What Makes This Game Great: Mayhem in Monsterland

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By Kodiak

Until the advent of Sam's Journey on the Commodore 64, the superlative game on the platform was (for me and many others), Mayhem in Monsterland.

In fact, some would even say it still remains the apex (ahem) of C64 game creation to this day.

But either way, no matter what your view is of the greatest of all time, you can't reasonably argue that Mayhem is not a highlight of Commodore 64 gaming history.

So let's consider the main reasons why:

  • It looks amazing; the graphics are in the stratosphere, with ultra professional and meticulous attention given to the colour scheme - no sprites clashing with backdrops here, unlike the unfortunate Flimbo's Quest, which really suffered from visibility issues.
  • Mayhem in Monsterland
  • The sounds effects and music also rose above the (ahem, again) noise of its peers, as the Rowlands Brothers sought to bridge the "console gap" with the game through the use of action-dependent musical scores.
  • The gameplay, though entailing quite a steep difficulty curve, was nonetheless compelling; it provided the requisite dopamine hit all great games do, mostly in the form of the addictive and delightful collection of stars, as well as the satisfaction of destroying enemies (by running into them at high speed or jumping on their heads), and, of course, it had intuitive, responsive controls - no wrist-slashing frustration of the kind elicited by the nightmarish handling of the utterly abominable Game Over.
  • The presentation (at which the Rowlands were masters) set the tone right from the moment the title screen appeared, and there were no awkward and frustrating loading woes such as those that drained all joy and fun out of trying to play X-Out, for example.
  • It featured non-standard colours (PAL only) which blew me away when I first saw the game and was one of the things that inspired me to start coding Parallaxian and to develop the Luma-Driven Graphics approach to Commodore 64 gfx design.
  • The full screen, full colour, high speed (8 pixels per frame horizontally) scrolling was, as far as I know, a C64 first and certainly without peer in terms of finesse of execution, which is testament to the coding prowess of John Rowlands.

If, after thinking about those points you might have concluded that it was Steve even more than his brother John who was the genius behind Apex's best games, you would find yourself in agreement with me; that's not to disparage John, who was an elite coder; but Steve's gfx and audio were - for me - what elevated their work above almost everything else in the scene hitherto. (For his contribution to Commodore 64 music alone, Steve Rowlands deserves a Nobel Prize of some sort!!!)

Now, that all said, what would I have done differently (speaking as both a coder and a gfx designer)?

  • I would have made the high speed running sequences longer and tried to work in some curved slopes, à la Sonic the Hedgehog, the console game which plainly exerted a heavy influence on Mayhem's development.
  • I might have made the decision to leave out the sad levels, as for me they're much less enjoyable than the colourful levels they presage.
  • Mayhem in Monsterland: Sad & Gloomy
  • I would have toned down the doubling back on yourself, as it begins to reduce playing enjoyment (IMHO, obviously); conversely, however, I have to acknowledge the wonderful sense of in-game freedom you get from being able to roam freely in both directions, so there is a flip side to that argument.
  • I might have added a 3D running interlude level or some other kind of Sonic-style "micro level" between main levels.
  • A wintry / snowy level would have been nice too, with extra long sliding action for Mayhem.

Finally, considering the technical side of the game and how much has been written about its use of the now rather disreputable VSP scroll, the game might have benefited from some alternative scrolling approach, given that the "VSP Bug" (which essentially bricks certain real world C64s) was largely unknown in those days and even less understood.

Happily, though, you can now download a version of Mayhem from CSDB with the VSP bug fully fixed.

(There's even a technical explanation for coders... how hardcore is that?)

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