Welcome to another Franchise Fatigue! The column where I kick venerable gaming franchises when they’re down! Or comatose! Or forgotten!
My mind’s been on Disney videogame stuff lately, for two kind of obvious reasons – one, Wreck-It Ralph, which I’m assuming the entire readership of this website has seen twice by now, and two, I just played the demo for the 3DS Epic Mickey game. It’s terrific! The developers weren’t kidding about the “sequel to Castle of Illusion” part. It looks and plays like an old-school 16-bit Disney game, with new, 2012 3DS graphics and bells-and-whistles. Highly recommended, says I.
Going back through all the various Disney videogames of times past, everybody has fond memories of Capcom’s series of Disney licensed titles. For good reason: Ducktales! Certainly the best game I’ve ever played where you play a miserly vulture capitalist who pogo jumps on the moon! Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers! Bar none the best co-op NES game, and perhaps the only game in existence to disprove Old Man Murray’s “Start to Crate” theory!
Of course, being nostalgic as we are wont to do, our minds often cloud the truth. “Oh, man! IF ONLY Capcom still made quality, fun Disney games! IF ONLY Disney would let Capcom once again have control of its characters!” And folks, I hate to say it – especially since I’m going to be one of those sad nerds who bowdlerizes T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” – but that notion already had its quiet, ignominious end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
I’m talking about Disney’s Bonkers for the Super Nintendo.
This was Capcom’s last licensed Disney videogame for a number of years – certainly their last 16-bit Disney game, the very last game based on a cartoon character from The Disney Afternoon, and a license they wouldn’t re-acquire until 1999’s Magical Tetris Challenge for the Nintendo 64. It is also based on Disney’s Bonkers, which had the misfortune of being an awful cartoon starring an annoying hodgepodge of “zany” cartoon cliches that felt like stale leftovers from Animaniacs. And that’s saying something, considering how unwatchable most of the Animaniacs characters were. (Seriously – try watching a Rita & Runt cartoon without feeling like you’re slowly being poisoned.)
Although, maybe I’m being too harsh. Bonkers isn’t… aberrant. For the most part, it’s your garden variety, completely serviceable 16-bit platformer. Bonkers can jump and dash around, lob cartoon bombs at vicious bulldogs, and drink a magical elixir that turns him beet red and sends him on an enemy-killing rampage, Bonk-style. The graphics are soft and pleasant, the Bonkers sprite has a fun and jaunty walk, and the simple joy of bopping on enemies’ heads is 16-bit comfort food.
But… “pleasant” and “serviceable” is a pretty stark contrast to Capcom’s Disney games past. Where’s the weirdness? Where’s the outrageously strange misuse of the characters? Putting it bluntly: where’s the creativity?
A lesser writer would lay the blame squarely on Bonkers himself. A pale shadow of cartoon characters from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood; a sickly imitation of Bob Clampett and Tex Avery, detoxified and sterilized for braindead idiot 90’s children. A bad idea, poorly executed. How could Capcom prevail with such bland, inauspicious material?
I dunno, how did they turn Goof Troop into an amusing puzzle game? Tale Spin was turned into a strange but fun takeoff of Sky Kid. Disney’s Aladdin for the SNES is arguably a better game than the Genesis version. (I said arguably. And if I ever meet Dave Perry in person, he’s sure getting a piece of my 10-year old mind about those random deaths in the Cave of Wonders.) Not to belabor the point, but Capcom’s best 8 and 16-bit output was defined by its insistence for creativity. Mega Man, after all, began his life as a thinly-veiled knockoff of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. There’s definitely something to be said for Capcom’s young and hungry staff tossing every idea they could think of in the face of a license as dire as Goof Troop. (Shinji Mikami’s first credit, too!)
None of that creativity is used in the service of Bonkers. It’s a straightforward, joyless, unsurprising platformer. Tracing a line of creativity from Capcom’s Ducktales to Bonkers, it’s like Capcom threw their hands up and somehow produced the 16-bit cartridge form of a disinterested shrug. Who is responsible for this?!?
I actually don’t know. The only credit I can find online – because the end credits of the game are just your typical platformer roll call – is for composer Norihiko Togashi, an unknown if not prolific composer of gaming melodies (Money Puzzle Exchanger, Mega Man Soccer). And to his credit, the music is pretty good. It’s Capcom quality, even! Lots of deep percussive instruments and silly cartoon calliope-music!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Capcom’s Disney franchise fatigue was in full effect here. Bonkers was – and it pains me to say – a lazy cash-in. You know, like all licensed games nowadays. Just a lazily constructed game, a patchwork quilt of familiar elements, skinned with a forgettable character from a children’s cartoon show that would be – and was – forgotten in the years to come. So, for all of you decrying Capcom’s exit from the Disney videogame realm, allow me to be the dissenting opinion that states maybe that was for the best.
Because Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion looks great, Bonkers was lazy, and Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers was the perfect litmus test to figure out which of your childhood friends was an absolute jerk.