The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was an 8-bit home video game console that played host to dozens of licensed titles; that is, cartridges based on pre-existing licenses, such as movies or cartoon shows. These games were usually of sub-par quality, since the developer was typically just trying to turn out a quick game in order to profit on the fleeting popularity of the license itself. In this case, the developer was Ocean and the license was a movie (starring a young Brad Pitt, oddly enough) called Cool World. This NES video game was released in 1992, near the end of the console’s official supported life cycle.
The player controls protagonist detective Harris, who needs to collect five pieces of a map that shows the connection points between the real world and Cool World, a cartoon-infused weird doppelganger of Earthly reality. He is after a sultry woman named Holli, whose actions may cause the destruction of both realms. In order to do this, the player must play through four selectable stages in order to unlock the fifth, a tower in Las Vegas on which the Golden Spike is located, which has the power to save the worlds. Or something like that.
Harris is a monochromatically rendered little guy that jumps with the A button, moves as entered on the directional pad, and can use weapons by tapping the B button, but holding the B button makes him crouch. This is as silly as it sounds. The Start button pauses, and the Select button cycles through an on-screen selection of the weapons, such as the Pen, which has to be found in each level and can suck up enemies; the Eraser, which can be thrown in order to eradicate one enemy (and turn it into a life-restoring candy cane); and the Bomb, which is a special weapon that differs in each level, and is needed to defeat the boss.
The play control is not good. Harris is remarkably focused and cannot do two things at once. Three examples: He cannot use a weapon in mid-air while jumping; he cannot move diagonally at all, requiring movement in a cardinal direction at all times; and he cannot even use the Select button except when standing still. Thus, rather than create a fun, fast-paced, fluid gameplay experience, the entire ordeal is slow, stilted, and made more difficult than it really needed to be.
The level design is also very questionable. Some require puzzles to be solved, like on Main Street when the player needs to enter the Slash Club, but has to figure out that he has to blow the lid off a green trash can with a bomb, then push it to the left in front of the bouncers, in order for the smell to drive them away from the entrance. Another level is an unforgiving skateboarding level, with lots of one-hit kill opportunities, slightly reminiscent of that aggravating Great Wall of China stage from Bart Vs. The World. Yet another level has a latter part consisting of an enormous, vertically oriented straight-down tunnel that has to be relentlessly navigated. Often, a hidden room must be found; if it is not, then by the time the player reaches the boss, he or she will not have gained enough of the special weapon to defeat the nasty foe.
Overall, Cool World is an intriguing challenge at best. But the most damning aspect of this game is poor design, as though every development decision is made with no further thought or consideration of how it would actually play out. This is not among the all-time most difficult NES video games ever made, neither is it really among the very worst, but it is both hard and bad. In other words, it bads real hard, a phrase which makes just about as much sense as the premise of Cool World itself.
The year is 1992. Nintendo Entertainment System video games have been being produced for several years now, and have come a long way in their complexity, stylism, genre breadth, and overall general discoveries of how to stretch the console to its hardware limits. Cool World looks okay visually, and its graphics may actually be its highlight, but it is nothing outstanding for its era, and actually can be seen as evidence of Ocean’s laziness, given the potential for something more striking. Perhaps items like background repetition, palette-swap enemy types, and mindlessly drawn environments can be forgiven, though, in the face of such imaginative surroundings; then again, they were inspired by a movie, and stand merely as a meager attempt at capturing the spirit of the film, which itself was a below-average result.
The sound effects are lame and minimalist. Look no further than the mind-numbing “kssh” effect of the bartender’s bottles hitting the floor, over and over, in such dismal, monotone, uninspired fashion. Then there is the background music, which is amazing in its ability to sound like it has so much potential, yet end up only ear-grating. In all seriousness: Portions of this game sound as though they were actually, purposefully intended to annoy the player. Some of the tracks utilize that same annoying echo-synth layer used in titles like Micro Machines, which seems to only cheapen the quality of the music, not enhance it. A few quick piano-like ditties would usually add some respectability to a soundtrack, but not here, where they only serve as crescendo to an auditory world of hurt. The music never delves into any real depth, and ends up more of a nuisance than an enhancement.
The game is based on a movie, so the concept is not original. Some of the play scheme is interesting, like the item-switch function, yet is executed rather poorly, given the many superior iterations of the same function in prior games. Perhaps the most creative function is Harris using a pen to suck up enemies (yeah, it seems counter-intuitive, but there you have it), then finding empty ink vials to dump the ink into, which restores an amount of life respective to the number of enemies that were sucked up.
Overally, though, this is simply a poor game, and not fun, only worth a play-through for those seeking a quirky retro challenge. Cool World draws one and a half stars out of five.