Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Year: 1990
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChatz sales to date: Unknown

Last week there was a Google Doodle celebrating the anniversary of Little Nemo in Slumberland, a comic strip by artist Winsor McCay that debuted way back in 1905.  In a time known for conservative Victorian principles (and yes, some casual racism) the Nemo comic strips were downright experimental in their use of perspective, color and framing to achieve an appropriately dreamlike feel.  Seeing those surrealist landscapes again filled me with nostalgia and a strong desire to consume hallucinogens, both of which inspired this week's post. 

Nemo, after dropping about 50 hits of acid, whimsically dreams of murdering father time in an elaborate visual representation of New Year's 

Capcom was experiencing a Golden Age in Platforming in the late 80's/early 90's and was applying their winning combination of bright graphics and tight controls to any license they good get their hands on.  We've all heard of Mega Man and Ghosts n' Goblins, but in what universe do DuckTales, Chip n' Dale: Rescue Rangers and The Little Mermaid all get top-notch platformer tie-ins?  And yet thanks to Capcom's incredible Mega Man engines and their fever-dream quest to license every Saturday morning cartoon in America that's exactly what we got.  And so it was that in 1990 Capcom gave us Little Nemo: The Dream Master, licensed from the Japanese anime film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland which was released the previous year (it would eventually receive a U.S. release but not until 1992).  Why Capcom chose to release a licensed tie-in game in the U.S. market when it's licensed property was never released there and the source material was nearly a century old is anyone's guess, but I for one am glad they did.  

The game puts  you in control of Nemo as he adventures through Slumberland to rescue King Morpheus from Nightmare Land.  Naturally this all plays out in Nemo's dreams, and each level has a visual style that uses bright colors and fantasy environs but also a slightly dark and twisted feel.  The look pays homage to the classic comic strip's ether-induced visual style and stands as one of the best-looking NES games ever produced.  Seriously, if you aren't hooked from the first levels towering kaleidoscopic mushrooms then you must be a DEA agent.  The 8-bit soundtrack also helps to convey an otherworldly feel that suits the game's setting and themes quite well.

If Nemo's been eating that amanita muscaria it's no wonder he's having these dreams

The actual gameplay is extremely challenging, which is to be expected of anything based on the Mega Man engine.  Hidden across each of the 8 levels are a number of Golden Keys which are needed to unlock the level's end, but it's not clear how many keys you need until you reach the end and see the corresponding number of locks.  Enemies are plentiful and highly lethal, and Nemo's only weapon (for most of the game anyhow) is a bag of candy.  In fact, you actually can't hurt the enemies at all with the candy, only stun them in place momentarily to leap over them.  Some animals can be tamed (drugged?) with the candy allowing you to...uh...wear them like a skin suit.  Aside from being deeply disturbing, this grants you the ability of that animal such as digging in the mole skin, leaping in the frog skin, or flying in the bee skin to name just a few.  Most animal skins also grant you increased health and the ability to attack enemies, so you'll want to spend most of the game getting your Hannibal Lecter on.       

That bee skin is so helpful you won't stop to question why this is what Nemo dreams about
It's a licensed tie-in to a property over 100 years old.  Alright, so it's actually a tie-in to a popular anime that was only a year old at the time but that film wouldn't get a release outside of Japan until two years after this game hit stores.  That meant in most markets people hadn't seen anything related to the Little Nemo property since the 1930's, well before most parents at the time had even been born.  To say the property was unknown is an understatement, so Capcom needed to treat this like an original IP if they wanted it to sell outside Japan.  That means making a case to the consumer what this game is and why they should try it.

Of course, Capcom did not do this.  I can't remember any marketing for this game although a YouTube search did pick up this utterly bizarre commercial:

I've played this game off and on over the past two decades and still have no freaking clue how this commercial connects to the game beyond the occasional schizophrenic flashes of in-game footage.  They make the game seem like something based around Nightmare on Elm Street, with Capcom sending middle-management and Jesse Eisenberg through your neighborhood at night to tap into your secret fears.   Nowhere in that commercial is the slightest inkling of the lighthearted ethereal setting contained within the game.  They've taken a game filled with bright, colorful landscapes and show only the bleak final level in nightmare land.  If it wasn't for the box art at the end you wouldn't even know this is an ad for a game at all.  

And oh, how Capcom does love to screw up it's box art.  While it didn't approach the epic terribleness of Capcom's North American release of Mega Man, the box art for Little Nemo screams "kiddie game".  Seeing it juxtaposed with that frenetic horror show of a commercial only underscores how poor a choice it was for a game that is genuinely difficult even for an avid gamer.  I can only imagine how many crying 5-year-olds were subjected to constant deaths in an acid-trip landscape because their parents saw this on the shelf and picked it up.  It's no wonder I originally found this game at a garage sale for one dollar, those parents must have thought they were unloading some ancient cursed relic on me.  

Not even the offer of a free Mega Man sticker is worth the uncomfortable looks you get handing this to the cashier

I've got to assume that just as few people know the Little Nemo brand today as in 1990, so for all intents and purposes this would still need to be treated like an original IP.  That's even more problematic today then back in the early 90's thanks to the massive budget (and therefore risk) involved in producing AAA titles.  Publishers aren't willing to let a developer gamble millions on an unknown entity when failure means bankruptcy.  Fortunately for gamers willing to step outside their comfort zone, we are in a brave new era of indie gaming.  Operating on shoe-string budgets with skeleton crews, these developers can take risks on ideas and styles the conservative corporate studios won't touch.  

In fact, indie gaming has led to a full-fledged revival of 2D platformers which not long ago had been all but left for dead.  Heavily stylized and simple yet brutally challenging games like Limbo, Braid and Super Meat Boy selling millions of copies across multiple platforms.  Little Nemo could fit nicely in this niche with only a few modest updates to graphics and audio.  Holding a 7.9 average rating on IGN's community reviews (and landing at #68 on their 100 top NES games list) it's clear that current gamers find plenty to like about it.  What isn't clear is who owns the rights to this property.  As this game was licensed on the 1989 film rather then the original comic strip it's doubtful even Capcom has the rights to re-make it anymore.  The good news is that the copyright is so old it should soon be entering public domain.  That leaves open the opportunity for some enterprising programmer to give us another trip through Slumberland.

"Oh, I see you've already helped yourself to our mushrooms.  Look Nemo, I should have mentioned this earlier but..."  

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments!

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1 comment:

  1. When I was a child this game used to fill me with a sense of wonder as well as filling me with a bit of fear. I played it quite often and never made it past the second level because climbing up the tree on the gorilla's back to get that key at the top scared the living #%@ out of me because of all the demonic white spore things falling down trying to kill you and then when I did finally get that key the bee suit always ran out of juice on me and I never made it past that part and would fall to my death every single time. Despite only making it to the second level this game was always one of my favorites and years later when I got my N64 my parents gave away my NES and the games I had for it. Despite that setback I eventually bought a used one off a friend and a used copy of Little Nemo from Funcoland (now GameStop) was the first game I bought for it. Wonderful game!