“It was a graveyard smash.”
-Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett
“The following is a contributor post by the Regional Exclusive Mage.”
Here’s an interesting thought-experiment: think about British-developed computer games from the 1980s. Which games do you instantly think of? A lot of gamers would probably opt for some genuine classics: Manic Miner; Dizzy; Hover Bovver. I’d like to draw your attention, if I may, to Batman for the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and MSX. Batman was an adventure game from 1986 by Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond and was the first ever game to feature our beloved caped-crusader. The objective was to traverse various rooms to collect bat-gadgets and eventually save Robin from The Joker. Standard enough, however this game was played by exploring a maze from an “isometric” (diagonal rather than top-down or side-on, if you like) viewpoint. Head Over Heels, released the following year by the very same dynamic development duo, followed a similar formula albeit replacing the Bat-themes with decidedly British imagery such as Daleks; and introduced other quirky cultural references popping up all over the levels. The game was yet another success for the pair and was probably better known at the time than their earlier Batman adventure.
In much the same way that ‘Metroidvania’ games have been popularised today, Ritman and Drummond took the very idea of the isometric-adventure pioneered in earlier games such as 1984’s Knight Lore, and turned it into its own sub-genre. Their influence can be seen all over games in the same style from the 90s to the present day, with Solstice for the NES and its Super Nintendo sequel Equinox being prime examples. Each of these titles has fans and detractors, yet there was one game in this very niche sub-genre of isometric adventures that never really received the recognition it ever truly deserved. That game was Ritman and Drummond’s third and final isometric collaboration: Monster Max.
Finished in 1994 but unreleased until 1995, Monster Max was developed by the now-legendary British studio Rare: themselves no stranger to the isometric adventure since they were the ones who popularised it in Knight Lore under their previous name Ultimate Play The Game. It was the culmination of everything Ritman and Drummond had been trying to accomplish in their previous forays into the genre. The number of rooms was significantly increased by comparison with Batman and Head Over Heels, the items discovered were unique and the Game Boy seemed a perfect fit for such a game that was pushing boundaries yet remaining decidedly retro in its outlook. It is genuinely sad that the game’s sales flopped, because what these legendary developers left behind was their very own magnum-opus that I believe all Game Boy owners and collectors should have access to a copy of in their handheld libraries.
Monster Max is a Game Boy game through and through, with no need for anything other than the monochrome display granted by Nintendo’s portable grey box. Like any title released late into a console’s life-cycle, Monster Max pushes the envelope with what the Game Boy could present on the screen, resulting in some truly remarkable room-designs. The walls in the tutorial level look remarkably like a child’s drawings and thus offer an amiable welcome to the game along with the illusion of safety as you learn how the mechanics work. Once you start to discover other areas, you can clearly see that your locale is meant to be a log-cabin or a forest or a castle. This variety in the level design, and particularly the artistry, really shows off the level of care and detail that went into the creation of each area.
On the down-side, some of the areas do become incredibly busy due to the sheer amount of content on-screen at one time, and if multiple enemies are present this can lead to some awkward slow-down in the action. That doesn’t detract at all from what a stunning game this is and what a clever art-direction can be taken when designers are really squeezing the last drops out of the hardware available to them.
Once you are used to the fixed isometric viewpoint, everything else just makes sense. The character and enemy sprites are large enough on the screen and possess a fair amount of detail, and each of the objects in each room are clearly recognisable as either helpful objects or traps to avoid. This gave me my only gripe with the graphics in the game: most items were easily recognisable but there was one pick-up that I couldn’t quite distinguish due to how intricately it had been drawn. Was it a backpack? Or a lunchbox? Or a tiny nuclear detonation system? Either way, it simply became known to me as “The Thing That Lets You Pick Up Boxes” although I am sure there is a more sensible description available. Regardless of this minor point, every aspect of the visuals comes together to present a game that is quite the marvel for the Game Boy and really should be more readily recognised for it.
Being a game developed by Rare in the glory days of Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct graphical achievements were expected as standard, yet Monster Max attempted to keep up with its home-console cousins in the sound department too. Once again, an industry legend in the form of David Wise stepped up to provide this game with a soundtrack suited to capturing the adventuring spirit of the isometric ‘80s classics. With several classic Rare soundtracks under his belt, Wise was the perfect man for the job. Whilst the tunes in Monster Max don’t quite reach the same iconic status as some of the Donkey Kong soundtracks, they do possess their own charm that fits with the scenario of the game and the character.
From the game’s box-art it is apparent that Max himself is a bit of a rocker, holding onto his demonic guitar and giving a devilish smirk despite his otherwise adorable mascot-like frame. The soundtrack perfectly matches the character’s style, chugging and chunking away with the Game Boy’s equivalent of power-chords all the way through. It certainly adds a level of swagger and bombast to the character and gives a cheeky bit of encouragement to the player: reminding them that “Hey, it’s fun! See what happens! If you make a mistake, so what?” Even Max’s idle-animation has him whipping out a guitar and playing along to its own unique theme. This kind of attention to detail just makes the game even more appealing. It’s a very rock-and-roll attitude that comes across through the music as playful and very charming.
Monster Max plays as a variety of challenge-rooms connected by a series of hub-worlds. In each world Max is given the choice of three levels that can be approached in any order. Interestingly, they each come with a specific objective such as collecting a key item or destroying a boss-character in order to open the exit-door. Each of these mandatory objectives comes with its own reward, helping Max to accumulate enough currency to progress from one hub to the next. In each hub there is a curious little chap who requires payment in order to buy a lift pass allowing access to the next set of levels, meaning that the player could hypothetically skip some levels if they have saved up enough cash. It’s a well-implemented system that adds a little bit of unique tactical-play into something as straightforward as a level-select.
Each of the levels is simple enough in design: use the items available in order to reach the goal and unlock the exit. The objects can range from bombs for blowing up blocks to swords that let Max defeat some of the enemies wandering around. Or indeed there’s the giant rubber-duck which, once collected, enables Max to – of course – crouch. (Once again, there’s that little bit of typically quirky humour that keeps Monster Max from ever becoming stale.) Some levels are designed to be individual puzzle-rooms that need to be solved sequentially, others are more open-spaces allowing for more freedom in block-pushing and enemy-dodging, then there are those that are designed like a labyrinth with Max searching for specific items to access new areas. The latter are my favourites simply because of the intricately designed maps and ways of using the items to progress to new areas, though the puzzle-rooms can be very rewarding to figure out.
Some of the levels include bonus items allowing Max extra hearts or lives, and with the right item in Max’s possession there are even short-cuts that can be reached. Say for instance there is an optional puzzle-room with a “spring” item as the prize, allowing a temporary high-jump. You can either skip the room and go through the level the conventional way without a care. Or, alternatively, you could solve the block puzzle, grab the spring, high-jump up to an otherwise inaccessible door and skip four or five tricky spike-trap rooms. Thankfully each room can be reset to its default position by simply leaving and returning through one of the doors, giving you multiple opportunities to try solving a puzzle even if you find yourself completely stuck. It all contributes to a brilliantly implemented system that makes full use of the in-game map to offer tiny hints as to the route you could take, depending on how daring or clever you feel.
The story isn’t particularly fleshed out in-game and does require a quick glance at the blurb during the opening demo to gather any purpose to the adventure whatsoever. It tells us that Max is an aspiring guitarist whose dreams of fame and fortune are shot down when the villain Krond bans all music on Max’s planet. As a result he must travel through all nine floors of the Mega Hero Academy in order to beat Krond and restore literal harmony to his home world. This, of course, begs many questions. Why Max? What’s the deal with the Academy? Why is Krond at the top of it? And who is the creepy man selling elevator passes? Is it the same guy on each floor or does he have eight identical brothers?
This is all mostly irrelevant as the focus here is on the gameplay and helping Max to work his way through each of the levels. These are all presented as individual quests with their own unique page of back-story provided as Max approaches the computer-terminals in the entryway leading to each of the stages. These are all written in a very bombastic way, some of which are presented in rhyming verse and witty puns whereas others are a simple and clear statement of intent that give an increasing air of urgency to the missions. However, it all comes across as quite unnecessary: when all is said and done, you’re looking for the exit door and doing something in the exit room will open it. After discovering this, I found myself merely skimming through the expositional text in order to get back to the puzzles as quickly as possible.
It’s a shame really because these mission briefings are well thought-out and fit nicely with the given visual-themes of each level, but I would find myself more willing to engage with them if they offered cryptic clues or were in some way connected to the main storyline. As they are, they make for interesting pieces of world-building that could have been expanded upon if a sequel were ever to be made. That said, it is yet another aspect of the care that has gone into the creation of Monster Max that the developers took the time to write cute verses to accompany the levels. It’s yet another instance that they really didn’t have to do it, but they wanted to in order to make the game stand out. Going above and beyond what was expected really was Rare’s calling-card in the mid-90s and Monster Max is surely further proof of this, if any was ever needed.
Monster Max is certainly a game that anyone can pick up and play. Its maze-like structure is simple enough to understand: here’s your character, now find a way out. This is certainly to its benefit, and the optional ‘Playpen’ area at the start serves as a functional tutorial area without boring the player with too much explanation. As the name suggests, it’s a friendly area where the player can practice controlling Max and learn the basics of what is required to traverse the rooms. It might take some players a little longer than others to familiarise themselves with the controls of a game locked in an isometric viewpoint: learning that pressing “up” does not necessarily mean the character on screen will move directly “up” can be a little jarring if you haven’t played a game of this kind before, but after a while movement in this form becomes second-nature.
Once through the Playpen and with an understanding of movement and jumping, the player can then advance to one of the first three main levels selected from the hub. A quick bit of briefing from the terminal and the level-door opens. From there, the puzzles advance in difficulty throughout the levels and hubs as the game progresses. It may start off with some simple spike-traps to jump over or untouchable blocks to snake around, but eventually other objects are added encouraging use of the items. Even after the first couple of levels, it is clear to the player what move-set is at their disposal and how they should approach the game.
This is a clear strength of Monster Max: the intuitive nature of those early stages allows the player to figure things out for themselves and feel a sense of achievement without having the simplest of ideas explained to them through pages and pages of text. The only times the flow of the game is interrupted in any way are when new items are introduced: a quick pause-screen gives a clue as to how the item can be used, after which it is yours to practice with. No need to take the player away from the action for too long: it’s back to the gameplay as quickly as possible.
If ever there was a game that is ‘easy to learn but difficult to master,’ it’s this one. Monster Max may start out with a child-like “Playpen” but there are sections of the game that are quite fiendishly devised. However, it would be wrong of me not to first of all address the major point of challenge in the game: jumping-arcs and depth-perception. Due to its isometric viewpoint, it can occasionally be very tricky to determine just how far along a platform Max is and how far he will be able to jump to avoid traps. Despite coming armed with a few hearts and lives before being thrown out of the level and having to start again, this feels like a specific kind of challenge that can become very frustrating. On occasions when the player is clear of the solution but misses a jump and is punished severely for it, the game can seem unfair. However, this is the kind of game where practice certainly makes perfect and the occasional slip-up is to be expected.
In terms of the puzzles, they can become quite devious by the mid to late floor of the Mega Hero Academy. In some cases, blocks Max jumps onto can disappear leaving him to fall onto the spikes below. In a lot of cases it will be obvious which ones will cause you to fall, but there are occasions where it feels very troll-like on the developers’ part. It tends to make the game’s level of challenge seem a little like trial-and-error, which for the most part it is. Some of the enemies introduced in the final few levels move in such a way that they will intentionally block Max’s movements or interfere with the flow of a puzzle. This could become very frustrating and prompted me to carry bombs or other weapons around with me for most of the game’s second half. This worked fine until one particularly dastardly room in the final gauntlet where Max had to push a block on an enemy’s head, then ride that block to the exit. Truthfully, I lost count of how many times I reset that room by walking out and back in again.
The game’s greatest challenge comes in the form of puzzles where the player must think outside of the box… or around the back of it to be more precise. One late-game puzzle involves Max pushing blocks and other objects against a pyramid of seemingly immovable squares in order to push a previously invisible item into view. This is a puzzle that I am sure the developers are immensely proud of, and with good reason, but it is a trick that had not even been hinted at through any of the game’s previous puzzles and is not used again throughout the rest of the game. This makes it seem like a bit of an anomaly, albeit a particularly clever one.
Monster Max is certainly a fine example of what the isometric-adventure can be and offers some ideas that simply were not possible in similar games in the 1980s or just would not fit into other such games at the time. For instance, it would have been completely out of place for Solstice to include a room featuring a giant joystick used to manipulate a cute robot to a place where the main character can use its head as a stepping-stone. It’s an ingenious idea and just one of the hundreds of neat tricks Monster Max keeps up its sleeves.
In addition to this, I believe Monster Max holds the honour of being the only game of its genre released on a portable console until Lumo arrived on the PlayStation Vita in 2016. Sadly, despite Monster Max receiving exceptional reviews from the majority of UK-based video-game magazines, the publishing company Titus struggled to distribute it. As a result, it appeared on very few store shelves and eventually a release in the US was ultimately cancelled. This makes it even more of an oddity than it ever deserved to be. Such a shame for a game that has appeared on so many “Best Game Boy Games” lists to be relegated to history in such a way. However, thanks to Nintendo’s little grey hand-held being completely region-free, it is well worth a look even in hindsight.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Monster Max is an absolute treasure and firmly deserves its place amongst the all-time great games on Nintendo’s Game Boy platform. It may have its slight frustrations; the enormity and complexity of the final level springing instantly to mind; but it never outstays its welcome and always finds a way to keep the player entertained. Solving the game’s rooms can become quite addictive, teasing you with the promise of another interesting area or fun challenge to overcome, and the ending arrives all too soon even in spite of the final push and the underwhelming final confrontation against a rather static Krond.
Overall, I would genuinely urge anyone with love for the Game Boy, or with even a passing interest in gaming history, to track down a copy of Monster Max. It’s a shining example of talented developers working creatively to push what a console, and a genre, could do.
Aggregated Score: 8.4
The Regional Exclusive Mage is an avid video-game collector and literature enthusiast. When he isn’t educating the younger generation, he can be found sharing a wealth of obscure gaming knowledge as TeacherBloke85 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review