I played every game by the worst video game company ever
LJN specialized in turning blockbuster movies into unrelated, unplayable video games, and is often considered to be the worst of all time. We made a friend play all of its games so you don't have to.
Illustration: Leonard Peng, Hopes&Fears
Two decades after they last released a title, the name "LJN Toys, Limited" is still synonymous with "shoddy cash-in" in the video game community. Under the ownership of MCA, and later of Acclaim Entertainment, LJN was responsible for releasing some of the worst video game adaptations of some of the best-loved cultural artifacts of the last thirty years.
I knew that going in--having fallen for their traps more than once when I was a kid--but when Hopes&Fears asked me to play and discuss every title in their catalog, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was an unrelenting descent into monotony, frustration, and a nauseating, dreamlike kind of nostalgia. It tested the limits of my patience and (at least aspects of) my sanity. Mostly, though, it just sucked.
Almost every game LJN released is broken on some level. Some of them are tediously easy. Most of them are impossibly difficult. A large percentage of them have virtually nothing to do with their source material besides the packaging and, sometimes, the design of their main character. Did the X-Men ever fight giant centipedes? Did Marty McFly ever throw a bowling ball at anybody? LJN didn't know the answer, and LJN didn't care. They were going to put boxes bearing the names of popular things on shelves, and people were going to buy them because video games were newer back then, and novelty makes people lower their guards. If there were any doubts about the depths of their laziness, LJN even managed to drop the ball on a Boy George action figure.
And so below, in the approximate order that they were released, is the sum total of eight years of LJN pumping out a bunch of reactionary trash in accordance with the trends of its day. LJN was folded into Acclaim proper in 1995, and Acclaim went under in 2004, but I bet there are people who are still rich from all of this. I am exhausted. Thank God LJN no longer exists.
As a result of the sheer volume of LJN releases, I laid down a couple of ground rules. While mostly arbitrary, the rules pared the amount of work to be done down from "you have to be crazy" to "you don't have to be crazy, but it helps."
With exceptions noted where applicable,
I attempted to play each game at least until I got a "Game Over," and longer if I felt like it.
If a game was available on multiple platforms, I would only play one version.
I opted for the NES version, if possible, then the SNES version, then the Gameboy version.
As a first foray into publishing for LJN, the Jaws game is not too bad. It's not based on the eponymous classic, but rather Jaws: The Revenge, which is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time.
The object of the Jaws game is to kill Jaws the shark before he kills you. Exasperated and broke after years of shark attacks, Amity's shopkeepers will only trade shark-killing equipment for conch shells; I was forced to kill innocent non-Jaws sea creatures to earn shells and slowly level up. I successfully evaded Jaws a couple of times but got killed by a stingray shortly after carpet bombing a bunch of jellyfish from a seaplane.
The Karate Kid
A confusing and frantic side-scrolling action game along the lines of Kung Fu, the Karate Kid game sees Daniel-san progressing through loosely-interpreted events of the first couple of films.
Within five minutes of opening the game, I had easily guided Daniel-san through the first film's martial arts tournament against the dreaded Cobra Kai. With no time to lose, Daniel left for Okinawa and the events of the second film, where he murdered countless men before being thrown into a bottomless pit by one lucky assailant.
Bonus points: I was able to collect "C" and "D" items in order to make use of the film's classic Crane Kicks and Drum Punches. They looked neat but seemed neither more nor less lethal than any other attack.
The cover of The Karate Kid (1987)
Gotcha! The Sport!
This game's graphics looked nice, and the title keeps getting stuck in my head, but it required a gun peripheral that I do not have. I was shot to death within moments.
Town & Country Surg Designs:
Wood &Water Rage
Leave it to LJC to publish a game that fails to deliver on the premise of "extreme sports where you can play as a cool gorilla or a cat wearing a suit."
I immediately recognized T&C as a game that some friends owned when I was younger. In fact, I imagine a lot of people remember it as "the game with the impossible surfing part." My surf hubris got the best of me, and my dapper cat fell into the ocean almost immediately after getting on his surfboard. I imagine "falling into the ocean" is a real worst-case scenario for a giant cat wearing an expensive-looking suit.
Friday the 13th
One of the most unforgettable movies of the eighties got a surprisingly ambitious video game treatment, with cohesiveness and parsability being discarded entirely in favor of a completely impenetrable side-scrolling Crystal Lake adventure.
I have a vague memory of my dad buying this game when it came out and eventually becoming dad-frustrated with how difficult it was. Like father, like son. I think at some point one of my characters saved a small group of children, but all of us were eventually either murdered by Jason or eaten by wolves in a cave.
The female characters are superior to the guys in this game (they're much faster, with no apparent downside). Plus, one of the greatest game over screens of all time.
Bonus Points: The female characters are superior to the guys in this game (they're much faster, with no apparent downside). Plus, one of the greatest game over screens of all time.
The game over screen from Friday the 13th (1989)
The Uncanny X-Men
Another game that I owned as a youth. There was a five-hour Looney Tunes marathon on television the evening my parents bought me The Uncanny X-Men, and after quickly surmising that the game was unplayably terrible, I lost myself in Bugs Bunny cartoons and chose to forget it existed.
The game's title screen and first level evoked a pang of recognition that felt like getting slapped in the back of the head. I wandered around a dissonant-looking environment while listening to a dissonant-sounding soundtrack while trying to avoid giant insects and monsters that looked like springs. With its complete absence of character and outright hostility towards the player, this may be the worst game in the LJN catalog.
Back to the Future
BTTF is another game that I vaguely remember playing when it came out. It takes several of the film's most iconic scenes, converts them into the most grueling, bizarre minigames possible, and demands almost total perfection before the player can progress.
As Marty McFly, I ran through the streets of Hill Valley while women with hula hoops hurled what appeared to be jewelry at me. The jewels were easily dodged, but a notably chubby and speedy bee eventually took me down. It took me three tries to beat the inaugural running level, only to realize that the game begins with five of them in a row. I turf out for good on the final one, fading into nothingness as the game informs me that Marty is "stuck here."
Bonus points: Looping a sped-up, eight-bit version of Huey Lewis and the News' "The Power of Love" nonstop.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
The developers of Who Framed Roger Rabbit seemed to grasp that people would eventually play their game, which puts it head and shoulders above most of the other first-wave LJN titles. It's still a bloated, confusing mess, of course, but the level of ambition in play made me, at least, appreciate the effort. It makes me wonder what the process of cranking out licensed games was like in the late eighties; what levels of pressure the developers must have been under to rush out a video game for everything that achieved an iota of popularity. What a drag it must have been.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
A confusing quasi-open-world side-scroller in the Friday the 13th mold, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels especially lazy given how well the films seem like they'd lend themselves to a decent game adaptation. The original, deemed-too-violent treatment of this game saw the player controlling Freddy and killing teenagers in self-defense, which sounds a lot better than what we ended up getting.
As far as I can tell, the object of the game is to find Freddy's bones scattered around a handful of generic locations (junkyard, cemetery) and then light them on fire. While wandering around blindly searching for an old man's bones, I managed to ward off random attacks from Freddy himself twice, both times after hearing an awful NES rendering of the "one, two Freddy's coming for you" song. Like the characters in the film, I began to get a little tired and succumbed to Krueger's third assault.
I expected Pictionary to be a boring and clunky adaptation of the cherished board game but went in a little confused about how it would allow for a single-player experience.
The Pictionary NES game is an unhinged piece of surrealist art, and I spent more time on it than any other game in this feature.
After each roll of the dice, I was hustled into one of a handful of fast-paced minigames. The games ranged from rescuing identical, terrified men leaping from a burning building to an inverted clone of Galaga. Success in the minigames unveiled random portions of a minimalist-cubist drawing, which I was then given an extremely short window of time to identify using an interesting sneaker-based text marquee.
There was no penalty for failure, and I won by guessing "pumpkin" on what was clearly a drawing of a jack-o-lantern. I love the Pictionary game.
The cover of Pictionary (1990)
Back to the Future Parts II and III
Having apparently learned some lessons from the enraging minimalism that was the original BTTF game, the sequel is an almost psychedelic attempt at being a half-baked Mario clone. There are spiky, red-shelled turtles, green pipes, and even a sad little stab at the perfection that is the Mario "picking up a coin" sound effect.
In an attempt to get the lay of the land, I rode a cloud to the far right of the first area, took an elevator to an area that appeared identical to the first but with scarier music, and was immediately destroyed by a fish that jumped out of a pit of quicksand.
The character of The Punisher feels like a relic of ultra-violent eighties popular culture; if someone was jacked, usually white, had a huge gun, and adhered to a vague "tough on crime" mentality, they qualified as a Reagan-era hero. The Punisher NES game is a cursor-based third-person rails shooter where every single enemy I faced was a minority.
During about fifteen minutes of play, The Punisher gunned down literally hundreds of people of color (the game maintains an onscreen body count) to a soundtrack of total silence except for gunfire and the occasional blues line played by a recurring, unkillable saxophone player. Were it made today, it would qualify as a solid piece of disquietingly satirical anti-superhero art.
T2: The Arcade Game
Another game that required a gun peripheral that I lacked; in this case, the SNES Super Scope. I'm sure using the bazooka-like SSS to blow away machines would have been a welcome respite from my platforming tedium, but facing them unarmed killed me almost immediately.
The Super Scope peripheral required to play T2: The Arcade Game (1990)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
This was a surprisingly good entry in LJN's "licensed platformer that could be about anything" genre. I fist-fought my way through a parking lot and a pool hall, participated in a respectable recreation of the film's famous LA River chase scene, and finally got beaten to death in a mazelike office complex by a Clockwork Orange-looking thug.
Bonus Points: The soundtrack to the level where I died kind of sounded like "Higher Than the Sun" by Primal Scream, and Arnold's sprite in this game looks like eighties Lou Reed.
Hey, Rare made this game for JJN. Anyone who made Goldeneye and Banjo-Kazooie surely wouldn't be responsible for yet another completely obtuse puzzle platformer that has almost nothing to do with its source material.
Within seconds of starting the game, I re-enacted the unforgettable scene from the film where Beetlejuice sacrifices his life by grabbing a key that's dangling over a bottomless pit. With my next life, I used the key to enter a nearby house and get vaporized several times in a row by lasers coming out of enormous overhead lamps. "First I lose my true love, then I don't make it to ghoul heaven," says Beetlejuice on the game over screen. Sorry, Beetlejuice.
Bill and Ted's Excellent
Video Game Adventure
Considering how many films with actual plots and action-fueled storylines failed at becoming playable LJN video games, I went into Bill and Ted with low expectations.
The game began auspiciously enough: George Carlin handed Keanu Reeves a historical phonebook. The first several numbers I tried (Al Capone, Cleopatra) were busy, but eventually, King Arthur answered and, after a minigame involving telephone circuitry that I'm still not sure how I passed, Keanu was transported to medieval England. I walked around using nauseating almost-isometric controls, bumping into a handful of cool knights who gave me cassette tapes and firecrackers. Eventually one of them, identical to the rest but holding some unexplained grudge, threw Keanu in jail.
By now it is well-worn LJN territory: a beloved character with lots of interactive possibilities, terrible level design, impossible controls, generic sci-fi environments that could be applied to anything.
Wolverine scores most of its points by not being Uncanny X-Men-- it didn't set off flashbacks to repressed anxiety from my early childhood, for example, and I would pay to see a movie where Wolverine leaps from giant pipe to giant pipe killing guys who appear to be greasers, but Wolverine fell thousands of feet to his death from an airborne fortress before I could drum up much more enthusiasm than that.
Bonus points: I learned via post-facto YouTube research that this game ends with Wolverine punching Sabretooth off a cliff and a screen that says "The End?"
Town & Country II: Thrilla's Surfari
I was hoping for a more accessible version of the elegant-cat-insanity of the first T&C, but the Thrilla Gorilla cross-branding gave me pause. It turns out I was correct, and T&C II consists primarily of a Thrilla Gorilla-driven version of the skateboarding minigame from the original. I can't blame them for tightening things up and tossing the parts that didn't work, but that certainly didn't stop me from eating shit in the first level like eight times in a row and giving up.
Someone got the plot of Alien 3 explained to them in under ten seconds and took a break from playing Contra to make a game about it.
Playing as a version of Ripley that looked like Rambo, I lurked around some kind of underground facility, killing xenomorphs and slowly rescuing people who had apparently been captured. After a few minutes of repeated alien attacks and failed rescue attempts, the game informed me that there had been a time limit, and I had exhausted it. I was treated to the grisly deaths of everyone I'd failed to rescue and booted back to the title screen.
Bonus points: It's almost funny that the studio that presumably designed this game for LJN called themselves "Probe."
The Incredible Crash Dummies
The game really underscored the way LJN enforced its own status as a huckster for the most forgettable aspects of its era's pop culture. Despite being squarely within the dummies' target demographic, I remember thinking at the time that the Crash Dummies were almost as surreal and creepy as they seem in retrospect.
The plot of this game involves a "junkman" coming alive and trying to turn the dummies into parts for some type of evil machine. As the sole survivor of an attack on the dummies' factory/home, I was tasked with rescuing my friends. The loose controls and jerky, back-and-forth camera made me nauseous enough that, if a tire didn't knock my dummy's head off and doom his friends, I would have thrown up.
While it fails to reach the avant-garde highs attained by Pictionary, True Lies is probably the most objectively "good" game LJM ever published. It combines elements of stealth, action, and puzzle-solving in a creative way while retaining an identifiable connection to the movie it's supposedly about. More importantly, it makes its objectives clear enough to respect the players' time, which makes it a pretty singular entry in the non-sports LJM catalog.
Playing as Arnold Schwarzenegger, I wandered around a mansion either shooting or not shooting armed guards, depending on whether or not I felt like being noticed. I collected a few keys from a few dead bodies and made my way into an important-seeming part of the house before being gunned down. I wonder if this was the first mainstream video game to use the word "modem."
Bonus Points: The montage effect that True Lies' "game over" screen creates strongly suggests that Arnold's body explodes like a nuclear bomb when he dies.
Game over screen for True Lies (1994)
Wolverine: Adamantium Rage
Any lingering positivity that True Lies left in my craw was erased almost instantly by Wolverine: Adamantium Rage. A quick look at a walkthrough suggests that each of the games' areas requires either finding a certain number of items or killing a certain number of enemies, but I very quickly became trapped in the basement of a secret laboratory. With no items or enemies accessible, and his mutant healing factor increasing his life by the moment, my iteration of Wolverine spent eternity down there, wondering what might have been.
Warlock strikes me as the kind of game a well-intentioned but misguided relative might get you for your birthday. I played as a mulleted wizard in a flowing purple trenchcoat, so anyone could be forgiven for mistaking this for a game that's actually fun.
Instead, it's a boring and frustrating slog. Like most games from this era with somewhat realistic graphics, the titular Warlock handles like a shopping cart full of rocks. Eventually, the rival warlock or something vaporized me with a magical beam. This terrible game is based on a terrible-looking movie I had never heard of.
For a few years in the nineties, LJN had the market on WWF tie-ins absolutely cornered. Wrestling games tend to be a drag even in the best of times so, with expediency, I wrestled one match in each of LJN's titles.
WWF Wrestlemania Challenge
Stark, quiet, and overly staged, WWF Wrestlemania Challenge feels like a young Gus Van Sant directed a bad 8-bit wrestling game. Wrestling as a generic-looking guy billed as "myself," I admit I could have tried a bit harder to win my match against Brutus Beefcake, but the world of WWFWC proved too grim for me.
The cover of WWF Super WrestleMania (1992)
My expectations for an LJN-published Gameboy wrestling game were unbelievably low, but WWF Superstars was pretty charming. The wrestler's loudmouth personas were in place, and the "get close to your opponent and hit buttons for violence" gameplay is arguably too simple to mess up. The music is jaunty, and my Ultimate Warrior won his match against a rendition of Ted DiBiase that looked even more like Kris Kristofferson than usual.
WWF Super WrestleMania
As the fidelity of these games increased to the 16-bit era, it occurred to me how hard it must have been to attain both the kid-friendliness and the tuff-man violence that the WWF and its video games demanded. I chose the relatively obscure Typhoon just for the heck of it, but during my match against Earthquake, I realized that every wrestler had the same set of moves. I hammered the punch button while barely looking at the screen and eventually won the match.
WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge
The musical soundtrack to this one was strangely minor-key and dirgelike, but, at least, the white noise meant to replicate a crowd's roar prevented the combatants from fighting in eerie silence. The fighting felt more rote than it did in the other titles, and my Hulk Hogan defeated The Mountie simply by pressing "attack" as quickly as I could for the entire match.
WWF King of the Ring
I could name my wrestler in this one, so I named him "Joe." The in-game action was a bit slow and floaty, but Joe managed to kick and stomp Razor Ramon until he was dead or whatever. It's clear that a year had passed since Steel Cage Challenge had been released because the white noise during fights is almost recognizable as the sound of an actual crowd.
WWF: Royal Rumble
Now we're talking. This was the first game thus far that allowed me to take the action outside of the ring. Throwing people out of the ring is one of the most satisfying aspects of any wrestling game, so I chose Ric Flair and threw Tatanka (who was a jerk when I met him at a local clothing store when I was a kid) out of the ring as many times as I could before pinning him.
WWF Raw is the culmination of the games that came before it. The wrestling felt like wrestling, the animation on the wrestling moves (including actual finishers) was of high enough fidelity that I could tell what was going on, and it's almost certainly the first wrestling game to include a female fighter (Luna Vachon). My Doink the Clown defeated Yokozuna in what most would agree was an upset but, more importantly, WWF Raw was the first in the series where it felt like an actual wrestling match instead of the fighting portion of an old hockey game.
Pro Sports corner
In the absence of a normal "game over" scenario, I set out to play one full game of each sports title in the LJN catalog. This did not come to fruition, and instead, I feel like I have received a crash course in how difficult it is to create a playable sports simulation.
Major League Baseball
My Baltimore Orioles, led by a starting pitcher who threw almost nothing but 60 mile-per-hour hanging sliders. were down 34-1 to the Montreal Expos by the end of the second inning.
I chose John Elway's Denver Broncos, pitting them against the hated Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl. After two extremely long quarters of play, the score was 2-2, I had been called for a nonexistent penalty ("illegal chuck"), and I had not figured out how to throw a pass. Having completely disgraced the game of football in just one-half of play, Jimmy Johnson and I declined to play a second.
Roger Clemens MVP Baseball
I couldn't resist the team named the "Cincinnati Big Cats," and at more or less random I picked the Los Angeles Apaches as my opponent. This game does that thing lots of unlicensed sports games did back then, where the player who's obviously supposed to be David Cone, for example, is named "Conehead," and Daryl Strawberry is named "Raspberry." Raspberry cranked a handful of ground balls out to the fence and after my players jumped into the air a bunch of times instead of fielding them, I opted out of trying to best him by the end of the third inning.
The cartridge for Roger Clemens MVP Baseball (1991)
NBA All-Star Challenge
This game plays out like a half-court, one-on-one version of NBA Jam, with one early-nineties superstar representing their entire team. I chose Larry Bird and exploited Patrick Ewing's understandably lackluster perimeter defense, earning an easy victory. I had allowed myself to get excited to play a basketball game and thus was a bit disappointed in NBA All-Star Challenge, but as far as the LJN canon goes it could have been a lot worse.
NFL Quarterback Club
This game starts with an excellent photo montage of every circa-1993 NFL quarterback, and it felt downright comforting to have the likes of Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly flashing on my TV again. I chose Bledsoe, and it quickly turned out that NFLQC is one of those old football games you can win by running the same button-hook style pass play over and over. I wonder what people who bought it when it came out thought when they realized that.
Spider-Man seemed to be the other license that LJN had on lockdown during the bulk of its run, and every game released during that time followed a pretty strict pattern of Spider-Man-as-side-scrolling-death-machine. I played through the first level of each; as a referendum on how much of a "Spider-Man game" a given title actually was, I took note of which powers Spider-Man actually had at his disposal and who he took on at the stage's end.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Game Boy, 1990
All he can do is punch and kick, and the Gameboy makes his mask look chrome, so aside from the villains, this could also pass for an Ultraman game.
SPIDER POWERS: None
FIRST BOSS: Hobgoblin
Spider-Man and the X-Men
in Arcade's Revenge
I have run out of ways to say it: This game is very difficult and none of the levels make any sense. I gave after being killed by a vaguely feminine wall-mounted robot head three times in a row.
Spider Powers: Spider sense that indicates when important objects are around, web swinging, web bullets.
First Boss: Couldn't get to first boss.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
GAME BOY, 1992
A little more interactivity than the first installment, but worse art direction. Great soundtrack. Not extraordinarily difficult. It's unsettling that Spider-Man's suit is a flat black. A middle-of-the-road bad Spider-Man game.
SPIDER POWERS: Climbing walls, web bullets
FIRST BOSS: Hobgoblin
Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six
This might be the only LJN game with serviceable platforming physics. I was astonished. I made jumps I wanted to make, and when I died I felt like it was my fault instead of the game's. The graphics are muddy and most of the first level looks like the setting for the Smooth Criminal video, but SM:RSS gets a lot more right than most of LJN's run did.
SPIDER POWERS: Web bullets
FIRST BOSS: Electro
Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage
I remember this being a pretty high-profile title when it came out, and its production values place it on the higher-end of the LJN spectrum. Maximum Carnage featured a solid butt-metal soundtrack by the band Green Jelly and visual flourishes that made the game seem more like a comic book adaptation and less like it's another LJN game that took ten minutes to make.
Spider Powers: Using the web to pull local goons closer for easier beatdowns, periodic web swinging.
First Boss: Two normal-seeming women named Dana and Lizzie.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series
A return to classic, terrible LJN. Spider-Man: The Animated Series has almost nothing to do with Spider-Man except for its bosses. It plays almost exactly like Michael Jordan: Chaos In the Windy City, which is a comparison I feel horrible about being able to make.
Spider Powers: Unwieldy web slinging.
First Boss: Alien Spider Slayer
Spider-Man and Venom: Separation Anxiety
This game features exactly the same combat and many of the same backgrounds and sprites as Maximum Carnage, but MC's animated story sequences have been replaced with typo-ridden copy for a similar-but-separate story. An admirable cash-in even by LJN standards.
Spider Powers: Using the web to pull local goons closer for easier beatdowns, periodic web swinging.
First Boss: A yellow robot apparently named the Digger.
I would estimate that I spent between eight and nine hours mapping LJN's broken, notionally interactive desert. My time there brought me straight back to an era where expecting fairness or even basic functionality from your interactive entertainment was, at best, an unsafe bet. My 2015 brain, by contrast, has grown accustomed to software doing more or less what I expect it to. Physics engines, difficulty curves, and level design have been refined beyond what I can possibly imagine, and I've been rewired to take it all for granted. Returning to it a quarter-century after the fact, LJN's catalog elicited a uniquely modern kind of cognitive dissonance; it felt like interactivity seasickness.
Now that the sickness has subsided, it would be elegant for me to be able to say technology and consumer demand have moved past the LJN era, but this is America, and stuff will always be getting rushed out the door to capitalize on other stuff. It's also arguable that game publishers' cynicism has adapted to become more endemic, complicated, and culturally destructive than it ever was. The form and function of video games have kept moving, however, and the way naked cash grabs invariably miss their marks and immediately freeze in time ends up turning them into cultural artifacts. Super Mario Brothers is timeless and is about as fun today as it was when it came out. The only positive thing I can say about The Incredible Crash Dummies is that it's a preserved-in-amber snapshot of the vacuous junk people were expected to tolerate in 1993. In that way, and because we no longer have to play them, LJN's horrible games manage to be much more useful now than they were at the time.
Video compositing: Rhett Jones, Hopes&Fears