Sunday, April 4, 2010

Monster Lair

Hudson Soft / Alfa System / Westone

Monster Lair isn't an easy game to get through. Its challenge is derived more from its length than from its combat or run-and-jump action. Taken on their own, the two-part stages (each of which contains a "hack-and-blast" section as well as a straightforward shoot-'em-up segment) aren't very difficult to get through. But with fourteen of them to conquer, players must put in practice and engage in repetition to be able to anticipate all the tricky spots.

The many weapons at your disposal comprise the game's greatest strength. Not a single one of them is a dud, but using them optimally calls for changes in strategy whenever a switch is made. And with the near-constant icon grabbing and weapon swapping that take place, you'll have plenty of on-the-fly decisions to make.

Also, it's often beneficial to alter your turbo-switch setting depending on the weapon you're using and the situation at hand. All of this injects a welcome dose of strategy into an experience that seems quite simple at its core. The only "negative" I can cite regarding the weaponry is that the missile seems a little too powerful. Most of the bosses are defenseless against it.

Actually, while I like the designs, most of the bosses don't put up much of a fight, period. Their lineup is curious: the toughest ones appear in stages six through eight. The sixth guy is like a tougher version of the very cool giant-knives guy in Psychosis, and he's always a blast to fight. The seventh-stage ice guy and the crafty eighth-stage cactus head can also be trouble.

But those are the last difficult bosses you'll encounter until the final board. The cloak-adorned bat tosser and the gambling mushroom in subsequent stages are complete pushovers, and you don't even need to move against the guy camped within a ring of flames in Round Twelve if you have a decent long-range weapon.

While almost all of the bosses are cake, if one of the tougher ones happens to kill you and deprive you of whatever good weapon was in your possession, quick additional deaths may follow. And the boss fights are basically all there is to look forward to in the shooter portions of the game. Preceding the showdowns are brief stretches reminiscent of the early segments in Gradius stages where you pound on chumpy small-fry in order to power up. Proper levels would've been nice.

Perhaps the makers of the game should've cut down on the platforming stages a bit and developed the shooter stages further. The platforming ones become thematically redundant: one slippery ice level is cliche enough, so do we really need two?

And the strips don't even become particularly challenging until the eighth, with its wily cast of vultures, scorpions, snakes, and cacti. Things do become tricky and interesting later on, especially during the eleventh stage's sequences of rising and plummeting platforms...

...but the designers could've easily kept all the good platform-based material and still lopped off four or five strips, leaving themselves time to construct proper shooter parts instead of the formalities they ultimately delivered.

The game isn't an aesthetic superstar, but as is the case with Dynastic Hero, the bright, appealing colors often make up for the general "flatness" of the visuals. Some of the tunes have an old-school flavor to them that makes me a bit nostalgic, but the cacophony in Round One makes me want to turn the game off at once.

When Monster Lair is analyzed in this manner, it doesn't seem like much of a winner, but the weapons system makes it more than simply playable, and gradually making it deeper and deeper into the lengthy quest has its rewards. Amazingly, I didn't become bored with the requisite practice sessions, mainly because there are so many things to keep in mind if you really want to play through the game perfectly. While ML isn't a favorite of mine, I definitely feel that I've gotten a lot out of it.

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