Licensed properties can be a tricky beast. If you pay for licensing rights to a property, chances are, you’re not going to have exclusive rights to that property, or your rights won’t cross all borders. Your licensing rights will expire at some point, and you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of paying to continue those rights, or let them lapse. Sometimes, the window of opportunity for a licensed property is relatively small, and you are forced to come up with a product based upon that property, in a rather short time frame. Sometimes, the results can be less than stellar. Such is the case with Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.
Let me clarify – I’m not saying Kemco-Seika had a limited amount of time to develop the game because their rights to the Bugs Bunny license were under the gun. No, I’m saying, due to the resurgence of the popularity of the Looney Tunes franchise during the mid-late 80’s, there wasn’t a lot of time to waste in maximizing that potential before the ‘tude explosion of the 90’s came about. Not that Kemco could have seen that coming, but a sense of urgency should be a factor in developing a game with any licensed property, because you really never know whether something is going to be popular next year or not. The prevailing thought is, strike while the iron is hot. In Kemco’s favor, they did. On the downside, they should have taken more time with this game’s development.
By now, most people who are more than casually familiar with retro gaming should be familiar with the Angry Video Game Nerd, and his feud with Bugs Bunny. Many have seen the video where he incredulously plays 5 games in the Crazy Castle series, to some disgust and frustration, followed by several sequences of the Nerd, and Bugs Bunny, duking it out in the most awkwardly hilarious choreographed fight sequence this side of 90’s late night TV. What some might not know, however, is that the Crazy Castle games are an interesting case of licensed property usage, and how that translates across different regions. The original Famicom game was called Roger Rabbit, and starred the titular character from the movie. However, Capcom had the rights to all the Disney franchises in North America, so it came to the US as Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. When the game was ported to the Game Boy, Kemco of Japan had already lost the licensing rights to Roger, but they still had Disney rights in Japan, so the game came to the Game Boy as Mickey Mouse. However, in the US, Kemco still had the rights to the character, so the North American Game Boy release was also titled Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. Funny how that stuff works, right? In any event, the Game Boy game was pretty much a straight port of the NES game, with a graphical downgrade, but retaining the same level design and music.
Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle is a puzzle platformer. You walk up and down staircases, crawl through pipes, and go up and down stairs through various doors, to reach multiple levels within each stage so you can collect carrots. Along the way, you have to avoid one of several “enemies” within the game: Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and for some reason, multiple Sylvester the Cat instances. One touch, and it’s curtains for Rocky, erm, I mean Bugs. You do have a limited ability to attack, either by picking up a single-use boxing glove you can throw at a foe, or by pushing one of several stationary objects into an enemy. These include wooden boxes, buckets, a 10-ton weight, and of course, ACME safes. Each object has different weights, meaning when you kick them, they’ll move different distances, based on their weight. In other words, kicking the bucket makes it go very far, the wooden box less far, and the 10-ton weight the shortest distance. Some levels also have a bottle of “invisible ink”, but instead of just making you invisible, it also makes you invincible for a short time, so any enemy you touch in the limited time it’s active, will instantly die and go “poof!” Once you obtain all the carrots within a level, you receive a 1-up and advance to the next level. After each level, you’re given a 4-character password so you can continue where you left off. That password is strictly to reach that stage, however – it will not record your score, or the number of lives you have.
In terms of the game’s visual aesthetics, they’re okay. Bugs, as well as his foils, all look recognizable, and they animate decently as well. The death animation for Bugs is amusing, and seeing each of his nemeses fall on their back as they’re defeated is satisfying. The game does mix up locations a bit, sometimes incorporating stairs, sometimes incorporating pipes, an occasionally both, but the design is quite minimal, which is reminiscent of Super Mario Land, and other early platformers on the Game Boy. The backgrounds are totally devoid of any level of detail, so the focus is on the platforms, pipes, objects, and enemies on display. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. Everything is rendered well enough so as to be recognizable. Unfortunately, there’s a fair bit of sprite flicker going on. Sometimes Bugs will flicker, sometimes the enemies, and sometimes the objects you can kick, or the carrots will flash. What’s really odd is that, if you’re standing in just the right spot, those objects will flicker perpetually until you move again.
In the audio department, the game takes a pretty minimalist approach. There are a small handful of music tracks in the game, that rotate between levels. I do like that they didn’t stick with a single track for a large batch of levels (Nail ‘n Scale, I’m looking at you), but it would have been nice to have a few more tracks to help break up the monotony a bit. Still, the music itself is bouncy and fun, and is fitting for the game. Speaking of monotony, the sound effects available here are pretty sparse as well. There’s no sound when Bugs goes through a pipe, and only basic sounds when you use the boxing glove, knock an object on the floor, pick up a carrot, or kick something into an enemy. Whomever at Kemco did the sound design for this game, kind of phoned it in.
As for the gameplay, this is where things start to get dicey. Controlling Bugs takes some getting used to. The chief complaint leveled against this game is that you’re controlling Bugs Bunny, but you can’t jump. For those who bought the game new in 1990, and didn’t know it was a port of a Mickey Mouse game (which meant 99% of buyers), the prevailing though would have been that a game starring a rabbit who couldn’t jump was just broken. Once you get past that notion, other problems begin to emerge. The enemy AI is highly unpredictable at times, so sometimes you’ll get through a level with very little danger, and other times, you’ll be bombarded from all sides, and may seem to beat a level purely through dumb luck. Some things are consistent, such as Sylvester being the only enemy that will go through pipes, Daffy Duck using stairs, and both Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote being stuck to the level/layer they’re on, but otherwise, the enemy patterns aren’t very obvious. You can find yourself cornered very quickly, with no recourse except to die and start the level over.
In the larger levels, with long staircases or pipes that span a greater distance than the size of the screen, taking those paths becomes a crap-shoot each time. It makes perfect sense that once you enter a pipe, you continue through it until you reach the other side, but not so much with stairs. Once you get started up or down a flight of stairs, you’re committed to that action, and if you run into an enemy, tough luck. You have to watch the enemies closely, and time your pipe and stair traversal specifically, hoping beyond hope that the enemy doesn’t suddenly turn around and greet you at your destination for instant death. The other frustration with the controls is, when you have a flight of stairs going down, and another flight going up, both within a few pixels of one another, the only way to ensure you’re going up is to stop pressing the direction on the D-pad you want to go (i.e. left or right), and start holding Up on the D-pad to guarantee you’ll go up the stairs. The Castlevania games work the same way, but it’s implemented a bit more cleanly there. Here, it feels clumsy and half-baked, when coupled with the flaw that you can’t stop on the stairs and turn around. Had they tightened that up, it would have made the game less frustrating.
Not that the frustration means much, aside from the obvious fact that, when playing through this game, Bugs Bunny is going to die. In fact, Bugs is going to die A LOT. If you’re playing strictly to play through and win each level, it’s not a lengthy experience. Sure, there are 80 levels to play, but with a password for each level, combined with unlimited continues, you can keep hammering away at a level until you figure it out, or are lucky enough with the enemy AI that you can sneak past them to get that last, hard to reach carrot. The real problem is, since design elements in this game hearken back to design concepts from classic, single-screen puzzle platform arcade games, playing for score is next to impossible because the enemy patterns are hard to pin down. Some levels I blew through in a single try, but a few of the levels took me 10 or more tries, and a fair number of those were levels with a lot of opportunities for cheap deaths. Combine cheap deaths, less than stellar control, and other issues, and you have a game that isn’t doing itself any favors in the fun department.
Despite all of its flaws, Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle can be a fun game, as long as you take its flaws into account, and understand that playing strictly for score is a losing proposition. I had fun throughout the 5-6 total hours of gameplay I had to dedicate to completing the game, and if you’re a fan of puzzle platformers, or old school single-screen arcade games, you might get a kick out of this as well. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re trying to find the “cream of the crop” of Game Boy titles, but it’s good for a few laughs. I picked my loose cart up for $4.95, which, for the limited amount of gameplay available, might be slightly on the high side. Still, you can spend $4 or more on much worse titles in the Game Boy library. Ultimately, I would say if you have a friend or relative with a copy of this, try before you buy.
Originally posted on the official Game Boy Guru blog: