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Dec. 25 – Daze Before Christmas

maxresdefault-18Wait, what is this? We’ve reached the final day of this year’s advent calendar style countdown of Christmas specials and it’s not even a show, movie, or stupid commercial? No friends, for December 25th we’re taking a look at Daze Before Christmas, the Sunsoft produced 16-bit Christmas video game that never saw release in North America. Christmas and other holidays are rarely captured in video games. Sometimes a game might take place at Christmas time (Twisted Metal originally did), but few actually make the holiday a focal point of the game. Daze Before Christmas, developed by Norwegian outfit Funcom, said nuts to that and made a platform game starring St. Nick himself. And you know what? It’s actually not that bad.

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Funcom was a little developer out of Norway that apparently liked Christmas a lot.

Daze Before Christmas was originally released in Australia for Sega’s Mega Drive console (Genesis to you Americans) in 1994. It was eventually ported to the Super Nintendo for release in Europe and Australia, but a planned North American version was scrapped. Apparently, Santa is more marketable outside of the US. In this game you play as Santa Claus. An evil snowman has taken over the North Pole while Santa was sleeping or something and everything is in disarray. The player controls Santa through 25 levels collecting presents, freeing elves and reindeer, and even delivering the presents as well. Along the way he’ll explore his work shop, ice caves, and the skies of the UK and other countries and even take on some bosses here and there. When Santa finds a cup of coffee though, he’ll turn into Anti-Claus – a devilish Santa wielding a sack. He’s impervious to damage, but can’t collect presents (a trade-off most will take). As Santa, players can run and jump and shoot some white substance at enemies. There’s also a power-up that allows Santa to shoot fire which comes in handy when battling snowy fiends.

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I get the impression that Anti-Claus was supposed to be the break-out star of this one. I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back in a game of his own, as unlikely as that sounds.

The levels in Daze Before Christmas vary from short, linear, bursts with traditional genre trappings (moving platforms, disappearing ones, blind jumps) and numerous enemies to other levels that are more expansive requiring Santa to explore vertically as well as horizontally. There are checkpoints in each level and finding the star icon will end the stage. In addition to surviving a level and finding the exit, Santa is tasked with recovering presents for the delivery stages. Those stages are few and far between, but in them the game becomes a horizontal scrolling flying game where Santa and his team of reindeer (only four, and I’m giving the game the benefit of the doubt there since only two are visible from the side view) have to avoid obstacles while dropping gifts down chimneys (we call that the Fred Flintstone method of gift delivery). Those levels are simple, but offer a nice diversion and it’s good to see that Funcom made an attempt at getting Santa’s central purpose into the game.

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Santa coming face to face with his alter-ego.

The thing that sticks out most about Daze Before Christmas are its visuals. When I went to play this one, almost begrudgingly, I expected a very cheap looking game. And while some aspects of it are kind of cheap looking (namely the backgrounds), for the most part this looks like a game with some real resources behind it. The Santa sprite is pretty adorable. He’s short and round and has a red nose. When he ducks he goes into his hat and when standing idle he sways from side to side with a nice rotation effect on the sprite. He’s exceptionally well animated as everything is in motion as he runs and jumps through the air and overall he just plain looks great. The enemies have a lot of spunk and personality too, be they flying toys or angry rock creatures. My personal favorite was probably the snowmen that toss their own head at you. The bosses are well-animated as well and I particularly enjoyed the Louse the Mouse boss as he requires Santa to drop anvils on his head with some nice cartoon effects when successful.

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Look out below!

The high number of animation frames seem to have one cost though, and that’s with collision detection. While I never felt robbed of a hit when attacking enemies, vanquishing them has little or no satisfaction as they kind of just disappear. There’s a disconnect there and it’s really felt with some of the bosses as I wasn’t even sure at times I was damaging them. Some of the levels, in particular the earliest stages, almost feel directionless and play rather bland. I couldn’t help but get the impression that Funcom spent most of the development time on making sure the game looked right first, then tried to construct something that was fun to play off of that with little idea for what makes a platform game fun and unique.

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The flying levels are kind of ugly, but offer a nice change of pace. Norwegians also must think footballs are just constantly flying through American skies.

That’s not to say Daze Before Christmas isn’t fun, it’s a mostly solid play through with little frustration. It’s just not particularly ambitious in what it asks of the player. Even on the hardest difficulty setting, the game is a breeze for anyone with average skill and familiarity with games from this era. The biggest danger comes from blind or near blind jumps where the player might not be certain if they’re supposed to go down a certain gap or try to clear it. Actual fatalities from repeated collisions with enemies are pretty few, and the boss fights are pretty painless. Levels start to feel repetitive and too familiar by the time the game is nearing its end, and there’s even a pair of stages where Santa runs up and down a small hill and jumps into a hole, lasting all of 15 seconds or so, which feels like an obvious attempt at padding (the game operates like an advent calendar so Funcom needed 25 levels).

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The pre-level title cards are actually pretty awesome.

The presentation extends beyond Santa’s well done sprite. The game, perhaps not surprisingly, makes liberal use of “Jingle Bells” throughout as well as other Christmas tunes, but they’re all handled rather well and I was surprised by the fact that I didn’t get annoyed with them. There’s some original music as well that’s actually really good, especially one of the cave levels. In between levels you also get some nice title cards that usually depict Santa confronting an enemy or something that are drawings as opposed to sprites from the game. The storyline, touched on earlier, is a bit confusing, but hardly essential. At the start of the game, it sounds like an evil snowman named Louse has screwed Christmas up for Santa, but the snowman is dispatched in level 5. Louse is actually the mouse character I mentioned as requiring anvils be dropped on his head. There’s a clock boss too, and the final boss is actually a cloud named Mr. Weather. Sadly, Rudolph does not offer an assist to take him out. The present delivery levels also occur in different countries and there’s little touches in each to refer to the country being presented. Maybe it’s because I live there, but the United States level amused me the most as Santa flies by the Statue of Liberty and you have to avoid footballs sailing through the air. Though Japan did feature a mouse with a rocket strapped to his back.

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There are some nice touches to certain levels, such as these cartoony wrapping machines that can disguise Santa as a present.

Daze Before Christmas, due in part to its relative ease, is a game that’s probably completed in about an hour and a half. If you really know what you’re doing, where to jump, and care little about collecting presents, you can probably complete this one in under an hour. The only incentive to revisit is, as far as I can tell, is to get a higher score by finding all of the presents, but that’s not likely to motivate many. This is a pretty average platformer, though if you think the average platformer is actually pretty bad then maybe you’d consider this one slightly above average. It separates itself from the pack with its Christmas theme, and it got me thinking about the subject of Christmas games a bit more. Perhaps a game where Santa actually has to infiltrate houses to deliver gifts, avoiding detection by nosey kids, angry dogs, and cartoon wackiness would be a fun experience. It’s certainly not a genre that’s been tapped out and exploited by any means, as the most famous Christmas video game I could think of other than this one is maybe Elf Bowling. Because this wasn’t released in high quantities or in North America, it’s a pretty expensive cart to acquire. If you want to play it, it’s certainly not worth the dollars it commands on the secondary market and you’re better off experiencing it via other means you’re likely aware exist. If you want some Christmas cheer in your gaming life, you have few other options and this is certainly better than a lump of coal. Personally, I say get your Christmas cheer from other media and just grab Super Mario Odyssey instead.

Well folks, that’s a wrap. Hopefully you enjoyed this year’s countdown to Christmas. Tune in Friday for regularly schedule programming as we return to Batman: The Animated Series with an all-time classic episode. And by all means, have a very merry Christmas!

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The Other Disney Afternoon Games

Capcom recently released a digital collection of NES games called The Disney Afternoon Collection. It’s available for Playstation 4, Steam, and Xbox One (though curiously not for a Nintendo console despite all of the games originating from one)and is a pretty solid collection of not quite classic games at a budget friendly price. And that last part can’t be understated since copies of DuckTales II sell for hundreds of dollars on the aftermarket thanks to low release totals. By most measures, the collection of games represent Capcom’s best licensed titles, but certainly not all of them. It also doesn’t capture every title released with the Disney Afternoon branding and this post is about the leftovers.

1Bonkers (Super Nintendo 1994)

 

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Expect some indirect cameos from famous Disney characters.

Bonkers was a short-lived series that ran from September 1993 to February 1994. In that window, the show managed to feature 65 episodes, the magic number for most Disney cartoons as that met syndication guidelines. Bonkers is reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as it pairs a cartoon bobcat with a human who both work for the Toon Police. They go around solving crimes in a toon world that’s basically inhabited by all of Disney’s classic characters, many of whom make cameos in the show. Disney even allowed Mickey to cameo breaking with tradition that basically kept Mickey shielded from the television properties.

 

In December of ’94 Bonkers came to the Super Nintendo. In a game developed by Capcom (who else?), Bonkers allowed the player to play as the titular character as he tried to recover some famous cartoon assets stolen from a museum. His partner, Lucky, is laid up in a hospital bed forcing Bonkers to go solo. The items he needs to recover, and the places he visits to find them, should feel familiar to Disney fans young and old as they include Mickey’s iconic sorcerer’s hat and Ariel’s voice.

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The Genesis Bonkers wasn’t developed by Capcom and took the gameplay in a very different direction.

The gameplay for Bonkers is very similar to a Konami contemporary, Buster Busts Loose, released in ’93 and based on the Tiny Toons character Buster Bunny. Both games are platformers with large sprites where a main feature of gameplay is a dash meter. Bonkers can dash as a means of attack and to navigate the levels. Special items will bestow upon him invincibility and unlimited dash for a brief period, which is also a feature of an earlier Capcom Mega Drive/Genesis title Quackshot starring Donald Duck. The dash is your bread and butter and what a player needs to master in order to make it through the game. In addition to that, Bonkers can take out most enemies Mario style with a jump attack and he also can toss bombs, though his supply is limited. The game contains just five levels, with the first three being selectable from the game’s hub menu and can be completed in any order. Bonkers never earns additional power-ups or special abilities beyond what he starts with, so there’s no preferred order to them.

 

Bonkers for the SNES is a solid title, though not really spectacular so it’s not surprising to see it’s not a fondly remembered one. The cartoon from which it came is also not one that possesses a huge following, though it was an interesting premise and is probably worthy of revisiting. Bonkers also received another video game, this one for the Genesis and developed by Sega. It’s kind of like a tower defense game in which Bonkers is primarily featured in the foreground defending a position by tossing items at enemies in the background. There are some platforming parts as well, but most probably agree that the SNES game is superior. There was also a Brazil-only Game Gear title called Bonkers: Wax Up! that I know very little about. Judging it based on some YouTube long plays, it doesn’t look like a title that needs to be sought out.

250px-SNES_Goof_Troop_BoxGoof Troop (Super Nintendo 1993)

Following DuckTales, the flagship series for the Disney Afternoon seemed to shift to Goof Troop. Starring Goofy and his son Max, Goof Troop was a mostly wholesome program about adolescence and being a single parent. It’s really melancholy for a series starring Goofy and definitely added a new dimension to a mostly one-note character. For fans of the more action-oriented cartoons like Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck, Goof Troop was a bit of a hard sell, but I recall watching it somewhat frequently and thinking it all right.

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A standard screen in Goof Troop with a standard set of obstacles for Goofy to navigate.

The game is definitely an odd duck amongst the other Disney Afternoon titles. Once again developed by Capcom, Goof Troop is an adventure game in which the player controls either Goofy or Max and simultaneous co-op is possible. I suppose it isn’t surprising that the game is unlike its sister titles since Goof Troop, being more of a sitcom than most cartoons, doesn’t have a natural ability to become a video game. In this one, Goofy and Max somehow end up ship-wrecked on an island and need to find a way off of it. It’s basically a survival game, and the player controls one of the two Goofs from a top-down perspective similar to The Legend of Zelda. Goofy and Max can hold a maximum of two items at a time, and the player has to constantly find and drop items in order to progress. The game is more puzzle-like than the others, and since Goofy and Max can’t directly damage the enemies they encounter you’re almost encouraged to avoid conflict.

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Co-op is the preferred way to tackle this one.

The game was developed by Shinji Mikami, who was basically the mind behind Resident Evil. Yes, Resident Evil owes something to Goof Troop and it’s rather remarkable to see how some of the survival elements from that series were first born in Goof Troop. Even right down to how awkward it is to control Goofy and Max and how frustrating it can be to avoid enemies. The game feels like it’s designed for two players as opposed to one as some rooms are really hard to clear without the aid of a second player. The other player can help act as a lure for enemies allowing player one to activate a switch, move a block, or trigger something else on the screen. In two player mode, Goofy and Max can only hold one item each, but it’s an easy trade-off to make in order to gain an ally. Playing solo, I had a hell of a time trying to clear one room where the enemies could kick blocks, blocks that I needed to kick into a certain spot to pass the room. The problem was getting to the enemies and taking them out before they could kick one into a spot where I couldn’t make any use of it, forcing me to leave the screen and re-enter, also re-spawning the enemies.

Goof Troop is an interesting game, and played through the lens of knowing it’s a pseudo Resident Evil predecessor certainly adds to it. As a change of pace from the other Capcom developed Disney Afternoon games, it’s acceptable, but I found it a bit too frustrating to really want to come back to it again and again. Given the license though, this is probably the best Capcom could have done short of just making a platformer that made little thematic sense.

250px-Gargoyles_game_coverGargoyles (Genesis 1995)

Lastly, we have Gargoyles, our only featured game to only be released on the Genesis without a SNES counterpart and (gasp!) to not be developed by Capcom. This one was done by Buena Vista Interactive, and if you know anything about Disney you know that’s likely the name for an internal studio. At some point, someone high up at the company must have got the bright idea that they could make more money if they developed their own games rather than licensing them out to Capcom. Big mistake, as doing so ultimately lead to a severe reduction in quality for Disney based video games and Gargoyles is no exception.

Gargoyles is a series I’ve covered pretty extensively here. It was basically The Disney Afternoon’s answer to WB’s Batman which aired during Fox’s afternoon block of programming. Batman was a hit, so naturally others copied it and Gargoyles was perhaps the most blatant. Don’t confuse that with criticism, as Gargoyles was a pretty entertaining show and was able to develop its own identity during its run. And unlike say Goof Troop, it pretty obviously lent itself well to video games being an action-oriented show starring some pretty bad ass characters.

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At least it looks pretty good.

The game stars Goliath and is essentially another platform-styled action game with some exploration elements. It’s sort of like DuckTales on steroids and with an overt gothic theme. The game starts off in the past with the fall of the castle and the gargoyles being turned to stone before taking the player to the present timeline. All of the main baddies from the show make an appearance, and Goliath handles like Goliath should possessing powerful strikes, a running attack, and the ability to climb walls and double-jump with his wings.

Visually, the game is probably the best out of any Disney Afternoon title and is one of the better looking Genesis titles around. The music even sounds great and you could almost trick someone into believing it came from a Super Nintendo. Sadly, that’s where the positives mostly dry-up. While the music is great, the sound effects are horrendous with awful enemy death screams that sound like they were recorded through a tin can. Goliath is a chore to control as negotiating tight spaces is problematic and his ability to cling to walls is automatic, resulting in numerous occasions where he’ll grab a wall when you don’t want him to. The opening level is particularly frustrating as it features lots of tiny spaces and towers to ascend. Enemies will routinely strike from offscreen and finding enough room to get a running start to smash through a wall can also be harder than it should be. Goliath should feel like a powerful beast, but he’s too easily felled by the humans who serve as foes. The rotten icing on the cake is spotty collision detection when attacking enemies, making their defeat feel wholly unsatisfying.

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There are plenty of familiar faces from the show.

Gargoyles is one of those games that I want to like, but it just makes it too hard to do so. It’s a great license that should have lead to a great, or at least passable, game and it looks awesome. Unfortunately, it just isn’t remotely fun and I’m sure lots of people were conned into buying, or renting, this one based on the track-record of Disney Afternoon titles and because the screenshots looked promising. The game ended up being released only in North America, and there was a Super Nintendo port planned but it was scrapped, either due to poor sales of the Genesis version or because the 16-bit era was essentially over. Stay away, stay far away.


Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge (1992)

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge (1992)

Expectations influence just about everything we come in contact with.  Expectations can help lead to a more fulfilling experience when those expectations are met.  Other times, they can help make the bad seem worse when something fails to meet though expectations.  When I was a kid and I heard there was going to be a video game featuring a team-up between Spider-Man, possibly the most popular character ever created by Marvel Comics, and the X-Men, easily the hottest comic at the time, I was giddy with anticipation.  This seemed like a no lose situation and Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge vaulted to the top of my list of must own Super Nintendo games along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV:  Turtles in Time.  One of those games would turn out well and provide me with hours of entertainment, that game was not Spider-Man and the X-Men.

What went wrong?  Well, let’s backtrack a bit first and see how this all came together and if my expectations were even justified.  At the time of the game’s release, Spider-Man had already been enjoying a run on the Sega Genesis and Game Boy as a platform star.  Perhaps star is a bit strong as his games weren’t really great, but they also weren’t particularly awful.  The best was definitely The Amazing Spider-Man vs The Kingpin for the Genesis.  The game was pretty difficult, at times frustratingly so, but it did a great job of making use of the Spider-Man license.  It was also quite popular and one of the best-selling titles at the time.  The X-Men, on the other hand, really only had the one NES game titled The Uncanny X-Men.  It was horrible and it tricked many uninformed gamers into renting or buying it with it’s X-Men branding.  Arguably, the best games for both franchises were the arcade beat-em-ups Spider-Man:  The Video Game and X-Men.  The Spider-Man game came first in 1991 and for some reason it isn’t as well loved and remembered as the X-Men game that followed in ’92.  It was a typical brawler allowing up to four players to join in and included playable characters Spider-Man, Black Cat, Hawkeye, and Sub-Mariner.  It’s selling feature was a more platform inspired design where the camera would zoom out allowing the players to take on gigantic enemies including a super-sized Venom at the end of the first stage.  The X-Men game was similar, but it’s defining characteristic (aside from the comical mistranslations) was the double-monitor cabinet allowing up to six players at once.  Both games were hard as they were designed to suck quarters out of its audience but they were a lot of fun, especially with a group of friends.

I hate these stupid clowns and their stupid stage.

I hate these stupid clowns and their stupid stage.

It would seem to me that a track record was in place that at least suggested a console game featuring these two franchises could be great.  If I had been a little wiser as a kid and more aware I would have taken note of the LJN logo on the box and realized right away the game was going to be a giant turd, but sadly I just wasn’t.  Before I get into what the game did wrong I suppose I should point out what it did right.  First of, Spider-Man is represented fairly well given that he is able to stick to walls, shoot webs, and even make use of his spider-sense in the game.  The roster for the X-Men side is pretty solid as well as it features the obvious choice of Wolverine along with Cyclops, Storm, and Gambit.  Wolverine has an interesting dynamic to him as he retains his mutant healing power but it only works when his claws are retracted.  The game is packed with villains too like Apocalypse, Shocker, Juggernaut, and Carnage.  Arcade is kind of a weird choice for the main villain, but at least his Murderworld offers a lot of possibilities for level-design.

That’s basically it as far as what Spider-Man and the X-Men gets right, and unfortunately it’s a pretty small list.  So what makes this game suck so hard?  Well, lets first start with the presentation.  I’m usually not one to have much of an opinion on the audio within a game.  I expect it to do its job and often times I have to make it a point to touch upon it when doing these reviews because I tend to overlook it.  Here it’s easy to not overlook because the sound is so bad.  The score is okay at times, though certain levels (Wolverine’s) feature an annoying soundtrack.  It’s the FX that really bug me though as they just sound like, for lack of a better word, shit.  A lot of the characters, good and bad, let out a scream when they die that sounds fuzzy and distorted.  The machine sounds are just as bad and Spidey’s web blasts sound like they could be grenades.  The graphics are also piss-poor.  The characters are really small, except Storm but I’ll get to her later, and lacking in any sort of detail.  Wolverine even looks like he only has two claws on each hand while Gambit doesn’t have a face.  Some of the villains are almost unrecognizable, especially Apocalypse who looks like a blue bug or something.

Hey Gambit, where's your face?

Hey Gambit, where’s your face?

Perhaps what bugged me more than anything as a kid was just how un-super these super heroes felt.  Spider-Man and the X-Men is a pretty hard game made so mostly because these characters can’t seem to take a punch.  They die so easily and it’s a frustrating experience.  I get that it’s hard to make a super hero game because on one hand the super heroes need to be super powerful, but the game also needs some challenge.  That’s why we have super villains though, and Wolverine shouldn’t be getting annihilated by a jack-in-the-box with a tommy gun.  The X-Men games that would follow on the Genesis were hard, but at least those X-Men felt like powerful super heroes (well, for the most part), these ones are push-overs.  The level designs are also fairly lacking.  Spider-Man’s are just weird looking and kind of confusing as they’re intended to be maze-like.  The player is supposed to use his spider-sense to navigate but it just gets tiresome.  Cyclops’ stages feature an annoying mine cart premise where touching the tracks means death.  Gambit has to outrun a giant deathball and might be the best levels, which isn’t saying much.  Wolverine is in a circus and there’s nothing noteworthy about the first stage while the second stage he has to outrun the Juggernaut.  It’s basically the same concept as the Gambit stages, though at least LJN incorporated something from the comics to make it feel relevant.  Storm’s stages are quite different and probably everyone’s most hated as she has to navigate a flooded laboratory.  They’re swimming levels, but unfortunately Storm’s mutant powers over the weather don’t let her breath underwater.  Just about everyone hates the underwater Sonic the Hedgehog levels for the same reason, this is worse times ten.

The red guy is Carnage. That gray blob?  He's Rhino.  I think.

The red guy is Carnage. That gray blob? He’s Rhino. I think.

If the player manages to actually beat all of the levels then they get to take on Arcade as Spider-Man.  You kind of have to be a glutton for punishment to even make it that far as the game is both really hard and really bad.  That’s the worst combination.  As a kid, I never had much success and never made it past any character’s second stage so making it all the way to Arcade wasn’t in the cards.  Playing this game was a depressing endeavor as a game featuring a team-up between these two should have been awesome.  I remember a few years after I got it Toys R Us started their first trade-in program where people could trade in games they no longer wanted for store credit.  I grabbed my copy of Spider-Man and the X-Men and, thinking I’d get maybe 15 or 20 bucks, was offered only four.  I elected not to trade it in but in hindsight I should have taken the four Jeffry Dollars.  I could have used it for some Fruit Stripe gum or something.