Solaris Japan

Friday, 3 March 2017

Mega Drive Review - Fix It Felix Jr (Game 128)

'Wreck it Ralph' was a film that lovingly embraced video games as a source of inspiration. But would a fictitious game featured in the film actually prove an enjoyable experience for jaded Retro Gamers?

Developed by TobiKomi (aka Disney)
Converted by Future Driver
Released in 2012

Rich Moore is a gamer. "Video games are something that I love. That’s a part of my childhood and my whole life. That’s something that I’ve enjoyed and that’s been close to me for a long time". Rich More is also a director creating episodes of 'The Simpsons', 'Futurama' and closest to his heart 'Wreck it Ralph'; Disney's love letter to games of old.  "To depict this universe of worlds that come from things that I used to play as a kid, and continue to play today, has been really fun. It’s really great!" For the uninitiated Moore's 2012 blockbuster was named best animated feature by the Broadcast Film Critics Association; a critical and financial success that made over $471.2 million at the worldwide box office. 'Wreck It Ralph' follows the journey of eighties video game villain Ralph. Tired of playing the role of a bad-guy Ralph takes matters into his own massive hands and sets off on a game-hopping journey to prove he too can be the hero. By befriending tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun from the FPS 'Hero’s Duty' and Vanellope von Schweetz from the cart racing game 'Sugar Rush', Ralph ultimately learns that just because he is a villain in a game, he doesn't need to feel like a bad guy outside of it. 


The fact that Disney green-lit a film that  is so unashamedly "gamey" shows just how far Video games have permeated our culture. "I think there's a good reason why this movie got traction right now" says Moore. "I know at Disney they have been trying to make a film about games for about 15 years. It only now seems like people are ready to hear a story like this with video games as the backdrop. The timing now is appropriate; Video games have been around long enough now that children know what they are and very old people know what they are." Of course the greater the knowledge of video games, the easier it is to pick holes in the film accuracy.  the game 'Hero's Duty' is a blend of 'Call of Duty', 'Halo' and 'Gears of War' but avid gamers would suggest that the game would have to be an On-rails rather than first person shooter if it were to exist in an arcade next to 'Sugar Rush' (a 'Super Mario Kart' type game that's infused with 'Candy Crush' visuals). An arcade aficionado may even point that's its highly unlikely that an eighties arcade game would retain such a prime position in an arcade when floor real estate is at a premium. That presumes of course the arcade would be in business today.  Cultural commentator Jason Helton suggests the arcades of old are largely nonexistent today, at least in the west. "As much as I loved these video playgrounds [...] as the industry shifted, the number of arcades diminished drastically, reduced to an endangered species. Once a staple of the shopping centre, the concept of a mall arcade is practically gone, usually replaced with a small cluster of mechanical rides and the occasional Stacker machine. The arcades we knew have been banished to amusement parks, the shore, and retro loving hipster establishments." Director Rich Moore acknowledges that he isn't as invested in games as he once was, owing to the fact he has a job and is busy making movies. As a result he "doesn't spend hours playing Xbox Live", even though he would like to. Perhaps this is why 'Wreck it Ralph' feels slightly out of touch with current gamer’s habits. To say this makes the movie an inaccurate portrayal of Video Games would be ridiculous though, especially considering the sheer volume and breadth of video game references successfully included. Indeed, for Moore there was joy to be found blending current video games with the titles he knew best. "To be able to take a character like 'Q-Bert' from my childhood and be able to put it next to a character that looks like he is right out of 'Halo', you know that's really great. That's putting on screen something for everyone".

The film is littered with so many cultural references it's impossible to see them all on one viewing or without pausing at the right moment. There are more than a dozen individual references to the 'Sonic' universe and at least thirty nods to 'Street Fighter II' For example. "I approached the film as if all [existing video game characters and franchises] were available, so the sky was the limit recalls Moore.”Then to actually meet with these people at the game companies and pitch them the movie and have them respond in a positive way was amazing. I mean when we sealed the deal and got to work with Bowser it was like [actor Robert] De Niro was on board. That's when it hit, that's when we realised we were getting to work with real heavyweight game characters that fans of the games are really going to love. Icons of the games that I had played since I was a kid." However for Moore, getting the permission to use such recognisable pixelated characters also meant a great deal of responsibility. "With that comes pressure you know. We need to include them in the right way; both to do justice to their original games and because you know the fans know what Bowser is like and how he moves." 

188 characters exist in the movie and the majority of these come from existing game properties. But cameo appearances aren't the limit of the references. 'Metal gear solid's alert sound makes an appearance and Lara Croft gets a name check. However, for me the most exciting part of the film was the new IP that the creative minds at Disney have created. While the aforementioned  'Hero's' Duty' and 'Sugar Rush' would no doubt make fantastic real life games for a modern audience, I am a retro gamer at heart. 
This is why I was most intrigued by the game that features the titular Ralph as a villain: the fictional eighties game 'Fix it Felix Jr.' clearly influenced by the most popular 80s arcade games, it's such an accurate parody it's hard to believe it didn't really exist. Speaking to Google, Rich More once explained the process of its creation.” first we stuck to a board images of games we thought it should be like. It's kind of like 'Donkey Kong' it's kind of like 'Rampage'. And then we broke down what made those games unique, how much detail these games had to them, what were their goals, what made them appealing. And then we got to what the gameplay could be like, starting with this idea of one guy fixing while one guy wrecks. It did not happen overnight, it was a lot of experimentation, a lot of going back to these old games." It was important to Moore that the game so prominently shown in the movie wasn't just a romantic version of the past but an authentic representation. "It was one thing to remember them fondly and have nostalgic feelings for them, but [you need to] go back and see them with a more critical eye."

In the film's closing credits, it states that the movie's 'Fix-It Felix, Jr.' Game was made by the fictitious developer TobiKomi of America, Inc.  In Japanese the name means "to jump" and it's a name that reminds us of Nintendo and Konami.
The game sees Ralph destroying the Niceland Apartments in retaliation for them bulldozing his stump home; forcing him to live in a dump. To repair their building the Nicelanders call on Felix who has to fix every broken window using his magical hammer. When all the windows are repaired a cut scene plays where the Nicelanders join Ralph and Felix on the roof.  Felix is rewarded a medal, a pie, and a kiss on the cheek. Ralph however is flung from the roof of the building into a mud puddle. This naturally enrages him further, promoting him to return to the building to wreck it again. 

As the levels repeat there are more obstacles for Felix to avoid. Bricks fall towards him whenever Ralph punches the roof and 'Duck Hunt' inspired ducks fly horizontally across the screen. On some screens, a Nicelander will appear in a window to drop off a delicious pie which Felix can collect for a period of invincibility.

As the game progresses, there are more enemies and more broken windows. What's more, Ralph will wreck windows that the player has already repaired causing Felix to have to double back over earlier ground. To add further complications, randomly-placed obstacles such as window boxes and shutters limits Felix’s access to some   windows. Hitting an obstacle costs Felix a life and the game continues until Felix runs out.

"The kind of offbeat nature of ['Fix it Felix Jr.'] came from the games of the time. They're all quite funky in their concepts. And that's where the idea of fixing broken windows with a hammer came from" notes Moore. "It doesn't make any sense, but that seems like what they would have had in one of those old games!" To see if the game was even enjoyable to play, film director Moore and his team set out to build a playable demo. "We tried making a very crude version of the game and I think we did that in flash. But as we got further though Development of the movie we knew we wanted to make an actual cabinet with the game in it.

To do that we went to someone who made games in that time period.  He used 8bit boards because we wanted it to be as authentic as it could be." After seeing this one off machine Disney felt that 50 - 60 new "old" arcade machines should be built which could be disturbed across America. They thought it the perfect way to promote the film. Artificially aged and weathered, despite only being months old these arcade machines looked and played just like relics from the eighties. 

The problem was that the potential audience for this genius piece of promotion limited to just the local vicinity of each machine. It was inevitable that Disney would eventually release a slightly modified version of the game on their websites and as an app on iDevices. 

However, that wasn't where the game remained. Given that there's now a community that enjoy bringing new retro styled games to old  hardware it didn't take long for the real 'Fix it Felix Jr.' to find its way onto a more appropriate console - Sega's Mega Drive. According to Retro Collect the Mega Drive version of 'Fix it Felix Jr.’ was created by a programmer known as “Future Driver”. Disney's official (fictitious) history claims that “in 1982 'Fix-It Felix, Jr.' was one of the most popular 2D arcade games ever made" so the Mega Drive is a great fit for a console version of the game (despite the system launching 6 years after the games supposed release). After all, Sega sold their system on its ability to "bring the arcade experience home". This unofficial port of 'Fix it Felix Jr.' shows how true that claim could have been. The graphics in the real Mega Drive version have come from the arcade game and are detailed, comical and large on screen. 


There's not as many frames of animation as the film counterpart. This isn't that surprising as a little bit of movie magic was sprinkled over the cinematic 'Fix it Felix Jr.'. The arcade game shown in the opening scene of the film was far too visually sophisticated for a 1982 game; with graphical flourishes that would never have been possible at the time. However, the sound and music of the fictitious arcade machine was a far more realistic reflection. It's adhesion to what was possible at the time is no doubt down to the lengths composer Henry Jackman went to. Evidently in the film "there's some pretty authentic Namco style 8bit music where I was doing my research to see what the frequency response was on the chips of a 'PacMan' game to make sure it wasn't to HiFi." The tunes featured in the film version of 'Fix it Felix Jr.' Carry across seamlessly to the Mega Drive. With these familiar tunes come a couple of voice samples from the film. 'Altered Beast' infamously showed that vocal sampling was possible on the Mega Drive early in its life, but thankfully the samples here are a lot less distorted and are actually decipherable! 

True to the best arcade conversions, there are some noticeable changes to the game to make it work better on a home console. Originally the game was played on a single screen in a portrait orientation. Given that most people at home do not have such a display the game had to be changed so that less floors of the apartment building are shown. The levels are now made up of stages each showing three floors at a time. Repair all the windows on a stage and you progress to the next. After five stages Felix will reach the roof and will, as in the arcade game, be rewarded with a medal. Meanwhile Ralph is flung down to his muddy puddle; ready to wreck the building once again. If the levels were randomly generated in the arcade version, this isn't the case with the Mega Drive port. Though the obstacles vary between stages the order these stages are played remains constant. Sadly this does make the game feel incredibly repetitive. As your ability grows, having to replay the same opening levels repeatedly does get tiresome, as does the opening animation. For the first couple of viewings the introduction sequence is charming and fun, but as it can't be skipped it quickly becomes irritating. No one wants to see a game over screen, but this is especially true when it means you'll be watching a familiar animation for three minutes before you are able to play again. For younger gamers this becomes even more annoying; my daughter seemed to spend more time watching than playing. At one point she even said "I know why he is angry; I've seen it ten Times already!" It's not the only frustration. Enemy movement is random even though the levels are predetermined forming a maze like route between the shutters and window boxes. Too frequently you're thrust into situations where death is unavoidable, so success in later levels feels down to luck as much as skill. 

However such criticisms could also be thrown at 'Donkey Kong', 'PacMan' and even 'Frogger' so if anything these flaws only serve to illustrate how accurately the film makers have encapsulated 80s era arcade games. Naturally those who only recognised 'hero's duty' and 'sugar rush' in the ‘Wreck it Ralph' film will probably not enjoy or appreciate seeing the onscreen 'Fix it Felix Jr.' Game.  But it's hard to believe a large number of people watching the film won't smile broadly as a wave of familiarity washes over them. It is this audience who will love this Mega Drive port. The retro loving director of the 'Wreck it Ralph' film is certainly amongst these fans. "I'm really proud of that game" confirms Rich Moore. "It happened in tandem with the film's creation, so we made a movie and a game! Pretty good huh!"


Where did I get this game from?
Throughout my childhood my Christians mornings were spent playing which ever brand new video game my patents (or Father Christmas!) had bought for me. In 2016 my wife allowed me to relive that experience surprising me with this brand new old game. She picked up my copy of 'Fix it Felix Jr.' from Level Up Games in Canterbury and it came boxed, just like it would have were it to actually exist in 1990. 

As I sat down in my pyjamas on Christmas morning a tidal wave of nostalgia hit me and for the briefest of moments I could have sworn I was 8 again sitting in front of my childhood TV wearing my 'Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle' Pyjamas. 

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