Friday 22 July 2016

Mega Drive Review - Global Gladiators (Game 111)

When it comes to licensed games having McDonalds on a box hardly seems like a seal of quality. However unless you ignore pre-conceived ideas you'll miss out on an industry legend's break out title. 

Developed by Virgin Interactive
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

If you notice something subconsciously familiar and comforting about the names Mick and Mack perhaps you, like me, are partial to a meal in the world's most popular fast food restaurant. Both these names are plays on McDonalds simply because 'Global Gladiators' is a McDonalds game. 

Companies using video games to promote their brands is hardly unique to 'Global Gladiators'. After all 'Cool Spot' started life out as a 7Up logo, 'Zool' had a penchant for ChupaChup lollies and 'RoboCod' originally had a story based around saving penguins who had been turned into biscuits. Many people, now particularly, dismiss 'Global Gladiators' due to its association with a fast food outlet. Today, McDonalds seems to be the food we love to hate and hate to love. While many of us readily admit to being partial to a Big Mac, there's just as many who vow to never touch one. Some dislike a corporation so large it can bankroll a small nation. Others believe the horror stories about what's actually in the food and many are quite sensibly put off by a menu that's (in the main) terrifyingly unhealthy. Yet with 35,000 outlets worldwide collectively making nearly $30,000,000 some of us clearly must be dining there. It's the food we grab in a rush rather than something we savour. A McDonalds meal is cheap, risk-free and fast to make. However, none of these adjectives can favourably be applied to a platform video game and this is probably why so few today feel the need to even try 'Global Gladiators'. It's a shame as while the McDonalds branding may be repugnant to some, being unable to see past it means missing out on an enjoyable game.

Critic Andy Eddy liked it so much in fact that the executive editor of Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine gave the game a perfect score back in 1993. "'Global Gladiators' on the Genesis is a beautifully crafted game, filled with tons of animation, colourful graphics and hilarious sound effects" Eddy said. Indeed he even argued that it was superior to 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2'; a game many consider the best on the Mega Drive. Though less gushing with their praise, Entertainment Weekly agreed with Eddy's opinion. "It’s easy to love this video game and hate the business behind it" the magazine suggested in June 1993. Likewise the reviewer at GameFan thought "'Global Gladiators' is the best platform action game played since 'Sonic', with eye-popping graphics and some great music."

'Global Gladiators' shares characters with an earlier McDonald’s game called 'MC Kids'. Mick and Mack were originally even called Macky D and Mickey D, which are actually many people's Nicknames for the food chain. The NES' 'MC Kids' is shallow and simple; a poor experience sold on the strength of a name on a box. 'MC Kids' epitomises everything wrong with licensed games. 'Global Gladiators' however tries to stand on it’s ow two feet without depending on sales from those attracted by a fast food endorsement. In fact, despite the giant M on the title screen and an introduction sequence featuring the two playable characters eating hamburgers, McDonalds didn't feel there was enough burger branding in the Mega Drive game.
"I remember McDonalds absolutely hated it" designer Dave Perry recalls. "'Where's Ronald McDonald?' they asked. 'Why can't the player go into McDonald's and buy a burger with fries?'" Evidently, to appease the sponsor, Ronald McDonald was added to the end of each state waving a chequer flag, even though there's no narrative justification for him to be doing that. 

Of course, Dave Perry will be familiar to anyone who knows their Mega Drive history. After designing 'Global Gladiators' this legendary programmer went on to create another brand-turned-game with 'Cool Spot' , but he is best known in 16 bit circles for creating 'Earthworm Jim' and designing a game based on 'Disney's Aladdin'. Perry’s Mega Drive games were praised for pushing the system to its limits. They featured great level design and incredible animation, both of which were a result of mistranslations in his Sega technical manuals. "We looked at the poorly translated Japanese manuals, shrugged and just started coding" Perry admitted in the authoritative 'Sega Mega Drive / Genesis Collected Works'. "Years later I found out by surprise that I'd actually been doing things wrong- I'd misunderstood the manual and had accidentally found a way to almost double the throughput of the graphics!" 

Despite taking less than six months to make, 'Global Gladiators' apparently has 1,250 frames of animation, which was unheard for an action platform game.
The developers claimed at the time that this was "over ten times more than ever seen before". There's a continued sense of motion when playing the game, with water sparkling, sludge burping, and invisible discs shimmering when stepped upon. 'Castle of Illusion' made the idle animation a necessity in games, so accordingly Mick and Mack never keep still even when the controller isn't pressed. With their Super Soaker a-like Goo Shooters and baseball caps, they are clearly products of Nineties designers but that doesn't stop them looking great today.

The backgrounds are detailed but there's a distinct lack of visual trickery such as transparencies or reflections. 'Global Gladiators' certainly isn't as impressive as Perry's later games but when you consider that these are often cited as the most beautiful 16 bit games ever made this isn't too much of a criticism. 

The look impressed Disney producer Patrick Gilmore though. "['Global Gladiators'] is the game that blew me away" he once commented. “It had beautiful backgrounds, awesome animation and modern music that very, very few people in the U.S. were capable of.”

The music of which Gimore speaks was actually by Tommy Tallarico and it's a soundtrack is "so awesome that's it's guaranteed to make your parents shout 'turn that down'", to quote the game's box. The problem is that amongst the handful of songs in the game, the "average" outnumber the "awesome". A song entitled "McRock" while sounding embarrassingly nineties, really plays to the strength of the Mega Drives sound chip, much to the glee of Dave Perry. "In 'Global Gladiators' [Tallarico] found a way to get real guitar samples to sound like they’re being played. What you hear is an audio guy experiencing freedom and having fun". However, while very good, "McRock" is topped by another track imaginatively called "DanceTune". This one offers some very impressive voice sampling and is easily the best track in the game. It is underused however and can only be heard in the bonus round. It makes sense that this tune was promoted to accompany the title screen when 'Global Gladiators' was ported to the Amiga; there's a good chance many simply didn't hear it when playing 'Global Gladiators' on the Mega Drive.

Unfortunately, the other songs aren’t nearly as good or creative. Each of the four world's have their own theme but I really can't remember any of them when the console is turned off. Perhaps the developers skimped on the music to make space for sound effects, as there isn't a lot of space when 'Global Gladiators' was sold on a 8 meg cartridge. Like the copious amounts of frames of animations, there's a cacophony of noises for every situation. From shouts of “You did it!” and “Awesome” to the satisfying chimes when the player scopes up the McDonalds arches.

It Is great that the noise you hear when you grab a miniature McDonalds arch is pleasant, as you'll be hearing it a lot. The goal of each stage is simple; navigate the platforms finding these arches. However, you only need to find 30 to open the level exit and when there are 100 on each stage it's really not too great a challenge. You would have to actually go out of your way to avoid collecting enough. To make things even easier there are plenty of checkpoints, health restoration and extra lives. it's nearly impossible to fail. There may be a timer for each stage, but you would have to walk away from the controller and make a cup of tea to exhaust it. Even then, numerous timer bonuses will quickly restore the seconds spend stirring your brew. There are enemies of course, foul sewage mutants predominantly. While they fire projectiles our heroes easily out-gun them with their six-directional "GooShooters". Presumably Mick and Mack are firing Big Mac sauce from their guns which flies a short distance and falls. However this distance exceeds the range of enemy attacks so you can kill most before they're close enough to hurt you. "The main complaint I have with 'Global Gladiators' is it’s just too easy." Mat Yeo noted in a Sega Force Review. "Visually, 'Global Gladiators' is superb. All sprites are extremely well animated and colourful, [but] with four levels with three sections to get through, it’s over before it’s begun." 

If anything the biggest danger to your character is actually your own actions. Firing the gun pushes our playable hero backwards so the recoil from careless repeatedly fire can actually send you plummeting to your death. Even with the timer ticking down, it pays to be slow and methodical when playing 'Global Gladiators', particularly since the game has a terrible run mechanic. Most games have a dedicated sprint button, however in this game holding right on the D-pad causes Mick or Mack to pick up speed. Within a few seconds they start running and then they are at the mercy or inertia. Stopping will cause them to skid digging their heels into the grounds to brake. It's terribly imprecise and frustrating, mainly because you often find yourself running off platforms when you only really wanted to walk to an edge. The solution is to tap and never hold the walk button, which is as impractical and annoying as it sounds. 
It makes every stage feel laborious and really dents how long you feel engaged by the game, especially when there is so little variety among the stages in the first place. To be honest the game is at its best on the first world, later stages may introduce new enemies but their attacks are so similar it simply feels like a Sprite swap.
Similarly the levels seem to only be different from one and other cosmetically. Once you've played the first stage, with the games best music, you've really seen the best the game has to offer. There's is only one end of World boss in the entire game and that's on the last level. It is an unspectacular pushover, matched only by the game’s equally unspectacular ending. 'global Gladiators' starts off tasty and interesting, but the longer it goes on the more bored you get experiencing the same thing.

The game play isn't bad, it's not even mechanically flawed. The problem simply is that even the best platforming action gets dull when played on repeat. As reviewer David Upchurch said at the time "There's little variety in each worlds' monsters or scenery, so trekking about looking for the McDonald's arches (which isn't the most exciting game task ever anyway) soon becomes rather yawnsome, especially given each levels' sprawling vastness." Like a McDonalds milkshake, the longer 'Global Gladiators' is consumed the weaker it gets.

As the name would suggest, 'Global Gladiators' is a game with a save the environment agenda, albeit a very discreet one. According to the game's promotion Mick and Mack leap from platform to platform to "deal with over grown blobs o'ooze once and for all." After all if they can't "stop the slugsters in time the whole Earth's going to be a total slimeorama". This save the planet concept is certainly obvious in the first stage when Mick and Mack are vaporising toxic waste, but the message gets lost in the second stage when they spend most of the time killing beavers in a forest. You could also argue that the game sees you removing the McDonalds logo from environments in which it is misplaced. In fact you get to access a bonus stage if you mange to eradicate the majority of the fast food giant's iconic Golden Arches. It seems strange that McDonald approved this concept as 'Global Gladiators' is really rewarding the player if they cleanse the planet and return it to a time before there was a McDonald's sign on every corner.

It's worth looking for 75 of the 100 (multicoloured) Golden Arches in each level as the bonus stage is actually more fun than the game's main stages. The focus is once again on saving the environment as Mick or Mack earns extra lives by sorting recycling. The player has to sort rubbish as it drops from the top of the screen. If an item sits on the ground too long, or if too many things are put in the wrong place the round ends. It sounds simple but as the difficulty increases, it becomes necessary to juggle items and prioritise. It plays similarly to so many mobile phone game and actually proves exceptionally addictive; so much so that I think I played it more than the main game - thankfully it can be selected from the options menu.

This mini game is not the only thing intriguing about the options menu though. Along with offering the typical music test and difficulty selection, it also gives you the ability to select a character. Despite having two characters prominent on the box 'Global Gladiators' is a one-player game. Both characters are functionally identical with the same abilities, but there's a noticeable visual difference - one is black the other white. It's to its credit that 'Global Gladiators' is one of a handful of 16-bit games with a default non-white protagonist. Perhaps Dave Perry was making a subtle social point, maybe it was at the request of McDonalds to maximise audience appeal. Regardless it's nice that having a black protagonist is understated rather than used as a cynical marketing tool. Like the corporate sponsor and the environment commentary it's there should you look for it. However the game never preaches or lectures and (apart from the title screen) doesn't do a hard sell. As critic Tim Tucker once said "forget any political correctness factors, McDonald’s aversions or platform fatigue and just concentrate on enjoying this fabulous romp."
It’s a simple, fun game, enjoyable for as long as you wish to play it. This is especially true for those interested in seeing Dave Perry’s breakout game. Looking back the developer has mixed feeling about the game that Sega once crowded "Game of the Year". "I didn't realise it al the time, but in retrospect we'd been helping to create the concept of product placement in Video Games. For that I apologise." However when asked recently on Twitter, Perry admitted he was "proud" with how his hamburger sponsored game turned out, especially as it created so many career opportunities for him. 

 It may seem odd for McDonalds to be associated with a video game (especially one that has a story about saving the environment) but it's actually a really good analogy for 'Global Gladiators'. Much like most of the McMenu the game is immediately familiar, largely unsurprising but ultimately satisfying and enjoyable. 'Global Gladiators' is the Mc Quarter Pounder of the 16 bit era. 

Where did I get this game from?

It must have seemed strange to my Dad, when I asked him to get me a McDonalds video game for a twenty year old machine. But that didn’t stop him getting this for my birthday. It regularly sells for less than £10 on the Mega Drive which is not a bad price for this game even considering its brevity. 

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