Game Corner: Taz-Mania (Mega Drive)

Released: July 1992
Developer: Recreational Brainware
Also Available For: Game Boy, Game Gear, Master System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

The Background:
My absolute favourite Looney Tunes (1930 to present) character, the Tasmanian Devil (or simply “Taz”) first debuted in “Devil May Hare” (McKimson, 1954) as a dim-witted and voracious foil to Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc). In the early- to mid-nineties, the Warner Bros. cartoons were undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to shows like Tiny Toon Adventures (1990 to 1992) and Animaniacs (1995 to 1998) and Taz became part of this resurgence in popularity when he graduated to his very own cartoon, Taz-Mania (1991 to 1995). To tie into this, several videogame adaptations of the show were produced; while the SNES version, which was more of a pseudo-3D endless runner, was unfavourably received, the Mega Drive title (which, like the others, was a traditional 2D sidescroller) was received very well. Since the Master System version (Technical Wave, 1992) was one of the first videogame cartridges I ever owned and one of my favourite action/platformers, I decided to pick up the Mega Drive version and see how the technically superior title holds up against others of its genre.

The Plot:
After being told a tale of a giant seabird that laid massive eggs capable of feeding an entire family for over a year, the ravenous and greedy Taz sets out in search of the Lost Valley and its legendary giant bird in hopes of satisfying his endless appetite.

Gameplay:
Taz-Mania is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer which has you guiding Taz across a number of locations (though, primarily, through jungles and Aztec ruins). While a variety of enemies populate Taz-Mania’s levels, your biggest enemies will be the controls and the numerous bottomless pits and instant death traps. Taz, though big and colourful and occasionally full of life, is a slow and clumsy character to play as; his jump is awkward, he can’t crouch or look up or down, and his hit box is ridiculously large at times.

Taz spins like a tornado and spits fire but has a large hit box and tends to destroy his own power-ups.

Thankfully, you can get Taz to move his big, useless butt by sending him into his trademark tornado spin; however, while this is great for blasting away most enemies, it also knocks away health and other power-ups when they’re onscreen. You can use the spin in mid-air for a boost but it’s a bit finicky and the game is structured less around letting you blast ahead at full speed and more around awkwardly jumping to platforms, working your way up or across, and making blind jumps across bottomless pits. Taz also has an “Action” button that will let you carry certain items to reach higher areas, activate switches, and breathe fire after eating chilli pepeprs, and can also defeat some enemies and damage bosses by jumping on their heads.

Platforming is made all the more difficult thanks to platforms hurting you and blind jumps.

Unfortunately, you’ll be spending most of your time struggling with the game’s sluggish controls and annoying platforming elements; in the Badlands, for example, you have to jump from jets of water to reach the exit but, if your jump is a little off (which happens more often than not thanks to Taz’s jumping being a bit stilted and floaty), you’ll get damaged by the water and the knockback will most likely send you falling to your death. Similarly, when you reach the Jungle, you’ll have to make blind jumps to platforms you can’t even see in order to progress and either fall to your death or jump right onto an enemy for your trouble.

Gameplay is slowed to a crawl as you pull levers and try to figure out annoying lift puzzles.

Taz-Mania is much more of a thinking game than the Master System version, which I remember being more of a standard, cutesy platformer; in the Acme Factory, you have to jump up conveyor belts and dodge lasers to pull a series of switches and keep a deadly robot from being assembled. Pull the wrong switches, though, and you’ll be chargrilled as punishment, which is a pretty fast way to burn through your lives. Later, in the Mines, you’ll need to use similar levers to activate lifts to reach new areas; unfortunately, some of these are booby trapped and will send you falling to your death while others are suspended precariously over a bed of instant death spikes or missing entirely (which will also cause you to die immediately). In the Ruins level, you’ll have to make some very tricky and awkward jumps between platforms and if you’re not absolutely pixel-perfect, you’ll simply pass right through your intended target as though it were intangible!

While hopping from logs isn’t too bad, the mine cart section is an absolute nightmare!

More than once, you’ll be tasked with jumping from log to log to cross some rapids; thankfully, you won’t instantly die if you fall or land in the water but you will be bounced out at the cost of some health. These aren’t particularly difficult sections but they become more troublesome when you have to move Taz up and down to the foreground and background, which makes positioning his exact landing point difficult to judge, and when you have to struggle upstream and avoid flying over the edge of a waterfall. By far the most frustrating and unfair section of the game, though, is when you must jump into a runaway mine cart; you can speed up and slow down by pressing left or right and press A to raise the cart up and avoid crashing headfirst into a bumper, but you also have to be careful not to collide with the ceiling, enemies, or to fall off the broken tracks. One mistake and you instantly lose a life, which is ridiculously unreasonable and makes the presence of a life bar almost completely redundant.

Graphics and Sound:
If there’s one thing Taz-Mania has going for it, it’s the graphics; sprites are big, cartoony, and colourful and the entire game evokes the look and feel of the cartoon. While the music and sound effects are extremely grating and poorly realised, it’s fun seeing Taz fly into an impatient rage when left idle and the little quirks he has here and there, such as eating the “S” in the opening SEGA logo.

Levels are colourful but not very varied and lacking in depth and complexity.

Sadly, this doesn’t really shine through all of the time and, for the most part, Taz is a very static and awkward character sprite. Similarly, the game’s backgrounds and levels aren’t all that interesting to look at; this game released almost a year after Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) and in the same year as Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1992) so there’s really no excuse for the environments being so bland and basic. Occasionally, you’ll see some foreground effects and have to pass through certain walls to reach new or secret areas but, for the most part, there’s not really a lot on offer in terms of variety as the game spends way too much time in barren wastelands and jungles.

Taz-Mania really should have relied on in-game sprites for its story and cutscenes.

By far the most visually interesting levels are the Acme Warehouse and the Iceland, a stage you only visit once yet you’re forced to endure the drab, dark mine and confusing mess of the Jungle for what feels like an eternity. Taz-Mania employs some very simple motion comic-like cutscenes and text to tell its story that, while featuring bigger sprites and including a handful of cameos from the show, featured extremely limited animation and it feels like they could have been swapped out for in-game graphics and sprites like the game’s ending.

Enemies and Bosses:
Taz’s journey is obstructed by a handful of enemies, such as bats, frogs, crabs, and anthropomorphic stone heads and man-eating plants that try to take a bite out of you. Your most persistent and annoying obstacle (apart from the controls) will be the abundance of instant death traps and hazards such as pistols, fans, jets of flame, and bombs that dog you at every turn. In Iceland, you’ll also want to avoid landing in the freezing water as you’ll be frozen into a block of ice that will slowly drain your health unless you mash buttons to escape.

A couple of Taz’s adversaries from the cartoon show up as bosses, which is nice to see.

Fans of the cartoon may be slightly disappointed by how few characters carry over into the videogame and, yet, a handful of them do appear. In many levels, you’ll encounter a number of spear-wielding Bushrats, for example, and the first boss you battle is against Bull Gator and Axl in their trademark jeep. If you’ve played Sonic 2, it’s basically the same thing as the Emerald Hill Zone boss; simply hop over it to avoid being crushed and bounce or spin into the truck a few times and they’ll be done. Similarly, at the end of the Jungle level, you’ll encounter Francis X. Bushlad, a red-headed archer who simply shoots arrows at you in a predictable pattern and is easily bested by hopping on his head or spinning into him after jumping over his projectiles.

Taz also battles a giant plant and a stone version of himself.

You’ll also battle against a giant, man-eating plant that the instruction manual encourages you to throw a bag of “No Weed” at but I’m pretty certain I defeated it by simply spinning into it without much trouble at all. In the Ruins stage, one of the many Taz statues will come to life and you’ll have to fight a stone doppelgänger of Taz, who has all the same moves and abilities as you and is thus ridiculously easy to take out by jumping over his spin attacks and hitting him with your own when he’s standing still.

A giant seabird fiercely protects her egg in the finale but a few smacks to the head will dissuade her.

The finale of the game sees you navigating through a stone maze of sorts and then walking, almost completely unopposed, to the giant egg that is Taz’s goal. The egg is, of course, guarded by a giant seabird that attacks you with its humongous wings and talons, both of which are surprisingly easy to avoid. When the bird’s head pops into frame, simply spin into it a few times and you’ll win the day…only to be denied your dinner as the egg hatches and the hatchling mistakes Taz for its mother and amusingly chases him back home.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
One thing Taz is known for is his insatiable appetite and, as a result, he’ll automatically pick up and eat objects and enemies that he comes across. This, however, can be detrimental to your health as Taz will swallow bombs if you’re not careful and get blown up in classic Looney Tunes fashion.

Aside from the bombs, you should eat everything you come across for health, points, and power-ups.

However, the rest of the time, Taz will eat all kinds of food, such as roast chicken, fruit, and water bottles but he’ll also eat smaller enemies to refill his health; you can also eat Taz icons for an extra life and a Star for a brief period of invincibility, though I found very few of these in my playthrough. Furthermore, as mentioned, you can eat chilli peppers to spit fire by pressing A for a short time.

Additional Features:
Taz-Mania comes with three different difficulty settings, Practice, Easy, and Hard but you won’t get to experience the full game on Practice and will receive the greatest challenge on Hard. If the game is too easy for you (which, honestly, it probably won’t be given how frustrating and unfair some parts of the game are), you can activate a number of…somewhat useful cheats by holding A, B, and C on both controllers on the title screen and pressing Start. After that, you can pause the game at any time and press A to refill your health, B to become permanently invincible, and A, B, and C to skip to the next level. The invincibility isn’t actually that helpful, though, as you need to activate it every time you die or start a new level and certain hazards (such as ingesting bombs and landing in water) will still damage you and all the invincibility in the world won’t protect you from an instant death trap.

The Summary:
I really enjoyed the Master System version of Taz-Mania; it was bright, simple fun and I was excited to finally get my hands on the Mega Drive version after being won over by screenshots of the game for most of my life. Unfortunately, Taz-Mania definitely looks a lot better than it plays and shines much more in still shots than it does in motion. The sprites, especially Taz, are great, very fitting, and cartoony but are noticeably lacking in animation frames and just a sense of character. Taz is one of animation, and Looney Tunes’, most expressive and bombastic characters but he’s depressingly pedestrian here. The emphasis on platforming, blind jumps, and unfair deaths instead of fast-paced action and adventure in the style of Sonic also seems to have been a mistake and, for all its colourful, cartoony appeal, Taz-Mania was an underwhelming and disappointing experience for me, especially compared to the technically inferior Master System version.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Were you a fan of Taz-Mania? How do you think it holds up today? Did the game’s controls, difficulty, and more finicky moments turn you off or is it one of your favourite 16-bit titles? Are you a fan of Taz and his cartoon? If not, which Looney Tunes character is your favourite and, by the same token, which Looney Tunes videogame is your favourite? Whatever your thoughts on Taz-Mania, feel free to leave a comment down below and be sure to check out my review of the follow-up!

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