By Noah Robischon
Updated January 17, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Character animation is paramount to game makers. But the emphasis on three-dimensional stars has often left the backdrops in their stories looking creatively flat. Futuristic space outposts, ancient civilizations, and box-filled warehouses seem to appear over and over again, as if these digital productions were filmed at the same studio lot. You don’t realize what all the other titles are missing until a War of the Monsters stomps along. It’s a mash-up of a game, with all the ’50s-era trappings — from a drive-in movie theater menu screen to the Friendly Tiki building, which a King Kong knockoff reduces to rocks.

It’s not that Monsters has a movie-worthy plot — the game has a weaker story line than an Ed Wood flick. And at first glance, the stars of this sci-fi schlockfest seem hopelessly ripped off from someone else’s matinee. There’s a Godzilla-like lizard, a Transformer toy named Ultra-V, and a giant radioactive mantis that may as well be an Eight Legged Freak. There are a few originals as well, like an electrified cyclops and a lava-vomiting gargantuan named Magmo.

But once you step inside the Monsters arena, it becomes clear that these creatures have been brought to life by some mad scientists with a wicked sense of humor. Every load screen features a one-sheet poster for a fake movie like Terror in Paradise! or Outpost X. And each level’s opening scene is equally B grade, like when Congar the ape blows away army tanks with a blast from his lungs. As the fighting begins, it’s obvious that these Monster throwbacks have more character than the humans in many other games. Preytor the mantis squirms and yelps while trying to pull a 50-foot-long radio antenna out of his chest, and then curls up to die like a cockroach doused in Raid.

And the game’s 13 battlefields aren’t just static set pieces. The skyscrapers, tanker ships, airplanes — everything is destructible and recyclable as weaponry. Tiny humans and their cars scramble underfoot as you, playing one of the 10 monsters, thunder through the streets. After climbing to the top of the tallest building, you can throw an air-conditioning unit at your 100-foot-tall opponent. Or just grab a moving subway train and clobber him silly at close range. In this war, the cityscapes aren’t obstacles but assets — even the ocean can be used to douse an enemy’s fiery breath. When the opportunity arises, you can unleash tidal waves, earthquakes, and hordes of ants to overcome foes.

The must-see special effect in Monsters is unveiled in the multiplayer mode: When opponents are bashing it out close to each other, they share the same screen. But the screen automatically splits in two when either player flees. This is a massive improvement over the constraints of other fighting arenas that pull the camera up, up, and away into the sky as the players move apart.

War of the Monsters shares similarities with a fun-filled GameCube title released three months ago, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee. But Godzilla is lucky to have scooted out of the way in October, before Monsters came along to crush it underfoot.