Just Another Manic Monster

Xbox Live Indie Games isn’t starved for roguelikes. What it is starved for is games about hyperactive, ice-skating square heads swinging swords like obelisks in frantic drive-by slashings of kamikaze baby seals.

Initially, Mega Monster Mania gives the impression of being a dungeon crawl. There are a few of those on XBLIG, perhaps the most reputable of which is Epic Dungeon (now updated as Cursed Loot). If you loosen the definition to include games that aren’t strictly roguelikes/dungeon crawls but share many qualities with them, such as Lair of the Evildoer, the number is quite healthy. Mega Monster Mania fits best into this latter category; it has elements of a dungeon crawl, others of a traditional roguelike, and some qualities of a sugar-fuelled child convulsively beating its fists against every object in sight because it just has too much energy not to.

And that’s what really sets MMM apart from its fellows, in the simplest terms: energy.

An unusually small weapon. So to speak.

Roguelikes traditionally centre around trawling for loot through a series of randomly generated floors, the layout of which is revealed only through exploration. Mega Monster Mania does tick all these boxes, but it doesn’t stop there; it continues ticking right to the edge of the page and onto the table, giggling all the while. The most traditional games in the genre (on XBLIG, Dungeon Adventure comes to mind) are quite slow, deliberate affairs despite the rapid pace of their combat. They emphasise slogging along lengthy corridors, mapping out each floor until you find the exit or tire of looking for loot. Even Epic Dungeon, which accelerates the pace somewhat, has the feel of a steady trudge. This isn’t a criticism; that’s just the nature of the genre.

Mega Monster Mania, in contrast, is the cocky blue hedgehog of dungeon crawls. It looks into the tarry stew of the roguelike, and spices it up with the tabasco of Gauntlet. Everything happens very quickly. Enemies charge at you full-tilt whenever they see you, and many of them move faster than you do. Some shoot fireballs in various patterns. But the sense of speed comes mainly from two features.

Firstly, literal speed of movement. Your character skates around everywhere like the 80s never left us, and you will often find yourself accidentally ploughing headlong into a throng of monsters. It’s particularly noticable in the ice stages, which follow the traditional game ice route of dramatically reducing friction. Your character feels like a pinball in these levels. It’s not just you, either; many of your enemies move similarly, giving them an erratic edge that cranks up the panic when you blunder into a room that’s teeming with them.

Secondly, the control scheme resembles a twin-stick shooter. This makes sense when using a bow; you nudge the right stick in any direction to launch an arrow that way, or hold it for sustained fire. More often, though, you’ll be swinging a sword the size of a small car, and this too is done using the right stick.

Me choosing my haircut by bashing a huge grey block. Barbers are so passé.

These two features combine to give Mega Monster Mania a frantic pace. Personally, I coped with this by developing a joust-like style of combat: after popping off a few arrows from a distance to soften up my enemies, I charge in headlong, narrowly avoiding my target and carving it up with my sword as I pass, before pulling a skidding 180 to make another pass.

Action definitely seems to be the name of this game. When MMM‘s developers threw the traditional trundling pace on the junk heap, they followed it with character levelling. Of course your character needs to grow in power to cope with the increasing challenge, but this is done entirely through equipment. The game’s item drops fall into three types: usable items (a handful of trinkets that offer short-term bonuses or quick damage), money and equipment. Even your gear isn’t permitted to slow the manic pace, as new weapons and armour can only be equipped in the shop at the end of each floor. So there’s no need – or option – for inventory management, or even simply glancing to see what you just picked up. All you can do is charge onward to the exit. Once there, you can weigh up the damage, protection and bonus status effects of the gear you grabbed, sell anything you don’t want, and move on.

I can’t give a fair look at Mega Monster Mania without commenting on the visual style. This was the first thing that struck me when I started playing, thanks to its oddness. Initially I couldn’t decide whether it was intentionally distinctive or just lazy. Your character is a square, with some hair and a pair of eyes to indicate that you’re meant to be looking down on the top of someone’s head. No visible limbs or animation, just your little square guy and enemies that are often (though by no means always) similarly geometric. It was a little baffling at first, but once I got used to the style I actually quite liked it. These visuals combined with the rocket-propelled pace of gameplay give the game a quite distinctive feel that cements it in my memory much more firmly than its forgettable title does. Besides, colourful yet minimalist seems to fit MMM‘s general demeanour.

Sadly, Mega Monster Mania hasn’t managed to shed the main failing of the roguelike dungeon crawl: repetition. Even the best of this genre fall prey to the eventual feeling of battling through yet another floor full of enemies, opening chests and swigging potions, and MMM is no different. Its pace helps to stave this off, but the trade-off is the lack of depth that would be provided by customisation through levelling – the method by which others like Epic Dungeon fight to hold our attention.

Clearly a reputable wholesaler.

Unlike most of its counterparts, MMM hasn’t really bothered to implement a save system. A save would be good. On the opposite side of the scale, no save at all could work – have each adventure be a fresh one, pushing as far as possible into the dungeon from the beginning. The problem here is that the game sits uncomfortably between the two. It remembers which floor you reached and lets you keep your equipment, but your items and gold are reset to basics (ten potions, no other items, no gold). The lack of gold is particularly troublesome; a few floors down, you’ll need every potion you can get, and the game doesn’t play very fair in cutting you down to ten with no way to buy more just because you decided quit and come back later. Even your character’s appearance has to be selected anew, and while this is entirely cosmetic and simply a matter of selecting one from a handful of options, it’s still an unnecessary inconvenience.

The other major problem with the game is the clumsy item selection system. For the most part the controls are minimalist, and effective for the rapid battles. Flick between weapons (which you will mostly only have two of) with RB, and attack with the right stick. Easy. Unfortunately, there are several usable items in your inventory, and these are selected by the same method as weapons – you cycle through them with LB. Considering how quick combat is, having to tap the button four times to reach a potion or bomb can get you killed. Not to mention the hassle of memorising the sequence of items so you don’t have to risk your life glancing away from the action to check whether you’re about to drink a life-saving potion or give yourself a speed boost right into a monster’s spiked face. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could work around it by selling off items we never use (in my case, the aforementioned speed boost) but, unlike equipment, these consumables can’t be sold.

No motion blur here. Thanks, Xbox.com! Ahem.

These flaws aren’t fatal though. Mostly they’re minor niggles, and even the awkward middle-ground semi-save is only a noticable problem if you frequently leave and return – and you probably won’t. It’s not that sort of game. It’s one you’ll play in occasional bursts of an hour or two. As to the other problems, the use of consumable items becomes key to your success as you progress further, and you’ll soon learn which ones you use most and be able to select them on the fly. A lot of the time you’ll be able to tell when you’re about to enter an area crawling with enemies, and can have a plan in mind to use a certain item before quickly switching to another. I’m not excusing the clumsiness but it doesn’t ruin the game, and it’s hard to think of a better to way to implement it that wouldn’t necessitate letting go of one of the sticks in the middle of chaotic combat.

Taken as a whole, Mega Monster Mania comes recommended. It’s easy to learn and easy to play, but not easy. It provides the procedurally generated exploration hijinks of a dungeon crawler, but streamlines everything and cranks up the speed to an alarming pace. Its odd visual style is quite charming once you adjust, and if you have a friend who fancies tackling a high-speed loot trawl with you, there’s a two-player mode, though it seems to be local only.

If you have the slightest interest in charging through dungeons full of enemies in search of treasure, you should give Mega Monster Mania a try. And if you’ve tried the likes of Epic Dungeon or Dungeon Adventure and found them a bit sedate, this might be right up your street. With even the full game costing a mere 80 MSP, you really have nothing to lose by giving it a go.