“Look after the customer and the business will take care of itself.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Arcade Mage.”
I was raised on McDonald’s. Well, I suppose that is not entirely true; growing up in a household with home-cooked meals, by and large, McDonald’s was reserved for special occasions, rewards, and, for many birthdays, a McDonald’s birthday cake.
(Yes, McDonald’s served birthday cakes in the 80s and 90s and, in fact, they are still available to this day!)
In addition to this, I was raised in the golden age (pun totally intended) of McDonald’s (from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s). This was when McDonald’s had created the lore, legends, and mythos of McDonaldland, with entire geographic regions based on McDonald’s food groups and characters that resided within McDonaldland that were the embodiment of menu items like the Filet-o-Fish, Shamrock Shake, and the Big Mac.
At the time, for me, McDonald’s was a magical place where these larger than life characters existed, a place where you went that was a world unto itself and, if you were lucky, you got a glimpse into the world that was McDonaldland (just imagine The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but with hamburgers). It was a place where you would get toys with your food based off your favorite Saturday morning cartoon, then go outside to the playground to crawl through hamburger tunnels and explore pirate ships. In short, it was the Wonderland of fast food.
So, it is perhaps no surprise that, in 1990, as the console market boomed and video games proved not only to be profitable but lined up perfectly with McDonald’s target demographic (i.e. kids that would, in theory, become life-long customers), McDonald’s sought out a development company to create a video game based off of the company and its numerous licenses. McDonald’s settled on Virgin Games to develop the first McDonald’s video game and, by early 1992, M.C. Kids was released across the country.
However, the development of M.C. Kids (pronounced “Em Cee Kids”) was not without problems. One may immediately think McDonald’s was far too heavy-handed in the design process, dictating how the game looked, played, and the story that was told. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; McDonald’s kept a very light hand on the tiller as one of the designers of the game, Gregg Tavares, recalls:
“The only major guidelines McDonald’s Corp. gave was that there should be absolutely no food in the game. They didn’t want it to be perceived as an advertisement.”
Essentially, McDonald’s didn’t want players collecting Quarter Pounders and Big Macs to level up their character, acquire skills, or become super-powered. No, the problems came from within the development company itself: Virgin Games.
The first problem was the small development team Virgin Games assigned to the game; throughout the development of M.C. Kids, only four people were assigned to bring the project to its completion. In addition, one of the lead designers on the project got into a large argument with one of the heads of Virgin Games, the end result being that the development team got little to no support from the company from that point onward. An additional complication was that Nintendo felt the game’s overworld map was too similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 and sued Virgin Games to get the design changed. Virgin Games conceded, the results of the suit being the redesign of M.C. Kids assets, renaming the game McDonaldland for European territories, and not releasing the game on Sega consoles because M.C. Kids based part of its design off of Nintendo assets.
(Nintendo is not known for lawsuits, right?)
When the game was commissioned, McDonald’s had planned to synchronize an M.C. Kids-themed advertising campaign in stores to coincide with the video game’s release. The idea was that kids playing the game would want to go to McDonald’s, and kids getting M.C. Kids-themed Happy Meals would want to buy and own the Nintendo game. With McDonald’s selling 1 million Happy Meals a day in the early 1990s, that would, in theory, equate to massive sales of the video game. However, that never happened. Part of the reason could be that the game was delivered past deadline. McDonald’s never said why they dropped the plan for an advertising campaign for the game. Regardless of the reason, the end result was that M.C. Kids saw little to no support at its release not only from McDonald’s, but also from Virgin Games. Beyond a coupon put into some Happy Meals and an article in Electronic Gaming Monthly, M.C. Kids faded into obscurity
M.C. Kids was released in February, 1992. The Nintendo Entertainment System was nearing the end of its life and, by that time, developers had pushed the graphical capabilities of the console to its limits. Game companies and designers had had, by this point in time, years to become familiar with the NES, and many beautiful, detailed games had been released as a result. So, when you compare the graphics of M.C. Kids to its contemporaries at the time, it is not the best representation of what the NES was capable of.
While the graphics are certainly not bad by any means, there is a lack of depth and detail in all graphical areas of the game (foreground objects, background scenery, sprites, and level elements). That being said, M.C. Kids has a large variety of environments you journey through during the course of gameplay: forests, mountains, the clouds, ice caves, a pirate ship, the moon (the inside is made of cheese), and an active volcano, to name a few. In addition, many of these environments have unique enemies and environmental hazards. Overall, there is a refreshing variety of visual imagery within M.C. Kids, albeit lacking in depth and detail.
Perhaps due to the small development team, M.C. Kids has an equally small soundtrack. For example, there are only four level tracks you will encounter during a majority of the game and, given that most of these tracks are 90-second loops, you will become quite familiar with them before you complete the game. While the tracks are cheerful and bouncy, they are often pitched towards the higher end of the sound spectrum and can become grating after extended gameplay. I’ve heard worse, but I’ve heard better.
The story and gameplay of M.C. Kids is fairly straightforward: the Hamburglar has stolen Ronald McDonald’s Magic Bag of Tricks and it is up to the M.C. Kids to get it back for him. To do this, you must journey through 30+ levels spread across 6 worlds to reach the active volcano where the Hamburglar has his hideout. Each level operates similarly to a majority of platformers from the NES era: you have a starting point, an end goal, and you traverse from left to right to go from start to finish, jumping on platforms and defeating enemies along the way. However, what is unique about M.C. Kids is that there are one or more Puzzle Cards hidden throughout the levels and your goal is to find them. This is how you progress through each world; each character (Grimace, Birdie, CosMc, etc.) requires you to find a certain number of their Puzzle Cards to open the path for the player to continue on to the next World. Why the residents of Mcdonaldland don’t immediately let you go straight to the Hamburglar to stop him is beyond me. Perhaps Grimace and Birdie don’t like Ronald McDonald as much as they appear to in the commercials.
What I like a lot about M.C. Kids is the non-linear approach to an often linear genre. A majority of the levels only have one Puzzle Card, while others have two, or three. Some levels have no Puzzle Cards. Further, not all of the Puzzle Cards you get in one world are for that world. For example, you will find Puzzle Cards for Grimace, CosMc, and The Professor spread across multiple worlds, hidden in numerous levels. You will find yourself exploring every nook and cranny of each world to uncover its secrets. Some hidden areas reward you with a Puzzle Card while others give you additional lives or “M” Coins (which, if you collect 100 of them without dying you get to do a bonus game for extra lives). In addition, there are 6 Secret Puzzle Cards spread across the entire game that, should you find them all, opens up a hidden 7th World with extremely challenging levels to try and beat (not unlike the Special Zone in Super Mario World).
If I had to criticize the gameplay in any aspect, it would be in regards to the controls. The controls for movement and jumping are rather loose and floaty and, as a result, precision platforming can be aggravating at times. When you add in moving platforms, leaps of faith, the low gravity of the Moon levels, or the platform puzzles of Hamburglar’s Volcano levels, it can cause the most seasoned of gamers to throw their controllers in frustration.
This game is hard, and not because of the occasionally frustrating controls. Each world you work your way through gets systematically less forgiving, has more hazards, and has trickier Puzzle Cards to try and find. You go from waltzing through the woods by Ronald McDonald’s house to easily locate a Puzzle Card to navigating lava-strewn levels near the Hamburglar’s Hideout that, by and large, kill you instantly if you do not chain a string of platform jumps across a series of moving platforms perfectly.
(Did I mention the level that has random meteors falling from the sky?)
Despite that, the difficulty curve of the game works in its favor because it functions as a scalable difficulty for all players. The further you progress with your skills as a player, the further you will progress in the game. At least, I should say that was how I experienced the game. When I first played M.C. Kids growing up, I could only get to maybe World 3 (Grimace’s World) before the cartridge had to be returned to the Road Runner rental store. As I got older and more seasoned at playing platformers, I could get farther in the game and, finally, when I got old enough and good enough, I used my Game Genie for infinite lives to finally beat the game!
Of course, you can beat the game the old fashioned way, but it will be much harder.
Of course, the issue with the difficulty curve is that it will often limit a player’s ability to progress far into the game and, as a result, may limit the gaming experience for those players. Yes, one can practice, practice, practice but, when placing this game in the context of an average gaming session when this game was released or today on original hardware (no save-states back then, kids), most players would have been hard pressed to beat this game.
One cannot deny the setting of M.C. Kids is quite unique: two average kids are sucked into a phantasmagoric land full of fantastic creatures on a quest to retrieve a magical item. When you add the fact this world is based on the advertisements and commercials of a fast food chain, you get a strange bird indeed.
(And that bird will sell you chicken nuggets.)
But when you step back from the skin that was placed on this platformer, there isn’t a lot new under the sun. For example, there are no power-ups in this game. There are no items you can pick up in this game beyond blocks to throw at enemies. The story is relatively basic. That aside, it does provide some neat platforming experiences. The low gravity on the Moon has you performing running jumps that nigh-on traverse the entire stage. With numerous hidden areas and secrets that often include puzzle solving and platforming, you will be returning to stages multiple times with fresh tricks and an eye towards thinking outside the normal parameters of a platforming stage. Not to mention on multiple stages there are objects which, when you run across them, invert the entire stage!
Being able to invert your character blew my mind as a kid, and still does to this day. Not only did the levels have to be designed for normal platforming, but the level design also had to take into account that gravity could be inverted. You could find yourself jumping across the roof of the stage (now the floor) to find new secrets and Puzzle Cards, or jumping towards the base of the stage on the underside of platforms to get that elusive Secret Puzzle Card (or you may fall up into the sky forever and die).
Given the slightly non-linear level progression and unique platforming elements, combined with the setting the game takes place in, the game benefits from repeat playthroughs. Especially when you take into the account the hard-to-reach areas, Secret Puzzle Cards, and the entire hidden world you can unlock. Plus, with the difficulty curve of the game, some runs may find you progressing farther into the game than others.
Personal Score: 8/10
It is impressive to see what a four-person team could create for the NES in a year and a half. However, the limitations of a four-person development team can be seen in this game as well. While the game oozes theme like a juicy hamburger, it is a hamburger that does not have any condiments. Super Mario Bros. 3, which was released four years prior in 1988, has almost 90 playable levels, with secrets, hidden areas, power-ups, creature suits Mario can wear, boss battles, etc. Granted, Super Mario Bros. 3 had substantially more people working on it than M.C. Kids and, perhaps, with a development team equally large, M.C. Kids could have been as big of a hit as Super Mario Bros. 3 and would be placed at the top of the stack rather than somewhere in the middle.
That aside, M.C. Kids is an excellent platformer from the NES era. The game achieves what it set out to do and, by and large, does it competently. I would recommend finding the time and spending an afternoon with M.C. Kids, possibly enjoyed over a delicious Big Mac Value Meal, Apple Pie, and McFlurry…dangit McDonalds! Get out of my head!
Aggregated Score: 6.4
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Categories: Game Review