As if this dead horse was not well-beaten, I’ve decided to make my opening contribution to PSVG an article about the notorious LJN. Now, before I go into a long diatribe about the cursed LJN label, I want to share just a little information about myself. I grew up in the “Age of Nintendo” with Nintendo ads on TV, Nintendo cartoons, Nintendo on the “grown up news” and, of course, lots and lots of Nintendo Cereal System breakfasts. Today I am an avid retro game collector and primarily focus on NES games, hardware and related merchandise.
So with all of that out of the way, I would like to talk about a true legend in the video game industry:
LJN was started in 1970 as a toy manufacturer operating out of New York City. They were an odd one too, strangely contracting toy lines for 70’s TV series like “Emergency” and “C.H.I.P.s”. They did pull some big toy contracts in the 80’s though, netting iconic brands such as the WWF, Dungeons & Dragons and Thundercats! How in the world did they get Thundercats?! All of these famous franchises saw their toy tie-ins released under LJN’s notorious rainbow. So the question is, what went so horribly wrong..?
MCA/Universal already had maintained ownership over the LJN label by the mid-80’s thanks to their crafty business tactics so why not set them up as their video games distribution brand? It was all so perfect, was it not? Nintendo was huge, movies were bigger than ever, so why not make loads of tie-in games using Universal’s most famous licenses?! That had yet to go terribly wrong by that time…
It is important to keep three details in mind before going deeper into LJN’s legendary “badness”: First, the NES and all of its subsequent game releases were already in the process of pulling the video games industry out of a near-apocalyptic crash that was caused in part by too many crappy games and that Nintendo had established a strict policy to allow only a certain number of releases per company per year to prevent shovelware and market saturation. Slick businessmen learned very quickly (probably while snarling and biting down on a cigar) that they could get around this restriction by simply releasing the game under a different label via a subsidiary. Konami had Ultra and by the late 80’s, MCA (and a short time later, Acclaim) had LJN. The final detail (and possibly the most important) is that there is little evidence that LJN actually developed any of the games they are criticized for. Under the MCA/Universal banner, they were used solely as a distributor and under Acclaim they were more-or-less that patsy for Acclaim’s other development houses to make really bad movie tie-ins and dump them out under the LJN label.
Still, it’s undeniable that LJN deserves its connection to licensed junk. This is not only because most of the worst licensed titles on the NES were released under its notorious rainbow, but also due to the fact that a number of licenses with great potential have suffered mistreatment by developers who care little for the product they were tasked with representing. Legendarily-bad games like Silver Surfer, The Uncanny X-Men, Back to the Future and Friday the 13th all owe their existence to MCA/Universal, Acclaim and LJN.
As the 16-bit era came around, the titles developed and published under the LJN label did not improve, and by 1995, the LJN distribution branch at Acclaim was closed. That said, there was a final game released under the LJN brand in 2000 on the Sega Dreamcast titled “Spirit of Speed 1937”. It was a truly-dreadful arcade racing game set in the early years of the sport. LJN’s involvement in this game, even at a business level, is suspect and it is likely it was an attempt to revive the brand that backfired miserably. “Spirit of Speed 1937” could easily qualify as one of the ten worst games on the Dreamcast.
After years of publishing cheaply-thrown-together, barely-produced dribble, LJN was never able to shake the stain on their brand’s name. They were the unfortunate patsy to a corporate attempt to jump back onto the gaming bandwagon during the height of its popularity. I have a hard time justifying playing any of the LJN titles released on the NES for fun, but look forward to seeing more and more of these games covered in detail in the future.
Consider this prologue to a series of NES game reviews that I hope will vary in subjects and will cover a number of different topics, not just the traditional game review. As a collector I love to share my knowledge of games, the way they have shaped the landscape of popular culture, and with my specialty being the NES, I feel this is a great platform to not only flesh out the history of games in the 80’s and 90’s, but also increase interest in the hobby of retro gaming.
Keep your eyes open for my first official NES review on PSVG of one of LJN’s strangest licenses…