LJN was a company who published video games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Aside from introducing the concept of surfing gorillas to the industry, the company was mostly known for slapping together hastily-produced games that tied in with movie properties. Due to the popularity of their licenses, every child of the NES era probably owned an LJN game at some point; many probably even begged their parents for one as if the game was goddamn Super Mario Bros. 4. Because of the high-profile and low-quality nature of their products, LJN has become a very popular target for gaming-themed internet humorists like Seanbaby and the Angry Video Game Nerd. The company has pretty much become the go-to reference point for crappy old-school gaming. But I am here to make a confession: I loved these games.
Please don’t misunderstand me – I am not trying to claim that these games were actually good. Many of them were messes, and the test of time has rendered them even worse. But for little me, getting to play as Marty McFly or Eddie Valiant meant I could forgive a hell of a lot. And yeah these games were no Legend of Zelda, but to tell you the truth, they weren’t nearly as bad as their reputation would lead one to believe. Join me on a trip down memory lane as I examine all the LJN-games-based-on-movies that I owned as a kid, and tell you what I liked about them. Will there be screenshots to look at? No. Instead, as a special bonus, I am including reproductions of screenshots that I painstakingly rendered in Microsoft Paint! Why did I do that? Because I was bored at work. I will also provide links to browser-playable versions of these games courtesy of the awesome NESbox.
The majority of Back to the Future‘s action was sort of like a poor man’s version of Paperboy… walk up a vertically scrolling street, collecting doo-dads and avoiding unusually hostile suburbanites. This was surprisingly challenging, due to the brisk pace at which Marty McFly walked, and became even tougher when he found his trademark skateboard. Just like in the movie! Another element cleverly inspired by the source material was the game’s timer – a photograph of Marty and his brothers appeared at the bottom of the screen, slowly fading away. As in the movie, when Marty disappeared from the photo, your life was over. Cute!
In between the street-strollin’ portions of the game, Marty stopped by most of the film’s key locations to play goofy-ass minigames. Catch music notes at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance! Fend off kisses from your mother at Hill Valley High! Play a crappy version of Root Beer Tapper at the diner! I remember being mystified by these minigames as a kid – none of them were very fun, but their inclusion seemed to add value to the package – it was like 6 games in one! In this sense, LJN was way ahead of their time in terms of shovelware.
By the way, do you see those two blue-shirted guys up there? Don’t try to walk in between them – they are carrying invisible glass!!
Play Back to the Future here.
FRIDAY THE 13TH
Friday the 13th will always hold a special place in my heart as the game I ripped the fuck out of the NES one minute after I received Super Mario Bros. 3 for my birthday.
No one will ever choose to play this game over Mario 3, but it was a pretty unique and interesting experience in its own weird way. In an age before Resident Evil and Silent Hill, this was pretty much the only way console gamers could scratch their horror itch, and it was fairly effective in terms of “scariness.” The player took the role of one of the Camp Crystal Lake counselors and wandered around the campsite in an attempt to rescue your children from Jason Vorhees. Aside from the side-scrolling portions, where you walked around stabbing snakes and bats, you could also enter cabins, inside of which the game’s viewpoint switched to a Shadowgatey first-person perspective.
During these portions, the tension went through the roof, because you never knew when you could suddenly find yourself co-occupying a room with Jason himself. When Jason popped up, you were never prepared, and you certainly were never in any shape to actually fight him. If you saw that hockey mask and that stupid blue jogging suit, you were fucking dead; it was as simple as that. This gave the entire experience an air of creeping dread and heart-pounding nervousness that, for a little kid playing an NES game, was the closest thing to fear that was possible. The activities built around that fear were fairly boring and shitty, but the fear itself was relatively effective, so for that, LJN, I thank you.
Play Friday the 13th here.
This game was haaaaaaaaaaaaard. I never made it past the first couple of levels, but I played those levels a hell of a lot. Once I got to the stage where the wind would blow me into a pit every time I tried to jump, I would usually throw down the controller in disgust and switch the game to DuckTales.
But the levels before that were fairly fun, albeit in a teeth-grindingly frustrating way. More enticing to me were the little hidden areas, where you faced challenges like catching flies with chopsticks, or kicking apart blocks of ice. Hey, minigames again! Were LJN the first company to utilize the concept of padding shitty titles with minigames? One need look no further than the Wii’s third-party lineup to witness the degree to which this has become the standard, but back then it seemed clever and exciting, to me at least. LJN = pioneers!
Play The Karate Kid here.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
It wasn’t scary like Jason’s game, and it probably had even less in common with its source material than anything else on this list, but A Nightmare on Elm Street was still pretty fun for a piece of shit.
In a concept loosely based on Dream Warriors, this game tasks you with seeking out and collecting all the pieces of Freddy’s skeleton, presumably so his body can be buried in consecrated ground (I say “presumably” because, like most of these games, I never actually beat this one). Your quest for Krueger’s thousands of collectible bones translates into a fairly run-of-the-mill platformer, but one with a gimmick that sets it apart from most games that aren’t Castlevania II: Your character has a sleep meter (which cleverly can be replenished with little coffee cup icons), and when it runs out, you slip into a patented Freddy Krueger nightmare. Bats change to ghosts! Snakes turn to horrible Freddy-faced spiders! Rotting platforms turn into rottinger platforms! Yeah, it’s a total rip-off of Simon’s Quest, but it works well with the theme here, and I think it’s cool that your character becomes even more powerful when you enter the dream realm – just like the Dream Warriors themselves!
It’s worth noting that A Nightmare on Elm Street had a feature which let four players join in with the NES Four Score, but since I had neither a Four Score nor three friends willing to play this piece of crap with me, I never experienced this.
Play A Nightmare on Elm Street here.
Fuck everyone, this game actually ruled. It has one of the worst reputations of any NES game, but I can say without any caveats that I truly loved it, and still do.
Jaws was split into two main sections. In the first, you controlled a little boat that sailed around an awesome map. I am so bizarrely fascinated by navigable map-like areas in video games – I have sat and stared at Zelda II overworld maps for hours. The Jaws map is pretty small, and you’ll basically just end up going back and forth between two points on it over and over again, but what it lacks in expansiveness, it makes up for in pure charm.
As you’re piloting your boat around, you will eventually have a random encounter with some form of aggressive sea life, and that’s when you switch to what is the crux of the game. Donning an adorable little scuba suit, you dive into the deep and fend off waves of evil jellyfish and manta rays, with ambitions to collect enough power-up seashells to eventually be able to take on Jaws himself. It is very much in the vein of old-school arcade games, and I could sit there and do it for hours. Is it repetitive? It is repetitive as fuck – but guess what, gamers? So is your precious, precious Galaga. In fact, check this out: Jaws for the NES is a better game than Galaga. There, I said it. Eat shit.
My personal love for Jaws aside, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is probably the best game on this list, objectively. A quick google search reveals that although it was published by LJN, the game was actually developed by Rare, so that explains it I guess.
The game is very ambitious and gets a lot right. A mixture of side-scrolling platforming, overhead exploration, point-and-click adventuring, GTA1-esque driving sequences, riddle-solving, and beat-em-up action are all seamed together fairly cohesively. While the final product isn’t mind-blowing, it still offers a degree of depth and variety that wasn’t often found in 8-bit licensed games. And about halfway through the game the tunnel to Toontown becomes available, and the gameworld is essentially doubled, which was such a wonderful surprise for me at the time. Also, you can go up to random strangers on the street and mercilessly punch them in the face until they give up information. Needless to say, that’s what I spent most of my time doing.
Play Who Framed Roger Rabbit here.
Those are all the LJN games I owned. They released a lot of other licensed titles (X-Men, Beetlejuice, Bill & Ted, etc), but none that I played extensively.
LJN has a reputation for having spewed out cynical, half-assed unit-shifters, and while there’s certainly a lot of truth to that, I really do think that they get a bad rap. To me, it’s clear that there are a lot of ambitious and creatively sound ideas hinted at in these games, and I’m guessing their ultimate shittiness owes more to deadlines and budget restraints than it does to lack of imagination on the parts of the designers. I bet LJN has provided a lot more fun to a lot of people than they are willing to admit. Especially nowadays with the endless amounts of unplayable, soulless garbage that’s released onto the Wii and DS every day, it’s nice to remember a time when “shitty games” could still put smiles on our faces and give us a nice way to waste an afternoon or two.