One of my biggest regrets in life will always be trading in my PS2 along with its accompanying collection of games. Don’t get me wrong, the copies of Devil May Cry 4 and Pokemon Pearl I got out of the trade tided me over for a while, but the loss of the previous three DMC games, the original Monster Hunter, Shadow of the Colossus and a whole host of other games soon hit me like a frying pan to the face.
The game I was saddest to see go was War of the Monsters, developed by Incognito Entertainment and released on the console in 2003. Inspired both by Japanese ‘kaiju’ monster movies (think Godzilla) and 1950s American sci-fi (think Earth vs the Flying Saucers), WotM is a 3D arena-based brawler in which up to four giant creatures battle to the death, leveling buildings and causing chaos as they go. I have very fond memories of it, being one of the first games I experienced in split-screen multiplayer and becoming a game night staple right up until we were parted.
And so it was with a little internal squeal that I heard a small number of PlayStation 2 classics had been released on the PS4, and that one of them was War of the Monsters. I dutifully handed Mr Sony my eight British pounds and, at long last, we were reunited.
I booted it up and jumped straight into ‘2-player’ (Old English for ‘multiplayer’) to face off against a friend I played the game with ten years ago. The nostalgia levels were 8,999 (not quite 9,000), but does the Beast from 2003 stand the test of time, or does it shatter our lovely rose-tinted glasses with its giant monster foot?
First things first, the PS4 version of War of the Monsters is upscaled to HD resolution rather than being remastered for it. This means that while the game looks notably crisper than it did two generations ago, all the textures remain unchanged. Black bars at the sides of the screen serve as a reminder of the old 4:3 ratio, and a slight jitter to the picture is likely a result of the emulation process. The higher resolution does give it a new lease of life, but the game is twelve years old and it shows. It doesn’t matter though; in fact, today these graphics further add to the game’s charm, more closely resembling the bad effects and shoddy sets of the films the game pays homage to.
Not so charming is the control scheme, which is dated to the point where it initially seemed unplayable. The camera follows you as you turn with the left analog stick and, while you can use the right stick to position it, the sensitivity is awful and you can’t invert the already-inverted controls. As for strafing, this is handled by L1 and R1, whereas holding both buttons together locks on to the enemy.
I almost wanted to cry for the first few minutes. As my clearly drunk monster futilely attempted to navigate the map, spinning in circles and running into skyscrapers, I worried that I would never again be able to fully enjoy one of my favourite games. Nowadays we are so used to control schemes being mostly standardised, that going back to older titles can be arduous and even heartbreaking. Just try playing Goldeneye, you need three hands!
Around five minutes into the game, the controls clicked and it all came flooding back like the tidal wave you can trigger in the ‘Tsunopolis’ map by throwing something at the UFO. My main tidbit of advice would be to treat the right analog stick like a leper and don’t go near it, for it will only cause you misery. Handle the camera with the left stick and thorough use of the lock-on control and you’ll be owning the battlefield in no time.
The unlock system is also archaic. When you start the game, two characters, three game modes and four maps are locked, requiring you to spend ‘Battle Points’ earned in single player to get hold of them. What’s annoying is the number of points all of these need to unlock, meaning you’ll have to play a lot on your own, which is not the best idea for a game of which the primary focus is multiplayer. The game’s campaign is not the worst, being simply a series of battles against AI monsters interspersed with the odd boss fight, but the game’s single player appeal is limited, and if you haven’t got mates over you’d likely rather play something else. You can have a great time smashing around your friends with the initial content, but you’re going to have to grind for two of the coolest characters and some great maps to make the multiplayer experience complete.
All that said, why should you put with such a dated game, besides the call of nostalgia? Well, it’s simple really. The gameplay itself hasn’t aged a day, and it’s just as fun to play now as it was in 2003. The maps are fully-destructible playgrounds, getting progressively more ruined as the match goes on. Every building can be leveled, or climbed with a press of the circle button to give you a better view of the battlefield. Countless objects are littered everywhere to be wielded or thrown, from cars and trains to pylons and huge steel girders. There are also secrets aplenty; one map hides a giant sword, whereas another allows you to trigger a nuclear meltdown.
As for the gargantuan beasts themselves, there are ten in total to pick from. There’s not a massive amount of variety in how they play, but each monster is unique enough for everyone to have their favourite. For example, Kineticlops, a frog-like creature formed of electricity encasing a single eyeball, is very quick to get up after being knocked down but has lower overall health, whereas four-armed volcano Magmo is slow but has a devastatingly powerful special attack. Raptros is a flying, fire-breathing dragon but – wait, Raptros has no drawbacks because he’s fucking ace. I got so much shit for picking him all the time. They may be few, but they have bags of character, and you’ll likely find yourself wanting an Ultra-V action figure in no time.
In the all the best ways for local multiplayer, the combat is simple, accessible and button mashy, with one button each for light and heavy attacks as well as a block and a grapple. There are no combos to learn, making every close-combat bout a frantic rock-paper-scissors of whack-block-grab.
With all the mashing, an extended melee could be boring, but War of the Monsters has more of a get-in, get-out approach to fighting. You locate your target and stomp across the city towards them, scaling buildings with the consistently fun climbing mechanic and blasting them with your long range attacks. You reach the top of a skyscraper, grab a helicopter out of the sky and throw it down at the monster below you, before crashing to the ground yourself with a thundering slam and knocking them off their feet. After delivering some fisticuffs to their face, you pull back, searching for more things to throw and collecting pickups to restore your health and energy. The inclusion of these pickups might seem very much a thing of the past, but they actively encourage you to move and jump around the city between face-offs, giving the game a whole extra dynamic.
It doesn’t have as much depth as a Street Fighter, but it’s the moments that it creates that will keep you coming back for more. Impaling your opponent with a pylon, only for them to pull it out and lob it back at you is hilarious every time, and accidentally getting crushed and instakilled by a toppling office block will likely be the highlight of your game session. This is helped in no small part by the game’s brilliant thematic style and excellent monster movie soundtrack, which all come together to form a properly memorable experience. Nostalgia for the great era of the PlayStation 2 certainly does play a role; in an age of kill-streaks, loadouts, prestiging and children screaming obscenities over Xbox Live, it’s rather refreshing to return to a time when none of these existed. The fact stands, however, that War of the Monsters was a bloody well designed game back then and it still bloody well is now.
So then, should you spend eight pounds of your hard-earned dosh on War of the Monsters? Well, if you have played and loved it before, then those eight pounds should be spent on nothing else. The core game has held up remarkably well, and, providing you have access to a friend or three, you’ll get as much enjoyment out of it as you ever did when you were ten years younger and had less hair on parts of your body that aren’t your head. As for if you’re coming to it new, I’d still say to give it a go. Sure, the controls are finicky and the textures are arse, but, like the classic movies themselves, the fun of War of the Monsters just never gets old.
And thus endeth the Word of Tom.