Nick F despairs at the games industryís continual re-hashing of old ideas, but heís a sucker for licenses. Eh?
etís role-play. Youíre a major developer, and youíve just released one stinker of a game. Why is it so bad? The development process only lasted 6 months, the graphics are appalling, the game interface is clumsy, and as for the playability, well, letís just say that your entire testing department have taken the "Alan Smithee" option for the gameís credits. Itís completely unoriginal, and several generations behind what anyone would consider bleeding-edge. Magazine editors sent beta versions have been ringing up all week, pleading with you to put the game back into development for another few months to avoid sub-50% ratings. Yet this dog of a title goes on to top the charts, make your company a huge profit and get you promoted to Head of Development. Huh? How does that work? Easy Ė you just got the right license.
Itís easy to be cynical, but back in the heady days of my youth (weíre talking skateboards, Guns ĎN Roses and Top Gun here) I can remember that a game with a license was actually a damned good thing. The sad truth is, I found it far more satisfying mowing down hordes of bad guys if the blurry sprite I controlled bore a passing resemblance to Robocop. The tedium of most movie tie-insí unimaginative attack patterns, repetitive background scenery and relentless left-right scrolling Final Fight beat-em-up action was offset by the knowledge that punctuated between each level was a grainy 16-color grab from the movie, and a scratchy digitized speech snippet ("your move, creep!"), a creepy forebear of inter-level FMV. In many ways it didnít matter how poorly the game played - if Bruce Willis could get to the top of the Nakatomi Building, so could I!
So, back in the early days licenses had the handy effect of conferring some semblance of atmosphere on the motley arrangement of pixels most games consisted of. The blocky graphics wobbling about on your TV set could be given the gravitas of epic space opera - if you knew the blob you controlled was the Millenium Falcon! Thereís an argument that states a little imagination might have enabled me to oversee the lack of an official license and enjoy the game on its own merit, but as an MTV-addled youth it was much easier to buy games with a picture of the Death Star on the box instead.
Actually, George Lucas has a lot to answer for. Not content with making grown men mutter phrases like "I have you now!" into empty pint glasses on Friday nights, he had to go and get his hands dirty in the Ďinteractive entertainmentí arena. Early LucasArts games might have had little to do with the antics of the Skywalker clan, but once they discovered Joe Computer Geekís appetite for TIE-blasting and general force-wizardry, the Star Wars titles began rolling out. Subsequently, no matter how great and original a game is (Doom, Civilization, Dune 2), soon after its release thousands of gamers begin to clamor for a Star Wars knock-off, demanding the addition of a light saber and the opportunity to give some Ewoks a good kicking. Today, LucasArts is a creative and talented company, but they just arenít the same mad geniuses that came up with Ballblazer, Monkey Island and the original X-Wing. Look at their new releases - Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine is their answer to Tomb Raider (ironically, a game inspired by the Indy movies) and X-Wing: Alliance is the long-awaited Star Wars version of Elite. Yummy! All we need is that Star Wars S.C.U.M.M. adventure and "the circle is complete"Ö
Isnít that an awful attitude to have? Developers all over the world spend years trying to create original product, and when they succeed all you find in the charts a year later is the Star Wars-themed equivalent? Iíll Ďfess up and say that Iím the worst culprit (I even bought Supremacy). Mental deficiency and perpetual adolescence aside, there must be an explanation. Maybe itís just that the rich world created by the films (and the books, and the comics, and the bedspread, and the lunchboxÖ) is so ripe for exploration that all the games are a form of wish fulfillment? Perhaps everybody just wants to run amok with a light saber? Perhaps itís just a change to play something that takes place on a wider canvass; when Iím running down corridors blasting the fiery hell-spawn of Doom, thatís it Ė I have no outside reference for the game other than a short readme (oh, and myÖuhÖimagination). When Iím rushing down the corridors of Dark Forces, I know that if I donít complete my mission then the plans for the Death Star arenít going to get into the hands of R2, and Luke Skywalker isnít going to be able to blow up the Death Star (sorry about the spoiler). Somehow, the Star Wars angle is more involving.
LucasArts has kept the Star Wars universe alive in the 16 years since Return of the Jedi hit the big screen. Thatís no mean feat, writing games that become part of the nearest thing we have to a modern mythology. Throughout history, games have given us the chance to become heroes Ė gaming aside, count the number of times youíve blown up the Death Star, rescued a princess, fought the Dark Knight or saved the world (hands down at the back). See what Iím getting at? Games are not movies - they never shall be, and they should never want to be. Having said that, the part of our brain that thrills at Ben-Hurís spectacular chariot race just has to be tied to the gaming experience Ė after all, what was the thrill of Doom if not the chance to become a Colonial Marine and kick some butt yourself?
So, if youíre looking to make a fast buck thereís the tricky question of what to license? Traditionally, no-brain summer action movies have been the biggest draw (and the recent trend towards sci-fi hasnít hurt), largely because they appealed to the same target market - adolescent males. Another attraction was the general ease with which these films can be translated into video games Ė shooting, running, jumping, and causing massive explosions isnít exactly genre-bending stuff in gamesville, either. During the 80ís, the average movie license was a side-scroller with your beefy onscreen counterpart inflicting digital death on a multitude of generic hoods, pimps and liíl green men. Thankfully, (some) games have moved on and the advent of 32 and 64-bits brought, if nothing else, more inventive and aesthetically pleasing ways of bringing death, destruction and mayhem to the digital screen. A few companies (such as Acclaim Ė remember "Ack-lame?") insisted on churning out lackluster licenses like Batman Forever well into the mid-90ís, and, satisfyingly, almost went under as a result. Have you noticed thereíre a lot less movie licenses about today?
Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.