The opening level in Super Mario Bros. is so expertly realized in introducing players to the game’s fundamental mechanics, that it’s largely taken for granted. From the opening screen that presents Mario is the basics (blocks to jump into for coins and a power-up, a Goomba enemy to avoid or defeat), all the way up to its secret areas and ending flagpole, stage 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. remains a case study on how to properly ease players into the game ahead.
On the complete opposite end of that spectrum, we have the opening stage of Beetlejuice on NES, which is so cryptic, convoluted and unfair that it serves as a means for everything a game designer should avoid when trying to introduce players to the game. Though I suppose for a game this terrible, the introductory stage may actually compliment the rest of the experience (though that statement in itself is certainly no compliment).
Beetlejuice is based on the Tim Burton film of the same name, and like so many ill-fated licensed games on the NES, it was published by the notorious LJN. And like all the other movie-based NES games from the (thankfully) now-defunct publisher, Beetlejuice fails as both a game and in representing its source material.
By definition, Beetlejuice is a side-scrolling platformer. Though in execution, it can barely handle being that. Beetlejuice’s jumping is sporadic and slippery, and his only means of attack his a little stomp, which naturally doesn’t harm enemies, but instead is used to crush tiny beetles that pop out of holes in the ground to get points. Beetlejuice can then use those points to purchase “Scares,” the game’s power-ups.
Though you can continuously farm the beetles for points, it proves to be an arduous process: you have to be incredibly precise with your stomps to hit them, and they only give 10, 25, 50 and 75 points (depending on the color of beetle, though even that seems inconsistent, with blue beetles sometimes giving 25 points, other times 50). Considering that it costs hundreds of points to buy even a single use for a Scare, and you’ll often needs multiple copies of a Scare in order to finish a level, you’ll find yourself spending a good deal of time stomping on beetles like an idiot. Sound fun yet?
Another problem with the game is its unfair difficulty, which stems from three primary sources; the first of which being that Beetlejuice is sent flying when touching an enemy or object, which will frequently send “the ghost with the most” careening around the place like a pinball, bouncing from one damaging object to the next until he’s dead. The second issue is that, when traveling vertically, any previous ground that is now off-screen works as a one-hit death trap. The third issue is that you can rarely tell what can and can’t hurt you. Early in the first level, for example, you’ll find yourself inside a house with some torches, which look like simple background decorations, but actually hurt you when touched (even when they’re off-screen).
Combine these three issues with Beetlejuice’s aforementioned slippery jumping, and the game is utterly unenjoyable to play. And all of these issues are at the forefront of the very first stage.
This first level sees players traveling across a small town, where they are soon greeted by an enemy they can’t kill, but one that can easily kill them if it bumps into Beetlejuice and sends him into a nearby pit. Shortly thereafter, the player will enter the torch-riddled house, in which Beetlejuice has to continuously travel vertically which, you guessed it, means you’ll often get hit by a surprise enemy or object, and fall back to what should be a previous area, which instead kills you. After that you’ll find an area where you’ll waste time stomping on beetles (while avoiding another enemy you can’t kill) just so you can enter the nearby building to purchase power-ups. You’ll soon come across a beehive which can only be destroyed by using the skeleton power-up and throwing a fireball at it, which then gives you access to a cloud platform (a baffling scenario which the game never even hints at). Then when you finally make it to the first boss, you’ll find that he’s practically invincible, and can only be killed by spamming the skeleton power-ups and throwing enough fireballs at him to send him to the right side of the screen (once again, the game never tells you to specifically buy the skeleton power-up for the boss, so if you buy anything else, you’re just wasting your tediously earned points). Naturally, this boss can kill you in a single hit, which will either send Beetlejuice back to the first house area of the stage (despite other deaths taking the player back to the spot they died), or you’ll spawn right back at the boss. If you respawn at the boss, you’ll keep doing so. So if you didn’t purchase enough skeletons, or used them up and died, you’ll have to reset the game entirely, because you’re trapped in an impossible scenario.
Again, first level. And it doesn’t get better from there.
To top everything off, the graphics are ugly to look at and, though the music can be somewhat catchy, its upbeat and bubbly tone is anything but reminiscent of the dark comedy on which the game is based.
Beetlejuice is perhaps marginally better than LJN’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure – if only because Beetlejuice’s bad controls are a relative step up from the unplayability of Bill & Ted – but it still since alongside Who Framed Roger Rabbit on NES as one of LJN’s greatest crimes against the most beloved of 8-bit consoles.