You spin me right ’round, baby!
How does one capitalize on a successful and profitable game? The obvious choice is by creating sequels. However, there’s one other option, though it’s usually a tougher proposition: the spin-off. In the wide history of entertainment, it’s common in the television world. Some spin-offs work (Fraiser from Cheers; Melrose Place from 90210) while others clearly do not (Joey from Friends; Joanie Loves Chachi from Happy Days). In the video game industry, they’re just as frequent. The levels of success also vary, with some being quickly forgettable cash-ins and others evolving into their own bona-fide franchises. We’ll be taking a look at both sides of the coin in this article, so let’s begin our journey into the good, the bad, and the unplayable with a game that I think came as a surprise to many at the time of its release…
When Namco was met with a frenzy of success in 1980 with Pac-Man, a handful of programmers from the General Computer Corporation made quick work of trying to develop an enhancement kit for the arcade hit under the title Crazy Otto. The programmers eventually presented their completed version of the game to Midway, who was Namco’s American distributor at the time. As Namco was still taking their sweet time with a Pac-Man installment of their own, Midway was delighted by the GCC’s presentation of their finished game and swiftly bought the rights to Crazy Otto. After some sprite altercations and a few name changes to reflect the original game, they soon released what we now know as Ms. Pac-Man in 1981.
While remaining relatively much the same as its predecessor, Ms. Pac-Man introduced its own set of changes to differentiate itself to arcade-goers. Pac-Man was notorious for its ghosts moving in a predicted, pre-set pattern, which allowed more experienced gamers to traverse through its maze with ease and obtain those ridiculously illusive high scores. The ghosts in Mrs. Pac-Man, however, feature different behavioral patterns and semi-random movements, thus eliminating the ability to determine their sequences altogether and, by extension, giving players more of a challenge while completing each maze. With that being said, the mazes themselves are different, too; Ms. Pac-Man introduced four different mazes—pink, light blue, brown, and dark blue—that alternate with each intermission, and three of the four feature two sets of warp tunnels instead of just the one featured in its predecessor’s original maze. Along with adding a few aesthetic changes throughout the game—most notably filling in the maze walls a solid color so players could see its path more clearly—it comes as no surprise that Ms. Pac-Man became a hit to new and senior Pac-Man players alike.
While Ms. Pac-Man could be argued as being a sequel, I feel it’s more of a spin-off given the wide variety of differences and having a different lead character. She proved to be just as popular as the original—becoming the most successful American-produced arcade game by selling a whopping 115k cabinets—and playing Ms. Pac-Man in Pizza Huts across the country represents the childhood of many people today. Needless to say, it’s a pretty amazing feat for what basically amounted to just adding a red bow and beauty mark to the same yellow sprite animations.
Knuckles’ Chaotix (Sega 32X)
When Sega realized it had a hit on its hands with the introduction of Knuckles the Echidna from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and later Sonic & Knuckles, they were quick to exploit him by any means necessary. It’s too bad that his only starring role was in this title for the Sega 32X… meaning hardly anyone played it.
In actuality, Knuckles’ Chaotix wasn’t that bad of a game. While it didn’t feature Sega’s blue blur, the game itself was pretty reminiscent of previous installments in the Sonic franchise; you still traverse different stages within the ten minute time limit, knock out whatever Dr. Robotnik throws your way, and rings are your main source of protection when it comes to taking damage. Not only did it feature a well-liked character as well as an entirely new set of companions to befriend, it also eliminated the stress of keeping track of and losing lives, as the game’s cartridge sported a battery-backup saving system. So… why did it tank?
Well, Knuckles’ Chaotix didn’t come without its faults. While it did try to freshen the franchise up a bit with a new story and game play mechanic—which was employed mostly to “fix” the nuisance of your partner character flying off screen as you ran through the stage—it wasn’t utilized very well. Having a partner with you was one thing, but having them attached to you like a rubber band was another entirely. It made playing through the game difficult and even annoying at times, and having to stop so often would really muck up your flow. Game play aside, its audio and visuals weren’t anything exciting, either; the colors and layout seemed dated and all around “blegh”, and the audio was criticized for sounding too downgraded on what was supposed to be an upgraded add-on for the Sega Genesis.
Overall, Knuckles’ Chaotix was an ambitious title that wound up being too mucky and under-powered amidst the ever evolving 32-bit era of gaming.
Super Mario Kart (Super Nintendo)
In 1992, the Super Nintendo was in a sweat and blood fight with the Sega Genesis, but one thing Nintendo had that Sega didn’t were Mario games. However, with Super Mario World being a launch title and Sega breathing down their necks, Nintendo needed something new with a familiar face to stay in the game. Enter an unassuming little kart racer in which characters from the Mario universe would race each other; throw in some fun, addictive multiplayer battle modes and place it all in memorable settings from the series, and you have yourself the beginning of a system selling franchise.
Super Mario Kart is notable because it was the first major spin-off of a popular Nintendo brand that paved the way for future attempts to feel a bit more confident about going out into the marketplace. The series doesn’t change much in between installments; some would say that’s a good thing while others clamor for something new thrown into the mix, but the one thing that’s always remained consistent throughout the years was how much fun the game turned out to be. (As a side note, this happens to be the only edition that doesn’t have the dreaded “Blue Shell from Hell” that debuted in Mario Kart 64 and has cursed players ever since. Just saying.)
The series is one that certainly butters Nintendo’s bread. Mario Kart 7 was a huge factor in the reversal of fortunes for the Nintendo 3DS handheld that had initially been a flop in its first few months of release back in 2011, so it’s suffice to say that this initially ambitious spin-off has helped steer Nintendo to the path of success (and yes, that pun was totally intended).
Hey You, Pikachu! (Nintendo 64)
The entire world was in the midst of what was known as PokéMania during the start of the new millennium. With Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow having taken the west by storm in 1998, everybody—and I mean EVERYBODY—wanted more, and although we swiftly got it in the form of a long-running anime, popular trading card game, and many, many collectible toys and figurines, we were still insatiable. The battery lives of our GameBoys could only last so long, we could only collect so many cards, and we could only watch so many episodes on our video cassettes from Blockbuster before they had to be returned, lest our parents pay an exorbitant late fee.
Needless to say, 2000 wound up being a pretty big year for Pokémon, not unlike how 2016 has been. Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64 kicked the year off pretty well in February; it was the first time many of us in the west got to see our lovable companions living inside our GameBoys fight to be the very best in amazing, colorful three-dimensions on our televisions. July brought us Pokémon: The Movie 2000, which got all of us hyped for the highly anticipated release of the next generation of Pokémon handheld games that October, Pokémon Gold and Silver. Something extraordinary should have followed to conclude the amazing year of Pokémon we all had, but unfortunately we were all left pretty high and dry with the lackluster release of a very disappointing gimmick.
Hey You, Pikachu! for the Nintendo 64 was released November 6th, 2000. While the premise of the game itself isn’t so bad—a pet simulator that allows the player to play games and interact with Pikachu to complete certain tasks and reach various goals—its core function was what ultimately made it a flop. Being one of only two games ever to use the Voice Recognition Unit, and the only one to be released in the United States, the game was very dependent on and heavily advertised the player being able to talk to their titular companion. Due to technical limitations at the time, however, Hey You, Pikachu! just couldn’t deliver; the game itself could only understand about 200 words, and worse still was that the hardware was made to only respond to the high-pitched voices of young children, leaving adolescents and adult fans out of the fun.
With faulty tech, vastly superior predecessors, and an unfairly high price tag at launch, Hey You, Pikachu! was a very big disappointment for Pokémon fans and gamers alike.
Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo 64)
When I first heard of this title, I thought Nintendo had finally lost its mind. Unbeknownst to most, however, the developers at HAL Laboratory were afraid Nintendo would lose their minds at what they were trying to create. You see, new fighting games weren’t known to sell well at the time, and they didn’t want to risk making brand new characters that players might not take well to. So, rather than ask for permission to use Nintendo’s beloved characters and face rejection, those sneaky sneaks at HAL Laboratory decided to move forward with development and beg for forgiveness once the game had been thoroughly tested and, for the most part, completed. Nintendo eventually relented and gave them approval to move forward with the project, and much to the relief of both companies, Super Smash Bros. wound up being one of the best things they’ve ever done.
The second major spin-off from Nintendo featured eight characters from some of their most popular franchises—Mario, Donkey Kong, Link, Samus, Yoshi, Kirby, Fox McCloud, and Pikachu—and put them into an all-out battle royale within various stages themed to their respective games. While there is a single-player mode—used primarily as practice or for novices to get used to the game’s controls—the real fun was in its multiplayer mode, and the Nintendo 64’s four controller ports was a perfect launchpad for this game.
Super Smash Bros. arguably gets better with each installment, of which there are amazingly only three to date since its original 1999 release, one each per console cycle. With each new title comes new characters and stages based on classic franchises, so many so that it becomes a major nostalgic trip to anyone who plays. Nintendo dusted off some of their older characters—Ice Climbers and Mr. Game & Watch, to name a few—in GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, while the Wii’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl added popular third-party characters—such as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Solid Snake from Konami’s Metal Gear Solid—to its roster. It’s a spin-off that became an insanely popular and widely successful franchise in its own right, and with each new character roster reveal and game tournament becoming widely publicized events, it’s become the gold standard that other games can only hope to achieve.