One advantage that Captain N has over other video game cartoons: the designs of the characters, especially incidental/background characters, are particularly insane, and appear to have just been the product of artists being allowed to go completely wild. In this episode, and in other episodes I ended up watching, I would squeal with delight every time they showed another group of random Videoland denizens because what even are they, it’s crazy. I noticed in the credits that the first name among the character designers was Fil Barlow, whose flair for delightfully grotesque creatures has shown up in a lot of different cartoons, as well as in his own independently-produced comics. I don’t know if he necessarily had a hand in most of the designs (he was definitely one of the earlier people working on it), but you can definitely see his aesthetic in Mother Brain especially, which is a genuinely good monster design and the brilliant grossness of it isn’t betrayed by the animation (I love that her face is just a stretched-out bit of skin, which you can really see when they show her from behind…also at one point in this episode she moves around on dinky little wagon wheels, which is great.) If nothing else, this show has that going for it.
S1E13, “Mama Luigi”
This is an episode that many people know about, and thanks to the Youtube Poop subculture (of which I was once a member, and probably still have my special membership ring hiding around somewhere) have probably deconstructed it into its component parts so many times that they’ve absorbed it on a molecular level—yes, by this point humanity is as closely related to “Mama Luigi” as it is to other members of the order of great apes. There is now even a scene-by-scene remake of it made by dozens and dozens of animators, which by all means should be the definitive version of it going forward—and the reason all this has been possible is that this poorly-animated Mario World cartoon is so dead-simple that it is very easy to do whatever you want with it, basically just the animated equivalent of “and then and then and then and then and then/etc”. It helps that it’s only ten minutes long, which definitely gives it a leg up on its interminable predecessor. Can I even write about it? Maybe, but I’m gonna break format for a bit and just list observations.
S2E22, “Cartoon Buffoon” (2003) & S4E13, “Tooned Out” (2005)
I purposely chose to focus on Western-made video games cartoons and not include any anime, not just because I don’t want to spend my entire life on this stupid adventure I’ve gotten myself into, but also because there’s a certain level of base level competence in the Japanese shows compared to the vast majority of their English counterparts that makes them less likely to be bad in a fun way. That’s not to say that anime is less likely to be made in an assembly line fashion than English cartoons (they really, really aren’t), but they are usually better at pretending to be something that should be allowed on television and don’t include eye-raising deviations from the source material (probably because Japanese animators adapting Japanese games is less likely to go hilariously wrong than American animators adapting Japanese games.) Something like Pokémon or Monster Rancher (or the Street Fighter DTV movies) isn’t bad enough to spend time dissecting their flaws. I am making an exception here, not because this show is so terrible, but because these episodes in particular are fun to look at in the context of this series.
Night in the Woods is a game that encourages you to form routines, but rarely ever pushes you in specific directions—you are not always called by Mae’s mother every time you go down the stairs at the beginning of each day, but (I guess, depending on what kind of player you are) I went over to speak to her every day anyway, because she’s such a funny character and every new interaction is rewarding. Changes or plot-relevant moments are doled out in a deliberate fashion, and are usually reserved for Mae’s friends (who act as the focal point, in that the activities involving them often end that day’s activities, which feels true to life and is a clever way to structure the game), so it’s a tribute to the game’s compelling writing that I always wanted to see what all the other side characters were doing every opportunity I got, even when I didn’t know if they even had anything new to say—you don’t have to hear Selmers’ cute rhyming couplets every time, but I wanted to because I liked Selmers as a character, and eventually your close attention is rewarded when you happen upon the Possum Springs Poetry Society. The game is open-ended in that it gives you a lot of opportunity for exploration of the town but never insists on it, and there are just enough points of interest for you to find to keep your routine going, but not so many that you feel overwhelmed. There’s a big story, but all the little stories (and non-stories) surrounding it are enticing as well; it feels very true to the way Mae is characterized and to the themes of the game, creating a living world that’s full of interesting people and stories that go beyond just the big stuff.
S2E14, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (2000)
So, let’s acknowledge the, sigh, 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Donkey Kong Country games impacted the gaming landscape by using elaborate trickery to make people think they were seeing cutting-edge 3D models (but in the end it was all in good fun)—you could understand why the people who were adapting it into a television cartoon would want to do the same in their medium, even though the technology was largely undeveloped in 1997. You could say it was overambitious, trying to be ahead of its time, but that still doesn’t explain the grotesqueness of this show on a visual level. The world is an empty realm of repetitive landscapes and character models (the budgetary limits on this thing meant that this cartoon has the same limitations as a live-action show, like having to reuse sets) without anything resembling lighting. Characters are a hodgepodge of shapes melded together without real coherence covered with bizarre textures (that aren’t even consistent between the Kongs), and they don’t so much move as have their body parts melt in certain directions—in fact, no movements or gesticulations look natural (I could never get used to the way their mouths move), which only magnifies the problems with the actual character designs, where Donkey Kong’s muzzle has morphed into a duck-like bill that seems barely attached to his head. Everything looks off-model, which is amazing because this is a CGI cartoon show.
S1E8, “Big Footenstein” (1990)
Oh, you thought I’d cover Captain N first, did you? Well, this is the part where I zig instead of zag, so here’s the show that rides Captain N‘s coattails hard, the Acclaim-funded Power Team. Yep, all of your favourite Acclaim game all-stars in one show. Welcome to the early nineties.
S1, “Spaced Out Frogs/Gorilla My Dreams/Crazy Camp Creature/The Teddy Bear Scare” (1983)
Ruby-Spears was founded by two former employees of Hanna-Barbera (specifically, the two who had a hand in the creation of Scooby-Doo) in the mid-seventies, and in a time when H-B dominated the airwaves on Saturday mornings, they contributed a number of cartoons that were, in terms of content and quality, just a slightly worse version of what was already being shown. Why the world needed a second, somehow cheaper Hanna-Barbera, I have no idea (it certainly gives the lie to the idea that competition will necessarily improve the product)—their only notable accomplishments were giving Jack Kirby money to design Thundarr the Barbarian and creating the Mr. T cartoon that was later parodied on TV Funhouse. Eventually, they were bought out by the same parent company that already owned H-B (pre-Turner), meaning that one corporation owned two animation studios making functionally identical television programs that aired concurrently. What a time to be a kid—no wonder they decided to play video games instead.