Licensed games carry a number of stigmas, and sometimes they’re deserved. In the case of Global Gladiators, Virgin found itself backed into a corner; they needed to continue using the McDonald’s license they’d obtained for NES platformer M.C. Kids, which incidentally nobody bought. Clearly the House of Ronald was not the license to print money they hoped it could be (though some Happy Meal representation would have helped). On a console represented by a blue hedgehog with ’tude, a fast food clown and his menagerie of friends didn’t stand a chance. Rather than exploit the license and appeal to its fans, Virgin struck a new direction, turning their McDonald’s franchise into a completely new series—for better or worse.
Game designer Dave Perry wanted to create a game engine, and he knew what it took to compete with Sonic: Speed, action, and platforming. Global Gladiators represented his chance to refine these ideas into usable code, which could then be reiterated into a never-ending deluge of platforming greatness. He seized the opportunity and ran with it. Mick and Mack, the returning heroes of the franchise, sped up and down along inclined platforms, blasting enemies at high speed and jumping great distances. It seemed simple enough, but Virgin’s engineers tweaked every element to ensure it felt unique and sort of fun just to move around in the world.
With the basics out of the way, it came time to design the game itself: The settings, enemies, and themes. Given their decision to avoid playing McDonald’s straight, Virgin searched for something—anything—that could help the game stand out. Fortunately in the early ’90s, one theme always lurked nearby: Environmentalism! Thus, Mick and Mack explored worlds of sludge and polluted cities, blasting goo monsters with super soakers (the ’90s!), and separating paper, glass, and plastic to recycle between stages—culminating in a climactic battle with a… glacier? Bad form, Gladiators. The sole tip of the hat to McDonald’s outside the opening and closing cinematics are the games “coins”: Tiny spinning M’s that can be collected throughout.
Unsurprisingly, Global Gladiators failed to make waves with its nonexistent license presence, simple gameplay, and pandering themes (despite rad comics in EGM and GamePro). Instead, it stands as a kind of moral lesson in how not to create a successful licensed title. Batman (NES) rocked out inspired gameplay while pretty much ignoring Tim Burton’s film. Konami’s Tiny Toons spread the fanservice thick, featuring every popular character from the show. DuckTales managed to do both. It’s possible to find success with all kinds of licensed formulas, but Virgin discovered that “bland everything” is not the way to go. It should be noted Global Gladiators also marked the debut of Tommy Tallarico’s wailing guitar solos, but in a world where the Genesis sound chip sounded like “beep boop” to most people, that just wasn’t enough.
Article by Tomm Hulett
GameSpite Journal 12: Global Gladiators