Friday 31 March 2017

Mega Drive Review - Kid Chameleon (Game 130)

At a time when every other game involved running and jumping on things, are the unique gameplay quirks of 'Kid Chameleon' enough to stop it blending into the background ?
Developed by Sega Technical Institute
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

I'm sure everyone who played video games as a child had a parent telling them that they were wasting their free time and should be doing something constructive. However in the face of criticism we justify our time spent playing games, subconsciously or otherwise. As an adult I claim it's keeping my mind active or improving hand eye co-ordination but as a child it was training for much greater things. I'm sure that on many occasions I'd claim that should there be some sort of apocalypse is be ready; primed by years of battling zombies with a joystick. Of course the idea of someone saving the world with incredible video game prowess isn't exclusively mine. Films like 'Tron', 'The Matrix' and even the diabolical 'Pixels' were built on the premise. Novels too revel in the idea. 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' by Christopher Brookmyre and Ernest Cline's fantastic 'Ready Player One' both explore the idea that a video game addict can become a real world hero. Given how self serving it is, many games have also explored this narrative idea and it was the plot of the 1992 Mega Drive game 'Kid Chameleon'.
In the world of this game a new virtual reality game called 'Wild Side' proved hugely popular amongst those who frequent early nineties arcades. It's popularity is a surprise given that anyone who plays it  mysteriously vanishes. It transpires that the game's boss, Heady Metal has been kidnapping the kids who play and lose. According to the back of the box "Only Kid Chameleon, the coolest kid around, can foil Heady Metal and his gang of gruesome thugs!”

Like the majority of 16 bit games, 'Kid Chameleon' is a platformer. Created by the Sega Technical Institute (STI) the project was driven by Industry Legend Mark Cerny who was eventually recognised as the game's lead designer and programmer. This is the same man who would go onto be instrumental to many of the big PlayStation successes, specifically 'Crash Bandicoot', 'Jax and Daxter', 'Ratchet and Clank', 'Uncharted : Drakes Fortune' and most crucially he was the lead architect and producer of Sony's PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita video game consoles. "SEGA was looking for a 'mascot' (like Nintendo's Mario)" recalls the games character artist Craig Stitt. "Mark, and the rest of us at STI, hoped that Kid would be that game."
According to Cerny, for 'Kid Chameleon' to succeed in a market packed with platform games it had to stand out from the crowd of mediocrity, it needed a unique mechanic. Programmer Steve Woita certainly remembers the pressing need to be original. "I had way more pressure on me working on 'Kid Chameleon' because the game was unknown at the time, so we had to prove to marketing and everybody else that we thought we had a good game our hands. It’s always extremely difficult to do an original game idea and hardly any of them make it to the market place, so there was extra pressure because nobody outside of our development group knew what we were doing and if it would sell."

In a bid to appear fresh it was decided that Kid Chameleon should have the ability to take on various forms that give him different special abilities; explaining his unconventional nickname. As game historian Keith Stuart notes '"Kid Chameleon' is an unconditional interrogation of platform game mechanics in which the eponymous lead can take in a variety of super-powered alter egos". Though it hardly sounds revolutionary today, according to IGN "the premise had potential in the world of 1992".  Kid can turn into Red Stealth a samurai who can defeat enemies with his sword or break through certain floors. With his armour the iron knight has the most health and can scale walls.
Less conventional is a Nazi Tank and Maniaxe; a form which allows Kid Chameleon to throw axes. Though it seems to be parodying the many "Video Nasties" that were popular at the time, according to the game's developers it is a tribute to the main protagonist of the 'Splatterhouse'.  Perhaps the most fun form to take on is Micromax. This makes Kid shrinks down to the size of a fly and like this he can stick to walls. In total there are ten different forms that kid chameleon can assume throughout the game and in the majority of levels progress depends on choosing the correct one. Across the game there are over a hundred levels though not all need to be completed to finish the game as some are hidden.
"Talk about a long game" observed EGM magazine. "With over 1800 screens you had better plan on spending some time with this cart". The stage design is sprawling, intriguing, and frustrating in equal measure. Most stages take place in a forest, cityscape or hellish landscape with precarious jumps. Selecting the right path is key to making it to the end of the stage. Unlike other platformer at the time, 'Kid Chameleon' isn't limited to simply scrolling from left to right. You’ll often need to work your way through labyrinthine levels traversing levitating tile staircases, through hidden underground pathways, bouncing across skyscrapers. To make things harder still, stages must be finished within a strict three minute time limit. Should you finish a level you're awarded points based on time taken and additional points are given if you managed to avoid getting hurt.

There's a risk / reward element to the game, as frequently the longer more dangerous route leads to diamonds which allow you to use different special ability depending on the attire that Kid is wearing. Most of the forms have a weak diamond power at 20 diamonds, and a stronger one which costs 50 diamonds.  Two forms, EyeClops and Juggernaut, have cheaper diamond powers at 2 and 5 diamonds respectively. These are quick offensive attacks but do little damage.
You always get the most expensive diamond power you can afford, so it is impossible to choose which upgrade you wish to use.  It's all unnecessarily complicated especially as there are a dozen different types of terrain blocks that behave differently. To try to explain all the game elements the manual for the game is huge. With close to 90 pages it's twice the length of the one for 'Sonic the Hedgehog' and there are literally dozens of pages dedicated to explaining the different functions of each form. It's worth referring to this encyclopaedic tome though, if only to avoid spending your diamonds on the wrong ability. It's ludicrously frustrating to waste your hard earned diamonds on a purchased skill that doesn't allow you to get any closer to the goal. If you're playing on an emulator you can of course save before you make this error but if you're playing on the original cart there's no way to save. According to Steve Woita "There was a lot of talk about putting battery back up in the game so people could come back and play it where they left off [...] It would’ve jacked the cost of the cart some more and that was the last thing marketing wanted to hear with an unknown game." The game had to be finished in one sitting and As a result, 'Kid Chameleon' because infamous for being one of the "longest and hardest games on the Mega Drive".

I’m certainly not against difficulty, length or complexity in games, even platformers. However, a game should feel fair. A player shouldn’t give up because they are confused, bored or because the protagonist isn't behaving in the way they intend.  People often criticise the floaty nature of game like 'LittleBigplanet' but I found 'Kid Chameleon' to be the most slippery game I've ever played. There's so little traction on the protagonist and every stage feels like a slippery ice level. Naturally, things get ridiculous when you actually reach the ice stages! For a game that demands pixel perfect leaps, precision jumps are difficult to pull off making a frustrating game infuriating. You can imagine faults like this would get ironed out in play testing, but "the test team" failed to see that activating the diamond powers by pressing the A button and start simultaneously could be potentially problematic. I've never accidentally paused a game as much in my life. 

Artist Craig Stitt saw firsthand how difficult and unintuitive the game was. "'Kid Chameleon' had JUST hit the stores, so I went to a game store to see it on the shelf. They had a kiosk where you could play the game. I walked up to it and there was this kid playing the game. He was literally banging against a wall, trying to jump over it. I watched for a moment, saw he wasn't getting anywhere, so I leaned forward and told him how to get past the wall. He looked at me, said 'What do you know about games" and went back to beating his head against the wall. Little did he know who I was and that the level he was on was one I had done the art for."

The graphics in 'Kid Chameleon' are probably best described as inoffensive. The Sprite for the main character in each of its forms is nice enough though there's very little animation for a 16 bit game. If anything the game looks like a slightly polished Master System game rather than a Mega Drive title. The backgrounds are varied and at time detailed but there's no depth to anything on screen. Yes there's some basic parallax scrolling but when it's only three or four layers it's hardly impressive. It's worth noting that this game was released between the two sonic games which only serve to emphasise how primitive 'Kid Chameleon' looks. Audio in the game is far worse though. The handful of tracks are brash and distorted, achingly dated and irritatingly repetitive. "The music is a bit scabby [...] all doom and gloom and not very fitting for the cutesy graphics" claimed CVG magazine. There seems to be no distinction between the various worlds and the whole game feels one note.

While designer Mark Cerny is proud of his work on 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2' he speaks less fondly of other games he created at Sega, though it's unclear if his comments refer to 'Kid Chameleon'. "If you look at what we were doing at Sega, that was, in some sense, I hate to say it, shovelware," Cerny admits. "It was one programmer, one designer, three months, and you just shipped it".

Programmer Steve Woita however is much clearer on his thoughts on the game and even wanted to do a sequel to 'Kid chameleon'. "We to this day have no idea why Sega management didn’t allow us to do a sequel to the game. Even though we were totally burnt out from the first installment of 'Kid Chameleon', we wanted to take a few weeks off and start up a sequel to it right away." Perhaps Sega noticed that their game wasn't as unique and original as the team believed. It’s a fact obvious to modern game reviewers looking at digital re-releases of 'Kid Chameleon'. "While the mask gimmick is cute" noticed EuroGamer, "it's really no different to the way Mario changed his form by collecting mushrooms and feathers."

If 'Kid Chameleon' success depended on it being original it's clear why the game has got lost in time. With bland graphics, confusing mechanics, awkward controls, misjudged character physics and diabolical music, it's hard to see any reason to recommend playing the game over so many better 16 bit platformers. If games are really teaching you life skills that'll one day help you stop Armageddon then the only thing you'll learn from 'Kid Chameleon' is the ability to control frustration, confusion and disappointment.

Where did I get this game from?
Like most people I had never heard of 'Kid Chameleon' before getting it in a bundle of 50 mega Drive games. It's sat on my shelf for over a year un-played as nothing about the cover or the screenshots on the back of the box drew me in. All I saw was an outdated average platform game and on this occasion it seems you can judge by its cover. I'm pleased I paid less than £10 for it.

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