Thursday 26 July 2012

Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad

...on Blog Squirrel.

Can't get this on Nintendo!.. or Sega... officially. Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad, once set to hit your Sega Mega Drives in early 1994, before being cancelled by the man, plunging the world into fifteen years of misery and turmoil.

Thankfully we have been liberated from the darkness and oppression, as we now have both prototype source code and working ROMs of this game to play with. No doubt a good day for the world.

If anybody wanted to take a crash course in 2D game design and marketing, Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad would be an excellent tutor. It's history is one of amazement and wonder, and also one of abject stupidity and poor management decisions. I love it.

Once upon a time the now deceased Ocean Software decided to enter the ongoing early-90s mascot wars with anthropomorphic red squirrel called Mr. Nutz. This is apparently what the people wanted, so much so that two video games were commissioned in his honour... at the same time.

Like your trusty D-Pad and buttons? You get "Mr. Nutz", released for the Sega Mega Drive and SNES (and bizarrely three types of Game Boy). Mr. Nutz is a lovable but fairly average platformer aimed at the kids. It's decent, but nothing to write home about, and lives on primarily through nostalgic value alone. Worth checking out, but not as an immediate priority.

Favour your outdated computers and one-button joysticks? You get "Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad", engineered by Neon Software for the Commodore Amiga. Hoppin' Mad is one of many attempts to keep the Amiga competitive in a world of games consoles, taking ideas from the two big console hitters, Super Mario World and the original Sonic the Hedgehog. And the plan must have worked, because management took an interest.

Presumably due to architectural similarities, Mr. Nutz Hoppin' Mad was subsequently brought to the Sega Mega Drive and commissioned for release in 1994 alongside the Amiga version. That''s all well and good... until you realise that you're publishing two games for the same platform in the same period starring the same character. With an largely untested concept you risk marketing and financial suicide, and so the Mega Drive version of Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad was scrapped in a bid to keep the release schedule sane.

Sega fans instead had to make do with bog-standard Ocean-led Mr. Nutz like Nintendo groupies, and the greatness of Neon Software's version was made exclusive to the dying Amiga platform, despite its Mega Drive counterpart being reportedly completed and sent to the press for review. Sure, the Amiga version is probably superior to the Mega Drive port, but it's still a case of Ocean Software favouring the lesser release.

It's a tragedy, but then again how many more Sonic inspired games did the 1990s really need? Truth is, even though Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad (whose Mega Drive release became known as "Mr. Nutz 2" in an earlier attempt to reduce confusion) is considered to be the more interesting game than "Nutz 1", it brought nothing to the table that was remotely new, adding to the factors holding it back. The only issue I have is that Mr. Nutz 1 isn't particularly "unique" either, even if the press would have you think otherwise (65% (Nutz 2) vs 85% (Nutz 1)- that's hoppin' mad), so that doesn't explain the axing.

I have my hands on a prototype ROM here - a game that isn't even finalised, yet seems to be perfectly adequate release. I can't help but question why is was culled - Neon Software's efforts far exceed Ocean's on many important fronts. A bright and colourful release, Mr. Nutz 2 has you jump on the heads of evil chickens for a living. It has a better premise, more accessible gameplay and makes good use of the hardware on offer.

Mr. Nutz Hoppin' Mad is essentially a Sonic-inspired platformer interspersed with Super Mario World-esque overhead bits. But whereas in Mario World the map merely let you chose which levels you want to go to, in Mr. Nutz 2 these segments are used for collecting powerups hidden in chests, talking to things and opening passageways in a bid to extend your gameplay experience. It's a bit overkill - levels don't seem to have the benefit of multiple exists like Mario World, so as pretty as the map is, I can't say it's all that useful. It's just there.

The sidescrolling stages, which are meant to act as the meat of the product, begin as embarrassingly short diversions before evolving into something more worthwhile. They begin by demonstrating the many problems with adopting a faster game engine without changing the screen resolution - Mr. Nutz can run and jump his way into swams of enemies, unprotected, for cheap deaths. To compensate, you're armed with a health bar (and the ability to regain dropped health, à la Sonic), and the game puts a greater emphasis on flying over chunks of the level - walking is for losers.

New moves come over time, the most notable being the ability to control your flight in a similar manner to Super Mario World's feather cape powerup. Like Mario, flight is difficult to get the hang of, but remember, Nutz 1 relies solely on basic platforming alone - taking to the skies is a bonus. Mr. Nutz 2 also benefits from the talents of Amiga-born programmers - lovely graphics, a great soundtrack and a meticulous attention to detail. It's a well polished game, which is great for something that's not meant to be polished at all.

There are a few graphical concerns. Items and enemies have a habit of blending in with the scenery (a common sight across many Amiga-born titles), and some sections arguably look worse than its rival Nutz outing (though the reverse also applies). Also, due to its unfinished nature, some of the more complex backgrounds like to break in the later stages, but it's not something to lose sleep over, and if you're playing the Amiga version, it's not an issue at all.

Nutz 2 is far less intuitive than Nutz 1. You don't require multiple buttons to play, but it's easy to get confused on the map screen and some features could do with more explanation. Nutz 2 is clearly the better game for a multitude of reasons, but long-term fans of the genre will note it doesn't beat Sonic or Mario, instead simply mimicking their ideas. I'll go out on a limb and say it surpasses several other Sonic-inspired platformers though - the Sonic-injected James Pond 3 is a good example.

Nutz 2 has a very different tone to Nutz 1. Compare the music of Nutz 1's first stage to Nutz 2's for example - Neon Software were clearly aiming for a different audience than Ocean, borrowing the marketing direction of Sonic and being able to appeal to generations both old and new. Conversely, Nutz 1 just seems to target younger players - a linear, simplistic experience that doesn't attempt to push any boundaries.

Mr. Nutz: Hoppin' Mad is a perfectly fine addition to your Mega Drive game library (or in this case, Mega Drive ROM folder). A great shame that it wasn't released, though an even greater shame that everyone was clueless in 1994 and felt the need to commission two of these things. Of course, we'd have a similar situation at the turn of the century with Rare(ware) and Conker - squirrels have a tough time in the video game industry I guess.

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