Nightmare Ned was Disney’s doomed dream

If you were a kid in the 90s playing CD-ROM games, you probably played at least one Disney Interactive game. For kids learning how to use the computer, Disney games were the best of the best, the cream of the crop. 101 Dalmatians: Escape from Devil Manor, Disney’s Animated Storybook: Mulan, Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, you name it. All your favorite Disney franchises, right on your desktop!

Oh, and Nightmare Ned. You remember him, right? That great beloved Disney franchise? … No?

Nightmare Ned was a platformer game released sometime in late 1997 (it’s difficult to get an exact date, due to vague distribution of PC games at the time). It was, as far as I know, the only Disney Interactive game to not be based directly on an established IP – it only had a single season of a cartoon that was made after the game began development, and by the time the game released, the show was no longer airing even in reruns. It was Disney’s one voyage into making ‘original’ video games, and it disappeared as quickly as it came.

So what even was it?

Synopsis

First of all, I have half an hour’s worth of footage of me and my wife losing our god damn minds over this game, so if you aren’t much of a reader, I think our playthrough will be more your fancy. If that sounds a bit long, then uh, hopefully this will be a shorter read.

Nightmare Ned starts with an opening cinematic of Ned, our 10-year-old protagonist, coming home from school to find that his family is going to be out of the house until 7 PM. He spends the evening eating junk food and playing video games, up until a thunderstorm knocks the power out and leaves him in the dark, sending his fun night to a screeching halt. After an extended nyctophobia sequence of him mistaking various things for shadow monsters, he decides to go to bed at 8 PM (hey, his family is running late) – at which point a pair of giant monster hands grab him and pull him into his nightmares.

The hub world takes place on a gigantic version of Ned’s bed quilt. You have five levels to pick from, each of them based around a common childhood fear: the Graveyard Nightmare; the Medical Nightmare; the Attic Nightmare; the School Nightmare; and, uhh, the Bathroom Nightmare. Seriously? I asked a few of my friends after playing this game if they had bathroom nightmares as a kid, and uh, yeah, they did. I don’t know what it says about me that I wasn’t scared of the bathroom.

The Graveyard Nightmare is considered to be the ‘main’ level, mainly because it’s right in front of Ned when you first start the game (you have to turn left or right to go to the others). It’s the most conventionally ‘scary’: you’ll find plenty of ghosts, zombies, rotting pumpkins, skeletons, hostile trick-or-treaters, and uh… girl scouts? Yeah I didn’t really get that one.

The School Nightmare is the least outright terrifying, instead settling for an eerie, subtle uncanniness – it is indeed just a dream about school, though the school’s layout is hilariously Escher-esque with long winding paths. I was actually reasonably surprised to find that the School had other humans, compared to other games about nightmares like Yume Nikki and LSD: Dream Emulator, which settle for faceless or motionless entities. Still, the other kids don’t talk, and they’ll trample you if you get too close.

Hands down the worst part of the School for me was the Math Lesson, an extended moving platformer section with a fast-paced spoken-word song looping in the background. If you fall down at any point thanks to the disappointingly awful platform collision, you have to start over. The art is brilliant, the song is hilarious, the programmers I’m sure worked very hard – but having to start “from the very beginning!” due to unresponsive controls is a recipe for frustration. Sigh.

The Attic Nightmare is honestly the one I understand the least, even though it’s the most visually impressive. Ned starts out in a beautiful mixed-media attic area, with clashing rugs and drapes, scratched up hardwood floor, and bizarre drawings covering the walls. The first enemy you’ll encounter is black cats breaking mirrors from the top of tall ladders, suggesting some sort of bad luck theme. There’s a section with an animatronic fortune teller reading you tarot cards, which continues a theme of superstition. It starts to unravel once you encounter the Wild, Weird & Wonderful, a collection of living taxidermy monsters – and only becomes stranger once you go up the ladder behind them, which leads to a section with freak show twins, and uh… then you turn into a slug and get salt poured on you?

The full title of this level is “The Attic, Basement, & Beyond”, and I kind of get the feeling that this was where they dumped all of their ‘beyond’ ideas. But by far the most bizarre to me is the storytelling dragon, found in what I can only assume is meant to represent the ‘basement’ – she’s sleeping under the stairs, with her neck improbably impaled through the wall, up the stairs, and through a taxidermy plaque. When you interact with her, she says 1 of 3 stories, 2 of which are directly taken from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This interaction seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the greater theme, but as far as I can tell, it might be mandatory for completing the level.

The Bathroom Nightmare, contrary to my jokes earlier, actually makes a great deal of sense once you bother to try to wrap your head around it. The theme is, of course, the bathroom, and toilets – but it’s more about unsanitary themes, and most importantly, puberty. Surprisingly relatable for trans people! There’s also a baffling platforming section involving rats singing about trying to electrocute you in a bathtub, which is maybe less relatable to the trans experience, but you do you.

But the Medical Nightmare … hoo boy. I don’t even know where to start.

It starts with you in a pitch black waiting room. You have one of two levels to choose from. The first is the Gurney, which is a short minigame about being transported on a stretcher and dodging surgeons trying to steal your organs, until you reach the end where you have to play another minigame to get your organs back.

The second level is … the Mouth, quite possibly the worst meat level in video game history. It’s another platforming section, but this time the platforms are teeth – disgusting, rotten, decaying, green and gray and chipped and broken teeth. So many teeth. And braces that you can hang from and jump on! But hey, if that’s not bad enough, how about the exposed nerves? How about that every few seconds the mouth will bite down, hurting Ned and exposing you to a full screen’s worth of viscera and gore? There’s even an obscure area you can reach by waiting for the mouth to bite down and then climbing up a ladder of nerves.

Here’s an image of the Mouth level, which I’m hiding behind a link for your sanity now that you’ve read the text description. I dunno, man. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult who can’t afford a dentist anymore, but this shit freaks me out.

Each nightmare has a corresponding shadow monster who greets you on the Quilt. As you play their respective nightmares, every now and then they’ll reappear, but one of their body parts won’t be cloaked in shadow anymore – revealing a little more of what they actually are. The Graveyard Shadow is Ned’s grandfather, and represents Ned’s fear of his family passing away; the School Shadow is one of Ned’s classmates, who wants to be his friend but is afraid of being seen as soft; the Attic Shadow is Sally, a little girl with a creepy doll; the Medical Shadow is Ned’s doctor; and the Bathroom Shadow is, well, the toilet.

Once you beat all the levels, Ned will overcome his fears and wake up – his mother is home, and it’s time to get ready for school! By the way, he went to bed at 8 PM, and the clock says 8 AM when he gets up, meaning apparently this kid slept for 12 hours. Also, where the hell did his parents go if they were supposed to be back by 7 PM last night? Nothing is really made of this.

Gameplay

I haven’t told you a lot about how the game actually plays, and truth be told, that’s because the gameplay is pretty vague. I’d make a serious argument that it’s a Disney Interactive take on a cinematic platformer: the physics are still too cartoonish to qualify, but Ned cannot perform more than one action at once, you can’t control the mid-air direction or momentum of his jump, and his only attack is hitting enemies with his yoyo.

Likewise, in Heart of Darkness fashion, you’ll experience a wide variety of creative damage animations. Over the course of the game, Ned will get decapitated, electrocuted, punctured, burnt to a crisp, embedded with glass shards, sliced like bologna, and so much more. Unlike Heart of Darkness, these aren’t instakills – as far as I can tell, Ned has an invisible health meter, and eventually he will die.

All of these things are great fun, but unfortunately a good cinematic platformer is built on a strong fundamental core of good programming and reliable controls. Nightmare Ned does not have good controls. Ned controls at a snail’s pace, meaning that you’ll rely primarily on his long-jump to navigate (as if 10-year-olds can’t run like speeding bullets). His jump is unwieldy and has a fixed land point, meaning that you can easily jump straight off of ledges, and I honestly have no idea what the hell is going on with this kid’s hitbox.

Art

The artistic quality of Nightmare Ned is where it really shines. Every nightmare world is packed to the brim with amazing background visuals, hilariously and horrifyingly animated enemies, and chilling music.

One of my favorite things I learned (while trying to find how the sprites are stored… please leave a comment if you know how) was that the 3D parallax background in the Graveyard Nightmare isn’t actually 3D, but is actually stored within a greenscreen video file. When you move to the left or right, the video moves a frame backward or forward! What a clever way to handle 3D graphics in a PC game for kids!

Speaking of backgrounds, the intro cinematic features backdrop artwork by the amazing Carol Wyatt, who also did the backgrounds for Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. I recognized it as soon as I saw the trees. Weirdly enough, I didn’t know Carol Wyatt’s name and never even thought about that a specific person did the background art for Foster’s, which is utterly shameful because if I remember right I own a limited-run print by her. How does that even happen?

Nightmare Ned has an amazing soundtrack, thanks in part to the amazing eerie orchestra work of Patrick Collins, who also composed one of my favorite creepy video game soundtracks, 101 Dalmatians: Escape from Devil Manor. Jim of Seattle (who I didn’t know before, but now I do) was songwriter for the four surreal songs found at various points in the game (“Rat Tango”, “The Mathematics Lesson”, the puberty song, and the uvula song), which all feature fast-paced and funny wordplay. That’s not all – we even have additional jingles by Matt Furniss (hello hacker fucker), most notably the lovely elevator music that plays in the intro for the Medical Nightmare.

Nightmare Ned has an uniquely funny gothic quality that I can only compare to Psychonauts, which is one of my favorite games of all time, so Ned will probably remain alongside it in my mental hall of fame forever. I wish there were more video games like this.

The cartoon

If you want more Nightmare Ned content, you’re in luck … sorta.

After production of the game started, Disney saw interest to turn it into a franchise, and so a Nightmare Ned cartoon was produced and ran on ABC from April to August 1997. It never entered reruns and became lost media for a long time.

Now that it’s all been reuploaded on YouTube, it’s unfortunately easy to see why they dropped it: the show is dull and soft, with none of the horror you’d come to expect from a cartoon based on the same game that brought us the Medical Nightmare. What’s up? Bump in the Night aired on the same channel two years prior, pulled less punches with its gross-out humor, and managed to get two seasons and a Christmas special and enough staying power to make it onto DVD.

The Nightmare Ned cartoon, comparatively, is about as edgy as ABC’s Beetlejuice. Ned is hardly as tremoring or easily frightened, and he reacts to most of his inconveniences with an unflappable and even sometimes bratty attitude.

All I can really do is extrapolate based on various secondhand sources. But basically every source I’ve found says that it all came down to creative differences between game director Walt Dohrn and cartoon producer Donovan Cook.

Walt Dohrn is most relevant nowadays as the director of the Dreamworks Trolls franchise, aka the franchise that single handedly killed movie theaters in 2020. Can you believe that? I also got engaged after watching Trolls, which means in a twisted way that I’m married because of this guy. Thanks, Walt Dohrn.

Donovan Cook is best known for 2 Stupid Dogs. You remember that show? The Ren & Stimpy knockoff by Hanna-Barbera? Haha. Fun times.

Yeah, wow I have a huge bias and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t, but it still explains itself. Nightmare Ned the game is a hilarious, cute, creepy, thoughtful game with great visuals and fun songs. Nightmare Ned the cartoon is a gag-a-day show. It’s still a ton of fun, but it’s not the same.

In retrospect

Nightmare Ned was doomed from the start – such is the fate of original IPs without advertising backing them. The Nightmare Ned game was sold for $40 brand new, an outrageously high price for a children’s CD-ROM game. The cartoon ran absurdly over budget, as it was Disney’s first storyboard-driven show, a feat they wouldn’t attempt again until Phineas and Ferb. Both entries in the attempted ‘franchise’ were quietly shelved, and everyone moved on with their lives.

A lot of the reasons that Nightmare Ned failed are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same reasons that Fluppy Dogs (another Disney franchise flop) failed: too much faith, not enough coherency, too many miscommunications between developers and producers and executives. And, above anything else, kids with wealthy parents just weren’t that interested in it.

Nightmare Ned lives on as a cult favorite of PC gamers who grew up in the 90s, but we aren’t the people capable of paying Disney ludicrous amounts of money to sit on their asses and throw merchandise at us.

At least we have Trolls now. Can we have a nightmare-inducing Trolls CD-ROM game? Please?

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