Game Over, Man! – Beetlejuice

In our Game Over, Man! series, we explore the history of video games that are based on movies, one game at a time. This week, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1991’s Beetlejuice for the NES…

Beetlejuice (USA)-180907-132239

As we’ve already discovered in our series so far, movie games from the early 90’s had a tedency to be a bit, you know, crappy, but resembled the movies enough for their fans to find some good in, therefore redeeming it slightly. Every so often though, a game came along that even the most die-hard of fans would find it impossible to enjoy anything about them. A digitised turd with a movie title slapped onto it, for want of a better term. A prime example of this was the tie-in for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.

For those who may not be familiar with Beetlejuice, the 1988 movie follows the story of the newly-deceased Maitland couple (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis), who are stuck haunting their former countryside residence. When the unbearable Deetz family move into the home, the Maitlands (along with Lydia Deetz, played by Winona Ryder) enlist the services of a rambunctious, con artist spirit by the name of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to help them get rid of the family, only to find that they’ve been put into danger themselves.

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Released a whole three years after the film’s original cinema run, Beetlejuice found its way onto the NES in 1991. Published by LJN, who were renowned for their crappy licensed movie games (and a company that we’ll be coming back to many times over the course of this series!), the game sees players take on the role of Beetlejuice as he chases the Deetz family out of their new home, much like the plot of the movie. The development team behind the game was none other than Rare, who we’ve already sung the praises for on a few occasions here at Pet Wolf Gaming.

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For the most part, Beetlejuice is a side-scrolling platformer. The hallmarks of your standard platform experience are pretty much present and accounted for throughout the game, and after seeing who developed the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these features would be executed to a somewhat solid degree at the very least, but the actual result of this game couldn’t be further from “solid”.

In complete contrast to the rules of platforming set by Super Mario Bros (ease the player in by gradually introducing enemies and objects etc.), Beetlejuice immediately drops players in at the deep end. At no point are any of the game’s controls explained onscreen, so players will have a hard time figuring out what the hell is going on without the instruction manual.

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Even when you do figure out the controls, the game does not make it easy for players at all. Beetlejuice has a kick attack that is so slow and ineffective, even the simplest of enemies are more challenging than they should be. Couple this up with the fact that taking just one hit from any enemy send the “ghost with the most” flying across the screen, it’s unlikely that you’re going to want to continue playing for very long.

Then there’s the jumping. What is supposed to be the most crucial part of a platforming game is an incredibly flawed, slippery experience that actually causes the majority of the player’s deaths in the game. I’m all for platforming that is challenging and requires pinpoint precision at times to pull off, but trying to play a game with a jump mechanic this poor just makes things feel not only unfair, but broken as well. Not a good start at all.

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After a while, the game shifts into a new perspective; a top-down maze. While this does offer a brief respite from the horrible platforming, it is also one of the most baffling parts of the game in terms of the main enemy you’ll be up against. During these sections, Beetlejuice is chased around by a giant (and deadly) floating door. Now, unless there’s a cut of the movie that I haven’t seen, a spooky door is a strange choice for one of the game’s most threatening aspects. It’s a confusing addition to what was already a confusing game in the first place.

Beetlejuice‘s abilities can be upgraded with visits to shops that are dotted around various parts of each level. Manned by the explorer with the shrunken head from the end of the movie (for some reason, as he hates Beetlejuice in the movie), players can choose to purchase a handful of powerups called “Scares”. These “Scares” can make Beetlejuice have two heads, transform him into a skeleton (which is only really effective against bees?) or make him look scarier and fire fireballs, amongst others. As these items are single use only, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be needing to buy lots of them in order to progress through the game, but they come at a cost, and that’s where we run into another of the game’s biggest flaws; the currency.

In order to save up enough credits for items, Beetlejuice must crush beetles for their juice (?). This wouldn’t be an issue under normal circumstances, as it can be effective in getting players to explore the environment more and keep them engaged for longer, but the beetles give you such a small amount of points, it ends up being an absolute grind just to get the simplest of powerups.

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With the gameplay failing in almost every area, would it be too much to ask for the graphics and sound to make up for those shortcomings? It would appear so. Things here look (and sound) so disappointing, not only in the design of the levels, but the characters too. Beetlejuice only really resembles his moviesake in the title screen image that is used over and over again, and the enemies are a mess too (I get why Beetlejuice is fighting off ghosts and giant insects, but why is there an octopus here?!). The soundtrack is also a complete dud too, with an annoying loop of music that doesn’t come anywhere near close to sounding like any of the songs featured in the movie.

If there’s anything positive to drudge out of this absolutely turgid mess of a game, then its the setting of the game’s secret penalty level that Beetlejuice gets teleported to if he gets hit by the floating door. I always liked the idea of an afterlife area where ghosts die if they get eaten by the creatures there, and the sandworms were a fantastic element of the movie, so seeing their inclusion in Beetlejuice is a good thing. It’s definitely not enough to save Beetlejuice from being one of the worst games I have ever played, but finding something even slightly “ok” in a game like this is worth mentioning.

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Not only does Beetlejuice fail to faithfully represent either version of everyone’s favourite bio-exorcist, but it falls completely flat as a playable video game too. The graphics are utterly horrible, the sound is absolutely woeful and the controls handle about as gracefully as a broken pogo stick on a frozen lake.

It feels strange to be writing about a Rare game in less than glowing terms, especially when taking the calibre of their other releases over the last 20 or so years into consideration, but this is a strikingly huge misstep for the developer, and it really makes you wonder if any of the team actually saw the movie before starting development, or whether they just rushed the game’s creation just to get it out of the way.

Please, can someone just say this game’s name three times so it’ll be banished back to the afterlife, right at the back of the line where it belongs?

Have you played Beetlejuice on the NES? Leave a comment below, or get in touch via Twitter!

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