Monday, March 19, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 19...

Privateer Press did the same thing for giant monsters and tabletop games in 2009 that Incog Inc. had a few years earlier for video games. Both studios started a game project as a love letter to the genre but then it evolved into a great contribution to the genre in its own right. The studios had created their own legacy, they introduced players to enormous creatures layered in personality while battling for supremacy in fun locations the world over. The only difference was that Privateer was working on a tabletop system instead of a video game. I had talked about the little American company that could back in 2007 when they were offering tabletop game players a fresh perspective. They were challenging the status quo of the big overseas studios that seemed to dominate the market.

Game designers Matt Wilson and Erik Yaple wanted to create a miniatures based game system that could rekindle the memories of the classic monster films. They started off by making a list of all the things that they enjoyed about the genre. Big monsters fighting, cool military weapons, detailed buildings and plenty of destruction were at the forefront. The system they put together was lovingly called Monsterpocalypse. It had a straightforward play mechanic which allowed for plenty of back and forth action between the gamers. The best portions actually predated some of the design elements that Richard Garfield incorporated into his King of Tokyo game. The creatures in Monsterpocalypse could evolve, grow powers and abilities but they did so by controlling buildings and areas in the game instead of through randomly played cards. I had been keeping tabs on Monsterpocalypse back when they were play testing it at various gaming conventions.

In the early days Privateer took their paper templates, unfinished resin models and rough plastic buildings to local game stores in the Pacific Northwest as well as the larger conventions. At the time Privateer had earned a dedicated following through their grassroots campaign. The Warmachine and Hordes systems quickly grew and the company expanded to create their own line of paints and even magazine to support the community. Players were eager to see what new projects they were working on, especially since the company had a reputation for being fairly open and transparent. As Monsterpocalypse evolved the maps went from graph paper to colored pencil illustrations and eventually laser printed pages. The studio was running on a very tight margin and deadline. As the miniature sculpts were being finished the company was using all the feedback they received to clarify the rules and balance the game. Like many of their systems the goal was to keep players engaged at every level of the development.

Privateer was going to release this system as their first pre-painted miniatures game, this decision raised the ire of many traditionalists. Fans of classic tabletop systems believed that all great systems required a hobby element on top of a solid play element. Role-playing audiences were supposed to keep track of character stats and unit special abilities with character sheets that they created and updated by hand with every game. Participants of tabletop systems were supposed to assemble and paint their own miniatures and models, anything less than that was considered a product for the toy store. To further set things apart Privateer would also be using counters and ability markers on the miniatures themselves.

This approach to tabletop gaming was made popular by Wizkids Heroclix series, which licensed characters from Marvel, DC and other properties into an easy-to-play tabletop system. The Clix games were a great way to introduce younger gamers to the genre. The built in counters on the bases of the figures were cleverly designed to keep tabs of important things for the characters. Strength, stamina, movement, powers and agility could be found right on or under the models. As players battled they could wind down the stats on the miniatures until an opponent was defeated. No more keeping track of stats on a separate sheet! Hobbyists were worried that Privateer might "dumb down" all of their systems and switch to pre-painted plastic models. Privateer assuaged their fears by reminding them that Monsterpocalypse was a unique stand alone game and that the other systems would not be affected by the new manufacturing techniques.

The hobby aspect itself was not affected by the use of pre-painted miniatures. Thanks to new production methods the largest and smallest figures all received great paint jobs. Those that were not experienced painters did not feel put out when starting a collection. However those with some skills and a great imagination were more than welcome to recolor and repaint entire armies. For example, the largest monsters in the game can undergo a transformation in their power level, these "Ultra" forms of the character were represented by by clear or sometimes opaque plastic models. Many in the gaming community thought that the Ultra figures were lackluster. By going with a completely transparent color all of the great details from the sculpt were lost. That was until artists began coloring portions of these Ultra forms. The custom Monsterpocalypse paintjobs by Martin Whitmore were a prime example of what could be done to make the miniatures more interesting.

The default paint job for Defender X was great out of the box. The character was inspired by classic Japanese mech designs including Mazinger-Z who was a member of the Shogun Warrior robots. The blue tint Ultra version lost a lot of the detail, especially as light passed through the surface. Mr. Whitmore picked out some details in gold and silver with a paintbrush to make his figure stand out. He did the same for several clear and pre-painted figures as well. He demonstrated to the community that even by using one or two extra colors a model could be made to stand out. His gold and black highlights to Ultra Xaxor inspired many players, especially newcomers, not to be afraid to customize their own figures.

The success of Monsterpocalypse was certainly due more to just the great miniatures that Privateer was putting out.

The system may have begun trying to recreate the battles from classic cinema but it grew to include influences from the science fiction and horror genres. Godzilla-like creatures could do battle with giant humanoid or Ultraman-like robots. It was daikaiju nirvana but the universe turned out to be far more expansive and violent than that! There were at least two alien species had decided to invade the Earth at the same time. One group was comprised of the classic UFO ships and War of the Worlds machinations. The other group were more like the daikaiju villains, giant sentient beings bent on total destruction. These aliens were met by another inter-dimensional being, an ancient creature that was a reminder of the monster from classic HP Lovecraft mythology. The creatures and robots were given purpose which helped shape the factions of the universe. Some monsters could partner up while others were strictly enemies. Players learned to field the armies that appealed the most to them. The first wave of factions were released over three expansion sets. The original release of Monsterpocalypse was titled Rise! The following was I Chomp NY and third was All Your Base. Readers could probably guess what the focus was on each release.

The first six factions were introduced in Block 1. These teams included GUARD, whose scientific consortium had built a giant robot that acted like a UN peacekeeper. The Lords of Cthul, the ancient creatures focused on enslaving the planet. The Martian Menace and Planet Eaters who needed no further explanation. The Shadow Sun Syndicate was a powerful organization founded by the Yakuza. They had created the ninja-like titans. Finally there were the Terrasaurs, the dinosaur-like creatures that wanted to restore nature by reclaiming civilization. Each of these factions were supported by different sized units. It was actually the smaller troops that made Monsterpocalypse unique, especially when compared to the other games I had been writing about.

Giant monsters were supported either by organic or inorganic creatures. The smallest creature would be the size of a military transport truck while the largest would be as big as a skyscraper. The giant robots had traditional military weapons backing them up. Some were supplemented by incredible science fiction technology, think of the Maser Cannon and Super X from the Godzilla films, variations of these fantastic weapons were in the game. The diversity in scale for the creatures, robots and weapons made this universe among the most robust ever created. Imagine a videogame where characters from Rampage, War of the Monsters, Earth Defense Force and King of the Monsters were all playable. Now imagine if that system had miniatures produced for everything, including the levels and landmarks. It was the ultimate celebration of the genre in tabletop format.

The popularity of the game took off as the studio released wave after wave of scenarios and supplemental miniatures. They continued to push the system at gaming conventions, as well as PAX and the San Diego Comic Con. The word of mouth was tremendous for the game. Privateer continued on expanding the universe to include a second set of factions. Fans of the genre were surprised with how many obvious choices comprised Block 2 and the expansions Big In Japan and Monsterpocalypse Now! These new units could help make a great game even better. There was the Empire of the Apes, consisting of gigantic intelligent apes and the Savage Swarm, made up of enormous insects. Those two were pulled from some of the oldest film influences. Then there were the giant mole creatures that made up the Subterran Uprising and the Elemental Champions which were monks that created weapons out of the elements. Think of the monks as each having the powers of Ang from Avatar: the Last Airbender. When they combined their forces they could create giants made up of fire, water, earth, air and metal. Creatures from the deep ocean were even turned into giant monsters through the Tritons.

It was very clever how Privateer explained some of the new factions while appealing to the classic kaiju formula. For example, UberCorp International were comprised of multinational military contractors, they were selling defensive units modeled after the monsters and aliens themselves. Only the richest nations could afford to purchase the massive weapons of destruction. This jab at profiteering was not too subtle but appropriate considering that the other corporate faction in the game was founded by the Japanese mafia. UberCorp was a way to get "mecha" versions of the most popular creatures in the game. The miniatures that Privateer created for them were very unique, they did not simply look like silver versions of the existing characters but were instead built of translucent material and white armor. These giant machines mirrored the Planet Eaters, Lords of Cthul and Terrasaurs.

As the system expanded players learned that games did not have to be limited to 1-on-1 battles. The maps, buildings and rules could be scaled to include 2 vs 2, 4 vs 4 or even all 12 factions at once. The game play usually revolved around the monsters controlling or destroying buildings on specific maps, when these maps were laid side by side they could create gargantuan layouts encompassing several tables. The battles that gamers had during tournaments was bigger and badder than what any other system promised. Those new to tabletop gaming were blown away by what was possible on certain systems. The best part was that players did not have to build scenery or carry around delicate models in order to enjoy the game. Each map was double sided and could be folded and stacked. The miniatures were already painted, light but very sturdy. The time and cost of getting into the system was less expensive than any of the more popular games. Players could still invest their time and money and continue to build and collect the various factions. The best part was that players could set up a game anywhere there was a little bit of space available.

The little game about big monsters had quickly built a dedicated following. It was a unique convergence of giant monster fans and tabletop gaming fans that helped build a reputation in the community. Yet it seemed to disappear almost as quickly as it popped up on the convention circuit. Find out how internal decisions and outside interests killed the momentum for Monsterpocalypse in the next blog.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 18...

Giant monster tabletop systems have been around for years but they never quite got the following of the classic board games. I had talked about many of the systems on my older 1UP blog. One of the best games based on the genre was Monsters Menace America. It included a large map of the continental USA, featuring cities for players to take over as well as an assortment of plastic miniatures that represented the creatures in the game and military forces as well. Players could literally carve a path of destruction across the states and fight both the other monsters as well as the military in the process.

The title was published in 2005 by Avalon Hill and was actually a remake of an earlier game called Monsters Ravage America. Wizards of the Coast, creators of the wildly successful Magic: the Gathering series of collectible card games (CCG) bought up Avalon Hill and acquired the rights to all the systems they had developed. Hasbro acquired Wizards in 1998 and is the parent company that owns the various systems. Monsters Menace America was a decent introduction to the genre for kids over 12. The miniatures were pretty nice and the illustrations on the power up and attack cards were great. Even those too young to know anything about the classic B-films would appreciate the mix of humor and horror in the game. There were actually a couple of new board games introduced later that tried to put their own spin on the genre. The first was through the use of a big name star.

Godzilla was the featured monster in two separate titles by Toy Vault Inc. Godzilla Stomp was a CCG from 2011 that featured several Toho monsters. The game could be played by two to five players. In it participants chose from one of five monsters; Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Battra, Destroyah and Mothera. They all took turns trying to take down as many buildings as possible as they were revealed. The more buildings that players destroyed the more points that could be won. Whoever had caused the most destruction had won the game. The other title by the studio was a bit more ambitious.

Kaiju World Wars was a tabletop system featuring a city game board, building models and four Toho monsters; Godzilla, Gigan, Rodan and King Ghidorah. It was also released in 2011 but targeted more towards die-hard Godzilla fans. The game was not far removed from the CCG, it had similar play mechanics and ability cards even. The miniatures combat system changed things considerably. Players set buildings and encounters on top of a highly detailed game board. The illustration printed on the board showed the damage left behind by multiple battles. There were impact craters, burn marks, rubble and gashes carved into the Earth by creatures that weighed several thousand tons. It helped create a sense that the game was taking place in the final moments of an all out monster war. I enjoyed studying the details when I first saw the game and could imagine that a younger fan would be completely absorbed by the atmosphere created by Toy Vault.

It turned out that Pipeworks wasn't the only studio having difficulty working with the license. The Godzilla name was popular but making a memorable game out of the character seemed impossible. Players knew what they wanted to see in the character and his opponents. Anything short of an amazing firefight between the monsters and military while causing massive collateral damage would be considered a failure. Toy Vault actually got close to a really good system that allowed for military strikes, monster combat and buildings that could be pulverized. The game suffered in its loose rules and small lineup of monsters. Even Monsters Menace America had six playable creatures to Kaiju's four. The goal from the company was to release expansion sets featuring new monsters, scenarios and military weapons. After more than a year since the debut it did not seem likely that the system would ever see any expansions. Game designer Richard H. Berg tried to answer any rule and scenario questions on gaming forums. BoardGameGeek member Scott Nixon consolidated the core rulebook, info cards and Mr. Berg's corrections into a streamlined rulebook for fans. Sadly most players wouldn't expect that they would have to search for some sort of unified rulebook online after picking up the game.

A second daikaiju themed game was also released in 2011. King of Tokyo was designed by gaming veteran Dr. Richard Garfield, he was best known for designing Magic: the Gathering, Star Wars and Battletech CCGs. Mr. Garfield came up with his own spin on the giant monster mythos, instead of focusing on big boards or detailed miniatures he wanted to focus on the combat and monster elements. He introduced gamers to six unique monsters, they were cardboard standees illustrated in a stylized cartoon format by Benjamin Raynal. The monsters were trying to claim Tokyo for themselves but in order to do that they had to defeat their opponents or simply survive an onslaught. Monsters could battle, destroy and even unlock unique mutations.

Up until the King of Tokyo the idea of a giant monster mutating and evolving new abilities was reserved for tabletop RPG systems like Monster Island or Giant Monster Rampage. Think of those systems as Dungeons & Dragons for the giant monster genre. Dr. Garfield introduced play elements into his series by allowing any of the monsters to gain new powers and even change shape right in the middle of the game through a couple of card turns. His time spent mastering the nuances of the CCG translated well into the tabletop genre. His game was actually published by the French company Iello Games. In 2012 they released an expansion called King of Tokyo Power Up featuring new cards and a new monster named Pandakai. The character was pulled from gaming zeitgeist thanks to the successful Kung-Fu Panda film series and World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria. In 2013 the system got a Halloween! expansion. In 2014 it got a stand-alone game called The King of New York. In 2016 they got the King of New York: Power Up expansion as well.

It was interesting how Dr. Garfield managed to breathe new life into the giant monster genre by presenting the basic elements from the films into an easy to enjoy system. He was so successful in his design that King of Tokyo became one of the highest rated board games according to the editors and visitors of Board Game Geek, the definitive tabletop editorial site. King of Tokyo was an exceptional game but there was only one system that could be considered as the ultimate giant monster tabletop game for hobbyists. We shall explore this game in the next blog.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 17...

War of the Monsters (WOTM) was more than just about the nostalgia of the classic drive in movies. It actually had tremendous game play. The experience was a free-roaming 3D fighting game akin to Capcom's arcade gem Power Stone. Most fighting games and most brawlers were strictly 2D affairs, even the crown prince of the genre, Rampage, was a 2D experience. In War of the Monsters players could move their monsters in all three dimensions. They could run, leap and even climb buildings. Some creatures could even fly.

Incog Inc. actually did a good job of giving each creature a specific sense of weight and mass. The insect character Preytor was a giant praying mantis. She moved and turned quickly, was light on her feet and could scale buildings with her six legs much faster than Agamo the living stone idol. Agamo was a huge lumbering force whose footsteps echoed with the sound of a rockslide and whose punches could deliver far more damage than Preytor's claws. There was a trade-off for speed versus power on every character. The speed and movement of the characters actually made sense in War of the Monsters. Their physical makeup, whether it was flesh, stone or metal complimented the creatures. Incog developed subtle differences in the way each monster moved and handled based on their structure. They controlled with a sense of momentum especially when running or jumping. Players could not accelerate quickly or stop on a dime with the biggest brutes. When an explosion went off they slammed into buildings and flipped end-over-end in a realistic fashion. They were not at all rag dolls. None of the Godzilla fighting games gave audiences even a remote sense of mass or momentum. The WOTM cast also had their own original sounds, taunts and roars, none were alike.

Speaking of sounds, the music featured in the game was orchestrated by Big Idea Music Productions, out of Colorado. The studio had worked with Incog on titles like Warhawk, God of War and Twisted Metal. This was by far the best soundtrack they had ever produced and one which I would easily rank in the top 10 best game soundtracks ever. Each level actually had two different soundtracks in the queue. There was a main level theme and a battle theme. The two themes complimented each other and could be effected by the players. If a player were far from the opponent then the level theme played, as they got close to the opponent then the game would mix in the battle version. The instrumentation utilizing a full orchestra helped give the score a robust movie quality. Each theme helped heighten the tension as monsters battled inside an active volcano, aboard a space ship or even on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

There were eight characters for players to choose from and two additional ones that could be unlocked, each of which moved uniquely and had their own advantages and disadvantages. Incog found a perfect balance between the size of the characters and the scale of the environments. The monsters were about 75 feet tall, about twice the size of the Rampage monsters yet only about a quarter as tall as the King of the Monsters cast. This translated into many different elements. Since the monsters were bigger than the Rampage cast then they could more easily destroy the environment. But they weren't so tall that they were bigger than the tallest skyscrapers, and unable to climb them, like the King of the Monsters crew. Plus the scale that the monster were presented at translated into surprisingly tiny details that could still be made out by audiences. The amount of detail placed on the drive in theater at the start of the game was nothing compared to the details crammed into each level.

Buildings in each city had distinct architecture, there were ads, marquees and billboards that did not seem to be repeated on other levels. Cyclone fences on military bases had warning signs that could be read. Searchlights swept the corners of those same dark military compounds. Parking lots were filled with different types of cars. The studio went so far as to paint in the lines in the lots and even have tiny oil / transmission fluid stains in the spots. Parks had winding footpaths and tiny benches. Bigger cities had moving traffic, circling helicopters, rolling tanks, turning construction cranes and functioning missile launchers. Even the cabana, multi colored deck chairs and patio umbrellas at an island resort pool could be seen by sharp-eyed players. Vehicle types were also very distinct. Police cars, delivery trucks, tour buses, fire engines and sedans were on the roads. This attention to detail wasn't limited to just the cars. Yachts, sailboats, cruise ships, fishing boats and catamarans were set afloat, or docked on various stages as well.

Players could make out the waves that came in on the beachfront levels. If the monsters fought in the water they would send up enormous splashes. If the monsters ran through the water they would even kick up "rooster tails" of spray. Consider the amount of detail that SNK placed on the King of the Monsters years earlier. Those isometric details now had to be three-dimensional and look as good from every angle. Incog delivered on that challenge tremendously. Pedestrians could be seen screaming and running for their lives. The animated sprites were barely a few pixels in height but responded realistically to the monsters. They would scream en masse and fan out and away from opponents.

Creatures could actually walk through the crowds and flatten a few people with each footstep. Tiny red splatters were all that remained for those caught in the path of destruction. The sound of pedestrians screaming in terror would increase as the monsters approached. If there was a police car nearby the sirens would get louder or softer depending on which way they were moving on the streets. Traffic actually moved through the tiny streets and tried to maintain the right of way. Cars would even swerve around other vehicles or debris! News helicopters flew above the action while military assault choppers followed opponents around buildings and fired powerful rounds into them.  Audiences could climb buildings, jump from rooftop to rooftop and snatch the helicopters out of the sky. Some levels even had UFO ships that shot green plasma blasts. They hovered and zipped from spot to spot, faster than any helicopter.

The environments were completely destructible. Buildings could be toppled, imploded or disintegrated. An entire city could be flattened to the ground. Players could use rubble, air conditioners, generators, dumpsters, cars and radio spires as makeshift weapons. If a player grabbed an energy transformer then they could send an electrical shock to opponents or throw it for a spark-filled explosion. If a player grabbed a rocket-firing tank then they could unload a salvo at opponents as if it were a massive handgun. Players could jump into the air and smash aircraft or UFOs using only their mass. Some of the taller buildings could collapse and crush opponents and players as they fell on them. Savvy players could lure an opponent to the right spot and earn a quick victory with a falling skyscraper. Several levels had hidden features that could be triggered if the right conditions were met.

Baytown, a city modeled after San Francisco, could have an earthquake that completely changed the shape of the environment if one player caused enough damage to the city. If players threw an object at an alien ship off the coast of Tsunopolis then it would shoot a powerful beam at the ocean. A tidal wave would then crash through the Japanese island sweeping all the pedestrians right off the map. The levels themselves were bordered by the same pulse emitters featured in the introduction movie. These emitters put up translucent walls that contained the destruction to a certain area. Apparently the government thought the collateral damage was acceptable. It was actually a good supporting detail. Incog did not simply focus their resources on the playable level and just blur out what was outside the borders. Gamers could see that that the world extended beyond the barrier. A major town, like Metro City did not end where the pulse emitters were. Players could clearly see roads and buildings behind the emitters, there was even a zeppelin floating just above the outskirts. This detail helped maintain the immersion on the arena while reminding audiences that the game universe was indeed fleshed out, waiting to be explored.

The combat system was the most robust aspect of the game. It was meant to be a brawling game after all. All of the attacks could be triggered by pressing two buttons for either weak or strong attacks. Monsters had a diverse set of combos that could used by learning the right sequence of button presses. Players could alternate button presses and create unique combination strings. Players could even break attacks, push opponents back, steal a weapon and even slip out of grapples if they caught the timing of an opponent. This came in handy as many of the monsters were relentless in battle, even on the easy setting. The computer AI was dialed in to be just about as brutal and cheap as it could, especially when it was two or more computer controlled monsters against the player. Those that have played through David Jaffe titles could testify that there was a level in God of War or Twisted Metal that felt particularly difficult, especially when it was one against multiple opponents. In War of the Monsters if an opponent were greatly weakened then they might run away and look for a major health upgrade. It could be maddening when players were trying to fend off two monsters at once. Audiences learned to be just as brutal as the computer if they hoped to survive. Gamers had to use every weapon at their disposal and even resort to some cheap tactics while dealing with multiple creatures.

The characters had a secret ability of sorts. If a player pressed the Select button their character would perform a taunt move. If players had two full bars of attack energy then that meter would flash rapidly. If a player taunted during a flashing meter then their character would get glowing fists and do about 25% more damage per hit. The attack meter drained steadily once players had activated it and would stop once the meter had drained down to a single bar. Players could keep recharging the energy by looking out for power orbs. This unique gameplay mechanic was revisited in the God of War series under the "Rage of the Gods / Titans / Sparta" mode for Kratos. It could certainly help to turn the tide of battle when dealing with multiple opponents.

Each monster had a close and ranged special attack. The close one was good for clearing away groups of monsters that were swarming around players. The ranged attack could drop opponents making a run for a health upgrade. Some characters had hidden uses for their super attacks. Gas tanker trucks were the most destructive thing that players could throw at each other. In addition to the damage caused by the explosion the tanks would coat the monsters in gasoline and slowly burn away their health. The problem was that they were not always accurate over long distances. The Japanese robot Ultra-V had a ranged super attack where its arm would shoot out like a rocket to stun and reel in an opponent. That attack rarely missed even if launched from the opposite side of a level. If Ultra-V were holding a gas tanker when doing the special attack then it would shoot out the arm and punch the opponent with a powerful explosion. The game was filled with all sorts of amazing hidden uses for regular and super attacks. Special attacks and even regular attacks tired out the monsters. They could regenerate their attack stamina slowly if they waited or quickly if they destroyed the environment. Incog turned the destruction element from the films into an important game play feature. Characters could also recover health by searching out green radioactive markers.

Players needed to learn all of the moves at their disposal too because they also had to contend with boss characters. There were three major bosses in the game. Each was designed to make all of the playable characters seem less imposing. The bosses required a particular strategy to defeat and none could really be fought hand to hand. The robot Goliath Prime, from the secretive military Area 51, towered over the other characters and could throw them around like rag dolls. It could also transform into a spinning wrecking ball as well as a two fisted artillery cannon. Then there was Vegon, the three-headed plant monster born from the center of a nuclear power plant. Vegon was actually the largest monster in the game and capable of swallowing the regular characters whole. The final boss was Cerebulon, the destroyer of worlds. That boss had three unique transformations, each one was memorable and all requiring a specific strategy to defeat. The effects, voices and game play built around the bosses was amazing. They really had to be played against to be believed.

As much praise as I've heaped on WotM the game did not really earn high scores from every publication or site. If I could find a major failing with the game it was without a doubt the camera system. The camera was very loose and turned quickly if the player used the analog controls. Trying the move, aim and throw a weapon was all but impossible by how quickly the screen spun. The opposite analog control did not control the camera but instead the elevation of a thrown object. It was difficult to get a sense as to how far opponents were while running around a level. The good thing was that once a player got close to an opponent the game would auto-lock the monsters. This way a player could trade punches and experiment with different combinations. A player could actually lock onto an opponent by holding the shoulder buttons (L1+R1). This made the experience of targeting an opponent for ranged attacks much easier. This was essentially the fix to the camera system and made the experience much greater. The downside was the the camera lock required players to manually hold the buttons while playing. In order to truly get the most out of the experience Incog should have included the ability to target-lock and switch between opponents. This was a minor detail that completely changed the game play. For the most part it was a minor inconvenience on an otherwise great game.

The reward for players that completed the Story Mode was a film that showed the origin of their chosen creature. Players were inspired to begin a new adventure and unlock all the endings and costumes. Those with friends and siblings could battle it out on any level featured in the game as well as a few additional bonus stages. The weakest element in the game were the two-player mini games. They seemed to be added as an afterthought and lacked any sort of polish. Not that it mattered because the actual game itself was rock-solid. Those that got used to the combat system and camera learned to cut loose and enjoy the ride. Incog Inc. had released the greatest giant monster game to date. Although the experience was short, logging in at 11 stages, it had tremendous replay value. The levels themselves were so amazing that players could easily get lost in the details and spend untold hours exploring every street and alley. It was much better to have a handful of unique levels than a hundred cookie-cutter levels, as Rampage had demonstrated.

Mind you, I managed to talk about the game over two blogs and not once did I mention that Mecha Sweet Tooth from the Twisted Metal series was a playable character!

War of the Monsters was the perfect giant monster video game. The individual elements and collective should be studied by all budding game designers. It was exactly the type of experience that players had been missing out on for years. The game was the first to capture the feel of controlling enormous beasts in full 3D without sacrificing design, game play or originality. Players no longer had to use their imagination to fill in the gaps between being a passive participant in a movie theater to being the star of the feature. It was a fully realized vision of what Epyx's Movie Monster had promised way back in 1986. It was also more than what was offered in Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Rampage, Doshin or even King of the Monsters. Players could fight with reckless abandon, plow through buildings, hurtle ocean liners at each other and embrace the primal forces their ancestors once ran from. The cast, stages and even music even were all unique. This game was worthy of joining the established Sony franchises.

Word of mouth helped War of the Monsters build a following. The more players that tried the game the bigger the legend became. Many wondered why Sony hadn't insisted on a sequel. Unfortunately the game didn't sell quickly when it first came out. This was despite a big ad campaign and positive review scores. Sony didn't bother to follow up and push for a sequel. Instead they were focused on David Jaffe's next title, a game called God of War. Many of the lessons that the studio learned during the development of War of the Monsters (and the mountain bike racing game Downhill Domination) were applied to God of War. The lighting and coloring, powerful thematic elements, strong music, sharp graphics and particle effects were rooted in War of the Monsters. Not to mention the Titan levels and final battle against Ares were heavily influenced by WOTM as well.

Fans never forgot about War of the Monsters. When Sony decided to publish it on the Playstation Network on July 31, 2012, the web forums lit up with the good news. The studio that helped optimize the game and sharpen the graphics was Lightbox Interactive, it was founded by former Incog Inc employees. The re-release was well received by seasoned players and a new generation of gamers. Hopefully Sony might consider giving this title yet a chance for a sequel. After all, you can't keep a good monster down for long! The next blog is actually dedicated to the tabletop games. Find out what the genre did for traditional board games and more advanced tabletop systems as well.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 16...

War of the Monsters is the best giant monster video game ever made. Nothing before or after could hold a candle to it, certainly none of the Godzilla or Rampage games. Yet it also held a tremendous debt of gratitude to those titles for paving the way and teaching the developers where the pitfalls of the genre were. War of the Monsters was released in 2003. It had favorable reviews but most audiences slept on the title. Those that got into it enjoyed the experience. They appreciated the layers of substance put into the game by Incog Inc. (later absorbed into Sony Santa Monica). The game began as a love letter to the classic giant monster genre. It was dreamed up by gaming icon David Jaffe and his Twisted Metal colleagues. War of the Monsters evolved from a simple idea into something that gamers could really sink their teeth into. In order to pull off a great giant monster experience the developers went to the roots of the genre, the cinema. The game began in the classic movie broadcast format. The entire set-up of involving an alien invasion and where the monsters came from was explained in the first few moments. Eagle-eyed players noticed a couple of cars from the Twisted Metal series in the opening shot.

After the film played the camera panned back to reveal the title screen was set on a drive-in movie screen. Classic cars, circa the late '50s and early '60s were in the lot waiting for the feature to start. The tiny details on the menu screen rekindled memories of another era. The light coming from the background had the same hues of dusk setting in. Houses, telephone poles and even a water tower could be seen beyond the tall wooden fence. Movie fans in the suburbs would enjoy going out to the local drive-in because it was an altogether different experience. This was a slice of Americana that Incog Inc. wanted to bring bring players into.

No movie palace could ever have the same atmosphere of an open-air arena. On a warm summer night patrons would get mixed sensations. A soft breeze, the sounds of crickets softly chirping in the distance, the smell of popcorn, pretzels and hot dogs wafting in from the concession stand. Even the sound of kids running through the gravel could only be experienced there. Patrons could enjoy the film from the privacy of their own cars. Families would sometimes pack an entire picnic to enjoy during the movie. Tiny steel boxes were hung on the car door to pipe audio directly to them. This was a prosperous time for the USA. We had just gotten out of WWII. Industry was booming, the middle class had grown exponentially and people were enjoying a culture that revolved around the automobile. Drive-in movies and drive-in fast food restaurants were the hottest trends. The greatest memories of a generation were tied to the drive-in. Some of these details were clearly seen on the title screen and in the various game menus.

The main menu and character select menu were split between two different movie screens. The camera would pan between them as the player made a selection. The amount of detail placed on the drive-in was amazing. It was a way to ease audiences into this world. If the gamer went into the settings menu they were taken to the concession stand. The sign was certainly retro, the color of the settings menu was off white-almost plastic, like an old '50s drive in or even diner menu would have appeared.

If a player went to load a saved file then the menu would take them into the projector room. Inside there were multiple projectors for each screen. The players were shown a cardboard box, it would be empty at first but as they saved games it would slowly fill with movie reels. Each reel had a picture of the level being saved and the title of the monster they were playing as. It was a nice touch making the monsters the stars of each picture. The format allowed players to save up to two cardboard boxes or two memory cards worth of reels. Friends could bring over their own saved files and share them on the Playstation 2.

If a player wanted to try a 2-player mini game then the menu screen would shift. Next to the concessions stand was a bench for families to enjoy their food. There was a pinball machine and a weathered arcade machine. The camera would focus on the arcade cabinet. There players could scroll between three 80's looking titles; Crush-o-Rama, Dodge Ball and BIG SHOT. Incog went to the trouble of discoloring the font and adding scan lines onto the screens as if they were projecting onto a CRT monitor. If players wanted to see what items could be unlocked they went outside the projection room. In front of the coming attraction posters was a list of characters and levels that could be unlocked with enough credits.

No other studio had ever put this amount of detail just for the menu screens in a game. To be fair however The Movie Monster game by Epyx and I was an Atomic Mutant by Canopy Games certainly came close to recreating the feel of the classic cinema. Remember that Epix even included the interior of the theater and previews to enjoy before starting the game. The publisher could have never imagined what technology would have allowed for in the future. The mix of aesthetic elements from the late '50s through the early '80s in War of the Monsters was done for a reason. Incog wanted to bring players into the world they had developed. They wanted players to understand what the US was like during this era. They had to provide enough sounds and visual elements to help them do that. For many players and most working at Incog Inc. this was their childhood they were reliving. The developers wanted to recreate the excitement of being a kid and getting to go to a drive-in to watch a monster movie. At the same time they wanted to make it visually interesting to contemporary audiences. The designers were reproducing the golden era of monster movies, which would have been experienced by the majority of their parents, and the final years of the drive-in which they would have remembered as kids. They certainly managed to do all of that with style.

The details that Jaffe and Co. included did not even start there. The instruction booklet included with the game was written as if it were the journal from the Editor in Chief of the Global Observer. It was the fictional newspaper featured in the opening moments of the game. It described the alien invasion and how the alien menace was defeated with gigantic pulse emitters. Then it explained how the radioactive goo released by the spaceships created giant monsters. A poster page was included with the instruction manual. On one side there was a special edition of the Global Observer, complete with articles on the monsters and some secrets and tips for players. On the other side was a movie poster for players to frame.

The level load screens were absolutely brilliant. They were made to look like movie posters. Each one highlighted the level details and sometimes opponents that players would be facing. The poster art, created by the talented Owen Richardson was stunning and looked genuine for the era. In fact the colors used for all the levels and environments had very solid hues and distinct lighting.

The color palette applied to each level was more than just good planning. The developers actually created color compositions for the stages inspired by the art used on actual classic movie posters. Every detail placed in the game built on top of the previous, these were meant to trigger memories and build emotional responses. Older gamers that remembered the drive in and the classic sci-fi and monster films would get the inspiration on the posters and levels. Younger gamers would be hooked by the art. All of the players would learn that the lighting created specific atmospheres for each level. From the eerie green glow that illuminated Atomic Island to the rose and yellow neon trappings of Gambler's Gulch, no two levels shared a color scheme or layout.

On the character select screen audiences had to choose from one of eight available monsters. An additional two monsters could be earned with battle points. Whichever creature the audience chose became the star of the game. The plot was very straightforward. The star was going to do battle with whatever other monster, or monsters they came across. War of the Monsters set players right in the middle of the action and did not waste too much time with backstory. The levels began with a portion of a "film" playing out before them. It highlight a specific rival and stage setting. In one stage there was a monster chasing police and military vehicles, in another it was giant robots fending off UFOs. In each case the camera would then turn and focus on the player-controlled monster and start the action.

The monsters were fairly diverse and inspired by several generations of icons. The giant lizard Togera and ape Congar were expected as were the giant Japanese mecha Ultra-V and giant praying mantis Preytor. Those four represented the classic archetypes from cinema. The other characters were inspired by various creatures but came off as fairly original. To help diversity the cast players could unlock "costumes" for the creatures. The game rewarded credits for the damage players caused and the number of opponents they defeated. Boss characters were worth tremendous points. Players could turn in these credits at the concession stand to unlock costumes and levels. The new skins were meant to be seen as completely new characters. It was not unlike what Pipeworks had attempted to do with Rampage.

In the first level Congar was being pursued by the military. It was assumed that they recovered the body after the player had defeated him. Congar was returned by military transport choppers a few levels later with an entirely different look. He had been turned into a weapon to fight the other monsters. The newly created cyborg Congar had half a robotic face and eerie glowing eye. Even his limbs were replaced with machinery. This costume was available to be purchased as well as an albino ape, possibly interpreted as an abominable snowman. The fourth costume for each character often turned out to be the most original and the one least likely to be confused as just another re-skinned character. For Congar that was an alien with metallic skin. All four of the costume choices for each monster were well done.

The visuals hooked the players but the game play itself was what kept them coming back. I would like to spend the next blog looking at the game in depth. I hope to see you back for the next entry!