With Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated we were given the latest video game appearance by a cartoon character on June 23rd. But the trend is far from completely new. Even in arcade times, TV licenses were only too happy to be converted into sometimes better, sometimes worse games. So let's take a look at the history of cartoons in the gaming area, highlight highlights and lowlights and ask the all-important question: What does the animation of a cartoon series have to have in order to be "good"?
First steps on the arcade machine
Animation series in the form of video games have been around since the early 80s – almost since the beginning of video game history. At the latest after 1982, when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, the first game based on a film, the door for numerous cartoon implementations had also opened wide. In the beginning, these were mostly on arcade machines. With the Atari 2600, the Intellivision or the C64, however, they soon found their way into their own four walls.
Source: PC Games
Among the early representatives are, for example, the Smurf developed by Coleco: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle, a platform in which you have to free Smurfette from the clutches of the nasty magician, or Popeye from Nintendo. The latter is largely a copy of the in-house box office hit Donkey Kong. So you hop around with the spinach-loving sailor, collect objects, dodge attacks from the nasty Brutus and finally try to save your beloved Olivia oil.
With the submission of E.C. Admittedly, Segar doesn't have much to do anymore – apart from the character models and the name on the box. A trend that should continue in the coming years. Word got around quickly among manufacturers that large licenses made just as big and, above all, quick money. For film versions like E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, which was programmed in five weeks, torn apart by the press and finally buried by the thousands in the New Mexico desert, was also accompanied by total failures in the cartoon field. Tom & Jerry, for example, from the German developer Magic Bytes from Gütersloh, about which tester Mark Heley from CU Amiga wrote: "Everything that Magic Bytes put into it is the bare minimum to get it shipped somehow (…) "Hoping that some unfortunate soul didn't read a review like this one." A cash grave at its finest.
Of course there are also positive examples: In 1990, DuckTales for Gameboy and NES, for example, was the first major cartoon jewel to be born. Based on the series New from Entenhausen, developer Capcom succeeded here in a beloved classic in hopping, which is still very popular then and now. Also thanks to the simple but catchy game principle: With Uncle Scrooge you maneuver in typical platforming through various side-scrolling levels, collect gems and kill enemies with your pogo stick.
"The game mechanics are unique and fun, the presentation is excellent, and the well-known and loved characters are as you know them (…). It's a perfect example of a licensed game," said Bryan Griffin of nintendolife. Accordingly, DuckTales still regularly appears in various leaderboards, such as the top 100 best Nintendo games from the official Nintendo magazine. In 2013 the Jump'n'Run even got a remaster. Of course, this lacks a bit of the pixel charm of the original, but still skilfully displays the old qualities.
Source: PC Games
Konami's NES classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time or The Adventures of Batman and Robin should also be mentioned here. Just like the fact that these highlights are unfortunately rather exceptions. As a rule, the 90s and 2000s were full of low-quality licensed waste: developed under time pressure. In a studio that is far too small. From people who mostly had little interest in the template. Would you like some examples?
How about South Park, released in 1999, which for some reason turned Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny's adventures into a first person shooter in which you throw turkeys at snowballs. Or the PS1-exclusive Simpsons Wrestling, which didn't really have much to do with the Simpsons or wrestling. Or of course Superman: The New Superman Adventures – the epitome of what went wrong with licensed games. The N64 adventure based on the cartoon Superman: The Animated Series is narrative, playful and technically a single disaster. For the absolutely boring gameplay, in which you have to fly through any rings, there is a crocheted control, an ugly graphics with a lot of fog and countless bugs. Rightly so, Superman 64 is still considered one of the worst games ever, which was described by the Maniac colleagues as a disaster "hard on the border with bodily harm".
Source: PC Games
Of course, this raises the question: what could the developers at Titus have done better? Or to put it in general terms: What does a cartoon adaptation actually need to be well received by gamers and critics? Apart from a certain playful, technical and graphic quality, of course. In fact, there are even separate studies on this topic – for example by Jonathan Gray, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin. In his article "In the Game", he examined various reviews of licensed video games to find out what critics particularly value. The result: In most cases, authenticity really plays a role. That the game brings the look and feel of the template across well. Be it through well-known settings, well-known speakers or a well-known story.
However, adaptations should not simply tell what others have already shown. A good video game implementation must stand on its own. Or as Gray puts it: "A video game adaptation, or at least a good one, is not just an attempt to reheat or copy something. It puts the story, its world and its audience in a different narrative mode in which the audience in Parts of the story world can occur. "
A confident look into the future
Source: PC Games
The American also provides a suitable example: The Simpsons Hit & Run, released in 2003, which does everything right on so many levels. In terms of gameplay, the developers of Radical Entertainment oriented themselves to the popular open-world sandbox formula of GTA 3. So with Homer, Bart and Co. you make the streets of Springfield unsafe, steal cars, beat up passers-by and give you chases the police. The world, with its attention to detail, its gimmicks and allusions to the TV template, is a feast for every fan. And with Matt Selman, Matt Warburton or Tim Long, the series even brought writers on board with a completely new story Robots, extraterrestrials and mind-controlling colas wrote. The Simpsons-typical wit and charm was perfectly preserved. Despite USK age rating from six years, the game convinced with its biting, socially critical undertone. Even with all the original voices! In short: Hit & Run is a Simpsons episode that you can immerse yourself in instead of just experiencing it passively on the couch.
This is a model of success, which has been the focus of more and more games in recent years, for example the two South Park versions The Rod of Truth and The Fractured But Whole. Here, too, the creators Trey Stone and Matt Parker were directly involved in the development process, which makes both titles much more a playable spin-off than a real adaptation. The essence of the template was quasi distilled out and skillfully shipped into another medium.
In this way, the license games, which are often decreed, were able to wash their names at least a little. There are still a lot of soulless kart racers, brawlers and action platformer based on TV. Overall, however, since the arcade debut of cartoon video games, a positive development can be seen, which at least gives us hope for the future.
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PCGames Special: Cartoons as video games. (Source: PC Games)
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