Like in movies, horror games have long been part of the medium through the years. From Haunted House on the Atari 2600, to 2016’s Salt & Sanctuary, horror is a common and very traditional genre, varying in style and tone. If something like, say, Friday the 13th is too normal for you though, if you can dig it up, Monster Party on the NES is just the right blend of head-scratching strangeness and hair-pulling frustration! Released by Bandai in 1989, this early NES title centers on a young boy named Mark who is, out of nowhere, approached by a talking gargoyle who pleads with him to bring his legendary weapon (baseball bat) back with him to the Dark World to help him combat evil, then proceeds to abduct the kid and merge with him against his will. It’s nonsensical, but who knows? Maybe this will be a fun adventure… Upon arriving in the graveyard, Mark is faced with dagger-tossing schoolkids, half-buried bodies with their feet stuck out of the ground and, upon entering the first door, a bubble-shooting plant boss that intro’s the fight withe line “Hello baby…”, an obvious reference to the musical play and movie Little Shop of Horrors.
Each stage has multiple boss fights and you have to clear all of them to get the key to the next area. This is where the game is infamous. The first stage bosses are weird (especially a spider boss that is already dead when you enter the room and immediately grants you credit for beating him) however they are nothing compared to what is around the corner. The second boss in stage 2 is legendary! It is a three-phase boss that starts you off fighting a giant piece of fried shrimp, followed by an onion ring, then the final form I believe is supposed to be kushiage (deep fried meat or vegetables on a stick). The weirdness continues throughout the game. For every normal monster-themed boss you encounter (Medusa, the Mummy, a giant snake, ect.), you will fight an oddity like a group of Taiko-drumming zombies, a slug that awakes from a normal bed, and a well that launches dishes (an out-of-context reference to a Japanese folktale about Banchō Sarayashiki, a ghost who drowned in a well).
Monster party’s greatest weakness is Mark himself. His bat attack is very difficult to land without taking damage and unless you are used to the strange movement, it can feel like a struggle to beat even the simplest fight. The goal is often to find the monsters that drop the orange pills. These transform mark into the gargoyle who can fly and spit fireballs. He is far more mobile and his attacks do much more damage. It is sometimes necessary to transform to fight some bosses reasonably, but without knowing which enemy to kill, you have to run around aimlessly slaughtering every poor enemy near a boss room to find it.
Monster party is gracefully-short, though. It does not take long to knock this game out, but it is challenging, mostly due to its faults. In fact, it suffers from a lot of the same problems as the platforming sections of Friday the 13th. Floaty jumping, enemies that are often far too fast to dodge, ineffectual attacks and hitboxes that seem to be designed to ensure you take a hit whenever you engage a monster with Mark. These issues lead to an incredible imbalance in the game that can feel more frustrating than fun.
Interestingly, while Monster Party has numerous Japanese references that would make little sense to the American market, it was never officially released in Japan. It was made for the US specifically due to Bandai’s acknowledgement of America’s fondness for horror. However, a prototype Famicom cartridge is believed to exist somewhere, with a Japanese ROM popping up on the Internet in more recent years but its authenticity has been called into question. However, if anyone does own an original Monster Party cart for the Famicom, protect it with your life, preferably inside a vault with a laser grid and pressure-sensitive floor.
Bandai’s Monster Party has become somewhat of a fascination in recent years, having been featured on numerous popular YouTube gaming channels. It mostly stands out due to its strangeness, being too mediocre (at best) as a game to really stand on its own. If it weren’t for the bizarre ideas and presentation, this would be a very common scrap in the Nintendo stacks, but due to gamers’ and collectors’ morbid curiosity, it has begun to trend upwards in price. It is not an uncommon game, but it is becoming harder to find at a reasonable price. It has more than quadrupled in price over the last 4 years and is still showing an upwards trend, currently resting around $15, setting at the “moderate” price range for an NES game, being anything over $10 and under $30. This range is reserved for high-demand games that are not rare like Mega Man 2, Contra, Final Fantasy and Super Mario Bros. 3. However, unlike those titles, Monster Party is not exactly… good. It’s not a disaster like some horror titles on the NES, but it is just too frustrating to be fun. If you want to absorb the weirdness, there are plenty of solid playthroughs on YouTube. You’ll save yourself fifteen bucks and a countless hours of frustration.