Since the early beginnings of gaming media, the classic mantra of most critics and fans is that games based on licensed properties are terrible–which was especially true in the 8 and 16-bit console generations. Nowadays, our children and inner-child have a bit more luck when it comes to finding video games based off a TV show or film that are not utterly terrible. Obviously, this rule is not true in all cases: even in the eighties and early nineties we could point to examples like Batman for the NES and Genesis, or the Disney titles developed and produced by Capcom and later Virgin Interactive.
Still, the rule that licensed games are terrible exists for a reason. Companies like LJN are infamous for the franchise-based titles they “shat out” throughout the lifetime of their company. So, why the eye-catching title of this article? I think these awful games do not deserve the hatred that has been heaped upon them over the last few decades. I don’t think they are great, but I think that they deserve praise for the aspects which they do right–even if all these components do not come together successfully.
James Rolfe AKA The Angry Videogame Nerd has produced a series of videos that all tend to agree that LJN’s rainbow logo on a cartridge may as well be the kiss of death for finding any sort of enjoyment in an NES title. I will concede that none of their games will ever make it into the top 10 (or even top 100) games for that console, but I think to dismiss all of LJN’s titles as irredeemable garbage would be a mistake (not that I think Rolfe truly believes this, the Nerd is a character made to humorously over-blow his opinions for the sake of humor). I am going to start by explaining why with my favorite title they produced, and then go to a couple which make many people’s list of “Worst NES Titles Ever”.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit has a lot to like. Not just the game, but the movie itself. It broke new ground technologically (or perhaps just perfected old ground as seen in Marry Poppins) , hit an interesting tone, and had a great script with some great actors. It would be difficult to translate it into a playable video game, I would think. Perhaps a developer like Sierra or Lucasarts would be able to make a cracking point-and-click adventure for the PC where you play as Eddie Valiant. Someone like Capcom may make a fun and tightly controlling platformer starring Roger, though I would fear it may come off as a bit uninspired. LJN didn’t have the ease of control a PC mouse would give, nor did they take the easy route of making another run and jump game that had little to do with the film’s plot. Instead, they made an interesting mixture of an open-world game, an item collecting adventure game where you must search rooms for clues and interview people to gather information, and an action game (though, sadly, a bad action game)–in short, they made something entirely new.
The sad part of making a cross-genre title is that it often turns out to be a mistake. You will have an interesting game, to be sure, but the individual segments are going to suffer. In this title, you generally enter a building and begin to run up against desks, garbage cans, and mouse holes to “search” them in the hope that an item will pop out. Most of the time, nothing does. You will then realize that you can talk to the random citizens milling about the buildings to hopefully learn that “This building is empty”, or once in a while they will hint of an item lurking around somewhere. Other times you will see an item in plain sight, but need a specific item to get to it without taking damage (cheese for a tenacious rat, for example).
The problem of the game starts to crop up here. You can buy objects with the wallets you collect, but the item that appears in the shop is random, so you never know if what is available will actually be useful. You also have to find the shop, which isn’t easy because all the buildings on the world map look the same and have no indication of what is actually there, you can only distinguish them by their general location and size or shape. Exploration is a bit of a bitch in this game, since a first time player will have no bloody idea where they are going or where they are trying to get to. Like a lot of non-linear games of this era, you spend a lot of time being bewildered since the title does not impart enough information to the player.
The combat boils down to charging up punches and releasing them the few times you have to fight one of the weasels, or if you are lucky using an item like the pistol to make the battle less of a chore. If you are caught by enemies in the world map you have to give the punch-line of a joke told by Roger within the time limit, or he is killed and you lose one of your lives. I really like this aspect of the game, it reminds me of the insult sword fighting in Monkey Island.
Unfortunately, the title culminates in one of the worst, most tedious and difficult final boss battles in history, and a pretty piss-poor ending–and I think this is the worst thing about the game. Thankfully, it also has a password system to keep your progress and inventory, allowing for some experimentation in trying to solve the game’s puzzles with the many single-use items.
The game also lets you be a complete asshole, much like we see in modern open-world games. You can smack Roger around for no good reason, or if one of the innocent civilians you are talking to is rude or won’t give you any information, you can beat them to get some more info. Also, if you are a psychopath, you can hit innocent women so hard they fly across the room. I am shocked Nintendo let this game be published, to be honest.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the one thing the game does unequivocally right is the music. It is creative, and evokes the tone and time period the game takes place in, simply one of the best soundtracks on the NES. The quality dips a little when you hit ToonTown, but it is good enough to make the game worth playing. Check out a Youtube video if you are interested.
What is my point with this long overview of the game? With LJN you do get some absolute garbage, like X-Men, (but even that has some ideas that could have been good if not done completely awfully: such as having an AI partner through the game, or a fourth wall breaking code needed to access the last level) but you also get titles that are original, but have poorly executed elements. The next few games I want to quickly mention are in this category–ambitious and flawed in equal measure.
Friday the 13th for the NES has recently found some fans thanks to the action figure based on the absurd color scheme of Jason in the game. However, I think there are some non-ironic reasons to find enjoyment in the title as well. First of all, though the controls are rough and the combat a bit poor, the game manages to evoke a creepy atmosphere. You have a powerful enemy that appears sporadically in random locations, and campers you need to protect by switching from a pool of characters. It creates an interesting strategic element where you are trying to gather the items needed to put Jason away for good, while managing the locations of your characters to keep them alive (and by extension, the helpless children alive). I like this game, and so do a lot of other people. It isn’t great, but it is unique enough to stand as something truly original when the developers could have just made a dull, spooky-themed platformer. When LJN did do a horror franchise as an uninspired spooky platformer, A Nightmare on Elm Street, they made it a four player co-op game using the NES Satellite–sounds kind of cool, right?
This next title is often dishonored on many “Worst NES Games of All Time” lists, and I think that distinction is rather unfair. Jaws is a proto-action/RPG that is inspired by one of the many sequels to the original film. In all honesty, I think the worst thing you can say about this game is that it can get repetitive and boring. Your goal is to sail your ship from port to port, running into random encounters with manta-rays and jellyfish where you must dive into the water and mass-murder them with a harpoon gun in order to collect dropped conch shells. You use these to buy upgrades to your ship and weapons so that when you randomly run into Jaws, you will have the ability to kill him before he runs off. The game isn’t particularly difficult, but it takes a very long time to build up enough power to finally reach the ending where you stab Jaws with the bow of your ship. Once again, the idea of slowly building up your abilities in an action game to kill a randomly appearing “boss” character is an interesting angle to take this license. The controls are actually pretty fluid, and you do feel nervous at the possibility of running into Jaws when you are not ready. Like I said before, this game has some good ideas which are executed…well, not so good. I still think it is worth a play, even though you will probably put the controller down due to boredom rather than a game over screen.
So, that is what I wanted to say about LJN. Some of their games are genuinely bad–uninspired, clumsy, and shoddily programmed. Other ones are like those listed above: attempting to do something new, or trying to combine different genres, though often unsuccessfully. I think these titles should not be dismissed as they often are, but rather praised for their ambition. Other licensed titles of the era are much maligned, but are full of poorly executed good ideas. Dick Tracy by Bandai could be an 8-Bit L.A. Noir with a few clever tweaks to the character sprites, and Rambo by Acclaim is basically a bad version of Clash at Demonhead–right down to having a similar sense of humor.
In the end, I would rather play a game that is original, but flawed and overly ambitious, rather than one that is competently made, but dull and uninspired. I think we can say that a good portion of LJN’s library falls into the former category. Even though these games will never be someone’s favorite title, they are historically relevant for ideas that were better implemented later on–even if it took a few decades.