Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge

As far as action games go, the Devil May Cry series is easily one of the best. While certainly challenging for the most part, the games are rewarding to finish and have had a lasting influence on the genre in games like the Bayonetta series. I can even recall a period of time where licensed games copied either God of War or Devil May Cry, though usually not as good. Few games inspired by Devil May Cry, however, have the distinct honor of being made by Capcom themselves. In this case, it’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge, a 2004 sequel to the original 1993 stop motion film. While not a perfect game, what truly makes this licensed game stand out is not only its strong use of the license, but also its seeming influence on later Devil May Cry games, as it predates Devil May Cry 3 by one year.

One year after the events of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington is once again bored with Halloween and wants to make it scarier. After Dr. Finkelstein gives him a whiplike weapon called the Soul Robber, Jack sets off in search of new frights. His absence creates a window of opportunity for Lock, Shock and Barrel to revive Oogie Boogie, who immediately plots his revenge against Jack. Jack returns to Halloween Town on Christmas Eve to discover that not only has Oogie returned, he’s tricked the citizens into boobytrapping the town. After defeating Oogie’s shadow, Jack resolves to stop the real Oogie, who plans to become the Seven Holidays King.

Jack's journey begins when he defeats Oogie's shadow.

As a follow-up to the original film, Oogie’s Revenge does a good job maintaining a consistent tone and keeping everyone in-character. Minor characters who reappear aren’t fleshed out much beyond their original depiction, but that’s not the point, as they mainly serve gameplay purposes that take their already established traits into account. Oogie’s goal to become the Seven Holidays King feels original in the context of the setting and works well both as a motivation for the player and as a means to facilitate his revenge. However, the story overall is pretty simple, which isn’t inappropriate for something aimed at kids, and noticeably recycles some of the same beats from the original film. Though it’s thankfully not a 1:1 retread, it may leave some players wanting more.

Perhaps in part due to Capcom developing this game, the gameplay is similar to Devil May Cry, but adjusted to be more kid-friendly. There is a standard difficulty selection, with the main difference mostly boiling down to damage modifiers, although Easy is the only one where your destination is marked on the map, plus it has cheaper items and an exclusive ability. Jacks’ story occurs over 24 Chapters divided by story placement, as well as two Secret Chapters. Much like in Devil May Cry, the Secret Chapters occur during a regular chapter and offer bonus Souls (the game’s currency) for completing them, although in an interesting twist, the first one directly affects the boss fight in the following Chapter. Similarly, some Hidden Areas around the map offer unique bonuses, usually additional Souls. Players also hold an inventory of useful items and receive a Nightmare Rank from D to S at the end of each stage. The Nightmare Rank is influenced by certain metrics that are also individually ranked form D to S, including completion time, highest combo length, damage taken and !-Count (basically how many times you successfully taunt or scare enemies). Depending on their final Nightmare Rank, players will also receive a Soul Bonus, increasing their total number of Souls accordingly.

Though there are many basic similarities with Devil May Cry, there are some noticeable differences. For one, apart from healing with Green Souls during combat, Jack can restore his full health with the fountain at the center of town, which can also fill up Crystal Bottles that he can drink at any time. What justifies this is that rather than a linear progression through one or more environments, Halloween Town is more interconnected, allowing more opportunities to access the fountain if necessary. As a consequence of this design, however, if players want to spend Souls powering up Jack’s weapons and abilities, they must go to the one physical Witches’ Shop in town. Though the lack of a Statue system or ability to spend Souls between Chapters bothered me at first, the small map size and various shortcuts, not to mention the relatively low number of available items, made this change more tolerable.

Like Devil May Cry 2’s Diesel clothing promotion, players can obtain new costumes for Jack that don’t have any impact on gameplay. Players can earn costumes by collecting figures of various characters, either by collecting them in Hidden Areas or obtaining a high enough rank in each Chapter. However, rather than selecting a costume when starting a Chapter, players must go to Jack’s House, either in-game or between Chapters and interact with his wardrobe.

Combat is also simplified compared to Devil May Cry, as Jack only has one weapon, the Soul Robber, and the lack of a jump button means air combos and juggling aren’t present, though flying enemies usually don’t get too out of reach. The ranks that appear during combat also aren’t graded from D to S and are based more on the player’s combo length rather than how stylish they are. Additionally, rather than worrying about Yellow Orbs to revive Jack on death, players instead lose 20% of their current Souls. Despite this simplification, the game continually introducing new enemy types to keep players on their toes and Jack’s moveset still allows for some strategy, like how his Soul Spin attack can deflect projectiles or help with some minor crowd control. On the other hand, players will have to use certain keys and items directly from their inventory rather than the game automatically applying them, which can get tedious at certain points.

Combat is simplified compared to Devil May Cry.

Although the original Devil May Cry is used as a foundation for Oogie’s Revenge, the game doesn’t just simplify certain aspects for younger players. In fact, it actually introduced a number of mechanics that later Devil May Cry games would adopt for themselves.

For something more immediately noticeable, Jack’s Soul Robber doesn’t just attack enemies from a distance or break certain obstacles. It also lets him grab enemies and either throw them or slam them repeatedly against the ground, as well as grab Soul Points to Soul Jump to other parts of the environment. He can even grab objects like fallen gravestones to complete puzzles or throw other objects as persistent obstacles like statues that spew poisonous gas. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Devil May Cry 4 would later adopt the Soul Robber as Nero’s Devil Bringer mechanic, though with different behaviors like grabbing otherwise out of reach items.

Perhaps the biggest influence, however, apart from the welcome ability to replay Chapters instead of a forced linear progression, is the introduction of the Style system later implemented, albeit a little differently, in Devil May Cry 3. During natural story progression, Jack obtains two transformations known as Pumpkin King and Santa Jack, each with their own abilities. The main difference from Devil May Cry 3 is that instead of selecting one Style to use before each mission, players can switch between each transformation by pressing L1 (Pumpkin King) or R1 (Santa Jack), with a second press of the same button returning Jack to his normal state. Additionally, if the player goes directly between Chapters, any active transformation will persist. Like Devil May Cry 3, however, these transformations are well-balanced around how well the player manages risk vs reward.

Pumpkin Jack has two powerful attacks that can also help solve puzzles, but both cost Red Souls to use. Flame Thrower spits out a stream of flames in front of Jack for as long as the player holds down Square or until the player runs out of Red Souls (whichever comes first). Fire Bomb, activated with Triangle, will damage any enemy within range, though each activation will cost one Red Soul.

Santa Jack, on the other hand, is a little more complicated and is more control-oriented. This transformation has infinite ammo, but doesn’t attack directly, instead throwing presents with Square (holding down Square increases the distance). There are four presents the player can rotate through with Triangle, each with different properties: Re-possession can either bring enemies out of possessed objects or scare angered enemies and revert them to their original state; Scared Stiff briefly stuns the target; Cold Front damages enemies by freezing them; and Pumpkin Shield, exclusive to Easy Mode, temporarily shields Jack from attacks. Unlike Pumpkin King, which has its full arsenal form the start, players will have to buy three of the four presents individually before Jack can start throwing them. Each of the thrown presents will also go off on their own after a few seconds or players can trigger them early with L2, even if Santa Jack isn’t active.

From my own experimentation, I found that Jack can only maintain three active presents at a time. If three are currently active, Jack can’t throw anymore until at least one finishes its full animation, including its disappearance. Although Pumpkin Shield isn’t actually thrown, it also can’t be used while three presents are currently active. While this may be an issue for some, it does help impose a limit on Santa Jack’s abilities and forces the player to consider what presents they’ll actually need in a given moment.

But the influence doesn’t just end at Devil May Cry, also extending to its sister series Bayonetta. In this case, it’s Jack’s acrobatic dodge rolls, which can help close gaps and include unique animations depending on the players movement. Dodging three times in the same direction can also trigger a rolling jump that can let Jack reach certain ledges he otherwise couldn’t access. The only issue with the implementation, however, is that hard pivots are often difficult and can require the player to take a second and properly change direction on the ground first.

Owing the musical nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Oogie’s Revenge also introduces its own unique Dance Battle mechanic. Some boss battles include an original song that characters will sing in a loop. During these battles, dealing damage will generate Soul Notes that Jack can collect to fill up a Dance Gauge. Filling the Dance Gauge initiates a short countdown that will trigger Dance Mode, consisting of a rhythm game segment where players must press the correct buttons in time with the music. Depending on the player’s performance, Jack will deal an appropriate amount of damage to the boss and players may receive a huge boost to their Nightmare Rank. Although this mechanic takes a little getting used to, its presence gives the game a unique flavor and manages to fully take advantage of the license without disrupting the flow of the game.

Oogie’s Revenge also takes advantage of the license through maintaining a consistent aesthetic with the original film. Though every enemy feels like they fit within the same universe, some enemy types can feel uninspired, as they’re variations of the nearly same skeleton model, and a giant spider gets reused just a little too often as a mini-boss. As with other games with fixed camera angles, some of which make for awkward transitions, movement is maintained between shots regardless of the direction the analog stick is pointed and I noticed that Jack moves similarly to Dante in the original Devil May Cry. On the upside, the game has a smooth framerate and maintains consistency in pre-rendered cutscenes by depicting Jack in his default appearance.

The graphics match the aesthetic of the film.

Notably, the cast not only includes a mixture of returning voices and soundalikes, but Jack’s VA, Chris Sarandon, gets to sing this time instead of Danny Elfman. The difference between the two is certainly noticeable, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it and Sarandon finally gets to show off his talents. Music is largely recycled from the original film, with some original pieces that match the tone and even sound a little like Kingdom Hearts at times, but the actual songs are handled in a unique and rather brilliant way. Rather than recycle the vocal tracks wholesale, they kept the instrumentation and wrote new lyrics that match both the rhythm and the new context. The only flaws are that NPCs have limited dialogue pools, especially the Witches, and you will hear “This Is Halloween” a lot during combat.

While not a perfectly polished game, Oogie’s Revenge handles its license well and manages to double as a decent Devil May Cry game. Whether you’re a fan of the original film, need a way to scratch that unique stylish action itch or looking for the missing link in the evolution of Devil May Cry, this game is definitely worth playing at least once.

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