Kansas Would be Better

The Wizard of Oz

Most of the time when we discuss (and lament) the state of video games adapted off of movies and shows it’s because these were worked rushed out the door to meet deadlines, created why the movie or show was popular (or before they even come out) to try and tap into a (potential) fanbase before it all goes cold. Corporate overlords demand their plebs make these games as fast as possible and then move onto the next work because you gotta keep the machine turning and drive up profits. We call that the “Acclaim Maneuver”, and it led to a glut of terrible adapted games that no one wanted to play even while the show or movie was current, hip, and interesting.

In the case of The Wizard of Oz it’s not as though anyone was wanting a video game adapted from the movie while that movie was out and fresh and the hot new thing. Video games didn’t exist back then so there was no one at Acclaim demanding the programmers of 1933 make a game before the film came out. “Get your vacuum tubes and ticker tape going, boys! We’ve got to get this out and lift the spirits of the company before the Depression sinks us all!” It’s even more curious having a game based on the movie sixty years after its initial release. Sure, the 1933 The Wizard of Oz is considered a classic, regular viewing for little kids at this point. But was there enough crossover appeal for a video game based on the worth sixty years later?

More to the point, was there much appeal for a rushed out the door, shitty game based on the movie? They had sixty years to get it together, for anyone to come along and plot out a good game for the movie without any pressure to have to push it out fast. Why, then is the 1993 SNES game, also called The Wizard of Oz, such a wretched piece of shit? It’s hard to play, it’s buggy, it has terrible sound design and even worse graphics, and it’s all cobbled together in a way that makes it feel like it was rushed, even if it wasn’t. After sixty years, and with all the time in the world, this was not the game one might have expected based on the classic movie.

Curiously, at the time the game was released it was praised. I suppose you can see why as there are aspects of the game that are decent. Toto, for example, animates really nicely, with a loving amount of frames applied to the little dog (who largely serves as a cursor for play in mini-games). Dorothy is also well animated, with smooth frames for her various motions. With that said, I had the design for her, which feels weirdly large and cartoonish. The world of Oz can be cartoonish but she’s supposed to be this person that shows up there and doesn’t blend in and she just looks wrong here. Half finished. Clunky, even.

Clunky also describes the play of the game. It’s basically a linear exploration, from start to finish, as you make your way through the various events of the movie (with some additional inspiration taken from the DIC animated series, also inspired by the 1933 movie and L. Frank Baum’s original books). You start at one end and then find your path through a connected series of levels and mazes, until you reach the end. It’s the same kind of level structure as the Super Star Wars games or, worse, Bubsy (and no one wants to be compared to Bubsy). These aren’t really engaging levels, just drawn out, with your characters slowly trudging through until you finally reach the exit.

Of course, that alone would make for a short game, so The Wizard of Oz is packed (and by that I mean padded out) with side areas to explore. Although, really, explore is the wrong word as all you do is enter a house, pick up a couple of items (that aren’t strictly necessary and are just there to make you do stuff) and then leave to move on to the next place. Over and over again. You could ignore all this and just rush to the end, but then you’d miss all the “fun” of the game, if we can call it that. You’re supposed to want to pick up all the gold bricks, and all the hidden gems, and all the golden tickets. Then you can say you did it all.

And then you have to go through and play all the mini-games as well. Frankly there are enough of them in this game that I consider this less of a platforming adventure and more a mini-game collection with a threadbare connecting game on top. In each of these games you have Toto do a word search, or a dice game, or one of any number of inane and unrelated puzzles that have nothing to do with getting Dorothy back to Kansas. It’s not like these games really relate to her quest; they were simply cheap and easy to program so the developers at Manley & Associates threw them in to make the game longer. That’s it.

Yes, Manley & Associates. You all know them, right? Founded by Ivan Manley in the 1980s to make ports of good games and move them over to systems less and less people cared about. Did you need a port of Ninja Gaiden II for the Amiga a year after it was released on the NES? Well, whether you did or not, Maley & associates handled it. They also designed a number of licensed games, such as Home Alone for Amiga and DOS, An American Tail: The Computer Adventures of Fievel and His Friends, and Paperboy 2 for the Game Gear. And, for some reason, they really wanted to make The Wizard of Oz. Maybe because the license was cheap?

So what did reviewers back in the day see in this game that we simply don’t see now? Common consensus now is that this is one of the worst games ever made, not just on the SNES but in general. It has slippy controls and bad hit detection, bad level design, sub-par character design, and a lot of frustration. Everyone that touches the game now seems to hate it, and not just a little. And yet, back in the day this was reviewed well. The reviews weren’t glowing, generally in the 3 out of 5 star range, but nothing like the opinion for it now.

Something to bear in mind was just how many middling games there were for the SNES back in the day. While we mostly focus on the good title, viewing the SNES’s library with rose-tinted glasses, it had a lot of terrible turds as well. Games like Timecop, American Gladiators, and anything made by Acclaim. In comparison to some of those awful, licensed games, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t seem so bad. It doesn’t seem good, mind you, but there were worse games at the time that everyone could easily lament. Hell, having suffered through The Wizard of Oz I’d still rather play this title than Back to the Future II or Wayne’s World. Those are contenders for my worst games of all time.

I think the divergence between then and now comes primarily because we can play this title now and how we feel about it doesn’t line up with how reviewers saw it at this time. This is a harmless trifle of a game, not great but just there, but now people go back, see the decent (if not fantastic) graphics and assume it’ll be more than it is. Timecop wears how terrible it is on its sleeve, but The Wizard of Oz dresses itself up and tries to make itself pretty. It fails, but it tries. Timecop wallows in its own filth but The Wizard of Oz wanted to be more. When you look at it you expect a good game and this is anything bad.

I’m not saying we should reevaluate the game, I just think that all the hate for it is overblown. Is it bad? Yes. Do I want to play it again? No. But still… there’s some endearing in its terribleness, and effort that tried. It failed, but it tried. You can respect that. Hell, I respect it a hell of a lot more than any of the Bubsy games, that’s for sure.