Little Nemo the Game Master in Design Land
Since I posted that news blurb, I got to reminiscing about the NES game released by Capcom in 1990. Little Nemo: The Dream Master was one of my favorite games as a kid, mostly for the novelty of transforming into different animals to use their powers, although I never did beat it back then. Now that the Nemo comics are getting a revival, I’ve decided to see how well it stands up against my knowledge of game design.
The results are… mixed.
Let me start out by saying that Little Nemo isn’t a bad game. It’s fun, the music won’t make you hurt yourself, and it’s not too difficult if you have patience. The game is also able to boast that, despite having a princess involved, she DOESN’T get kidnapped (although the king does instead, but still). It’s allegedly based on the animated movie, but I think it’s “based on it” as much as any Studio Ghibli movie is “based on” its source material. Let’s just say that it was… inspired by it. Yes, that’s a more fitting way to put it.
Having said that, do not mistake my affection for this game as an indication that it’s well done. I don’t think it’s bad, but I also don’t think it’s what I would consider to be a finished game. I’m not talking about the bugs and sloppy narration, I mean that it honestly doesn’t feel as though they finished the planning process. There are a lot of elements in the game that don’t make sense — and that’s using a loose definition, considering this is about dreams. The roots of the game’s issues, in my opinion, come from its base mechanics and its level design.
Looking back on this game, the character abilities don’t appear to have gone through a second draft, despite a few obvious improvements that ought to have been made. First and foremost, let’s look at Nemo himself.
That thing sticking out from behind his shoulder is actually a scepter, later referred to as the Morning Star. It can be used as a melee weapon and it can shoot a magical beam, but only in the last level of the game. Prior to that, it does absolutely nothing; Nemo can’t even hold it. In the meantime, the only sort of defense the player has is to throw pieces of candy that can stun enemies, but as far as I know can’t kill anyone. What’s the point of having the player carry a weapon that can’t be used until the very end, especially when they’ve been given no other form of attack? A simple solution would’ve been to give the player the melee attacks for the bulk of the game, but only unlock the magical beam at the end. It’d not only be more logical and fair, but it would also reduce the need for extended patience, as most of that is merely waiting for enemies to get out of the way.
Nemo’s other abilities come from local wildlife. The player is told in the very beginning of the game that animals will “give [Nemo] a ride” if they’re fed candy. This becomes a very awkward process, however, because not all of the animals are created equal. The most noteworthy difference is that Nemo doesn’t actually ride all of them; for about half of them, he actually wears the animal itself as a suit. Animal suits are nothing new to the world of gaming — Mario is the king of this concept, after all — but in those situations, it was a literal outfit, and it was gained via touching/using some sort of magical item. Nemo, on the other hand, feeds actual animals candy until they go to sleep, and… climbs inside of them? Yes, I realize this is based in dreams, but… SERIOUSLY, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT??
A simple way to make this less creepy would’ve been to eliminate the animal feeding all together and just create pick-ups that transform Nemo himself into whatever form was needed. After all, this is a world of dreams, and part of the fun of that is that you can be anything you want to be. This would make more sense within the context of the premise, and it’d empower the player more because they’d be doing things themself.
Unfortunately, the animals also have another set of problems: Inconsistent abilities. While each creature does offer something that Nemo can’t do himself in terms of mobility, not all of them are actually able to attack. (And on that note, why does the mouse come with a mallet? Why not just let the mouse bite? They have very strong teeth.) Even if the animal system weren’t redesigned to become transformations, I still think that they should all have some form of attack — and that those attacks should all differ in some way from Nemo’s base attack (which, as we recall, should be the scepter so he’s not stuck with just the candy).
To get right to the point, the levels are too small. I don’t know if this was an issue with how much data space the game had to work with or if it was just rushed, but I found that there were lots of areas in which the levels felt padded. For example, there’s an area in Topsy Turvy where you get the frog in order to get high enough to get the bee, which you then use to continue. In a situation like that, you’d either need something more significant to do with the frog (since you literally only have it for about 10 seconds), or eliminate it all together and just give the player the bee instead of wasting their time. I don’t think that having to swap between different animals in order to get to different places is a bad idea, but that only works if you have enough places to go for it to be worth it. I find that the levels are so crammed together that the player is never given much of a chance to really make use of what they’ve been given.
In some cases, a certain animal only appears in a single area of the game, and then is never seen or heard from again (unless they’re in some really obscure places I never found, nor did the longplayer). If it were up to me, I would have trimmed these creatures out and found ways to make the oft-used animals fill the gaps. It would streamline the design and require the player to remember less in addition to freeing up memory for other things in the game — such as, I don’t know, expanded levels.
In order for the player to progress, they must collect a specific number of keys throughout the stage so they can open a door with several locks at the end. I have two problems with this set-up, the more dire of which is the fact that the player is not told in advance how many keys they need to move on. I can personally remember being frustrated as a child when I got to the end of a level with six keys, only to find that the door had seven locks, and I’d have to backtrack looking for another. It would’ve been an incredibly easy fix, given that there’s a key counter in the HUD. Instead of only telling the player how many keys you have, they could’ve told you how many keys you’d gathered out of the total needed.
My other beef with the keys is really just how uncreative it is. I mean, this is a game based on dreams! There are countless other ways that the designers might have set up item collection in order to propel the player forward. The one that immediately comes to mind for me is, why not have the player collect pieces of some item that would be necessary to move onward? The player would be able to visually tell whether or not their puzzle had been completed, which would instantly communicate whether or not they could move on. They even could’ve put the game together such that these items would be needed to fight bosses — which would’ve forced them to put bosses in more levels than just the last one. (Yes, the game has no bosses until level 8, which has three.)
…Actually, while I’m on this, let’s talk about bosses.
(apparently these are part of level design now)
Specifically, I want to talk about the interface of the fights. … Or at least, I would if there were any sort of interface at all.
The boss fights leave the player completely in the dark about their progress because there’s no indication as to how much health the boss has, or even whether or not you’re hurting it. The only information offered is whether or not an attack made contact, but making contact doesn’t always equate to doing damage.
A simple health bar for the bosses would’ve solved both of these problems. Even if Capcom didn’t want to take that route (as some designers don’t like putting things like that on the interface), they could’ve offered something as minimal as a palette flicker when the bosses take damage, and gradually darken the sprites as they get low on health. That’s been a gaming convention for years, and was certainly a well-practiced technique at the time that this game came out. There’s no excuse for there to be no information at all.
As I said in the beginning, Little Nemo is in fact a fun game, but I think it’s sad that it was released this way when there were so many simple fixes that would’ve improved it by so much. I’m actually a little tempted to try remaking it as a personal project, just because I want it to be better.
At this point, I have to interrupt my own article, because I discovered while looking up the longplay video that Capcom actually made more than one Nemo game. Apparently, there was also an arcade game that came out the same year, and it’s so beautiful that it brings a tear to my eye.
It’s a little simplistic (as arcade games often are), but it gets to the heart of the series in a way that the NES game never even dreamed of (no pun intended). Even if we don’t get a new Little Nemo game as a result of the comic series getting its revival, maybe we can at least score the arcade game on PSN or Xbox Live.
(Capcom: “Yeah right, in your dreams. …GET IT? DREAMS??)
Little Nemo: The Dream Master is © Capcom 1990. The original Nemo comic series was originally © Windsor McCay, but I have no idea who owns it now. Certainly not me. Don’t sue me, I’m just talking about games here.
Posted on July 26, 2013, in Analysis, Feature Articles, Game Idea, Journalism, Level Design, Retro Games, Video Games and tagged Little Nemo, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Little Nemo the Dream Master. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.