Thursday, February 12, 2015

Week #4: Licensed to Play

One month into Jermungandr's Top of the Week Challenge, and he's issued a cool assignment: our ten favorite licensed video games. This is a much needed breather after the incredible weight of last week's prompt. It's not very often that I sit down and think about the quality of a licensed video game, so I'm happy to have this opportunity to really put down some of my thoughts on games that aren't my usual cup of pontification. I'm also pretty eager to hear what licensed games others have enjoyed.

In no particular order, my top ten favorite licensed video games.

1. Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers (NES)

No doubt about it, the first game that popped into my head when I read the prompt was Capcom & Disney's Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers for the good ol' Nintendo Entertainment System. Not only is this one of my favorite licensed video games, it's one of my favorite video games period. To this day I have the cartridge kicking around somewhere, label smeared in the residue of a spilled PB&J sandwich two decades ago. It still worked last time I gave it a go. While most retro fans praise DuckTales and Darkwing Duck (two other excellent Disney Afternoon titles to come out of a partnership with Capcom pre-greed), I've always been partial to the Duck family's tiny tormentors. When you take two of the most charismatic cartoon characters in history and put them into a state of the art platformer with an upbeat musical score and the visual grace of Disney's animation studios, you know you have a winner. The stage design is clever, and the player is presented with a really astonishing sense for the scale of these characters as they timidly traverse a land of giants. Every enemy is beautifully designed with a good sense of personality, and they continue to pose a threat as you progress through the game. Each ro-bull dog is as threatening as the last, and that really drives home how dangerous this world can be for a couple o' little guys. Not to mention that combat isn't the standard stop-and-stomp technique so popular of the genre, nope. Chip & Dale's offensive capabilities rely entirely on how well they can manage the resources in their environment, making a keen eye and a sharp wit imperative to survival. That the game invented the co-op mechanics the Super Mario Bros. franchise wouldn't adopt until 2009's New Super Mario Bros. Wii really shows how far ahead of its time this game was and just cements its place as an important milestone in the genre. As a kid this co-operative play made it one of the go-to titles for my best friend and I, and that has kept it high, high on my list to this day, when my girlfriend and I brave the depths of Fat Cat's lairs. If there were anything to nitpick about the title, it would be the difficulty. Right off the bat the game isn't shy about mercilessly savaging players, and things only get hotter when the rodents are shipped off to the moon. Regardless, the challenge is half the fun. "How far am I going to get this time?" you'll ask yourself. As a kid it bothered me that I could not choose any of the other Rescue Rangers to play as, and if it were to be remade today I would definitely want to see at least Gadget coming in as a third playable option (unfortunately Zipper and Jack don't really share the same dimensions as the other characters...). Minor complaints aside, the game is hands-down fabulous.

2. Tiny Toon Adventures (NES)

The 8-Bit Era seems to have been the golden age of licensed video games. Not to say there wasn't a metric buttload of crap released in the early days (the Atari 2600's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial can surely attest to that), but it was also just about the only time in the medium's history that you could pick up an adapted title and expect it to be good. Tiny Toon Adventures is one that doesn't disappoint. That's largely due to its very Super Mario Bros. style of play, allowing gamers to off enemies with simple head-stomps and putting the emphasis on landing jumps just right. Unlike many clones, however, Konami managed to get the physics down pat, arguably even improving them over Super Mario Bros. 3. Character momentum feels just perfect. Kind of a slower Sonic the Hedgehog. Jamming down while at top speed will allow your character to slide, a maneuver which can take out scores of enemies, much like sledding down a hill in the Mario games. The music, being a chiptune rendition of the ever-catchy TIny Toon Adventures opening theme, is memorable, though it can seem irritating and out of place at times. Visually the game is outstanding--Warner Bros. and Konami spared no expense in meeting their competition (see first entry). They're so good, in fact, that it's almost like watching an episode of the cartoon. Bringing the package together are a slew of memorable boss encounters, mini-games which force the player to avoid the twisted embrace of Elmyra Duff, and a nifty character-swapping mechanic that allows Buster Bunny (the primary protagonist) to swap out with one of three friends: Plucky Duck, Furrball, or Dizzy Devil. Each partner has a unique ability (and Buster himself happens to be both the fastest runner and most able jumper), allowing the player to approach levels in various ways. The only complaint that can be rightly had with the game is its utter lack of multiplayer options. It would have been nice if the game featured the competitive one-at-a-time two-player mode originated in the original Super Mario Bros. and Babs Bunny could be utilized as the Player 2 instead of yet another princess in need of saving. Regardless, the game is a great example of both its genre and franchise, and makes for a fun adventure on lonely, quiet nights.

3. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (SNES)

Whether the television show was any good or not is a matter of much heated debate, but in my mind there isn't any question that the video games spawned by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are among some of the coolest games to grace my consoles. Later titles certainly fell victim to Licenseused Gamitis, but the SNES iteration is an utter classic. It plays as a very successful hybrid of a 2D action platformer and an arcade-inspired beat 'em up. The graphics are superb (although the Rangers share the same sprite with swapped colors, making them all resemble Jason. This is particularly disturbing if you play as Kimberly) with distinct, vivid colors. The whole game has a very comic book feel to it, a style which I think works well for the Power Rangers. Players can choose from any of the five original Rangers, each with their own unique weapons and play styles. Personally I was always partial to the Pink Ranger, as she comes equipped with a bow and can safely pick off Putty Patrollers from across the screen. A glorious, Mega Man X sounding track plays over every level. Some of the tunes are really unforgettable, and it's one of the few game soundtracks I find myself scouring YouTube just to listen to again and again. Controls are usually responsive and very smooth. The game might be a little on the easy side for some players, but for me it provides just enough challenge to be exciting every time without becoming knuckle-whiteningly infuriating like other examples of the genre (probably because this was never an allowance-garbling arcade release). The final stages of the game suffer from a total change of pace, becoming a pure fighting game with the player in control of the most beautifully sprited Megazord I've ever seen. These stages aren't bad, or even poorly programmed (and they are actually used in the game's limited multiplayer mode), but I feel like thrusting them all together out of the blue and at the end of the game's run kind of ruins things. It would have been better to end each stage with a Megazord battle using the same engine. Regardless, the game is still a masterpiece. If I recall, it's the first game I actually completed by myself (at the ripe old age of five). Every year I come back to it at least once--a fact which ranks it among only one other game (Super Mario World) as an annual endeavor.

4. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Game Gear)

That's right, MMPR isn't on here just once but twice! Produced and released on the same timetable as its SNES counterpart (and misleadingly sharing the same name), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for the ill-fated Sega Game Gear is actually a completely different game. While it has much in common with the Genesis game (also of the same name, and also fantastic), there are some notable differences. For starters, the Game Gear iteration is a much simpler game in all ways: simple controls, simple music, simple (but stunningly effective) visuals. There actually is a multiplayer mode in the game, but I'm pretty sure I was the only 90s child to own a Game Gear in the state of New Hampshire, so I never had the opportunity to try it out. MMPR has two modes of play which are pretty similar. I'll first mention the secondary game mode, which is a pretty typical arcade fighter. What's notable about it, however, is the sheer number of playable characters. Players can choose from six Rangers, three Megazords, and seven monsters. That's sixteen characters, which is utterly mind blowing for a game released at the time (not to mention one of them is King god damn Sphinx). Unfortunately, only certain match-ups are allowed. Rangers and Putties can't fight Megazords (or the giant monster known as Cyclopsis), Megazords can't fight each other, and if you actually get together with a second player you can't be the same character. These decisions really hinder what could have easily been a great Power Rangers fighting game. The other game mode is a singe-player campaign which operates as a hybrid fighter and beat 'em up. While players are restricted to a small play area, they are forced to defend themselves from a rush of enemies, including sub and stage bosses. After defeating the Monster of the Level, Rita Repulsa's magic wand will make her monster grow, initiating a Megazord round. At first players can only pick from the five primary Rangers and their single Megazord, but later stages provide the option to use Green Ranger, Dragonzord, and MegaDragonzord.

It always struck me as odd that Rita Repulsa herself isn't a fighter in these games. I know she isn't much for fighting her own battles, but it's weird for superheroes to never come up against their arch nemesis. Plus, she could probably kick some major ass--she is considered the scourge of the universe, after all.

5. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (N64)

Most people will probably point to 007: GoldenEye as their go-to licensed shooter, but for me nothing will ever come close to the utter insanity of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Everything about this game secretes coolness. It's got dinosaurs, and I was like six when it came out. Dinosaurs and six-year-olds, there's almost no contest. This was also my first FPS (and as the course of my life would show, one of the few I can actually enjoy), so I'm never going to be able to forget how breathtaking it was to traverse such a hostile terrain from the perspective of this total badass. This total mortal badass. When raptors came running from the fog, tongues lashing, teeth gnashing, they weren't coming to take a bite out of some stoic pixie elf or a fashion-challenged Brooklyn plumber... they were coming for me! Not that I really had to sweat about it, because I was rocking a quiver full of exploding blue-fire arrows. There were also some Indiana Jones type evil archeaologists or something, but who cares about them? Dinosaurs, man! Turok himself gave the game some lasting appeal (it is hard enough that I probably would have stopped playing if it didn't have so much character). It was the first time in my life that I could control a Native American hero, which on its own helps Turok to stand out from the pack. His unforgettably deep voice declaring to the world that, make no mistake, "I am Turok" really seals the deal. This is Native American Wolverine fighting dinosaurs with exploding arrows. And robots! And some weird dinosaur/rock/gorilla things. No part of this game is forgettable. That alone earns it a spot on my list--even if the gameplay itself doesn't hold up very well. I mean, the whole first-person platforming thing didn't really work very well (which, I suspect, is the reason most FPS titles omit the ability to jump), but Acclaim gets three gold stars for trying. And hey, maybe if they hadn't we wouldn't have ended up with a little beauty known as Mirror's Edge.

6. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (X360)

Let me begin by saying that this entry is specifically about the X-Box 360 version of the game. I understand that the title is available on, like, nine platforms. I also understand that some of these versions are totally different games using the same name. Therefore, I feel equipped only to discuss this specific iteration of the title.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is probably my favorite superhero video game of all time. I won't deny spending many sleepless nights scribbling in my notebook about a MUA3 or various Ultimate Alliance titles featuring different publishing pantheons (my favorite being a gathering of classic cartoon action heroes, featuring He-Man, Inspector Gadget, Space Ghost, and Grumpy Bear). While dungeon crawlers can easily become stale, MUA2 mixes it up by including some very cool team mechanics, a leveling system, and the kind of charm Marvel heroes are known to show off when a talented group of individuals gets hold of them. In the same way that Super Smash Bros. can serve as an introductory encyclopedia to Nintendo's history, MUA2 is successful at introducing rather insignificant characters to a new audience. Who even cared about Speedball's stint as the self-loathing Penance (or Speedball, for that matter) before being given the opportunity to play as him among Marvel's highest ranking celebrities? Thirty people on Comic Vine, that's who. Now there are several hundred thousand gamers, and a very active modding community, who do. The sheer scope of available characters, and the kind of niche characters they brought in, make this a great game even before you bother to master them. The summer I picked this up, I played it though five or six times. At least once on each difficulty. I'm still not bored of it. I still want Ultimate Alliance to take off as its own franchise (DC Ultimate Alliance, TMNT Ultimate Alliance, Hasbro Ultimate Alliance featuring Woody and Buzz--bring it all on, baby).

To be honest, I feel like MUA2 is more successful at telling the Civil War story than the comics. With comics you only spend as much time with each character as the writer deems fit, and you're forced to see the characters through the creator's perspective (hint: Iron Man is bad!). In the video game, you're given the option to choose to follow the story from either the perspective of the Pro-Registration heroes, or the Anti-Registration heroes. This allows viewers to experience the debate from both sides without compromising the characters' integrity or reducing them to black-and-white extremes. The one advantage comic books have over the game would be the side stories. While the game is definitely the better way to experience the story in its broadest form, to get the most out of Civil War you have to read the back-up features and tie-ins featuring characters and scenarios that are a little more out of the way. You have to read about Howard the Duck being denied the ability to register as a superhuman, about Iron Man and the S.H.I.E.L.D.-controlled Avengers trying to pick up the Runaways. It's those little additions that flesh out the event. Still, they'd have been just as effective as stories supporting the game, or even as side missions like the franchise had in X-Men Legends. I'd say they could even be worked in as cheap DLC and be just as effective. Yeah, games aren't good at telling most stories. This one, though... this one works.

7. Porky Pig's Haunted Holiday (SNES)

Porky Pig's Haunted Holiday might not be the most engaging game to a modern audience, and it certainly isn't without its faults (leaps of faith are a big problem here), but it's a special case: it's the first game I remember being fond of because I was impressed with the technical aspects of it. Porky's sprites, even though they clash a little with the rest of the game's visual style, have a very fluid motion and look almost like they might actually be hand-drawn images placed into the game. I mean, Porky looks exactly like a Looney Tunes cartoon here. There is some jumpiness between frames that kind of breaks the illusion, but I can see and respect what they were trying to do. You know, Porky Pig is a pretty weird pick to star in a 1990s platforming title. He may have once been king of Warner Studios (betcha didn't know that. Before Bugs Bunny stole the spotlight, Porky Pig was Mickey's prime competition), but the screwball characters brought about in the 1940s had been way more popular for seventy years at that point. Not to mention the fact that Porky's character isn't really the type to go about bouncing through colorful landscapes and battling dangers of an unfathomable nature. Yet that's exactly what he did, and I just have to respect the game for that.

The environment is a huge draw here. Most Looney Tunes games see your character (usually Bugs) traversing pretty standard environments and the same bunch of set pieces. You get a wild west desert, a pirate-infested beach, a grassy plain, and a very run-of-the-mill haunted mansion. Here every stage, even those that feature other environments (like snow), has a particularly spooky theme, and the game is very good at leaving the player unsettled. Not really what you'd expect from the franchise. Oddly enough, Porky Pig is the only classic Looney Tunes cast member to play much of a role in the game, to my memory. Daffy Duck does appear sporadically, though only for brief moments. The mangy mallard's role is pretty much reduced to being just another one of the monsters out to get poor ol' Porky. Granted, he's perhaps the most terrifying element of the game and is portrayed in such a way that you have to stop and wonder if he's really even Daffy anymore.

I remember the biggest factor that impressed me as a lad (I was about eight or nine when I found this game at my cousin's house and borrowed it for a season) was this level early on where Porky is forced to ascend a very wide tree by hopping from one stumpy branch to the next. The stage doesn't scroll left or right like other stages, but instead plays out like Butter Building from Kirby's Adventure. The tree rotates as you progress, giving the impression that Porky is circling it as he ascends. At the time I hadn't played a Kirby game and was very impressed by the technique. Even going back to it this week, I think it was pulled off remarkably well.

8. Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos (SNES)

Now here's one from my past that I've never been able to beat. Speedy Gonzales' most well-known video game venture is pretty much a Sonic the Hedgehog clone, right down to the music. That in itself isn't too much of a problem because even as a kid I loved Genesis Sonic titles. In fact, I'm pretty sure this game's infamy comes solely from offering a Sonic the Hedgehog experience to Nintendo gamers (remember, these were the days when a kid was lucky to even have access to video games). Unfortunately, the good folks at Sunsoft followed Sega's example a little too closely; the game is rife with leaps-of-faith and instant kills. Leap down because there's nowhere else to run? Fall for three minutes, then die. Accidentally sniffed a spike? You're gonna die. Got caught in a mousetrap? You are dead. Earlier I talked about Chip 'n Dale demonstrating how paralyzingly terrifying the world can be for the little guy, but even that game didn't drive rodent mortality so deep. Pretty sure if I picked this game up after all these year out of practice, even the first level would kick my ass. Honestly this game really is only here because of nostalgia (and the little mice shouting "Gracias!" when you release them), because it's kind of the beginning of the end for licensed games. The visuals are passable, sometimes even good, but they don't live up to what you could expect from a Looney Tunes game at the time. Same goes for the music, the physics, and the level design. By this point it was pretty clear that licensed games were all about mascot power. Don't let me put you off, though, because there's still plenty of charm to be found here. I just feel like it was a bit of an omen. Shitty media-based games definitely existed before it, but they coexisted with a flood of shitty original games as well (and that's always going to be true). It's just... Speedy Gonzales is kind of the point where the diamonds started to became the rough.

9. Justice League Heroes (PS2)

Let me be honest: I'm more of a DC guy than a Marvel guy, by concept alone. Marvel has definitely produced better comics, I don't dispute that. They have awesome characters, the majority of their video games blow DC's out of the water, and every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without compare. But you may have figured out by now that I'm a really big cartoon guy--I wouldn't hesitate to say that cartoons are my all-time favorite medium. And cartoons are really the one arena where Marvel's properties have pretty much stunk and where DC's have reigned for several decades. I grew up on reruns of Super Friends, on the glorious days of the DC Animated Universe and Teen Titans (hell, even Krypto the Superdog), I fondly recall the little-known Legion of Super Heroes cartoon. I even got my ass out of bed every Saturday morning to watch Young Justice when they stupidly moved its timeslot. Even in the realm of live action television DC topples Marvel. I watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter in ceremonious fashion, but I'm absolutely irate if I miss out on The Flash or Arrow (and I moved Heaven and Earth to get home in time to catch Harley Quinn's cameo in that one Suicide Squad episode. I was not disappointed [actually I was a little disappointed because fuck you commercials playing her up as more important than she was]). DC's characters, campy as they often are, have always appealed to me in a way that Marvel's haven't. They're colorful, and they can be fun when they're handled tactfully. The only Marvel cartoon that has ever tickled me the same way has been The Spectacular Spider-Man, but that got canceled for this shit.

Needless to say, I leaped at the opportunity to finally have my DC: Ultimate Alliance dreams realized. Unfortunately, they kind of weren't. Where MUA is flashy and fluid, JLH falls into the trap that so often plagues DC's work: it's dull and slow. I still get a thrill out of mixing up teams of characters that don't normally work together, and the roster certainly shouldn't be sneezed at, but the game just kind of misses the mark. Arguably its largest shortcoming is in forcing players to pick from only specific heroes for any given mission. Even though there are twenty-something characters to choose from, you can only use twelve or so of them in a couple short missions midway through the story. There isn't even any kind of "free" mode unlocked after you complete the campaign, which is just balls.

Still, the game is close enough to my wettest dream that I switch it on every now and then. I always have fun, even when the number of bad creative decisions plaguing the title is frustrating.

10. Spider-Man (Windows XP, ME, 98)

This one I haven't played since 2002, so forgive me if anything I say is totally inaccurate. Simply titled Spider-Man, I remember this as being the pinnacle of a Spider-Man gaming experience. The only game that has ever come close to capturing how I felt while playing this is Ultimate Spider-Man, but even that can't stand up to the awesomeness that is Doctor Carnagepuss. It's interesting that Spider-Man is actually entirely unable to stand up to Monster Ock. The whole battle is about fleeing as the beast chases you through a narrow air duct. There's a certain triple A franchise that recently (successfully) experimented with marathon-style bosses. What was that again?

I remember the game as being pretty darn glitchy, as early 3D games are known to have been, but when it worked, man, what a dream. The story and character designs are steeped pretty heavily in the 90s animated series, and that's always a good thing, but what this game manages to really do well is make the player feel like Spider-Man. A lot of Spider-Man games are beat 'em ups or fighting game crossovers, all action-oriented (and this game isn't short on that either), but Spider-Man had a focus on stealth as well, which is really what a guy who can climb on ceilings is all about. Sneaking over hapless bank robbers and zipping them up to my level? Now that's a good time! A healthy dose of cameos, collectibles, and costumes keep the game interesting for Spidey enthusiasts everywhere (this was actually my introduction to both the Punisher and Black Cat), and while the story isn't a reason to write home it's perfectly serviceable Spiderfare. In fact, I'd say if there's one thing comic book video games could benefit from it's more comic book storylines.

Well, that wraps things up here. To be honest I almost included Doki Doki Panic because, hey, that's a licensed game! Except I've never played it--I just really like Super Mario Bros. 2... Anyway, what are your top ten (or just top) licensed video games? I know at least some of you who are really into a certain dragon-inspired MMO right now. Let me know in the comments.

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