I’ve been thinking a lot about licensed games for some reason. Well, no, the reason is pretty clear actually; all this DuckTales I’ve been playing has reminded me that the old Capcom Disney games were all phenomenal, and it’s a damn shame there will most likely not be another generation of games like that ever again. What really astonishes me is how consistent those games were in their good-ness and their fun-ness — and I think I figured out the formula as to why.
A bit of backstory here: this current LP series was not supposed to just be DuckTales. I got it into my head to do a whole series based on Disney games, recalling fond memories of hunkering down in front of the TV for The Disney Afternoon. I figured I could do a little bit of everything: 150% speed runs of DuckTales and The Little Mermaid (short, great games both), then a blind run of Darkwing Duck (which I’ve never played, but am told is excellent). Of course, the old Disney Afternoon was a two-hour block, which means four cartoons. I figured I’d cap the whole thing off with something a little longer and a little more modern.
I figured, there has got to be at least one pretty decent Kim Possible game out there. Like, on GBA or something. A breezy li’l LP about a cute girl karate kicking supervillains would have been the perfect endcap. So I went ROM-hunting in order to familiarize myself with the game a little. (I still wanted to do Darkwing Duck blind; but I figured a GBA game would be a little too involved for that.)
Anyway, much to my chagrin, the Kim Possible game wasn’t fun. It started out with lots of talky-talky, then dumped me into the game without any of my fun superspy gadgets. Tutorial level, see? As Wade droned on and on about how to use the Kimmunicator, and the grappling hook, and what all the buttons did, etc. etc. etc., I was very quickly sapped of my will to continue.
It hit me very suddenly why this game was just not fulfilling my call-me-beep-me vidjagaming needs: it was trying too hard to be an episode of the cartoon. It was bending over backwards parading all the characters around, spamming dialogue, trying to fold the gameplay around what was established up-front as Kim’s canonical moveset. The formula just didn’t work.
This is not a new problem, either. Consider the Disney games made by Virgin, back in the 16-bit era. The Lion King especially was a total mess. This game design meeting started with some suit waltzing into the room saying, “We spent six million dollars getting this license. Here’s a list of things we have to have.” That list included things like “a level based on the Can’t Wait to Be King song” and “baby Simba’s cute roar”. Thus we have clumsy game mechanics like the “roar meter”, and overly complex combat involving mauling, rolling and throwing enemies. Enemies which, it should be noted, are animated with so many beautiful frames that their hitboxes absolutely cannot keep up.
In short, nobody tried making “The Lion King: The Video Game.” What they tried to do was release “The Lion King: The Movie” on SNES and Genesis. And, not surprisingly, it didn’t work.
So how did Capcom pull it off with hits such as DuckTales, etc.?
Well, for one, Capcom didn’t simply try to release “DuckTales: The TV Show” for NES. There isn’t, say, an ill-conceived minigame designed around the concept of swimming in an ocean of gold coins. There is, however, a pogo stick. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not 100% up on my DuckTales trivia… but I’m pretty sure Scrooge McDuck was never portrayed as a world-class pogo stick champion. No, they just gave him a pogo stick because pogo sticks are fun.
This is classic Capcom, here: build a game with one single, well-conceived, super-fun element that sets it apart from other platformers. Keep the standard run-hop-bop formula, of course, but give the player one really cool thing to do, and then make him feel good about practicing it in all sorts of situations. Scrooge has his pogo stick. Chip and Dale can lift and throw crates (or each other). Ariel traps monsters in bubbles. The games carry themselves, and then the license is slapped on as an afterthought.
If you take a step back, this is just an extension of what Capcom was already doing with its own properties: Ladd has his bionic grappling arm. Mega Man earns weapons by killing bosses. Little Nemo throws candy. Simple, compelling ideas that give the player something fun to do, even if he isn’t any good at the game.
The moral of this story is, of course, that I am very sad we’ll never get a classic 8-bit Kim Possible game. I mean, not unless there is some cheeky homebrew guy out there with a classic Capcom design sensibilities. I mean, there’s not even an 8-bit chiptune rendition of the theme song out there! A travesty, I tell you.