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LONG BLOG

Band of Bloggers – 2005: A Bare-Boned Oddity

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Some crossovers are so bad, they’re good. I haven’t watched Resident Evil in over a decade, but I still consider it a guilty pleasure. Yet, like Resident Evil, not every good adaptation is wholly reliant on its source material. A good game can just be a good game. Whether it’s James Bond holding the gun in Goldeneye’s multiplayer isn’t all that important. But with the right setting and gameplay, it’s much easier for a game to stay true to a film than vice versa, whether it’s a good game or not.

When it comes to the relationship between video games and movies, we tend to talk about the bad (Aliens: Colonial Marines, at least one Star Wars game) and the good (Alien: Isolation, at least one Star Wars game). However, for this month’s Band of Bloggers, I’m going to be talking about an oddity, neither bad nor good. A curiosity both for fans of the movie and for fans of the game’s genre – Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge.

The Nightmare Before Christmas originally released around Halloween 1993 and was the passion project of Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, director of James and the Giant Peach, Coraline and, quite fittingly for this month’s theme, the film adaptation of Little Nightmares. Plus, who could forget Brendan Fraser’s turn in Monkeybone?

While Disney considered producing a sequel to the film, Burton had dissuaded the company, saying, “I was always very protective of Nightmare not to do sequels or things of that kind.” Oogie’s Revenge, arriving in the west twelve years after the film’s release, however, did serve as a sequel and the developers of the game even sought Burton’s advice and collaborated with the film’s art director.

Furthermore, releasing at the same time as Oogie’s Revenge in the west was the Game Boy Advance offering The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King. The game was a prequel to the film and therefore before Jack Skellington even knew what Christmas was, despite the name. A serviceable metroidvania, the game details Jack's rise as the Pumpkin King.

While The Nightmare Before Christmas still holds cult status, its popularity in the west mainly revolved around Tim Burton fans, goths and Hot Topic posers or any combination of the three. My own relationship with the film only amounted to having it recorded back to back with Hocus Pocus on VHS which I would watch with my sister every Halloween. Yet the film apparently had a much larger following in Japan and Tokyo Disney’s Haunted Mansion still has a seasonal overlay with The Nightmare Before Christmas from Halloween through Christmas.

The film’s Japanese popularity is evidenced further in Jack and Halloween Town’s appearances in multiple Kingdom Hearts games in the early 2000s with many of the cast’s original voice actors returning. Likewise, Oogie’s Revenge has the majority of the original cast reprising their roles including Jack’s voice actor Chris Sarandon, Oogie Boogie’s voice actor Ken Page and even Paul Reubens, most recognised as Pee-Wee Herman, who plays Lock. The only notable omission is Catherine O’Hara (Kevin McCallister’s mum in Home Alone) who originally voiced Jack’s sweetheart, Sally.

Therefore it wasn’t too surprising that Oogie’s Revenge went to Japanese developer Capcom who would release the game on Playstation 2 and Xbox. Capcom did have a relationship with Disney after all, having released Aladdin and Duck Tales among other classic 2D games. And despite so many adaptations being immediate cash grabs, Oogie’s Revenge was developed for the tenth anniversary of the film’s Japanese release, Halloween 2004.

What is surprising, however, is the direction Capcom took Oogie’s Revenge. Released in 2001, Devil May Cry was an early iteration of Resident Evil 4 before evolving into its own series when Hideki Kamiya birthed a genre – the character action game. The genre itself is niche and sometimes hard to define. With highly stylised action and tight controls, character action games might simply be considered action games (to button-mashers) in the same category as hack-and-slash games. And while they may share DNA, the character action genre aspires to be so much more. It asks for devotion, it asks for perfection, and most importantly it asks for style.

While the genre was in its nascent years, it is still surprising that Capcom decided to take the franchise in this direction. We don't know why Capcom and Disney chose to have such elements in a game adaptation of a musical adventure but we do know, from the credits, that some producers and developers were working on Hideaki Itsuno’s masterpiece Devil May Cry 3 concurrently, which released six months after Oogie’s Revenge. These same developers would later appear on Devil May Cry 4’s credits and move on to Clover Studio and later Platinum fame with Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising.

Capcom didn’t bring the game west until the following Halloween, coinciding with the release of Burton’s second stop-motion animated musical dark comedy – Corpse Bride in 2005. Similarly, the plot takes place one year after the film in which Jack realised that Halloween Town and the inhabitants he had taken for granted are more important than finding something new. Despite the film's lesson, another Halloween passes and Jack still wants more, still wants new ways “to make Halloween more hideous, more terrifying, more frightening.”

As a result, Dr. Finklestein, Sally’s creator, equips Jack with the Soul Robber, the primary weapon of the game, and Jack sets off in search of souls to suck that may tingle even more spines come next Halloween. In Jack’s absence, the three minions Lock, Shock and Barrel sew Oogie Boogie back together who proceeds to take over Halloween Town, tricking its citizens and capturing five of the seven kings and queens of Holiday World in his plan to become the Seven-Holidays King. All that’s left is to defeat Santa and conquer Christmas Town. An imprisoned Sally sends word to Jack who returns on Christmas Eve and our adventure begins.

Burton had been apprehensive in his discussions of making a sequel, like Jack visiting Thanksgiving Town because he “felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it… Because it’s a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to keep that kind of purity to it.” Thus the setup for the game not only manages to stay true to its source material but creates an apt scenario for a video game adaptation – instead of Oogie Boogie being an obstacle in the way of Jack’s redemption, he’s now the driving force behind the plot.

Therefore, while Jack’s impetus through the game is to find and restore the doors to the other Holiday Towns on his way to defeat the antagonist, Oogie Boogie and free Sally, the game stays true to Burton’s vision of maintaining the franchise’s purity. This may feel like a missed opportunity to some, going so far as to not even see each world’s king or queen who have been locked away in cages and remain hidden in the sacks in which they were stolen away. However Jack himself, Santa and the worlds we do get to see and explore, Halloween Town and Christmas Town are beautifully realised, even on the Playstation 2.

Burton and Selick’s stop-motion animation have given the film a timeless and unique aesthetic that holds up to this day and is one of the game’s greatest successes in its translation, despite the hardware. Halloween Town and its accompanying crooked art style and brooding atmosphere is free to explore. Furthermore, Oogie’s Revenge captures the charm and whimsy of not just the town, but its inhabitants and their stories.

Halloween Town is surprisingly detail-heavy and in between combat, the player is free to explore the varied environments. Similar to Devil May Cry, the player is able to interact with the environment and objects in the environment to trigger tidbits of information and lines of dialogue. The player is also able to walk around Jack’s house which not only contains little easter eggs, but serves as a hub to check your mission rankings, view unlocked artwork and figurines and change costume.

Despite the world, Oogie’s Revenge relies on a fixed camera. There is no use of the right analog stick and while the fixed camera may make for more cinematic scenes, there is a missed opportunity at not being able to fully view this beautifully crafted world at your leisure. The camera further exacerbates both in and out of combat. Cheap attacks may come from offscreen, a sudden camera angle change can distort your spacing when trying to hit enemies and disrupting your combo and searching for items around the world can frustrate the player who simply did not trigger a simple camera angle change by standing in a particular spot to see the object sitting right there in the open. And don’t expect to rely on the map as the only marker is your own position.

The camera problem is not uncommon either. There are a lot of fetch quests and there is a lot of backtracking as Jack completes objectives for each of Halloween Town’s inhabitants. What’s more, there is a lot of combat spaced across the game’s 26 chapters as enemies respawn when backtracking, the number and type of which will occasionally change as objectives are updated or completed. Outside of combat the game also incorporates light puzzling and platforming, neither of which are particularly difficult or developed whether it’s because these elements were not the focus of the game or because the game was aimed at children. Any challenge in these activities is derived, again, from the frustrating camera. As a result, the pacing of the game can feel quite cumbersome and the game can feel quite repetitive, in more ways than one.

Character action games are often defined by their combat and it is in Oogie’s Revenge’s combat and the design choices around its combat that we start to see the game’s Capcom roots and place in character action history. The game is divided into chapters and each chapter is ranked based on time, combo and damage taken.

As previously mentioned, Jack’s primary weapon is the Soul Robber. And while I’ve only mentioned it twice so far, Jack will mention it every time he performs a grab attack. And there are a lot of grab attacks. Soul Robber. Soul Robber. Soul Robber. The Soul Robber acts like a combination between Bayonetta’s whip, Kulshedra and Nero’s demon arm, Devil Bringer. Beyond its basic combos, Soul Robber can grab enemies, swing them around damaging other enemies, throw them into other enemies or pull them towards you before slamming them to the ground. Soul Robber can also grab the weapons out of larger enemies’ hands and beat them with their own weapon.

As a weapon, Soul Robber is interesting and intuitive yet it has further functions. Jack can use Soul Robber just like Nero uses Devil Bringer to grapple onto hook points, a precursor to Devil May Cry 4’s much maligned brand of platforming and worsened by the game’s camera. Furthermore souls sucked using the Soul Robber act as a currency for upgrades yet also provides an interesting mechanic most recently seen in Devil May Cry 5. Death has a cost and the player must spend souls to continue providing an interesting reward system. Moreover, you will receive more souls based on your rank in combat, although combat is not particularly difficult, likely due to being a children’s game.

The upgrade system, however, is lacking and instead of expanding your moveset, as might be expected in character action games, and thus expanding your combat options and ability to style, you instead unlock simple, unnecessary damage boosts. This lack of expansiveness and the fact that the player relies on a single a weapon can lead to some particularly repetitive gameplay.

Combos during combat are scored with a variety of appropriate ranks such as Horror Show, Spine Tingling, Bone Chilling, Shriekified and, of course, Pumpkin King. However, the scoring is limited and repetition of moves is not reflected in your rank and it is up to the player to add to and change up their style in order to keep combat from becoming repetitive.

Another sign of the combo system’s age is its leniency, or lack thereof. Charge moves are not invulnerable to the combo counter’s depletion rate however, with the use of taunts, another mainstay of character action games, a player can successfully integrate charged attacks into their combo. Player-controlled taunts had in fact been dropped for 2003’s release Devil May Cry 2, a decision roundly criticised by the community, so it is interesting to see its return even before the release of Devil May Cry 3. Furthermore, taunts did more than just sustain combo rank or charge your meter, intimidated enemies all have their own fury states.

Jack, likewise has his own transformative states – Santa Jack and Pumpkin Jack. Santa Jack can drop presents to damage, stun and freeze enemies while Pumpkin Jack can breathe fire. Both transformations, outside of specific bosses have limited use in battle due to long windups and the fact that some puzzles must be solved with their abilities, thus having to keep track of your ammo supply or else you’ll have to backtrack again to restock.

While there are plenty of enemies and attack patterns to learn, the enemies themselves do not present much of a challenge and very often are simply combo-fodder. This, coupled with constant backtracking, respawning enemies and limited combat all aggravate Oogie’s Revenge's sense of repetition.

Character action games are known for the tightness of their combat, however Oogie's Revenge lacks this precision. Even with your wide-reaching weapon, the game does have a lock-on although it is unreliable and likely to disrupt your combos or cause you to take damage. With this in mind, the game does not have Devil May Cry’s most reliable dodge – the jump button. Outside of platforming with Soul Robber’s grappling mechanic there’s no jumping at all limiting combat and any prospect of launching an enemy, enemy stepping and what has now become synonymous with character action games – juggling an enemy in the air to keep you safe from enemies on the ground.

Instead, the player is provided with a dodge that looks awfully close to the dodge in Bayonetta, released five years later, by a different studio albeit with some of the same developers, complete with an extended recovery period if the player dodges too many times in a row.

Finally, what would a Disney film be without music? And what would a video game adaptation be without the use of the film’s soundtrack? A Danny Elfman soundtrack no less, although you won’t find him lending his singing voice for Jack’s lines as he did in the film.

As is standard with all adaptations, the film’s soundtrack serves as the game’s soundtrack. This is Halloween will play during every combat encounter and only compounds the repetition in the game. While the combat may make Oogie’s Revenge a curious entry in character action history, it is the use of music that best demonstrates Oogie’s Revenge’s contribution to the history of video game adaptations. The film after all is a musical comedy and the game’s embrace of the music should not be overlooked.

When a player in a character action game and many other games truly finds their flow, it can often feel like their character is dancing. Precise movement and button presses cause their character to dodge and weave while dishing out damage. Oogie’s Revenge’s boss battles are also a dance. Songs have been reworked from the film, and they don’t just simply play during the fight, rather, both Jack and the boss sing along while battling it out on screen, throwing musical taunts at each other while building upon the game’s story with the lyrics of the song.

But Capcom takes the film’s musical aspect further. As Jack dishes out damage, targeting various weak spots, musical notes will spill out for Jack to collect. When Jack has collected enough musical notes, a rhythm game will start and is perhaps the most challenging but surprising part of the game. Button inputs fly across the screen, as Jack dances and sings in this quick time event and the strength of Jack’s special attack will depend upon your performance. While bosses are few and far between, they are all unique, with their own weaknesses and their own gimmicks to reveal those weak spots.

Even though the gameplay acts only as a curiosity to fans of a niche genre, Oogie’s Revenge as a video game adaptation is commendable. Sewing together the characters, the world and the music, the game manages to capture the purity of the film in all its forms. Despite it’s talented cast of developers, it’s not much of a game. The combat is repetitive, the mission structure is repetitive and while this game serves as a test bed for many interesting ideas, one might be left to wonder whether the team, who were concurrently working on Devil May Cry 3, were holding themselves back. Meanwhile fans of the film might be left to wonder whether Oogie’s Revenge would have been better presented in its original format – as an animated film.

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About Fivefinger Deltaone of us since 7:01 PM on 08.27.2018