Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we will be opening the door to Crazy Castle, one of the medium’s most convoluted series. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where more than one year is indicated, the first is Japan, the second is North America, and the third is Europe.
With regard to research, it remains challenging to find authoritative secondary sources on the Crazy Castle series. Among the ones I discovered, I found that Jeremy Parish’s video ‘Game Boy World #009: The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle (Kemco-Seika, 1989)‘ was the most comprehensive and informative. Aside from that, extensive dives into MobyGames, Wikipedia, and assorted other online Wikis were necessary to piece together the progression of this oft-forgotten franchise.
Kemco was founded in 1984 as a subsidiary of Kotobuki Engineering & Manufacturing Co., Ltd. Like many other early Japanese video game corporations, including Square and Konami, Kemco had been spun out of a company focused on an unrelated field as executives noticed the new medium’s rising popularity. The new studio established a relationship with Nintendo and became one of the first licensees to develop software for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Roger Rabbit / The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle / Mickey Mouse (1989)
By the late 1980s, Kemco had secured a handful of licenses to create software based on popular intellectual properties around the world. Unfortunately, license-holders varied from region to region and Kemco consequently couldn’t release its games worldwide without breaking copyright law. It is an elegant coincidence that the studio’s first entry in the long running Crazy Castle series would be an adaptation of a film with its own notoriously complicated history of licensing rights.
Roger Rabbit is a puzzle-platformer based loosely on the events of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). The player takes on the role of the titular hare as he navigates around two-dimensional stages in pursuit of hearts. Once each heart is collected, Roger can progress on to the next stage. Antagonist Judge Doom’s weasel henchmen are featured as enemies, spelling instant death for the player character if their sprites come into contact. Since Roger can’t jump – as most platformer characters could since the appearance of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (1985) – the player must navigate him around enemies using the stage’s layout.
Most notably, each stage includes multiple doors in the style of ChunSoft’s Door Door (1983). These doors sometimes lead to discrete rooms featuring required hearts or power-ups, but just as often lead upward or downward to other vertical floors within the same stage; moving through doors is the most efficient way to evade enemies. An alternative approach is the collection of power-ups which render Roger invincible or able to fight back against his pursuers. The thoughtful player can even have Roger drop safes off of ledges and onto enemies to remove them from play.
The game proved to be a modest success in Japan and Kemco opted to localize it in North America. Unfortunately, a company called LJN owned the rights to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? video games in North America; this licensing arrangement had already led to a Rare-developed adaptation of the film for the NES in 1989. As a result, Kemco decided to update the sprites and localize the game as The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. Roger was changed into Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny, hearts were changed into carrots, and enemies were changed into Looney Tunes characters Sylvester the Cat, Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, and Daffy Duck. As noted by gaming historian Jeremy Parish, a relatively limited visual overhaul results in the enemy sprites quite clearly moving like Roger Rabbit’s weasels.
Shortly after the commercial success of their first licensed puzzle-platformer, Kemco created an adaptation for Nintendo’s newly released Game Boy. Though intended to be a faithful conversion of the console version on a handheld device – certainly a novelty for the era – Kemco opted not to use the Roger Rabbit license a second time. Instead, it created a portable successor to Roger Rabbit starring Disney’s Mickey Mouse in Japan. The resulting game was aptly titled Mickey Mouse, suggesting no direct link between the two releases in spite of their otherwise identical gameplay and stage layout.
In North America, on the other hand, Game Boy’s The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle (1990) was more conspicuously a home console port. Its cover art is pulled directly from the NES original and its name is unchanged. In spite of this apparent adaptation from a home console release, the game was instead directly localized from Mickey Mouse; concessions to the Game Boy’s more limited screen size were necessary when transforming Roger Rabbit to Mickey Mouse and these remain present in the North American port of The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. The Game Boy version of this game would represent the series’ debut in Europe.
Mickey Mouse II / The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle 2 / Hugo (1991/1991/1995)
Kemco’s first serious overhaul to the series would occur one year after The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle’s Game Boy release. Its next installment would likewise be published on Nintendo’s handheld console, but would feature a handful of tweaks that made it superior to its predecessor. It would also have an even more complex localization history than the previous title.
Originally published in Japan as Mickey Mouse II, the second full entry in the Crazy Castle franchise sees the player navigating 28 stages as Mickey Mouse. Mickey must engage in puzzle-platforming gameplay to overcome a variety of Disney antagonists and save Minnie from a villain named the Horned King. Little about the underlying mechanics is altered, as Mickey can again travel vertically using doors or pipes and is defeated when touched by foes unless he has acquired a power-up.
Mickey Mouse II’s most significant contribution to the series’ overall development is the expansion of its visual palette and enemy types. Since the game was developed from the ground up for the Game Boy, rather than being ported from the Famicom/NES, sprites could be more finely tuned to take the portable platform’s monochromatic palette into consideration. Stages were similarly designed to take advantage of the Game Boy’s smaller screen size rather than awkwardly hiding portions of the stage originally designed to be seen by players on a home console. Enemies are more numerous, with many of the foes featuring unique sprites and semi-distinctive movement patterns.
Kemco would again opt to make use of its Looney Tunes license when localizing the game for North America in 1991. Bugs Bunny would be the player character, though he would be beset by a wider variety of Looney Tunes baddies than he had encountered in his first sidescrolling adventure. These include Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Little Ghost, Moth and the Flame, Sylvester, Foghorn Leghorn, Tasmanian Devil, Beaky Buzzard, Marc Antony, Merlin the Magic Mouse, and Tweety. As would be expected, the gameplay is functionally identical to its direct source material – Mickey Mouse II – and quite similar to Kemco’s previous Crazy Castle game.
Crazy Castle 2 would mark the first instance of a unique localization in Europe four years after Mickey Mouse II’s Japanese release. Oddly, a version of Mickey Mouse II called Mickey Mouse (1992) was published in the European region during the intervening years; this seems to be the direct source for a later revision featuring a new license. In contrast to later franchise entries, this 1995 European localization would feature a character relevant to local audiences but largely unfamiliar outside of the territory: Hugo. The friendly Scandinavian troll was created by Interactive Television Entertainment (ITE) as part of a television series in 1990 but would quickly spawn an international media empire that included two Amiga games by Silverrock Productions, a subsidiary of ITE.
Hugo’s first Game Boy appearance, however, was a simple reskin of Mickey Mouse II. The conversion saw surprisingly little altered, aside from the protagonist and framing narrative. Basic enemies are largely identical to those in Mickey Mouse II while items are similarly unchanged. Even the primary antagonist is still the Horned King, though in this version he has kidnapped Hugo’s wife Hugolina rather than Minnie Mouse. The Hugo video game series would go on to be impressively prolific in European markets, but no future entries would be drawn from Kemco’s Crazy Castle saga. Crazy Castle’s confusing history, meanwhile, was about to become stranger still.
Soreike!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid / Bugs Bunny: Crazy Castle 3 (1997/1999)
In the six years between the Japanese release of Mickey Mouse II and Bugs Bunny: Crazy Castle 3, Kemco spun the series out in varying directions across three continents. None were technically part of the Crazy Castle franchise, at least as North American audiences understand it, but that distinction is a reminder of how fluid the series’ identity actually is. The Japanese Mickey Mouse series would see three additional releases on the Famicom and Game Boy between 1992 and 1993, though these would feature a few significant alterations from the basic Crazy Castle template. The player character’s ability to jump, in particular, would fundamentally alter the franchise’s mechanics, heavily shifting emphasis towards the platformer side of its puzzle-platformer gameplay.
The Famicom’s Mickey Mouse III (1992) would be localized in North America as Kid Klown in Night Mayor World (1993), debuting an original protagonist who would go on to appear in his own games throughout the 1990s. The Game Boy’s Mickey Mouse IV (1993) would be reskinned in North America as The Real Ghostbusters (1993), a licensed tie-in to DIC’s The Real Ghostbusters animated series, and simultaneously localized as Garfield Labyrinth (1993) in Europe. Mickey Mouse V (1993), the last of Kemco’s Mickey Mouse games, would be the first entry in the series to receive an international release without undergoing cosmetic updates; due to Capcom apparently losing exclusive rights to develop and publish Disney video games at some point during the 1990s, Mickey Mouse V would be released in 1998 as Mickey Mouse: Magical Wands for North America and Mickey Mouse V: Zauberstäbe! for Europe.
Back in Japan, Kemco would make the surprising choice to release a compilation of the first two The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle Game Boy releases in 1997. As with Super Mario Bros. 2 / Super Mario Bros. USA, this is a rare instance in which the foreign adaptation of a Japanese video game is re-localized for its source material’s home territory. The collection includes Super Game Boy enhancements, a feature that would become standard in later series entries.
The compilation would also lead directly into a Japanese Game Boy release of Soreike!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid (1997). Soreike!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid features gameplay and graphics highly reminiscent of Mickey Mouse II, though it stars Kemco’s Kid Klown rather than Disney’s Mickey. Kid Klown has lost the ability to jump in his transition from the NES’ Kid Klown in Night Mayor World, instead making use of doors and power-ups to evade or defeat his enemies as he collects keys throughout 2D stages.
Two years later, Japanese fans would receive their first original entry in the Bugs Bunny version of the Crazy Castle series on the Game Boy Color. Though it is built directly on Soreike!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid, Bugs Bunny: Crazy Castle 3 (1999) adds color and replaces enemy sprites with new ones based on Looney Tunes characters. This version of the game would be localized with no major alterations in North America and Europe. For the first time, fans worldwide were treated to the same Crazy Castle game.
Note: Soreike!! Kid: Go! Go! Kid cover is sourced from All My Games.
Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 4 (2000)
After having finally harmonized the Eastern and Western halves of its Crazy Castle franchise with Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 3, Kemco would publish only one version of Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 4 in all territories. The only alteration would be translation out of its original Japanese script. This streamlined international release would be reflected in a very brief localization period: only three months separated the game’s July 2000 North American publication from its April 2000 Japanese debut.
Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 4 would be the series’ first entry built from the ground up for Nintendo’s Game Boy Color (GBC) platform. The slim GBC is largely the same as its bulky gray predecessor, though it features a full color screen. This new presentation element is leveraged to create a brighter, more charming set of stages than had appeared in any prior Crazy Castle release; Crazy Castle 3 had launched on GBC but had been adapted from a game originally developed for the monochromatic Game Boy.
While its visual design was perhaps the strongest that the series had produced so far, Bugs Bunny in Crazy Castle 4 included virtually no gameplay revisions. Players still guide Bugs Bunny around 2D puzzle-platformer mazes, entering doors to access alternate parts of the level. Keys must be collected to advance as Bugs avoids a host of Looney Tunes baddies. The sprites and animations are enhanced from earlier titles, in keeping with the game’s improved visual design, but players who owned earlier series entries encounter no gameplay surprises here.
Woody Woodpecker in Crazy Castle 5 (2002/2003)
Kemco lost the license to produce Warner Bros. games after Tweety and the Magic Gems (2000) and would need to find a new mascot for its stalwart puzzle-platformer franchise. Happily, Universal Studios had been seeking a video game developer to create content based on its IPs and signed a deal with Kemco around 2000. This led to the publication of Gamecube theme-park tie-in Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure in 2001.
Following that critically panned release, the studio sought to make further use of its new stable of characters. Woody Woodpecker, who had appeared as a guide in Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure, would thus have his role expanded to playable protagonist in Kemco’s newest Crazy Castle entry. The series’ fifth title would likewise see the largest visual and mechanical overhaul in its decade-long history. While Kemco would publish the game in all territories, it would be developed by the licensed game veterans at Australian studio Tantalus Interactive.
The basic gameplay premise remains the same as earlier series entries – Woody must be navigated through 2D stages in pursuit of keys – but numerous new tools have been added to the player’s repertoire. Among these additions is a jetpack which finally permits vertical movement in a core Crazy Castle game. Bosses, along with lesser enemies, are entirely original creations for the game rather than being pulled from Universal’s cartoon library.
Crazy Castle 5’s visuals are conspicuously revised from those of the its predecessors thanks to Nintendo’s new Game Boy Advance (GBA) hardware. Backgrounds are comparatively lush and colorful, but a still larger update was made to character models. Woody and enemies appear to be textured polygonal models rather than simple 2D sprites. Unfortunately, these relatively well-articulated models clash awkwardly with the cartoonish world and objects around them.
In relation to its predecessors, Woody Woodpecker in Crazy Castle 5 features an uncharacteristically lengthy narrative. The game opens with a roughly animated cutscene in which Woody is whisked away to the World of Fairies by a diminutive figure named Mother Nature. Earlier games had included very brief framing scenes, but had stopped short of including entire lines of dialogue. Whether this change is for the better likely depends upon the player’s own preferences.
Surprisingly, the series’ fifth entry would include its first instance of multiplayer. Up to four players can connect their GBAs and compete in a unique asymmetric multiplayer minigame using GBA link cables and a single copy of the game cartridge. This mode sees up to three players navigating around a 2D stage as they attempt to tag the remaining player within a specified time frame.
Woody Woodpecker in Crazy Castle 5 would represent the series final entry on dedicated game platforms. It seems to have made no real impact, as I can find no contemporary critical reviews. Though the gameplay features a number of advancements made to the series’ highly formulaic mechanics, its visual overhaul and narrative represent more ambivalent alterations. Following this release, Kemco would move the franchise to mobile devices for its (so far) final entry.
Crazy Castle (2004)
In a genuinely bizarre twist, Mitsui Comtek would release the final Crazy Castle game exclusively in the West. Mitsui Comtek was a company otherwise known for consumer electronic It would also drop the series’ dependence on licensed characters, instead presenting a generic fantasy aesthetic featuring a princess navigating a castle in pursuit of a prince. Aside from using Crazy Castle as a launching point for the studio’s own Kid Klown character, Kemco had not previously released a Crazy Castle game without a licensed IP.
The result was an underwhelming game that stripped away much of what had brought fans to the franchise. The spartan visuals are a step back from Woody Woodpecker in Crazy Castle 5, though at least the music is engaging. According to at least one contemporary GameSpot review (one more than I could find for the game’s direct predecessor, it’s worth noting), the difficulty ramps up to such a degree that progression becomes a source of intense frustration by the halfway point.
Still, the basic gameplay remains relatively faithful to the franchise’s roots. The player-controlled princess can push weights off of ledges and hurl daggers at enemies to incapacitate them if she finds the relevant power-up. 2D puzzle-platformers may have become passe by the early 2000s, but this is at least a competent exercise in recreating what had worked in earlier Crazy Castle games. Without the presence of already-popular licensed characters, though, it seems to have been the final nail in the series’ coffin.
Note: Cover is sourced from YouTube channel Gilby 1385. No moving video or ROMs are known to exist as of April 2019.
Aside from the quasi-spinoffs mentioned above, the Crazy Castle series’ most significant branch is the library of games featuring Kid Klown. The character made his debut in the North American localization of Mickey Mouse III (1992). Kid Klown in Night Mayor World (1993) would feature gameplay very similar to the core Crazy Castle series, but the main character’s ability to jump would change the player’s relationship with environments and enemies.
Kid Klown would hereafter break free of the Crazy Castle series, next appearing in a Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) game called Kid Klown in Crazy Chase (1994). Crazy Chase bears no resemblance to Kemco’s long-running puzzle-platformer property, and instead sees the player navigating Kid Klown past dangerous obstacles from an isometric perspective. Though Kid Klown’s love interest Princess Honey reappears following her reunion with the hero at the end of Kid Klown in Night Mayor World, Kid Klown himself has undergone a major visual redesign. An expanded re-release was eventually published on the Game Boy Advance in 2002.
Kid Klown in Crazy Chase would be followed by a Japan-only sequel in 1996. Kid Klown in Crazy Chase 2: Love Love Hani Soudatsusen is mechanically similar to its predecessor, though its presentation is quite different. A fully voiced, fully animated cutscene opens the narrative and the game is rendered with textured polygons rather than 2D sprites. The isometric perspective remains, though it features a wider field of view.
PlayStation’s The Bombing Islands (1997/2001) would represent Kid Klown’s final appearance on a dedicated video game console. From an overhead perspective, the player navigates Kid Klown around gridded islands full of bombs. To advance from stage to stage, a red detonator bomb and other environmental features must be manipulated to destroy all bombs found on each island. A revised version of this game which stripped out Kid Klown would be re-released as Charlie’s Blast Territory on the Nintendo 64 in 1999.
A later game called The Bombing Island would be released on Japanese mobile devices by Kemco in 2003. This actually seems to be an updated version of Image Works’ Bombuzal (1988) with that game’s optional isometric perspective stripped out in favor of a strict bird’s eye view; Kemco has also replaced the protagonist with Kid Klown. Unfortunately, little else about this game is known as of writing in 2019 – it is no longer accessible on modern mobile devices and seems not to have been preserved via emulation.
Crazy Castle is a profoundly odd series. Its identity is defined by a specific set of gameplay mechanics – searching for macguffins throughout 2D labyrinths connected by doors and pipes – but this framework was loose enough to accommodate a variety of characters and even game titles which omit the franchise name entirely. The series seems to have been intended as an easy formula onto which Kemco could graft licensed characters, though it would eventually spin off a short-lived original character. It was successful during the 1990s, when licensed platformers dominated home consoles and portable devices, but would naturally struggle to adapt and ultimately fade away once the wider gaming landscape shifted to 3D design in the 2000s.
What do you think about Crazy Castle? Have you ever played one of these games? What’s your favorite tool or enemy? Let’s discuss below.
Next week we’ll be covering the Tales series. I hope you’ll join in the discussion next Friday at 9:00 AM EST.