Videogames have their own set of icons and stars. While movie stars and rock stars are more or less recognizable all around the world, gaming icons are pretty much inexistent for a lot of people. Sure, if you talk about Mario, there’s a good chance the person might have heard about the plumbing legend, but if you mention Ratchet and Clank or Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, you’re not likely to get many positive responses. With the hope of emulating Mario’s success as a mascot and as a star, but also with the intention of attracting many fans of the series as well as their money, numerous companies have tried to take the formula and tweak it a bit, hoping to achieve the same level of fortune. While it worked – at least for a while – for guys like Sonic, Crash Bandicoot or Spyro the Dragon, many platformers fell flat on their face after the first game. A couple of them nearly turned into a viable franchise, but for different reasons (which we’ll get into), they were stopped before really taking off.
At their core, platform games are pretty basic; a character jumps between platforms, eliminates enemies, fights bosses and travels to many different places. If the formula is so easy, why did so many heroes-to-be fail miserably? Some games suffered from a simple lack of imagination, others were just plain crappy, but few of them were still good enough and could have succeeded if they had better timing or a bigger marketing budget.
The 90’s were home to the vast majority of these unsuccessful platformers. While the decade does not have the monopoly on platform games failure, the 16-bits generation was host to an astonishing number of these titles. Let’s take a look at some of the protagonists that had their chance to shine and become the next big franchise in the genre, but somehow dropped the ball.
Aero the Acro-Bat: Back in the 90’s, everything had to have an attitude, be it cartoons (Bart Simpson, the Ninja Turtles), food items (Chester Cheetah) or videogame characters. Aero wasn’t an exception, so instead of being a normal, run-of-the-mill bat, he was an acro-bat. That means that he worked in a circus, which he had to save from an evil clown. I don’t know if it’s just me, but a circus acrobat does not scream “attitude” in my book. Despite that fact, Aero was mildly successful, just enough to become Sunsoft’s de-facto mascot. This of course spanned a sequel, which had less success, leading to the poor bat being forgotten until the advent of the Game Boy Advance. The GBA, which could emulate the Super NES perfectly, proved to be a perfect opportunity for Sunsoft to revive its former mascot. Unfortunately, it looks as if things didn’t go as planned, and all sequel plans were scrapped. During his brush with fame in the 90’s, one of Aero’s main rival was a squirrel, who also happened to have an attitude. Guess what happened?
Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel: Damn right. The rival got his own spin-off. Instead of saving a circus – because after all, he spent the first game trying to destroy it – Zero was out trying to save his homeland as well as his girlfriend. His main enemy was a lumberjack with a faux-French name (Jacques LeSheets, how cute), who was cutting down trees in Zero’s home forest to print counterfeit money. Can you get more evil than that? Once again, all the ingredients were there for a generic platformer, but guess what? It was entertaining! To everybody’s dismay, Aero got the sequel and not Zero, despite Zero’s game being much better (at least in my opinion). When Aero’s GBA port didn’t find a public in the early 2000’s, Zero’s port was scrapped. What a crime. I’ll miss you, cute little kamikaze squirrel.
Alfred Chicken: Ever wanted to play as a chicken who must navigate mazes of telephones, cheese and balloons? If you answered “yes”, this is the only game that will let you live your fantasy. Initially released in 1993 in the United Kingdom for numerous platforms (but most notably the NES and the Amiga), it eventually saw a US release in 1994 as well as a port to the SNES. Surprisingly, this was a game that was a lot of fun, and that looked like it was crafted with a lot of love and care. The music is charming and the level design is top-notch. Yes, the gameplay is mainly a chicken pecking balloons, but the crazy power-ups and an atmosphere that can only be described as upbeat help the game stand a bit above its contemporaries. Why did it fail? I don’t have a logical explanation, but if I had to guess, I would say that customers didn’t want to encourage the developer’s marketing department. The company’s product manager founded the “Alfred Chicken Party” and ran it in a UK by-election. It accomplished the feat of getting the game’s name out, but there’s also a good chance that it annoyed people to no end. Alfred also has another game out on the PS2, but this one is for Europe only. I couldn’t find any sales figures for this one, so I will assume that it wasn’t that much of a success either since we have yet to hear back from this chicken.
Bubsy the Cat: When hyping a product, it can be a major mistake to compare it to an established name. Not only do you risk making your own product look like a rip-off, but you can also doom it if it ends up being inferior. Some flaws that could have been overlooked if it tried being its own new thing are now glaring mistakes because it couldn’t live up to the hype. That’s what happened with Bubsy. His original game Claws Encounter of the Furred Kind was made out to be the new Sonic the Hedgehog, and it really tried to be. The colourful backgrounds, the catchy music – it was all there. The problem is that the whole game is ruined by sloppy controls and weird physics, which often results in enemies getting cheap hits and your character falling into gaps all over the place. A lot of these issues were fixed for a port to Windows 95, and a new game was eventually released for the Atari Jaguar using the same mechanics. For Bubsy II, the developers resolved the cheap death issue and even added three hits that Bubsy could take before dieing. Sure, it wasn’t a classic, but it was better than the first one, and for a while, the future looked good for the cat with a t-shirt, at least until 1996.
Bubsy 3D has made numerous “worst games of all-time” lists, and there’s a reason for that. It has some of the ugliest graphics ever seen in a 3D platformer, even for that era. Everything is covered in a thick blue fog to hide the graphics’ limitations, but you could see the ugly coming right through it even with both your eyes gouged out. The controls are amazingly bad for something that should have been so simple. Effectively, the game killed whatever Bubsy had going for him, and very unsurprisingly, we haven’t seen the cat in a new game since that day. I played the game back in high school, and believe me, if that’s the direction the series was going to take, Bubsy’s death is for humanity’s greater good.
Croc the Crocodile: This one nearly made it to the “full-fledged franchise” level of fame, but he was cut short by the closure of its development studio, Argonaut Softwares. His games were seen on PC, on the Playstation and on Sega’s Saturn console. He even got a sequel, and he was also supposed to appear on the Dreamcast and Playstation 2, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a shame, because the original game got its fair share of positive reviews and even had decent sales. Croc’s mission was to save his friends, called Gobbos, which were little more than furry spheres. To do so, he had to travel to many different islands in standard platformers settings that still managed to stay fun all the way through. In the second game, the crocodile was out to find his long-lost parents, but this time with all new fancy game mechanics and missions to complete. The next game was rumoured to come out for the PS2, but the series was dealt a crippling blow when its development studio was sold. Croc was forgotten and never seen again. During the course of his short career, it was never explained why a crocodile would live with defenceless hairy balls and not try to eat them (maybe I should have chosen a better formulation, this makes Croc look very gay). I can’t say that Croc was among the greatest platformers ever created, but it was a quality game that did everything right despite its somewhat bland setting.
Chuck Rock: This character is one of my favourite on the list. We’re talking about a caveman who plays in a band and smashes enemies with his belly. Sure, he looks a bit dumb, and the storyline to his games are pretty standard, but there was genuine fun in his outings. Chuck’s first game was developed by Core Design and published by Sony Imagesoft, and it consisted mainly of saving his girlfriend. Depending on the version of the game you are playing, she was either kidnapped by dinosaurs (SNES and pretty much every version) or by a bad guy named Gary Gritter (Amiga, Mega CD), which is a pun on a famous English rocker who’s now in prison for sexual abuse of numerous children. Following the moderate success of the first game, a sequel was made called Chuck Rock II: Son of Chuck, but this time, Chuck was the one kidnapped, and it was all because he was good at making automobiles out of stone. This angered his son Junior, who set out to rescue his dad. This one was mainly for Sega platforms, and once again, the lack of sales data must lead me to think it didn’t have as much success as the first one, because no other games were made. Chuck did made an appearance in a prehistoric racing game called BC Racers, but that’s the last we would hear of him. The only lesson to be learned is that even though smashing people with your belly is cool, it doesn’t look like it sells games.
This edition of “You Probably Forgot About This Game” is running way longer than I originally expected. Up to now, I have written 24 different profiles for platform games heroes, and I do think I have covered the most notorious ones. In truth, during my researches, I have found four times as many characters, but I don’t think that all of them deserve a profile. Sure, I think that everybody forgot about Manic Miner, but reading about it wouldn’t be that interesting. Another thing I did is weed out some games that were clearly one-shot titles or games that didn’t feature a clear protagonist, since some old games have nameless characters.
This is all to say that I have three more articles ready about the subject, but I believe that splitting them instead of posting one huge article will be easier to digest. Unless it’s an Alex Lucard point-and-click adventure game review, reading thirteen Word pages worth of text can be both exhaustive and annoying.
I hope you will all join me again next week for more profiles of platforming games heroes that didn’t quite make it. Here’s a teaser: next week will feature the rest of the animal heroes. I know that this week’s Chuck Rock isn’t an animal, but he didn’t fit in any other article either, and putting him in today’s edition made it so that the rest of the articles will all feature six characters each. Oh, neat little organizing.