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René Boutin Discusses Cool Spot, Sunsoft, Licensed Games, and The 16-Bit Era

Beauty, The Beast, Looney Tunes, and Speedy Gonzalez

by Emily Rogers - February 21, 2020, 9:57 am EST

Learn about how a Beauty and the Beast video game might have needed "boob avoidance AI" and Boutin's reaction to the Speedy Gonzalez/Sonic 4 story.

NWR: Many of the games you worked on required communication with project licensors including Disney and Warner Bros. What is it like to work with a licensor on a video game, and how much influence did they have on the development of your games?

RB: Companies like Warner Bros and Disney have departments dedicated to licensing and merchandise and at that time only one or two people assigned to oversee game projects. No licensed product bearing any of their branding, characters or trademarks can be published or sold without their strict approval. So that said, they have to review *everything*.

At Sunsoft of America, the typical routine was daily communication with the external developer and at least weekly with the licensor. But we’re talking early 1990’s, so the medium was fax machine, telephone and video tapes! Every Producer was equipped with a VCR and we had to record gameplay of our game builds and send them off to our contact at the licensor’s licensing department where they would review the tape and provide their feedback by fax. Test cartridges were also sent, but not as frequently (usually near the end of development when a game was near completion). The feedback cycle was usually pretty quick so as not to delay development, and once a fax came in there would usually be a follow-up phone call within 24 hours to review each item.

Working with famous licensed materials was pretty cool. I got to review tons of their cartoons, unaired TV episodes and other media for source material (gameplay ideas, art and character references, audio samples) but sometimes the feedback requests from them could get a bit exasperating. With Warner, they were unfamiliar with video games and often unhappy with the pixelation of their characters, quibbling over the perceived size of Bugs Bunny’s teeth for example. I’d have to mock up examples of his teeth two pixels wide, and explain that the resolution being what it was, it was impossible to show a line down the middle!

With Disney, I got to meet the director of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast at the primary meeting, but beyond that most communication was with an associate producer from their newly set up “Disney Interactive” division. The benefit there was working with someone experienced with games and game development, so in a way he was on our side when we had to defend any requests that were not technically feasible or didn’t make sense to a non-gaming lay person. On the other hand, being experienced in game development, he’d try to request things that were technically possible, but would impact time and cost, so I had to push back on those. Fortunately he was fairly understanding.

NWR: Did Warner Bros. or Disney ever ask for things to be removed or changed in any of the games you worked on? Did game development and creative freedom ever feel restricted by licenses?

RB: Yes all the time. The biggest sticking point would always be how the licensor’s characters were being depicted. It was most important that the quality of the art and what the characters did, did not diminish their brand in any way.

The next hurdle was usually gameplay related. A funny one was Disney’s concern about Belle (main female protagonist in Beauty & the Beast) getting hit in the chest by whatever sprite we had bouncing around in some levels. They felt it would be perceived as sexual. We adjusted enemy sprite paths as best we could and explained that some play was just too random to avoid that possibility. Were we supposed to program some sort of boob avoidance A.I. into the game? Luckily the associate producer at Disney was able to dissipate the issue.

Similar issues came up with the licensors at Warner Bros, who didn’t understand most video game tropes, like pixels, memory restrictions, action based gameplay and the artistic freedom required to turn a passive media property into an interactive one. You have to give the player something to do! They were not comfortable with Bugs Bunny punching Elmer Fudd, Speedy Gonzales kicking things, Wile E. Coyote touching Road Runner, etc.

Luckily, Sunsoft’s general manager had a great relationship with WB’s head of licensing and she was fairly persuasive when needed. If it weren’t for her, I don’t think Speedy Gonzales would have ever been approved with the graphics it has. The backgrounds in particular don’t look “Looney Tunes” at all, and we had to revise several sprites for that same reason.

NWR: You were a producer on Looney Tunes B-Ball. Were there any characters, ideas, or in-game power ups (ACME Plays) that your team wanted to add to the game, but ended up being scrapped?

RB: Looney Tunes B-Ball had one of the smoothest development cycles in my experience thanks to the team at Sculptured Software, led by Ned Martin. They were really on the ball (pun intended), on time and their game builds solid. They probably had some of their best people working on it (they had previous experience porting NBA Jam).

The biggest thing scrapped was the original name “Looney Tunes Hoop It Up”. We unveiled the game at CES and had a “Hoop it up” basketball throwing game at our booth, giving away t-shirts with the logo.

Then came the lawyers from the “Hoop It Up” national basketball tour. It was good that this ‘oops’ was caught when it was, before publishing thousands of cartridges. They had to redo all the print art, destroy the t-shirts and come up with a new name and logo. All we could think of that still sounded like urban street-ball slang was “B-Ball”. Marketing was skeptical and kept suggesting “Looney Tunes Balling” but the off-color jokes and derision from the producers and QA staff convinced them to go with “B-Ball”.

Beyond the “Hoop It Up logo” I don’t recall too much needing to change in the game itself, other than some minor background tweaks, and changing the music from all orchestral to something hip-hoppy. I had them insert the TV “test bars” in the beginning and we also had to compromise on the game’s speed by adding that as an option in the game. The guys at Sculptured were so good at playing it that it felt perfect to them at the fast speed, meanwhile Sunsoft’s testers and I found it too quick and spastic. So we just made it an option in the game.

NWR: Secret projects can be shelved before gamers can see them. Can you name or describe any canned/cancelled projects at Virgin Games or Sunsoft that were being developed for Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo that the public never knew was in development? Perhaps betas, prototypes, or proposals of projects that never materialized into a full game?

RB: At Virgin there was preliminary work done for 7th Guest for SNES. It was going to run off the Sony CD-ROM peripheral. They had a couple full motion video scenes streaming from a cartridge as a proof of concept. It looked pretty good, but the SNES CD-ROM device was scrapped and Sony turned it into the original PlayStation.

At Sunsoft there were a few titles that might have been announced in gaming magazines, but were cancelled in an early state:

  • Kung Fu the Legend Continues (SNES and Genesis)
  • Road Runner 2: Wile E’s Revenge (SNES)
  • Sylvester & Tweety (SNES)
  • Punky Doodle (Arcade Coin-op)

NWR: Let’s talk about Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos. You were the director and lead level designer for that game. Was Sonic the Hedgehog an influence on the gameplay? How long was the game in development?

RB: Yes, the game was indeed supposed to bring some Sonic style gaming to the Super Nintendo. The game had originally been in development by a small studio in England for about a year, but gameplay and level designs were not progressing at an acceptable rate and quality. So we brought Mick, the lead artist, and Anthony Lloyd, the programmer, to California for about six months to finish the game under my direction and direct involvement.

Most of the levels had to be scrapped or overhauled. Gameplay was tweaked and since it wasn’t possible to completely recreate Sonic style gameplay, I saw to it we included something unique to interact with in every world. We spent many late nights during those six months, blasting Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral”, blowing off steam with rounds of “Galaxy Fight” on the company’s Neo Geo arcade machine. We got most of the game done by the end, and had Tony continue debugging and polishing from his home in England.

NWR: There was an unofficial Sonic the Hedgehog 4 that was basically a hack of Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos with Sonic sprites replacing the original sprites. This was years before Sega released an official Sonic the Hedgehog 4. The illegal SNES cartridge was sold in different countries. Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos has gained some notoriety and fame on the internet because of this. Does this annoy you, or are you glad more people are finding out about your game?

RB: Ha, that’s quite funny! I had not seen that hack before. It doesn’t annoy me at all. When you work for a company as an employee, you have pride in what you create, but the final product belongs to the employer so there’s not as deep a sense of ownership (at least not financially). I’m sure this would have pissed off upper management greatly.

NWR: Nintendo announced that the Wii U is launching later this year. How do you feel about the console and its touchscreen controller?

RB: In general it looks really cool, but I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Nintendo really knows how to create fun and innovative interactive experiences and the hardware is really interesting, especially the convergence of gaming and traditional entertainment media. The idea of a singular set-top box for gaming, movies, music and television has been envisioned for at least 15 years now.

On the other hand, I haven’t used my Wii or 360 in over a year. Most of my gaming these days is in short bursts on iPhone or iPad, so I can’t help but look at Wii U with an iOS bias. Nintendo is already behind the curve when it comes to tablet and touch gaming. I already have the convenience of linking my media devices and TVs via Airplay and Apple TV. And I’m used to a convenient digital marketplace where I can easily find and download games and apps for free or very cheap. It’s becoming really hard to justify spending $50 on a big budget story-driven game I don’t have time to play.

I believe the future of Wii U and other next generation consoles will depend heavily on its digital marketplace and maintaining a daily interaction with its players, such as through a mobile app or ensuring that the Wii U becomes the first device people turn on when using their TVs. Nintendo has to compete with a platform that evolves its hardware on a yearly basis and basically lives in my pocket. They might pull it off via their “device for all media” strategy and appeal to a mass market. Otherwise I see it ending up like the Wii—everyone has one but never turns it on.

NWR: Tell our readers about Lilgames.com and SporeProductions.com.

RB: Spore Productions is a business I founded almost 15 years ago providing interactive media services, Flash development, Flash animation, web games and adver-gaming. Ironically the website is outdated and due for a makeover.

LilGames.com is a Flash game portal launched in 2001 to showcase some of my early popular web games, along with hand-picked games by other authors. It too is in dire need of a face-lift.

We would like to thank René Boutin for taking the time to speak with us about his career in the video game industry.


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