Jay Button takes the case: A look at Harvey Birdman

August 18, 2011

When most gamers think of licensed games based on some existing property like a TV show or movie, they often jump to the conclusion that it’s bad. Yes, in recent years, many licensed games are pushed out by a third party on a limited budget and a short development window, and they’re meant purely to capitalize on the success of the existing thing. This isn’t always the case, though. Many great classic games are based on TV shows like Duck Tales, Aladdin and all of the classic 8- and 16-bit Disney games. Occasionally, even a modern game comes along that not only is fun but perfectly captures the essence of what makes that popular property so great. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is… sort of that game? Read on to find out why I’m so conflicted.

Historically, there are two easy ways to make a licensed video game. One: you can take the protagonist from said TV show or film and place them in a platformer. Platforming is a well-tread genre that can be easily replicated: just point the protagonist toward the right and make them a mass murderer. Seriously, every licensed game takes your favorite character and forces them to kill every single living thing that crosses their path. Some titles, though, put an interesting spin on the platformer genre. Duck Tales‘ combat was primarily handled through the use of Scrooge McDuck’s cane as a pogo stick. Other than that, most of the game was about exploring exotic locales and manipulating items around the stage to open pathways. Mickey no Tokyo Disneyland Daibouken on the Super Famicom utilizes two different types of balloons, water and helium, as a means of attack or conveyance rather than just letting Mickey jump on his enemies.

The other way to make a licensed game is to take an existing gameplay style and paste your characters over it. Darkwing Duck on NES is just Mega Man, and the Genesis’s Scooby Doo Mystery is a LucasArts SCUMM game with Scooby Doo locales and characters. How else are you going to make a Harvey Birdman game? Luckily Capcom, the developers of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, happened to have a popular game series at the time that was about a lawyer. So they just took the Phoenix Wright engine, slapped some flash animation over it, and voila! And it is exactly the Phoenix Wright engine. Each case starts out with a mystery being laid out, and it’s Harvey’s job to investigate, gather evidence and solve the case in court. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as finely tuned as the Phoenix Wright games. You’ll need to tune your brain to some serious Williams Street logic to solve these cases, with many questions having absolutely nothing to do with their answers. Throughout most of the game, I had to use the old point n’ click strategy of clicking on things until something happens.

This type of play style, while very successful in the right hands and the only way I can conceive of translating Harvey Birdman to a game, can hinder the whip-crack writing style of the TV show. Jokes and scenes on Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law can pass by without you even noticing. While it’s an 11-minute show, they certainly pack in 22 minutes of story. Wandering around town and collecting clues can slow this pace down a lot. Fortunately, they make up for it in the one-liners and flavor text. And all your favorite characters are present, including my fave MENTOK (bee-wooo), and nearly ever voice actor from the show returns. In fact, everyone from Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law worked on the game except Stephen Colbert, as this was after he’d left the show to do his incredibly successful Daily Show spinoff, The Colbert Report. The soundalike they got for him does a fine job, but he’s obviously not Colbert. In many parts of the game, his voice is slightly obscured by intercoms and loudspeakers to hide the change.

The animation itself is even lower-rent than the low-budget Adult Swim fare we’re used to. On TV, Harvey Birdman‘s animation is an impressive use of its budget, usually utilizing classic hand-drawn frame-by-frame animation over the tween-based flash used by most other shows. In the video game, the cutscenes look like a very-well-done Newgrounds cartoon. The voice acting more than makes up for it, though.

Overall, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law feels like an all right Phoenix Wright clone combined with an all right episode of Harvey Birdman. But these two elements mixed together make it a title worthy of its extremely-low cover price. If you passed it up for fear of the licensed-game curse, give it a second chance. It’s available on PS2, Wii and PSP, with each port playing exactly the same. So pick it up on the platform with which you feel most comfortable.

Matthew Jay’s collection is always building, and he’s always up for suggestions. Shoot him an email if you have an idea for something obscure you’d like him to cover.