We’re kind of in a dead zone for games at the moment, and Ashe’s column about the 25th anniversary of the Transformers got me thinking. Specifically, it got me thinking about what other childhood icons could stand to be mined for a video game. We’ll be exploring that here. Join me as I dredge up five cartoons from the 80’s and explain why they would make great games. We’ll look at what the show was about, if there have been any other videogames derived from it, and what we could cross them with from today’s generation to make a great gaming franchise. Most of these you probably saw coming, but one of them might surprise you. Let’s start off with something you might have been expecting though: Superheated expanding atmospheric wavefront felines. You know…
There’s been a strong underground pull for a live action movie with these guys for a long time now. Thundercats, for those of you who don’t know, is the story of a group of anthropomorphic cats who fled from the dying planet of Thundera to crash land on Third Earth. Named for the big cat that they most resemble, heroic Lion-O, Panthro, Tygra, and Cheetara faced off against evil mutants led by Mumm-ra, the ever living. If you’re paying attention, he was a mummy. I’m not mentioning Snarf or the younglings on purpose. This cartoon was another of the style that featured medieval weapons used side by side with mystic powers technological advances that we haven’t reached in real life, and that’s something that will show up again in the second cartoon. Each of the ThunderCats had a signature weapon and ability or speciality, like Panthro’s nunchucks and mechanic skills or Tygra’s whip and scientific mastery.
The cats from Thundera have seen a few videogame releases already. A 1987 release for the Commodore 64 was the first, a simple side-scroller.
Thundercats almost begs for a modern videogame. It has a wide range of settings, from futuristic castles such as the Cat’s Lair to the haunted Ancient Egyptian feel of Mumm-ra’s tomb. Also, the wide open regions between them give game designers access to almost every land feature they could ask for. The different character styles also beg for different interpretations. Panthro might have fast melee attacks with his weapons, but he could also have slow, powerful grappling moves. Cheetarah could have a low damage-blinding speed moveset. Multiple attack styles and weapon styles could give the option of either switching between characters to use their own special skill set, or play Co-Op.
There are a couple games out there now that Thundercats could borrow from, but I would feel happiest seeing it pick up the engine from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed or Ninja Gaiden 2. Both of these games have a great weapon combat system, and they have enough of a character movement system that we could see some very cat-like platforming. Also, unlike the next game, The Force Unleashed is not a completely realistic game graphically-it has enough of a cartoon sensibility to give us a slightly deformed, Anime ready presentation.
2. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Magic Sword? Check. Metric ton of villains? Check. Strange merger of magic, sci-fi, and medieval setting? Check. I think we’re ready to see this guy invade our games. He-Man was the alter-ego of Prince Adam, a mild mannered fop who, when danger threatened, took off his glasses, jumped into a phone booth, and put on a cape. Wait, I’m confusing that with another character. When danger threatened the kingdom of Eternia, Prince Adam would raise the Sword of Power above his head and say the magic words: “”By the power of Grayskull…I HAVE THE POWER!!!” to turn himself into He-Man. The vast majority of this danger came from the machinations of Skeletor, an evil, skull-faced sorceror, and his minions. In one of the finest examples of eponymity ever, Beast-Man is a beastly humanoid. Evil-Lyn is a evil woman named Lyn. Clawful was part lobster. Webstor was part spider. I COULD GO ON. Point is, He-Man has a ton of anthropomorphic antagonists. Sure, he has the same thing working on his side, (Ram-Man is part hydraulic ram! Moss-Man is made of moss! Mekanek has a mechanical neck! SOMEONE, PLEASE STOP ME), but the real fun would be in playing as He-Man. He is, after all, the most powerful man in the universe.
He-Man would make a great video game character just because of that fact. You’ve got an amazingly strong, questionably dressed man on a mission for justice, with a big damn sword to boot. Much like Thundercats, which He-Man and the Masters of the Universe preceded by two years, game designers have an amazing amount of architecture and wildlife to play with. From Castle Grayskull to Snake Mountain, from the depths of the Slime Pit to the tops of the Sorceress’s Aerie, there is ground to cover. Combat? He-Man is ready to bring it. He’s strong enough that a fully destructible environment would be a boon. See a tree, pick it up, and all the day you’ll smash robots and zombies with it. Toss a rock at someone.Also, He-Man has had several suits of armor throughout his comic and cartoon history, so there’s your upgrade system already. Then there’s always that sword…
He-Man is another cartoon with a long history of old school videogames. The first was an Atari 2600 title named Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man. Typical for games that just didn’t get the idea of the property, you flew a wind raider vehicle back and forth. He-Man is also the 80’s cartoon with the most recent attempt at a videogame. An Xbox/PS2 version of his exploits was cancelled before release.
The game that I think about when I look at this property is, as you might expect, God of War. Sure, we’d have to take out a bit of the blood and sex, but the actual gameplay? Done and ready to go. Also, the Conan game lends itself well to this setting. Mostly though, it’s the angry, sword and fist, combo-building fighting that we want to seee. I don’t want to see multiple characters, I just want an epic, groundshaking, visceral combat experience with this guy at the helm. No one wants to be Man-at-Arms anyway. (He’s a man! And he builds weapons! And uses them! ARRRGGHH!!)
M.A.S.K., or Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, is like some glorious union of Transformers and G.I. Joe, with the main difference being that instead of vehicles that change into giant robots, you have vehicles that change into heavily armed other vehicles. Each was piloted by a human wearing a mask that had special powers. For instance, Dusty Hayes drives the Gator, a Jeep CJ7 that turns into a boat. He wears the Backlash Mask, which can fire a kinetic blast. Each of the members of M.A.S.K. has a trick like that. They faced off each week against V.E.N.O.M., the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem, whose evil leader Miles Mayhem was a jerk. Mayhem piloted the Switchblade, a helicopter that turned into a jet by popping out wings and retracting the rotors, physics be damned.
You can probably already see how cool this would be on the 360 or PS3. A huge variety of vehicles, on-foot sections with special powers from the Masks, racing, shooting, fighting. In fact, we almost had this game just last year. Realtime World’s Crackdown (Come for the Halo 3 Beta! Stay for the actualy good game!) featured transforming vehicles and on-foot sections. Granted, the vehicles transformed from phase one to phase four in on brief transition, and versions one through three didn’t really matter once you hit four, but hey. Maybe you have the vehicle mode faster, easier to maneuver with. Then the alt-mode is slower, slightly harder to control, but the trade-off is that you have chainguns. That’s fair. Give us an open world with city streets, long stretches of highway, and a desert area that we can go off-road in. Plus, if you have to bail out of your vehicle, there could be hidden attack stations, like the tollbooth toy named “The Collector.” Picture this-your vehicle gets destroyed, so you run around a corner, hide in a phone booth, and when your opponent comes around the corner, the phone booth becomes a howitzer.
Obviously, I’ve already mentioned Crackdown as a game influence. This type of game needs the Burnout series to bless it also, at least in the graphics and destruction department. But it is really Crackdown who I feel could add the most. The open world setting, the fun gameplay both on foot and in vehicles. Even the boss encounters show that we have a mechanism in place for V.E.N.O.M. already. Of course, an online versus component is a must. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have something even better than Twisted Metal to play.
Perhaps the Holy Grail of 80’s cartoon/comic/toy properties, the G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero line produced over 500 figures. Changing from nameless grunts to actual people with back stories, motivations, and conflicts (Thank you, Larry Hama), these characters could be impossible to shoehorn into just one game. G.I.Joe battled the forces of Cobra, a terrorist organization bent on screwing itself over from within. Or taking over the world, it is really hard to tell sometimes. I’m not even going to try to list all of the characters because there are so many, and everyone has a favorite. You could use Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow in a Metal Gear Solid game. You could see Wild Bill and Rattler in an Ace Combat style game. I’m almost tempted to say MMO, but then you’d have nothing but ninjas running around. Hell, you could even do a Trauma Center game with Lifeline the medic.
G.I. Joe has a series of videogames dating back to G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike on the Atari 2600. Most of them were of a side-scrolling, shoot-em-up variety. The most recent was 1992’s G.I.Joe: The Atlantis Factor for the NES.
Does G.I.Joe buck the trend? Is it too big to become a videogame? No, but it is close. It would have to be done very, very carefully. I think two options would be best. One, a huge, over-arcing story game where the designers could grab ten characters and build two or three levels for each of them. Snake Eyes gets the sneaking levels full of ninja combat. Shipwreck could command a boat. Cover Girl could drive a tank for that type of level. All of which melds together into a big story.
The other version? Take the Battlefield series and push out the big, fast, one hundred player FPS. With vehicles. You can’t leave out the vehicles. If someone makes a G.I.Joe game without Trouble Bubbles or H.I.S.S tanks, that person gets stabbed. Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Team Fortress also show how much fun a FPS of this property could be. RTCW’s class based multiplayer could very easily be re-skinned. The Flamethrower becomes Barbecue for the Joes, and Firefly for Cobra. The heavy becomes Roadblock and probably a Battle Android Trooper. Just toss a ton of vehicles in there. DLC is practically a given, as there are, as I mentioned, over 500 figures and 250 vehicles to choose from. Of course, we have the live action movie of this to look forward to later this year, so we’ll see how that goes and what tie-in we get.
5. The Smurfs.
What? The Smurfs? No way. Really? These aren’t…hardcore? They aren’t even cool! What’s going on? Really?
Yes. Really yes. Why? Well, sure, I’d pay good money on any of the other game properties I’ve mentioned. But we have to consider the casual gamer as well. And you could make an amazing casual game with the Smurfs. Sing it with me. La LA la la la la, La la la la la. I’ll bet that’s stuck in your head now.
Most of them only three apples tall, the Smurfs live somewhere in the woods near a medieval castle. Apparently, the mushrooms in those woods are huge, because that is the majority of the housing options. With an almost limitless amount of generic Smurfs, most of the named ones are named for their skill. Hefty is the strong one. Handy is a carpenter. Jokey is the prankster, Farmer is the…oh, you get the idea. Most of the conflict on the show stemmed from evil wizard Gargamel and his cat Azrael trying to eat them, or some poor animal in the woods that needed help for some reason. Papa Smurf is the nominal leader and elder, and solves just about everything that needs solving.
These little blue people have had perhaps the most prolific videogame shot of any of these other games. Spanning decades, from the Colecovision/Atari 2600 Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle in 1983 to Playstation’s 1999 The Smurfs and Smurf Racer, it is actually possible to chart the history of video game consoles just using The Smurfs. A lot of those titles were decent platformers, but a lot of them were shovelware too. What could we do with modern gaming?
Well…can you name me anything else that has swarms of small characters trying to do something at the direction of one controlling unit? Something where you need certain skills to pass certain barriers? Something where a bunch of tiny things work together to beat one larger thing? Pikmin. It’s a perfect fit.
Think about it. You start a level with ten Smurfs. You have to get from point A to point B, dealing with three obstacles along the way. For my example, a river, a fire, and a rabid fox. You guide the Smurfs to the river, and you decide to build a bridge. So you have three Smurfs break off and go with Handy to start building the bridge. Then you get to the fire. Poppa Smurf then tasks five Smurfs to form a bucket chain with Hefty in charge. During this, one of them gets burnt. So you select Doctor Smurf, and he comes in and heals them. Finally, when you reach the fox, you again have a smurf-ton of options. You could use Jokey as an aggro mechanic, and drop an exploding present near the fox. You could have Wild Smurf talk to it. Papa Smurf could probably cure the rabies. You could even just feed Brainy Smurf to it and get on with your life.
If none of these cartoons bring back any memories, well….get off my lawn, you punk kids. After you do that, go find some of them on DVD to watch, get yourself a bit of animation history. If you remember them fondly, then hopefully this column got you thinking about these and any other childhood favorites that would make a great game.