The Winning Formula

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.

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13 comments to The Winning Formula

  • They’re not all good. Talespin is mediocre to bad and ultimately forgettable

  • SpoonyBard

    Konami’s Warner Bros games on the SNES were also pretty great. Tiny Toons and Animaniacs are good, wacky fun. And the Adventures of Batman and Robin comes surprisingly close to delivering an episode, or a series of episodes, of the show on the SNES while still making the game fun. It trips up here and there, mostly with some cumbersome item management and insisting on giving each stage a gimmick, but I remember it as being really solid otherwise.

    But yeah, I remember that awful Lion King game. It was one of the few games I returned to the rental store only a few hours after picking it up. I got Chrono Trigger instead, despite having played through it five or six times by that point. I had a much more fun weekend.

  • Psyched180

    I feel compelled to point out that Little Nemo wasn’t a Capcom property… It was based on a film… Which was based on a comic strip…

  • ASandoval

    While I agree that licensed titles don’t have to mimic the show/movie, I don’t think that if they do the game is immediately crap. Take Aladdin on SNES and Genesis; Virgin gave Aladdin a sword and threw him into some incompetently designed levels whereas Capcom made him run, jump and swing like he could in the movie which made for a much better game.

    End of the day, strong core mechanics are the most important thing for a game, licensed or no. Anything else is just gravy.

    • QuartzFalcon

      The thing about the SNES Aladdin, though, is that Aladdin’s skills from the movie already lend themselves to a videogame (namely, old school Prince of Persia with a more agile character). So Capcom’s take on Aladdin: The Video Game was really no different from Aladdin: The Movie for the SNES, in this case.

      • ASandoval

        Sometimes it works out like that! I have no idea what you’d have to do to Ducktales to make it work, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be as cool as a pogo stick/golf club combo.

    • Metal Man Master

      The Genesis Aladdin has some beautiful sprites and scenery, but those levels aren’t actually any fun to play and the stage endings feel randomly placed. Bigger isn’t always better.

      The SNES game wasn’t as pretty to look at, but its level designs made a lot more sense as far as playability goes. There are other Capcom Disney games I like better, but Standard SNES Platformer Aladdin is still more accessible than Visual Showpiece – What Do You Mean It’s Supposed To Be A Game? Genesis Aladdin.

  • Solitayre

    Jeez, good luck playing Darkwing Duck blind. That game IS fun, but it’s pretty brutal.

  • I kinda like Tale-Spin 🙁

    Darkwing Duck is a great game, but yea it’s pretty brutal. Seeing as you’ve already done Rescue Rangers the line-up should be

    Ducktales
    Little Mermaid
    Darkwing Duck
    Then play Kingdom hea….. Just kidding! Just kidding!

    Goof Troop on the SNES is pretty bitching though.

  • Metal Man Master

    Yeah, this sums up the problem with many cartoon/TV/movie games. They try to stick too closely to the source material, then end up coming off as a crappy episode or movie and forgot to bring along the fun.

    Just speaking of GBA, Dragon Ball Advanced Adventure comes to mind as one of the better licensed games I’ve played in recent years. Its story is basically the extremely abridged Cliff’s Notes version of Dragon Ball’s entire run (The Red Ribbon Army arc in particular takes center stage), but it realizes it’s a game and it ends up being a pretty fun action/brawler/platformer, with text usually right before and after a boss fight or stage, and never too long. It actually got me interested in learning more about Dragon Ball, even though I can barely stand DBZ and don’t give a shit about DBGT.

    Contrast it with Shaman King: Master of Spirits, which while a decent game, throws you in the middle of things and expects you to already know about most of these inanimate talking head portraits it throws at you from the start, along with events that have happened in the manga and anime. I never felt so disconnected from the cast in a licensed game as much as I did in that one.

  • Vega

    Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally worked well because it also was not strictly based on the content of the cartoons. It played like a Sonic game reskinned to look and sound a lot like the cartoons.

  • Zooclaw

    Let’s see some pea-green Darkwing Duck!

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