Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Monuments of Mars

Monuments of Mars is 4-part platformer released by Apogee in 1991, designed by Todd Replogle (who no longer works in the video game industry, I ran across an interview with him from 2001 where he discusses the video game industry, he is oddly quoted as saying "I'm not sure there is a future for the video game industry. Unless one has the capability of using both the left and right hands independently, I doubt video games will sell like they used to." What the hell man? You picked a bad time to get out of the video game industry, it's since exploded into billion-dollar-bills lining the pockets of corporate fatcats. You could have been one of those fatcats) and they are, to say the least, brilliant.

Unfortunately, Monuments of Mars doesn't run in Windows anymore, and you have to emulate it using DOSBox, a DOS emulator specifically designed to run old computer games. You might, however, have a problem obtaining the final 3 chapters to the Monuments, because only the first part was released as shareware, and the others have been lost to the internet aether. Luckily I came across a download page, and you can download all 4 episodes here.

But before we go any further, adjust your expectations. Monuments of Mars provides a few things, like fun puzzles, (troublesomely) addictive gameplay, and powerful (artistically) graphics. But it's riddled with problems. It's curious, often when reviewing games we point out the flaws to no end creating a heap of broken shards, nothing and a shallow blindness that refuses to acknowledge good design. I've played games my entire life, and I can easily be bored, distracted, or uninterested in some "perfect" games. Other games don't have to be perfect, because their merits are strong enough to exalt the game. For Monuments of Mars, I'll break it apart, but by the end of the article I hope the Monument is re-assembled to the satisfaction of the Martian overlord.

The game uses CGA graphics, meaning only 16 colors in their entire program. During gameplay, however, you'll see five: Black, Red, Brownish-Orange, and Green. Unsurprisingly, the art turned out well, and the lack of colors adds to the game by encouraging creativity. Monuments of Mars has the same intense light that classic arcade games possessed(LINK), the luminous glow of neon on black. This method of display has always been eerily popular. Why do we like bright colors on a black background so much? Does it remind us of the stars, glowing against the vacuum of space? Of signs and city lights ripped out of T.S. Eliot? How many games have you played that are bright colors on a black monitor?

The hit detection isn't spot-on (a result of the graphics engine used, FAST: Fluid Animation Software Technology. Apparently, the used fluid very loosely, because the movement is jerky. FAST registers hit detection based on the sprite's bounding box, so... don't get too close to anything or you'll explode. This engine was previously used in two other games, Pharaoh's Tomb and Arctic Adventure, to which Monuments of Mars bears more than a slight resemblance), walking up and down hills is slightly odd, and there is no music (I've created a Monuments of Mars playlist, mainly involving Dragonforce), and the sound effects are "clicky."

You have infinite lives, and this makes you something of a demigod. Or a Prometheus, dying only to reborn. A viking warrior living eternity in Valhalla. Take our pick, the actual story can be read in one of the screenshots.

There's a typo in the story... but I get a kick out of things like that. I know 8-Bit City is speckled with typos, despite my best efforts to edit and proofread.

Some levels will kill you in the first second, hilariously exploding your spaceman 7-8 times before you wise up and hold left as the level begins. There is a save function, so infinite lives is a nice feature because it saves you the trouble of actually having to save. Each level takes a few minutes to complete (after the initial "tutorial" levels, I use the term in quotes because there are no explicit tutorial levels, just some easy screens at the beginning that teach you about the engine) and some of the trickiest parts come right at the end of a stage. I wonder if part of the appeal of video games is that you can correct your mistakes, and learn from them... a luxury we don't have outside of digital worlds, and even then, not always. In this sense, video games are quite capable of transcending time (though still bounded by it).

Each stage is a single board, filling a single screen. You'll have to navigate your spaceman around enemies, collecting triangles and air tanks, sometimes stepping on a certain tile, falling through a certain hole, or grabbing a specific triangle will create/destroy some blocks, and alter the level. Every level is a puzzle, and you have a limited supply of laser beams (which, oddly enough, are represented by the air tanks you collect). You'll explore the barren Martian Landscape (and it does look a lot like Mars), Martian ruins (possibly those from Total Recall), and what appears to be construction sites.

I think the graphics that made me appreciate this game as a child, though outdated in 1991, we have the opportunity to refer to them as classic, but whatever you call them, they do a great job of suspending your disbelief and immersing the player in a sprawling landscape. With 80 levels spanning 4 games, Monuments of Mars makes a massively monumental monolith.

If you decide to give this game a try, take comfort in your independence, because no one else is playing it. No one else is writing about it, there are no FAQs (though one website has maps), or discussions other than this article. It's proof that fun games are often forgotten, and exposes the bias that time has on video games.

Had Monuments of Mars been released (sigh, how often do I say something along these lines) in 1981 it would have out-shined (or at least compared to) the arcade games of the time. they missed a chance to release this game on the arcade (for the scene was already dead and dying by 1991), it would have been a hit.

Released today, I think the game could see a renewed fan base and enjoy a healthy amount of popularity, provided it was priced accordingly. If released on WiiWare, I think the game would prove more than popular. People are willing to shell out 5 bucks for almost anything, and 80 levels of the distilled essence of pure platformer would be perfect. It couldn't hurt.

In order to best enjoy Monuments of Mars, purchase the shareware 3.5" floppy from a local drugstore, or download it off of UseNet, install it to your IBM 486 and sit in the dark while you play. You better be running the game out of DOSShell. Because sometimes Old School just isn't Old School enough and I want to play a game so archaic it echoes the chalk murals of the cavemen. Like T.S. Eliot said when saw the Lascaux murals, "Art never improves, but... the material of art is never quite the same."


Benjamin Fennell said...

After reading this, I may have to track the game down. I have fond memories of playing Pharaoh's Tomb on my grandmother's PC as a child, and while I never got too far into it, the game and this whole gameplay engine are classic.

8bitcity said...

No need to track it down, the download link is in the article, I'm about to go play some Pharaoh's Tomb right now :) Pharaoh's Tomb was the first of these games I played, but Monuments of Mars was like a dream come true as a kid, because I was obsessed (and still am) with outer space. Artic Adventure has the best mechanics of all three, however, it's got an overworld! Also, it has this system where you need ammo and ice-picks.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Ah, I didn't pay close enough attention, then. Fantastic. :) Hopefully I won't have any trouble getting any of these running in Vista. I haven't tried getting anything older to run in it yet, but I haven't even had it for a full month yet, since I got my new PC. I always heard a lot of horror stories about Vista, though they seem to have improved a lot in the years since its release, but as of far, I haven't really had any trouble with it at all - I'm slightly paranoid that there's some big issue with older games that I'll run into any day now, haha.

8bitcity said...

Just be sure to run them in DOSBox, none of these games work without it.

samiorigami said...

"The game uses CGA graphics, meaning only 16 colors in their entire program. During gameplay, however, you'll see five: Black, Red, Brownish-Orange, and Green."

forget something? gold maybe. lol

great article.

8bitcity said...

Nope... no gold, I think I was thinking of transparent, but I guess that doesn't count outside of the technical aspect of games. Actually, I'm not even sure this game has transparency...

Anonymous said...

sounds cool. will put it on my ever-increasing list of games to play.

MetalFRO said...

Good call on Pharaoh's Tomb and Arctic Adventure - they were both superior Apogee releases from the same time-frame. Later Apogee games like Secret Agent, Crystal Caves, and Dark Tower were better games with better engines. Then when you start to move into Commander Keen and Duke Nukem (the original), you really had games coming out on the PC that were close to NES/SMS quality in that format. Another one I'd recommend if you like Pharaoh's Tomb is Paganitzu - fantastic action/puzzler that still plays well via DOSbox.

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