Yep. Like that one. *shudders* If there’s a single franchise that holds the award for “Intellectual Property with the Worst Licensed Games,” Superman is definitely the reigning champion. Superman for the N64 (NOT titled Superman 64, as is so often claimed. It’s just Superman) is a very strong contender for one of the worst games ever made. Sadly, the Man of Steel is renowned for crappy video games, but what went so extraordinarily wrong with this one in particular? Two things, both of which are common problems with licensed games. The first was that Warner Bros. and DC Comics (wait, Detective Comics Comics?) each exerted a high degree of control over the direction of the game. I understand the need to preserve the integrity of your brand, but if you don’t trust the devs with your product, why did you hire them in the first place? The second problem was created (indirectly) by the first: a quick development cycle. On the surface, two years may seem like a long time, but according to some reports, literally 90% of the game had to be reworked in the last six months in order to meet WB and DC approval. That, my friends, is a true recipe for disaster.
And now, for the main event! Since Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is dominating media at the moment, why not use it to springboard into this SNES game. It is licensed, so we have every reason to suspect it, but let’s be fair and give it a chance. Hmm. JVC Music Industries made this game. There’s a name you don’t often see in video game circles, so we don’t have much to go on based on only the company.
This got me thinking about Star Wars in general and things that annoy me. No, those aren’t generally related (prequels aside), but I stumbled upon an article in the making by combining these two things. Let’s talk about licensed video games! Yep. The blatant cash cows, such as those depicted above. I know. You can practically hear "Night On Bald Mountain" cuing up at the mere mention of them… But fear not! They’re not all bad.
So, what happens when it’s a brand that doesn’t have ready-made rules? This is where things get a little trickier. I know it’s low hanging fruit, but let’s take a quick peek at E.T. for the Atari 2600 (since E.T. makes a cameo in a Star Wars movie, I figure it’s fine to let E.T. make a cameo in my article about the Super Star Wars video game). We all remember the movie. So… how in the blue Hell could somebody possibly make a game out of it? Well, the simple answer is, Howard Scott Warshaw didn’t know either. To be fair, no, I don’t think it’s the worst game ever made. Having said that, I certainly can’t call the game good, but there are still far worse offenders out there…
Sometimes, these two elements work hand-in-hand. As proof, I present to you, licensed sports games. Hey! Give me my nerd card back! I can say positive things about sports games! While many have flaws of their own (and we won’t be getting into them here), the IPs themselves actually perfectly coincide with gameplay. This makes sense, given that these IPs themselves ARE games. Whether it’s a simulation type or an arcade type, both of these subgenres within sports still adhere to the rules of their games. Madden and Blitz are both, at their cores, football games. NHL 16 and Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey, similarly, are hockey games. NBA 2K16 and NBA Jam… You get the idea.
Great! So this game is, certifiably, a Star Wars game through and through. But now for the most important question, is it a decent game or just a well polished turd? I’m glad to say that the game is quite fun! It’s an action game in the vein of Castlevania, Mega Man, and Ninja Gaiden. It’s not the best game ever or anything, but it’s fun. Not only do we have all the makings of a decent licensed game on our hands, but given the relative obscurity of the developer, it’s all the more impressive!
What would Star Wars be without John Williams? No, I’m seriously asking! It’s not an attack on the movies, but they’d lose so much without his powerful compositions perfectly setting every single scene. Honestly, the score to The Phantom Menace is simply amazing (one of the few nice things I can say about that movie…). As far as this game goes, it was made by a music company, so it goes without saying that the game delivers in the aural department.
So we’ve established that this game does a good job looking and sounding like a Star Wars game should, but does it feel like Star Wars? Indeed, it does! In this game’s case, you can play as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Each has his strengths and weaknesses, but they’re pretty similar, so you can probably get by with your favorite.
Ok. The game looks good and is animated very well! I appreciate the attention to detail. The HUD, for example, measures your life with a lightsaber. It’s already worlds better than some of the refuse we’ve seen today. At this point, it’s safe to say that, at the very least, this isn’t one of those slapped together pieces of bantha fodder relying on the renown of the Star Wars name in order to trick well-meaning grandparents into buying this game as a Christmas gift. That has happened to me on more than one occasion…
Ok, one last point about the game and how it relates to those that are licensed. This game has a good amount of variety to it. While most stages are straight 2D action, there are also some vehicle levels thrown in the mix to spice it up. This, paradoxically, is often a strength of licensed games. Because they don’t have an existing game from which to draw, they often have more liberty to offer more varied experiences. This can be a double-edged sword when dubious developers simply dump a large variety of crappy gameplay into their shitty shovelware, but when games do it right, it offers a much wider array of gameplay than the average game.
Ok, so sports games fare well, but all other licensed games are Biblical plagues on humanity, right? Well, not exactly. Every now and then, there are some great ones where the content and games meld to create seamless experiences. When developers put the extra time, care, and energy into making their products great, it shows. This is true whether the content is licensed or original. Just as Superman has the most bad licensed games, Batman probably takes the cake for most good licensed games. If you haven’t been enjoying the Arkham games, you really are missing out.
The other variable in the equation is good old-fashioned industriousness (sadly, this concept seems to be sorely lacking in many areas, not simply gaming). Too often, lazy devs take shortcuts, relying solely on the popularity of the franchise to carry the game’s sales. I learned that the hard way when I burned one of my precious few elementary school weekends renting that abysmally bad X-Men game up there. At least I only rented it…
Well! They certainly understand how important the atmosphere is to this franchise! There’s even a Lucasarts logo at the beginning of the game, akin to the Lucasfilm one featured so prominently in the movies. The only thing missing is the 20th Century Fox logo (and *spoilers* the new movie didn’t have that either). The force is strong with this one!
I’ll leave you with a simple test for determining if a licensed game is any good or not. This sounds straightforward, and it is, but it can be difficult to divest yourself of the intellectual property contained within one of these games, especially if you’re really attached to the franchise. All you do is ask yourself one simple question. Would you still play the game if the license were removed? Instead of Luke, Han, and Chewy, what if this game featured Bob, George, and Sally? Would it still be fun? If you can answer that question In the affirmative, then you have a good game on your hands. Period. You likely have a great to excellent licensed game, if that is the case. Contrast the Playstation 1 Dragon Ball games with, say, Ducktales. You may enjoy the DBZ games, but would you if they weren’t the characters you know and love? Honestly, would you? I doubt it. Ducktales, on the other hand, is immense fun, with or without Scrooge McDuck in the spotlight (Shovel Knight is proof enough of this). This tiny test is the perfect one to apply to any and all licensed games you ever come across.
Why is that? Actually, there are a number of different reasons. The most obvious is that using an existing IP as the basis of your product is, by definition, placing anything other than the design of the game itself as the impetus for creation. This isn’t always the kiss of death, but it’s inarguable that the core of the video game medium is the game.
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So, have you seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens yet? If so, how’d you like it? If not, hopefully nothing got spoiled for you. That’s what happened to me, and it happened in the single dumbest way possible: auto-complete. Yes, auto-complete spoiled The Force Awakens for me. I was looking up something completely different at the time. You’d think something as innocuous as “why did” would be safe, BUT IT ISN’T! Seriously, try that at your own risk! Damn you, Google, for spoiling such a seminal, cultural event!
Ok, so the most obvious question is “What is a licensed game?” Simply put, licensed games are merely those based on existing intellectual property that comes from another medium, such as movies, tv shows, or comic books. On the surface, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but if you’ve played a few of these, you’ll know that the practice is very different than the theory.