Written by: Stoo

Date posted: December 6, 2018

An entrance to the alien base, beneath the surface of mars.

Monuments of Mars is one of the numerous platform games published by Apogee Software, later known as 3D Realms. It was written by Todd Replogle, who’s best known as a co-creator of the Duke Nukem series. For copyright purposes he seems to have made Monuments under the name “Scenerio software”, and that second “e” is not my error. To be fair that’s not the worst typo in Apogee’s history; George Broussard got his own name wrong on Pharoah’s Tomb.

Monuments of Mars is one of the numerous platform games published by Apogee software, back in the days before they became 3D realms. I’m guessing it draws its inspiration from the supposed face and pyramids on mars, which have long fascinated science fiction authors and conspiracy theorists. In real life we are now quite sure these are natural features, but MoM runs with the idea of ancient, mysterious artificial structures, built by an alien civilization.

In the introductory text we are told that previous NASA attempts to explore the monuments ended in failure, when all contact was lost with the astronauts. You have been sent in a final attempt to uncover the secrets of mars. Venturing into the vast structures you must navigate your way past the dangers that they contain, find your fellow explorers, and ultimately try to learn who built the monuments.

That sounds a bit grandiose; ultimately this is just a platform game where you hop over pits, dodge robots and collect things until you’re told well done, you won. Any plot is a few lines of text and I’ll tell you right now, the secrets of mars are something hastily thrown in at the end of the last level. We didn’t really export more from this sort of game. Still, there is something alluring about delving into these abandoned edifices, trespassing on the the dusty domain of he absent martians.

I guess I like to fill in the gaps with my imagination, which also helps with the rather primitive graphics here. MoM is one of Apogee’s earlier releases; 3D realms claim it came out sometime 1990, but the title screen says 1991. It was the Apogee third game to use an engine called F.A.S.T, previously seen in Pharoah’s Tomb and Arctic adventure. It uses the Colour Graphics Adapter (CGA), basically the PC’s earliest colour display standard. and could draw just four colours on screen from a palette of sixteen.

We’ve not mentioned CGA often on this site, since we’ve never really gone back to the days when it was relevant. By the start of the 90s, it was already obsolete. 16 colour EGA was commonplace, used for example in Sierra adventures, and by Apogee themselves in 1991 for Keen and Duke Nukum. Meanwhile the far superior VGA was already starting to appear in games.

CGA was also backward compared to the graphics seen on other systems (so was EGA to be honest, when up against 16 bit machines). I probably shouldn’t mention the bleepy sound; the adlib sound card had only recently appeared and Apogee wouldn’t support it for another year or two.… So I’m sure Amiga owners would have rolled around laughing at this. At least the right colours were chosen – orange and red. These rusty iron tones help it all feel a bit more martian.

As was standard for Apogee games, MoM is broken up into a number of chapters, and the first was given away as shareware. This meant gamers got a substantial chunk of game for free. Many of us probably never played more than the free part of their games, I know I (ahem) didn’t. Yet the model clearly worked given Apogee’s success, and the fact they kept on using it right through to Duke Nukem 3D.

Martian architecture involves a lot of girders.

Each chapter comprises 20 levels. Each of these in turn is enclosed within a single screen, as the game doesn’t support any sort of scrolling (Yeah yeah, I know Mario had been doing it since 1986). The levels are filled with various dangers – expect spikes, electric arcs, lasers that shoot whenever you pass horizontally. There are also alien creatures (one of which appears to have come from Commander Keen), and floating robots. Most levels require you to pick up a keycard to open a door blocking the exit. You also have to flip switches to deactivate hazards, or set elevators going.

Hitting any of enemy or hazard is instant death, forcing caution on your part. Robots and aliens move back and forth on fixed paths, and don’t ever respond to your presence. Robots and aliens can be shot with your blaster, as can control units for some of the lasers. However, it’s often better to just avoid enemies if you can, saving shots for times when they are truly needed. In this regard its reminiscent of Commander Keen, where the gun is a tool to be used with careful consideration.

There are a few more features you will encounter. A certain type of boulder can be pushed and falls under gravity; these can’t kill you but may block your progress. Occasionally platform blocks are triggered to appear by standing in certain locations, something you can only really find out by accident, or by blundering around when stuck.

After the first few trivial screens, the levels reach a point where a little bit of thinking is required. Apart from obvious death, if you make an error it’s possible to put the level in an unwinnable state (fortunately there’s a restart key). You might fall somewhere you can’t jump out of, or push a boulder in the wrong direction causing it to block further progress. Or you may just worry that you wasted too much ammo. The game never gets too complicated, but a some levels do take on an element of puzzle-solving.

You will need to push some of those boulders, but if they end up in the wrong place they will make the level impassable.

There are myriad easy ways to blunder into death; some levels will kill you within about 3 seconds if you don’t take immediate action. Yet while some levels were a bit tense, I rarely found myself seriously frustrated. First and foremost, you have infinite lives. Also, the levels are usually quite brief, so if you get stuck on some particular problem, (a tricky jump, say), you don’t have to replay for long before taking another try at it. So the the game overall ends up being quite short and easy, which is quite welcome from my perspective. Maybe a few trickier puzzles would have been welcome, but really I don’t think I would wanted to spend multiple weekends struggling through this.

I did notice a few glitches in the controls, but nothing that I would consider truly detrimental. Sometimes my character would jump or fire their blaster twice for a single keypress (often resulting in death or a level restart). Also the collision detection can be a bit dodgy when jumping onto the edge of a diagonal ramp.

At the risk of labouring a point I was making a few paragraphs ago, Monuments is the product of a rather primitive game engine, and I’m not surprised it’s largely forgotten today. We all have our limits for what is too retro, so I’d forgive you for passing this one over. If you just want the best of their platformers, I’d point you at Keen 4 or Duke Nukem 2.

Still, it’s another example of a PC-native platform game at a time when choices were fairly limited compared to other formats. It provides a moderately mentally challenging set of levels, that fit short gaming sessions quite well, and it doesn’t do anything significantly wrong.  So if you’re trawling through the the history of action games on our beige boxes, you may find this one to be worth an hour or two of your time.