Saturday, 11 August 2018

McDonaldland for the Nintendo Entertainment System

I've got a couple of guilty secrets. Would you like to hear them? The first is I do enjoy a McDonald's. Don't go very often (don't think I've been this year, if memory serves) but there's no point denying it. In the old, old job they were something of a regularity. Too much, you might say. And the other? I think this game, which is a marketing vehicle for McDonald's, is thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, you could say it's too good for the purposes of flashy advertising.

What's it all about then, and how to you go about building a game around a corporate mascot? In the early 90s this sort of thing was entirely commonplace. From the British home computer revolution to the mighty Japanese console manufacturers, mascots were a staple. Mario and Sonic are the best-known, but in the UK bedroom coders and software houses churned out their own - Ultimate's Sabreman, Gremlin's Monty Mole, Codemasters' Dizzy. Likewise, British firms were very quick to get into licensed properties. Developers then were well used to building games around particular personalities and character traits, so when there was a big move into "advertainment", i.e. using video games to push products, it didn't require much of a leap of imagination as far as game design and programming teams were concerned.

In a number of ways, McDonaldland, or M.C. Kids outside of Europe, was a simple property to adapt. There is a McDonald's mythos that could be drawn upon (yes, really) with its characters, locations, goodies and baddies. On the side of the angels was cheery old Ronald McDonald himself, and evil was personified in the dreaded Hamburgler. Folks of a certain age, like me, might remember the latter and some of the others, like Grimace, from the ads that ran on British telly in the 1980s. I still have nightmares about the garish McDonald world mural that once decorated the upstairs wall of its Derby branch. Anyway, this is fodder enough to wrap a game around.

The plot, such as it is, sees Ronald McDonald approach Mick and Mack, your avatars, for their/your help in retrieving his magic bag from Hamburgler. And how do you do this? By making you way through some 30 levels of platforming action, of course. At first glance this seems little different from the bulk of NES games, which was the home for the platformer at the time. However, McDonaldland is a superlative example of the genre. Each "world" opens out in an overhead map, and you enter the levels in any desired order, Mario III/Mario World-stylee. The aim in each is to find a card. Get at least five cards and you progress to the next world. Get all the secret cards scattered across the game and you can enter a hidden, bonus world. Simple, right? No. Each level is fairly small but it quickly becomes apparent that there are secret areas aplenty. Sometimes these are hinted at, like the bottom of a platform outside of jumping range, or some goodies that can be seen under your feet. The fiendishness of the design challenges you to find a way to get them. For example, very close to the starting position in the very first level there is a spring. Strung out above it is a line of collectible golden arches (get 100 and you'll enter the bonus stage). You jump on and shoot upwards ... only to find two more are out of reach. How do you get them? Straight away the game is taxing your brain to think about how to get to seemingly inaccessible parts.

The answers soon present themselves in a number of very interesting gameplay mechanics. The one most often noted in the discussions of this game is the gravity flip. This wasn't anything new in and of itself - Castle of Illusion and Fantasy World Dizzy used this trick well before its employment here, but reversing gravity is integral to a number of stages. The very final level, for instance, cannot be done if you don't muck about with Newtonian mechanics. Basically, you've learned where the platforms and obstacles are one way but you have to reposition them all again in your mind. Being methodical and careful here is the best way of overcoming it. There is also a moon level with lower gravity, rendering small jumps quite tricky to perform. Also key to the game is the lifting mechanic. Again, other platform games had done this by this point - most famously (notoriously) Super Mario Bros II - and here you too pick up stuff to lob at enemies. Later on, however, you get to pick up boats as well as floats that allow for the navigation of lakes of lava. This can lead to very tricky jiggery-pokery as you try and grab one box while throwing your boat or float so you can make an immediate jump for it. You'll die, you'll die lots. But for some reason it never gets frustrating.

That said, this perhaps is the only gameplay criticism I can make. McDonaldland isn't hard, but it does require practice, and some of the ways of getting through a level are downright fiendish. Perfect run up jumps, measuring out every single pixel to make a leap, throwing yourself blind into thin air and chasms and hoping you'll land on something. I wouldn't describe this as cheap. After all, back then gaming conventions were different, but completing the game requires mastery of its mechanics. For that reason it's a test for even seasoned players. Clearly it was designed with this in mind - the controls and collision detection are spot on, the layout is thoughtful and demands the player exercises nous. This was obviously devised by folks into the genre and wanting to offer something that appears like a standard platformer but unveils its wizardry, and their virtuosity, the more you get into it. Perhaps this was their way of cocking a snook at the licensed material, or at the disdain game magazines would have approached it from the off. A quick note about the sound track too - it is easily one of the most accomplished to have issued forth from a NES and sounds more like a C64 game than anything else.

Alas, it being too good is perhaps one of the reasons why McDonaldland has lain in obscurity when less accomplished platformers are oft fondly remembered. Writing four years after the game's release, Gregg Tavares, a member of the programming team, said he was disappointed at the game's reception. Originally McDonald's were going to advertise it for a month on its Happy Meals packaging, which certainly would have given it a massive sales boost. But they did not. Instead the contemporaneous Mick and Mack: Global Gladiators (also published by Virgin in North America) got the big promos. This game was not as good nor had as many original features. Then why did McDonald's shovel it into the bin? I would suggest it comes down to corporate image. McDonaldland is good, very playable, but too tough for the younger kids who would buy it. Do you, for instance, know many 10, 11, 12 year olds who have a Happy Meal when they go for a Maccy's? But secondly and more importantly, Global Gladiators fit in with McDonald's corporate rebranding strategy. In the late 80s it was revealed that rain forest in South America were being felled to make way for beef herds that supplied McDonald's. Alongside their very environmentally unfriendly packaging, a panicked McDonald's went about green washing everything about them - something they continue to do until this day. Re: the games, in McDonaldland you're trying to retrieve some magical tat. In Global Gladiators, your folks are action platforming with Big Ron to defeat pollution and save the planet. If you wanted to improve your corporate image, which of the two would you push big?

McDonaldland then owes its obscurity due to its being victim to corporate politics. And that is a shame. Despite its cringeworthy premise, it does deserve rescuing from the condescension of posterity and appreciated for what it is: a well thought-out, well made, crafty platformer.


CCAAC said...

This game would probably have been banned by the committee!

Tony said...

That's good old entertainment, I remember playing it when I was a little boy. My parents were looking for a rent in Spain, found a nice villa. There was an old white NES. At that time I didn't knew anything about it. Ah, memories... I think I'll buy one for myself tomorrow.
Thanks for reminding! Definitely buying it tomorrow.