By Jared Cornelius
My article about licensing in games actually made me sad. When I got my thoughts together on the topic, hundreds of titles came to mind that never lived up to their potential. Good franchises with rich lush history and characters that were forced to languish in subpar titles. Games that would never to be held up as a critical darling, only existing to be pointed to and laughed at. I said it in that article and I'll say it again, everyone who's played a game can point to some awful licensed title. Games like Maximum Carnage, Dragon Ball Z, Superman, hell anyone remember the Aquaman game for GameCube and Xbox? But I don't want to dwell on those titles, instead of focusing on the negative I thought it was time we talked about what licensed games do right and spotlight some of the all-time greats and some new classics that you can still easily play.
I've talked a lot about South Park: The Stick of Truth with good reason, it's great. South Park is truly everything that's great with a licensed title, its authentic to the source material, it contains the spirit of the show along with a polish that shows the developers and license holders cared about how the game turned out. Everything from the town's layout, to the minor characters that inhabit the world, its little things like this that show care was taken. Its little in-jokes, small collectables, and contextual gags show Stick of Truth has a bow wrapped around the final product that makes it wonderful, and it embodies what happens when licenses turn out well. Clearly developer Obsidian and South Park Studio's had a similar vision and wanted to create something together that was not only fun but faithful to the world of South Park. Ultimately that's a huge part what makes good games, care. If a developer doesn't care about a title the game will suffer. But when developers care and have a vision for a license then you've got a recipe for success. The following games are some of the best examples of when licensed games follow the guidelines laid out above and come out great.
One of the earliest examples I could think of was Capcom's series of Disney games. Between 1988 and 1994 Capcom would go on to create some of Disney's most beloved video games including DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, Adventures in The Magic Kingdom, and Aladdin just to name a few. Disney's DuckTales is a great example of the quality right down to the people working on it, as beloved Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune would be a key member of the design team. DuckTales put players in Scrooge McDuck's spats and featured him on a globe spanning adventure looking for treasure. The games featured some of the best 2D platforming of the time, with Scrooge's pogo cane mechanic allowing for huge levels to explore including Transylvania, the Himalayas and the Moon.
DuckTales would become so popular that not only would it get a Gameboy port, but a sought after sequel and an HD remaster in 2013. Even DuckTales soundtrack would be held up as an endearing quality with its iconic Moon level being covered by bands like The Advantage and Year 200X, it's even got its own page on Know Your Meme. DuckTales addictive gameplay and wonderful soundtrack would complement the popular Disney franchise to create a game that would remain a popular in the memory of those who played it. While none of the other Disney titles would leave quite the legacy as DuckTales the NES catalog of Capcom Disney games were reviewed well at the time, sold well and are still remembered fondly. DuckTales Remastered is currently available across Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and Steam.
I've given the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game a lot of flak, all well-deserved I assured you, but back in 1989 Konami would release one good Turtles game. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game was an utter smash success, walking into your local arcade or pizzeria and hearing that unmistakable theme song resulted in the loss of millions of dollars' worth of quarters. 1989 was the same year as the disappointing NES title, and the arcade game was everything the NES title wasn't. The quality of sound that came out of the machine, the colorful and accurate look of the turtles and their enemies made the arcade cabinet completely superior to the home console version. The NES title had been released under Konami's Ultra line of games and while both were technically Konami products the arcade game would be remembered as the favorite. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Arcade Game would go on to re-popularize arcade brawlers in the 90's with their other beloved beat'em ups, X-Men: The Arcade Game, The Simpsons Arcade, and follow up Turtles in Time. Unlike the NES DuckTales game, there's no one amazing designer who was credited as having worked on the game, or strict adherence to Ninja Turtle cannon, just a group of designers who did a great job with the material they were given. Unfortunately, the original arcade game and Turtles in Time have been de-listed from the consoles, but X-Men and The Simpsons are still available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The original PlayStation was famous for many things and would help create franchises that still endure to this day. Perhaps one of its best remembered titles was the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. The 3rd person extreme skate simulator became the leader of the pack by a mile at a time when everyone was trying to cash in on skateboarding. Games like Thrasher Skate and Destroy and EA's Street Sk8ter couldn't touch Activision's extreme opus. Tony Hawk was given high marks for its authentic look and feel with a soundtrack that included such legit punk bands as The Dead Kennedys and The Vandals. The game was over the top and didn't care, players were performing Hawk's signature 900 with glee as they smashed through windows and collected letters to spell out skate. The games addictive score based one more run philosophy put developer Neversoft on the map. At the time Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was about as close as we were getting to games with a legit edge to them. The game had a real punk rock attitude to it, and in part because it was developed by people who understood the skateboard culture. The series would go on to spawn 16 sequels of varying quality and although last year's HD port of the original received mixed reviews, Tony Hawks Pro Skater was huge during its initial run. It left an important mark on skateboarding games that would be replicated, but never duplicated. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD was released last year on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 but you might be better off getting an original PlayStation copy from eBay.
The Star Wars franchise has had plenty of ups and downs, (Episodes I through III I'm looking your way.) and its history of video games has been not unlike the movies. For every Episode I you have a Star Wars game you can point at like Masters of The Teras Kasi, a 3D one on one fighting game with characters like Leia squaring off against Boba Fett. But then you have something more like Empire, in Knights of The Old Republic a 3rd person action roleplaying game that's the DNA for Mass Effect. KOTOR as it came to be known was created by now beloved developer Bioware and was a system seller for the original Xbox. The story placed you in the role of an amnesiac Jedi searching for his past with a colorful and memorable cast of recruit-able characters. Set thousands of years before the movies, KOTOR had none of George Lucas' stink on it and became the go to Star Wars fiction for fans.
KOTOR was one of the first games to feature and popularize morality systems in video games with your crew of characters becoming more good or evil as you progress. KOTOR was reviewed incredibly well and scored an amazing 94 on Metacritic with no negative reviews. The game put Lucas's new trilogy in sharp contrast with more adult oriented themes including one of the first instances I can remember of a gay character in games. The serious themes, huge universe spanning adventure, and surprising twist showed that Bioware had a better understanding of Star Wars than Lucas did. KOTOR would spawn a direct sequel developed by Obsidian Entertainment and would ultimately lead Bioware to create their own sci-fi universe with Mass Effect. For those wanting to experience Knights of The Old Republic for the first time it was recently released on IOS devices and is available on Steam.
The Aliens franchise has been made to suffer through so many bad video games, Colonial Marines was just the icing on a long rotten cake. However there is one delicious ripe cherry topping that rotten cake in 2011's Aliens Infestation for the Nintendo DS. The 2D exploration shooter puts you in the role of one of several recruit-able marines and sets you loose on a xenomorph infested U.S.S. Sulaco. The games feels a lot like Metroid both in tone and gameplay, with huge maps to explore, tons of weapons to unlock, and hulking xenomorph bosses aping Metroid's iconic design. The games tension is bolstered by the ability for regular xenomorphs to pop out at almost any time or place.
The game's 16 bit-era graphics really do make it feel like the Super Nintendo Alien game you never got and feels very close in tone to Aliens. Infestation does the Aliens franchise right by makes even the regular enemies feel powerful while they stalk you. The game also features a perma-death for your characters, making it important that you take every enemy seriously. Aliens Infestation was developed by the 2D wizards over at Wayforward in conjunction with Gearbox Software and received generally positive reviews, scoring a 74 on Metacritic with 1 negative review, 29 positive reviews, and 13 mixed reviews. As a big Alien fan I was very taken with this game, fans of Aliens, Metroid or both should pick this up without question. Aliens Infestation is still available on Amazon for about $10, so do yourself a favor and check this one out.
Batman much like the Aliens franchise, had to suffer through a metric ton of awful games. With the exception of a few titles like the original NES game and The Adventures of Batman and Robin for Genesis and Super Nintendo, the Dark Knight has had some dark times in video games. (Batman Dark Tomorrow from Kemco go look it up) But that would finally change with 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum from Rocksteady Studios. Arkham Asylum would do everything you wanted from a Batman game, with elements of stealth, brawling, puzzle solving, huge boss battles, and incredible voice acting. It's not hyperbole to say that every element of Arkham Asylum was done with polish. Batman's stealth was among the best of the best, matching and in some cases better then games like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell. The combat felt powerful, with it easy to learn how to duck and weave between punches but difficult to master, and puzzle solving worthy of the world's greatest detective. All this was bolstered by members of the Batman: The Animated Series voice cast with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their iconic roles as Batman and Joker.
Rocksteady had a firm grasp on what made Batman cool right down to Conroy's gravelly voiced Dark Knight. The level design of Arkham was also a great part of the game with the interconnecting asylum feeling like a genuinely terrible place to be. From its old catacombs to surgical theaters, the asylum actually felt like its own character. Rocksteady was able to graft pieces of the Batman lore together that gave fans a definitive game version of the character, choosing a great voice cast and dark story, combine with fun gameplay and beautiful graphics. Batman Arkham Asylum would be a critical and commercial hit selling over 2 million copies within the first three weeks of its release. It would also go on to receive numerous game of the year awards and nominations. Arkham Asylum would also score an overall 91 on Metacritic with and astounding 177 positive reviews. Rocksteady's Dark Knight success story would make them famous and Warner Brother Games division would purchase the talented UK based developer. Arkham Asylum would be followed up with another critical and commercial success in Batman: Arkham City, and the Warner Brothers Montreal developed Batmanz: Arkham Origins that was not quite as well received. All three of the Batman Arkham series of games are available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Steam.
You can take all these titles as one off success stories, or maybe the exception to the rule, but when I look at games like this, I see a lot of different factors. I see developers and license holders working together. I see designers coming up with fun concepts and licenses providing the perfect vehicle for awareness. I see developers who are genuine fans of the license being excited to work on the property and do it justice. I also see care put into these games, and developers who know if they produce something great they can write their own ticket. I'm aware that there are a lot of different factors that help make or break licensed games, I know there will always be roadblocks and hurdles for licensed game developers whether it be money, time, care, or something else I skipped entirely. The fact is licensed games will probably always be a spin of the roulette wheel but when we can identify and hold up those stellar titles and give the developers high praise we should, let's forget the garbage and focus on the best.
So there, some good licensed games. I enjoyed this topic quite a bit, maybe we'll go pick out some of the best licensed games again someday. I'd really like to hear about some of the best licensed games you readers have played, one of the comments in the last article made me think of picking up the Judge Dredd game. Until next time keep your eyes peeled to Bleeding Cool for other stuff like Yee's Company The Political Connection of Comics and Video Games, and my regular columns Typing on The Dead our Walking Dead recap, and Live(ish) From The Games Shop for the weeks new game releases. Stay Gold!
Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey's coast who's license to kill was revoked. If you can tell him where to renew it contact him on Twitter @John_Laryngitis