Thursday, September 18, 2014

Remaking an Icon, Maui Mallard, part 1

Every few years, almost a decade really, the executives at Disney have a crisis on their hands. They discover that their mascot characters are no longer as relevant with audiences as they once were. They put their heads together and try to find ways to reconnect the Disney "brand" with the next generation. Of course they never bother to admit to themselves that they were responsible for causing audiences to grow apart from the mascots in the first place. You see it's tough to keep characters that were born before the Great Depression completely in tune with audiences. The villainous Pegleg Pete, and heroic Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were almost 90-years-old. The rest of the "Fab Five" Donald Duck, Daisy Duck and Goofy were created in time to pull the USA and the rest of the world out of that Great Depression. The generation born during that time became lifelong fans. They learned to smile and laugh even when things weren't so great economically or domestically. As they got older the Disney mascots were there to entertain them. From the first cartoons with sound to the first use of multi-plane cameras the mascots evolved with pop culture. Every following generation grew up with the mascots as well. Cartoons, comic strips and comic books remained a steady way for Disney to remain connected with audiences. 

At some point, a few years after Walt Disney passed away, the executives began looking for ways to "leverage" their "IP" and get a maximum return of profit on the minimum amount of work. The mascots sold well in toy stores and theme parks so management did not see a need to keep publishing comics and cartoons. Little by little they began dismantling animation wings and publishing houses. Over the next few decades they let licenses expire and made it difficult for die-hard mascot fans to find anything with the characters in it aside from merchandise. Only the Europeans, and specifically the Italians, never lost the connection to the Disney comics. 

You would be hard pressed to find an Italian fan that did not know their Disney icons. Every major and obscure character that has ever existed in the Disney universe still enjoyed exposure in the pages of the Topolino comic books. Moreover the Topolino comics were constantly finding new ways of keeping the classic characters new and unique. In the US this was not the case. As comic books and cartoons began waning in popularity the Disney management looked for reason to cut off those branches of the company. Of course without those comics and cartoons the company found it hard to keep the characters relevant. 

It the early days of the company fans flocked to everything with the name Mickey Mouse on it. He was a fresh character that was mischievous and fun-loving. Songs mentioning the character became chart-busters in the early days of radio. Each of Mickey's friends became memorable in their own right as well. Yet the executives and marketing people were worried that the changing landscape of pop culture was making the mascots forgettable. They tried to fight the trend by following the trend. Mickey was and always would be an icon but every few years somebody at the company would convince management that dressing up a character in period-era clothes was the way to reconnect him to the public. The only thing that it did was instantly date the character. Pop music releases featuring the mascots became a feeble attempt at updating fan-favorite characters.

Pop culture was constantly changing. By the time Disney caught a trend then it had usually passed. Thanks to social media today the company could respond faster to trends than ever before. There was a flipside however, social media also helped trends die out faster For example featuring Donald Duck as the "Original Angry Bird" on a tee shirt was witty a few years ago but today was a tired joke. The stack of unsold Donald shirts in the theme park stores demonstrated how conscious the consumers were when it came to rehashing an old joke.

There was something more pressing that the Disney executives became aware of through the '80s. The video game market was growing fast. In fact it was growing exponentially faster than theme parks or animation. For the first time in the 20th century characters like Pac Man, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog meant more than the Disney mascots to audiences. Millions and billions of dollars were being made by the gaming industry and Disney was missing a cut of the profit. The executives knew that they would have to begin releasing games as well. At first there were just licensed games based on popular movies and television shows. Some were well done but most were middle-of-the-road experiences. The gaming audience wanted something more than a sanitized mascot prancing around a simplistic title. As the market evolved the executives learned that the best selling titles were original franchises and Disney would have to make a serious effort to get in the market or be left behind. 

Mickey Mouse was the biggest cartoon star in the world and his appearance in Sega's Castle of Illusion in 1990 gave many reason to think that Disney was finally in the market. The rumors were that Sega would use Mickey as the mascot character for the Genesis / Mega Drive platform. It would certainly have humbled Nintendo's Mario. Of course that would not be the case. Sonic the Hedgehog appeared soon after as Sega's official mascot. Disney had to recover and do so quickly. Of course being the largest entertainment company in the world meant that nothing they did was quick. They evaluated and re-evaluated their position and decided the best course of action. Mickey Mouse was the crown jewel and failing to live up to the audience expectation for a Triple-A title was out of the question. They looked elsewhere and found a way to introduce a new character into canon that audiences would accept. When Disney went in with this new character they went "all in." It was understood that this would become a franchise character.
Maui Mallard was created as an alternate version of Donald Duck, similar to the spy Double Duck or super agent Paperinik. Unlike the aliases created by European comic book artists Maui was created by Disney Interactive (DI) in the USA. After all, the Disney artists and animators working in the US were very familiar with the duck template from the DuckTales and Darkwing Duck cartoons. Maui was designed to be the console mascot for the parent company. Released in 1995 the game Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow was an attempt at taking DI away from the licensed titles and into completely original IP. It was a bold move and something that the parent company was not used to doing, especially in gaming or with the mascots.
Donald had already played second-fiddle to Mickey in Sega’s 1992 classic World of Illusion. He had a starring role in the 1995 Japanese release and decidedly kid-friendly Donald Duck Mahou no Boushi (Donald Duck in the Magic Cap). The earlier game was of course a landmark title and the second rarely known to even the most die-hard Disney enthusiasts. Both highlighted a trend from Disney. The games all played the gaming formula very safe and that had sterilized the reputation of the company and the characters among gamers.
In order to appeal to die-hard gamers and set itself apart from typical kid-friendly Disney fare Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow had to meet the best and most original games of that era. In order to be taken seriously as a game publisher Disney had to break from tradition and push the envelope considerably. This was new ground that the company was treading on so you can imagine that there was some pressure to perform. Aside from being a soft-boiled detective (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) Maui had a special ability, he possessed the spirits of hundreds of warriors and could become a ninja duck known as Cold Shadow.
The Maui and Cold Shadow art featured above was done by the legendary Drew Struzan. Disney had nothing but big plans for the character and it was obvious when they commissioned the artist responsible for the Indiana Jones and Star Wars posters to create a promotional piece for Maui Mallard. Failure would not be an option for the developers. Yet having a well designed cartoon character was a world away from creating a great game. In order to be the best the team at Disney Interactive had to beat the best.

From a design standpoint Maui Mallard was a response to Earthworm Jim. Many consider Earthworm Jim as the undisputed king of animated 2D titles. In character and level design, gameplay mechanics, themes, story, music and originality Maui Mallard met all of the benchmarks laid out in Earthworm Jim. Yet it was not enough to show that Disney could follow in producer Dave Perry and developer Shiny’s footsteps. For some gamers the house of Mouse was pandering to the audience, making a “me too” title filled with odd animated antics and characters that were very much unlike the traditional characters. Many members of the team that developed the game said they had nothing but great memories from it. Despite having worked on dozens of other projects after Maui Mallard they said that no other group was tighter. Almost 20 years after the game was published many of the team members remained friends! It was a magical experience behind the scenes and I would argue that a lot of that magic made its way to the screen.
Maui Mallard and Cold Shadow had all of the insight that the Italian storytellers and artists had used to redesign comic and cartoon icons for the modern audience. The core personality of Maui retained the temperament and strong will of Donald Duck but without being a carbon copy. Maui was a seasoned detective. His internal monologue was written in the game manual and he thought and acted very different to the classic Donald character. This Mallard was perhaps a distant relative of Donald considering how unique he spoke and acted. The addition of martial arts prowess through Cold Shadow made the character even more intriguing, yet not disrespectful of the classic character.
Despite all of the hard work by Disney Interactive none of the great elements were remembered by audiences. This was for a variety of reasons but none because the game was bad. Behind the scenes the game was mired by second guesses from marketing types and last-minute changes from people lacking any creative insight. Disney Interactive, just like the main company, was filled with pools of talented people but they were not allowed to act independently and create their own original titles. They had to wait for projects to pass down from marketing types. Audiences and the market had shifted quickly by the time the game had finally arrived. The 16-bit consoles, including the Genesis and Super Nintendo had the largest installed base but the 32-bit platforms from Sony and Sega had also just debuted. Disney had to make the call to scrub the project and make a 3D game with an inexperienced team or stick to what was tried-and-true and release it on the older consoles. Because of the slow decision making process at Disney Maui Mallard debuted years after Earthworm Jim. The peak of 16-bit gaming would be reached and forgotten.

Audiences were gravitating towards groundbreaking 3D mechanics like those featured in NiGHTS into dreams… or mature themes like those featured in Twisted Metal respectively on the new Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation consoles. Donald Duck and Disney Interactive would find it difficult to compete against the new breed of mascots and games. The N64 was just around the corner and would be yet another nail in the coffin for Maui Mallard. The game would be forgotten before it gained and sort of critical attention. Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow was one of the few examples of Disney taking a creative risk on an original idea and allowing a team the leeway to explore their vision through to completion. Bad timing on the genre, format and market undid Maui Mallard rather than content. This blog will introduce the game to audiences and show the reader why this game deserved a second look.

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