You're a dull one, Mister Grinch
A mediocre adaptation of a terrible movie.
The first video game I can remember playing is the Commodore 64 version of Activision’s Ghostbusters. I loved it. I made friends with a kid I didn’t have much in common with just so I could keep playing it. One of the first video games I ever owned was LJN’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for the NES. I loved that too, although I could never get past the final boss. The worst video game I ever played was a Christmas present from my two closest friends, who pooled their money to buy it for me: Superman: The New Superman Adventures, Titus Interactive’s notoriously terrible adaptation of Superman: The Animated Series.
Everyone knows about licensed games. They suck. It’s been a truism for so long that it barely even merits mentioning anymore. And I’m not here to try and convince you otherwise; I’ve played too many terrible, terrible video games to do that. (I still remember the pain of getting LJN’s X-Men home from the store and making the mistake of putting it into my Nintendo.) But they still fascinate me. It’s like capitalism’s version of outsider art: product created solely to exploit a commercial niche, made under a deadline, with little more than the barest concession to expected practices.
Sometimes the results can be something special. Sometimes they can be so bad they seem to warp the fabric of space-time--games terrible enough to leave psychological scars, becoming urban legends for the cyber set. (“Once upon a time, they made a game so bad they had to bury it in the desert…”) More often, licensed games are just forgettable junk, a sort of idiot tax for anyone too stupid to read the reviews.
It seems fitting, then, to start this column with a look at something from that last category: The Grinch, published by Konami for the Playstation, Dreamcast, PC, and Game Boy Color in 2000 as a tie in for that year’s big screen adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
You can’t really talk about The Grinch without talking about the Grinch. Dr. Seuss first introduced the character in the 1957 children’s classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and Chuck Jones adapted the story into an animated short film for television in 1966, and for the next 34 years or so, things were good. Seuss’s book is lovely, and the animated version manages the neat trick of developing a fable just enough to fill 26 minutes without showing the strain.
Then along comes Ron Howard to ruin everything.
The 2000 big budget live-action update is bad, okay? It’s real bad. Thematically incoherent and narratively suspect, the film is a noisy, ugly, sanctimonious mess. Screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman stretch the animated short’s 26 minutes to an unforgivable 104, giving the Grinch (played by Jim Carrey doing an imitation of W.C. Fields by way of Charles Nelson Reilly) a traumatic backstory, introducing a love triangle to the “plot,” and making the have-cake-eat-too mistake of trying to criticize materialism in a big budget movie whose only real reason for existing is to sell as much crap as possible.
It’s no surprise, then, that there were video game tie-ins. Really, that’s what makes The Grinch a perfect example of the licensed game “genre” (if we can call it that): it’s not surprising at all. The graphics are clunky, the mechanics uninspired, and the design is, more than anything else, empty. It’s an experience made for no one whose sole purpose is to attract the eyes of tired parents desperate for anything to shove under the tree.
Which makes it mesmerizing now, especially given that it’s possible to load up a playthrough on YouTube without having to pay for the experience. The Playstation, Dreamcast, and PC versions, developed by Artificial Mind & Movement and published by Konami, are all more or less the same, third person 3D platformer/stealth games that put players in the shoes of the Grinch (and occasionally his dog Max) as he works to prank, torment, and ruin the Whos’ holiday season.
That’s not a terrible premise, and The Grinch is at least smart enough to realize that players would rather control the ostensible villain of the story than one of those namby pamby Whos. The problem comes from trying to stretch a relatively thin plot into something approaching an acceptable game length. A full playthrough takes between four and five hours, over twice the running time of the already bloated feature-length film.
To fill that time, the designers invent a plot about the Grinch losing all the blueprints to the devious machines he uses to torment the Whos. He spends the vast majority of the game hunting those blueprints down, in between jumping on presents and Christmas trees, defacing posters, and avoiding getting caught (and hugged) by the locals. In a nod to the film, the Grinch sometimes wears disguises and can knock out anyone who gets too close with his foul breath. Occasionally players can use Max to get into small spaces and grab keys.
Watching a playthrough, the first impression you get is one of space; the locations the Grinch explores aren’t boundless, but they are grimly barren, limited to a handful of points of interest for every acre of space. It’s a problem that plagued a lot of games in the transition from two to three dimensional space. Go back and try something even as seminal as Ocarina Of Time, and you might be surprised at how much of the experience is just running over vast plains with little of interest to recommend them.
At least Ocarina Of Time had the decency to send you running towards something. The Grinch has little to recommend it outside of nostalgia and inadvertent comedy--and the latter can only take you so far. Hearing the chummy narrator speak in rhyme that’s almost, but not quite, Dr. Seuss, is pretty funny, as is the voice actor playing the Grinch doing a Jim Carrey impression that sounds more like Gilbert Gottfried.
The game’s crowning achievement in what-the-hellery, though, is its ending. Instead of following the original story (and animated special, and the Ron Howard movie this is nominally adapting) and showing the Grinch slinking through Whoville in a Santa suit, the final level is a vehicle chase in which players follow the real Santa through the night sky, snagging any presents he drops before shooting him out of the air. Then a cut-scene for the Grinch’s redemption moment, a shot of him returning the stolen presents to what looks to be maybe six badly rendered Whos, and credits.
It’s fantastically anticlimactic, the video game equivalent of a trip to the fireworks factory that ends at a convenience store. Which is how licensed games generally work. The packaging (admittedly, The Grinch’s packaging is awful) promises a chance to re-experience something you love in a different context, a way to stretch out happy memories over hours and days. What you get is usually a lot of awkwardly contextualized sizzle and some thoroughly charred steak. There are worse games than this one, but The Grinch, with its awkward mix of good intentions and questionable results, stands as symbol for all the potential, and all the heartbreak, that licensed games have to offer.
By the way, if you’re really hard up for Grinch-centric games, try the Game Boy Color version. It’s basically just another entry in the hand-held’s seemingly infinite reserves of puzzle/action games, but it looks pretty, plays straightforwardly, and has a lot less dead air.