Friday 19 October 2018

Mega Drive Review - Gargoyles (Game 171)

Tired of sharing the profits with developers, Disney decided to go it alone and create their own games. ‘Gargoyles’ may be ambitious and beautiful but it also proves that sometimes, it’s best to call in the experts.

Developed by Disney Interactive
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1994

Throughout my life I’ve had to justify my hobbies and interests because of  the ludicrous idea that animation and video games are only enjoyed by children. It’s a notion that never seems to die despite the fact it has never actually been true. Since their inception Video Games have had titles that are best played by adults and likewise the early examples of animation were designed to amaze grownups rather than their children. Even Disney, a company celebrated for its child engaging content have made adult material. Some of their earliest experiments are quite frankly terrifying for children. During the Michael Eisner era, grittier adult orientated products were even actively encouraged.

The animated TV show ‘Gargoyles’ was very much a product of this; Disney chasing other’s successes in the face of shifting audience tastes. Animation rival, Warner Bros, had enjoyed huge acclaim with ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and Disney felt compelled to produce their own young-adult animated show. The result was a series that features a species of nocturnal creatures known as gargoyles that turn to stone during the day but fight New York crime at night. 

To please their 13-to-16-year-old demographic, the edgier ‘Gargoyles’ series resembles a superhero comic set in a world of shadows and corruption. The episodes feature complex story arcs awash with gothic melodrama. Characters are flawed and multifaceted. It is a show that doesn’t shy away from mature themes. Revenge, redemption and retribution, are all tackled with episodes peppered with references to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

While the show was only moderately successful when first aired, as the years passed it gained a cult following. In 2009, IGN claimed that ‘Gargoyles’ was the 45th greatest animated series of all time, although this partly attributed to the Number of Star Trek actors who had provided their vocal talents! 

As Nostalgia critic Doug Walker notes, “It was certainly a welcome detour from what Disney usually did”. This revolutionary approach also extended to the development of the accompanying Video Game. After many years of successfully licensing their products to Capcom and Virgin Games, Disney decided to develop in house. 

“When I joined Disney Software, there were just a couple of programmers and a couple of dozen artists, producers, and managers” remembers programmer and designer Chris Shrigley. “This was in 1994, and within a year, the division had been re-branded to Disney Interactive, and had grown to 100s of people [ready for] internal development”. Over confident because of the success that ‘Aladdin’ had enjoyed, the house of mouse saw Video Games as a new golden goose and were willing to invest heavily. “It was madness” notes Shrigley. “There was so much money flying around, it wasn’t even funny. Massive parties, first class travel, and the best equipment for everyone. I was having a blast.”

Huge commercial success was the only way to recoup the overinflated production costs, but game development speed was hampered by excessive corporate approval procedures. Protracted Development time meant the in-house Disney Interactive Games were taking too long to create. By 1995 16bit machines were aging, and audiences were eyeing up the next console generation.
The Mega Drive / Super Nintendo market was shrinking and Disney Interactive’s handful of consoles games were hitting shelves far too late. According to Shrigley, There simply weren’t enough interested customers left to shift the numbers Disney needed to cover the exorbitant production costs. “They blew through 100s of millions of dollars and Disney head office pulled the plug.” Internal development was halted so ‘Gargoyles’ remains one of the few 16bit games that Disney themselves actually made. 

The big budget was reflected on screen and there’s no doubt that ‘Gargoyles’ is an ambitious title. “I’ve worked on, programmed, and created more than 50 commercially published games over the years, on almost every platform since the early 1980s” notes programmer and lead designer Chris Shrigley. “‘Gargoyles’ [was] my final game on the Sega Genesis (sniff), and the one I’m probably most proud of. I felt extremely comfortable with the Genesis by then [but] the game was hard to write and took me almost a year to complete.”  

Like so many licensed games at the time, ‘Gargoyles’ is an action platformer. Although it is inspired by elements of the show’s first season, its plot is not considered canon by fans. The player controls Goliath who seeks to put an end to the Eye of Odin, a corrupted magical talisman which can transform whoever possesses it. It’ll come as no surprise that the current owner Demona is the games antagonist.

Given the TV series’ weighty plots, the games’ focus on story is hardly surprising. “We got a lot of assistance making the game. We had access to everything from the cartoon series, and access to all history and back-story to the characters” recalls Shrigley. “We had writers and concept artists from the TV show involved too”. Text screens between each of the game’s 11 levels advance the plot; although it’s unlikely you’ll see the entire story due to ‘Gargoyles’ ridiculous difficulty. “It's easier to sneak into Disneyland than it is to finish this game” Game Pro once whimsically said. 

While the levels of the game may follow the typical “jump a bit, then fight a boss” pattern, they are thematically and structurally surprisingly varied. Goliath will battle with Vikings in an ancient ransacked Castle as well as new robotic foes; who'll lurk in modern day Manhattan. Your able protagonist depends on physical attacks to defend himself through the use of context sensitive punches, grapples and throws. With this being, at heart, a platformer the range of attacks isn’t comparable with a brawler like ‘Streets of Rage’ or ‘Batman Returns’. But like these games, progress can be made by simply pummelling an attack button when ever foes fill the screen. Thankfully the leaping and jumping in the game require a bit more dexterity. Despite his size Goliath is surprisingly nimble and he is also able to flap his wings once to increase his jumping distance. Every part of a level feels accessible as our protagonist can also climb along walls and ceilings with his claws. Occasionally A player must also destroy parts of a level to progress, breaking through walls and floors to find an exit.
Conversely sometimes you’ll have to work with the stage hazards. In the second stage for example pulling chains shuts down fire vents, at other times you’ll have to make use of air ventilation systems to propel Goliath upwards. While this freedom of movement may make it harder to know exactly where you’re meant to be going, exploring New York’s Streets, rooftops and subways can feel exciting and rewarding. Electronic Gaming Monthly was certainly impressed with the game’s scope. “I was actually surprised at how much the game had to offer” their reviewer said. “You must actually use you abilities, such as scaling the sides of a wall or double jumping to reach a higher platform.” “The game [...] has play mechanics galore and the levels are very well laid out” added Game Fan Magazine. “‘Gargoyles’ seems as though it came from a company with a long history of games, yet it's Disney's first... amazing!”

At the time Shrigley, was surprised by critics’ low expectations. “The perception is that Disney is not really a tech company, but more of a traditional media company. That isn’t true at all” he said at the time. “We are all about tech, and we innovate across the board”. 

Considering the developer, critics were less surprised by ‘Gargoyles’ incredible visuals. “The graphics are simply amazing” wrote Game Players, “great [...] artwork and animation (a no-brainer, considering their history)” adds Game Fan magazine. The licensed Disney games released before ‘Gargoyles’ were commended for the involvement of animators who had worked on the original properties. Virgin Games had created techniques to digitise hand drawn animation cells, while Westwood had perfected compression routines so that images would take less space on the cartridges. To keep up with expectations Disney Interactive had to make use of the team behind the Gargoyles’ TV series. “The animation for Goliath was done by the same people who animated the cartoon” confirms designer Chris Shrigley. There’s no denying the game’s well animated and incredible to look at. Both the protagonist and the level enemies more gracefully, full of life and as reviewers noted “just like they move in the TV show”. The problem with this is that while more animation frames creates smoother movements, it makes the game sluggish and unresponsive. While enemy sprites may litter the levels, a player will spend longer fighting against the controls. It seems most actions won’t trigger until the current action animation is completed. 

For example Goliath has an 12 frame run cycle which will be completed even if a button is pressed during it. So potentially, you can press the jump button on the first frame and have to wait for 11 sprites to cycle through before your character will respond to that button press. This lag between player input and character response makes the game feel imprecise, hardly ideal when strings of jumps are required. Similarly during combat, you can’t jump if Goliath is mid way through a slashing animation. The exception seems to be when you take damage. This will cancel any action immediately, cancelling an attack for example. 

The problem is most obvious in boss fights when you have to attack when your foe exposes their weak spot. The Third boss for example see Goliath attacking a caged enemy, which can only takes damage when its limbs poke out. The problem is you can only attack some parts when hanging from the side of the cage. Even then you’ll have to launch an imprecise overhead attack within a second long window of opportunity. 

Admittedly you do get accustomed to the controls and subconsciously pre-empt actions, but it does feel like artistic splendour has taken prescience over precision. Perhaps the visuals were enough to seduce reviewers as praise for ‘Gargoyles’ was unanimous. Despite what GamePro believes ‘Gargoyles’ is not “one of the very best licensed games for the Genesis”. Game Players we’re wrong to say “Disney has made one of the best Genesis games of the year”. Even Electric Playground felt “Disney Interactive has to be commended for releasing one of the finest Genny games ever”. While I disagree with the opinion, their prediction of its inevitable commercial failure was certainly true. “It is [being released] on the eve of the Genesis' last few days”. 

Despite its flaws, ‘Gargoyles’ deserved to sell more than it did, but there wasn’t an obvious audience waiting for it. As Chris Shrigley says “‘Gargoyles’ was a bit of a departure for Disney Software at the time, because it had a slightly harder edge than their other games they didn’t really have any place to put the game”. The teenage audience that loved the show, wouldn’t want to purchase a Disney branded game because so many believe Disney is just for children. Likewise the game was to mature for the young and too hard for the casual players. The Genesis market was shrinking in 1995 and such a niche game didn’t stand much chance commercially. 

Today, people continue to question why an adult would play a video game based on a carton. But if this is your area of interest there’s many better games to Play than ‘Gargoyles’. In screenshots it may look fantastic, but were Disney to continue to make games in house, I’m sure they’d come to the realisation that for a game to be enjoyable gameplay should always be the priority. 

Where did I get this from?

Finding ‘Gargoyles’ is a mission. It was only released on the Genesis in America, It sold few copies and it came in a flimsy cardboard box. Finding a good condition copy is almost as hard as the game itself. Step in my dear friend Sara who got me this game for Christmas. It certainly isn’t the best game to carry Disney branding but it’s a fascinating talking point in any collection. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.