Friday 27 October 2017

Mega Drive Revew - Ariel the Little Mermaid (Game 146)

'Ariel the little mermaid' is an underwater adventure based of the popular Disney film. But, anyone expecting the quality of 'Aladdin' should just keep swimming. 

Developed by Blue Sky Software
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

There are certain things in retro games that ring alarm bells. Water levels are generally considered to be awful so seeing one on a games box will make me want to put it back on the shelf. Licensed games are also off putting. For every 'Golden Eye' there are a dozen terrible games with recognisable characters. 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' should have been a game I ignored; it's a game based on a film that's (initially at least) set underwater. However I gave it the benefit of the doubt as there are a surprising number of good Disney 16 bit games. 'Aladdin' is often called one of the best games on the Mega Drive and Capcom were frequently making strong Disney games for the Super Nintendo. Typically licensed games are bad because they are rushed, made at speed to be on the shelves when a film is still in the cinema or coming out on physical media. However 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' came out three years after the film on which it was based. Surely in that time the developers could create something good. Even a causal glance at the box shows that developer Blue Sky Software had clearly been influenced by 'James Pond: Underwater Agent' and 'Ecco the Dolphin'. Although flawed both these games showed that setting a game underwater doesn't make it immediately bad. If 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' included the best bits of these two games and wrapped them in charming Disney imagery how could the game not be worth my time?

Sadly my expectations were far too high. 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' shows just how bad water based games can be. It also simultaneously proves that people will buy any old rubbish if there's a recognisable face on the packaging. Fortunately it's short, as it seems hard to fail in the game; I finished it on the hardest setting on my first go with life's to spare.

The plot of the film has been more or less ignored as there's no mention of Ariel falling for Prince Eric nor does she ever give up her voice for legs in an attempt to seduce him. In the game the little mermaid must swim around four large confusing levels finding and freeing "poor unfortunate souls." In the film these are merpeople who have been turned into trembling work like beings by Ursula the sea witch. The game makes no effort to explain what Ariel is searching for instead presuming anyone playing the game will be well acquainted with the movie. It's tricky to believe Blue Sky hadn't played 'James Pond' as that too demanded that the player seek things in underwater labyrinth.
The two games are both viewed from a side on perspective, with the player’s sprites a similar proportion. However in 'James Pond' the player must transport things, from where they are found to a goal. In 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' you find a soul and then move onto finding the next. Perhaps it's simplified for the benefit of younger players, maybe it was developer laziness. The locations of 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' will be familiar to anyone who has played 'James Pond' too, although in fairness it's hard to imagine what other locations could be used in a game set underwater. One stage takes place in a pirate ship, another a coral reef but despite the changing backgrounds what you do on every stage is identical.
You start a stage; look at the map to see where a soul is. Swim there, touch it, rinse repeat. While there are enemies in your path Ariel has two forms of attack that stop them fairly easily. Evidently singing is an effective weapon under the sea. It's sufficient to quickly dispatch of the four bosses too; even on the hardest setting their firepower seemed less powerful than mine. So while you could move to safe spaces on screen and fight them tactically it was pointless. With full health you'd simply win a battle of attrition.  

The only time I struggled in the game was when I found a soul behind two blocks. In this situation you are meant to call on Ariel's fishy friend Flounder to clear the path. However there was a huge space above the blocks that I presumed I could swim over, having already swam through smaller spaces just moments earlier. It's an example of just how little effort has been put into the game. The stages are generally confusing but simply because there's no variety in them. Without the map you'd spend much longer trying to navigate the stages, especially since there is no continuity dictating which size holes you can get through and which obstructions should be moved. However with a map you realise just how small they are. You will spend most of your time brushing up against this scenery though as Ariel behaves like a character on ice. After letting go of a direction button she continues to swim for a few seconds; usually leading to her smacking into a wall. There's also a delay on when she actually starts swimming after a button is pressed which removes any sort of control precision. It's nice the little mermaid can move in eight directions but I would much rather her swim in the way I wish her to. You mentally compensate after a while, but I did notice a direction button imprint on my thumb after playing where I had clearly been fighting against the terrible controls.
You would think that offering two playable characters would double the game's length but Triton plays identically to Ariel. The levels and bosses are the same with the only difference being who you save at the end of the game. It's difficult to know why the developers even went to the effort, of drawing a second character unless this was originally intended to be a two player game. If this game is aimed at young female fans of the movie, why would they choose to play as Ariel's domineering and over protective father? 

'Ariel the Little Mermaid' was developed by BlueSky who had been involved in quite a number of Mega Drive games although many were ports of existing properties. There was the general consensus at the studio that 'The Little Mermaid' represented quite an important opportunity. "I do remember feeling a lot of pressure to do well on the game, but that was more of a personal thing" recalls former BlueSky artist Tom Moon. “I was impressed that BlueSky was able to capture such clients such as Disney." However 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' illustrates that maybe the developer were out of their depth struggling with a license that was larger than they were. This becomes far more obvious when you look at the development history for 'Disney's Aladdin'. This game was eventually developed by Virgin and pushed the Mega Drive further than many thought possible. However it was originally a project started by Blue Sky Software. Following the critical panning of 'Fantasia' Disney Feature Animation started taking a more active role in bringing its film catalogue to video game consoles. Conscious of this, Jesse Taylor, the Sega producer on 'Aladdin', knew that it would be difficult for a smaller team to maintain the overall level of quality that Disney had come to expect. The game was cancelled and BlueSky focused on a Mega Drive adaptation of 'Jurassic Park' instead. "In all fairness, the work BlueSky had done on 'Aladdin' was not considered by anyone at Disney to be poor in quality" notes game historian Ken Horowitz. "Many of those involved thought the project was shaping up to be a competent platformer. The problem was that Disney was looking for something far beyond mere competence. It wanted the game to propel the player into the movie and feel like a continuation of the adventure rather than just another licensed product. For Disney, BlueSky’s version did not satisfy those needs in a number of areas, including art and animation."

BlueSky's 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' should have been sufficient warning for Disney. This also has lacklustre art in drab environments. There's hardly any animation for Ariel and to be honest she doesn't mirror her cinematic counterpart particularly faithfully, I don't recall the Little Mermaid being quite so busty for example. Ironically her movement isn't very fluid and she swims in a very haphazard way. But it's not just the main sprite that is a letdown.
The boss fights may fill the screen, but they are hardly impressive considering they cause the game to slow down and flicker on screen. Everything seems thrown together and not very well tested. It's sloppy construction like this that has created the perception that most licensed games are terrible. Blue Sky can't even claim it was a game rushed to hit shelves to capitalise on a cinematic or video release. The cynical may say that everyone involved in the games production knew it would sell based on the strength of a name, so the bare minimum of effort was needed. This would explain the repetitive gameplay, the absent two player mode and the clearly broken controls.

When compared to 'Aladdin' it's pretty hard to find any ways that 'Ariel the Little Mermaid' is a better game. Despite what Sebastian sings in the film, it certainly isn't "better down where it's wetter under the sea". 

Where did I get this game from?

Inspired the quality of 'Aladdin', 'World of Illusion', 'Castle of Illusion', 'Quack Shot', and 'Lion King' I thought I Disney characters always found a good home on the Mega Drive. I got this from a fellow community member who was downsizing their collection. I'm glad it was essentially a freebie (to compensate for a damaged manual) as I'd be embarrassed if I paid very much for this! 

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