Monster Bash HD Review: Back from the Dead
I am familiar with Apogee Entertainment through everyone’s favorite proprietary software format of the ’90s—Shareware! I hate to date myself, but many of my first PC gaming experiences happened on it: Apogee’s own Commander Keen and Duke Nukem, and Epic’s Jill of the Jungle. I’m always happy to see the developers of my youth alive and kicking. Despite Shareware’s prolificness, there are plenty of games I missed from that period, including Apogee’s Monster Bash in 1993.
Fortunately, Apogee and indie developer Emberheart Games have seen fit to resurrect several of Apogee’s legacy titles but with an HD sheen and quality of life improvements. Most importantly these titles are playable for modern audiences. If you’ve ever tried to run a DOS game on modern hardware, you know it’s a nearly insurmountable task.
Zombies and Skeletons and Devils, Oh My!
Monster Bash HD is cut from a similar cloth as some of Apogee’s other games of the time: it, too, is an action platformer. Johnny, a young boy, finds himself under unpleasant and bizarre circumstances: The nefarious Count Chuck has kidnapped his dog, Tex, along with countless other pets, forcing Johnny into the Underworld to save him. Fortunately, Johnny brought his slingshot and an endless supply of rocks along for the ride. The goal of each level is to rescue all the pets and find the level’s exit. They’re imprisoned in cages that are scattered throughout the level. All it takes is a single hit to the lock.
There are a few design choices that help set it apart from other Apogee games. Monster Bash HD has a delightful horror theme. You’ll fight all sorts of horror mainstays: zombies, severed hands, skeletons, witches, massive eyeballs, and so on. There are a few surprises too. None of these enemies are difficult to kill; however, they’re surprisingly fast, and a few enemies together can easily take you down if you get sloppy.
Given the horror theme, Johnny gets to explore graveyards, haunted houses, caves, a swamp, a laboratory, and a castle. Also, in episode two, Johnny basically goes to Hell, so there’s plenty of demons running around to ruin your day. Some levels are linear, but many of them are sprawling. You don’t have to rescue the pets in a set order, so there’s some flexibility in how you can achieve your goal. There’s not much in the way of puzzles. You’ve got a few switches and hidden doors, but it’s often just a matter of figuring out where you need to go to reach each animal, which can be surprisingly tricky.
There are naturally plenty of environmental hazards too, most of which you’ve seen in other platformers before (lava, deep water, electrical discharges, spike pits, etc.) but there are some interesting twists here such as sconces and stoves. Sconces can be used as platforms if you break their glass, but that glass then ends up on the floor. Stoves are hot because…they’re stoves, yeah? You might be able to shut some of them off if you’re paying attention, though. My favorite is the enemy I named “Kicky Boots,” which runs back and forth on a set path. It’s a possessed pair of boots that will kick you off into the distance. It’s necessary for reaching areas that are far beyond your jump, but it’ll also kick you into enemies and instant-death pits if you aren’t careful.
Like David and Goliath…but with the Undead
A few other gameplay twists help set Monster Bash HD apart from every other platformer. The most significant is Johnny’s slingshot. Surprisingly, he fires it in a realistic manner. The rocks follow a set trajectory. This design alone affects everything else because your shots naturally arc. You can’t aim straight up, but you can fire upward at an angle. It can be difficult to hit long-distance targets, but that’s the preferred method because you don’t want to get up close and personal with all those monsters. The rocks also ricochet, and you can use them to move certain objects.
It also takes some time to adjust to Johnny’s jump. He essentially has two jumps: standing and running. There’s a bit of a delay when you start to run, so you can inadvertently do a short jump when you need a long jump. Unsurprisingly, Monster Bash HD has segments that require pixel-perfect jumps. Sconces are tricky because you have very little real estate, but you need speed for a long jump. Every pixel counts in these situations, and it’ll take some time until you have a solid grasp of the game’s physics.
Tricks ‘n’ Treats
As stated, I haven’t played the original version; however, I felt it prudent to at least look it up and watch a few videos. There are two notable changes, and they’re both for the better: First, there’s a compass that’ll point you in the direction of the closest pet. This helps cut down on some the backtracking you might encounter should you miss a pet. You can turn it off, though.
The more significant change affects lives and scoring. In the original, you had a set number of lives. You could get more by picking up items and earning a specific number of points, much like in any arcade game. In Monster Bash HD, you have unlimited lives. When you die, you return to the level’s start or the most recent checkpoint. Collectibles still contribute to your score, and you lose a life bonus for dying too many times. I was not great at earning that bonus.
Each level also has specific objectives for more points: collect all the candy, open all the treasure chests, shoot all the creepy floating skulls, and find all the Johnny dolls. These items are prolific and well hidden, and it’s quite an undertaking to find them all and hit par time, which nets you even more points. This is undeniably a drastic change, but it plays into the game’s arcade-like scoring system, which also includes online leaderboards. And, of course, there’s a variety of achievements like every modern game. There’s also a level editor!
While some might scoff at having unlimited lives, I’d encourage you to try Monster Bash HD on Nightmare difficulty. There are four levels of difficulty, and on Nightmare, you can take exactly one hit before you die. I played through on Normal, and that was a solid challenge. This is a smart design choice, though, because it makes Monster Bash HD far less punishing while not making design concessions. All the difficulty is still here—it’s just less frustrating.
Old and Improved
On the graphics front, the HD sheen looks great. The pixels are smoothed out, there’s several layers of parallax scrolling, and environmental effects such as lightning and leaves blowing in the wind contribute to the game’s spooky setting. It closely resembles the source material—it just looks better. The soundtrack and sound effects also resemble the source material, but they’re significantly less screechy. That’s not a judgment—it’s a fact for many PC games in the early ’90s.
Oh, and Monster Bash HD is appropriately but surprisingly gory. It’s obviously not gory like anything you’ve played in the last year; however, zombies explode into chunky parts. Blood and gore fly all over the place when you kill you an enemy. It’s a bit shocking the first few times you see it. It’s a nice touch, and it sounds disgusting.
The Monster’s in the Details
Despite everything Monster Bash HD does well, there are a few missteps in the game’s original design. First, the boss fights are disappointing. These hulking creatures look intimidating, but they don’t put up much of a fight. Johnny’s doppelgänger appears once in each episode, and while the game sets up the fight as intense, the AI doesn’t follow through.
Johnny can pick up health restoratives and special weapons such as a triple shot, a big rock that shatters, a fireball, and homing missiles. These weapons are helpful, but there’s no toggle for them. Once you pick them up, they replace your standard weapon. It’s easy to waste them in non-enemy situations. The missiles don’t fire unless an enemy is on screen, which is nice, though, because they’re the most useful.
Monster Bash HD’s gameplay also doesn’t change much over the course of the game. The levels are well designed, but none of them are especially memorable either. They tend to blend into each other. By the time you hit episode three, the game starts to feel like it’s running out of steam. A late-game stage lets Johnny fly around on a broom like a witch, which is wild, but it’s the exception.
Still Bashing Twenty-Eight Years Later
Monster Bash has aged surprisingly well, and the HD version helps make the game accessible and preserves its identity. It’s not especially long, but there’s a ton of content here should you choose to seek it out. The developers clearly had a soft spot for this charming little horror game, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s even a new secret level, which is a wonderful addition if you can find it. If you’ve never played a Shareware title or one of Apogee’s early games, this is a great place to start.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.