Monster House (DS) review
"No matter how deep your wish to appreciate the game, Monster House spits you back out on the lawn."
Haunted houses are scary. Monster House is not.
Since the movie of the same name is a computer-generated children's film full of trick-or-treating and humorous dialogue, this really isn't surprising. In fact, if you were to base your view on the point that this game is meant for kids, you would be startled to find a movie tie-in that isn't completely a generic platformer. Monster House follows the blueprints of the classic Smash TV, with a few shadings of Gauntlet Legends, to construct an unexpected shoot-em'-up. Unfortunately, its novelty is squandered by a dreadfully basic design, repetitive combat, and less than serviceable production values. As much as the game holds on to the movie, it lets go of what could have been a thoroughly inspired work.
"Officer down, officer down! Well... I'm not exactly down, but I'm getting there. Officer tilting? Officer leaning? Officer on his way down!... some help here."
This quote from one of the policemen you have to save is just one of numerous examples that desiccate the game's source material. The silliness of three supersoaker-wielding kids - DJ, Chowder, and Jenny - barging into a haunted house to stop it from swallowing toys, puppies, and police officers is all but lost on jokes that just don't work written down - or spoken, either. Story cut-scenes, told through scrolling blocks of text, also try to force a fake sense of urgency in completing each room, telling you that the end of the world (probably, the street) depends on you rescuing (guess what?) a lost toy, puppy, or police officer. By the latter half of the game, even the main characters admit how tiresome it is to trudge from room to room with the same monotonous motives. By trying to inject a level of seriousness in its rescue missions, Monster House becomes mindless grunt work, when it should be innocent fun.
On design, Monster House has only a few points of interest beyond the rudimentary shoot-'em-up and the almost required use of the stylus for a DS game. The top screen shows you the game world, as you travel through every room in the 54-room (yet two-story) house, and the touch screen acts as a firing mechanism. With you fixed at the center of the screen as a green dot, you can use your stylus to fire water bullets at your enemies by touching the screen in their direction. To make this easier, this screen also acts as a radar, displaying enemies as red dots, but that's exactly the problem. Never mind the top screen - just point your stylus at the swirling red dots until they go away. Besides, you won't want to look at the enemies anyway. Hordes of flying books, waddling chairs, shuffling cabinets, and assorted plateware swarm around you, wave after wave ad nauseum.
Fighting against Ikea. How fabulous...
Furthermore, the back cover claims that the three main characters have unique abilities, but all they actually have are stereotypical differences and not much else. The straight-shooting DJ has a streamlined spread of fire; chubby Chowder has a lower firing speed but shoots three (err... chubby) water pellets at a time; and double-braided Jenny wields two fast-rate water pistols that shoot like Uzis, ala Lara Croft (without the infantile nutrition stations). Each character has a life bar of five hearts, and should a character die, you will have to restart the room with one of the remaining kids. However, once you finish a room, any character that has died comes back with only one heart. So if the next room can only be completed by that character - and there are many this-character-only rooms - expect the frequent Game Over screen to become your next best reason to turn the game off.
If you manage to stomach the game far enough, you will encounter branching paths that will spike your interest, but incessant toy-collecting ruins the curiosity. To access certain rooms, you need to gather a certain number of toys (yeah, those things that are supposed to be fun). Regardless of which path you choose, however, you will have to venture through every preceding room to collect enough toys. Why have branching paths if you have to go down each path anyway?
The only redeeming qualities of Monster House are its boss battles, gun pressure mechanic, and wide array of power-ups, but they still don't impart a welcome décor. Though boss battles test your finger-reflexes - whether that involves escaping a breathing sinkhole or dodging scorching-hot steam jets - they only occur three times and that includes the final battle against the house. The game then attempts to break the mold by having you re-pump your supersoaker's water pressure about every thirty seconds, which requires you to press the stylus on the water gauge and pump it up and down. But after sliding your stylus up and down for the umpteenth time, it just becomes a nuisance, especially when reloading your weapon should be quick and easy. Catching your eye, in turn, will be power-ups, such as 'Spectral Gun' and 'Jet Power', which appear evenly throughout the game at just the right (but ultimately wrong) time. The game has moments when it will suddenly become challenging, making you weave and bob around newfound enemies, and then in the next room, you are introduced to a power-up that blows everything out of the water. Any sense of difficulty is robbed right under your fingers.
For a game like this, an easy difficulty and low production values are understandable; however, that doesn't justify the awfulness of the graphics and music. Assuredly, the game world is sharp enough for you to identify your surroundings and distinguish between your common stationary cabinet from one that is spewing shelves at you. But why are character models so angular? The severity of the characters' jagged chins and squared bodies predates even the Nintendo 64. Hardly anything is round. What's more, the soundtrack contains no more than eight songs and the ones you will be hearing over and over again are eerie non-melodic strings. Such repetitively grating music might be appropriate for Resident Evil, but when you're fighting against animate objects from Bed, Bath & Beyond, it's just absurd.
Wanting to enjoy Monster House is like experiencing its ending. You enter the house, travel down eleven flights of stairs, battle your way to the basement, extinguish the demonic flames in the furnace, go down the final staircase, and then somehow, find yourself back at the entrance. No matter how deep your wish to appreciate the game, Monster House spits you back out on the lawn. There is no need to fight against a makeshift castle from Beauty and The Beast, against refundable merchandise that can break against projected water droplets. Even if you are a kid, go find a real haunted house or just something else.
Freelance review by Nicholas Tan (September 25, 2006)
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