Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in May 2020.
Every weekend here at Nintendo Life we take a look at regional box art variants for retro video games and run a poll on which one is best. It’s a fun, light-hearted exercise; really just an excuse to look at fantastic (and some not-so-fantastic) old-school cover art, which is steadily taking a back seat to menu icons in the digital age.
Finding candidates that make for a good contrast between regions is not as easy as you might think. More often than not, two regions use near-identical art (typically North America and Europe) and for the past 10-15 years companies have tended to use the same art across regions. Still, it’s an odd thing to stumble on a candidate where each version features not only a totally different cover, but a totally difference licence.
The games seen above were made by Kemco, a developer and publisher probably most recognisable to Nintendo fans for publishing the Top Gear series. Kemco has a history that reaches back to the Famicom era and, as we’ll see, the company has form when it comes to switching sprites, re-skinning games between regions, and even borrowing an idea or two.
The story of how one game ended up with three different, beloved licences around the world starts way back in 1989 when the Crazy Castle series debuted on the NES with The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. This game birthed a substantial set of side-scrolling platformers where the player negotiates simple maze-like levels, nabbing items on the way and avoiding prowling baddies. The original game didn’t feature a jump button and, with its roaming enemies and collectibles, you might compare it to a side-on platforming version of Pac-Man. Progress is ‘saved’ via a password system that returns you to the level you last played.
The Crazy Castle series is a solid, inoffensive (if unremarkable) set of games with generic levels that could easily be spiced up with a sexy sprite or two, and Kemco (then known as Kotobuki System) was quick to realise this. The company re-purposed these games with different licences in different regions, depending on the rights they held in each territory. Bugs Bunny was already a replacement for another animated rabbit originally in the frame back in Japan…
From rabbit to wabbit
The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle for NES was itself a straight sprite swap of the Famicom Disk System original Roger Rabbit. Kemco had acquired the Japanese game rights to Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was produced by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures. In the West, however, publisher LJN had acquired those rights and another game–an action platformer based more closely on the film–was developed by Rare in the UK (not the venerable developer’s finest work, it must be said). Wishing to release its Crazy Castle title abroad, Kemco resolved to purchase the rights to Looney Tunes characters from Warner Bros. and transform its headliner from a rabbit into a wabbit.
So far, so convoluted, but that wasn’t the final switch for the first Crazy Castle game, either. Kemco went down another licencee rabbit hole with a Game Boy port which became the Disney-licensed Mickey Mouse in Japan. In the West, the Game Boy version retained the Bugs branding due to Capcom having the international rights to Disney properties (resulting in classics suck as DuckTales and Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers). Jeremy Parish’s excellent Game Boy World video (above) concentrates on that Game Boy iteration of The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle–apparently the first licensed game ever to come to the handheld–but also compares the other versions, so give that a watch if you’re curious.
From the beginning, then, the Crazy Castle series was a tangled web that snagged some of the most popular animated characters ever created, and there was plenty more confusion to come.
Hugo gonna call?
Kemco’s approach to getting maximum mileage from its rather basic game design continued unabated with the 1991 Game Boy sequel known in North America as The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle 2. Mickey Mouse once again took the reins in the Japanese version (named, quite logically, Mickey Mouse II). Unfortunately, things would get complicated in Europe where two versions of the game released: one starred Mickey Mouse (although remember that the first game with Disney’s mascot was Japan-only, so in Europe this sequel was simply called Mickey Mouse).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the other European version of this game would star Bugs again. You would, of course, be wrong. Instead, Laguna Video Games threw ITE’s Scandinavian troll and children’s property Hugo into Crazy Castle 2, retitled it Hugo, and yet another licence got stirred into the Crazy Castle mix.