description. Sadly, it doesn't do much to add length to the title, and even on harder modes, the game on a whole – 51 rooms of the house, each taking roughly five minutes to complete on "hard" mode, with three separate boss fights – will take less than a day to complete. The game offers up toys to collect from the house as well, for the completist, but seeing as the toys provide absolutely nothing when they're all collected, the gesture seems somewhat arbitrary and meaningless. In addition, this is one of those games that could have seriously used the addition of a multiplayer mode, particularly with the DS' wireless capabilities. Having a buddy play Smash TV with you was one of the greatest thrills an arcade-goer in the late '80s could experience, and that thrill would have added a considerable amount of replay value to this title.
Ultimately, Monster House is a game full of surprises. Few people would expect a movie tie-in to be entertaining for any length of time, and even fewer would expect a kid's movie to be ported into a setup similar to Smash TV, the most violent game around before people started spelling the word "combat" with a K. It's not the perfect game and will probably lead some kids into early carpal tunnel syndrome and hand cramping, but for the five hours it takes to complete, Monster House is a blast to play. If you have little kids who loved the movie, or are a retro-loving gamer who longs for the days where you played Smash TV in the arcade, give the game a try. It's not for everyone, but maybe, maybe it's right for you.