It’s Gonna Be a Video Jungle Out There : Video-game stars Donkey Kong and Sonic the Hedgehog will battle it out with new games backed by tech advances and mega-marketing.
On movie screens this fall, Tom Cruise will compete with Robert De Niro. On television, Tim Allen and Kelsey Grammer are duking it out. In record stores, Pearl Jam will square off against Michael Jackson.
And in the world of video games, look for the battle of Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong.
The expected hit titles, Sega of America’s Sonic & Knuckles (due in stores Tuesday) and Nintendo of America’s Donkey Kong Country (due Nov. 21), both purport to radically advance 16-bit video-game technology (the former on Sega’s Sega Genesis system, the latter on Nintendo’s Super NES system). They will also be backed by unprecedented marketing campaigns: Sonic & Knuckles will be propelled by a worldwide, $45-million drive, while Donkey Kong Country will be boosted by $16 million in advertising in America alone. By contrast, a high-profile video game usually receives a $5-million send-off.
Matthew Franco, supervisor of Game Dude, a video-game shop in North Hollywood, calls the battle “the Nintendo mascot vs. the Sega mascot.”
These Hollywood-sized campaigns are reflective of a business that has become as lucrative as movie-making. While the cost of developing a video game is roughly the same as a modest, independent motion picture--roughly between $100,000 and $2 million--they can make blockbuster-style money, with hits earning more than $100 million in sales. If both games, each retailing for $69.95, meet their sales goals, they’ll make at least $140 million in the United States.
Sonic & Knuckles is the fifth Sega Genesis game starring Sonic the Hedgehog, whose $1 billion in sales of games and ancillary merchandise makes him easily the hardest working hedgehog in history. This game teams him up with Knuckles, a red Australian Echnidna with dreadlocks, in an effort to defeat Dr. Robotnik and his fearsome Death Egg.
The game’s gimmick is its unique “Lock-On” technology, in which previous Sonic games can be inserted into the top of Sonic & Knuckles while it in turn is inserted in the Sega Genesis game. This will introduce Knuckles and his distinctive movies into the previous Sonic games and allow players to discover new playing fields hidden in the old games.
“This is something that has been two years in development, and we weren’t sure we’d be able to do it until maybe the last six or eight months,” says Roger Hector, director of the Sega Technical Institute. “We were pretty far along in developing this game before we proved to ourselves that technically we could modify the other games.”
“Lock-On,” or the physical connection between the two game cartridges, “allows for potential sharing of game memory, and what was a 16-megabit game, Sonic 3, when combined with an 18-megabit game in Sonic & Sonic & Knuckles, in effect becomes a 34-megabit game,” Hector explains. “We had to develop a pretty highfalutin program to allow for that kind of swapping of memory.”
Once the two games are merged, Knuckles becomes the featured character in both Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3. “Knuckles has different abilities. He can climb, fly, glide and punch his way through things that Sonic couldn’t do,” says Hector. “So not only does he get transported into the game, but the game itself becomes modified, with new places Knuckles can go to. Knuckles can actually climb to places that Sonic never could.
“That’s the one thing that kids and parents appreciate,” Hector says. “Once they’ve breathed new life in an older game that isn’t being played as much anymore, that’s definitely more bang for the buck.”
Franco of Game Dude says, “I think it’s a really great idea on their part. It’s the first time anyone has done something like that, but it’s good marketing. It will get people to go out and buy the older cartridges.”
Sega’s overall sales goal is to sell 2 million units in America, and another 2 million worldwide. But Nintendo’s goals for Donkey Kong Country are even more ambitious--the company hopes to sell 2 million games in the month between the game’s release and Christmas.
Donkey Kong Country revives the ape from Nintendo arcade and video games a decade back (said games spawned the string of Mario Bros. games), unites him with a sidekick named Diddy Kong, and sets them loose on a playground of some 60 regular playing levels and another 40 secret, hidden levels. Their exploits are rendered in spectacular 3-D images and animation created on Silicon Graphics workstations.
Donkey Kong Country, Franco marvels, “has some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a video. It can’t be compared to anything else. It’s like high-end computer graphics.”
That 2-million sales figure in one month is “unprecedented,” admits Peter Main, the vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America, “but it’s based on the off-the-chart reactions we’ve received from game players and retailers. It’s something they haven’t seen enough of, in terms of breakthrough components, that advances the state of game-play, visuals and audio (the music from the game will be released separately on CD).
“They see in this product the same things that have been promised for (more expensive and more powerful) CD-ROM and 32-bit games and it’s a miracle that it can be delivered in a 16-bit cartridge.”
In order to significantly enhance the texture of the graphics, very little in terms of game play or response time was lost, according to Dan Owsen, product manager for Nintendo of America. “We did have to sacrifice some color, but it’s still a 256-color screen, so it’s close to a personal-computer level of colors.” Owsen adds that an upcoming racing game, UniRacer, will incorporate some of the same style of 3-D graphics.
All well and good, but what are the characters in these games like, up close and personal?
Main describes the ape Donkey Kong as “meaningful,” “lovable” and “empathetic.” Diane Fornasier, group marketing director for Genesis and Game Gear, allows that “Knuckles is definitely a bit edgier than Sonic. . . . He definitely has a mission in life, and it’s a very strong commitment. His edgy attitude is reflected by the knuckles on his fists and his dreadlocks.
“It actually gets to be funny,” Fornasier says, “how we start talking about these characters like they’re real. They do have their own personalities. We’ll say, ‘Knuckles would love that’ or ‘Knuckles would love to do that.’ ”