In 1954, a Japanese film production company named Toho planned to co-produce a film with Indonesia called In the Shadow of Glory. It was to be about the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. The project came to an end when anti-Japanese sentiment in Indonesia forced the government to deny visas for the filmmakers. A producer by the name of Tomoyuki Tanaka attempted to negotiate with the Indonesian government in Jakarta, but to no avail. On the return flight, Mr. Tanaka conceived an idea for a giant monster film, having been inspired by Eugène Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Another inspiration was the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon) Incident. It was a fishing boat transporting twenty-three men contaminated by nuclear fallout following the United States’ Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954.
Mr. Tanaka drafted an outline for the film under the tentative title The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and pitched it to executive producer Iwao Mori. Mr. Mori approved the project one month later after determining the financial feasibility of the project. Once the project was greenlit, Mr. Tanaka wasted no time choosing a director: one Ishirō Honda. Early in development, Mr. Tanaka intended for the monster to be designed after a gorilla or a whale. It was through this contemplation that the creature got its name: Gojira. It combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale – “gorira” and “kujira” respectively. Another possible origin is that the large stature of one Toho employee caused him to be nicknamed Gojira. Despite the initial plans, Akira Watanabe, the special effects art director, wished to base the monster’s design off of dinosaurs. Much like the title monster of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong, Gojira was intended to be rendered using stop motion animation. However, Mr. Tanaka pointed out that such an undertaking would take seven years to complete. To circumvent this limitation, a large, rubber suit representing the monster was constructed.
The film was released in Nagoya in October of 1954 before receiving a wide, domestic release the following week. In its original form, Gojira received fairly negative reviews. Critics at the time accused the film of being exploitative. As the narrative delivered a clear allegory for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that occurred just nine years prior, the film opened up fresh wounds. Mr. Honda was particularly distraught, for his crew had worked hard to produce the film. Luckily, his work wasn’t for naught. Gojira was recut and subsequently distributed to the United States under the name Godzilla: King of the Monsters! Once the film made its international debut, Mr. Honda’s film gained a new lease on life. It was a box office success, and ensured the title creature’s place in pop culture worldwide. With a hit on their hands, Toho ended up producing several sequels to Godzilla. Every decade for the remainder of the century would see the debut of multiple Godzilla films, eventually making it the longest-running film franchise in history.
Around two decades after the debut of Godzilla, the world would see the rise of a new artistic medium. This one stood out from any of its predecessors by virtue of letting the audience control the characters within the work. These creations came to be known as video games. With Godzilla being one of the most recognizable film monsters of all time, it didn’t take long for developers to try to secure the license and create their own interpretation. The first such attempt was a 1983 Commodore 64 game, though it quickly fell into obscurity. After the launch of Nintendo’s internationally successful home console, the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in the West), one developer by the name of Compile saw fit to create a Godzilla game of their own. The fruit of their labors was released domestically in December of 1988 before debuting in North America in 1989 and Europe in 1991. In its native homeland, the game was simply dubbed Godzilla, but fans overseas would know it by the name Godzilla: Monster of Monsters. Was Monster of Monsters able to give one of Japan’s most iconic creations a triumphant debut in a new medium?
Analyzing the Experience
It is said that whenever Pluto and Neptune switch positions in the Solar System, the mysterious Planet X appears. It is now the year 2XXX and such a scenario has come to pass. Following the appearance of Planet X, the denizens declare war on Earth. They have dispatched a legion of monsters as their vanguard. In response, Godzilla, a giant being known to Earthlings as the King of the Monsters, has joined forces with the planet’s guardian, Mothra. With the help of Earth’s defense forces, the two titans head out on a galaxy-spanning journey to repel the invasion.
Although one could get the impression Monster of Monsters is a straightforward action affair, you are not immediately thrown into the thick of things. Not unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released domestically two months prior, Monster of Monsters places your two playable characters, Godzilla and Mothra, on a world map. The map resembles something one would find in a turn-based strategy game, though individual spaces are notably rendered as interlocking hexagons rather than squares.
Not coincidentally, the overall goal of Monster of Monsters is similar to that of Famicom Wars, the strategy game developed by Intelligent Systems and Nintendo’s premier R&D branch, which was also released earlier in 1988. The space containing the building with the large satellite dish is the enemy’s headquarters. With two monsters on your side, your goal is to occupy the base. To move a monster, you must select it with the cursor. The selected monster is then colored in, and you can use the directional pad to move them. Each monster has a certain number of spaces they can traverse per turn, though the exact number depends on the version you’re playing. In the original Japanese release, Godzilla can only move one space per turn while Mothra can move two. For the Western version, Godzilla can move two spaces per turn and Mothra four. You can only move one monster per turn. Once your turn has passed, the enemy will then move one of their own monsters.
Interestingly, the core gameplay of Monster of Monsters changes subtly depending on which monster you choose.
As the King of the Monsters, Godzilla doesn’t settle for dodging enemy attacks or retreating. Not only are you not allowed to backtrack, he doesn’t even have a sprite that faces to the left. Instead, as Godzilla, you are given carte blanche to destroy anything that moves. He has three primary means of accomplishing this task. The “A” button causes Godzilla to throw a punch while the “B” button makes him kick. By ducking and pressing the “B” button, he will swing his tail at the enemies. Punching is ideal to take out enemies that are Godzilla’s size whereas kicking is useful for dispatching smaller, ground-based foes. Godzilla’s tail swing is his most powerful attack, but it’s also fairly slow, leaving him open to enemy retaliation if you’re not careful. As the “B” and “A” buttons are used for attacking, one must press up on the directional pad in order to make Godzilla jump. Owing to its side-scrolling presentation, Monster of Monsters is highly similar to Irem’s arcade classic Kung Fu Master – when playing as Godzilla, that is.
Alternatively, you could decide to mobilize Mothra on your first turn instead. If Monster of Monsters is a beat ‘em up when playing as Godzilla, Mothra turns the experience into an unorthodox shoot ‘em up. While Godzilla has to deal with each and every obstacle that crosses his path, Mothra is significantly more maneuverable. Being a giant moth, Mothra can simply fly over the stalagmites Godzilla needs to destroy in order to advance. She also notably has a ranged attack in the form of her eye beams. This can be activated by pressing either the “B” or “A” buttons. Although it sounds as though Mothra is more powerful than Godzilla despite having fewer moves in her repertoire, there are a few tradeoffs. While Godzilla is fully capable of enduring anything the enemies throw at him, Mothra is significantly more fragile. When hit with any enemy attack, Mothra is forced to the bottom-left corner of the screen. Without the benefit of the post-hit invincibility that was commonplace in many contemporary efforts, the damage can add up very quickly.
Regardless of the monster you choose, the interface has two prominently displayed meters: Life and Power. Life is straightforward enough; it measures your monster’s vitality. Power, on the other hand, could be seen as this game’s equivalent to a mana system. By pressing the “SELECT” button, your monster will execute a special attack. Godzilla can fire his signature atomic breath, which inflicts severe damage to any enemy unfortunate enough to be caught in it. Likewise, Mothra can drop poisonous scales on her opposition from above. Luckily, she will not lose her ability to fly by doing this.
Famicom Wars made use of its world map to expedite the units’ movements. It was much like how an RPG uses a world map to cut out the uninteresting portions of a character’s journey while allowing players to grasp its sheer scale. However, Monster of Monsters makes you play through every single leg of your characters’ journey. Each space on the map could be thought of as a miniature stage – all one screen large. This means if you decide to make use of Mothra’s impressive movement range and have her advance four spaces, she will need to traverse four screens consecutively.
Interestingly, Monster of Monsters does indeed possess a few role-playing elements. By completing certain stages or defeating one of the enemy’s monsters, Godzilla or Mothra will gain a level. This increases both their health and power meters. It also increases how quickly the power meter regenerates. If one of them is defeated, you cannot use them for the rest of the board. They are be resurrected when you reach the next, but in exchange, they will be demoted one level. Although you can get away with only one of them surviving, if one has already advanced to the next board, the other must follow suit. If they don’t, you must restart the board from the beginning.
Just like in any other turn-based strategy game, your units cannot pass spaces occupied by enemies. However, Monster of Monsters goes a step further in that your monsters can’t pass the area around an enemy. This means you can’t simply sneak past the monsters and make a beeline for the base. Because conflict is unavoidable, you will eventually have no choice but to engage the enemy directly. The first board contains two enemy monsters: Moguera and Gezora. To attack an enemy monster, you must move either Godzilla or Mothra to an adjacent space and confirm you wish to fight when the menu pops up. If more than one monster is adjacent to the space Godzilla or Mothra occupies, you must cycle through the menus that appear. If you’re moving to the enemy’s space, you must complete every stage on the way there to fight them. On the other hand, if they reach your monster’s space first, you are thrown directly into combat.
The act of engaging monsters in Monster of Monsters brings to mind how a typical fighting game pans out. However, because this game was released before the genre had been popularized, there are a few oddities present. You don’t need to memorize button combinations to execute special attacks; the controls are exactly the same as the scheme used for the side-scrolling portions. Every single opponent you face have both power and life meters, which function exactly the same for them as it does for you. Monster fights are entirely solo affairs, and there is no opportunity to heal in the middle of combat.
Unlike the normal stages, however, there is a time limit. If it elapses, the fight will automatically end and the enemy monster regains a portion of its health. On its face, the time limit sounds extremely detrimental. Considering how much damage enemies can take, it is very easy to gain the upper hand only for your monster to get kicked back to the board. To make matters worse, you don’t actually get to see the time limit. By simply being in combat for a long enough time, you run the risk of being interrupted. On top of that, if an enemy monster is near death when the time limit runs out, they can retreat, depriving your monster of an opportunity to advance a level. Although these facets are indeed annoying, the time limit is something of a mixed blessing. This is because there is nothing stopping you from revisiting a previous stage to regain health yourself. While it does needlessly draw out the game out, it is preferable to losing a monster.
Unfortunately, as bad as the time limit can be, it is ultimately the least of this game’s problems. The single defining flaw of Monster of Monsters is that the gameplay is greatly overcomplicated. There really aren’t any advanced tactics to consider when you’re moving your monsters; as long as they can reach the headquarters intact, you win. If you’re losing whenever Godzilla or Mothra come face-to-face with a certain enemy, it’s usually a sign that you didn’t level them up properly. If you were to leave a single unit in the center of the battlefield in Famicom Wars, they would get decimated instantly. In Monster of Monsters, it’s a viable tactic. Although I can’t deny that Godzilla being able to destroy any monster foolhardy enough to invoke his ire is highly appropriate, this aspect fails to complement the game’s strategy elements.
It feels as though the developers intended for there to be a plethora of stages on the way to fighting the monsters. In doing so, they made the rookie mistake of assuming the quantity of the stages would make up for their poor quality. There are countless stages in this game, and not a single one of them stands out. They all take place on a completely flat terrain and feature very similar enemies. For the most part, only the backdrops of each planet differ, which makes the experience exceedingly monotonous.
When they do, you will find yourself questioning what is and isn’t an obstacle. In this screenshot, the volcano in the background is erupting. In a standard game, this would signpost to the player that they need to avoid the lava now raining down from the sky. In this game, the volcano, despite being in the background, is impeding your character’s progress. You will run into this problem far too often playing Monster of Monsters. There isn’t even any significant feedback whenever you’re destroying these obstacles. It’s not as though they flash or make any kind of sound effects when struck.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible that there is a sound effect, but attempting to fight in this game invariably devolves into a chaotic mess. In normal stages, you will be accosted by enemies from every conceivable direction. Mothra can dodge them easily enough, but Godzilla, being such a large target, often has no choice but to take every single one of them head-on. This might make the game sound unplayable, but I would be far more likely to describe it as mindless. Godzilla barely takes any damage from enemy attacks, and health refills are surprisingly common. As long as you can maintain his life meter, there’s little stopping you from mashing the attack buttons until you reach the end of a stage.
There is one egregiously insufferable exception that ruins this simple proposition, however. Every now and again, you will have to face a certain kind of enemy that vaguely resembles a horseshoe. Don’t be fooled by its unassuming appearance; crashing into it drains your monster’s health in a matter of seconds. It cannot be punched or shot down. The only way to dispatch them is by using Godzilla’s atomic breath. Mothra can dodge it easily enough, but if you’re playing as Godzilla and his power meter is drained, your only hope is to minimize the damage. This can be done by having Godzilla swing his tail while moving forward, though one isn’t likely to try such a tactic right away.
One of the more subtly irritating aspects of Monster of Monsters concerns its translation. Although it is not a story-heavy experience by any stretch of the imagination, a lot of confusion can ensue over the above scenario. In the event you decide not to move, the pictured menu appears. The exact phrasing of this question doesn’t take into account the subtle differences between Japanese and English. In Japanese, the words considered the equivalents of “yes” and “no” – “hai” and “iie” respectively – are used to confirm or contest the speaker’s insinuations. There is no ambiguity to be found when answering in such a fashion. Therefore, if one were to answer a question such as “Not going to move?” with “yes”, it is understood that the speaker, or program in this case, is correct and your turn would come to an end.
With the exception of invitations, asking negative questions in English usually requires the answering party to clear up any ambiguities. Why are you answering “yes” to when asked “Not going to move?” Are you saying that you do want to move or are you validating the text’s assessment? The same problem exists for the opposite response as well. Would answering “no” to such a question mean you do actually intend to move? For want of the ability to elaborate on your answer, this menu has the potential to cause English speakers to waste turns doing nothing if they accidentally push the “A” button an extra time. Given that monsters regain health every turn, you do not want to pass your turns unnecessarily if you can help it.
The boss fights themselves are pretty underwhelming as well. There are only eight monsters opposing Godzilla and Mothra – many of which are fought multiple times. Just like the stages themselves, this quickly becomes repetitive. They generally don’t require much of a strategy beyond hitting them with the one attack they have trouble defending against. Some simply can’t handle continuous punches while others are powerless before Mothra’s ranged attacks. On the other hand, they are fully capable of returning the favor. Gezora can be especially annoying courtesy of a programming error; it can push your monster into a corner and prevent them from attacking. This deals no damage, but it often causes the timer to run out. Given how the normal stages barely stand out, it’s disappointing that the monster fights don’t fare any better. King Ghidora awaits Godzilla and Mothra on Planet X, and while he is appropriately challenging, his appearance is too little, too late.
Drawing a Conclusion
There are a lot of reasons to condemn Monster of Monsters, but what I feel ultimately sinks the experience is that it doesn’t even feel finished. The monsters’ sprites barely animate at all, and the level design is so bland and forgettable, they come across as what other projects would consider debug areas. The game’s unpolished feel extends to behind the scenes as well. As the game was being developed, two additional monsters were slated to be playable: Anguirus and Rodan. However, because neither monster was fully implemented, I’m lead to believe Compile either ran out of time for this project or they overcomplicated the game to the extent that they lacked focus.
For many Godzilla fans, Monster of Monsters was the first game they got to play starring the world-famous kaiju. Although I could envision fans of the character enjoying it to some extent, I have no possible cause to recommend it to anyone else. As a platforming game, it has nothing to offer that contemporary efforts such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 couldn’t provide. If one were to look at it as a beat ‘em up, then it still feels far behind titles such as Double Dragon. Even if Famicom Wars was not released in North America, Monster of Monsters fails as a turn-based strategy game as well, for it doesn’t require players to exercise any kind of meaningful tactical knowledge. The only way in which it managed to be ahead of the curve was that its monster battles predicted the rising popularity of the tournament fighter, but even then, it didn’t retain its advantage for long. I can certainly say that the game was ambitious, but its inability to grasp what it wants to be is its downfall. Compile’s attempt at blending disparate genres was impressive in 1988, but it’s invariably better to have one great idea than mash together several half-formed ones.
Final Score: 2/10