How do I ignore thee, Monster Tale?
Let me count the ways.
I overlook thy most generic of generic names.
I scorn thy tedious kids-save-the-world conceit.
I disdain thy prosaic box art.
I yawn at thy derivative anime stylings.
I scoff at thy clinging to 2004 technology.
These truths evident, Monster Tale, tell me why
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. Or at least as much as Castlevania.
Monster Tale does its best to make you ignore it. But take note. If you overlook this gem, you will miss one of the best games ever released for the Nintendo DS.
Dreamrift, the studio that developed Henry Hatsworth, has produced a splendid hybrid game (aren’t all games hybrids these days?) that fuses Metroidvania exploration with Pokémon husbandry, mixed with RPG elements (don’t all games have RPG elements these days?). It's a marvelous concoction.
Monster Tale’s hero is a young girl named Ellie who whacks baddies with her handbag and raises a little sidekick named Chomp from scrappy infant to thunder-brawling adult. Together they navigate an ever-expanding map, unlock new areas and power-ups, free monsters from captivity, and evolve Chomp into a variety of forms useful for specific situations. Along the way Ellie must overcome platforming and puzzle challenges and face off against several pathological kid-bosses.
Does any of this sound groundbreaking? Nope. Does it matter? Nope.
Monster Tale illustrates how a clever hybrid design can do more than simply mash together familiar elements. Henry Hatsworth showed how genre fusion can be less about mixing and more about juggling. In that game, Dreamrift assigned the DS’s two screens to separate mechanical functions - the top for platforming and the bottom for Bejeweled-style puzzling. Activity on one screen impacted events on the other (often frenetically so) but each screen essentially hosted a self-contained game. It was stylish fun, but the two styles never quite clicked for me.
Monster Tale cannily iterates on that formula by reassigning the bottom screen to a monster pet sanctuary where Chomp eats, grows, and recovers. At any point in the action above, Chomp can be summoned to the top screen to help Ellie battle baddies. As you progress, Ellie acquires a battery of special moves, and Chomp evolves in customizable forms with strengths and weaknesses against certain enemies.
Deep pet simulator?
When you account for the branching complexity of the pet simulator elements of Monster Tale and combine them with the platforming and boss-battle challenges, you discover an accessible game rooted in a surprisingly deep core system. It's quite brilliant, actually. Lead Designer Peter Ong describes his approach:
We...thought the concept of pet-raising was interesting, but we were unsatisfied with the extent to which typical pet-raising games integrate the growth of the pet into an overall game that matters. Our goal was to explore the idea of an evolving pet that can help the player within a different type of game mode, producing a combination that we haven’t seen before.**
Wisely, the game constrains Chomp’s abilities - he grows tired on the top screen and must be sent below to recover - and sometimes Ellie is better off doing things herself. So the player must decide when to use Chomp and when to let him stay below. As a shrewd added benefit, Chomp can use items you collect for him (e.g. catapult, soccer ball, race car) from the bottom screen, launching them into the top screen to assist Ellie.
Against the grain
Dreamrift seems to relish unconventional protagonists. Henry Hatsworth was an aging, bluster-prone English explorer fond of tea. Monster Tale continues the studio’s nonconformist approach with a young, wide-eyed girl who simply wants to find her way home. This decision did not go over well with publishers, according to Ong:
This choice was actually somewhat controversial with some publishers. Our experience was that many publishers are looking to avert the risk of a main character that hasn’t been proven to capture large audiences. As a result, there was some concern from publishers that Ellie should change to a male or a more mature/sexy female.**
Kudos to Dreamrift for sticking to its guns, and kudos to Majesco for publishing this terrific game. Do we really need more hulking-badass men or sexy-dangerous women in our games? Yeah, I know. Nobody's listening.
I have only two minor complaints about Monster Tale. The game occasionally suffers from pedestrian level design (I love the colorful visuals, but the platforming can be unimaginative and repetitive). The game also requires too much backtracking, and the same enemies respawn in the same locations throughout. One upside, however (unlike other Metroidvania titles), is that you can use this backtracking to grind Chomp’s level up, so retracing your steps feels at least a little productive.
It’s fun to discover unheralded games and proclaim their merits, but I can’t take credit for this one. Brad Gallaway recommended Monster Tale on my last podcast, and I owe him a big thanks. I encourage you to give this wonderful little game a try. Reward developers and publishers willing to devote their creativity and resources to risky new IP.
How do I love thee, Monster Tale? Let me count the ways.
**Nintendo Power, January 2011