Monster Party - Bandai, 1989
Monster Party is one of the truly bizarre, forgotten games of the NES era. The opening demo treats you to an Engrish-filled story about a kid named Mark walking home from a baseball game. On the way home, he meets a dragon-like monster named Bert, who needs help in saving his home from evil monsters. Eating a magic "capsule" lets you fuse into Bert's body and shoot lasers. Aside from that, you're armed with a baseball bat. Fair enough. The whole thing seems like a "keep kids off drugs" advert, but most 8-bit games give off that trippy vibe (I mean, really - mushrooms that make you grow taller? "Magic Leaves" that make you fly?). This game features pills that turn you into a flying, laser-shooting dragon. Your first level begins with all kinds of happy-face blocks and doors. Granted, the enemies are weird (a pair of kicking legs, a man on fire shooting lasers) but there's nothing that screams "monster". The whole thing seems mostly cute and cuddly. Wasn't this game called "Monster Party"? Where exactly are the scary monsters, anyway?
Then... you see the cactus.
This is no ordinary cactus. The cactus itself isn't even scary. But walking past it will trigger an awful change in the scenery. With a flash of lightning, the happy blocks have become bloody skulls. The rounded background designs turn into bloody, rotting heads (presumably impaled on pikes). Even the background music changes. It freaked me out as a kid. From what I've read online, many other gamers were also bothered by the cactus-induced changes.
I have a few theories as to why the game does this.
1. Having everything change from cute to horrific is more of a "scare" than if it started off scary.
2. They wanted the game to look clean and nonviolent for long enough that the typical parent would allow their kids to play it.
3. While trying to sanitize and clean up all the icky blood and gore (see below), they forgot to reprogram this part of the level. If so, might that mean that the entire game once looked like this?
Not all of the game is this scary; most of it is just weird. It is unknown whether the game was originally scary all the way through or not. There's an infamous boss character who changes from an Onion Ring, to a Shrimp, to a Kebob. It's the attack of the appetizer platter! There are more "standard" monsters as well. There's a minotaur who fires little cows at you. A pumpkin ghost shoots tiny pumpkins at you. All very weird.
Japanese title screen image from Encyclopedia Obscura
This game holds a few real mysteries as well, mostly involving the original Japanese version. The original was apparently much spookier than the game we got. For example, the title screen dripped blood rather than green slime, and the giant spider looked scarier as well (it looks like a human face on the back, while the English version just has stripes). The shrunken head/skull cursor became a jack-o-lantern.
However, there is a bloody screen with skeletons that precedes every level of the game. This screen also appears after you die, with the option to Continue. It is unknown why this was left in while the title screen's blood was changed to slime. Again, you have to wonder if this was left in by accident.
You might wonder why the designers would bother to change all of the graphics to "clean them up", but you need to understand the climate of the gaming world at that time. This was a time before scary games were really accepted in the US. The Atari empire had collapsed and Nintendo ruled the gaming world. In an effort to appear "family-friendly", Nintendo games were altered (some might say "butchered") from the original Japanese versions - all suggestions of violence, religion, or sex were removed in an attempt to make all games suitable for children. The LucasArts game Maniac Mansion is a prime example of this, to the point that lots of innuendo and even the classical nude statues had to be edited out.
Such a concept seems ridiculous today, but this was before the ESRB ratings system - all games were assumed to be for all ages. You see the same kind of censorship happening today with various anime series, especially those dubbed by 4Kids. One Piece comes to mind, as well as scenes from Yu-Gi-Oh - like Bandit Keith's gun and Mai's Harpy Ladies - and even episodes of Pokemon. Of course, anime censorship is nothing new - it's been happening since the days of Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon. Scenes containing elements that parents might balk at (handguns, lighters, risque clothing, same-sex lovers) are carefully edited away, "cleaned up", or redubbed to become kid-safe. However, in the cases of anime and games, sometimes non-questionable things are removed as well, like Japanese writing and cultural references.
Japanese Plant image from http://dbz.icequake.net/share/afs/pub/emu/nesnew/184.108.40.206/ujap/mp/mp.html
The biggest example of strange censorship in Monster Party involves the plant boss. In our version, there is a blank room (black background, some lights on the ceiling) with a plant who spits bubbles. The original version featured a toothier plant and a karaoke setup. The invisible platform in the room was originally the top of a huge amp. Why was this removed? There's nothing offensive about a microphone and an amp, is there? There are rumors that the pumpkin ghost boss also had a large image in the background of his room, which was simply blocked out. What that image was remains a mystery to this day.
Even more mysterious is that while Monster Party was released for US audiences, it was never released in Japan! Many popular games have been Japanese-only (just take a look through the Super Smash Bros. Melee trophies for evidence of that), but this is a rare example of a game being marketed only for the US. The only two (to my knowledge) screenshots that we have from the original Japanese version came from a Japanese video game magazine. It makes you wonder what else was edited from the original version. After all, if the only two screenshots that we have show major graphical changes, who's to say that the entire game wasn't much more sinister and scary? How would we ever know?
"Curiouser and curiouser," to quote Alice. Even in researching this article, I had a very difficult time finding the plant screenshot (even though the title screen image was comparitively easy to find). If anyone can email me any other Japanese screenshots or a ROM of the Japanese (prototype?) version, I will post them here with credit to you. I'd love to know any background information about this game, why it wasn't released in Japan, or any other interesting tidbits of info.
I recently heard of another Monster Party mystery on the Ultimate N Zone forums. The second monster room has a dead creature in it with the message, "Sorry, I'm dead." A fly buzzes around the corpse for a few seconds and then you "complete" the room. For some reason, I always thought this was a spider. Other people think this is a dead dinosaur instead. And if you look closely, it does kind of resemble a dinosaur or a dragon, lying on its side. It doesn't look like the Giant Spider from the intro, either. I'm not sure why I thought this was a spider for certain - maybe it was listed in a hint guide that way.
The game isn't WOWAWESOME!!! but it's at least interesting. The minor enemies all take several hits to defeat (and since you'll be spending most of your time armed with only a bat, they'll get in a lot of hits as you have no range to speak of). The monsters aren't all that scary, and there is very little blood and gore (although it does pop up in various places). The cactus tranformation is something that you need to see for yourself. For me, though, the mystery surrounding the inexplicable editing and censoring of the game is far more interesting than the game itself.
This game isn't going to win any awards for "lost classic", and you'll probably get bored with it after playing a few times. However, if you're looking for a forgotten Halloween title or an 8-bit curiosity, then this is a party you should check out.
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