Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 5

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.

Goof Troop - July 1993

I'm not sure if anybody really remembers Goof Troop fondly anymore. An attempt to do much more of a sitcom instead of the adventures Disney had been producing up to that time, it's popularity has seemingly been eclipsed by the surprisingly excellent A Goofy Movie, which treated the same basic characters with much more depth.

What about the SNES installment? One day, while fishing out on the ocean, Goofy and Max see Pete and PJ taken aboard a gigantic pirate ship! It seems that Pete has been mistaken for the pirates' long lost leader, and Max and Goofy land on the pirates' secret island lair in an effort to infiltrate it and recover their friends...

Wait, you may be saying, that doesn't sound very much like Goof Troop to me! And you would be right - but to find out why, we have to go back into Capcom history... back, basically, to the very beginning.

In 1984, Capcom released their initial wave of arcade titles. They would become famous for their overhead WWII shooter 1942, but released in the same year was a strange little game called Pirate Ship Higemaru. A top-down puzzle game, Higemaru has you playing as a sailor attempting to traverse maze-like decks of ships filled with enemies and barrels. 

Just a few years later, the game received a sequel for the Famicom in Japan, the marvelously titled Higemaru Hell Island. A much more complex creation, this has you traversing islands, collecting items, and defeating bosses. Puzzles here stretch over multiple screens, and backtracking is the rule; think The Legend of Zelda by way of Atari's Gauntlet. A planned United States release came to naught, and the Higemaru series ended there.

Until 1993, when Capcom produced a stealth Higemaru game as Goof Troop. All of the components are there: pirates, maze-like levels, backtracking, and bosses. And then, Capcom kept adding. They added two player simultaneous play; they added lives and items. These few changes alter the gameplay tremendously, to the point that I wonder if Capcom was planning on releasing it as a proper Higemaru sequel. They did not - like most of these games intended for American audiences, it received only a perfunctory Japanese release under the name "Goofy and Max: Pirate Island Adventure" and seems to be very rare today.

The gameplay is still best likened to The Legend of Zelda: a topdown maze filled with increasingly aggressive enemies. Pirates can be diapatched with barrels; stronger deckhands must be knocked off platforms into the water, or plowed through with weighted stones which Goofy and Max kick. These same stones must usually be kicked into very specific places to unlock keys to progress through levels; since they can only be stopped by a wall, this creates some tricky puzzles. 
One weapon that can be picked up is a grappling hook gun; this can be used by one player to keep enemies pinned down while the other deals with puzzles or makes a bee line for the exit. If either Goofy or Max touch the exit door they both jump to the next screen immediately; this means experienced teams of players can move through levels swiftly. In other areas, the grappling hook can be tied down to allow players to cross rivers and pitfalls, but this means the item must be surrendered permanently. In two-player games, each player can have one item; if they pick up a new item, the old one will be left behind. In one-player mode, two items are allowed; the increase in options helps make up for the doubled difficulty. Other items include bells to distract enemies, bridges to cross gaps, shovels, and keys.

But you know what? After working through so many uninspired action games, it's genuinely refreshing to come across Goof Troop. It may not be great, but merely succeeding at being unique puts it above the middle of the pack. For a game with such simple controls and presentation, Goof Troop can be frustrating. This is the only game so far I haven't seen through to the ending; partly this is because I was playing solo, and party because this kind of thing just isn't my kettle of fish. If you have a friend who loves puzzle platformers and the two of you can work together, this may be just the kind of overlooked game you're going to love. After about 40 minutes I had enough; looking at playthroughs online it's clear I saw less than a quarter of the game!

On a technical level, Goof Troop is fine. The graphics are SNES-colorful, although the settings are repetitive they are not the focus of the game. It's always fun to hit your co-player; they stagger around dizzy for a few frames. As the levels go on, eluding the pirates becomes tougher and tougher; never mind resetting the screen multiple times to solve traps! The music is functional at best; as aural wallpaper, you won't mind it for puzzle solving, but you won't remember any of it the moment the game is turned off.

It's a good game, and there's a lot of it; after zipping through a bunch of 30 minute long 8 bit games like Darkwing Duck, it's nice to see Goof Troop committed it giving you a lot of content for your money. But it's hard to escape the feeling that Goof Troop is the kind of game that was why Blockbuster Video existed: fun to play for a bit, but only the truly dedicated will see it through.

Disney's Aladdin - October 1993

This is nearly the end of the line for Capcom and Disney. The March 1993 issue of Nintendo Power profiled Capcom, referring to their development of Aladdin as "the really big news". Instead, it turned out to be pretty much the end of the line for their deal with Disney.

This is actually a pretty good game, it just is not the game you think it is.

 Anybody with a game system who lived through the early 90s will immediately think of Aladdin, developed by Virgin Games, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. This is not that game! It's an easy mistake to make - practically every other Aladdin game released in the early 90s is a port of the Virgin Games platformer, including later releases on, of all things, the NES. Capcom's Aladdin is not Virgin's Aladdin, despite sharing a name and basic concept.

"Genesis Aladdin" had a heck of a gimmick up its sleeveless vest; all of the character animations and sprites were actually drawn by Walt Disney Animation before being scanned and colorized by Virgin Games. This gives Aladdin a look like no other 16-bit platformer at the time - it really does look like you're playing the movie. There's also impish jokes through the game, from appearances by the Genie as a bottle, skeletons wearing mouse ears, and Aladdin's absurd "level clear" jog through the bottom of the screen at the end of each level, there's a lot here that's very memorable.

Wrong Game!
What isn't memorable, however, is the actual level design - every level is an expansive, frustrating succession of randomly placed platforms with no real attempt to guide you through. There's no flow to any of it; you just jump through, attack enemies, and hope to find the exit. Throughout, Aladdin is for some reason armed with a sword, because this is a video game and video game characters have swords, right? For as impressive Aladdin is as an experience, I've always thought that there was far too little happening under the hood of this game to truly be enjoyable.

Over in Japan, Capcom's sausage factory was grinding out their own take on Aladdin. There's no Disney Animation sprites here - just straight, old fashioned 16 bit sprite work. It feels less like the movie and more like a game. Aladdin has an astonishing number of abilities; he can jump, climb, swing, attack, throw apples, and float around with a sheet. Compared to the combat-oriented Genesis game, this Aladdin is unarmed and athletic; you proceed through every level by swinging and climbing. In this sense, the game appears to be heavily indebted to Jordan Melchner's Prince of Persia, which had recently been beautifully ported to the Super Nintendo by Arsys Software in 1992. Aladdin's movements aren't as restricted as those in Prince of Persia, thankfully, but the influence is obvious and unavoidable.

And let's talk about level design for a moment here. Both games start in Agrabah streets, both have you jumping on canopies and dodging guards, but instead of stranding you in a maze, Capcom offers a straightforward progression that none the less rewards the most adventurous players. If you stay low, you must contend with rabble on the street; up on the rooftops, you are rewarded with more items, but hazardous jumps and a breathtaking view of the palace.

Also, I fawned over this with TaleSpin, so you knew I'd have to bring it up here: the Capcom game can be delightfully nonsensical. Upon meeting the Genie, you're transported to a bizarre world where the Genie has become numerous platforms for you to jump across, a'la Air Man's stage in Mega Man 2. After that, for no reason and with no explanation, Abu falls off the magic carpet and you must travel into an ancient pyramid to rescue him.  At the end of that, you're confronted by a scary-looking boss who turns out to just be Abu try to scare you! From there, it's on to A Whole New World, which isn't a shooter or anything, but just an opportunity to peacefully collect some items before heading off to fight Jafar.

This game is short, perhaps six levels, but it's tough. There's dozens of tricky jumps, which can be improved with the help of a sheet you can use as a parachute. The trouble is, it's an optional item at the start of the game, and there's only one other in the game, in the final level...

In 1993, compared to the vibrant graphics and impressive pedigree of the Genesis game, this didn't stand a chance. Disney's next blockbuster game, The Lion King, would be developed by Virgin for the Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and Capcom was out of luck. It's a shame; this is a good game with a lot of challenge.

The Genesis game feels like a piece of merchandise; part of the promotional effort: like the film it's bold, brassy, and tough to ignore. The SNES Aladdin is a legit game, balanced, with tight controls and, if you appreciate vintage sprite work, a terrific look. It ought to be better remembered than it is.

Bonkers - October 1994

We're here; we finally made it to the end, and I wish like hell I could say it was anything but Bonkers. It's true, if I were grouping these chronologically we would still have The Great Circus Mystery and Magical Quest 3 to cover; good games, to be sure. But it made more sense to group all three of those Quest games together, so here we are at the end of nearly five exhilarating years of Capcom-Disney video games, with.... Bonkers.

Does anybody really like Bonkers? I said earlier in this piece that Goof Troop has fallen by the wayside in favor of the superior A Goofy Movie, but Bonkers seems to have no adherents; it's not even on DVD. As a kid, once Bonkers was on the Disney Afternoon rotation, I began tuning my TV elsewhere; to Kid's WB, which had Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Road Rovers, and Earthworm Jim. I can't even say I have any real memories of Bonkers; just a vague, unpleasant distaste.

So how does Bonkers on SNES stack up? Well, it's okay. Typical for Capcom, the graphics are gorgeous - Bonkers actually looks cute bouncing around on the screen, something I can't say ever happened in the show. The settings are full of clever touches and Bonkers is full of amusing slapstick animation - he can be flattened, fall over, trip over his own feet, and more.

The first level takes you into Donald Duck's Hollywood mansion (!), where you can sink into jello molds left on the dining room table, destroy gold statues on Donald lining the halls, and slide down an elephant shaped slide in the toy room. In a later level, a powerup is found in a room where Mickey and Donald are taking a break from filming a western movie. Bonkers bounces his way through a cruise ship, where kitchen freezers are filled with marauding penguins and swordfish frozen into blocks of ice. There's also a pretty tough LA Freeway traffic jam, where toon busses are trying to mow you down.

He does look adorable in this game

Besides the forgettable license, this game isn't better known because it's really just average. Obviously built on the Magical Quest game engine, Bonkers simply can't move fast enough for the game he's in. Mickey controls fine in the Quest games because speed is not a priority, and once you reach tougher areas you have a projectile. Bonkers's jumps are just too sluggish to safely clear even minor enemies, creating an impression that the game is running at half speed. Combined with an over-generous hit box, and this is a game that feels like it shouldn't be nearly as frustrating as it is.

Intended to offset the sluggishness, Bonkers also has a dash with a recharging meter at the bottom that can stun or destroy enemies. It controls strangely - you have you keep pushing down on the dash button and the forward button or the dash runs out immediately. This feature seems to have inspired by the terrific, tight dash mechanics in Konami's Buster Busts Loose for the SNES in 1992. It never makes the game unplayable, but like Scrooge's bizarre pogo-cane mechanic in the original DuckTales, it's the kind of thing that should have been improved before release.

To what extent does charming details make up for a middle-of-the-road game? You can do far worse for platformers on the SNES, but you can also do much better. Players willing to overlook the wonky jumping and dashing and excessive hit box will find a decent little game here, but in an overstuffed genre, why bother with decent? Bonkers was released near the end of the total dominance of platform games; Street Fighter 2 had ignited the fighting game craze a year before, and a little game called Doom was just around the corner. Given how totally average Bonkers is, it's hard not to think that maybe this is a job better left to Mario and Sonic after all.

As for the animated show, playing this game and my general desire to be better informed prompted me to watch a handful of episodes, which ranged from decent to tedious. The internet informs us it was a troubled show, and the results speak for themselves - it's pretty weak sauce compared to even a middle of the road episode of something like Darkwing Duck. The whole point of Roger Rabbit always was that he was not a Disney character; he's more like a Tex Avery creation than Disney's babyish creations. Neither fish nor fowl, the Bonkers show is significantly worse than either of it's models - Roger Rabbit or Tiny Toon Adventures. Disney Television would rebound, but Bonkers remained as a road not traveled.


I had suspected that Bonkers was going to end this series on a down note, so I withheld a game from the coverage for the end. Appropriate for a theme park blog, this is the very first Disneyland video game on a home console - Capcom's legendary, baffling Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Come back next week for the final game, and a retrospective on Summer Game Camp!

Game Rankings So Far
01) DuckTales 2
02) Chip ' Dale Rescue Rangers
03) The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse
04) DuckTales
05) Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
06) Aladdin
07) TaleSpin
08) Goof Troop
09) The Great Circus Mystery
10) Darkwing Duck
11) The Little Mermaid
12) Bonkers
13) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
14) Mickey Mousecapade