January 21, 2007 12:15 PM |
[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Konami's Bucky O'Hare, released for the NES and arcade in 1992.]
For the discerning, irony-fed geeks of today, it might be hard to understand what Konami ever saw in Bucky O’Hare. A line of early-'90s cartoons and action figures, it revolved around a garish vision of intergalactic wars between huge-eyed animal people in an alternate dimension, and it barely lasted a year on the market. Why would a major game developer even bother?
But while it’s now a blip on whatever radar tracks old toy-commercial franchises, the Bucky O’Hare of 1991 had a lot going for it: a line of crude plastic figures, a comic book, plenty of merchandise, and a syndicated TV show. That was reason enough for Konami to turn it into not just one game, but two: an arcade side-scroller and an NES action game. Both faded quickly, yet they were hardly throwaway efforts on Konami's part.
Where no ordinary rabbit would dare
Though the arcade game deserves some examination of its own, the NES game proves the more intriguing study. A rebel space captain and bile-green rabbit fighting the surprisingly goofy Toad Empire, Bucky’s tasked with visiting four different planets to rescue four members of his crew: cyclopean robot Blinky, psychic catgirl Jenny, the four-armed gunner Deadeye Duck, and the annoying, dimension-hopping, shoehorned-in human kid: a laser-toting nerd named Willy DuWitt.
Once rescued, the other four characters are all playable at any time, and each gets a unique ability, from psychic homing shots to ice-melting gunfire. Bucky fans might’ve noticed the absence of the hulking Bruiser Baboon, who was in the cartoon but not the original comic book. Perhaps his sprite would've been too large.
Surprisingly, the game doesn’t really pursue the atmosphere of Bucky O’Hare, with not even a synthesized 8-bit title arrangement of the cartoon’s obnoxious, catchy theme song. The game is perhaps all the better for that. If the four worlds and the later stages reveal the typical action-platform standards of fire, ice, forest, desert, and mechanized enemy fortress, players will find that each sub-stage has its own unique conceit, including mine-cart rides, ice-block puzzles, and a chase through a fleet of frog-faced imperial bombers. Not all the ideas are its own, but Bucky steals from good sources: the Red Planet has the heroes outrunning quick-flowing lava much like the lasers from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man level, while the Blue Planet includes a snake-riding sequence straight out of Battletoads.
It’s not surprising that Bucky was created by some of the soon-to-be Konami expatriates who’d go on to form the cult-favorite developer called Treasure; the offshoot studio’s future President Masato Maegawa was the game’s director and lead programmer, and artist Kaname Shindoh served as a graphic designer, with two other Treasure names, programmer Hideyuki Suganami and designer Kouchi Kimura getting “special thanks.” As one of the last Konami projects undertaken by future Treasure staffers, Bucky O’Hare shows off a few clever advancements of the basic 8-bit action-shooter ideal, even if it’s closer to one of Treasure’s unremarkably decent platform games (Silhouette Mirage, Dynamite Headdy) than a revered classic like Gunstar Heroes.
The game runs contrary to Treasure’s usual design, however, by being a little too hard. The levels are filled with instant-death hazards, and some boss attacks can kill Bucky and his crew in a single hit. The game spares players too much repetition by giving each level half a dozen checkpoints, but when some sections of the planets require countless attempts and strict pattern memorization, the creative layouts lose their charm.
It’s the opposite of the looser approach to game difficulty that Treasure would later take (Buster's Scary Dream excepted), and, more importantly, it wasn’t well suited to the 10-year-olds who’d fire up Bucky O’Hare carts after long Saturday mornings of Bucky cartoons and Cap’n Crunch. Then again, few such children actually existed.
Like X-Men, but with only four players
Just as the Bucky O’Hare hit the NES, Konami also shipped an arcade game (right). Though it’s largely a beat-‘em-up in the vein of Final Fight and Double Dragon, Bucky and the three other playable cast members (Willy DuWitt is mercifully sidelined) emphasize shooting over hand-to-hand attacks, which are triggered only when players are close to enemies. Though it doesn't advance the limits of the genre too much, Bucky's a solid enough example of it: the characters control well, the enemies are diverse but never too smart for the game's own good, and there are even a few flying-level breaks from the usual grounded processions of enemies.
Like Konami’s arcade treatments of The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, uh, C.O.W.boys of Moo Mesa), the arcade Bucky O’ Hare does an amazing job of capturing its cartoon source, with animated cutscene, bright graphics, and dialogue from the show’s voice actors. It’s also another showcase for some Treasure staffers-to-be, and anyone who’s spent long hours on Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier, or Bangai-O will find Norio Hanazawa’s Bucky soundtrack familiar.
At least it outlasted Camp Candy
Promising as they were, both the arcade game and its NES cousin were doomed by the license itself. Bucky O’Hare was a failure across the board for fairly simple reasons. Although the TV series and toys premiered in 1991, writer Larry Hama’s original Bucky O’Hare comic dated back to the ‘80s, and the entire franchise was very much a creation of that decade’s toy-promoting cartoons, complete with a straight-faced hero, corny attempts at humor, an awkwardly introduced human kid, and catchphrases like “Let’s croak us some toads!”
The children of 1991 already had the friendlier and amusingly self-aware Ninja Turtles, and didn’t take to a bile-green space bunny billed in his theme song as “the funky fresh rabbit who can take care of it.” It was too much, too late.
Bucky O’Hare’s name was already fading when Konami’s games hit, making them fairly obscure even in their own time (Nintendo Power didn’t even cover the NES game). However, they’re surprisingly enjoyable titles that could’ve done well, if only they’ve been stuck with a license that was, in the end, only slightly more marketable than, say, Denver the Last Dinosaur. Hints of a cartoon remake have been dropped by comic artist Neal Adams, but for now, Konami’s lesser-known games stand among the best things that ever came Bucky O’Hare’s way.
[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City. He'd also like to thank the SF Kosmo website for pointing out the Treasure connection to Bucky O'Hare.]
Categories: Column: Might Have Been