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volume 1, issue 25

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Pad Happy:
Licensed to Thrill?

By Nick Ferguson

Sports sims made EA what they are today, and the continued success of the FIFA series over Konami’s vastly superior ISS games just goes to show what an official license can do. In sports, more than anywhere else, the license is king – just stick to realism (Shaq-Fu, anybody?) and nobody will get hurt. It’s getting to the stage where publishers will do anything to have an "official" product – how many "official" games were there of the World Cup? (Sorry to keep mentioning soccer, but what else do you expect from a European?) EA even managed to get the "official song of the World Cup" into their last game, which obviously gave the FIFA series’ gameplay a much-needed boost. Hem.

Conversely, movie licenses today could almost be seen as incidental. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Half-Life show that developers now have the ability to tackle the same territory as movies without the safety net of a specific license. Technology can finally address the old criticism that a game on its own cannot provide anything like the same level of tension, narrative, or dramatic effect as a movie. CD-quality audio, realistic 3D environments and increasingly ambitious designs are blurring the distinction between that we play on our TVs at home, and what we watch munching popcorn down at the multiplex. Heck, games like Abe’s Exoddus are getting submitted for Oscar consideration!

The benefits of a license can be outweighed by the restrictions – LucasArts’ misjudged Masters of Teras Kasi beat-em-up was sullied by the contrived plot necessary to justify Leia fighting Luke. It’s easy enough to see how the Goldeneye license gave Rare so many of their ideas (stealth, gadgets, semi-realism), but the end result is a game so outstanding that the Bond tie-in becomes largely incidental. The "sequel", Perfect Dark, should be all the more outstanding with the developers freed from the constraints of a license.

The current trend in licensing isn’t to get the hot summer movies onto console as quickly possible (where are the Armageddon and Lost In Space games?) but to get those classic films that weren’t (or couldn’t be) done properly in their time and have another go. Fox’s forthcoming Aliens Vs Predator and Westwood’s Blade Runner take the basic "universe" of their inspiration, and construct a suitable game world to explore. Face it – the prospect of creeping around an abandoned atmosphere processor is far more appealing in the age of Voodoo3. Another trend is to get a license that doesn’t exactly scream "HOT!" and create a great game from it; ironically, Acclaim’s Turok games (and their forthcoming Shadowman) leap into my mind.

Console gamers have to put up with slightly less inventive licenses than their PC counterparts. While the PC world was frothing excitedly over X-Wing and Rebel Assault, I remember playing SNES Super Star Wars which managed to be a great game, if only by completely ignoring the plot of the movie (I don’t remember Luke running about the Jawa’s sandcrawler with a blaster, do you?) Of course, console games have always been more simplistic - Super Star Wars was essentially a side-scrolling platform romp with a few immensely cool Mode 7 sections. Console cadets have been on the receiving end of some of the worst licenses in history, from Independence Day, through Street Fighter: The Movie ("the game of the movie of the game" – what a sell!) all the way back to ET on the VCS. But who can blame the developers? When you’re selling to 8-year old kids, I guess hype and branding is king. If you ever had a hissy-fit at your parents because you didn’t get the Tickle-Me Elmo of your youth, it’s hypocritical to point the finger at developers and say "You made me play baaaad games!"

Thankfully, the consumer is far more informed than ten, or even five years ago. Gamers have access to countless magazines and web sites to tell them which games to buy, and which to avoid like the plague. We’ve also seen the end of an era of action movies (most of which starred Stallone or Schwarzenegger) which effortlessly translated into shoot-em-up heaven. Similarly, the demographic has expanded beyond that of testosterone-laden males (leaving today’s gaming naïfs vulnerable to the likes of Spiceworld and Barbie Fashion Designer). As the console gamers of yesterday shaved their wispy ‘taches and sprouted into virile, PC-owning young men, games companies face a decline in the percentage of games sold to clueless parents and elderly relatives, and an increase in the percentage of games sold to the groovy folk that actually play them. If nothing else, this has acted as a significant shit-filter – if you’re gonna license Star Trek, these days it’ll be the fan who watches the show buying the game, not their mom - and if it stinks, they’re going to remember!

A good license takes the elements that made the original media successful and somehow adapts them into new or established game genres in a way that heightens the experience of the product. A bad license relies on associations with the original media to bolster the experience of a substandard game. When all’s said and done, a license can work. I’ve been playing a lot of Rogue Squadron on the N64 recently and I have to admit, if it wasn’t Star Wars, it would be an awful game. Purists might argue, "well, if you’re saying that, it IS an awful game!" but I have to disagree: the Star Wars orchestral score, hi-res spaceships and authentic atmosphere all serve to elevate a distinctly average design. Sorry, I guess I’m just a license whore.

- When not writing for loonygames, Nick does nifty Vader impressions with a pint glass.


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.