Friday, December 15, 2017

Conflict in Theme Parks

“Over the years Disney repeated to his animators: “Make it read!” Meaning, make the action distinct and recognizable. No contradictions, no ambiguities.” - Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original
You, the audience, make your way through the Temple of the Crystal Skull. You know Dr. Jones has been here - he's set up his base camp, disarmed booby traps, and his name is on the attraction marquee. But now he's vanished inside the temple, and his faithful assistant Paco, who can't operate a tripod, decides to send you directly into certain death!

....Hold on, back up here. Let's take this from the top.

We're all taught in Western storytelling that nothing can happen without conflict. There just can't be a story of renewal or growth without somebody running into some kind of obstacle, or antagonist. Many people think the antagonists are more interesting than the heroes who fight them. Even a cursory glance at a single scene from most major Hollywood movies and you'll see it's mainly a checklist of characters developing or resolving conflicts. Sometimes, when the conflict building isn't adequately disguised inside the narrative spine - as in the recent Hobbit movies - audiences rebel.

In contrast, theme parks seem to operate in an entirely different register, despite otherwise seeming to be a direct outgrowth of traditional Western art forms like theater and filmmaking. And while we conflate the effects of multiple art forms - think of those who consider an especially visually appealing area to be "painterly" - the fact is, theme parks construct their meanings quite differently than other narrative modes like cinema.

Although they've been the dominant narrative mode for most of the last 110 years, films have limitations. Film scholar Tom Gunning notes that "Whereas literature is never directly iconic, film, as a series of photographic representational signs, is. [...] In film, the excess of [surface detail] over meaning appears automatically with the photographic image." Films can depict dreams, but they can't really convey thoughts; they are full of surface details, but audiences must know which details in-frame are relevant. We begin to realize the unique difficulties of storytelling in the themed space when we realize that  filmic limitations apply to spaces such as Disneyland, but the difficulties are multiplied!

Unlike in a film, a themed space can be experienced in any order, and at any speed desired. Unlike a film, images may be examined from multiple perspectives, and linged over or rushed past as the viewer desires. And unlike film, the gaze cannot entirely be fully directed, although a truly exceptional themed space can "drag" the eye through it in controllable ways. Themed space shares the visual limitations of films, but without the benefits of editing!

This means that if you want to tell a story in a theme park with an identifiable bad guy, there can be no cut "back at the ranch" while the villains hatch their scheme, no leisurely unfolding of information through a first act. Themed spaces tell stories that hardly ever break down in acts; it's all action, as if you had to tell an entire film's narrative in the context of one huge action scene. Given these limitations, it's amazing that any theme park stories work at all!

So what's the solution? Theme parks tell stories that boil down to morsel size "storylets" with lots, and lots, of conflict.

On one end of the spectrum, we can look at an attraction like Alien Encounter, which had so many various conflicts going on at once it was confusing. There was the conflict of the X-S Tech Corporation wanting to demonstrate its very poorly tested teleporter technology, the conflict of Chairman Clench wanting to teleport into the theater but being unable to, the conflict of an alien bug wanting to eat the audience, and an extra layer of conflict of the XS Tech technicians trying to figure out how to get the bug out of the theater. If Western narrative wisdom about conflict were applied here, this would seem like a winner, and perhaps it would have been - in a feature length film! In the practice of an 8 minute theater show, with an excess of telling instead of showing, it all came across as a lot of shouting.

Another attraction where there's simply too much going on to be digestible at the fast pace required of a park attraction is Dinosaur - in this one two characters even get into an argument in the safety film! We think we're entering an ordinary museum, but surprise! We're going to be sent into the past in a time machine they built in their weird basement secret lab. Once on the ride we're required to keep track of multiple story threads simultaneously: we're supposed to be looking for and capturing a highly specific dinosaur, while also being pursued by another highly specific dinosaur, while also somehow getting out alive before a meteor hits - three jobs nobody associates with bounding around in the dark with dinosaurs. While Dinosaur checks the boxes of being a thrill ride, most guests forget one or two of these plot points while actually going through the darn thing, and the payoffs never register as well as they should.

If we want to look at a more successful example, we could look at the Indiana Jones Adventure, where we are asked to keep track of a missing person narrative about Indiana Jones, a not very fully thought out danger situation involving an angry Indian god, and finally our own desire to survive the ride. I think where Indiana Jones Adventure succeeds whereas Dinosaur fails, is because the first two conflict threads or storylets pretty much resolve immediately; they're only really there to keep us engaged while we're waiting in line, and manage to sneak in a safety film sideways without seeming abstruse. Pretty much right away Mara decides to kill us and Indiana Jones is recovered; with those resolved, the only remaining pressing concern is to survive the temple.

Indiana Jones Adventure and especially Dinosaur spend an inordinate amount of time checking the boxes of classical story structure, to really no discernible good end - ask anybody coming off either ride to identify what the main conflict in the ride is, and they won't. Or, more accurately, they'll fall back on descriptions of things that happened to them - we dodged the Carnotaurus, we avoided the rolling boulder, with no consideration whatever for the elaborate conflicts and storylets laid out inside the narrative for them. With such complicated considerations, the harried theme park designer starts to long for the simple life.

--

I consider these three attractions to be just about the most convoluted experiential narratives ever devised in the industry, and really only one of them works to any degree it was intended to, so let's back away from the double (or triple, or quadruple) conflict narratives and look at some middle-ground examples.

Let's consider Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as an example. Yes, there have been various layers of narrative complication added to the attraction over the years, mostly in the form of queue area entertainments, but when you get right down to it, the basic conflict of Big Thunder Mountain - the one you actually experience between getting on and off the ride - is that you decided to ride a runaway mine train, and now you are on a runaway mine train. Various things, little "storylets", happen to you while you're on the train, and each is more exciting than the last, until you arrive safely back at the station.

Or, to take another famous example, there are many opinions and rumors as to what the "story" of the Haunted Mansion is, but in reality the story is simplicity in and of itself - you, played by you, decide to enter a haunted house and you live to tell the tale. That's it. The ride implies universes of characters, connections, and backstories, but in the end it's really just the story of you spending a night in a haunted house. Does it really need to be anything more?

Perhaps the pioneering narrative conflict told in themed spaces is what we may call "Dodge The Witch", in which you avoid various dangers and make it out okay. Under the guise of "man vs. nature", The Jungle Cruise is basically a Dodge the Witch ride. Grizzly River Rapids is an very good Dodge the Witch - it may not have a grizzly bear, but it does have plenty of dangers and surprises. Even Disneyland's Matterhorn is an exceptionally carefully modulated Dodge the Witch, in which there's nearly nothing doing the storytelling except some steel track and an abominable snowman.

Yet aren't Indiana Jones Adventure and Dinosaur also Dodge the Witch rides, to some degree? Is there perhaps something to the fact that most riders blithely ignore all of the carefully modulated narrative information and conflict setup in these attractions and gleefully report that they did indeed Dodge the Witch?

Laff in the Dark, Early 1930s
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Here, then, is one crucial distinction in the way theme parks tell stories and the way everyone else tells stories. A novel, or a film, or a play, must engage in a lengthy setup in which character are introduced, a situation is outlined, a conflict identified, and then pass through an inciting incident which sets the rest of the narrative in motion. Theme parks don't need to do this.

Why? The reason is because the only characters that really matter in theme parks are the spectators. That's the reason people visit, after all - we sail over London, we encounter some dinosaurs along the Disneyland Railroad, we ride the Hogwarts Express. This is what themed spaces can do that nobody else can, and it's the blend of passive and active participation that makes the places resonant. There doesn't need to be an inciting incident because it already happened when we entered the park.

There is conflict (or at least drama) baked into everything that we do at a theme park, because by their very nature theme parks are places of the exotic and strange. The unspoken contract that exists between the themed space and the public is that we will agree to be mildly inconvenienced while entering an attraction in exchange for being excited inside it - this is why it's disappointing, sometimes enough to make news headlines, when the ride breaks down and the excitement is ended prematurely. Themed spaces are orderly areas of pictorial effects which break down in irrational and chaotic images, briefly glimpsed, once we hop into that Mr. Toad car.

This is why the attractions that really matter, that really last, tie up the conflict with the theme of the attraction in a way that's seamless: we decide to enter the jungle, board our jungle steamship, and are guided through the various dangers. That situation doesn't need anything more than to be present to be understandable, it uses very clear, very understandable visual cues to work. Everybody knows that giant snakes and cannibals are bad news, and - uh oh - now it's happening to us!

This is also why a ride like Space Mountain can work across time and cultures in a way that the Delta Dreamflights of the world could not. Just as with Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain really offers amazingly little information about what we are doing or why - we're going into space, and space is weird. The drama is right there in the attraction name, and as far as theming goes, all that's really required is that the vehicles look like rockets and we're off. Again, riders bring more drama to the experience than the designers need to supply, because themed spaces work differently.

This also points towards one feature of themed spaces which the rules say would seem impossible in other media: the low, or no, conflict experience. There's the Enchanted Tiki Room, which 50 years on still enraptures audiences by doing nothing more than slowly coming to life. Consider also the Skyway, which requires severe interpretive methods to find any conflict in it. Or It's A Small World, where the entire darn point of it is that it's conflict free. Through the 70s, Disney repeatedly attempted to make a Small World movie, and repeatedly failed because to introduce conflict into that experience defeats the whole reason it exists in the first place.

During the construction of Disneyland, Walt Disney repeatedly instructed his designers just to "build something people will like". In theme park analysis circles we like to say that areas need a mix of A, C, and E tickets to be successful - a shorthand to refer to the "levels" of the attractions that are needed to flesh out any themed space. But it may be just as well to refer to these ticketing levels in terms of levels on conflict - this is why Tomorrowland doesn't feel complete without a Peoplemover, because the Peoplemover fulfills the role of the Mark Twain steamboat in Frontierland - a relaxed scenic experience with no plot or conflict to speak of.  The low conflict attractions round out the day with a variety of low-stakes experiences that are "safer spaces" than the Jungle Cruises or Space Mountains. Every child implicitly understands this unspoken dynamic.

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This mass of data seems to suggest, more than anything, that there is in fact a diversity of ways to build a successful theme park attraction's story - there may be plenty of bad examples that hog the spotlight, but for every three unsuccessful, obvious examples, there's at least one where the thing works just fine.

What can be said is that conflict in theme parks can be implied in such a way to require almost no special treatment, or indeed even be a component of creating a compelling experience. The aesthetics of theme parks, and the unspoken contract between themed spaces and spectators, is such that there can be narrative inherent in simple visual designs and enveloping environments that can supplant the need for a formalized conflict. In this sense, themed spaces have a power to suggest narratives in a way nearer to the way that fine art like painting or sculpture can: through the deployment of such features as colors or shapes.

Although themed spaces are absolutely the nearest to cinema in terms of logic and effect, the theme park has a secret power that cinema does not: it can be iconic without needing to be abstract. Every so often, somebody comes along and tries to make a film that is played out entirely from one character's point of view, replacing the "I" tense in traditional novelistic storytelling with the filmed camera. This never ever works; it's easier for audiences to invest in screen characters depicted on the screen rather than as the screen.

Theme parks are films that happen to you, and they happen with no signposting or role playing. Think of the Disneyland Railroad: imagine if you made a film out of those events. You'd have an avant-garde film; mass audiences would say that it makes no sense, that it's outside their comfort zone. But millions ride the Disneyland Railroad every year and take its bizarre mix of nostalgia, sightseeing, and time travel totally at face value. That's the secret power of themed spaces, the power to compel without the need for a formalized narrative or even narrative logic.

Ready for more deep dives into the hows and whys of theme parks? Check out our Park Theory Hub Page, host to dozens of long essays just like this one!

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Social History of Background Music

"Muzak and mood music [...] emit music the way the twentieth century is equipped to receive it. They have so successfully blended genres and redefined music appreciation that they have become the music world's Esperanto." - Joseph Lanza
Some time ago I was at a thrift store, hovering over an especially unpromising stack of vintage records, when I had an uncomfortable realization.

Over the years, first from working at Disney, then writing this blog and researching historical music loops, has warped my musical taste. I'm much more likely to spin a piece of background music to relax - Epcot's Innoventions music loop, for instance, or perhaps George Bruns' Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii. After a tough day at work, I want to settle into a groove with a drink and some mellow music.

As I stood there contemplating one of these dog eared LPs, I had one of those horrible moments of lucidity that makes one doubt her sanity: I was shopping for easy listening music. I was excited to find elevator music. I went home and began to cue up video after video on YouTube of the most treacly, canned music possible - and I loved it. Theme parks had made me love Muzak.

Gradually I began to wonder if that was such a bad thing after all. Background music cassettes from K-Mart went viral just a few years ago; a cursory search online reveals a raft of websites dedicated to preserving the background music of the past. And yet, theme parks are one of the few places left where you can experience true background music; walk into an average Starbucks or Waffle House and they're playing a sleeker, streamlined kind of BGM that's entirely popular recordings. It's sort of startling to realize that humans as recently as 80 years ago lived in a world where music wasn't constantly blaring out of every ceiling; what's so bad about a preference for music that's atmospheric and relaxing instead of popular hits of the past 20 years?

So I thought I'd take a quick look through the history of moodsong in the 20th century. At first blush this seems to be a tangent for this blog, but the links between postwar elevator music, social engineering, and Walt Disney run deeper than you think - once you go about digging them up, of course. It's a story that stretches over the better part of a century, world wars, and wrenching social changes, all events that can be bridged by strings echoing out of a tinny speaker in the ceiling.


Music To Read By

It was the early 1920s, and George O. Squier had an idea. George had spent a lifetime as an inventor and tinkerer for the US Army - he had invented the method for carrying multiple conversations over a single wire, allowing for the rise of a functional national telephone system, and had flown in one of the Wright Brothers' earliest aircrafts. Now, he wanted to apply his way with wires to send music to homes, offices, factories, and ballrooms across the country. George took the final two letters from "Kodak" and applied it to "music" to end up with "Muzak".

Squier was competing for an increasingly congested marketplace. The original American - which is to say, industrialized and populist - source of background music was almost certainly the radio. A boom market in the 1920s, by the 30s the radio was ubiqutious in American homes - it's been said that if you walked down the street on a hot summer evening during the broadcast of Amos 'n Andy or The Fibber McGee and Molly Show, you could hear the entire program from the open windows without missing a word. In the places where average Americans congregated - cafes, diners, and soda fountains, the radio rapidly gave life a distinct rhythm. And while today we think immediately of the radio stars of old, the fact is that the popular evening radio programs were but a tiny slice of an 18 hour broadcast day - a broadcast day made up of lots and lots of music.

Experiments in the teens and twenties discovered that those early crystal radio sets were best at transmitting a very narrow range of sound. The subtle buzz and hum of early radio transmissions could be counteracted by stringed instruments - especially those played overlapping, in a high frequency range. While George Squire was asking apartment owners to pay several dollars a month for subscription to his wired music services, a crystal radio set could play nearly nonstop all morning and night after the purchase of just one attractive unit that complemented the washing machine and icebox.

Unauthorized use of commercial 78 records, or electronic bootlegs of the same, were so rampant amongst small, rural radio stations that record companies began to stamp "Not For Broadcast" on their record labels. But even the mainstream radio stations of the 20s and 30s had off hours to fill with content, and in-house orchestras were kept gently sawing away between 11 pm and 1 am in stations like Chicago and New York in programs called Music To Read By, Time For Dreams, or Nightcap. The sounds of soft classical music became the defining sound of progress and modernity for a generation.

These early crystal radios were AM only; the superior FM format lumbered along inauspiciously, copying the content of the AM stations until World War II, when political pressure from radio manufacturers and increasing demand for television airwaves caused the US Government to move all of the FM stations further up the dial. This rendered obsolete in a stroke nearly every FM radio in the country. FM stations already just about on the rocks needed to adapt quickly or fold; they began offering their services to two symbols of modernity in urban America: the department store and the self-service grocer. Merchants found that the music helped move product and added and aura of prestige. In later years this format would come to be known as BM Music.

BM - Beautiful Music - stuck around for an astonishingly long time and has never really gone away - do a quick search and you'll find a small station probably not far from you who still broadcasts it. BM stations often ended up as a smaller operation inside of a larger radio studio, handled by less experienced operators. Free of commercials or announcements, BM stations churned away silently in the backdrop of modern life in major cities around the country. All across the country, businesses sprouted up like mushrooms with names like The Storecast Corporation of America, Store Radio, and Point-O-Salecast. Muzak's first major success came in arranging, recording, and selling music to BM stations who were becoming an increasingly legitimate and organized business.


Social Engineered Sound Scapes

George O Squier had died in 1934, a decade before Muzak's full ascendancy. In comparison to the wireless music provided by BM stations, all through the 40s Muzak had differentiated themselves by only offering wired music - the fidelity and reliability being said to be much better. Muzak also refused to be content with playing bootlegged light classical music - they recorded their own versions in house, carefully arranged to be as pleasant and unobtrusive as possible.

As early as 1935, Muzak was using red, vinyl discs running at 33 1/3 RPM, making them more or less the inventors of the LP. They also began to target their music to specific periods of the day - marches for breakfast, tangoes at lunch, light jazz at cocktail hour, then classics at dinner and dancing  till midnight. Through the 30s, Muzak had been bolstered by a raft of social studies published by such outlets as the Stevens Institute of Technology who found that "pleasant, functional music" improved worker productivity and happiness. The constant hum of nonintrusive music had become a welcome addition to a world plagued by depressions and worldwide wars.


(Yellow, Green, Red and Blue were Muzak's four programs - Red was intended for small restaurants, Blue and Yellow serviced retail, and Green for home use.)

By the end of World War II, Muzak Corporation had hit upon the concept of "Stimulus Progression". As American culture converged towards an illusion of stability in the late 40s and early 50s, Muzak claimed that workers were happier and more efficient while background music was playing, and that said music was more effective when played in 15 minute chunks, then silenced for another 15.

Muzak installations that offered the Stimulus Progression package came in two varieties: music for factories and music for offices. A 400 hZ signal broadcast over the wires separating the 4 fifteen-minute chunks would tell the office Muzak installations to remain muted during the more upbeat factory installations, or vice-versa. But a company doesn't go from a name brand to a description on novelty alone; you can't go from Xerox to 'xerox' by accident. With Stimulus Progression. Muzak hit exactly the tenor of their time.



By the 50s, except for that annoying Rock and Roll, American taste was flattening out. The generation that had fought a great depression and two World Wars wanted things to be simple, to be pleasant for once, and a growing peacetime economy and a technology boom promised a happy, prosperous America from sea to shining sea. What could be more pleasant, more productive, more futuristic and modern than pleasing, scientifically selected mood music?

What got forgotten in the Baby Boom generation's rush to tear down all of their parent's idols is that many people genuinely liked the sound of this stuff. The seeds planted back in the 1930s with the radio constantly cranking out it light classical tunes eventually flowered in the 50s into an entire genre: Easy Listening. Go to any old record store and there they will be: hundreds upon hundreds of easy listening records, bought back in the 50s and 60s by Mom and Pop while junior held his nose. Muzak went mainstream, and emerged on the other side as muzak - and ended up on the home stereo.

Indeed, a key part of an hostesses' job was selecting exactly the correct record to play on the newly behemoth home record player consoles, which could play five or six LPs stacked up in order - a full evening's worth of mood music. In the era where the home cocktail party or backyard luau was the social glue that held together a generation, the tasteful background of cocktail tunes was an essential skill.
"The musically aware hostess no longer allows the butler, or her husband, to sling records on to the turntable in a haphazard way... she now supplies a ready made background of elegant and suitable music to smooth the evening into one long feast of pleasure and unshattered nerves." - Liner Notes, Velvet by the Frank Chaksfield Orchestra
The boom economy begat imitators. Seeburg, who started off manufacturing orchestrions, had moved into jukeboxes by the 50s and eventually released the Seeburg 1000 BMS1, the Cadillac of background music equipment. It was sized and styled to replace the old crystal radio haunting shelves in diners across the country.

Each Seeburg 1000 played specially-sized records at 16 1/2 RPM; the device would play the underside of a record, drop it down, then play the top. The device would hold over 25 records, each holding 40 minutes of music, for about 16 hours total, and could automatically repeat the process. Every four months, a new shipment of five records would arrive, and five records would have to be removed and sent back to Seeburg for destruction. Like Muzak, Seeburg offered a number of subscription "plans" intended for various settings, which they called Basic, Mood, and Instrumental. The strictly enforced obsolescence of the music discs and the styling of the unit itself makes the Seeburg 1000 highly collectible today, thankfully, interested parties can stream the music online for free at Seeburg1000.com.

By the same time, radio stations had moved away from records and towards the new endlessly repeating, automatically cueing Fidelipac cassette tapes, a kind of precursor to the 8-track. Fidelipac tapes were a single length of magnetic tape which spooled around inside its caddy endlessly; while best for voice announcements, it could also be played slowly enough and theoretically made large enough to allow for background music application.

The most impressive of these tape systems was the Cantata 700, manufactured by 3M of Scotch Tape fame. Consisting or two giant tape reels spinning around in a massive walnut box, 3M sold the device and tape outright to businesses instead of offering the subscription plan that BM Stations, Muzak, and Seeburg relied on and saw the device fail as a result.

That was in 1965, where the market was already overstuffed enough to see new options floundering. But cultural changes were underway - rock and roll came back, and now it was politically charged and experimental. The lightly relaxing music which once connnoted sophistication and modernity was the squarest of the square; just about the most damning thing you can say about any piece of music, then or now, is to called it elevator music - to call it Muzak.



The Decline of Background Music

Muzak and Seeburg continued trudging along, offering their subscription plans through the 70s and 80s while the various tape machines began to degrade, fall apart, and eventually be replaced by... the radio. Popular radio stations fled the AM band, crowding out BM stations. Grocery and department stores, accustomed to their FM receivers, kept playing the new FM program of popular hits. A few BM stations moved back to the AM band, but most just closed. After 8-track, after compact cassette, it was no longer classy or special to walk into a store and hear music playing - it was just something that happened everywhere.

In 1968, a company called Yesco began offering what they called "foreground music" - popular music of the day, intended to appeal to young Boomers. By the 80s, the writing was on the wall, and Muzak struck a deal with Yesco and began distributing their music programs through the existing Muzak channels. A few years later, both companies were purchased and merged. Yesco's corporate officers and headquarters ate up Muzak, which continued to do business only as a name - their entire strategy was oriented around Yesco's "foreground music".

In the 70s, Brian Eno sat in an airport for a few hours waiting for a flight and was annoyed by the canned background music. In 1978 he produced Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a mellow, experimental soundscape intended to relax listeners. Rolling Stone missed the point entirely, squawking that you could only appreciate the music by listening to it. In 1986, during the Muzak-Yesco merger, Ted Nugent, back then most associated with arena rock, made a public stunt of offering to buy Muzak for $10 million in order to destroy it. In the minds of many, Muzak, which effectively no longer existed, was still associated with inane social programming.

And yet, throughout all of this, wasn't there something unacknowledged just below the surface? In the 50s easy listening boom, records by Jackie Gleason, Henry Mancini, Les Baxter and Martin Denny pictured rigorously sexualized, perfectly up-do'd women staring temptingly out from the record sleeves. Compare this to the cover of any Mantovani album and perhaps we begin to wonder if the marketing of the Les Baxters of the world were perhaps overcompensating for something. Since the 50s, those who rail and rally against the constant musical backdrop of mood song have danced around what would otherwise seem to be their core complaint. Don't their protestations ultimately come down to the music being a little wimpy, a little emotional, a little... feminine?

Women were the ones who heard, supported, listened to, curated, purchased and played the genre we now know as easy listening. It was women who were home all through the 30s to get the taste for the light classical constantly blaring out from the crystal set. Women supported and enjoyed the addition of background music to take the drudgery out of factory jobs as they flooded the workforce during the war effort. And the modern cocktail hostess, armed with a fleet of up to date wonder devices like the washing machine and self-cleaning oven, provided the social lubricant of the 50s and 60s with her easy h'orderves and jello molds made with convenient, shelf-stable products. Mantovani, Liberace, Frank Chaksfield, Ray Conniff and Lawrence Welk played music that appealed to women, and there may still be a sublimated hint of sexism in today's detestation of the genre.

Today, aural relaxation techniques include everything from nature sounds to ambient music. Pop hits, perhaps from several decades ago, are more likely to be heard at workplaces than peppy little marches. The few businesses that do play light classical or jazz music do so in a deliberate attempt to differentiate themselves. While in the American lexicon "muzak" is today synonymous with any sort of canned music, you'll have to look pretty hard to find any genuine examples.

That is, except at Disneyland. Just as it won't take much online searching to bring up people who insist that background music contains "subliminal messages", Disneyland has always reflected the surface optimism and social engineering of the 1950s that some have always found so sinister. In 1957, Muzak was even purchased outright by Jack Wrather, television mogul and owner of the Disneyland Hotel. It's probably a safe bet that Disneyland used Muzak's "aural wallpaper" in several areas around the park in the early days.

Walt Disney was one of those twentieth century conservatives who supported large scale effort to improve the lives of the middle class. Born of blue collar cities at the turn of the 20th century, the product of the hangover from 19th century utopian fiction and the fallout of the great depression, Walt believed in massive public and private efforts like the building of the Eisenhower interstate system. I'm sure his EPCOT City would have played wall-to-wall Muzak inside its covered downtown, apartment complexes, monorails, and Peoplemovers.

It seems that, at least inside Disney, the association between a continuously flowing musical accompaniment and an automated, futuristic world never quite went away - EPCOT Center opened in 1982 with an entire, carefully orchestrated and custom recorded aural soundscape intended to set to mood. The styles ranged from bombastic at the entrance to ambient outside Journey into Imagination to unambiguously Easy Listening in World Showcase.

In the late 60s, Disney hired ex-radio DJ Jack Wagner to act as their permanent in house background music specialist. Jack's job was to clear the rights to and compile music into pleasing musical programs to play in the park - essentially, nothing but Disney's version of the "Stimulus Progression" concept. Prior to his assignment, Jack always maintained that "you'd go down Main Street and they'd be playing '60s musical hits like 'Mrs. Robinson'", which sure sounds an awful lot like something Muzak would have provided. But the story of Jack Wagner and his contributions to theme park background music are a story for another article.

While malls, grocery stores, department stores, and workplaces were switching over to the invasive hum of the radio, Disney held true to their convictions and background music eventually became an accepted facet of theme parks. In the 90s, Universal Studios Florida played pop hits from popular movies - none of that lame easy listening stuff! But their second theme park, the beautiful Islands of Adventure, had a much more traditional theme park musical background, setting the stage for their attempt to out-Disney Disney. The Port of Entry BGM remains one of the finest ever created.

Background Music and Moodsong in Context

Today, we are all music curators. The iPod taught everyone how tough it is to create the perfect playlist, and the disastrous effect following up Duke Ellington with Radiohead can have. What's more, theme parks are one of the only places left where you can watch background music still working. You can watch people pick up the pace in tune to the music on Main Street, or take on solemn, attentive postures inside the Hall of Presidents. It may be subliminal messaging or social programming, but it also works and makes people happy, which is what these places are all about.

There's never going to be consensus about background music, because there are as many people as there are options. But, you know, Muzak, or specifically Yesco - now called Mood Media - are still around, and they still sell sounds and even smells to retail chains. The "Muzak Principle" is still a sound one - consider how the teenagers who frequent, say, Abercrombie & Fitch would feel about those clothes if Garth Brooks were playing in the stores. Or how the patrons of Bass Pro Shops would feel if Run-DMC were playing at the entrance.

Meanwhile, certain sectors of the 50s and 60s Easy Listening genre have managed to shed their toxic reputation and bounce back to respectability. Thanks to his hipster image, Frank Sinatra has never really stopped being cool, but it's easier to find people enthusiastic about Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, or Nat King Cole than it was even twenty years ago. The re-emergence of cocktail culture in the United States has lifted a great number of moodsong purveyors of the 40s and 50s, and the subsequent re-emergence of Tiki as a popular drinking subculture means that exotica music is back in a big way. If you enjoy Percy Faith when he's orchestrating faux-Oriental nonsense under the auspices of a midcentury idol, you'll probably enjoy him in other contexts, too.

Ironically, the concept of background music may be making a resurgence. For many, just getting through a week is getting tougher and tougher, and any kind of stress-free outlet is appreciated. Next time you've had a hard day at work, try playing some Henry Mancini or Mantovani when you get home. It may not be chic, but it still works if you let it.

In 2015, Downtown Disney in Florida became Disney Springs, and the radio-style pop music which once haunted the streets of Downtown Disney was replaced with a mellow, nearly ambient selections of light jazz tracks. The new custom loop for the Marketplace is an hour and a half of unbroken ambient riffing which occasionally breaks into recognizable Disney tunes. It's as if the long arm of Stimulus Progression is reaching through time to gently guide us along, after all.

Sources
Elevator Music by Joseph Lanza, St Martin's Press, 1994
The Soundtrack of Your Life by David Owen, New Yorker Magazine, April 2006
A Brief History of Beautiful Music Radio by Richard O Connor, Percy Faith Pages, 2009
History of Muzak, Inc - Funding Universe
Seeburg 1000 BMS1 Background Music System - Techmoan
3M Cantata 700 - Techmoan

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Do you enjoy long, carefully researched essays on the ideas and history behind theme parks, like this one? Hop on over to the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Theory Hub Page for even more!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Mysterious "Bridge" Loops

Today, we're going to go on something of a side-quest from our usual BGM music discussions here, to cover some ground we've trod before. But it's such an odd topic, and so little is known about it, that I thought it'd be useful here to combine everything I know into one easy to reference post. I'm speaking of those mysterious "Bridge" music loops used at Magic Kingdom in the very early days.

It seems that at one point, Magic Kingdom used specially created pieces of music to play in very specific areas to "bridge" the themed areas of the park. Very little is known about these, except that they existed, and a handful have come to light in the last few years.

That's the kind of generalities that send histotrically minded folks like me running for our salt shakers, and indeed my first reaction to the idea of bridge loops was a similar "very interesting, but only if I could prove it!". I believe Mike Cozart was the first to point these out to me, although it took a long time for me to understand exactly what they were. Well, here's everything I know.

One of the frustrating aspects of these loops is that they were more of a feature than a rule - it seems as if Tomorrowland had no music playing around its entrance, which perhaps makes sense given that area's huge waterfalls which should have been the focus of everyone's attention. However, here as everywhere, it's worth pointing out that even had music been playing, it's possible that it would have been very hard to hear anyway. I dig into this problem a bit deeper in my Early Music of Tomorrowland post, but it's important to remember that we are not dealing with absolutes here.


One piece of the puzzle that began to change my thinking about these mysterious "bridge music" pieces was the revelation that Disneyland had the same thing, as far back possibly as Walt's era. If you think about it carefully, there's one very famous "bridge loop" attributed to Walt - the recording of "When You Wish Upon A Star" that plays inside Sleeping Beauty Castle. What is this but a piece of music that "bridges" two areas?

And if we accept that Sleeping Beauty Castle played music around its main entrance, then it's not too unreasonable to assume that other areas did, too. Disneyland music historian Chris Lyndon has recreated several of these minute long snippets at his website, and both his recollection of them and the music used for them definitely passes the 'smell test' in terms of arguing for a vintage date.

If we go deeper down the rabbit hole, we can even find remnants of these loops still in use at Disneyland today. Those who purchased the 2005 "A Musical History of Disneyland" set may remember an inexplicable version of "Battle Cry of Freedom" attributed to Frontierland that even the liner notes seem to be at a loss to explain. As it turns out, this was part of a loop which replaced the original Frontierland bridge loop recreated by Chris Lyndon - composed entirely of music recorded for Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary series!


So, what can we say about Magic Kingdom's bridge loops? Well, if you think about it carefully, there's still three of them in use at the park today. There's the music that plays inside Cinderella Castle, the music that plays outside the Mad Tea Party, and the music that plays under the Columbia Harbour House between Liberty Square and Fantasyland.

It's this last one that's most instructive in terms of setting expectations here. Modern theme park music is pervasive, properly balanced, and enveloping; the very early park music tracks were not. Very often they just played out of a few randomly placed speakers in case anybody happened to notice them. Disney was still inventing this as they went along; the first theme parks with really consistent musical backgrounds were EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland.

Here's the Magic Kingdom bridge loops we know (a little) about.



Adventureland Bridge - This was a Jack Wagner loop comprised of Exotica music with the sounds of exotic bird calls layered in. I was able to confirm this during the creation of Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World thanks to a live recording provided by Dave McCormick and track assistance by John Charles Watson on TikiCentral.Com. As it stands, we have just the single track I was able to identify from Dave's live recordings - we have no idea how long the loop was.

This track was seemingly suggested by Imagineer Randy Bright and would have been installed sometime in 1972. It played at the bridge to Adventureland, and also in the exterior seating areas of the Adventureland Veranda.

Liberty Square Bridge - We do have what I believe is a portion of the authentic Liberty Square music from 1971, thanks to Mike Cozart - for lots of information on this, check out my post here.

What is not known is where this music played. I've heard live recording taken in Liberty Square in the 70s, and I can't hear any background music at all - it's possible there simply was none until the Buddy Baker general BGM was installed in 1980. As a result, it's possible that the 1971 "fife and drum" music played only at the entrance to the area, where it would have been easy enough to hide in a few speakers. I make no claims as to the accuracy of this - it's just a guess.


Columbia Harbour House Bridge - has presumably played the music that plays inside the Harbour House since the loop was installed. The current Harbour House loop is an expansion of the original with a now stupidly expensive CD entitled The Wind in the Rigging: A New England Voyage.

I believe that the original version of the Harbour House loop was simply the music recorded for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Fantasyland, i.e., the current loop minus the "Wind in the Rigging" tracks. The hour-long version of the CHH loop, still used today, was created for the exterior of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris in 1992.

Fantasyland Side Entrance - This short loop played along those side entrances to Fantasyland from Tomorrowland and Liberty Square that lead up alongside Cinderella Castle. The castle interior played a vocal version of "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from the Cinderella soundtrack LP. Up until this year (!) it was not known that this short 5 minute loop even existed.

As it turns out, it was captured by How Bowers in 1994. By the time How got to it, it was playing from only one speaker, over on the Tomorrowland side. Composed entirely of instrumental tracks from Cinderella, the extreme brevity of this loop strongly suggests it was there from the start before slowly being forgotten and fading out in the 90s. No music plays in these areas today.


Unknown / Likely Lost Tracks
Frontierland - may have had its own bridge loop, or may not. Jack Wagner's early Frontierland loop has survived, and a later loop has not, although Michael Sweeney has reconstructed at least some of it.

Crystal Palace - supposedly played its music in the walkway surrounding the restaurant entrance, which also qualifies it as the "bridge" track. Sadly, the Crystal Palace music of the era seems to be entirely lost.

Plaza Pavilion - also known as the Tomorrowland Noodle Station, this restaurant presumably had its own interior music loop which would have acted as a "bridge" between Tomorrowland and Main Street on the south side.

The transition between Caribbean Plaza and Frontierland, and the transition between the Hub and Tomorrowland, seem to have not had their own "bridge" loops for whatever reason.

It's little scraps of evidence, little sub-sub pieces of stories, but then again that's what's always interested me about Magic Kingdom - it's a big, and old, place. Did you know that the Tomorrowland Speedway used to play F1 engine noises from speakers hidden in bushes around the track? Did you know that many of the Main Street shops used to have their own cassette tape of music? What happened to those creaky floorboard sounds that used to play in Haunted Mansion?

It's not all recoverable, but sometimes it's in the little touches that point us towards what designers were after. These weird little transitional loops should be remembered, too.

Ready for more? Visit the Passport to Dreams Theme Park Music Hub.

Or, hop a monorail to the past and spend a full "day" at the Walt Disney World of the 1970s by downloading Another Musical Souvenir of Walt Disney World.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer Gamp Camp Finale

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.



Adventures in the Magic Kingdom - June 1990

While Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, at the Passport to Dreams World HQ, I was playing NES. As always this 30 year old toy was still taking me away to a better place. It's a profound product, as iconic and - in its own way - as American as the hula hoop. The NES is an affordable passport, and when I was young, it was one of the only methods I had of visiting Disney World from my home in the northeast.

I’m speaking, of course, of Capcom’s legendary, infuriating Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. On a video game system chock a block with hallucinatory plumbers, sentient robots, Geiger-esque alien monsters, and eggplant wizards, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is truly, bizarrely memorable. A grab bag of the obtuse and the frustrating, in a time when just about there best way to revisit a Disney theme park was a hardcover book, a VHS tape, or a board game, Capcom delivered a game with a fairly accurate, reasonably engaging representation of the parks it was based on.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is a baffling creature. To begin with, the game is obviously based on Disneyland, but the cover of the game and the title uses the Walt Disney World terminology. Make no mistake - that Sleeping Beauty Castle back there behind the title screen. This game puts you in the shoes of an unidentified kid dressed as a Jungle Cruise skipper - khaki outfit, goofy hat, and all.

“You” are tasked with retrieving six silver keys which will open the door to the “Magic Castle” so the parade can begin. This takes the form of six mini games of varying levels of completeness and difficulty. Let's tour them in order of most infuriating to least.

Space Mountain - seems to be a reused tech demo from another game. Stars fly towards the viewer, creating a surprisingly effective illusion of depth - very impressive for the NES in 1990. In this game, Mickey announces that he will be your navigator and that you must reach “Star F”. This makes no sense at all until you olay the game a few times. At the bottom of the screen, a cursor will illuminate, and you must press this button on your control pad quickly - fail three times, and you’re kicked back outside. Besides “navigating”, asteroids and Star Destroyers - yes, Star Destroyers direct from Star Wars - will fly at you, requiring you to fire one of two lasers to destroy them.

This sounds simple, but navigating and firing lasers starts off unforgiving and only gets tougher from there. While the star field effect is cool, it’s hard to stick with this game long enough to make it compelling; the visuals never change. It can be beaten in a few minutes, but from a presentation perspective and with an eye on the difficulty, it’s hard to get too excited about Space Mountain.

Big Thunder Mountain - conceptually identical to Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain at least is interesting to look at and fun to play. It’s also over in less than a minute, which counts for something. This time Cowboy Mickey unhelpfully explains that you must arrive at “Station Four” - again, no explanation provided. The game is a cross between a coaster and a pachinko game, with runaway trains crossing railroad switches and avoiding rocks. One of the nice things about this game is that it’s just simple enough that by the time you’re ready to give up on it, you manage to beat it.

Trivia Game - the cheapest of the six games, the trivia game at least doesn’t force you to start over when you mess up. In this one, you have to walk around the park talking to various guests, who will ask you Disney trivia questions. It goes on about twice as long as you feel like it should, and at one point, one of the great controller - throwing moments in NES games occurs, where for no reason the dog who has the key attached to his collar (yes, Pluto) runs away because “You scared him”. The next person asks you three extra hard questions, because of course they do. By far the most memorable aspect of this game is how incredibly strange the questions are - seemingly taken direct from Dave Smith’s Ultimate Disney Trivia with an eye towards being as frustrating as possible. Are you noticing a trend with Adventures in the Magic Kingdom?

Autopia - turns out to be a fairly fully featured version of games like Spy Hunter and Bump n’ Jump. Maybe the most fully enjoyable game in the set, it’s none the less pretty tough - requiring memorization of where to land after jumps, and the ability to brake quickly to cross moving bridges. At least it only requires that you get to the end - no real racing, in other words.

Pirates of the Caribbean - an ambitious, beautifully visualized homage to the attraction, Pirates seems to be inspired by Konami’s The Goonies, a kick-and-punch platform game for the MSX and Famicom that really has nothing to do with the film it’s based on. Avoiding pirates, traveling through skeleton infested tunnels, and jumping along burning buildings here would be more fun if the controls were less sluggish.



Did you know that Adventures in the Magic Kingdom gives you a power-up screen? If you press 'Select', you can "cash in" all those stars you've been collecting to give yourself an extra heart or freeze all of the enemies onscreen. This makes the game significantly more manageable, and would have really saved my butt as a kid, except I didn't know about it, because I always rented this game and never had access to a manual. Since it's the only place in the game with unaltered Japanese grammar - "fight!" would be "gambare", which means something more like "overcome the obstacles" - I kind of suspect that the English localizers didn't know about this either.

Power up screen or no, at least the Pirates level gives you a few hit points before you have to start over - although they do you few favors, really. The longest and maybe toughest event in the game, this masterpiece of frustration is only outdone by the next level..

The Haunted Mansion - the Haunted Mansion level is this game, simply put. The most graphically inventive and varied of the levels in the game, it’s also perverseley, intensely frustrating, like a Mega Man boss level from hell. Game designer “Bamboo” - really Yoshinori Takenaka, who designed DuckTales - really went all out here. From the introductory screen where skulls jump up from behind tombstones, to dodging dancing ghosts, to the moment where that beautiful 8-bit representation of the Disneyland Mansion comes into view, this entire level induces rage and awe in equal measure.

There’s the floating chairs and self-playing organ at the middle of the stage, and the clever riff on the Hitch-hiking ghosts mirrors seen as you enter - reused in The Great Circus Mystery, but far creepier here. Near the end of the first floor, there’s what looks like a potted plant sitting on a window sill, but wait for lightning to flash outside the windows and you’ll see it’s actually a ghoul peering inside! The Haunted Mansion level is full of cool stuff like that, and it’s arguably the best and most iconic of one of Capcom’s favored level design tropes, the haunted house: see DuckTales, DuckTales 2, Chip n’ Dale 2, The Great Circus Mystery, TaleSpin - heck, Resident Evil. Shortly before the creation of Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Capcom headed up a survival RPG based on the 1989 Japanese horror flick Sweet Home and created the whole overstuffed genre. One of the most famous Japan-only NES games, Sweet Home is often considered to be a precursor to Resident Evil, but it’s more like just another game in Capcom’s parade of horror houses.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is maybe not a great game, but it’s an impossible to ignore one. It’s fascinating and infuriating in equal measure, and even if that doesn’t per se make it good, it does make it indelible. Players who thrive on an unreasonably lopsided challenge, or just those like me crazy enough to want to play it to visit Disneyland inside their NES, hold it in high regard.

But what of the rest of the game? Why does this game exist? What’s the deal with the weird trivia questions? Why is the main character Australian? These are the kinds of questions that haunted 90s Disney kids, myself included, and even if I can’t pluck the heart out of every mystery, I can, at least, answer some long-standing questions.

Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is unique in the Capcom-Disney output, dominated as it was by movie and TV show tie-ins. The one noteworthy exception was the Magical Quest trilogy, itself aimed more at a Japanese audience than an American one. Magical Quest, in fact, may have been developed to allow Capcom to profit from their game development inside their native country - as I’ve noted before, things like Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin and indeed Adventures in the Magic Kingdom itself were never released over there. So what’s the deal with this one game, not based on an animated property, but a theme park in either Anaheim or Orlando?

Darlene Lacey, photo by Nintendo Player
One answer may be found with Darlene Lacey, the localization producer for Disney in the US. I’ve already mentioned her in my piece on DuckTales, but Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is her magnum opus - she’s the one who came up with the trivia game and chose the questions. As Lacey recalled to Nintendo Player, "..It was my idea to add the trivia in order to quickly and easily boost the presence of Disney in the game. It just took a few phone calls to obtain some official Disney trivia from one of the departments. It provided more than what I needed, so I picked a range of topics from various time periods. I wanted the little kids to have to either guess and learn or ask their parents. That’s just the sadist in me."

As for the weird mix of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom seen in the game: "The game was already named by the time I had it assigned to me, so I wasn’t privy to any discussions regarding this. However, it was common for Disney to try to connect themes and create a sense of consistency across the product lines... [...] We didn’t want to make it appear as though this was literally what the California Disneyland looked like, or that this was the extent of what was in the park, or that these sorts of activities might actually occur there. So, we just blended some things together and gave the setting some slight interpretations."

Lacey also comments that the trivia game was concocted to replace a Jungle Cruise level, and that the trivia game was used to make the playing area feel more like a Disney theme park and less like a generic place. I would have liked to see that Jungle Cruise level, personally. Elements were also removed from each level - The Haunted Mansion has a cat, floating silverware, a niche for a bust, and a crystal ball, indicating it was probably intended to be longer.

Each level also had a text screen where you don't get a silver key, but some other kind of item. Text remaining in the code, including "Adventure in Magic Kingdom by Bamboo" and "Saturday's Morning is Morning Salad" indicate that this game was likely programmed by just one guy, and he ran out of time on this one.

But it's when we start asking about the weird Australian kid that things get interesting. There doesn't seem to be any information about him anywhere. Lacey herself thought he was weird too, but much like players, eventually he grew on her:

"He was already in the game when I received my first EPROM, and I thought, “Well, this strange little boy needs to go.” I think he came about because people from other countries always think of Americans as wearing cowboy hats. I discussed this issue with various people in the office and tried to think of a better substitute, but the longer the kid stayed in the game, his weird charm started to grow on me."

So perhaps this kid was just this game's equivalent of "This house has an illusion wall" - a bit of weirdness left in by the Japanese developer. But the more I thought about it, the less likely this seemed. Not counting the repackaged Mickey Mousecapade, this was only Capcom's third effort for Disney, and given how cautious and conservative Disney had been with their video game properties, I can't see the mouse house handing over the reins to Capcom to do just anything.

It's easy to forget just how early this one was: it came out after DuckTales and Chip n' Dale but before Little Mermaid. In fact, this game was early enough that it was on store shelves before the launch of The Disney Afternoon - DuckTales and Rescue Rangers were still being shown on local TV stations as stand alone shows. The fact that the title and character were already decided on before Lacey got to see the game was suggestive.

If left to their own devices, wouldn't Capcom have just made Mickey the star of the game? Isn't that the obvious choice? That's what developer GRC thought when they made a Tokyo Disneyland game for the Super Famicom: the Japan-only Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibouken. Where did this Australian kid come from?

The simplest explanation would be that the concept, title and character came from an unproduced television show, wouldn't it? Disney in those days produced "pilot" movies for their TV shows which would then be split up into episodes for syndication: DuckTales' was called "The Treasure of the Golden Suns".

 Just because Disney paid for a pilot, doesn't mean a show would follow: hard on the success of The Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles, Disney paid Fred Wolf Animation to produce an 45 minute pilot film for their new concept, Disney's Fluppy Dogs. Yet another stand alone concept patterned on Care Bears, The Fluppy Dogs bombed hard on Thanksgiving Day, 1986, which eventually prompted Disney to reconsider their approach and decamp to more traditionally Disney material with DuckTales.

I'm not the first to suggest this, but was Adventures in the Magic Kingdom intended to be a television show, and somehow only the game was actually released? It appears so, although proving it isn't easy. There's a few whispers and suggestions floating around the web, but most of them seem to descend from a website called the "TMS History Page" - written in Italian. It's an impressive piece of research, and it's old enough to be hosted on the Itialian version of Xoom. Remember Xoom?

TMS, or Tokyo Movie Shinsha, was one of the most important Animation-For-Hire companies in Japan. Besides producing anime for their native country like Akira and Golgo 13, starting with Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff, TMS produced some of the finest traditionally animated shows for Western viewers of their era. Disney used them exclusively until the creation of Walt Disney Animation Japan in 1989; the best looking episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures, The Real Ghostbusters, and Batman: The Animated Series came out of TMS. As if to tease at some kind of casual link between TMS and Capcom, they also produced Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumber Land, an animated freakout which was cherished nightmare fuel for my age group. It was also a terrific Capcom game, one of the console's best B-titles.

The TMS history page says, translated from Italian:
"From the Disney / TMS partnership, WUZZLES, GUMMI-BEARS, DUCKTALES and WINNIE THE POOH were born, as well as some unrealized television series such as MAGIC KINGDOM."

Interestingly, the English version of the same page offers a slightly different take on the material:
"The first work of Disney/TMS agreement was THE WUZZLES. A third pilot-film was completed by a Korean staff, but it was rejected. The Japanese were reluctant to teach them all the techniques and the expedients of the animation process."
The Wuzzles only ran for 13 episodes, and neither Gummi Bears nor The New Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh had a multi-part pilot, per the episode lists on Wikipedia. This means that the third pilot film, after DuckTales' "Treasure of the Golden Suns" and Rescue Rangers' "To The Rescue", would have been TMS' "Magic Kingdom", apparently animated in Korea and rejected by Disney. This has to be why the game is called Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, and where the weird kid comes from, and why he was always in the game from the start.

In a way, it's almost better than it worked out this way. As usual in life, knowing the answers makes the questions less interesting. Capcom's Adventures in the Magic Kingdom is a time capsule of frustration and weirdness. And while it may not be as good as the best games we've covered in Summer Game Camp, it takes up a vast amount of imaginative real estate where the venn diagram of Disney kids and console gamers overlap.

So... who wants to hunt down the TMS Magic Kingdom movie?

Let's find it, people

Final Rankings

So, fifteen games later, where do we stand in the rankings? After some deliberation, I decided to slot Adventures in the Magic Kingdom just above Aladdin - in this case, pure weirdness pushed it higher than the center of the pack, but its difficulty and shortness still kept it below the gorgeous Magical Quest 3.

I also decided to move Little Mermaid up to spot number 10, out of the increasingly congested rear of the line-up.  Here's where it now stands:

01) DuckTales 2
02) Chip ' Dale Rescue Rangers
03) The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse
04) DuckTales
05) Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
06) Adventures in the Magic Kingdom
07) Aladdin
08) TaleSpin
09) Goof Troop
10) The Little Mermaid
11) The Great Circus Mystery
12) Darkwing Duck
13) Bonkers
14) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
15) Mickey Mousecapade

One reason I like this order is because these fifteen games just so happen to break cleanly up into three groups of five which roughly correspond with their relative value. Regardless of the actual numerical ranking - which is always a dumb way to do things - I suggest we look at the rankings falling into these groups:

The Hall of Fame - Games which are responsible for the legendary reputation of the Disney/Capcom collaboration
Chip 'N Dale Rescue Rangers, DuckTales, DuckTales 2, The Magical Quest 1 & 3

The Rental Shelf - Fun, well designed games worth checking out
Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Aladdin (SNES), Goof Troop, The Little Mermaid, TaleSpin

Curiosities - For the truly dedicated only
Bonkers, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2, Darkwing Duck, The Great Circus Mystery, Mickey Mousecapade

Disney fans and video game players seem to share a smaller slice of a venn diagram than I expected - I was surprised how many people were asking me if I was going to cover Virtual Magic Kingdom, which is a very different kind of experience than the sort of games I covered here. But with emulators and retro revivals becoming the norm, if I inspire somebody to replay DuckTales for the first time in 20 years, or some younger reader to thrill to Magical Quest for the first time, then I will consider it an honor.

The Year of Summer Game Camp

Every so often, especially in times when Disney is moving slowly, as they have been lately, when I don't have another solution at hand for writing something brilliant about the Haunted Mansion, I do something that usually fails: I try to diversify this blog.

Back in 2013 I tried several essays on film history and tied them back into theme parks, and there was fairly little interest. In 2014, I attempted suicide-via-old Disney movies, in the arduous The Age Of Not Believing series. That series did okay, and I think has some of my better stand-alone essays, but I also learned that click-throughs and comments only materialize when people have an already existing interest in what I was writing about. In The Age of Not Believing, people would show up for The Happiest Millionaire, or Robin Hood, but on off weeks when I was laboring through forgotten nonsense like Napoleon & Samantha, interest was hard to come by. In this way I learned that my historian's appetite for wanting to know the whole story was something of a liability.

And so, by Spring of this year, I was ready for something new, and had always harbored an interest in covering the old Capcom games on NES. In an era when 80s nostalgia is cresting, and DuckTales has received a flashy reboot, I was willing to sacrifice some blog numbers to find out how many of you were interested in this.

On one hand, the results aren't too surprising: the weeks packed with lesser known titles were less popular than the heavy-hitters, but throughout, I've seen comments, links and overall engagement with this subject much higher than it was during The Age Of Not Believing. It seems like not everyone wants to talk about Aladdin on the SNES, but those of you who do, really want to.

Personally, I enjoyed writing these little reviews much more than I expected to. It's not always a bad thing to stretch your legs after years of pacing along on the theme park treadmill, and for those of you who stuck around to see what on earth I liked about these old games, I hope you were entertained and informed. And, just in time for the official start of fall, I close the book on Summer Game Camp.


Should I try another Summer Series? Is there a body of Disney-related media you'd like to see covered?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summer Game Camp, Part 5

It's summer, which means that "indoor kids" like me stay away from the hot sun and do things like play video games! Old video games. Disney video games. This summer at Passport to Dreams, I'm playing the Disney / Capcom classic games and writing about them. All of them.




Goof Troop - July 1993

I'm not sure if anybody really remembers Goof Troop fondly anymore. An attempt to do much more of a sitcom instead of the adventures Disney had been producing up to that time, it's popularity has seemingly been eclipsed by the surprisingly excellent A Goofy Movie, which treated the same basic characters with much more depth.

What about the SNES installment? One day, while fishing out on the ocean, Goofy and Max see Pete and PJ taken aboard a gigantic pirate ship! It seems that Pete has been mistaken for the pirates' long lost leader, and Max and Goofy land on the pirates' secret island lair in an effort to infiltrate it and recover their friends...

Wait, you may be saying, that doesn't sound very much like Goof Troop to me! And you would be right - but to find out why, we have to go back into Capcom history... back, basically, to the very beginning.

In 1984, Capcom released their initial wave of arcade titles. They would become famous for their overhead WWII shooter 1942, but released in the same year was a strange little game called Pirate Ship Higemaru. A top-down puzzle game, Higemaru has you playing as a sailor attempting to traverse maze-like decks of ships filled with enemies and barrels. 



Just a few years later, the game received a sequel for the Famicom in Japan, the marvelously titled Higemaru Hell Island. A much more complex creation, this has you traversing islands, collecting items, and defeating bosses. Puzzles here stretch over multiple screens, and backtracking is the rule; think The Legend of Zelda by way of Atari's Gauntlet. A planned United States release came to naught, and the Higemaru series ended there.

Until 1993, when Capcom produced a stealth Higemaru game as Goof Troop. All of the components are there: pirates, maze-like levels, backtracking, and bosses. And then, Capcom kept adding. They added two player simultaneous play; they added lives and items. These few changes alter the gameplay tremendously, to the point that I wonder if Capcom was planning on releasing it as a proper Higemaru sequel. They did not - like most of these games intended for American audiences, it received only a perfunctory Japanese release under the name "Goofy and Max: Pirate Island Adventure" and seems to be very rare today.

The gameplay is still best likened to The Legend of Zelda: a topdown maze filled with increasingly aggressive enemies. Pirates can be diapatched with barrels; stronger deckhands must be knocked off platforms into the water, or plowed through with weighted stones which Goofy and Max kick. These same stones must usually be kicked into very specific places to unlock keys to progress through levels; since they can only be stopped by a wall, this creates some tricky puzzles. 
One weapon that can be picked up is a grappling hook gun; this can be used by one player to keep enemies pinned down while the other deals with puzzles or makes a bee line for the exit. If either Goofy or Max touch the exit door they both jump to the next screen immediately; this means experienced teams of players can move through levels swiftly. In other areas, the grappling hook can be tied down to allow players to cross rivers and pitfalls, but this means the item must be surrendered permanently. In two-player games, each player can have one item; if they pick up a new item, the old one will be left behind. In one-player mode, two items are allowed; the increase in options helps make up for the doubled difficulty. Other items include bells to distract enemies, bridges to cross gaps, shovels, and keys.




But you know what? After working through so many uninspired action games, it's genuinely refreshing to come across Goof Troop. It may not be great, but merely succeeding at being unique puts it above the middle of the pack. For a game with such simple controls and presentation, Goof Troop can be frustrating. This is the only game so far I haven't seen through to the ending; partly this is because I was playing solo, and party because this kind of thing just isn't my kettle of fish. If you have a friend who loves puzzle platformers and the two of you can work together, this may be just the kind of overlooked game you're going to love. After about 40 minutes I had enough; looking at playthroughs online it's clear I saw less than a quarter of the game!

On a technical level, Goof Troop is fine. The graphics are SNES-colorful, although the settings are repetitive they are not the focus of the game. It's always fun to hit your co-player; they stagger around dizzy for a few frames. As the levels go on, eluding the pirates becomes tougher and tougher; never mind resetting the screen multiple times to solve traps! The music is functional at best; as aural wallpaper, you won't mind it for puzzle solving, but you won't remember any of it the moment the game is turned off.

It's a good game, and there's a lot of it; after zipping through a bunch of 30 minute long 8 bit games like Darkwing Duck, it's nice to see Goof Troop committed it giving you a lot of content for your money. But it's hard to escape the feeling that Goof Troop is the kind of game that was why Blockbuster Video existed: fun to play for a bit, but only the truly dedicated will see it through.


Disney's Aladdin - October 1993

This is nearly the end of the line for Capcom and Disney. The March 1993 issue of Nintendo Power profiled Capcom, referring to their development of Aladdin as "the really big news". Instead, it turned out to be pretty much the end of the line for their deal with Disney.

This is actually a pretty good game, it just is not the game you think it is.

 Anybody with a game system who lived through the early 90s will immediately think of Aladdin, developed by Virgin Games, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. This is not that game! It's an easy mistake to make - practically every other Aladdin game released in the early 90s is a port of the Virgin Games platformer, including later releases on, of all things, the NES. Capcom's Aladdin is not Virgin's Aladdin, despite sharing a name and basic concept.

"Genesis Aladdin" had a heck of a gimmick up its sleeveless vest; all of the character animations and sprites were actually drawn by Walt Disney Animation before being scanned and colorized by Virgin Games. This gives Aladdin a look like no other 16-bit platformer at the time - it really does look like you're playing the movie. There's also impish jokes through the game, from appearances by the Genie as a bottle, skeletons wearing mouse ears, and Aladdin's absurd "level clear" jog through the bottom of the screen at the end of each level, there's a lot here that's very memorable.

Wrong Game!
What isn't memorable, however, is the actual level design - every level is an expansive, frustrating succession of randomly placed platforms with no real attempt to guide you through. There's no flow to any of it; you just jump through, attack enemies, and hope to find the exit. Throughout, Aladdin is for some reason armed with a sword, because this is a video game and video game characters have swords, right? For as impressive Aladdin is as an experience, I've always thought that there was far too little happening under the hood of this game to truly be enjoyable.

Over in Japan, Capcom's sausage factory was grinding out their own take on Aladdin. There's no Disney Animation sprites here - just straight, old fashioned 16 bit sprite work. It feels less like the movie and more like a game. Aladdin has an astonishing number of abilities; he can jump, climb, swing, attack, throw apples, and float around with a sheet. Compared to the combat-oriented Genesis game, this Aladdin is unarmed and athletic; you proceed through every level by swinging and climbing. In this sense, the game appears to be heavily indebted to Jordan Melchner's Prince of Persia, which had recently been beautifully ported to the Super Nintendo by Arsys Software in 1992. Aladdin's movements aren't as restricted as those in Prince of Persia, thankfully, but the influence is obvious and unavoidable.

And let's talk about level design for a moment here. Both games start in Agrabah streets, both have you jumping on canopies and dodging guards, but instead of stranding you in a maze, Capcom offers a straightforward progression that none the less rewards the most adventurous players. If you stay low, you must contend with rabble on the street; up on the rooftops, you are rewarded with more items, but hazardous jumps and a breathtaking view of the palace.

Also, I fawned over this with TaleSpin, so you knew I'd have to bring it up here: the Capcom game can be delightfully nonsensical. Upon meeting the Genie, you're transported to a bizarre world where the Genie has become numerous platforms for you to jump across, a'la Air Man's stage in Mega Man 2. After that, for no reason and with no explanation, Abu falls off the magic carpet and you must travel into an ancient pyramid to rescue him.  At the end of that, you're confronted by a scary-looking boss who turns out to just be Abu try to scare you! From there, it's on to A Whole New World, which isn't a shooter or anything, but just an opportunity to peacefully collect some items before heading off to fight Jafar.



This game is short, perhaps six levels, but it's tough. There's dozens of tricky jumps, which can be improved with the help of a sheet you can use as a parachute. The trouble is, it's an optional item at the start of the game, and there's only one other in the game, in the final level...

In 1993, compared to the vibrant graphics and impressive pedigree of the Genesis game, this didn't stand a chance. Disney's next blockbuster game, The Lion King, would be developed by Virgin for the Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and Capcom was out of luck. It's a shame; this is a good game with a lot of challenge.

The Genesis game feels like a piece of merchandise; part of the promotional effort: like the film it's bold, brassy, and tough to ignore. The SNES Aladdin is a legit game, balanced, with tight controls and, if you appreciate vintage sprite work, a terrific look. It ought to be better remembered than it is.


Bonkers - October 1994

We're here; we finally made it to the end, and I wish like hell I could say it was anything but Bonkers. It's true, if I were grouping these chronologically we would still have The Great Circus Mystery and Magical Quest 3 to cover; good games, to be sure. But it made more sense to group all three of those Quest games together, so here we are at the end of nearly five exhilarating years of Capcom-Disney video games, with.... Bonkers.

Does anybody really like Bonkers? I said earlier in this piece that Goof Troop has fallen by the wayside in favor of the superior A Goofy Movie, but Bonkers seems to have no adherents; it's not even on DVD. As a kid, once Bonkers was on the Disney Afternoon rotation, I began tuning my TV elsewhere; to Kid's WB, which had Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Road Rovers, and Earthworm Jim. I can't even say I have any real memories of Bonkers; just a vague, unpleasant distaste.

So how does Bonkers on SNES stack up? Well, it's okay. Typical for Capcom, the graphics are gorgeous - Bonkers actually looks cute bouncing around on the screen, something I can't say ever happened in the show. The settings are full of clever touches and Bonkers is full of amusing slapstick animation - he can be flattened, fall over, trip over his own feet, and more.

The first level takes you into Donald Duck's Hollywood mansion (!), where you can sink into jello molds left on the dining room table, destroy gold statues on Donald lining the halls, and slide down an elephant shaped slide in the toy room. In a later level, a powerup is found in a room where Mickey and Donald are taking a break from filming a western movie. Bonkers bounces his way through a cruise ship, where kitchen freezers are filled with marauding penguins and swordfish frozen into blocks of ice. There's also a pretty tough LA Freeway traffic jam, where toon busses are trying to mow you down.

He does look adorable in this game

Besides the forgettable license, this game isn't better known because it's really just average. Obviously built on the Magical Quest game engine, Bonkers simply can't move fast enough for the game he's in. Mickey controls fine in the Quest games because speed is not a priority, and once you reach tougher areas you have a projectile. Bonkers's jumps are just too sluggish to safely clear even minor enemies, creating an impression that the game is running at half speed. Combined with an over-generous hit box, and this is a game that feels like it shouldn't be nearly as frustrating as it is.

Intended to offset the sluggishness, Bonkers also has a dash with a recharging meter at the bottom that can stun or destroy enemies. It controls strangely - you have you keep pushing down on the dash button and the forward button or the dash runs out immediately. This feature seems to have inspired by the terrific, tight dash mechanics in Konami's Buster Busts Loose for the SNES in 1992. It never makes the game unplayable, but like Scrooge's bizarre pogo-cane mechanic in the original DuckTales, it's the kind of thing that should have been improved before release.



To what extent does charming details make up for a middle-of-the-road game? You can do far worse for platformers on the SNES, but you can also do much better. Players willing to overlook the wonky jumping and dashing and excessive hit box will find a decent little game here, but in an overstuffed genre, why bother with decent? Bonkers was released near the end of the total dominance of platform games; Street Fighter 2 had ignited the fighting game craze a year before, and a little game called Doom was just around the corner. Given how totally average Bonkers is, it's hard not to think that maybe this is a job better left to Mario and Sonic after all.

As for the animated show, playing this game and my general desire to be better informed prompted me to watch a handful of episodes, which ranged from decent to tedious. The internet informs us it was a troubled show, and the results speak for themselves - it's pretty weak sauce compared to even a middle of the road episode of something like Darkwing Duck. The whole point of Roger Rabbit always was that he was not a Disney character; he's more like a Tex Avery creation than Disney's babyish creations. Neither fish nor fowl, the Bonkers show is significantly worse than either of it's models - Roger Rabbit or Tiny Toon Adventures. Disney Television would rebound, but Bonkers remained as a road not traveled.

--

I had suspected that Bonkers was going to end this series on a down note, so I withheld a game from the coverage for the end. Appropriate for a theme park blog, this is the very first Disneyland video game on a home console - Capcom's legendary, baffling Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. Come back next week for the final game, and a retrospective on Summer Game Camp!

Game Rankings So Far
01) DuckTales 2
02) Chip ' Dale Rescue Rangers
03) The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse
04) DuckTales
05) Magical Quest 3 Starring Mickey & Donald
06) Aladdin
07) TaleSpin
08) Goof Troop
09) The Great Circus Mystery
10) Darkwing Duck
11) The Little Mermaid
12) Bonkers
13) Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers 2
14) Mickey Mousecapade