Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Monuments of Mars (1990)

The only change between episode titles is the volume and episode name
Name:The Monuments of Mars
Developer:Scenario Developments
Genre:Side-Scroller Shooter
Time:2 hours 25 minutes
Won:Yes (65W/58L)

Monuments of Mars is another curious early Apogee title. Much like The Thor Trilogy, when the game was released is unclear. When the game was released for free, it was said to be from 1990, but everywhere else says 1991. People also say the game is called Monuments of Mars, but as far as I can tell the game itself uses The Monuments of Mars. Judging by the level of care everyone has put into the documenting of this game, I'm expecting something on the level of the last Apogee game. That said, browsing through the instructions and story options on the menu, there's a lot more put into the presentation of this game. I also love how there's a warning that this (CGA) game is too intensive for some CPUs.

So the story, such as it is, is that NASA has discovered structures on Mars, and all their attempts at exploring them have gone badly. You, THE LAST HOPE, are being sent in to see what happened to those that went before you. In addition to the Doom vibes this game gives off, I like the unintentional implication that NASA is pulling human wave tactics with this place. You're the last hope, but you also get unlimited lives. Maybe you just represent them sending more and more "last hopes" into the place, hoping someone will find something eventually.

Upon starting, I have to say, this actually looks good for a CGA game. Took a forgotten CGA title released after VGA came out, but hey, it had to happen sooner or later. This is a single platformer I might add, side-scroller is just what I tend to call every game with this perspective. Control-wise, the NUMPAD4 & 6 move, space jumps, the enter key activates whatever is nearby, and the left shift key shoots. All rebindable, but it works as is for me. My issue is that the combination of jumping and moving feels stiff. You have to jump up any slope. Shooting is fine, very Keen-ish in that you get small ammo pick-ups around the game. You get one shot on-screen and hitting anything hostile kills you.

You literally can't get a score as long as George has

While I was just starting the game, I noticed the score menu. I shot one alien is my score, although the real reason I got 2.5k is because I also advanced one screen. I like how there are references to other big shareware characters of the time. Guess Captain Comic was big then, even if Keen absolutely decimated everyone else. I find it amusing that Roger Wilco is number one, perhaps because of one interview I read not too long ago about how Wolfenstein 3D was nearly Sierra's game.

So after a few light levels we get the interior. Right away this game is more interesting than Thor, but I notice a certain someone made famous by another game. Yeah, that's one of the aliens from Keen. We also have floating robots and...the other alien. I saw a bit of it trying to get in, but it seems the focus here is on getting around enemies, that robot is basically useless as an enemy here. This introduces a couple of common elements, that thing under the Martian is a computer, which turns off the electric field. The square next to the other alien is a keycard, you can use that on the funny looking wall. Finally, that triangle on the right opens up access to the rest of the triangles and the gun bit. Perhaps I'm just starved for this kind of this, but I think the game works rather well.

Level 8 starts giving me some I Wanna Be the Guy flashes. You're spawned directly over spikes and you have to avoid falling on those. The path forward is walking behind that Martian and jump over him as soon as you can. Not easy with these controls. Or you could shoot him. Then climb up, shooting the robot and the other alien, at which point you jump into that pit and shoot the thing on the ground. At some point during this, some of the walls disappear. Walk through the lower hole and a pathway spawns to the card out.

It would all be least for a game released in 1985/86. In 1990, of course, its hard to argue with Keen, but there's a deeper issue than CGA/EGA. The controls and the way your location is calculated. The game does a whole bunch of weird trickery where you can get killed by something a floor above you or by a set of spikes you actually missed. The controls are not kind of stiff, they're very stiff. You get a very poor jump arc, about three tiles up and two tiles sideways, if you hit it right. This is more downward momentum than upward. You also stop dead and then fall down if you collect an item. Forget dropping down a hole, and turning around to hit something. It gets worse when the game starts adding in moveable crates.

This is partially down to the physics issues with the crates, and partially down to the game requiring you to be incredibly precise. By the thirteenth level or so the game turns into a series of actions you have to take or you have to restart the level. Let's take this one, level 15. If you push that block to the left, you've lost. If you fail to turn off the electrical field, you've lost, you need both cards. If you climb up to the upper left and fail to get the card, you can't get back there. And finally, this one's more of a trick, the computer at the bottom spawns some treasure items you can't actually use.

Level 19, this one's harder than it appears at first glance and easier than I thought it was. You dodge the first robot, and remove the points items you can against the second to obtain the first card. (shooting would remove precious shots and you don't know if you'll need them later) Then, shoot the third robot, turn off the top switch, and then carefully press the second one, possibly shooting the other alien and taking the second card. Now, with the platform on the left activated and the electric field disabled, you can shoot the robot and activate the final computer, so you can leave the level. (I assumed it was harder because I didn't realize the button did anything) Then, after shooting the final robot, you have to carefully jump over the spike pits. This is very obtuse why I assumed the electrical field on the left couldn't be disabled, you have just enough space to jump over those pits. And then restart because you realized that cards don't stack.

Level 20 is the final level of the first episode. Its still hard, but compared to the last one it's a lot better. The big issue is getting those blocks down in a manageable way so you don't get overwhelmed by the robots and the turret. The one three tiles from the top on the right side of the blocks. They've always been annoying things, but they aren't unmanagable until now. You destroy them by shooting a radar dish, in this case below it. After this, it's simple to deactivate the electric field and free the astronauts. The first part is over.

Episode 2 is called The Pyramid, because you enter a pyramid on the second screen. If you thought there was any chance of the game easing up, you'd be wrong. As soon as you enter the pyramid its pretty much the same think the last game ended on. But special shoutout to Level 7 for doing exactly what I Wanna Be the Guy would do, require you to figure out where to fall so you can get even play the level. Man, this game is cruel.
Level 9, another bizarre mess. At first it looks like you need to press both switches to get out, moving that crate up top onto the one on the right. But that's not it, no, the issue is that to get the card you need to push all four crates below it. Or I guess you could try perching one carefully over the level. Then there's that dripping pipe. Haven't brought them up before since they haven't been quite as annoying as this episode has had them. Basically every level so far has been centered around putting the player in a trap with them. There's only one droplet so you can detect when to go down, but its annoying hearing them drip constantly over a place it can't properly spawn.

Level 12 is interesting, not because of what you have to do. That's easy, activate both switches and open the door when the robot isn't heading there. No, what's tricky is what you need to do to get that ammo pack. On the last stage I had to burn through my last shots to advance, meaning that pack was necessary. Timing dropping the crate is a bit tricky, you need to have the robot on the right otherwise you'll have to waste a shot on him. But for once the game doesn't seem to treat my character as existing in multiple squares at once as I push that robot into the corner, that turret shooting at me all the while.

Just so you don't think all levels in this episode are some neverending nightmare, level 14 is something of breeze. It looks like its hard, but you can get through here without taking a shot easily, at least outside of the top fellow, didn't see much point in not taking him out. Yeah, even the ammo is easy enough. You just need to jump onto higher platforms whenever two are at the edge of the screen. (unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of the right levels between 12 and 18)

Level 17. After what amounts to a points level which you can skip without any penalty whatsoever, we have this annoying level. It looks simple enough, get past that alien on the ceiling, grab the ammo, shoot the top alien, then walk down to the buttons...which you can't reach. So I do what I always do in this game, walk over to any parts that seem like the game might activate something for walking over, in this case the top left. That removes all the X blocks on the left side. The thing about that is, it does this slowly and you can't do anything until its over. And that is a very thin hole to fall down into. It activates when you're just about to hit the right area, meaning you're over the field and its very easy to overcorrect and hit the left field. Worse still, when you reach the bottom, its possible for that alien to be under you and you can't shoot him until he's past the button on the right.

Level 18, oh, wow, I think. This is going to be a nightmare. Well, at least I don't need to worry about taking out these aliens. So I shoot the one on the right and then prepare myself for the worst, pushing the bottom crate out...and it comes out quite easily. I don't even need to take out the left alien. I...wasn't expecting that.

Level 19, astronaut level. I thought the commercial episodes had more levels? This feels very deceptive, what evil plot is lurking here? What you do is grab the card, shoot the alien and robots, and activate the computer. The astronauts are freed and the floor beneath the blocks disappears. The floor above the astronauts are still there, so you can just walk out to the final level. Which is just walking past some robots. Yeah, this game pulling some really evil levels just gives you three easy levels at the end of this episode.

Episode 3 is called The Fortress and starts exactly where the last episode left off. And outside of a tricky jump to get a pack of ammo and the first real level dropping you in an unwinnable situation if you don't have advance knowledge, is fairly simple. This strange mercy continues until level 9.

Once again, I didn't take a screenshot of the right level, so here's one of the really easy levels
Level 9 at first seems like some horrible puzzle you have to unfold, until through brutal force it becomes clear its just a test of reflexes. Really? After all this time you want to be a regular platformer? You've got to jump quickly up, making sure you can create a gap in the crates you can escape from. Then you just have to be quick on the draw against the robot. And then it just sort of goes by.
Yeah, this episode went by without much notable stuff happening. It all feels like this should have been episode 1 rather than episode 3. This encounter isn't as easy as episode 2's, but it still feels too easy for the final level. As the next level is one repeated at the beginning of episode 4.

Episode 4, The Face. Creepy. Continuing on the same track as episode 3, I just breeze by it. Glad I didn't try to stretch this game out to multiple entries. Its not that I dislike these levels, these feel far more like what the game should be trying to do, I just don't have anything interesting to say. What you see is what you get on many levels. Like even this, level 8. You have to shoot the alien, activate the computer and then the rest of the level falls into place easy, just a bit of tight squeeze falling into that corridor above the spikes.

Level 9, seriously, were the episodes mixed up somehow? When I saw the pillar of crates I assumed this would be some tricky level, but then the robot just topples them over for me. This absolutely should have been in the first episode. This feels like a subtle tutorial level, the game itself activates some part of the game world, now you know that's a thing. I look at this and I'm just left perplexed.

I somehow managed to take screenshots of all levels in Episode 4 except two I was talking about, wow
Then the follow-up, again this feels like the game introducing elements and how to defeat them. There's a radar dish all along and the turret is in a place where it'll never ever shoot at you. If they mixed up the episodes, this wouldn't be the last time. Halloween Harry got renamed into Alien Carnage, and the level order got changed around. Something I think really screwed it over, because you then got two episodes (out of four) without ever paying Apogee anything.

Because as I continue through here, I can't shake that feeling. Level 17 gives me some trouble, but again, its not because of any real difficulty as much as the game's controls not working as well as I'd like. Its not even that these levels are bad, I just found the harder ones to be more enjoyable. This engine doesn't have the ability to pull of a regular platformer.

And the game just ends, unceremoniously, with the player walking past a statue, without any answer or idea of what the heck just went on. Just a short paragraph saying I'm going to report back to NASA. Unmentioned, what the heck was going on with the aliens and the robots and this whole complex. It just happened. Why were they even captured if there's no other sign of it happening?

That was interesting. In some ways I think I liked this more than Keen, even if that's generally the more superior choice. Keen is more interesting to look at, has a more favorable intro episode, isn't brown, and has a more charming personality and atmosphere. This, meanwhile, just feels like it's about to break with every jump and every crate.

Despite this, Monuments feels like it was made by a better developer who was severely hampered by the poor quality of his tools. Difficult though it may be, the most is made of a limited and simple toolset, and I think the end result, while far from perfect, is an interesting product. It's just that the product doesn't compare very well on the fun action gameplay of other platformers.

Your standard weapon. 1/10

The "alive" enemies act more or less the same way even if the robot doesn't require any ground. Still, that combination plus the strange turret creates an interesting combination. 2/10


At worst, a collection of decent levels with some very bizarre difficulty spikes; at best, a clever game hampered by the limitations of it's engine. 7/10

Player Agency:
There are many, perplexing design issues with the way your character controls, but it's functional at least. 3/10

A considerable amount of environmental changes, but what you can actually do varies greatly from level to level. 3/10

A very strange aesthetic. A dark and very brown take on Mars, which does feel fitting. 2/10

Its nice for CGA. Different colors are used sparingly, I don't feel like my eyes are burning. Conversely, its not truly great. 2/10

I feel like despite having more story than The Thor Trilogy, what story there is has left me utterly perplexed and confused. Not great for a story that isn't very important. 0/10

PC speaker sound effects. They can get very annoying if something is supposed to be shot out of something and the place is blocked. 1/10

That's 21, or equal to the weakest of the original Keen trilogy.

The next title on this little tour of DOS shareware is the first from Epic, ZZT. Now that's one to watch out for.

1 comment:

  1. This game seems very Rick Dangerous or Jet Set Willy inspired.