Nowadays, the concept of licensed games don’t carry the stigma they once did. Gems like the Arkham series, the Lego games, and about two dozen Marvel games have proven that a game company can take a licensed character and come up with a competent game. Famously, the release of Atari 2600’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial game seemed to signal the doom of the home console market, as it made up the bulk of 700,000 cartridges dumped in a landfill. It was Nintendo, and their landmark Nintendo Entertainment System, that revived the console corpse.
Despite the Nintendo Seal of Quality, there were plenty of crap games for the system. Licensed games were often egregious offenders; where a non-sensical game would be churned out with little regard to playability and covered with a thin veneer of recognizability.
Many licensed games at least made sense as games: your Ninja Turtles and Avengers and Barbie. But some licenses made zero sense, even back then. We list just a few of the oddball licensed games for the NES. Please note, we did not play all these all the way through, only sampled them; we don’t hate ourselves enough for that.
16. Special Mention: The Public Domain
While ineligible to be considered licensed characters, because nothing had to be licensed in order to make the game, there were a number of ridiculous games using characters from the public domain as a springboard. One example is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where, just like the book, he fights birds while running through palm trees made of clouds, fights a giant gorilla that turns into several smaller ape men, and finally encounters a native American shooting a bow and arrow from the top of a brontosaurus (ok, none of that happens in the book, but we wish it had). There’s also Bandai’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where Dr. Jekyll needs to avoid being attacked by dogs on the way to his wedding so he doesn’t become too angry and turn into Mr. Hyde. And then there’s Noah’s Ark (released in Europe only) where, as Noah, you fight a giant snowman, ducks give you weapons, and you can turn into a dolphin to fight a massive shrimp. Of course, there are many others, but you get the idea.
15. The Goonies II
If you were a kid growing up in the ’80s and came across a copy of the video game The Goonies II, you likely assumed that there was a sequel to the movie that you hadn’t seen yet or was about to come out. Only, the movie sequel never came (there has been some murmuring about a sequel recently, however).
This game wasn’t a game based on the sequel to the movie, but instead was a sequel to the first Goonies game. Do you have a copy of the first Goonies game in your collection? If that’s the case, then you either imported it or live in Japan… because the original Goonies game was only released for the Famicom in Japan. To recap: The Goonies II is the American sequel to a game no one in the US played.
14. The Blues Brothers
It remains an absolute mystery why someone thought The Blues Brothers would make for a good video game when they did. Oftentimes a licensed game depended on the coinciding release of a movie or a show or a line of toys; The Blues Brothers didn’t have any of that going. Near as we can tell, the closest thing to cross-promotion was the 1992 release of the album Red, White, and Blues (but that hardly seems like the right answer, as while the NES release was 1992, other console versions dated back to 1991). John Belushi, one half of the popular duo, had been dead for 10 years before the game was released.
The cult comedy movie, while containing a fair bit of action, hardly has the makings of an old school platforming game. As such, the game is fraught with popular and absurd platformer tropes. Jake or Ellwood Blues can jump onto clouds and have to avoid giant birds that drop eggs as weapons. You can also ride a gigantic bulldog and swim in gravity-defying vats of water. While these may have been thoughts for events to happen in the movie sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 never wound up coming through.
13. Fester’s Quest
The television show had been off the air for over 20 years, the movie was still 2 years away, and the one-panel comics in The New Yorker were hardly the makings of a video game. Somehow, still, a game about The Addams Family was made in 1989 with Fester’s Quest. The titular character is the maternal uncle to the show’s matriarch, Morticia (but is supposed to be Gomez’s brother in the movies). While he was not a main character in the comic or the television show, he was something of a fan favorite (albeit, again, 20+ years before the game came out) if only for his ability to turn on a light bulb by putting it in his mouth.
While light bulbs do factor into the game, it is only that and brief appearances by the rest of the Addams Family that ties this game into the property. Instead of anything resembling the source material, Fester instead uses a gun (that shoots different kinds of bullets based on power-ups) and a whip to fight an alien invasion. Isn’t it great when a game can strip a beloved character of all his charm and what manages to make him special and turn him into a bald-headed alien killing machine?
12. Hollywood Squares
It was, and is, not uncommon for a popular television game show to be licensed as a video game. There have been at least a dozen cracks at Jeopardy! over the years, for example. Perhaps the worst game show that could possibly be picked for a video game adaptation in the NES era, though, is Hollywood Squares. Hollywood Squares featured regular joe contestants who would select celebrities to answer trivia questions. The games were less about the trivia and more about the humor and personality and charisma of the celebrities involved.
The NES version of Hollywood Squares had none of that. In fact, they could not license the celebrities that would often appear on the show like George Carlin and Vincent Price and Charo. Instead, there were generic characters to choose from like Mike and Sue… who didn’t even seem to be a parody of famous people from the show. As with other NES trivia games of the time, it was also very limiting in the amount of questions you’d be able to cycle through; so you’d get the same stupid fake answers to the same questions over and over again until you threw the cartridge away.
Beetlejuice on its surface seems like an okay movie to license. Tim Burton’s classic had a very unique visual aesthetic, memorable characters, and monsters like the sandworms and even Betelgeuse himself. While the movie wasn’t so much an adventure or a romp as much as it was a comedic exploration of how the dead cope with the living as ghosts, the idea of game-ifying it isn’t completely bonkers.
The game, however, took the weirdest (and worst) approach it could to the subject. Clearly the people making the game hadn’t seen the movie or didn’t care. More likely was that there was another really cruddy game that would have no hope of selling even ten units, so they just re-painted the main character’s sprite to look like the ‘ghost with the most’, and called it a day. Sensibly, you would play the Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in the film) or Lydia and Betelgeuse himself would be the boss. Instead, you are playing as Betelgeuse and spend most of your time killing bugs. There are occasional levels that take place where the sandworms live, but on the whole is a vast departure from the film and a wasted opportunity for some quality gaming.
10. Toxic Crusaders
Perhaps the better question in this instance is, “How did a cartoon get made based on Troma’s cult classic Toxic Avenger franchise?!” We don’t have a good answer for that one, but we sure do love the films. The Toxic Avenger is the tentpole franchise for Troma Entertainment, a trash and exploitation movie company founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz. Like most other Troma films, the Toxic Avenger series is known for gross-out gore, sci-fi weirdness, crude and tasteless humor, and t&a.
The game itself is rather straightforward. It is, perhaps of all the games on the list, the most faithful of adaptations. A side-scrolling beat-em-up game where you play the main protagonist, Toxie, and his comrades. As the Toxic Avenger, you fight evil polluters with your mop. That might sound weird if you don’t know the source material, or totally normal if you do. The cartoon based on the exploitation movie series ran just 13 episodes but, as with anything remotely marketable in the NES era, a video game version is a part of the legacy.
9. Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage
Forget for a second that this game is actually a classic of the 8-bit era. Have you ever stopped to think about who these kooky characters that you would cause to surf or skateboard were? Town & Country Surf Designs (or T&C for short) was and is an actual surfboard company based in Hawaii. In the 1980s a cadre of cartoon character designs known as “Da Boys” became popular. Apparently they became popular enough for not just one, but two Nintendo games (a sequel was released four years after the original called Thrilla’s Surfari, and was solid but far more absurd).
Da Boys consisted of: Joe Cool, a regular guy in sunglasses with a pompadour and a towel around his neck, Thrilla Gorilla, a sunglasses-and-hat wearing ape, Kool Kat, an anthropomorphic cat that surfs in a full suit, and Tiki Man, a guy with a neon tiki mask for a face. The game was something of a trailblazer along with Skate Or Die for setting the precedent for skateboarding video games and earning points based on trick complexity. While the game may live on in the hearts of Nintendo fans everywhere, Town & Country’s mark on the mainstream has faded from sight.
8. Mario’s Time Machine
Nintendo did their absolute best, as a company, to shove Mario down our throats. In addition to his own games and the Donkey Kong series, they gave him the job of demolition worker in Wrecking Crew, the job of referee in Mike Tyson‘s Punch-Out!!, and so forth. But that wasn’t enough for Nintendo, and so they began licensing out their own mega-star to other game companies so that they could also make Mario games. Enter Radical Entertainment’s Mario’s Time Machine.
The game is what it sounds like. Mario goes through time to help fix historical events by returning lost items, such as returning a light bulb to Thomas Edison and the Indian flag to Gandhi. All of this happens in between bouts of half-hearted Mario-like platforming and original Mario Bros. style gameplay; half-hearted in that you cannot die. It is a bit unfair to get too down on an educational game, but the usage of Mario (and the inclusion of janky off-brand versions of koopas) seems a bizarre choice for teaching kids about history. Additionally, it is only the thinnest and most superficial link to history education possible to qualify it as an educational game. While we’re not able to say if this is Mario canon, it is an oddball game that Nintendo likely wouldn’t mind burying somewhere dark.
7. The Three Stooges
Thematically, the game is rock solid. Presented as a series of mini-games (whose level of actual fun are up for debate), the game captures the concept of The Three Stooges films about as well as any NES game could. Curly has to last in the ring with a boxer, there are pie fights with rich people, and there is a cracker eating contest… all in the name of saving up enough money to save an orphanage. A large portion of the game even features digitized photographs of the Stooges for added realness. Of course, this also ups the creepiness factor… as do the digitized 8-bit Stooge voices, that sound like ghosts being strangled in a snowstorm.
The big question here is, who exactly was clamoring for a Three Stooges video game in the first place? It’d be naive to think that there wasn’t some sort of adult demographic buying and playing NES games. A license for old serial characters, however, is a recipe for alienating most every other group responsible for picking out NES games. Interestingly enough, the NES version was a port of an older Commodore Amiga title (for some reason that license seems more reasonable for an Amiga).
6. The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island
So the good news is that Bandai paid pretty close attention to the show Gilligan’s Island when making the video game version of it. The bad news is that Bandai actually went and made a video game version of Gilligan’s Island. While the show, a sitcom starring Bob Denver as a lovable halfwit deserted on an island along with his captain and an assortment of passengers, was just fine as a comedy in the 1960s, it doesn’t exactly make for a thrilling game. In the game you play as The Skipper, and Gilligan follows you around the island only to get hurt and hold you back… as you fight your way through wild boar and snakes and quicksand.
As with the Stooges game, it is difficult to believe there really was a market for this to be a video game. Baby boomers may have bought most of the consoles, but they were likely among the demos that spent the least amount of time playing them. The show was in syndication at the time of the game’s release, but a show’s syndication prompting a licensed video game is less likely than your shoes beginning to recite Shakespeare in Mandarin. One last thing: we’re pretty sure that this didn’t happen in the show, but the final showdown in the game is against a skeleton wielding one of its own bones as a weapon (maybe we ought to re-watch the series).
5. Spot: The Video Game
While it is difficult faulting any brand for doing their best to market their mascot in any way they can, it is easy to fault people for buying said marketing. Spot was the name of the 7-Up mascot from the late 80s and early 90s. True to his name (we’re assuming Spot was a ‘he’ despite not having any anatomical evidence), Spot was a red spot. Hey! Just like the spot on the 7-Up logo! What made Spot ‘cool’ was his sunglasses, spindly stick-figure limbs, and standard issue cartoon character white gloves.
So what does one do as a cartoon circle of red in a video game? Well, the first NES game just cloned an older puzzle game about covering more of a gameboard with your dots than your opponents. This literally could’ve been branded with any other character, and the only way we know it’s a 7-Up game is because of a series of obnoxious animations of the character that slow down the game between every move. While watching grass grow might be more enjoyable than playing a game involving a cartoon circle, Spot got a series of other games further down the road. Luckily, they ditched the concept of just doing someone else’s previously done puzzle games, and instead made a moderately charming platformer.
4. Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting
Fact: Not enough games were made that took advantage of the NES Zapper accessory (that’s a gun for those not in the know). Fact: Any game using the Zapper was a welcome addition to the NES library. Fact: There has never been a more esoteric or useless licensed character in a video game as Barker Bill.
Barker Bill was the “host” of a collection of old Terrytoons from the 1930s that were repackaged for television in the early 1950s. Barker Bill was just a stationary drawing of a cartoon character who would ‘talk’ by virtue of an announcer reading lines from off camera. So, to recap (because it’s a little difficult to wrap your head around the first time), someone decided it would be a good idea to license a game using a character that was nothing more than one drawing that was seen briefly between actual cartoons for one television series from the 1950s. Deciding to license a game after this character makes the idea of licensing Gilligan’s Island seem like God of War in comparison. The game itself was a rather dull paint-by-numbers light gun game with about as much animation as the original Barker Bill.
3. M.C. Kids
M.C. Kids is not about prodigious rappers; it is a McDonald’s licensed game. In an odd decision, you play as one of two boys, Mick or Mack. They are set loose on McDonaldland in order to help its famous residents by collecting stuff in a platforming adventure. We say this is an odd decision because it would be the logical choice to allow the player to play as Ronald McDonald in any McDonald’s game (or perhaps one of the other characters, like Grimace or The Hamburglar); but instead the fast food empire went with two anonymous children who haven’t been heard from since. Also odd was the decision to call the game M.C. Kids and not McKids… although maybe that was just to ensure nobody thought there was a new, disgusting item on the menu. In Europe the game was more appropriately and less-confusingly named McDonaldland.
The game itself is rather enjoyable. While the settings for the platformer are all by-the-books, there are some very nice and creative touches. One interesting wrinkle is that you have to grab some blocks and set them in a track in order to make a moving platform. The most creative bit to the game, though, is the ability to reverse gravity and essentially platform “upside-down”. While you can’t unfortunately jump your way through cloud levels as Mac Tonight, M.C. Kids is one of the few games on this list actually worth hunting down.
2. Yo! Noid
As if it weren’t already clear, pretty much everyone and their mother had a licensed game for the NES. Yo! Noid was a game featuring the Domino’s Pizza mascot of the 80s, the Noid (animated in the commercials by the magical Will Vinton Studios). The Noid, for those not in the know, was a little person in a red spandex outfit with what appear to be bunny ears. He is intent on ruining Domino’s pizzas but is foiled in every commercial (think the Trix rabbit if he was out to sabotage and not steal the cereal). While the commercials are charming, it is pretty tough to understand why a kid would have an affinity for a corporate mascot like this one. Moreover, it is tough to understand why someone would buy a game of a corporate mascot for fast food pizza for a kid; it’s not like Domino’s was handing this out for free.
Yo! Noid, with its extreme and nonsensical title, was just a paint-by-numbers platformer. If you’re beginning to feel like every NES game ever made was a platformer, you wouldn’t be far off (thanks to a certain Italian plumber who shall remain nameless). This generic title has the distinction, however, of being the only game on this list made by Capcom. Just don’t expect to see this game in any Capcom collections alongside Street Fighter and Mega Man.
1. Cool World
If you were asked to pick out the least likely subject for a video game adaptation in the early 90s, Cool World might be sitting right there at the top of the heap alongside a computerized speech made by then-Surgeon General Antonia Novello and Teddy Grahams (although we can’t be certain that there wasn’t a Teddy Grahams video game). Cool World was perhaps the most commercially pushed film outside of Heavy Metal by underground adult animation icon Ralph Bakshi. The film starred Gabriel Byrne and a then-unknown Brad Pitt alongside a virtually pornographic cartoon character named Holly Would voiced by Kim Basinger. Despite the popularity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit it was a fairly sure bet that this psychedelic PG-13 romp was doomed to failure. As it stands, it has a 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And yet, a game was made of it. The game is innocent enough (if not virtually unplayable), and it appears that it was meant to be played by children. What better way to introduce kids to the animator behind Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic than an awful video game? If the game was indeed geared towards adults, then we should begin to worry about the adults that game developer Ocean have been associating with.