Version tested: Xbox 360
There's a moment in the first Charlie's Angels film, that underrated and (literally and figuratively) flab-less movie, when Drew Barrymore tumbles semi-naked from the sky into a suburban garden. Two young teenage boys are sat playing Final Fantasy VIII in the front room inside. As they catch sight of her unexpected curves through the double-glazing, the pair pause the game and stare, mouths agog, as this fallen angel slinks off into the night and their forthcoming puberty-soaked dreams.
It's unusual that Hollywood would choose this videogame to illustrate the scene for two reasons. Firstly because, y'know, it's not actually a two-player game and secondly because, regardless of Final Fantasy VIII's merits, a JRPG is probably not representative of what the average non-game playing movie-goer imagines a typical videogame to look and play like.
Despite Wii Sports' educational stabs at the mainstream consciousness, videogames remain, in the minds of the uninitiated populace, hyperactive experiences for kids with short attention spans. They're about little cartoony characters running about dementedly, killing one another in gruesome and repetitive ways. Ask the average Joe what happens in most videogames and they'll probably talk of running over zombies in big-wheeled cars, of maiming axe-murderers with sawn-off shotguns, hurled trash cans and big swords; of a juvenile symphony of camp destruction and brainless button-mashing.
Games exactly like Monster Madness then.
This is a big, dumb videogame; a relic from the mash-the-buttons scrolling beat 'em ups of the early nineties, so obvious and clichéd that a non-gamer might have written its core design document from their vague and imprecise knowledge of what games should look and play like. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing because, like Charlie's Angels, big, dumb things, when executed with flair and wit and self-depreciation, can be good and fun. But, while this game aims in that direction, it mostly falls short.
Monster Madness' limited narrative is revealed through a series of well-drawn and animated comic book strips. They tell the story (poorly) of four different high school stereotypes - the geek, the normal, the cheerleader and the self-harming goth girl - who find themselves in each other's company at the moment of a zombie invasion. Actually, 'zombie invasion' is far too limited a description of this crisis which features, over the course of the game's twenty levels and five chapters, over seventy schlock horror antagonists. Vampires rub shoulders with Mummies, UFOs, Giant Spiders and Evil Clowns, all of which must be defeated as you and up to three of your friends hack, slash and gun your way through suburbia in search of a conclusion.
The first level, set in geek boy Zach's house, presents an overwhelming number of items and traps, which can be picked up with the X button and used against the undead intruders. Lamp-stands can be hurled, kitchen knives stabbed or you can simply flick the 'on' switch of your father's lawn-mower and send it eagerly into the pursuing hordes. This concert of adolescent destruction is headlined by a boss who, once defeated, sets you upon your top-down viewed, scrolling path through the game.
After the game's introductory and self-contained level you'll become much more reliant upon your default melee and projectile weapons, which, in the case of our main character, Carrie, took the form of a glinting katana and a handmade nail-gun. Hundreds of items are scattered through each level which must be collected and traded in at Larry Tools' trailer, a biker-style mobile shop which crops up a couple of times during each level. Larry can supply your character with a vast number of Heath Robinson-esque weaponry (as well as bullets and health), which he builds from the items you've collected. The wide range of weaponry is generous but unnecessary, as you'll just need one or two key weapons, which can be switched between quickly in battle. Once you've settled on your favourites the need to explore levels in search of new items is gone and you'll soon just stick to the main paths.
The controls, while relatively few in number, are unwieldy and awkward. Clicking in the right stick lets you jump, a strange mapping decision that makes negotiating the occasional platform segment of a level a chore. The two triggers control your primary and secondary weapons and while this works well, scrolling through different weapons is inefficiently handled with the bumpers and face buttons. As there's no auto-lock feature, shooting at the fast and furious enemies is often a frustration on anything above the lowest of the game's four difficulty levels.
This aiming problem is exacerbated many times over when joined by other players (who can drop in locally at any time) as the camera tugs in different directions to accommodate each player's independent movements. Indeed, the game's difficulty quickly becomes a serious problem, especially for the solo player. On the default setting we got stuck on a couple of later levels, enduring a kind of red-hot infuriation not experienced for many years. Thanks to the sparsely populated checkpoint system and a ridiculous number of quick and hard enemies the hack and slashing becomes quickly overwhelming. Inexplicably it's impossible to save the game at a checkpoint and, with some levels taking over half an hour to complete, getting stuck on a final boss half an hour in with no option to save your progress is an anachronistic and unnecessary pain.
The core game mechanics are cluttered by numerous extra conceits which, rather than making the game more fun, simply make it untidy and unfocused while revealing its core weaknesses. 'Monster Fest' areas close the player in requiring you defeat a certain number of enemies before you're allowed to progress. At one point you're required to score five basketball three-pointers in a school playground while you aim is constantly being knocked off by the relentless assaults of some voracious demons. These ideas are interesting but the clunky execution means they're never much fun. Various vehicle sections also mix up the repetition and everything from Swan Boats, ATVs, Tanks and Mechas can be appropriated to the cause. However, the control of each is generally poor, and so these sections are also frustrating. Even when the controls are good, such as in the mechas (pleasingly made out of an old VW Beatle) the tasks you're given to perform (such as searching through a junkyard for specific pieces of scrap metal) lack pizzazz.
It's not all bad though. The animation throughout is full of character; the soundtrack is solid and occasionally brave (one level is soundtracked by a solitary soulful cello). Character design is varied and imaginative (the gruesome 'fat zombie' - who dies of a heart attack when sufficiently riled - looks as if it's the disgusting brainchild of Dante and H R Giger). In two-player co-op, with a competent friend the game works well although, with any more participants than this it becomes simply too cluttered and confusing.
Nevertheless this is nineties videogame cliché; an unrelenting gangbang of tired mechanics presented in mostly derivative clothing. The script, dialogue and voice acting grasp for irony but only manage weak cliché. That the game doesn't offer an online campaign mode is disastrous, an oversight the 'king-of-the-hill', 'capture the flag' etc other stock online modes fail to compensate for. In what appears to be an effort to stave off criticism that the game is unimaginative, the designers have sought to add diverse extra ideas to freshen the classic mechanics. But that these fail to work elegantly only serves to bring attention to the core game's mediocrity rather than shroud it.
5 / 10