Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jon's great games No.2: Mayhem in Monsterland (C64)

by Jon Cronshaw

There were few Commodore 64 games that pushed the system to its limits like Mayhem in Monsterland. Back in the day, this game was awarded a 100% rating by Commodore Format magazine. In the months leading up to its release, Commodore Format chronicled the game’s production from its initial sketches to its completion. On the front cover of each issue they would give away a cassette featuring a few games demos. I must have played the demo of Mayhem in Monsterland dozens of times. The game was only available by mail order, mainly because at the time of its release in 1993 the Commodore 64 was a redundant machine with most games stockists having long-stopped selling C64 games, with only occasional shops having a bargain-bin full of dusty cracked cassettes. I finally saved up enough pocket money to buy the game, and I wasn’t disappointed. I remember thinking: ‘this game is awesome!’

Mayhem in Monsterland was produced by Apex Productions, a company that had already gained a reputation for producing innovative and bizarre games. Amongst their back catalogue is the fantastic and underrated Creatures, as well as its equally impressive sequel, Creatures 2: Torture Time. Both games boasted a wicked sense of humour, which was replaced in Mayhem in Monsterland by a sense of wonder.

In the game, you control Mayhem, a super-fast, super-cute yellow triceratops who happens to play and look a little bit like Sonic the Hedgehog. The narrative is simple: it is your mission to make the world a happy place by getting rid of all the monsters (note that yellow speed-freak dinosaurs are not considered to be monsters). Looking back at the game, it now seems like a generic platformer with clear nods towards Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers (even the title screen looks as though it was directly lifted from Super Mario World). At the start of each stage, you are given a quota of Magic Dust and Stars to collect. Without fulfilling your quota, you are forced to re-explore the level in order to find the remaining collectables – this gives the game a very free and open feel that later games would eventually capitalise on. Magic Dust could be found each time you killed a monster in the usual platform fashion of jumping on their heads. Once you collected enough Magic Dust, the level becomes ‘happy’ and you are then able to find the Magic Stars. The Magic Stars are a little trickier to find, and feel important due to the musical fanfare that played each time you collect one.

Mayhem in Monsterland was a game that rewarded players who, for whatever reasons, had stuck with their trusty C64s. I did, and I loved it: the game looked fantastic; its colour-pallet and stylistic design were excellent, making the best out of the C64’s limited graphics. Visually, it looked as though the designers had looked at the Green Hill Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog and imagined what it would look like with some of the green pipes from Super Mario Brothers added in. What made Mayhem in Monsterland stand out though was the game’s speed: this game was fast, and not only that, it was smooth to play and had great level design. Though most Commodore 64 games were played using the keyboard, or a joystick, to add to the console feel of the game, I tried out my Sega Master System pad (they had the same socket as the joystick port), and, lo and behold, it worked! There was something about playing such an advanced game (for the C64 at least) with a control pad that added to the experience. I remember a few years back, I had a drunken conversation with a guy who went into great detail about the little tricks and work-arounds that the designers utilised to make Mayhem in Monsterland play and look like a console game. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, but it sounded impressive.

Games are released all the time today with countless bugs and glitches in them which are later ‘patched up’ by the game’s creators by downloading and updating the games. When Mayhem in Monsterland was released, I was surprised to find a sheet of paper in the box that required you to enter a few lines of code in BASIC before running the game in order to fix a bug in the game that accidently gave you unlimited lives.

1993 was probably the last gasp of the C64: the Megadrive and SNES had established themselves firmly as the home systems of choice, with almost instant access to the games (no ten minutes sat around waiting for the games to load (or not as was often the case)). Indeed, just over a year later, the Sony Playstation would come along and blast all of these systems out of the water with its arcade-quality graphics, awesome sound and its genre defining games like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skateboarder.

In its context, this game as the C64’s last hoorah. It may not rate as one of the greatest games of all time, but it certainly has a special place in gaming history. Though it played beautifully, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the game-play, but its legacy is secured due to the sheer technical wizardry that the game’s designers employed in creating this title. The 100% awarded for the game seems laughable, but we have to take this number in its context and ask ourselves: could the Commodore 64 do anything better than this? The answer is probably not.



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