Having recently experienced something dangerously close to fun while writing about Recalhorn and Bloodborne, I realise that a thorough bout of purifying self-flagellation is in order. Something painful, something viciously unpleasant, something that’s not just really bad but makes you wonder if the people who made it had ever played a videogame before. Oh, I know, let’s have an unlicensed NES game! They’re almost always bloody awful, and today’s game is no exception: it’s Color Dreams’ 1990 why-do-I-do-this-to-myself-em-up Menace Beach!
Oh, I see, you’ve gone for the “extremely unappealing mutant homunculus” look for your main character. A bold choice, admittedly, but one that I don’t think has really panned out. I don’t want to control this kid and experience his wacky adventures, I want to find very large paper bag to put over his distended cranium. Then set the bag on fire. Why has he got slitted cat’s pupils? I have to ask, because having played through the game as this weirdo I can assure you he does not have the heightened agility and reactions of a human-cat hybrid.
Also, I didn’t realise the game’s title was a play on “Venice Beach” until well after I’d finished it. If you saw me in real life – pale and blinking in the light like some troglodytic mole - you’d immediately understand that I’m not the kind of person who knows about beaches, even famous ones.
When it comes to plot, Menace Beach goes for the tried-and-tested “kidnapped girlfriend” angle. Ignore for the moment that the likelihood of that thing from the title screen going out on the town with a girl and not being banished to a circus sideshow is vanishingly small. This is Bunny, and she’s been abducted and chained up by someone, somewhere. She’s sending out mixed messages about the severity of her situation - casual disappointment that her date at the “malt shop” has been cancelled, a pun about being “tied up” and finally the subtle threat of violence if I don’t get my skates on and rescue her. And when I say “get my skates on,” I mean…
...get my skateboard on. That’s you, the player character, riding that skateboard. I believe his name is Scooter. I’m guessing it’s an ironic nickname because he really likes skateboards. He likes skateboards so much, in fact, that he spends the entire game riding one. Immediately it becomes clear that Menace Beach is going to be a real test of patience, because it’s a platformer where the main character has wheels. Do these wheels make him slide around all over the place in a manner that would not effect a more sensible, shoe-based platforming star? They most certainly do, and it is dreadful. Imagine a game designer thinking “hey, the kids sure love those ice levels where your character has friction of a knob of butter on a ski jump, so let’s make an entire game that handles like that!” I’m not even off Menace Beach’s first screen and I already hate it.
Then you’re attacked by ninjas. Good old ninjas. Rarely have I taken such an immediate dislike to a game’s protagonist, but as much as I’m rooting for the ninjas to win I’ve committed myself to playing through this game so I’d better beat them up. As well as jumping and sliding off whatever platform you were trying to land on, Scooter can also punch his enemies while he’s on the ground, or he can jump and use a far more effective spinning kick / skateboard clobber attack.
The screen stops scrolling until you defeat the mysterious shadow warrior, which is a shame because I’d have been quite happy to skate past them and on to the end of the stage, but they’re not too difficult to dispatch once you’ve got the hang of the spinning attack’s trajectory. In fact, I would recommend taking some time to get a good feel for the spinning attack, because not only is it good for defeating the bad guys, it also adds a little extra horizontal distance to your jumps, something which comes in very useful in later stages. Not in this first stage, though, because it’s just a flat plane patrolled by ninjas with one rooftop you can jump up to for an energy refill.
That’s pretty much it for the first stage. Move forward, spin-kick a ninja, move on to the next screen, repeat. They’re terrible ninjas, let’s be honest. Plus they remind me of Zool, who at least has the excuse of being from the Nth Dimension to explain why he doesn’t understand the concept of stealthy assassinations.
Also, clowns. Sure, why not. It makes more sense that the clowns would want to harm a child than the ninjas, because they’re clowns.
When you reach the end of the level – I know it says “world” up at the top but I don’t feel comfortable referring to something five screens long as a world – Scooter turns to face the camera and flips the player the ol’ double-bird. This seems like the perfect representation of the experience of playing Menace Beach.
“Meanwhile at Demon Dan’s” it says, so I guess Bunny has been kidnapped by someone called Demon Dan. He sounds like a used car salesman from Texas. “C’mon down to Demon Dan’s! We’ve got hellish hatchbacks, sinful sedans and pick-up trucks desanctified by the blood of a slaughtered goat, all at prices so low you’ll renounce the works of Christ the Saviour!”
As for Bunny, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s really angry that I haven’t saved her yet. I think the word “ungrateful” is what I’m looking for here. C’mon, lady, I’ve only just finished the first stage, so don’t call my masculinity into question. Also I’m playing as a child, telling him he’s not man enough is likely to cause some unfortunate psychological damage.
Stage two takes place in the sewers, where there’s more emphasis on platforms and zero ninjas. Don’t get too excited, though: the ninjas have merely been replaced by an army of Elvis impersonators that judder and flap around the screen in a way that makes a mockery of the grace and dignity of Elvis’ seventies jumpsuit phase.
Then I bumped into a lightswitch and everything went dark. On the plus side I can’t see as much of the game now, but it is making an already frustrating game that much more likely to make me feed my controller into a woodchipper. It’s a strange sort of selective darkness, too, and you can still see the various moving elements of the stage. The thin horizontal white lines are springboards that launch Scooter into the air if he rides over them. The thing at the bottom-left that looks like a tiny corridor leading to a distant light that might offer escape from this misery is actually a spinning… thing that launches Scooter horizontally if he touches it. The frog is a frog. So, what we’ve got here is a level in a videogame that already suffers from poor controls, a level that’s packed with obstacles that further reduce the amount of control you have over your character, a level that’s pitch-black, a level that I would use only mild hyperbole to describe as The Absolute Worst. That is, until you reach some of the sewer stages later in the game which take the same concept and ramp up the difficulty significantly.
Having managed to turn the lights back on, I can now see that there are bombs all over the stage. These bombs become more important later, but for now just know that Scooter can pick them up and throw them, being caught in the blast radius results in immediate death and one of the Elvises wandered too close to one of them and now they’re scouring an area the size of Kent in an attempt to find all his body parts.
Things are not going well for Bunny. Not only is she still chained up and is lashing out at Scooter in impotent rage, but things have taken a creepily sexual turn as her clothes begin to rot off. Hang on, rot off? She’s only been kidnapped for five minutes. What are her clothes made of, stale bread and chicken skin?
It’s back to the surface world for the next stage, where Menace Beach introduces the fearsome sumo warriors. I assume they’re sumos, anyway. You see a fat bloke in a loincloth and your mind immediately goes to sumos, but there’s no other Japanese theme to this game so maybe it’s just a fat bloke in a loincloth. Whoever they are, they really don’t like Scooter (understandable) and will attempt to murder him at any opportunity. They are, to be blunt, a real pain in the arse. They can only be killed by bombs, so you have to grab the bombs that are thrown on to the screen and try to put them somewhere near where the sumo might be at some point and hope. The sumos wander around, not really chasing you but never really leaving you alone either, and between their random wanderings, the fact that a misplaced bomb will kill Scooter in one hit, Scooter’s inability to place or throw the bombs like you’d expect from a normal human person with working arms and their highly damaging attacks, the sumos quickly became the bane of any Menace Beach player’s existence. Oh, and you have to defeat them of you can’t move on. They’re the supermarket own-brand version of Red Arremer from Ghouls n’ Ghosts, except designed without any finesse or charm or fairness, and I hate them. They appear in almost every stage from here on out, too. Fantastic.
More sewers, more sumos, more spinning things that slap the player around the stage. That tiny yellow square is a piston that pushes “out” of the background, poking into Scooter when he rides past and knocking him down to the lower platform. I’ve got to go down there anyway so I can kill that sumo, but I’d like to do it in my own time, you know?
The next stage takes place on a pier, down in the town’s crate district. It’s where they keep all the crates, you see, and also the quarantine zone for the ‘roided-out bodybuilders that replace the ninjas in these seafront stage. They’re pretty much the same as the other above-ground levels, only more annoying because sometimes a seagull will pick Scooter up and carry him back towards the beginning of the stage. These stages do at least contain the one single element of Menace Beach that made me smile – these people who pop out the crates and throw projectiles at Scooter. It’s the face that does it: no matter what the quality of the surrounded game, an expression of such pure goofiness is always going to cheer me right up. Yes, even if they are trying to bottle me like I’m 50 Cent at the Reading Festival. Supposedly Scooter can catch those bottles and throw them at the bad guys, but I’ve gotta say I never bothered. Having spent some time trying to get Scooter to simply move from one place to another, I didn’t fancy testing his dexterity against a glass bottle to the face.
The rest of Menace Beach’s dozen or so stages (aside from the final one) are all variants on these three locales, with the amount of frustrating bullshit ramped up accordingly as the game progresses. To call it “level design” would be woefully inaccurate – it’s more like someone loaded the game’s various enemies and traps into a firehose and blasted it all over the same three generic backgrounds. Menace Beach does get harder as it goes on, but more than that it get more irritating. If the concept of a hangover was adapted into a videogame, this would be it.
I have also come to realise that Bunny hasn’t been kidnapped, and that this is all part of her and Scooter’s kinky BDSM sex games – with a hint of a cuckoldry fetish thrown in, if her warning about Demon Dan preparing to “tickle” her are anything to go by. That’s fine, you can get up to whatever depraved nastiness you like in your spare time but don’t drag me into, all right?
So, did anything else of note happen during the game? Well, there was this time I found a balloon that let me fly over almost an entire stage, removing the need to actually play Menace Beach. That was nice. I enjoyed that bit.
Not so enjoyable was this section during one of the pier stages where I had to try to defeat a sumo while negotiating the small platforms – and just let me remind you, Scooter is still riding a skateboard. The bombs you need are located a couple of platforms away so you have to try to grab them without exploding, drag them over the sumo and throw them down one at a time. It took absolutely bloody ages. I could feel myself becoming a worse person each time I tried it. It’s a good job I don’t own a dog because after thirty attempts at this crap I would have kicked it across the room. No, no, I’m kidding. I would never do that, I love dogs. In fact, maybe a dog is just what I should have had to get through this section. If I could have stroked a puppy after each failed attempt, my blood pressure would be significantly lower.
The “best” thing about this section is that there’s a hole in the platform, and the sumo has no qualms about running off the edge and into the sea to avoid your bombs. This does not kill the sumo, it simply reappears to block your path. If you asked Sisyphus if he wanted to trade his task for this one, he’d say “nah, I’ll stick with the boulder, thanks.” At least that way he’s getting some healthy exercise.
God damn, I love these balloons. See you later, you ketchup-throwing piece of crap.
Unfortunately, there was no balloon available for this section. You’ve got to jump from platform to platform, yeah? But as you can see, there are no platforms available, just the open ocean. It’s a gap of about three screens, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to cross it. I think it’s something to do with finding the right rhythm of jumping, doing a spin-kick and then jumping again to maintain a certain level of horizontal movement that will get you over the gap, but I simply could not do it. Dozens of times I saw the platform I was heading for at the edge of the screen, only for Scooter to fall short. I probably spent more time trying to jump over this sodding gap than I did playing the rest of the game put together. I tried every possible variation of button pressing speed and take-off positions. I looked up video footage of someone else clearing the jump to try and figure out what I was doing wrong. None of it worked. I didn’t suffer through ten stages of Menace Beach’s insufferable bullshit just to be defeated by a large puddle, though, so I reset the game and used a level-skip cheat.
Menace Beach mocks you for using cheats, but maybe if its gameplay wasn’t so shit I wouldn’t have needed to resort to cheating? I feel confident that I have won the moral victory here.
Bunny is down to her underwear now, which conveniently is much more resistant to rotting than her other clothes. She’s also toned down her furious wrath towards Scooter, perhaps because she’s realised that he might actually reach her and if she keeps on calling him things like “dog breath” and “snotface” he might be inclined to leave her to Demon Dan’s tender affections.
This is the final stage, and it’s actually different to all the others! “Thank god for that,” I thought to myself with some trepidation, but it turns out it’s not even that bad! It’s pure platforming, and Scooter must get through the cave as fast as possible because every time he lands from a jump, a stalactite falls from the ceiling at the point where he landed. It’s nothing amazing, and it certainly doesn’t redeem the rest of the game, but the fact that you’re always moving forwards makes Scooter’s lack of friction less of an issue so you end up with a relatively tolerable section of platforming action. In most other NES platformers it would be completely unremarkable, but Menace Beach hasn’t so much lowered my expectations as it has sealed them in a lead casket and dropped them into the Marianas Trench.
It’s time for the final boss and hang on a minute, Demon Dan is an actual demon? A full-on goat-legged, pitchfork-waving servant of evil? I was expecting a Dick Dastardly type, not Satan Himself. Also, I don’t want to defeat Demon Dan. Look at him, he appears to be using his pitchfork as a pretend guitar while doing a duck walk. I bet he’s singing some AC/DC, so all told I felt kind of bad for jumping around to cause stalactites to fall on his head. Get ten or so rocks to fall onto Dan’s bonce and that’s it, Menace Beach is finally over and we can all move on with our lives.
In the ending, Bunny and Scooter go out for frosty chocolate milkshakes. Bunny appears to be significantly older than Scooter, to the extent that if I ran this malt shop I’d be calling the police. Mind you, she was chained up for quite a while, so maybe she’s simply been stretched so much that she’s ended up taller.
Oh, and Demon Dan pops out of a manhole and throws a skateboard onto the screen in the least convincing and least welcome sequel hook I’ve ever seen. Okay, second least, because I’ve seen Silent Hill: Revelation.
I usually do my best to give every game I write about a fair chance, because making a videogame is a difficult process that many people have worked hard on, but there was something about Menace Beach that made me take an instant dislike to it and the rest of the game never did anything to change my opinion. The controls are awful, the levels are awkward messes of lumped-together elements and frustrating, impossible to avoid hazards, it’s repetitive and it’s just not any fun to play. I don’t think it’s quite objectionable enough to get into my all-time top five worst games ever, but I hate it with a pure, unclouded venom nonetheless. Don’t play Menace Beach, is what I’m saying.
Before I leave this article behind, two quick notes: I found out after I’d finished the game that you can detonate any bombs you’ve thrown by pressing the select button. That sounds like it would have made fighting the sumos much less painful, and it does but only by a tiny amount because you’ve still got to grab a bomb and plant it correctly in the first place.
The other thing is that, in 1995, Menace Beach was reborn anew. Wisdom Tree, the Christian games company that was founded by members of Color Dreams, took Menace Beach, changed the graphics a little and re-released it as the God-friendly Sunday Funday. This version is about a kid who’s trying to get to Sunday school. Funnily enough, the scenes of Bunny chained up in her underwear are replaced by a Sunday school teacher (who is not chained up in her underwear). The sumos are also changed to equally large but more casually-dressed regular citizens, because I guess the ancient Japanese sport is judged to be unclean in the eyes of the Lord or something. Sunday Funday ends with the line “Sunday is a fun day when you spend it at church.” I sincerely doubt that any of the kids whose parents bought them Sunday Funday were convinced by this argument.
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