The x-treme skating series gets weird for Game Boy with a… 2D skateboard-based platformer?
September 1990 brings us the second Konami release designed exclusively for western Game Boy owners. Like NFL Football, Skate or Die: Bad ’N Rad never put in an appearance in Japan — only the U.S. and Europe.
I’d speculate that Bad ’N Rad never appeared in Konami’s home market due to its poor, frustrating game design… but you and I have both seen enough Japan-exclusive Game Boy titles at this point to know that quality is not actually a factor when it comes to that particular market. In fact, while Bad ’N Rad is a long way from anything I might categorize as “fun,” it does at least have a certain sense of ambition and earnest intention behind it that has been sorely lacking in so many other excretions less respectable publishers have voided onto the Game Boy. So I wish I could say I like this game, because there honestly is a well-intended ethos behind it. Sadly, it suffers from a number of frustrating design choices that turn it into a maddening exercise in memorization. That said, its design ties relates to the major factor that probably accounts for its failure to reach Japan.
Skate or Die: Bad ’N Rad is, of course, one of two Game Boy spinoffs based on the semi-classic extreme sports game Skate or Die. Most people are probably most familiar with Skate or Die via its NES release, which Konami published under its U.S.-focused Ultra Games label in 1988. In fact, though, Skate or Die originally hails from Electronic Arts, having been released for Commodore 64 and other PCs in 1987. Skate or Die appears to have been one of EA’s answers to Epyx’s wildly successful “Games” series: It hit computers right around the same time as the extreme-sports-focused California Games. Unlike Epyx, EA chose to focus exclusively on the skateboarding event, foregoing Epyx’s trademark style of multiple simple events in favor of a single, relatively deep sport.
While it was no Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Skate or Die definitely stood out as one of the premiere skating games of its time — especially on NES, where its primary competition was an awful conversion of Atari’s 720º produced by Beam Software. But, at the time, EA didn’t have much of a presence in Japan… a fact that wouldn’t be remedied until the Square Electronic Arts joint venture of the late ’90s. At the dawn of the decade, though, EA’s poor Japanese presence meant that it relied on developers and publishers like Infinity and Imagineer to pick up and localize their creations into Japanese for them.
Konami didn’t seem to have any such intentions, though. While the company happily picked up a handful of EA licenses to convert to NES, it never bothered bringing any of them back to its home territory. EA games, then, were simply grist for Konami’s ambitions to develop a distinct presence in the west rather than hoping domestic hits would also translate into success abroad. That gamble clearly paid off with Skate or Die, which did well enough on NES that EA would go on to create their own NES-exclusive sequel, Skate or Die 2, in 1990. It’s a bit like the way Sony didn’t want to touch a Demon’s Souls localization with a 10-foot-pole until Atlus scored a surprise hit with it, at which point both Sony and Namco wanted skin in the game.
Unlike Atlus, who was rewarded for turning From Software into an international RPG powerhouse without so much as a “Thanks, chumps!”, Konami was at least thrown a small bone in the form of the license to create a Game Boy adaptation of Skate or Die. So, Konami’s designers cracked their knuckles, squinted their eyes at their computer screens, and muttered, “Right… let’s get weird.” Thus we have Bad ’N Rad, a fascinating if not particularly enjoyable attempt to transform the a multi-format PC skateboarding game into something that seemed more suited to the Game Boy.
Having seen so many more-or-less direct PC-to-Game Boy adaptations on Game Boy Works, you might be surprised to learn that Bad ’N Rad actually has very little to do with the original Skate or Die, outside of the involvement of skateboards. Rather, Konami took EA’s multi-event skating game and turned it into a typical 8-bit side-scrolling action game. It might almost remind you of Motocross Maniacs, the company’s very first Game Boy creation, in the way it squeezes a modern racing-type sport into the template of the era’s standard side-scrollers. In this case, you’re a little dude on a skateboard, traveling through a series of death traps, on a mission to do something or another.
I stress “mission”; unlike the original Skate or Die, where you were just out to test your mettle as the coolest skate kid around, Bad ’N Rad sees players facing off against deadly traps, murderous enemies, and even bosses. It kind of feels like Konami’s designers played Hudson’s Adventure Island and said, “OK, lets copy the skateboard bonus parts, except that should be the entire game.” Though, unlike in Adventure Island and Wonder Boy, the side-scrolling skateboard sequences don’t force forward scrolling on players — you have the ability to slow down and even reverse direction as need be, even scrolling backward to a limited degree.
However, because you do ride a skateboard here rather than getting about on your own locomotion, momentum and inertia play a pretty big part here. You need a fair amount of lead-in time to many jumps in order to clear gaps, and it takes a little time to stop or reverse directions. Once you get moving, you often need to stay in motion. It might remind you a bit of Sonic the Hedgehog, actually, though it’s far less elegant.
It might also remind you of Color Dreams’ Menace Beach, aka Sunday Funday, aka Miss Peach World: Another platformer with a similar skate mechanic and the corresponding need to keep up the pace. It’s nowhere near as slippery or hateful as Menace Beach, but it can be equally frustrating — especially in the way its fast-paced design ultimately amounts to an exercise in memorization rather than genuine skill. Still, the side-scrolling levels are fine, at least up until the part where you have to clear a gap by jumping across a pair of serpents’ heads.
If that were the entirety of Bad ’N Rad, it wouldn’t be too poor a game. Alas, though, Konami also carried forward the top-down view of the original Skate Or Die here, and those portions are just the absolute worst. Unlike in the side-scrolling portions, you can’t come to a complete stop, only slow your momentum somewhat. You have nowhere near enough time to see and react to many obstacles in these top-down stages thanks to the limited viewing distance, so they amount to even more of an exercise in memorization than the side-scrolling portions. And you have to complete three of these stages in order to reach the game’s finale.
If the platforming parts play like a less-terrible Menace Beach, the top-view sequences play like an equally poor Dead Heat Scramble. In fact, it plays almost exactly like that cumbersome, ill-designed racer, with all the same flaws. You dodge and leap hazards as you move forward, scrambling up sloped sides the course. And because you can’t reverse direction, stumbling into a stretch of hazards means you’ll take several hits as you struggle to extricate yourself by pitching forward. This design wasn’t fun in Dead Heat Scramble, and it’s no better here… even if it does have nicer music. It’s arguably worse in Bad ’N Rad, because it walls you off from playing the more enjoyable side-scrolling sequences.
Then again, even those appear to degenerate into unfair nonsense eventually. Not that I was able to clear the second brutal top-down stage, but by peeking ahead at online longplays of the game I’ve seen the dire future promised by the Bad ’N Rad endgame: Cruel gauntlets of auto-scrolling spikes that can only be cleared with Battletoads-like memorization, and bosses that can only be defeated by sloshing around half-pipes at high speeds.
Still, I hate to come down too hard on Bad ’N Rad, because I do feel there were some interesting ideas at play here. Konami meant well… they just didn’t quite pull off what they were going for.
This would be the company’s final crack at the Skate or Die license; after this, EA would take back the publishing rights and produce a second Game Boy title, Tour de Thrash, which feels a lot more like what you’d expect from a game bearing the Skate or Die name. And it’s fine, I guess… probably a more even and sensible product overall than this. But it does seem a little uninspired after getting a taste of Konami’s weird, if uneven, attempt at spicing up the skateboard genre a bit.
The end product is not all bad, but neither is it particularly rad. I’m gonna go ahead and call false advertising on this one. Thankfully, Konami’s next few releases appear far more promising…