102 Dalmatians was an awful snoozer of a film, so how is the video game based on it so frickin’ fun? This might be one of the best Disney licensed games period. Maybe that’s just because it’s an obvious Spyro ripoff.
Lurking deep within the Disney Vault is one of their more bizarre decisions in the gaming industry. Why did they make a survival horror point-and-click game, and why for 101 Dalmatians of all things? Eh, who cares, it’s really fun.
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.
Rugrats first aired on August 11th, 1991. It was the second ever Nicktoon after Doug and before Ren & Stimpy. Rugrats was the Spongebob or the L/o/u/d H/o/u/s/e of its time, the greatest Nickelodeon show of its era. It ran for 13 glorious years over 9 increasingly-less-glorious seasons with a grand total of 172 episodes.
I’ve been kind of obsessed with this little RPG zine called Vaults of Vaarn, if my review of it didn’t tip you off. If you’re not going to click that link, it’s a really great little science-fantasy weirdo RPG setting placed in a post-post-post apocalyptic desert loaded with mutants, weirdos, and strange creatures.
Since an outsized portion of my brain has been dedicated to thinking about Vaarn, I decided to write some of those thoughts down and arrange them into a bit of new fan content for the setting. It’s implied that Urth, the planet that Vaults of Vaarn is set on, was once an advanced and prosperous world with immensely powerful technology. It seems obvious to me that space travel would be possible in this world – so why not add space aliens to the Vaults?
So, I present to you my Vaults of Vaarn fan race: the Visitors. Click the jump to enjoy. All credit goes to Leo Hunt, AKA graculusdroog for the creation of Vaults of Vaarn itself.
There’s something about the 101 Dalmatians franchise that enraptured me as a child against all odds.
Be outraged if you must, but truth be told, I’m not even sure if I had watched the original movie at that age. When I watched it as an adult, I remembered nothing about it, and I’ve never found a VHS of it in my family’s extensive Disney tape collection.
And I mean, what about it actually drew my attention? The main characters are British heterosexuals. Yes, somehow they managed to take the two most annoying groups of people in the world and combine them. And then they had the audacity to make the dogs British and heterosexual, as if dogs are capable of hate. Absolutely dreadful. Why do I like 101 Dalmatians?
Because of the puppies. Duh.
Even Disney knew the puppies were the only reason 101 Dalmatians is even relevant enough to talk about today. And boy, the merch they made. Sequels! Cartoons! Toys! I think I spent more time playing with my Dalmatians-themed snow globe than watching 101 Dalmatians: The Series (which, admittedly, still takes up way too much space in my heart).
There was one piece of Dalmatians-themed memorabilia that held my attention for the longest, though, and it was by far the least appropriate for the puppy-obsessed children they were marketing to. For little me, 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor was fun, emotionally stimulating, and also absolutely unnecessarily terrifying.
In case you aren’t keyed into the broader tabletop RPG universe, there’s something of an Old-School Revival or Renaissance (henceforth OSR) going on. Many RPG gamers are looking towards the past, to the RPG heydays of the 70s and 80s, to draw inspiration for the future of tabletop games. And what, exactly, does this imply? Well, the members of the OSR aren’t always sure themselves, but it’s typically a broader focus on player agency and dungeon crawling, increased risk of character death, and reduced focus on pre-written plots. The gamemaster of an OSR game is once again an impartial referee, whose role is to simply mediate the world that the players explore in a sandbox style. “Rulings, not rules” is a common refrain – instead of having granular rulesets that explore every possible corner-case, OSR games prefer lighter and simpler rules, giving the gamemaster the final say on what is and isn’t permissible.
But what I like about the OSR scene is the incredible bulk of content for it. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, of really fantastic OSR blogs, zines, and books out in the world filled to the brim with imaginative and wild settings. One of these settings is Vaults of Vaarn, a pay-what-you-want zine by author Leo Hunt A.K.A. graculusdroog on itch.io.
I downloaded Vaults of Vaarn on a lark, looking for more interesting RPG content to consume, and found myself blown away. Hunt emphasizes strongly his influences, naming Dune, Hyperion, and The Book of the New Sun, as well as the art of Moebius. He says it’s fine if you’re not familiar with these works, because it’ll “make his theft seem original.” Well, I’m not familiar with any of these works (aside from the art of Moebius), and Vaarn seems pretty damn original to me. So original, in fact, I thought I’d do a little review of it, just because it’s got me so jazzed.
When’s the last time you’ve played a mascot platformer that wasn’t a Mario or a Sonic? It was probably a Crash or a Spyro if it was anything at all. The genre is dead, and I miss it very much.
Gex, at least to me personally, is the iconic failed mascot platformer. He’s everything bad about the genre: he talks way too much and thinks he’s clever, his world is made of cookie-cutter tropey levels that don’t fit together, he has way too many gameplay gimmicks, and in the grand scheme of things he’s been completely forgotten. These are all the reasons that I find Gex oddly enjoyable, as a game trilogy that just doesn’t really work and isn’t very fun.
Unlike most platformer mascots, Gex was not aiming to be the face of a single console: he was the catchphrase-spitting gecko mascot of Crystal Dynamics, a video game company founded by women in 1992. Crystal Dynamics had a broad ‘a little bit of anything’ approach to making games: they had many platformer games, an action-adventure franchise, a point-and-click, a fighting game, a racing game … you get the idea. I guess they also worked on some series named Tomb Raider.
But Gex was Crystal Dynamics’ thing. He was funny, he was memorable, and he was the face of the company, especially once the substantially more popular sequel Gex 2: Enter the Gecko was released in 1998. In that way, Gex was a fixture of the late 90s, a reminder of what things were like.
And what’s more ‘late 90s’ than a terrible website for a terrible video game?
Today I’m going to the Wayback Machine to see the Gex pages on the Crystal Dynamics website from 1998 to 1999. It’s tail time, as one might say.