Looking Back: Beetlejuice (NES)
Beetlejuice is one of the more interesting platformers for the NES, and one that’s usually overlooked because of the LJN tag and the weird license behind it.
LJN was a hideous beast in the NES era, generally known for releasing, shall we say, less desirable titles. The kind of stuff best reserved for rentals so you didn’t regret paying full price later. But some of their oddities, like Friday the 13th, are actually interesting when you understand the mechanics. But let’s face it – LJN had a reputation. Their penchant for suck is easily found in games like the notorious The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, which easily proves how they often ruined the potential of a decent license. Though I have a soft spot in my heart for some of their games, most are trashy when looked at objectively. But I have a thing for trash. My record for the Atari 2600 title, Spike’s Peak, is in fact over double the current “world record” listed on Twin Galaxies. So yeah, I like my games bad. There’s something entertaining to me about B-movie level video games. Enter, Beetlejuice.
Beetlejuice was an unusual source for a video game. It had Geena Davis before she hit the drink, grotesque effects, and a story revolving around a strange vision of the afterlife. The title character Beetlejuice worked as a second-rate spook to scare humans out of homes. It’s one of a handful of Tim Burton movies that were any good, and he’ll surely ruin it with a planned sequel. But a game based on Beetlejuice? Very strange, considering it would have posed several challenges based on the brief plot I just provided, though granted the cartoon series was pretty stellar. But we’re talking about a game here, in an era when graphics were still fairly limited. Should it be a puzzle game? Text-based? Perhaps a shmup? Well, LJN decided to make it a platformer. An odd choice, but surprisingly it actually came out better than you’d expect. You heard me…
Graphically, Beetlejuice has this third-party, unlicensed feel. Strange, because Rare (of Battletoads fame) had their hand in it. Why it looks the way it does is a mystery reserved for future scholars. Some of the sprites consist of only two frames of movement with quirky designs. Beetlejuice’s head is too big for his body ala NBA Jam, and some of the creatures are bizarre. Like, why in the hell am I fighting one of the ghost football players in the sewer as a boss? Why is there a shark in a giant bathtub in the first house? Why is the land of the dead so consistently populated by octopi and scorpions? Typical LJN, but the gloominess and goofiness kind of works to its advantage. At the same time, some parts, like the continue screen, are finely done with lots of detail.
But one surprisingly strong area of Beetlejuice is the sound. The tunes are largely memorable, albeit childish at times. But some, such as the eerie track in the sewer or the jive of the Netherworld are pretty impressive programming. The sound effects mix it up with light touches, but there’s one problem, the loud ones. When Beetlejuice is struck you hear this bomb blast, and upon death you get one of the most irritating death notes ever. For the love of…you could create a new form of Chinese torture out of this, playing it repeatedly until your brain splits in two. With a TV at moderate level it’s punishing and more annoying than a Windows error out of nowhere with your speakers at max. It’s only one detail, but until you get the hang of playing you’re sure to hear it more than any man should. Trust me, you’re going to be about as comfortable as you would hearing a jet with your ear next to the engine.
The gameplay’s where Beetlejuice is really interesting. Loosely following the movie, your goal is to scare everyone out of the house, or something. Really, it’s not clear what in the hell is happening. Sometimes it seems to follow the film, other times it just makes a boss out of whatever the hell it wants. But it’s fair to say it plays like a typical platformer. Making sense of the plot, that’s your problem. Even the ending doesn’t make any sense. Beetlejuice can jump and stomp. Counter-intuitively, he cannot jump on most enemies. What? Strangely, you can only do the jump attack on a few foes, so it’s trial-and-error to get a feel for what you can kill bare-bones. Fitting analogy, because the annoying death sound I mentioned earlier is accompanied by an explosion of bones. Beetlejuice can also purchase a variety of attacks called ‘scares’. Scares are purchased in little stores around the game or sometimes you’ll find them lying around. To acquire purchasing rights, you have to stomp on tiny beetles that pop out of holes throughout the game, thus the purpose of your other “attack”. There are four types marked via color. You also get points for killing certain enemies, and this reserve is what you use to buy scares. So, what is in fact your score is also your ‘money’, in a sense, exactly the same idea as Capcom’s under-appreciated Gun.Smoke. Scares generally allow you to fire shots, and certain scares have more damage and more shots. Others, like the ‘Birdman’, give you abilities like increased leaping, which is highly useful for some of the difficult jumps.
The usage of scares, especially how you collect them, is pretty novel and requires an element of strategy generally not seen with this time of game. Beetlejuice is also maddeningly difficult. Later in the house, for example, it switches to an overhead view and it’s one of the hardest maze-type runs I’ve ever played, with unforgiving enemies. This is made even more agonizing by floating doors that take you to the Netherworld where sandworms fly at lightning speed and kill you in a single hit. Creatively speaking, Beetlejuice actually excels in some regards. It takes the standard platformer and does something new with it while mixing up the action with some different level types, but it’s damn challenging. Thankfully, each enemy you kill returns your hit count to normal, giving you three overall unless you get struck by a one-shot beast, and there are a few lying in wait.
Another shocker is Beetlejuice has a lot of replay value, though this may be my love of all things bad. It’s just hard enough to present a good challenge, but not so much that you reach for le Game Genie. Some segments are nerve-wracking, especially the Afterlife stage where almost everything you can think of comes flying from all directions. Damn it, that guy who got run over by a car in the movie is frikken fast, not to mention everywhere I go! No password or save feature, either, but something disturbingly charming about Beetlejuice’s play allows you to slowly ease into later levels until you’re good enough to make it through the whole game. With a few continues to use as well as the ability to purchase extra lives (up to 9 total), this allows for a pretty enjoyable experience. You can check out a full play video below, but note that some of the graphics are affected in whatever emulator he’s using.
Beetlejuice is one of the more interesting platformers for the NES, and one that’s usually overlooked because of the LJN tag and the weird license behind it, having a similar feel to Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. At first glance you’d figure you’re in for another Wayne’s World (look it up) due to the stigmas out there presented by reviewers who are more about comedy than actual substance. But if you put some time into it you’ll find that Beetlejuice is quite a fun game, and some of the horror elements may also appeal to the goth in some of you out there- or at least the Burton fanaticism best reserved for his early years. Interestingly, the game seems to capture some of the eccentricities of the film, and perhaps that’s a good thing, at least for some of us.