Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
For a long time, movie tie-in games have been utterly maligned among hardcore gamers – and with the exception of a few standout titles, they’ve been largely correct to feel that way. However, there’s been a subcategory of movie games that I think we’ve overlooked in our haste to condemn a genre. Once in a while, all the way back to the earliest days of console gaming, we see a producer take a film license and go so completely off the rails with it that they (perhaps accidentally) create something remarkable. Our subject today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is one such game.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was created as a joint effort by notorious turd peddler LJN (a subsidiary of Acclaim, utilized to get around Nintendo’s limits on how many titles a company could put out in a year) and future all-star developer Rare. After an initial offering for the basic computer gaming market of the time, LJN released this revamped follow-up in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was, naturally, a cash-in on the 1988 box-office hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – a truly great movie that I know for a fact is Chad’s favorite – but this was far from shovelware.
Players take control of an 8-bit version of private detective Eddie Valiant, who’s constantly followed by the literally cartoonish Roger Rabbit. (If you haven’t seen the movie in order to gain affection for that setup, it’s already too late for you.) Much of the charm in the film came from its atmosphere, recreated here to the best of the NES’s capability, and from the cameos by classic animated characters like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and dozens of others. In this game, we get… absolutely none of that!
No, it would’ve cost far too much to have Bugs or Mickey show up. Instead, the NPCs are generic humans who have nothing interesting to say. But hey, at least you can punch them!
Initially armed with nothing but his bare fist, Eddie must search the surrounding buildings, connected by an overworld representing 1947 Los Angeles (and later Toontown), for items in order to advance the game. This is one of Roger Rabbit’s biggest issues: Like many games from this era, there is virtually no guidance provided to the player. Some of the things you need to do make sense in an “adventure game logic” kind of way; for instance, you need to find a fish bone in order to placate a feral cat that’s guarding a piece of the MacGuffin (Marvin Acme’s will, if you’re curious). But like the cruelest adventure games, it takes the “trial and death” approach to letting you find your way, and you have to do so with limited lives before a Game Over.
And death will come, in its many forms, early and often. Games like this one truly defined “Nintendo Hard”; from its opening moments, you might reach for a wallet outside your office and get beaned on the noggin by a falling flower pot, cracking your skull. You may step outside and quickly get hit by a car. Roger can get picked up by a passing vulture at any moment (and Eddie apparently commits suicide out of despair, which seems a little out of character). Oh, and remember that feral cat? Well, this universe has a serious animal problem; they’re everywhere, and all of them seem to want to kill you for some reason.
The biggest threat – and here’s where the developers were actually able to use something from the film – is the Weasel Gang, whose members pop up most frequently on the overworld map to hunt Roger down at the behest of end boss Judge Doom. If they catch you, you have a few seconds to tell a “hilarious” joke to help you escape (since laughter is their weakness in the movie), quickly selecting a punchline from a handful of Laffy Taffy rejects translated via limited memory. (Example: “WHAT TUBA CAN’T YOU PLAY” “A TUBA TOOTHPASTE”) It’s pretty tense the first few times, if only because the player will likely have no idea what’s going on as they perish – like being beaten to death by a rubber chicken.
As you progress through the game, you meet up with a few other (non-copyrighted) characters from the movie, like Jessica Rabbit, Baby Herman, and that bouncer gorilla (who disappointingly calls you a “smart alec” this time around). The most important, however, is Benny the Cab, who drives you around and gives a bit of protection from the dangers outside. Exploration in the game is actually sort of fun for its time; even though the buildings are pretty much the same and searching through them is incredibly tedious (and time-consuming), finding a special location like the Ink & Paint Club gives a bit of a thrill, and when you finally gain access to Toontown it’s exciting to see something different.
After you gather the pieces of Acme’s will – some of which are in remote caves, guarded by wild animals – you finally get to the big showdown with Judge Doom, right on top of the Dip cannon in a scene that’s fairly recognizable from the movie! He’s an absolute beast to defeat, as most of your items are nearly useless against him and his health can take upwards of ten solid minutes of punching to whittle down. You see, kids, there was a time when video games didn’t take it easy on their players.
And after you finally manage to defeat Doom, dodging his projectiles and working your thumb bloody from charging up your punches, you’re rewarded with a truly memorable ending… screen.
Geez, there’s so much wrong with this game.
All right, all right, I hear you. This is supposed to be a series about classics, so just what the heck am I trying to pull here? Well, first of all, shut up. They can’t all be winners. Secondly, I loved this game as a kid. And it’s not because of my loyalty to the movie, or because I’d play any old game, or because I ate too much Elmer’s Glue. It’s because Rare, for all the final product’s failings, tried so hard.
With Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rare could have created a non-game stinker like E.T. and just gone for the money, but they really did their best to build something interesting, with different areas to explore and fun violence to perpetrate. (I wasn’t kidding about that; in this children’s game, you can punch strangers in the face and allow Roger to be run over by a car with absolutely no penalty. It’s the ’80s, man!) The music and sound design hit that sweet spot of retro memorability and create the kind of atmosphere you can instantly throw yourself back into decades later. Rare borrowed from different genres to create a kind of oddball game that hasn’t been seen before or since. Hell, they even went so far as to hide a special hotline number in the game – supposedly Jessica Rabbit’s number – that players could call in real life to receive tips on how to play. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the oft-repeated story that this number later belonged to a phone sex company, which adds an interesting dimension to the game.)
Is it good? Well, no, it’s not good, even if I thought so as a kid. Still, there’s a lot of creativity here despite its deeply flawed execution, in a place where you probably wouldn’t expect to see that. The whole game can be completed in just over an hour if you know what you’re doing – a playthrough video is available here, and on the whole it’s probably more satisfying than playing the game yourself. If you want to grab yourself a copy for the NES, it’s one of the cheaper games out there – while uncommon, it should only run you about five bucks, because most people don’t really want it.
Roger Rabbit did get one more video game adaptation, in the form of an extremely low-res 1991 Game Boy title created by Capcom. I played through it back in the day and remember enjoying it (and that it had a similar style to the NES game and maybe even improved on it a bit), but I’m honestly afraid to go looking for much more information since it might spoil that experience! I went looking for sales data on the NES version of the game, but came up empty; apparently, nobody cares enough to keep track anymore. Based on the fact that there was one more attempt to make money on the franchise, we can assume it did reasonably well. Since the Game Boy version was the last attempt at any kind of Roger Rabbit media, I can’t help but feel that we’re primed for an updated reboot. Given how far game design has come since 1989, I’d love to see a modern company get a crack at this property – but I imagine the IP stonewall wouldn’t change much from where it was back then.
So in the end, Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the NES is a classic to me – albeit one that should absolutely remain in the past. As one particularly scathing (and totally fair) review puts it: “The game is bad, and it’s just programmed that way.” But you know what? It once made me happy, the way not enough games do anymore. Roger Rabbit and I, we’ll always have our memories.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!