Friday, November 27, 2015

Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQS. I'm not seeing much that
screams "castle" here, save for the faux family crest with carrots on 
it.  And never once does Yosemite Sam fire a gun in the game.
Not once. False advertising, or just paying homage to a lovable,
idiosyncratic cartoon character from a bygone era? You decide.

Licensed properties can be a tricky beast.  If you pay for licensing rights to a property, chances are, you're not going to have exclusive rights to that property, or your rights won't cross all borders.  Your licensing rights will expire at some point, and you'll have to weigh the pros and cons of paying to continue those rights, or let them lapse.  Sometimes, the window of opportunity for a licensed property is relatively small, and you are forced to come up with a product based upon that property, in a rather short time frame.  Sometimes, the results can be less than stellar.  Such is the case with Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.

What happened to the 'Crazy Castle' part of the name on the box?

Let me clarify - I'm not saying Kemco-Seika had a limited amount of time to develop the game because their rights to the Bugs Bunny license were under the gun.  No, I'm saying, due to the resurgence of the popularity of the Looney Tunes franchise during the mid-late 80's, there wasn't a lot of time to waste in maximizing that potential before the 'tude explosion of the 90's came about.  Not that Kemco could have seen that coming, but a sense of urgency should be a factor in developing a game with any licensed property, because you really never know whether something is going to be popular next year or not.  The prevailing thought is, strike while the iron is hot.  In Kemco's favor, they did.  On the downside, they should have taken more time with this game's development.

Before each stage, you get a quick check on where you're at,
and it tells you which stage, how many lives you have, and your score.

By now, most people who are more than casually familiar with retro gaming should be familiar with the Angry Video Game Nerd, and his feud with Bugs Bunny.  Many have seen the video where he incredulously plays 5 games in the Crazy Castle series, to some disgust and frustration, followed by several sequences of the Nerd, and Bugs Bunny, duking it out in the most awkwardly hilarious choreographed fight sequence this side of 90's late night TV.  What some might not know, however, is that the Crazy Castle games are an interesting case of licensed property usage, and how that translates across different regions.  The original Famicom game was called Roger Rabbit, and starred the titular character from the movie.  However, Capcom had the rights to all the Disney franchises in North America, so it came to the US as Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.  When the game was ported to the Game Boy, Kemco of Japan had already lost the licensing rights to Roger, but they still had Disney rights in Japan, so the game came to the Game Boy as Mickey Mouse.  However, in the US, Kemco still had the rights to the character, so the North American Game Boy release was also titled Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.  Funny how that stuff works, right?  In any event, the Game Boy game was pretty much a straight port of the NES game, with a graphical downgrade, but retaining the same level design and music.

"Oh my stars, look at all the carrots! Ripe for the picking!"

Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle is a puzzle platformer.  You walk up and down staircases, crawl through pipes, and go up and down stairs through various doors, to reach multiple levels within each stage so you can collect carrots.  Along the way, you have to avoid one of several "enemies" within the game: Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and for some reason, multiple Sylvester the Cat instances.  One touch, and it's curtains for Rocky, erm, I mean Bugs.  You do have a limited ability to attack, either by picking up a single-use boxing glove you can throw at a foe, or by pushing one of several stationary objects into an enemy.  These include wooden boxes, buckets, a 10-ton weight, and of course, ACME safes.  Each object has different weights, meaning when you kick them, they'll move different distances, based on their weight.  In other words, kicking the bucket makes it go very far, the wooden box less far, and the 10-ton weight the shortest distance.  Some levels also have a bottle of "invisible ink", but instead of just making you invisible, it also makes you invincible for a short time, so any enemy you touch in the limited time it's active, will instantly die and go "poof!"  Once you obtain all the carrots within a level, you receive a 1-up and advance to the next level.  After each level, you're given a 4-character password so you can continue where you left off.  That password is strictly to reach that stage, however - it will not record your score, or the number of lives you have.

"Nyeaaaaah, I better hurry before that stupid cat catches me!"

In terms of the game's visual aesthetics, they're okay.  Bugs, as well as his foils, all look recognizable, and they animate decently as well.  The death animation for Bugs is amusing, and seeing each of his nemeses fall on their back as they're defeated is satisfying.  The game does mix up locations a bit, sometimes incorporating stairs, sometimes incorporating pipes, an occasionally both, but the design is quite minimal, which is reminiscent of Super Mario Land, and other early platformers on the Game Boy.  The backgrounds are totally devoid of any level of detail, so the focus is on the platforms, pipes, objects, and enemies on display.  It's nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.  Everything is rendered well enough so as to be recognizable.  Unfortunately, there's a fair bit of sprite flicker going on.  Sometimes Bugs will flicker, sometimes the enemies, and sometimes the objects you can kick, or the carrots will flash.  What's really odd is that, if you're standing in just the right spot, those objects will flicker perpetually until you move again.

I think Bugs is just a LITTLE too excited about collecting all the carrots.

In the audio department, the game takes a pretty minimalist approach.  There are a small handful of music tracks in the game, that rotate between levels.  I do like that they didn't stick with a single track for a large batch of levels (Nail 'n Scale, I'm looking at you), but it would have been nice to have a few more tracks to help break up the monotony a bit.  Still, the music itself is bouncy and fun, and is fitting for the game.  Speaking of monotony, the sound effects available here are pretty sparse as well.  There's no sound when Bugs goes through a pipe, and only basic sounds when you use the boxing glove, knock an object on the floor, pick up a carrot, or kick something into an enemy.  Whomever at Kemco did the sound design for this game, kind of phoned it in.

You can escape a situation like this by going down the pipe, but
watch out - the Sylvester cats can, and often will, follow you through.

As for the gameplay, this is where things start to get dicey.  Controlling Bugs takes some getting used to.  The chief complaint leveled against this game is that you're controlling Bugs Bunny, but you can't jump.  For those who bought the game new in 1990, and didn't know it was a port of a Mickey Mouse game (which meant 99% of buyers), the prevailing though would have been that a game starring a rabbit who couldn't jump was just broken.  Once you get past that notion, other problems begin to emerge.  The enemy AI is highly unpredictable at times, so sometimes you'll get through a level with very little danger, and other times, you'll be bombarded from all sides, and may seem to beat a level purely through dumb luck.  Some things are consistent, such as Sylvester being the only enemy that will go through pipes, Daffy Duck using stairs, and both Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote being stuck to the level/layer they're on, but otherwise, the enemy patterns aren't very obvious.  You can find yourself cornered very quickly, with no recourse except to die and start the level over.

One really nice feature of this game is the password system. The game's
4-character passwords may be the shortest in video game history.

In the larger levels, with long staircases or pipes that span a greater distance than the size of the screen, taking those paths becomes a crap-shoot each time.  It makes perfect sense that once you enter a pipe, you continue through it until you reach the other side, but not so much with stairs.  Once you get started up or down a flight of stairs, you're committed to that action, and if you run into an enemy, tough luck.  You have to watch the enemies closely, and time your pipe and stair traversal specifically, hoping beyond hope that the enemy doesn't suddenly turn around and greet you at your destination for instant death.  The other frustration with the controls is, when you have a flight of stairs going down, and another flight going up, both within a few pixels of one another, the only way to ensure you're going up is to stop pressing the direction on the D-pad you want to go (i.e. left or right), and start holding Up on the D-pad to guarantee you'll go up the stairs.  The Castlevania games work the same way, but it's implemented a bit more cleanly there.  Here, it feels clumsy and half-baked, when coupled with the flaw that you can't stop on the stairs and turn around.  Had they tightened that up, it would have made the game less frustrating.

All I have to do is wait for Yosemite Sam to pass by, and I can sneak
down and get that carrot. What a maroon! What an imbecile!

Not that the frustration means much, aside from the obvious fact that, when playing through this game, Bugs Bunny is going to die.  In fact, Bugs is going to die A LOT.  If you're playing strictly to play through and win each level, it's not a lengthy experience.  Sure, there are 80 levels to play, but with a password for each level, combined with unlimited continues, you can keep hammering away at a level until you figure it out, or are lucky enough with the enemy AI that you can sneak past them to get that last, hard to reach carrot.  The real problem is, since design elements in this game hearken back to design concepts from classic, single-screen puzzle platform arcade games, playing for score is next to impossible because the enemy patterns are hard to pin down.  Some levels I blew through in a single try, but a few of the levels took me 10 or more tries, and a fair number of those were levels with a lot of opportunities for cheap deaths.  Combine cheap deaths, less than stellar control, and other issues, and you have a game that isn't doing itself any favors in the fun department.

Where did Bugs go? Oh wait, it's that horrible sprite flicker you see
when you grab the bottle of invisible ink, that's all that's going on.

Despite all of its flaws, Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle can be a fun game, as long as you take its flaws into account, and understand that playing strictly for score is a losing proposition.  I had fun throughout the 5-6 total hours of gameplay I had to dedicate to completing the game, and if you're a fan of puzzle platformers, or old school single-screen arcade games, you might get a kick out of this as well.  I wouldn't recommend it if you're trying to find the "cream of the crop" of Game Boy titles, but it's good for a few laughs.  I picked my loose cart up for $4.95, which, for the limited amount of gameplay available, might be slightly on the high side.  Still, you can spend $4 or more on much worse titles in the Game Boy library.  Ultimately, I would say if you have a friend or relative with a copy of this, try before you buy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Play Action Football (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from Adventure Amigos.
"I choose" the realistic offensive strategies, but the defensive strategies
are tough - does that mean they're not realistic? Or are they both
AND realistic? Can the game possibly live up to this box art?

I must begin this review with a bit of history, nostalgia, and a confession.  As I write this, I'm reeling from the news that the Kansas City Royals, long the proverbial butt of many a baseball joke, have won the World Series against the New York Mets.  Though I don't consider myself a sports fan, I got a little bit of whiplash with that announcement, and had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn't 1985 again.  I was a fan of baseball for many years, as a kid, until the player strike brought the ugly realization that athletes can often be petty, whining oafs that are just money hungry.  Granted, they're not all like that, but the strike certainly gave me a new perspective on things.  So while my love for baseball lasted a number of years, my interest in professional football was relatively short-lived.  In 1985 and 1986, I fancied myself a pro football fan, if only to impress my classmates and the neighbor kids, who all thought I was a giant dork (spoiler alert: I was).  I told people I was into the Dolphins and the Bengals, and that Dan Marino was pretty much the best quarterback on the planet.  Of course, I never really watched any football games, because we had 1 TV in the house, my parents weren't into pro football, and none of my friends invited me over to watch with them.  Subsequently, my neighborhood kids (and kids at school) saw through my petty charade.  Yes, I was destined to be a nerd.

Compared to the title screens for Baseball and Tennis, both Nintendo
launch titles, this is just lazy. There's not even a football to look at!

I'm not totally devoid of football knowledge, however.  I watched college football with my parents; specifically, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Yes, the Huskers are (in 2015) having what is possibly the worst season in the history of the football program, but in the mid-late 80's and early 90's, the Huskers were a staple of Saturday college football games, and I watched intently with my parents, despite not having a deep understanding of the game, the plays, or the rules.  I don't catch every game now, though I still try to do so when I can, and root for the Huskers when I do get to watch or listen to a game.  I even casually live-Tweet during games.  Having said that, my knowledge of the game of football is still very limited, and I'm saying that to help set up this review, and perhaps give some perspective as to my feelings on this game.

Play selection is relatively easy, though a touch clunky. I occasionally
found myself kicking a field goal on 2nd down because my instinct
was to push down on the D-pad to change pages, instead of the A
button, as is the default. I had a few failed 70-yard "attempts".

The other thing I'll say is that, as most gamers of my generation know, while Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System was a pretty good football game for its time, the ball didn't really get rolling (pun intended) with video football games until the 16-bit era, when you had Joe Montana Football, and of course, the kingpin itself, John Madden Football.  That didn't stop every game console from receiving some sort of football title, and the Game Boy certainly saw a handful of pigskin games.  By my count, there are 11 total football titles on the venerable handheld, though 2 of those are combination baseball/football titles.  Part of me is dreading having to review those carts.  Cramming 2 fully realized sports games into a single Game Boy cartridge (in the early 1990's) would have been a feat unto itself, but also require real thought and design.  I guess I just don't have much faith in licensed titles from that era, which can be attributed to the low number of them that actually turned out to be good games.

Team Captain: "Stay in formation....stay in formation!"
Player: "Loosen up!"

Play Action Football, the first pigskin game for the venerable handheld, is a pretty simple affair.  There are 8 teams in the game, all from major cities across the US, though, conspicuously, devoid of actual NFL names, due to the game's lack of NFL license.  The manual makes no mention of differences between the teams, and I was not able to really gauge any kind of discernible difference in team or player stats and abilities (more on that later).  There are 4 modes to play: a 1-player against the CPU mode, which is a single game, a 1-player against the CPU "championship" mode, where you play 7 games against the other teams (with a password system for saving progress), a 2-player mode where you play against one another in a single game, and a 2-player against the CPU mode (also a single game, from what I gleaned from the game's menu).  There are 4 difficulty levels to play against the CPU, and, like the 2 Nintendo sports launch games, they range from moderately difficult to insanely hard.  I will readily admit, as a sports video game beginner, I stayed at the "Level 1" difficulty the whole time, as my experience with that proved to be challenging enough for my rather weak skills.

Pat is good? Okay, that's good to know, thanks for filling me in.

Play calling is relatively simple.  At the play screen, you press one of 4 directions on the D-pad to select a play, depending on which directional arrow you see next to the play you want to run.  If you press the A button, you can move to a 2nd, or sometimes even a 3rd screen of available plays.  If you want to call a Timeout, press Select at the play selection screen.  Once you're on the field, you'll "hut" until you press A to hike the ball.  Then, depending on your play, you can either run the ball, or press the B button in conjunction with a direction (left or right), to throw the ball.  One thing to keep in mind is, as soon as you throw the ball, the player selection switches immediately to the receiver, so don't forget to move them into position based on the arrows that display on screen, indicating where the pass is being thrown.  Also, you can press A several times per play to either break a tackle, or get a speed boost.  While running the ball, you can press B to dive, and usually pick up another 2-3 yards on a play.  On defense, you also have the speed boost available for each player, and you can press the Select button to switch to whichever teammate is closest to the ball.  Again, you can dive to try and tackle the runner, by pressing the B button.  When you're kicking the ball, you have an arrow that moves left and right, and that determines the direction of the ball when you press A.  Then a 2nd meter will go up and down, and when you press A again, that determines how hard you kick, and thus, the distance the ball travels.

The stats screen that shows at halftime and at the end of the game
is easy to read, and shows a lot of good, relevant info, especially if
you're into that kind of statistical stuff, you football nerd, you.

The game doesn't have a lot of visual appeal, and is somewhat simplistic.  The overhead view works well for basic play execution, though sometimes, when you or your opponent are running the ball, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle, and have no idea where the ball is.  There's not much detail on the field, but that's a blessing, given the business of the two teams clashing, especially during running plays.  When performing a long pass, or a kickoff, the screen will switch to an even less detailed overhead view that shows more of the field, and players represented by little dots, and then will zoom in again to the standard view, once the ball is close to the receiver.  If you score a touchdown, or make a successful P.A.T. or Field Goal, you're treated to a 2 or 3 frame animation, and you get a basic, 2-frame animation of a referee signaling when you've achieved a first down, scored a touchdown, and either made, or missed, a kick attempt.  You also see an easy to read stat and score breakdown at halftime, and after each game, complete with each team's "logo".  Oh, and one nice touch is when you get close to a first down, the referees will come out with the poles and chain, to "measure" the distance, and you can see the animation of the chain going by the ball to show if you made the first down or not.

This screen looks just a shade or two more advance that the old
Mattel Electronic Football handheld games that were popular in
the late 1970's and early 80's. This is what you see during a
kickoff, or a similar view when you throw a long pass.

There's very little in the way of music in the game.  You have the title screen theme, and music that plays once the ball is in motion, as well as a different music track that will play when your opponent gets into the red zone and is threatening to score.  Aside from that, there's a short ditty that plays when you score, and another short theme on the score breakdown screen.  Otherwise, it's mostly sound effects.  You have basic sound effects for the "hut", hike, and pitch/throw sounds, and the "alley-oop" sort of sound to denote the ball going up in the air, and coming back down.  The tackle sound is pretty basic, as are most of the other effects.  The game has a bit of rudimentary voice sampling as well, though it's awful scratchy.  There's a voice for "first down" and one for "touchdown", but as you can imagine, they sound so much alike that they're almost indistinguishable.

Whether you're kicking the ball, or your opponent is kicking, and no
matter which team you choose, #7 will be the kicker. Man, that guy
really gets around. He must be a hot commodity!

Playing through a single game, you can almost immediately see the games flaws take center stage.  First and foremost, despite each team having no discernible difference in stats, the CPU team ALWAYS runs the ball faster than you.  If they throw a pass and catch it, your best bet is to switch to the closest player and try to tackle or dive to get them.  Be careful, however, because if you miss, the CPU team will take that ball all the way to the end zone.  Countless times during my experience with this game, I kicked the ball for either a post-TD kickoff, or a punt after a 3-and-out drive, and the opposing team would score a touchdown, simply because I couldn't catch up.  This happens regardless of which team you play against.  I realize the game is trying to offer a challenge, but I would have hoped that whomever was responsible for play-testing the game would have brought this to the design team's attention.  It's terribly unfair when you, as the player, have to waste all your speed boosts to break tackles and fight for 20-25 yards, while the opposing side can score a TD on nearly any kick return if you miss a couple tackles.  Call me crazy, but that sounds like poor design.  Working in your favor sometimes is the goofy detection for P.A.T. and field goal kicks - sometimes, it looks like you missed the space between the goal posts, but the CPU will say your kick was good, while the CPU team kicks the point after attempt, and it looks like it will be called good, only to see that it's no good.

That's me at my 40-yard line, trying to run the ball downfield. Because
the CPU team is so much faster, I'll get about 7 or 8 yards until they
catch up to me. A couple speed boosts and I can break a tackle or
two, but then I'll have to dive if I want to get to, or past, their 45.

The passing also seems weird to me, but maybe I haven't played enough football video games to know any better.  It seems as though I can't land a pass more than 40-50 percent of the time, when performing a Play Action Pass.  With that, I seemed to have way more accuracy passing to my left than to my right, for some strange reason.  I was never once able to land a long pass, and I found short pass plays to be utterly useless, because the opposing team was always able to find a way to get to the receiver before I could gain yardage.  Once I reached the red zone, I found both the "Sweep" and "Dive" plays useful, because I could sometimes muscle my way into the end zone, but just as frequently, I ended up throwing a Play Action Pass to seal the deal.  Maybe it's just because I figured out how to run that play successfully the most, but I thought it was strange that the play the game is named after seemed to be the best way to move the ball downfield.

Wait, first you tell me Pat is good, now you're saying Pat is no good?
Make up your mind, already! Who are you to say, anyway?

At the end of the day, I understand that, because of my limited knowledge of sports, any recommendation (or lack thereof) of a sports game will need to be taken with a rather large grain of salt.  Having said that, I think the major flaws in this game speak for themselves, and it's hard to give the game a thumbs up.  I think I paid $3 for my copy, and while I got enough enjoyment out of it to warrant that, I can't imagine what poor kids got this as their birthday present, and ended up spending far more time on it than the game's design truly warranted, because mom and dad paid $30, and they were going to like it, if it killed them.  I learned enough about how to play the game that I was able to win about 30% of the time, and for a non-sports fan, that's good enough for me.  If you're thinking about spending more than $3 or $4 on this game, take a knee, call a time out, and give it some serious thought.

Playing on the Game Boy Player, via my Game Cube, I found it slightly
amusing that the game had a bit of a color palette interpretation "oops"
with the player's arm after a touchdown. Not only is the end of his sleeve
a totally different color, but you can see the sprite overlap between the
arm and the body, and the color difference just makes it more pronounced.

As an aside, I wanted to mention that I played through the entire 7-game "championship" mode, and purposefully did so, utilizing every means I have to play Game Boy games.  I played game 1 on my Game Boy Advance SP, game 2 on my original Game Boy DMG, game 3 on the Game Boy Pocket, game 4 on the Game Boy Color, game 5 on the Game Boy Player, and Game 6 on the Super Game Boy.  I finished up with game 7 via an emulator on my PC, so I could grab screenshots for this review.  I found it interesting to go back and forth between the different systems, to see how it played, but also get a feel for how good the D-pad is on each of those systems.  Turns out, my Game Boy Color D-pad could use a little TLC, and my SNES controller is in dire need of a cleaning and alcohol bath.  Also, it's really awkward to play with a Game Cube controller (in my case, a WaveBird), because the "Y" button acts as the "Select" button, and it doesn't feel natural to hit that while you're running downfield, trying to catch the other team's runner.