Of all the board games you could make a videogame out of (and there have been plenty), Monopoly is one of the ones that make the most sense. I rather enjoyed the board game in my youth, but could never get anyone to agree to play it. Frequent excuses: It took too long. It was too much of a hassle. You needed a lot of players to make the game interesting. And for whatever reason, no one liked the idea of leaving the board out and coming back to the game later.
All of these problems are obviously fixed with a digital version of the game. The computer handles all money, deeds, and math, so no more counting out your debts with paper bills and constantly checking your deed card to see how much rent you are owed. The game supports up to eight players, any number of which can be controlled by the computer. There’s no messy set up, concerns about putting the board away, or inability to continue because someone’s little brother lost the last two hotel pieces behind the sofa. It’s a rare case where a videogame conversion actually does make sense, and what the developers came up with in the end isn’t too bad itself.
In case you’ve never played Monopoly, or need a refresher like I did, I’ll go over the basics. You’re presented with a game board with spaces named after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey. These streets are grouped into color-coded districts, which becomes important later. Other spaces detail the unique events that happen when you land on them, like paying income tax, or drawing a random event from the “Chance” deck. When it’s your turn, you roll a set of dice and usually land on one of the street spaces. If no one owns it, you can purchase that space for the listed price, or put it up for auction. You MUST make one of these choices, so if you can’t afford the buy price, you have to put it up for auction. This gives the other players the opportunity to get that space for a steal.
If another player owns that space, you must pay them the “rent” listed on that space’s deed. If you own all the streets in a district, you can start building houses and hotels on those spaces, which incrementally drive up the rent. If you land on a space and can’t pay the rent with your cash on hand, you’ll have to start selling houses, mortgaging your property, or trading them away to other players, until you eventually must declare bankruptcy.
So basically, Monopoly is a game about getting rich in the whitest way possible. You win by being the last player with money, and the last player will conveniently have the largest real estate empire in the game and metric shitloads of money. You fatten your pockets by squeezing other players until they can’t pay up, and are finally forced to bow to your unstoppable housing juggernaut and go live out of a paper sack. You advance in the game primarily by taking advantage of your friends’ misfortune or poor financial situation – “Oh, you can’t pay my $4,000 rent? Well I’d be happy to give you some of the money, for your deed to Boardwalk!” If you’re winning at Monopoly, you should feel a lot like Mr. Potter shutting down Bailey Building & Loan. And if you don’t aspire to becoming a crusty Anglo-Saxon Republican asshole, you’re probably going to have more fun with Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The game makes its conversion to the NES quite well. You roll by holding down and releasing the A button. While the button is held, an animated fist shakes the dice as long as you like – probably pointless when the rolls are randomized by computer anyway, but a nice inclusion. You then switch from an overhead view of the entire board, to zoomed-in one of the space you’re landing on and the two around it. On screen instructions will guide you throughout all the steps, listing the buttons to buy or auction, how much rent you’re owed and to who, and so on. Above the board on these sections is a diagram of all the deed cards; colored in if you own them, grayed out if someone else owns them, and empty if no one owns them. You can instantly see if the space is a good buy, and if it matches up with your current holdings or would deny another player a full set. The overhead board screen also displays the location of other players’ pieces, and houses or hotels on any spaces.
More detailed information can be gotten through use of a main menu accessed with “Select.” Here you can see your entire deed portfolio as well as all other players. There’s a listing for all players of their cash on hand and the value of their assets. You can see full digital replications of the board game’s deed cards, scrolling down to read all the information before a purchase. You can mortgage or un-mortgage your properties. The final useful option is trade. You select which player you want to trade with and go into a split screen window where you pick what you want from their side and what you’re willing to give on yours.
If you’re playing against the computer, you can leave your side blank and hit “yes” to accept the trade, basically asking “what do you want for this?” The computer will then pick out what it wants from you before selecting yes to indicate it will trade on that deal. You can continue with this back and forth until you and the other player can agree on something, or close the trade window at any time before a trade is made. It’s not quite as elegant as hashing out a deal in person, but it works. About the only complaint I have is the computer’s inability to take a hint. If you have a deed it wants, it will pester you for it every other round. Luckily you can exit out of the trade window pretty quickly, and the computer only attempts one trade a round, preventing any terrible inconvenience.
If you set any player to computer control, you must pick out one of eight characters. They all have portraits and names, and all are erudite 1920’s robber baron or baroness types. The manual lists their various personalities, like one is supposed to be easily tricked in a deal and another likes to spend extravagantly, but it’s hard to see that reflected in the game. I wasn’t able to see them follow their alleged patterns, or at least they didn’t seem to fall outside of normal Monopoly play – no “damn, why’d you do that?” moments. A Monopoly expert might be able to see the flaws and exploit them more easily, or it could all just be bullshit. The manual also proudly states that it won’t allow any illegal moves. Well actually, it allows the moves, calls you on it, and reverses the move. I truly don’t know how to cheat at Monopoly beyond yelling “Hey look over there!” and stealing some money, which you obviously can’t do on the NES. I also don’t understand how you could make an “illegal move” when the game handles all of the money, rolling, moving, drawing of Chance cards, and so on. But I think the message here is that if you’re used to pulling off some kind of dirty, underhanded trick to get ahead, you’re not going to do it here.
Graphics are authentic Monopoly, colors, icons, and all. Both the board and the deed cards are replicated accurately. The correct color-coded values of money are even counted out when you pay on a board space. The interface also helps in ways the physical version could not. For example, if you’ve built three houses on a space, a blinking red checkmark will appear next to the appropriate line on the deed, making it easy to see how much rent you owe or can expect.
There’s some basic animation here, mostly in the form of life being given to the various pieces; the dog actually runs to the next space, the car drives, etc. Some icons also have animation for specific events, like a cash register that appears and “eats” money when you pay rent, or a giant rubber stamp that prints “sold” on a space when you buy it. Some animated sequences of being thrown in jail or building a house also make appearances. Menus are clean and easy to navigate; all text is large and readable. My only real complaint here is that the computer cycles through its menus a bit too quickly, sometimes making it hard to tell what just happened, especially if two computer players are trading between themselves.
There’s a fair amount of sound used, mostly in the form of short themes that signify particular events. There is no all-present background music. The game also has a couple of digitized voice clips. Hearing the auctioneer shout “Sold!” works pretty well. Getting out of jail does not. When you’re finally released, a voice that I think is supposed be a kindly Irish cop, but actually sounds more like the Devil himself, loudly and deeply announces “Don’tcha be comin back now!” Yikes! You’ve got a deal, mister!
Liking Monopoly is, obviously, a requirement to liking this game. Familiarity with the board version isn’t. Though the NES streamlines the board game’s most frustrating points, making it a good choice for casual fans, it’s also an accurate enough version for newcomers. It still takes about as much time to play as the original, but benefits from filling your ranks with enough competent computer players to make for an interesting game, and offers some versatility with emulator save states or netplay.
Excellent conversion from the board game. Having the computer handle money and deeds is greatly appreciated. The computer players offer a competent challenge.
Game provides all the information you could get from a real game in front of you, but having to cycle through menus to get it can be a bit frustrating. Trading can be a bit clunky.