Grab Bag: 4th Gen Cross-Console Releases
The entire early to mid 90s period was one of fierce competition. Companies competed to release successful games and dominate genres. A new burst of energy hit arcades as new cabinets and innovative titles went head to head for commercial success. I dare say the most pitched battle was at home; the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System locked horns for years for dominance of your living room TV set.
This often involved titles that were released for both platforms, since game developers and publishers were none too shy about exploiting the rivalry for more sales. Exclusivity was still occasionally a thing, but during the Genesis/SNES war, if you wanted a shot at big returns, it was out there if your game had enough hype behind it; just license it for both consoles and let both sets of partisans enjoy your work.
Today's grab bag will take a look at a few of these games, some of which may have come down from the arcade palaces in port form, and some of which were developed just for console play. I kept it at 3, like I usually do for these articles, but narrowing it down was hard. Here's three that stand out to me as typical of the era – colorful, far-flung, and even bizarre.
1993 (Arcade),1994 (consoles)
In 1994, the Amusement & Music Operators Association reported that NBA Jam was the highest-earning arcade game of all time. It was a formula based (at least loosely) off of a previous Midway game, Arch Rivals, but utilizing the power and vibrancy of the Arcade Renaissance to give it new life and appeal.
I'm not even that big into basketball (I will sometimes watch UNC or Duke games with my family, but to me the family part far outstrips the hoops), and I love NBA Jam. However, I got familiar with it through the Genesis port. You don't NEED to care a lick about basketball to enjoy it. It's an extremely approachable setup, and once you figure out how the game works, it's pretty damn fun whether you're winning or losing. Imagine a 2 on 2 game with no ref and minimal rules. Shit gets raw out there.
My distinct memory of both versions (a neighbor had the SNES port) was unlocking goofy or cool alternate characters using the initials-entry screen as a password of sorts. You could get President Clinton, retired legends, mascots, or you could just do shit like make everyone's heads big. It was secondary to the action, though; between the shoving, dodging, going hard in the paint, and even risky long-shots, this was some high-octane basketball. Both ports of the game got rave reviews just like their arcade daddy, and for good reason. With digitized speech and faithful graphics, both were excellent translations to home gaming from the arcade floor.
RoboCop vs Terminator
1993 (SNES/Game Gear), 1994 (Genesis/Game Boy)
The idea of it is pure magic. I mean, both of these franchises, on their own, had done amazing in terms of draw and earning power. Why not combine them?
Well, I won't take a dump on this game (either version) like a lot of its contemporary reviewers did, but I will say this: RoboCop vs Terminator was definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, everything's digitized or high-quality in some way. There's a gruesome but tolerable level of blood and gore. It is pretty cool to play as RoboCop and wield a variety of lasers and flamethrowers against the enemy Terminators and gangsters. At least, while the game is still fresh.
What keeps me from really loving it? Well, let's start with how RoboCop (naturally) is as agile as a toddler wearing full riot gear, and is constantly assailed by walls of projectiles and other barely-avoidable hazards on a regular (read: constant) basis. For instance, RoboCop can fly up a ladder at a speed that boggles the mind, but walks and jumps as if his entire lower body is weighed down like a full diaper and he's afraid to smush any of it together. Embarrassing, Murphy.
Then there's Tommy Tallarico's really strange techno-industrial-hip-hop score, which sounds to me like it belongs in some terrifying HR Giger porno film about virtual reality drug dealers or something. Some tracks are even downright grating, not even like Gnaw Their Tongues or other bands in that vein; this music is trying to be music but becomes harsh noise because it's so smashed into itself.
So like I said, the game's extremely half-and-half for me. I can't seem to hate it, but there's only so much to love. I reluctantly assert that the Genesis version has slightly “cleaner” sound, but that only helps so much.
Don't worry. I love this one as much as you do. I have no plans to rip it up in front of you.
The game started out as an idea at Playmates Toys. They'd made so much money selling TMNT toys that they figured starting their own franchise could make them even more. Out the business-end comes a game that not only beautifully parodies its own genre, but innovates in ways that have become standard in platformers since.
Earthworm Jim is creativity set loose. It is quality on the level of late Apogee PC games for me: irreverent, loose, funny, dynamic, and outside-the-box. Jim has a cool set of moves and tricks at his disposal as an earthworm in an experimental suit, and he can use them to solve the often compounded problems you face on each level. Many of the tropes of formulaic video games are both utilized and mocked, but the focus is the gameplay. The race minigame is intense enough to be its own game, and no two levels present you with the same challenge. In 1994 it was a delight not to know what to expect at all from this game when we sat down to play it. And Tallarico even made up for some other work with a score that didn't confuse and terrify me. At least, not in a bad way.
I tried to think of negatives to balance out this appraisal, but had trouble. I guess I could say that the game can be a bit unreasonably rudderless at times, but even I was able to get myself back on track again when I'd lose my way. This game is still exemplary of its type, 23 years later.
NBA Jam – 7/10
RoboCop vs Terminator – 4/10
Earthworm Jim - 9/10