Licensed games have been a staple of the industry since the Atari era. In the late 80s to 90s, licensed games were made as challenging as normal games. The reason was that the game companies responsible for the licensed games drew inspiration from their original games, which were made to be difficult. Capcom for example created several games in the Disney Universe including: Darkwing Duck and Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers.
What this also meant was that licensed games by and large did not push the boundaries of game design. Many titles were straight up platformers in the Mario sense, much how licensed games today are built around open world gameplay. But like always, there are exceptions to the rule and today’s game managed to beat the likes of Super Metroid and even Bioshock at their own game mechanics.
Phantom 2040 was a game based on the cartoon of the same name, which was loosely based on the Phantom comic series. Neither of which I remember all that well and we’ll leave it at that.
Gameplay was a 2D sidescroller through a variety of environments; your weapons include several types of guns and some kind of grapple hook. The city was broken up into different sections that you could visit and explore, with each chapter of the game focused on one or two specific parts. You could return to previous sections or go to other parts at anytime from the main map. But where Phantom starts out like every other sidescroller, things start to change once the player begins to progress.
Beating a boss would reward the player with either a new weapon, or item to unlock inaccessible areas. Allowing the player to return to previous areas to find new upgrades or make progress in new ones. But Phantom had one other trick up its sleeve that elevated it to this list.
Throughout the game, the player had to make choices about who to support or what person to go after. These choices would affect where the player would go in a chapter and the bosses they would fight. Remember, each boss gave the player a different unlock-able which in turn would change what areas the player could explore.
For example one choice had the player deciding what to do with an endangered animal who was the last of its kind. If the player decided to keep it protected in a sanctuary, they would than come under attack and would have to fight a group of poachers. But if the player gave it to a hunter, he would give the player access codes to a facility where one of the bad guys was hiding out. Making each choice had a ripple effect, changing how the player would progress from that point on.
With all the different choices and upgrades, the game boasted about 20 different endings based on what the player did in the world. And with a variety of weapons, bosses and upgrades meant that the player could play the game differently each time.
Let’s stop for a second, we have a licensed game that had exploration and allowed the player to affect both story and gameplay through their choices. This was in 1995, long before games like Deus Ex, Bioshock and Mass Effect became hits by allowing the player to do the same thing.
So far all this sounds really amazing and you’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of the game until now. Well… Phantom 2040 had one major problem that was a sign of the times: no battery saves. During the late 80s and much of the 90s, the use of internal save functionality was costly and not many companies had the money to integrate them. With exception to RPGs or games from major developers like Nintendo, everyone else either had no save options, or used passwords.
With Phantom 2040, because of all the variables that affected the player’s progress, it meant that the designers needed a complicated password system. What gamers got was about 40 character passwords each time they wanted to save their progress. Just imagine for a second how frustrating it was to have to write down a 40 character string password, case sensitive and losing your progress because you misspelled one character.
If there is one thing that I’m happy is no longer in the game industry that would be the use of password systems. And it’s a shame that something that isn’t even related to the gameplay had so much of a negative effect on the game.
As Phantom 2040 was a head of its time in terms of design. And is one of the few 2D titles that allowed the player to control both the gameplay and story through their choices.
Just like Viva Piñata and Batman Arkham Asylum, sometimes you can’t just rule out a game because it’s a licensed property and that great ideas can happen anywhere.