Video game adaptations of popular movies have a shaky history. Their status as tie-ins often means that they are little more than promotional material for the movie, as opposed to worthy games in their own right. Though there have been exceptions to this rule, the disappointing nature of movie-based video games goes way back, with perhaps no better example than the NES adaptation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which has to be a top contender for the most drastic difference in quality between a movie and its video game tie-in.
Under any circumstances, Who Framed Roger Rabbit on the NES would be an awful game. But the fact that it shares the name and likeness of one of my all-time favorite movies makes it sting all the more. To make matters all the worse, it was even developed by Rare! Yes, the same company that would go on to make Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Conker’s Bad Fur Day were behind this mess. Though not all of the blame should be passed onto them, as Who Framed Roger Rabbit – like so many of the movie-based games on the NES – was published by LJN, a company so notorious for rushed, unfinished products that the now-defunct company has become a running joke for longtime gamers (it’s even become one of the best gags of the Angry Video Game Nerd). What is it that makes the Who Framed Roger Rabbit video game so bad? Where to even begin?
Players take control of detective Eddie Valiant, the hero from the film. At all times, the player is accompanied by Roger Rabbit, which might have been pretty cool, except that he does absolutely nothing. Eddie Valiant has two basic actions, one button talks to passersby and searches objects, and the other throws a punch.
This punch has got to rank as one of the most useless offensive moves in video game history. For one thing, Eddie kind of throws his punch in an upward arc, and in order to hit anything you have to stand at exactly the right angle and be practically on top of what you’re trying to hit. It’s infuriatingly precise. Not only that, but Eddie Valiant kind of does this weird wind up with his fist beforehand, which means the punch itself is delayed from the button press. So on top of the aforementioned problems you also have a timing issue to take into consideration. If you want to build up the punch and let it fly at the right time, you can’t simply hold the button (that would be too generous). Instead, you have to repeatedly hit the button to keep Eddie Valiant in the “wind up” phase. Should you want to move around while doing so, you have to already be moving before you begin hitting the button, otherwise Eddie will be stuck in place. Wow. Just… wow.
Anyway, the game is displayed in two different modes: one is an overhead world map, where Eddie and Roger travel around Los Angeles and Toon Town, while avoiding the dastardly weasels who are after Roger. Meanwhile, entering buildings turns the game into a kind of sidescroller, where you are to investigate things, talk to people, and throw those pathetic punches.
The goal of the game is to find the four missing pieces of Marvin Acme’s will, which you’re supposed to do by investigating areas and objects, and finding clues by talking to people. But a huge problem arrises with how little anything seems to help you.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an unforgivingly cryptic game, which gives you no idea where you’re supposed to start your investigation. You’re just kind of walking around, assuming that you might find an item of importance, or hoping to find someone who has anything even marginally helpful to say. You just go into everything so blind, you’d probably have to really be Eddie Valiant in order to solve any of it.
There are two other grave flaws to be found in Who Framed Roger Rabbit on NES: The first are the driving controls. On the overworld map, you can hitch a ride with Benny the cab (which allows you to move faster at the expense of the freedom of going off track), but controlling Benny just feels really awkward. You’ll be trying to go straight but swerve and crash into other cars at the lightest press of the D-pad. It’s a mess.
The second game-breaking flaw is that it is just way too easy to die. You’ll be walking along the side of a building and suddenly a potted plant will fall from the second story window that’s not only difficult to avoid at Eddie’s slow speed, but will kill you instantly. You’ll enter another building area from the map, and immediately you’ll be attacked by a cat (which you can’t fight back, as it’s too low to the ground, and again, Eddie punches in an upwards arc). Once again, dead instantly. You’ll be walking along the world map when suddenly you get hit by a car. There’s another game over.
Perhaps most absurd of all, if the weasels manage to catch Roger, you’ll have to answer one of their questions with a punchline, if you make them laugh, Roger has time to escape. If not, you lose. But I’ve pressed every button on the controller, and nothing I do seems to bring up different options for the punchline, so I always end up losing. I’m guessing you have to find the punchlines around the city, but once again, there’s nothing in the game that even remotely explains that.
In case all this weren’t bad enough, the game simply isn’t pretty to look at. It’s one of the uglier NES games, with constant flickers and messy-looking character sprites. Even Jessica Rabbit’s character sprite looks ugly. And that’s simply an unforgivable sin.
Speaking of Jessica Rabbit, the game is infamous for featuring a telephone number located in the club Jessica performs. When the game was initially released, the phone number provided game tips provided by Jessica Rabbit herself. The number has since been redirected to something you probably don’t want going on your phone bill. Just another thing for this game to be ashamed of, I suppose.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a game that makes a mockery of its license, and its developer. The music can be kind of fun, I suppose, but it’s not nearly good enough to make up for everything wrong with this game. The sheer crypticness of it all, combined with the unfair deaths, ugly visuals, useless attack and sidekick, awful driving controls, and confusing elements (seriously, those punchlines) make it one of the worst licensed games of all time.
How could they do this to Roger Rabbit?!