Tuesday 15 June 2010

McDonald Land

Where a pound is still a pound.

In the early 1990s, the fast food chain McDonalds felt the overwhelming need to produce video games. This was their first, cleverly titled "McDonald Land". In the US, it's known by the name of M.C. Kids and only saw success on the NES, but elsewhere it was released for far more powerful computers that people don't seem to remember.

McDonald Land was released in 1992 by Virgin Interactive... who thought it might be fun to extend the blatant advertising by throwing in one of their Virgin-branded planes in the introduction sequence. The developers question the reason this game didn't sell as well as other Virgin games such as Aladdin, but the reason is fairly clear - this is an obvious money making cash in that steals ideas, whereas games such as Aladdin revolutionised the way video game graphics were drawn. That's not to say it isn't a bad game, but it never deserved to be a best-seller so there's nothing to complain about!

Each version McDonald Land is an ever-so-slightly different game to the next (and the Game Boy port featured Cool Spot apparently... so that's a lot different). They're all inspired by Super Mario Bros. 3 (though there's a bit of Sonic the Hedgehog in there), but each copy of the game uses a different (but similar) set of graphics. As well as being released for the NES, the game also saw a release on Amiga, Atari ST, DOS and Commodore 64 computers. I've chosen the anomaly that is the Amiga version today, which might seem a bit strange if you're used to another copy. The Atari ST port is okay, the C64 port is decent, the DOS port decided to use the ancient QAOP movement setup despite being released in 1992 (and has terrible music) and the NES port is a bit watered down but still very playable.

I chose the Amiga version on the basis that it's got the best sound and the biggest resolution, but I'd be lying if I said its heavy use of gradients worked to the game's advantage. It does have the benefit of parallax scrolling, even if Ronald McDonalds's (or his friends') ugly head appears in the bottom right throughout. Each game has the same levels and common goals, so it doesn't make a huge difference which one you go for, but I would have assumed the Amiga copy was the best of the bunch.

Anyway back to the game itself. In McDonald Land we see rising stars Mick and Mack doing various tasks for members of Ronald McDonald's posse. It's a platformer, though not as much like Super Mario Bros. 3 as the gaming sites advertise. The kids can run and jump and throw blocks at wildlife, but unlike Super Mario Bros. you can't jump on enemies. Things are slightly more loose than in Nintendo's games too, so precise jumping is difficult until you get used to the physics.

The levels are fairly short, but you're expected to explore a bit more for various items rather than just rushing to the end. Most of the time you're looking for "cards", a.k.a. red blocks with the letter "M" on them, and x number of cards will open up a new set of stages. My personal favourite objects in the game are the "Golden arches" collectibles which can lead to extra lives - anyone else would say that they're rotating McDonalds logos, but McDonald Land took steps to hide the obvious branding here for some reason, even though they made no attempt to do this elsewhere.

One interesting feature is the "spinner blocks" (insert better name here), which will reverse the gravity. It's a nice addition, and though it makes no sense whatsoever, is one of the only truely original ideas the game has, and may be one of the first games to go in this direction.

The graphics are generally quite nice... though as I've touched upon already I'm not a fan of the heavy use of gradient backgrounds which the Amiga version of the game puts in place. The characters themselves are stereotypical 90s American teens meaning they're instantly dislikable, but other than that it's a nice little world McDonald Land has going for it (and is very similar to those being pumped out by the internet flash community).

The music is alright as well, assuming you're playing the right version. It's recycled quite a bit (though not as much as SMB3) and it isn't very memorable, but it's certainly passable (on the Amiga, anyway). There's room for improvement in the sound department but it's much better than what you might expect from a McDonalds themed game... though to be honest I wasn't sure what to expect apart from the endless plugging of the McDonalds brand.

Despite being aimed at kids, McDonald Land is far from being a pushover. It requires some skill to complete, and even though it would have been advertised excessively in the restaurants via Happy Meals, it's not really a game that the average child would be able to master. The learning curve is steep as the characters are slippy, and deaths are extremely common as a result (in-game deaths that is... I don't think it would have driven kids to suicide).

The game was put under a lot of criticism back in the day for the obvious McDonalds branding (which isn't really a reason to deduct loads of points), but it's by no means a bad game, just a hard one. There were other games in the "series" which shared similar complaints, and they're all becoming more and more irrelevant now that McDonalds has scrapped most of its characters and has focused more on healthy food (still don't get why carrot sticks is an option). I'd say we could look back on this period and laugh, but don't forget that Burger King released some Xbox games not too long ago so this sort of shameful advertising is still rampant.

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