GAME BOY ESSENTIALS

The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle

Japanese release in September 1989

North American release in March 1990

Published by Kemco Seika

Developed by Kemco

He’s literally jumping over his enemies on the cover of a game where the main conceit is you can’t jump!

Crazy Stupid Love

I hate Kemco’s Crazy Castle series. It’s not fun or interesting. It also has one of the most complicated release history around. But we must talk about the first game released on Game Boy. Why? Because it’s the first Game Boy title to do two things:

  1. It is the first action title to feature large sprites.
  2. It is kind-of the first multi-platform release, being made available on NES and Game Boy.

It struck a chord with the public and sold more than a million copies. Being an early release certainly helped; it had little competition and featured a very well-known licensed character. A whole bunch of future titles would do the exact same thing, but The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle was the first. It thus carries many of the characteristics of later Game Boy titles. For that, and certainly not for its brain-dead gameplay, it’s essential.

It was eventually rereleased as a Player’s Choice title in 1996 (that’s the only way I know it sold more than a million copies) at the nadir of the Game Boy’s life, giving the game a second life.

The Meandering Story of Its Rotating Cast of Franchises

Kemco gets the right to make a Roger Rabbit game for the Famicom Disk System. So far, so good. They create the game and release it in February of 1989, six months after the game is released in the US but just two months after the release in Japanese theatres in December of 1988. Its release right after the film screams short development time to me.

Now comes the time to get your throwaway game to North America. But in North America, we have an even worse game based on Who Framed Roger Rabbit released to coincide with its VHS release, a really big event back in the fall of 1989. It’s not the same game as the Japanese one: it was published by LJN and developed by Rare of all people! The Japanese Roger Rabbit did come out here, but as The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. They just ported the game to cartridge and changed the sprites for Looney Tunes characters. How did we end up in this situation?

It’s not necessarily a simple answer of LJN having snatched the rights in North America before Kemco could localize their version. It’s very possible that Kemco being a Japanese company, they concentrated on getting the game out in Japan without ever really thinking about a worldwide release. It might be possible that Kemco did not have the foresight to coincide with a VHS release and did not try to get those rights, the movie being out of theatres. It might be possible that the movie being a big hit, the price for the rights went up and shut out Kemco. It might be possible that the game being out, the American rights holder saw the Japanese version and thought it was inappropriate. I don’t know. The rights to Roger Rabbit himself are convoluted, to say the least; Spielberg has to this day a veto on anything Roger Rabbit related (the movie version of the character: Roger Rabbit was created for a novel), we can only presume at the complicated discussions that left us with the situation we’re in with the Crazy Castle games.

Kemco seemed to have had the avant-garde idea of releasing a version of their Famicom/NES game for the portable Game Boy. Nobody had done exactly that before. Tennis & Baseball by Nintendo were adaptations of old Famicom sports titles. Hyper Lode Runner, which came out in Japan a couple of weeks after Kemco’s game was a new version of an old PC title. But a contemporary licensed game, that was still new ground. So we have the Japanese release in the fall of 1989 of Mickey Mouse for Game Boy. Wait a minute? Wasn’t this article about The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle? Where does Mickey Mouse come into play? Kemco did not have the same licence in different regions, so they just changed the licensed characters in their games. See this handy chart:

The Craziness of the Crazy Castle Series
Japanese Release North American Release European Release Comments
Roger Rabbit The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle Not released FDS and NES
Mickey Mouse The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle Game Boy: really a sequel, not a port
Mickey Mouse II The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle 2 Hugo or Mickey Mouse depending on the country Game Boy; who the hell is Hugo?
Mickey Mouse III: Balloon Dreams Kid Klown in Night Mayor World Not released A pretty standard NES platformer, really only in the series because of its Japanese numbering
Mickey Mouse IV: The Magical Labyrinth The Real Ghostbusters Garfield Labyrinth Oh boy, where to start?
Mickey Mouse V: The Magical Stick Mickey Mouse: Magic Wands! Not released Game Boy, sold a million copies in North America and got rereleased in 1998
Let’s Go!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid Not released Not released They clearly lost the Mickey Mouse licence there
Bugs Bunny: Crazy Castle 3 A Game Boy Color enhanced version of Go! Go! Kid; it renumbered the series in Japan
Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 4 Game Boy Color only
Woody Woodpecker in Crazy Castle 5 GBA game, seems they lost the Bugs Bunny licence too

So we have a game series that started out as a somewhat hard FDS Roger Rabbit cash-in that became an easier series of Game Boy Mickey Mouse games in Japan re-skinned as The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle in North America. It’s all fitting, considering Bugs and Mickey both appeared in Roger Rabbit.  

       
You’d think Kemco would re-skin the Crazy Castle games with Bob Hoskins in Australia or something.

Lode of Crap

The Apple ][ version

Roger Rabbit, and thus the whole Crazy Castle series, is basically a ripoff of Lode Runner. A Douglas E. Smith game, Lode Runner was released on microcomputers in 1983, published by Brøderbund. You’re a stick figure, running around in a side view labyrinth of platforms and ladders, with the objective of gathering all the gold strewn around the level to move on. But beware the enemy stick figures that walk around! You have no way of defeating them; your only tool against them are holes you can dig to stop them for a very short time. This allows you to walk over their head and continue along your path. It’s a platformer of its time, made well before Super Mario Bros. changed everything: you have to get really intimate with its AI mechanics to achieve any kind of success. Play it today and you’ll be wishing for a jump button after one level. What is interesting for us is the Hudson Soft port for Famicom released in 1984. It featured different, larger levels with scrolling since the Famicom could smoothly scroll while microcomputers couldn’t. It introduced no new concepts to the game, however, still featuring a character moving across a side view labyrinth in search of gold, digging holes to temporarily stop his enemies. The Family Computer (the Japanese version of the NES) had a dearth of releases for its first two years on the market but was very successful as a console. Nintendo was kind of caught with their pants down. So a game like Lode Runner, which in all honesty is not that fun, sold millions of copies in Japan and became a beloved classic even though its kind-of terrible. The best comparison I have is to the first NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and its revered status here in North America. It’s bad, we all know it’s bad, but we played it too much not to love it. Sometimes love is illogical.

So Roger Rabbit on FDS is an extension of the concept of Lode Runner. You run around for hearts in each level instead of gold, it replaces ladders and tightropes with staircases and pipes, and instead of digging holes to defeat your enemies you push heavy objects on them or throw one-time use punching gloves. It’s the same as in the cartoons! Once hit, enemies disappear for good in a puff of smoke, making Crazy Castle much more manageable than Lode Runner’s pacifist brand of gameplay. Even with those changes, Roger Rabbit is not an easy game. It’s easier but it’s still mean; it does not sugarcoat its mechanics. Japanese audiences would have been accustomed to it though; they had years of Lode Runner derivatives under their collective belt in 1989. In North America we had most of those games but they were never popular. So The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle on NES made one big concession for us: the enemies are slower.

We now get to our game of interest: the Game Boy version of The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. You might be tempted to think it’s a straight port with the same levels, but it’s not. It has the same mechanics (staircases, punching gloves and 100 ton weights) but new levels. The graphics are also redrawn and are honestly much better looking than on NES. Remember that we have two versions of the game: the Japanese Mickey Mouse and the North American version. I’ve looked carefully and I do not see any difference between the Japanese Mickey Mouse and the North American Bugs Bunny (except for the whole Mickey Mouse thing, obviously). So both games are much easier in enemy placement, much simpler in level design than the previous FDS/NES games and that was considered sufficient to please both audiences. So we have a simple palette swap, which will become this forsaken series’ best remembered characteristic: palette swaps as far as the eye can see!

First With Big Sprites

Here’s Roger, and Bugs, and Mickey, and Bugs again. Note that they all have very similar pixel height.

The Game Boy features a 160 by 144 pixels screen. Even by 1989 standards, this was low. Console games used CRT TVs, which featured an interlaced 480 or 576 vertical lines signal. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty complexities of interlaced signals, but I need to mention that a console like the NES pushed a 256 by 240 pixels image (most TVs did not display the top or bottom 8 rows of pixels, which means you have visible 224 rows) and did not interlace another image. Consoles simply used the regular non-interlaced resolution of a TV. Even with this, consoles had a much higher resolution than the Game Boy. This is not even talking of PC gaming, which had started using the VGA graphics standard and its roomy 640 by 480 pixels non-interlaced resolution.

When bringing the concept of Roger Rabbit to the Game Boy, Kemco chose not to resize the characters, keeping them at the same pixel count. Everybody occupied the same space as on NES. So here, with this underrated puzzle-action game, we have one of the most important decisions ever taken regarding Game Boy: characters should not get smaller, you just won’t see as much of the level around them. I’ve talked about this already in my Mega Man I article but here we have the very first example of it. In a game based on environmental hazards like Mega Man, it’s a tough nut to crack. With a simple concept like Crazy Castle, where you’re on one vertical plane and you’re unable to jump, facing usually one enemy at a time, it made a lot of sense to keep Mickey and Bugs with the same level of detail as on a TV. The only thing you needed to be careful with was level design; make sure your levels are a bit smaller so you can see most of them and you’re good. This simple decision will immediately become the standard for all future platformers on Game Boy. Even when they shouldn’t have.

Easier on Game Boy? Not With Those Controls

The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle is not giving you a life bar or a second chance with anything; you need to gather all eight carrots in each level in one attempt. If you die by touching any of the enemies on the map, you need to start that level from scratch. So it’s one of those games that has lives where it makes no sense having them. There are passwords so you can always continue, but you can never reuse your progress within a level. So why does it have lives? Because games back then had lives, that’s why.

One interesting feature that is surprisingly modern is what the game calls video. It’s a way to show you a video of your last played level. I know how they did it; the game has zero randomness so just keeping your input can replay exactly what you did but it’s still impressive.

Since the game is unforgiving, it should have generous controls to help you; instead they’re as unforgiving as the game. The second you go up a staircase you can’t cancel it. You actually move forward instead of staying still if you press up or down when not in front of stairs. This means that you could be trying to evade an enemy by going up steps but since you’re not in the exact spot to go up you instead rush headlong into that enemy.

The game has unforgiving mechanics and controls but it does not mean it’s hard. I skipped around using passwords and I thought it was suddenly going to be too hard to beat but levels stay surprisingly manageable. I even beat the last one, level 80, after five or six tries.

Conclusion

Making a dumbed-down, easy version of a harsh 1983 game concept worked. The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle on Game Boy in 1990 ended up in the same position as Lode Runner on Famicom in 1984. It was not particularly good but what else are you going to buy? It sold at least a million copies. It’s as if Kemco planned it that way. I bet they knew that it was better for them to release a simpler game early than a more complicated game later. They hit the ground running when everybody else was just getting started. Their next Game Boy release, Sword of Hope, would release in December of 1989 two months later and indeed be a more complicated RPG/Adventure game hybrid.

Play The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle; you’ll be able to see what a lot of people were playing early on in the Game Boy’s life. They had very few other choices until 1991. To them, and to us by extension, it’s essential.


Further Reading

Super Mario Land

Nintendo R&D1

Donkey Kong Land

Rare