Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Introduction

The impact of the 1993 PC game Doom was such that it led to a swath of imitators. Though they would become known as first-person shooters, these kinds of games were often referred to as Doom clones. One title to emerge from the scene was LucasArts’s Star Wars: Dark Forces. Originally released in 1995, it was a commercial success, selling over 300,000 units and enjoying fairly positive reviews. The developers named the custom engine on which the game was built Jedi after the franchise’s heroic faction. The game stood out from Doom by having no limitations on the Z-axis. Levels in the older game only existed on the X-Y plane, meaning areas could not overlap vertically – even if floor and ceiling heights varied.

Shortly before the debut of Dark Force, LucasArts began work on another game in 1994. The team wished to create a multimedia side story to the films entitled Shadows of the Empire, setting it between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – a time period that had not been explored in any Star Wars novel. The idea was to create something that could be considered a film without actually making one. The video game adaption of this project was to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Nintendo 64 console. This decision was made because, though LucasArts enjoyed a lot of success in the PC circuit with classic adventure game such as Maniac Mansion, they felt they missed opportunities for extra revenue by ignoring the console market for so long. Therefore, by being an early adopter for Nintendo’s newest console, they could make a lot of money in this venture while also getting more people interested in it, forming a mutually beneficial partnership. In order to give themselves more creative control over the story and the gameplay, they decided against using any of central characters from the film. Instead, they elected to cast a minor character from the Expanded Universe in the lead role.

The development cycle for this game proved to be an interesting experience as the team was allowed access to the hardware months ahead of its launch. A prototype Nintendo 64 was not yet available when work began, so the developers used a Silicon Graphic Onyx visualization system. Eighteen months later, a nearly complete sample of the Nintendo 64 was given to LucasArts. Thankfully, two developers in particular had extensive experience with the SGI platform and prototyped the game using the Performer 3D API. This allowed the team to port their coding to the Nintendo 64 hardware in only three days. They were even given a prototype controller with which to test the game. It was actually a modified SNES controller with an analog stick and Z-trigger designed by Konami. To ensure complete secrecy, the LucasArts team signed a strict nondisclosure agreement, disallowing them from speaking to anyone about the hardware or the project. Furthermore, the controller prototype was concealed in a cardboard box that they could place their hands into, but prevented them from removing it.

Though the development cycle wasn’t plagued with any major setbacks, it ended up taking its toll on the team. According to the game’s director, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, some team members were regularly working 100-hour weeks for the better part of a year. Compounding the pressure was the fact that they had to release their game shortly after the console’s launch. To make matters worse, when the game was demonstrated at the 1996 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the audience’s reactions were mixed. In response, LucasArts canceled their original plan to have their work coincide with the Nintendo 64’s launch so they could take extra time to polish the gameplay. Despite this, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was postponed a mere three months later, finally seeing the light of day in December of 1996. After the Nintendo 64 debuted with Super Mario 64 being one of its launch titles, the 3D craze of the mid-nineties had begun in earnest. The idea of a real three-dimensional Star Wars game was truly exciting for both old and new fans at the time. It was one of the console’s first big third-party successes, and played a role in the 3D revolution’s continued momentum. Can it claim to have held up as well as its pioneering contemporaries?

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Transformers: Mystery of Convoy

Introduction

In 1984, five people, Kojin Ono, Takashi Matsuda, Hideaki Yoke, Hiroyuki Obara, and Satoshi Koizumi designed twenty-eight figures using molds from the Japanese toy lines, Diaclone and Microman. Hasbro, a high-profile American toy company brought the distribution rights to the molds, rebranding them as the Transformers for the North American market. They would later buy the entire toy line, giving them sole ownership of the intellectual property. In exchange, Takara, the company that originally owned the line would retain the rights to distribute the products in Japan.

Taking cues from the Diaclone toy line, the biggest selling point for Transformers was that, true to their name, they could transform. All of them had a default robot form, but through shifting the parts, they could turn into vehicles, devices, or even weapons such as pistols. The robots were divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (named Cybertrons and Destrons respectively in Japan). In the eighties, a majority of Western animated series were created with the goal of advertising toys to children. This was due to many factors such as regulations regarding appropriate content becoming stricter and the industry as a whole being on the verge of disaster. This is the approach Hasbro took, and with help from help from Toei Animation in Japan, a three-part miniseries based off of Transformers debuted in September of 1984. Both the animated series that spawned from it and the toy line were among the greatest successes of the eighties, and many more incarnations would follow in the coming years.

Shortly before the toy line’s conception, Nintendo launched their first gaming console to use programmable cartridges in 1983: the Family Computer (Famicom). The first consoles were prone to failure due to a bad chip set, but after a product recall and subsequent reissue with a new motherboard, its popularity soared. Its following became even greater in scale once it was released in the West rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whether it was in its native homeland or overseas, games on this platform often sold thousands or even millions of copies. This was especially true if the game bore a famous license from another medium.

As the Transformers franchise reached the height of its popularity, a developer named ISCO was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in 1986 under the name Transformers: Mystery of Convoy – the titular Convoy being the Japanese name for Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. Strangely, despite the franchise’s success in the United States, Mystery of Convoy was never released outside of Japan. Is this an instance of the medium’s first Western hobbyists being unable to experience a classic?

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Adventures in the Magic Kingdom

Introduction

The late eighties marked Disney’s resurgence after nearly two decades of underperforming films. During their return to relevance, an up-and-coming gaming console known in North America and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System emerged. It revitalized the North American gaming industry after its severe crash in 1983. As many of the games on this platform became bestsellers, companies owning famous, successful franchises would license their properties to developers so they could capitalize on this rapidly growing trend. Unfortunately, many of these titles wound up being transparent cash grabs, as these largely unknown companies would put only the bare minimum amount of effort into creating them.  Products that could hardly be considered finished lined the store shelves alongside earnest efforts, waiting to swindle enthusiasts out of their hard-earned money.

Disney themselves would follow suit, allowing a company to turn their IPs into video games. However, in an unexpected move, the developer to whom they gave permission was Capcom. By this point in history, the company had made a name for themselves with classic arcade games such as Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Gun.Smoke. Their success continued in the home market once they released the first installment in what would become their most well-known franchise: Mega Man. Capcom gathered their most talented programmers, creating adaptations of DuckTales, Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and Tale Spin among others. Many of these efforts continue to be highly regarded to this day as some of the finest examples of licensed games in the medium’s history. Another one of the games released during this time was Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. This stands out slightly among Capcom’s other Disney-based games in that it’s an adaptation of a real-life location rather than a show or movie. It also generally isn’t remembered as much as their other Disney games. Does it nonetheless have a place in the NES library as an underrated classic?

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Friday the 13th (NES)

Introduction

May 9, 1980 marked the debut of Friday the 13th. It was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who previously worked with Wes Craven on the 1972 exploitation horror film The Last House on the Left. Inspired by John Carpenter’s classic film, Halloween, Mr. Cunningham wanted his own work to make his audience jump out of their seat on top of being visually impressive. He also sought to distance himself from The Last House of the Left in favor of a fast-paced experience akin to a rollercoaster ride. For the most part, it was not received well by critics with a notable detractor being the esteemed Gene Siskel, who called Mr. Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business”. Nevertheless, it proved to be a success in the box office, impressively grossing around $60 million on a $550,000 budget, and the film would go on to become a cult classic.

Though intended as a standalone story, its performance in theaters prompted the executives at Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, to plan out a sequel. It was originally intended to be the beginning of an annual, anthological series. However, Phil Scuderi, one of the three owners of Esquire Theaters, along with the producers of Friday the 13th, Steve Minasian and Bob Barsamian, insisted that the new installment should feature a character named Jason Voorhees, directly linking the two films. Steve Miner, who would go on to direct the film, believed in the idea, and when Friday the 13th Part 2 debuted in April of 1981, fans were introduced to one of the genre’s most iconic villains. Even those who have never seen a horror film in their life recognize the hockey mask-wearing revenant that is synonymous with the series and the slasher genre in general. Though the fourth installment would be dubbed The Final Chapter, the franchise endured to the end of the decade.

Around the time the fifth installment was released, a gaming console known as the Nintendo Entertainment System saw its debut. It almost singlehandedly revitalized the North American industry after its crash in 1983. Games on this console sold thousands or millions of copies. To capitalize on this success, companies commissioned the development of tie-in games to popular films. The results from this practice were decidedly mixed. While some proved passable or even good, others barely had any thought put into them and were solely meant to ride the coattails of the property’s success with little effort on their part. Despite the second installment necessitating the creators cut forty-eight seconds of footage in order to avoid an X rating, an NES adaptation of Friday the 13th was commissioned in the late eighties. Conceived by a Japanese developer named Atlus and published by the toy company LJN, the game was released in February of 1989. By this time, the series had an impressive seven installments with an eighth looming around the corner. As console games were typically perceived to have been enjoyed primarily by children at the time, how would Atlus go about translating a slasher film experience to such a platform?

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Quest for Camelot

Introduction

Animation fans have made it a point that a period of time spanning from the early seventies up until the mid-eighties was a dire era for the medium. There were numerous causes for this stagnation ranging from a lack of visionaries to strict budgetary constraints. Exacerbating problems were conservative parental groups attacking anything that wasn’t child-friendly, thus giving the art a juvenile stigma. In reality, many of these problems began manifesting as early as the late fifties, but it wasn’t until a little over a decade later when the industry’s prime juggernaut, Disney, began to stumble in the critical eye. This culminated in their 1983 release, The Black Cauldron. What was meant to be the debut of several up-and-coming animators ended up getting recut by executives and subsequently flopping, nearly putting an end to the company’s animated canon.

The tides began to turn for Disney in 1985 when after observing the success of merchandise-driven shows such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Care Bears, they decided to throw their own hat in the ring in the form of The Wuzzles and Adventures of the Gummi Bears. The latter proved to be a hit, and with this newfound freedom, they funded the creation of original shows, including DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and when it became a sensation with critics and fans alike, Disney had fully recovered from the Dark Age plaguing both them and the entire industry. Suddenly, they were once again relevant and synonymous with Western animation.

Whenever someone finds overwhelming success in entertainment, they inevitably inspire a slew of imitators wishing to capitalize on the current trends. One such group was none other than Warner Bros., popularly considered rivals to Disney. They managed to have some success on television after having recruited Steven Spielberg to produce several beloved cartoons. However, very little of that success translated to the theaters with many of their feature-length animated films underperforming in the box office.

In May of 1995, Warner Bros. Feature Animation announced their first project: The Quest for the Grail. It was to be an adaptation of Vera Chapman’s novel, The King’s Damosel. Numerous problems arose during production, including the fact that it had started before the story was finalized. At first, Bill and Susan Kroyer, the husband-and-wife duo behind FernGully: The Last Rainforest were to direct it as a faithful adaptation that kept the dark tone of Ms. Chapman’s work. Unfortunately, creative differences led the two of them to leave the project in February of 1997. They were replaced by Frederik Du Chau, who in turn overhauled the story, turning the original vision into a Disney-inspired musical retitled Quest for Camelot.

By the end, few of the personnel had anything positive to say about what it became. One of the animators, Chrystal Klabunde, stated in interviews that the executives had no concept of animation at all, and with their inexperience, a chaotic work environment ensued. It was to the point where some of the animators didn’t even know the plot until they had finished their work. Moreover, as the film wasn’t initially slated to be a musical, a majority of the songs weren’t written until the later stages. With various people getting replaced at the behest of the executives and the team having to work around the clock, it comes as little surprise that the studio lost forty-million dollars on the film. Quest for Camelot was subsequently a commercial and critical failure upon its release in May of 1998. The most commonly cited reasons for its reception concerned its formulaic plot that took elements from Disney’s canon without providing a unique take on them. It’s even considered by some historians to be partially responsible for the downfall of traditionally animated features in the United States.

Nonetheless, as the production continued, a company named Titus Software was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in December of 1998 for the Game Boy Color, notably being one of the first titles to showcase the capabilities of Nintendo’s newest handheld device. There was to be a version for the Nintendo 64, but the film’s dismal performance ensured its demise. Does the game fare any better?

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