The Good, the Bad, and the Licensed

The following is an essay I wrote for a university course in 2017. I just re-discovered it while going through some old files and thought I’d post it for kicks and giggles. I know the MLA format is weird in a blog post–I’ll probably reformat and properly edit it at some point.

Since video game systems became capable of crudely representing characters on screen, companies have been putting their products and characters into them. It seemed like a logical extension of product placement in television—a practice almost as old as the medium itself. Some games based on characters from movies have been wildly successful, and indeed, Goldeneye 64 proved that first person shooters could be seriously successful on home video game consoles. For every successful adaptation of a licensed property however, there are a multitude of failures. In general, the games are shoddy, rushed jobs, that virtually no care was put into.

In general, equally as little attention is put into their release as is put into development. These titles slip away into obscurity, but they are worth digging up (sometimes literally) because there are lessons to be learned from the idiotic mistakes of the past. A licensed property won’t necessarily be bad because it is licensed, but they are often characterized by low budgets and low effort, and there is a limit to how tolerant a customer will be, even if the property is well known and well loved. Which they aren’t even always.

Though many licensed games largely slip under the radar (see every Shrek game ever made), there a few that have reached the status of legend in the gaming community. Games like Superman 64, frequently called one of the worst titles for the Nintendo 64, and occasionally the worst of all time (Totilo). Superman 64 is so poor in quality and so hard to play that the Attract Screen features a demo video of someone—no doubt someone who worked on the creation of the game—trying and failing to complete the first level. This game has been talked about enough though. So too has E.T., a game for the Atari 2600 which Atari so regretted making that they dug a hole in a desert in New Mexico, and buried all remaining copies in existence (Schreier).

What will be discussed in this investigation are games which have fallen into obscurity, and a few which are well known, but have more history behind them than a glance would reveal.

“I need a better engine” – M&M’s Kart Racing

At the end of a console’s life cycle, the price of games will typically drop fairly dramatically. What cost fifty dollars just a year prior will drop to ten dollars or less (Baptist). Typically, however, games do not drop below 99 cents, and when they do there’s typically a reason why. And when a game drops to ten cents at GameStop, there is probably a a very good reason why. One such ten cent game is M&M’s Kart Racing, a game so bad that the price of the box and manual came to exceed the cost of the game on the shelf.

The tragic tale of one of the worst and strangest racing games ever released begins with the launch of the Nintendo Wii, and the inscrutable establishment of a game company with many names and obscure origins.

A year after the launch of the Wii, a media company called Zoo Games came to be. Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. According to an SEC Form 10-K, Zoo Games was established in 2003 under a different name (Zoo). Sort of. Probably. The form says this:

Zoo Entertainment, Inc. (“Zoo” or the “Company”) was originally incorporated in the State of Nevada on February 13, 2003 under the name Driftwood Ventures, Inc. On December 20, 2007, through a merger, the Company reincorporated in the State of Delaware as a public shell company with no operations.

The form does not state what company Zoo Entertainment merged with or why they had no operations. The form goes on to state that in 2008 Driftwood Ventures underwent a merger with Zoo Games (not to be confused with Zoo Entertainment). Zoo Games had been, as far as can be surmised from the document, a shell company subsidiary of Zoo Entertainment (which Driftwood had already purchased and merged with), so how it could merge with a company that no longer existed is unclear. It is clear that this was not just a name change, as it states in the filing that Driftwood “merged with and into” Zoo Games.

As if this wasn’t strange enough, the form states that at the time, stock still existed for Zoo Games, which is peculiar since it was owned by another company which had its own stock. Driftwood Ventures would reincorporate in a different state in 2008 and change its name to “Zoo Entertainment, Inc.” even though Zoo was allegedly a dormant “shell company with no operations.” To make matters even more difficult to follow, all of the titles it launched during the lifespan of the Wii were released under the moniker Zoo Games, regardless of what any parent or child company was called at the time of release.

Bloomberg, the financial media giant, provides in their Company Overview wildly different information on the company than what appears in the SEC filing. The company now goes by IndiePub. Commenting on these business practices, economic expert Alex Ehrlich states, “Sometimes there are legitimate tax angles [for these practices]. But that level of activity sounds suspicious.”

Are We Going Fast Yet?

All of this is a digression from the game in question, but it is worth noting that the background of the suspicious company that created this strange game is equally as strange. The strange game in question is, as stated, the 2007 title M&M’s Kart Racing, one of many M&M games that appeared on the Nintendo Wii. The premise of the game—or any game based on candy characters from commercials for that matter—is bad enough, but it is really the gameplay that nails the coffin shut.

The game is an arcade-style racer in which players take control of different color M&Ms with unique personalities and play styles, or, at least, that is what the game manual would have players believe. In actuality, every M&M’s kart handles exactly the same, specifically horribly. The game uses the motion controls the Wii brought to the table in a way that is nothing but a constant hindrance. The kart’s handling, regardless of how the controls are configured, could be described at best as unwieldy, and more genuinely: unusable.

Bumping into walls is entirely unavoidable even at low speeds. Turning at low speeds produces a loud grinding noise which loops over itself, which is unfortunate, because the levels largely consist of sharp turns that the player will crash on and be forced to unstick themselves from walls. The races are not difficult, but are certainly difficult to get through, from perspectives of gameplay, boredom, and frustration.

The personalities the individual M&M’s do possess essentially boil down to what catchphrases they will say throughout the race. Repeatedly. One such line is, “I need a better engine!” This is strange for a number of reasons. Firstly, the line will be spoken regardless of the player’s standing in the race, regardless of their speed, and generally, seemingly completely at random. Secondly, there is no way to acquire a better engine—no means of kart customization. Switching karts does not change this quote.

The unavoidable and hilarious quotation best known from the game comes from the announcer who shouts at the player, “APPROACHING SOUND BARRIER!” While the speeds on the in-game speedometer go up to 200kph, players will experience the thrill of feeling like they’re moving not much faster than a golf cart (which is good because even at those speeds the player will be crashing into walls). There’s something inherently hilarious about being yelled at about how fast you’re going when you’re slowly coasting through the course, and funnier still when the quote plays as you’re stuck in a wall, fruitlessly trying to free yourself as the loud grinding noise of your tires screeches in your ears.

While it’s not the fact that it’s a licensed game that makes M&M’s Mart Racing so terrible, it serves as a shining example of what studios will do to try and grab cash, specifically what properties they will license. One can ask: Why M&Ms? Why are they racing each other? How did these characters get into commercials and how did they get out of them, and onto the Wii? There are no answers to these questions from a company that has changed its name and now exists as a subsidiary of another company that bought and merged into a company that had merged into a different company from a company that it already owned. And so these questions will ring through the halls of video game history forever.

Four For the Price of Five – The Philips CD-I

You can get an Alienware gaming computer with the latest Intel processor, 16 gigabytes of memory, a 256 gigabyte solid state hard drive, a one terabyte hard disk drive, a top of the line Nvidia graphics card, and a one year warranty on all of it—a system with specs capable of playing thousands of video games, a system that is essentially top of the line—for less than the inflation adjusted price of a game console which only ever saw 124 games released, many of which were critically panned (Bryant). Let’s talk about consoles.

Starting with the Super Nintendo. Is it fair to compare a system that has inspired ubiquitous standards across processors and generations to a short-lived system with no cross platform capabilities? Yes, because a system with vast power and software offerings, with compatibility with other Interactive Compact Disc systems, was exactly what Philips promised with their wave-of-the-future video game system, the Compact Disc Interactive (CD-I). While the saga of the CD-I does not directly pertain to the quality of the titles they released, it does contain the reason why these horrendous games were possible, how they became what they became, and how Nintendo created one of its biggest rivals.

Brother Can You Spare a Disc?

The full account of how Nintendo created their biggest competitor could take up an entire book (or at least a thrilling made-for-TV movie), but the short version is this: In the early 1990s Nintendo, sensing that optical media was the future of gaming, entered a partnership with Sony to create two products—an expansion for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that could play games on compact discs, and a hybrid console disc system that would combine the existing hardware with the new disc system in one machine (Nintendo Power).

A fierce argument about game licensing ensued being the two companies, and Nintendo, attempting to maintain tight control of their product, publicly humiliated Sony by announcing a partnership with Philips (the inventor of Compact Disc technology) to create the new disc system, thus ending their contract with Sony (McFerran). Sony would go on to use the technology created for the Nintendo Playstation prototype to establish their own presence in the video game industry. They would release what is to date the fourth best selling console of all time, and their second entry into the console wars, the Playstation 2 remains the best selling console of all time (Sony).

Nintendo couldn’t imagine this future though, and they figured that their new choice of partner, Philips, would be a better pick anyway. After all, Philips had pioneered optical media storage, and so who was better suited to create a video game console with it?

While the SNES hybrid never came to be, Philips managed to retain the licenses they had acquired in their deal to develop the system and used them on their own console, the CD-I. Nintendo had, in good faith, licensed their best known intellectual properties, the Mario Brothers franchise, and the Legend of Zelda franchise, and had little input on the games, both by contract and by choice.

The producer assigned to the licensed projects was Stephen Radosh, whose storied career includes E.T. for the Atari 2600, and an unreleased licensed Mario-universe game for the arcade in which the players takes control of Donkey Kong and work as parking attendants (Hilliard). The four Nintendo-Philips games developed for the CD-I under Radosh’s supervision were Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, Zelda’s Adventure, Hotel Mario, and the unreleased Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds, and while there is much to say about each of these titles, the first two Legend of Zelda titles present microcosms of all the Nintendo licensed games.

‘Link: The Faces of Evil’ and ‘Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon’

There is nothing explicitly wrong with the gameplay of these two of the three Zelda series titles for the CD-I. In fact, had these games been on other platforms, they probably would have just been dismissed as missteps in the franchise and nothing of historical interest. The gameplay is reminiscent of Zelda II for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), that is, platforming action adventure in the Zelda universe. What the game lacks is the control tightness of Zelda II, and the originality it brought to the series (a complete switch of gameplay genre from Zelda I).

More importantly, platforming had been perfected on the SNES, and so the genre lacked novelty. The only way to break into platformers was to make something new and innovative, or at least tight and fun. The two CD-I Zelda games weren’t any of the above.

Again, these flaws would have just rendered the games mistakes, and they would have been forgotten to time if not for one creative decision. The CD-I possessed capabilities of displaying Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences—clip scenes in-game that used actual video footage or extensive animation, and high quality vocal samples (up to this point voice samples on game consoles had sounded like someone speaking through a broken megaphone). The developers felt obligated to take advantage of this technology, and what better way to use it than by shoehorning animated sequences into numerous parts of the game. These poorly written, poorly voice acted, poorly animated sequences are what made the games famous. Speaking on these sequences, producer, Radosh, reminisced,

We went through a little bit of issues with the look of characters for Link and Zelda… because animation at that time was really expensive here, we opted for this hand-drawn look for those games. We wound up with Russian animators.

The issues with the look of characters for Link and Zelda (as well as the king of Hyrule and Zelda’s attendant, Impa) started in-game, where Link and Zelda look like uncanny valley gnomes, and into the clip scenes where the animations look like Dragon’s Layer, if no time or effort had been put into the animations in Dragon’s Layer.

In these sequences, the camera pans and zooms in on characters, but the background remains static, leaving the sense of a nauseating green screened effect gone wrong. The characters’ motions are wildly exaggerated and comical, while all of the backgrounds are motionless and empty like painted sets. It is the writing and voice acting that drives these games into legend though.

After a discussion of the king embarking on a dangerous voyage, the king, out of nowhere says “I wonder what’s for dinner?” Link, on hearing that he is to go after the king following his disappearance says, “I can’t wait to bomb some dodongos,” which sounds less like him intending to use the classic bomb item from previous Zelda games, and more like he’s planning on bombing dodongos from his fighter plane. Then of course, there’s the melodramatic Ganon (who very obviously shares his voice actor with the king) repeating a variation of the same line at the end of both games: “You dare bring light to my lair? You must die!”

All these flaws granted, the games did not fade into obscurity, and have endured to this day in videos on YouTube in which people record themselves playing and provide commentary. There are thousands of such videos.

A Refreshing Title – The Chronicles of Pepsiman

Leave it to Japan to make mascots out the least likely characters—in this case, the delicious thirst-quencher Pepsi.

Pepsiman came about when, in the mid 1990s, PepsiCo Japan sought to introduce an anthropomorphic character to represent their brand (Ono). Takuya Onuki, the independent ad-man PepsiCo Japan came to in hopes of boosting their sales, came up with a series of commercials in which Pepsiman runs into various semi-dangerous situations and delivers Pepsi to those in need—in one case a man lost in a desert, in another bikini clad girls on a beach. The stated goal was to make the ads seem as “American and popular” as possible, whatever that means. They went to the lengths of hiring Industrial Light & Magic, the group which had done all the special effects for the Star Wars franchise, to animate Pepsiman. The ads were wildly popular, and Pepsi sales rose by fourteen percent that year.

In 1995, Sega AM2 released a Virtua Fighter 2 engine based fighting game called Fighting Vipers. The game had one special requirement which had to be met in Japan before it could be released. Sega had made a deal with PepsiCo Japan to include product placement for Pepsi in some of their games. To satisfy this deal, Pepsi was put in subtle areas around stages throughout the game (SegaRetro). Less subtle however was the inclusion of Pepsiman, the beloved mascot, as a playable character. While Pepsiman never made it to any non-Japanese port of the game, he proved an extremely popular character at home, and PepsiCo Japan decided to license an entire game based on the character.

“Let’s Start the Game!”

Kindle Imagine Develop (KID) was chosen to be the creator of the Pepsiman game. Because of time and monetary restrictions, the developers opted to use FMV sequences instead of pre-rendered clip scenes. For this they went to then unknown American actor Mike Butters, who would later go on to star in Saw. Butters went into his audition unclear of what the product was, and knew only that they were looking for a “Hank Hill type” (OlliePlays).

Several months later, to his surprise, he was informed that he got a part for something involving Pepsi. All communication between him and the crew had to go through a translator, but Butters recalls it as one of his “dream jobs.” The FMV featured poorly translated Japanese dialogue, including “Pepsi for TV game!” and, after chugging a can of Pepsi with a goofy look on his face, a very serious delivery of the line, “Pepsi: Only my choice.”

The game that resulted was Pepsiman, an endless runner in which the player, Pepsiman, must dodge various obstacles and collect Pepsi. The gameplay is unremarkable, and what has made the title endure is the beloved overacting by Mike Butters and the inherent insanity of making an entire game centered around a thirst-quenching mascot who only ever appeared in one country.

The beautiful conclusion to the Pepsiman saga was its appearance at Summer Games Done Quick in 2016. During the speedrun of the game, Mike Butters got five thousand new followers on Twitter, and SGDQ raised over thirteen thousand dollars in donations from viewers around the world watching the live stream.

Little Effort, Enduring Returns

While all of these games share a few common themes—low budgets, low efforts, strange concepts—they also share an enduring popularity. The games transcended what is bad and entered into the absurdity that creates cult fandom. It is unclear whether or not the Pepsiman game sold Pepsi, or if M&M’s Kart Racing sold snacks, or if the CD-I sold more Nintendo games. There must be some benefit to the companies, as companies haven’t stopped licensing their products and characters, and some benefit to the consumers since these games keep getting recorded and shared online. There is no doubt that these games will keep getting made, and no doubt that the best, or the worst, or the weirdest will maintain seats in gaming history.

Works Cited

“Alienware – Aurora R5 Desktop – Intel Core I7 – 16GB Memory – NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 – 256GB Solid State Drive + 1TB Hard Drive – Silver.” Best Buy. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Baptist, Matthew. “The End of All Things Wii.” Telephone interview. 28 Nov. 2017.

Bryant, Adam. “Alphabet Soup, With a Dash of Hype.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Jan. 1993. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

“COMPANY NEWS; New Philips CD.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Apr. 1992. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

“Company Overview of Driftwood Ventures Inc.” Bloomberg L.P., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Ehrlich, Alex. “Alex Ehrlich on Shell Companies and Reverse Mergers.” Telephone interview. 1 Dec. 2017.

Hilliard, Kyle. “Meet The Man Who Put Mario And Zelda On The Philips CD-i.” Game Informer. N.p., 29 Dec. 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Nintendo Power. “Super NES Technology Update.” Nintendo Power Apr. 1992: 70-71. Read Comic Online. Web.

Ono, Yumiko. “PepsiCo’s ‘American’ Superhero In Japanese Ads Is Alien to U.S.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 23 May 1997. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

PepsiCo. “PepsiCo Japan.” PepsiCo. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

“Pepsiman! – Mike Butters Interview.” OlliePlays. N.p., 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

“Philips CD-I.” Video Game Console Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Schreier, Jason. “E.T. Found In New Mexico Landfill.” Kotaku., 26 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

SegaRetro. “Fighting Vipers.” Sega Retro. Sega, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Sony. “PlayStation® Cumulative Production Shipments of Hardware | CORPORATE INFORMATION | Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.” Sony. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

Totilo, Stephen. “Let’s See If Superman 64 Really Is The Worst Game Of All Time.” Kotaku., 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

United States of America. Securities and Exchange Commission. WebCite. By Zoo Entertainment. N.p., n.d. Web.

The Video Game Critic. “The Video Game Critic’s Philips CD-i Console Review.” The Video Game Critic. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2017.

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