They say you can learn more about filmmaking from studying bad movies than you can from good ones. In theory, no one actually intends to make a bad movie, so in order for a movie to become one, something must have gone wrong. By studying these movies, you find out what it was that made them so bad, and can learn from the mistakes that were made. I believe the same principle applies to video games, and for much the same reasons. Bad games are very rarely the result of intentional malice or flat out stupidity. Sometimes there's budget problems, meaning developers had to cut corners, other times they run behind schedule, and sometimes, its just boring old inexperience that leads people astray.
Enter Active Enterprises, and their infamous legacy, Action 52.
Action 52 is an unlicensed multicart compilation, originally released for the NES, and then re-released for the Genesis in a dramatically altered form. The game, as the name would suggest, is a collection of 52 action games on a single cart. Compilation games like this were pretty common back in the NES days, particularly among certain pirate game makers. Often, such carts would have a whole bunch of early Famicom games crammed together on a single cartridge. In this way, Action 52 is somewhat unique, in that all 52 games are original to this compilation.
Make no mistake, this is not a "lost masterpiece" of a game here, in any sense of the term. Action 52 is nothing short of a complete disaster, and regularly ranks as one of the the worst games ever made, and it's not like there's a shortage of reasons why either. Shoddy mechanics, problematic gameplay, poor hit detection, and... well... in a nutshell, everything that makes a cheap game look and feel cheap is present in these games.
So what went wrong? The short answer would be, like I said earlier, boring old inexperience. Active Enterprises is an example of what I like to call a "gold-rush developer." They had the programming know-how to put together a mostly-functioning game, the business knowledge to get the project off the ground, and the ambition to pull it off, while failing to realize that the games industry was and is a harsh environment, and not just a means to quick and easy money. Similar gold rushes flooded the market with sub-par Atari 2600 games, and more recently, with a glut of cheaply made minigame collections for the Wii.
From a business standpoint, their idea makes perfect sense. Give gamers more game for their dollar. What Active failed to realize is that it's quality, not quantity, that separates good games from average ones, and with all 52 games failing to meet even the most basic standard of quality, the project was doomed from the start.
Two games were released under the name Action 52, but aside from the name itself, and a few recurring characters, they have practically nothing in common.
Active's initial attempt at a game was, if nothing else, something that must be seen to be believed. The game starts off with a digital audio loop that bears more than a striking resemblance to "It takes Two" by Rob Base, after which a deep voice instructs you to "Make your selection... Now."
And it's all downhill from there.
I'm not going to cover all 52 games individually. This being the kind of game that the internet loves to hate, I'm sure anyone reading this will have more than ample access to a reviewer willing to torment themselves in such a manner. (I recommend the Angry Video Game Nerd's review.) Instead, I'm just going to cover the highlights.
For starters, there's the menu itself, divided into three sections which you can switch between by pressing select. The graphics here are, as far as menus go, pretty good, and there's no obvious indication of a major problem, but closer inspection reveals something else. For many of the games, the allotted space isn't big enough to fit the full title, leading to some of the games being given either abbreviated titles, or misspelled ones. Bubblegum Rossie becomes Bubblegum Rosy, Star Evil becomes Startevil. Ninja Assault becomes Ninja Asault, and so on. Strangely enough, Dedant is apparently supposed to be spelled that way, and is not a shortening of Dead Ant.
Speaking of Star Evil, this game is just one of several titles to receive particular notoriety. The game itself is a vertical space shooter that, aside from it's poor quality, would be unremarkable, except that there is a large obstacle directly in front of you as soon as the game starts, requiring you to IMMEDIATELY swerve to the left or face death in less than a second. The graphics and sound are also fairly unpleasant, and the hit detection is questionable at times, but seeing as there's hardly any enemies to deal with, and the obstacles appear in a fairly predictable pattern, it's not much trouble.
Micro Mike is another of the games that takes ridiculous deaths to new levels. This time, it's a horizontal shooter, supposedly taking place in a microscopic "Honey, I shrunk the Kids" kind of world, though you'd never really know it from looking at the strange blue/green patterns and pink sprites. The main problem with this game, however, is that you have to swerve through a series of obstacles at the most blinding speed imaginable. There are enemies to shoot, but they're hardly a threat compared to the frantic pace you're expected to keep up all the way through. It's not uncommon for the game to end in less than a minute.
In all, there are 13 space shooters, and a few other games that come close, despite a minor change in setting. The shooters themselves vary in many of their details, but not in their quality. These games are just plain bad in every conceivable way, with very few, if any, redeeming qualities to be found. The overwhelming majority of games on the cart are platformers, or at least reasonable facsimiles thereof. While still sloppy, cheap and all around broken, these games vary a bit more, with some actually being kind of enjoyable. The two most infamous are Ooze and Bubblegum Rossie.
Ooze is remembered rather notoriously because it was part of a special promotion. If you beat the game, you would be given a secret code, which you could us to have your name entered in a draw for a cash prize. There's just one problem, the game is literally unbeatable on account of shoddy programming. Hell, just getting through level 1 is a real trial by ordeal, not because of the sparse peppering of slime related enemies or occasional pit to jump over, but because the controls are a mess.
In fact, several of the platforming games suffer from the same incredibly bad controls. For starters, jumping is done with B while shooting (if permitted) is done with A, which is already kind of awkward. On top of that, a lot of the games have trouble accepting inputs from both the buttons and D-pad at the same time. This means that often, you can't walk and shoot at the same time, and even worse than that, if you hold down B while jumping, you'll only jump straight up. This goes against our usual instincts, which is to hold the button in order to jump higher. Here, you need to tap the button as lightly as possible and then very quickly move your finger off the button in order to move far enough horizontally to actually clear whatever it is you're trying to jump.
The situation really comes to a head in Bubblegum Rossie, where you wind up hitting what essentially amounts to a dead end. At one point in level 1, you hit a platform that's to high to jump over. You need to stand perfectly still on the previous platform, then jump from one to the other, overcoming the awful control scheme in the process. It can be done, but it's crazy hard, which is unfortunate, as this game potentially could have been one of the more noteworthy titles on the cart.
Games regularly have very few levels, and clearing them is usually just a matter soldiering on until you are unceremoniously greeted with a black screen announcing (in pink typeface no less) that the next level is about to start. Deaths and game over screens are equally abrupt. In most of the games, clearing all the levels causes the game to loop back to level 1, without any indication that you beat the game.
Worse still, two games on the cart - Alfredo in the Fetuccine and Jigsaw, respectively - crash before loading, a couple others crash at certain points during the games themselves. Since you'd be crazy to actually seek out a physical copy of this game (more on that in a minute), the point is somewhat moot, because if you're running the right emulator, these two games might end up working just fine. If you run the wrong emulator, mind you, the game will just skip the title screen and jump directly into Billy Bob without ever letting you access the other 51 games, among other strange bugs.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Some of the games present here suck a lot less than others, and while it's hard to call them good, they are actually kind of fun, when played in the right mood. Streemerz, for instance, is a clever little game about a cat/clown thing that has to climb a series of platforms... for some reason. The catch is that you can't actually jump in this game, so you need to use the titular streemer in order to pull yourself up. Obstacles block your path, but you can take a certain number of hits before dying, which is good, because many of these obstacles have been placed in locations where they simply can't be avoided. There are also enemies that run back and forth very quickly on certain platforms, as well as multiple paths to the top. Also, this is perhaps the only game in existence where bags of money are bad for you!
Another highlight is a game called Meong. At first glance this is little more than a little icon moving across a grid of squares and exploding for no reason, but it's actually fairly sophisticated. As you wander the grid, you need to avoid falling into holes, marked by black squares, but the farther you go, the more trap squares you run into. By moving slowly and patiently, the traps start to reveal themselves, allowing you to avoid them. You can't move to slow, however, as idling on one square for too long will also kill you. This is the only game on the cart that requires any kind of critical thought.
Dam Busters is another decent enough game, despite a complete absence of dams being busted. Time Warp Tickers is also notable, despite being possibly the weirdest game on the NES. In it, you control a pair of walking fingers through a mishmash of 50s memorabilia, while flicking enemies and turning them into floating words.
Best of all, you can actually quit any game at any time by pressing start then select. This is a brilliant idea, and something that a lot of other multicarts from that era ought to have implemented. There's nothing more annoying than having to get up and press reset every time you want to change games. Still, it's not a good sign when the ability to stop playing a game is it's best feature.
And then there were the Cheetahmen.
As every game company needed an anthropomorphic mascot character (it was the early 90s, you kinda had to be there), the Cheetahmen were designed to be Active Enterprise's answer to the Teenage Mutuant Ninja Turtles. Seriously, a comic book documenting their origin story was produced, with plans to launch a line of action figures and produce a Saturday morning cartoon series. In some ways, Action 52 was largely meant as a launching pad for the three cat-man hybrids.
The game starts with a crude story about some guy playing Nintendo when a giant arm pulls him into the TV, where he meets the Cheetahmen. Then, for unclear reasons, the Cheetahmen head off to go fight a series of enemies from the other 51 games. There are six levels, and every two, you get to play as a different cheetahman. Aries is the Martial Arts master, Hercules is the powerhouse, and Apollo fights with a crossbow, which is incapable of hitting anything, thus inadvertently making him the weakest of the three. There's also a coupe of secret rooms that provide you with 1-ups and allow you to skip portions of certain stages.
You're actually greeted by one of the yellow bastards on the title screen, not to mention the fact that the Cheetahmen is the only game with an actual (albeit shoddy) plot, making it pretty clear this was meant to be Action 52's show stopper. However, a lot of the obstacles you face in this game are seriously out of balance, especially where Apollo's crossbow is concerned. Also, your health bar is absent most of the time, and even my pre-teen self, playing this game back in 1992 was able to discover on his own, and subsequently exploit a bug that let's you jump in mid-air. In the end, it suffers from the same lack of quality as the other games, just with a slightly larger scale behind it.
Action 52 is just plain ugly, with Cheetahmen and Billy Bob being the only two games out of 52 to contain adequate artwork and visuals. Some games are little more than a mess of pixels, but for most of them, they look like something you'd find in the margins of an eight year old's math notebook. There's also practically nothing in the way of animation, and backgrounds are extremely repetitive.
The music, however is hit or miss, with some of the misses being downright atrocious and some of the hits being disturbingly catchy. None of it sounds particularly high end, even by NES standards, but the tunes themselves will stick in your head. The best of the bunch, naturally, is the Cheetahmen, but other highlights include Dam Busters, Bubblegum Rossie, Ooze, and Silver Sword, to name a few.
The most fascinating thing about this game, however, is it's price. Working on logic that probably seemed impeccable at the time, Active Enterprises decided to slap this game with a price tag of $199.99 (!) arguing that it was technically only $4 per game. Suffice it to say, there weren't many takers, and the price eventually came down. Irony of ironies, however, is that the game now fetches top dollar as a collectible. This is why you'd be crazy to actually seek out a legit copy of the game. If the moral implications of piracy bother you, keep in mind that you're playing Action 52, and therefore the only person you're really hurting is yourself.
All that aside, I have to admit, I still have a soft spot for this game, and not just in a "lol this gaem sux" kind of way either. I genuinely like it. Even as a kid, playing this game for the first time, disregarding the warnings of my cousins who'd rented the game and had their weekend ruined by it, there was something special about this bad game that set it apart from other bad games in my mind.
When I heard there was a sequel released for the Sega Genesis, I just had a try it.
You have to hand it to Active, not only did they refuse to give up, they most certainly learned from the mistakes they'd made with the NES version of the game. This time around, Active developed the game along with FarSight, the people behind the "cult classic" Color a Dinosaur, who later made the Game Party series for the Wii, and are currently enjoying some success with The Pinball Arcade, the most recent in a series of high quality emulations of classic pinball tables.
Between hooking up with FarSight and moving to 16-bit hardware, the quality of the Genesis version of Action 52 was noticeably improved... thought to be fair, that really isn't saying much. The improvements were more than just cosmetic, however. The games themselves have received noticeably more attention, with improved control and hit detection. The jump mechanics on the platform games has also been dealt with - somewhat - and a number of the shooters are at least playable, if not all that remarkable.
What's more, despite the title, a great number of games present are, in fact, not action games. There's a couple sports games, puzzle games, a sketch pad, there's even a 2 player Pong game called First Game. While none of these games are necessarily the apex of quality, their inclusion does show a genuine desire to create a more rounded product. Well, it could also indicate a lack of fresh ideas, but it leads to pretty much the same result, which is a good thing.
Game titles are color coded on the main menu. Green games are easy, for instance, while yellow games are harder, and blue is used to indicate two player games. On the NES, every game had a turn based two player feature, but the only game offering two player simultaneous gameplay was Fire Breathers. On the Genesis, only six of the games are intended for two players. These range from tennis, boxing, a number of combat games, the aforementioned First Game, Skirmish, which is a version of combat with the thin veneer of a strategy game on top. Though the hit detection on the boxing game (Knockout) is a joke - throw a punch from anywhere in the ring and the other guy gets hit - the other five games are at least decent, with First Game and Dyno Tennis (we can only assume they meant Dino Tennis) being the best.
Game number 1 on the list is called Go Bonkers, and is essentially a remake of an old Mac game called Diamonds. It's an absolute classic, but the level designs here are seriously problematic, making the game far more difficult than it need be. It's really unfortunate, Diamonds was a great game. There's also a pinball game called Star Ball that suffers from seriously faulty hit detection. On a shooter, this is a real nuisance, but when the pinball moves clear through solid objects on the table, the whole point is pretty much missed.
Meanwhile, Puzzle 15 is a slide puzzle, and Mind's Eye is - I kid you not - a crude version of Minesweeper, only with a limited umber of lives. There's a racing game called Daytona, which has some of the weirdest graphics this side of the art house, a decent, if not overly simplistic aerial combat game called Sidewinder, a drawing application called Sketch, and a number of games where you simply dodge obstacles or collect objects while dodging obstacles. There's also a randomizer, a sound demo and the great 52 challenge, in which you try to beat the hardest level of every game in a random order, save the two player games... presumably.
While this version does offer a great deal more variety, it ultimately comes back to the shooters and platformers. Quite a few familiar names make their return on this cart, though instead of just porting the NES games with better graphics and tighter controls, most of them were given entirely new games. One notable exception is the notorious Star Evil. The version present here is hardly the most exciting game in the world, but the bugs that plagued the NES version have been dealt with, the sprites were also made smaller and the overall level design, though it still repeats, is far more intricate. Incidentally, the game is far less remarkable once it's hilariously glaring flaw has been removed.
The little green haired guy from Ooze has also returned, this time with entirely workable jump mechanics, and far more interesting level design. The hit detection has also been improved, but there's still the matter of practically everything killing you in one hit. There's also some problems with the jump not being high enough to reach certain ledges, though this might have been intentional. The game does have some other problems, and it will likely appear at first glance to be as unplayable as the original, though it's actually pretty imaginative.
Perhaps saddest of all is what happened to the poor Cheetahmen. While the game still maintains a graphical edge over the other games on the cart, the gameplay is seriously lacking. This time around, your goal is to climb trees and rescue cheetah cubs from... uh.... snakes and bats. You can throw a pretty badass punch, but the reaction time is fairly slow. You can jump, but you can't throw a punch in mid air, and you're also completely defenceless when climbing vines. Also, you now die after taking only one hit, as opposed to four, and falling from too great a height is also fatal. As a result, much of the game is spent inching around the map very slowly, trying to avoid a direct confrontation with enemies. It doesn't help that the screen doesn't scroll until you're almost at the far edge. The Cheetahmen was the real standout game on the NES, and here it's one of the less remarkable games.
The music on this version sounds a lot better, but also somehow lacks the kitsch of the original. The music is grittier, darker, and more complex, and overall, much too serious for a game as absurd as Action 52. Most games now get more than one song, but most songs are so unremarkable as to just fade into the background. It doesn't help that they're mixed way too low. Honestly, there are no standouts here that I can think of. Sound effects in general suffer the same fate, most of which resemble either rocks crashing into one another, or noises out of old sci-fi B-movies. The only respectable sound on the whole cart is the female announcer's voice.
Overall, the Genesis version of Action 52 is still technically superior to it's predecessor, both in terms of presentation, as well as gameplay, though it loses some of it's camp appeal in the process. It's still a mess of a game, with a number of tiny flaws that can slowly wear away at your patience, but the wider variety of games does make up for a few shoddy ones. Like the NES version, you need to take this game with a huge grain of salt. This is not a serious game, nor one that offers deep or engrossing gameplay. It's just a fun little diversion.
As a part of their ongoing plans to break the Cheetahmen into the mainstream, a sequel to the original meant to be a standalone game for the NES, was in development. The game never saw the light of day, but a warehouse full of prototype copies surfaced a few years later, and the game quickly became a collector's item. This game was clearly made very quickly and cheaply, recycling as much of the code from the A52 version as possible, and the game was clearly never tested for bugs, balance issues, or all around problematic gameplay.
Much like the Action 52 game, you have six levels, and switch Cheetahmen every 2, but there's a bug in the game that prohibits you from playing the last 2 levels without either hacking the ROM or being the lucky recipient of a rare and hard to replicate bug. These two levels turn out to be note for note clones of levels from the original Cheetahmen. The game has a slightly expanded (though still incoherent) storyline and several new enemies, but otherwise delivers a level of quality even lower than that of the original, which is really saying something.
There were also scrapped plans for an SNES version of Action 52, and both Genesis and SNES version of a game called Sports 5, which was reportedly in development when Active's working relationship with FarSight came to an abrupt end. The game never reached a playable state, and no prototypes are know to have surfaced.
There were also a stories of a device called the Action Gamemaster, which would have been a portable game console capable of playing NES, Genesis, SNES as well as AE exclusive CD-ROM titles. Needless to say, a working prototype of the device has never surfaced, given that the hardware needed to run all those different formats (and legal implications notwithstanding) would have made for possibly the most cumbersome "portable" gaming experience ever. Needless to say, a working prototype of the device has never surfaced, though a mock-up image has come up, confirming what we all suspected, that this thing was the brainchild of people who were all ambition and no experience.
It is also worth noting, however, that after videos of the Cheetahmen surfaced on Nico Nico Douga (a Japanese streaming video site, not unlike YouTube), the game saw a massive surge of popularity among Japanese remixers. This was due largely to the catchiness of the Cheetahmen theme song, contrasted with the hilariously low quality game. There was even an entire CD dedicated to it, released by the group Dangerous Mezashi Cat. This includes a rock remix complete with vocals. You really have to admire the imagination that went into that.