Retrospective Monday: The Three Stooges

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Title: The Three Stooges
Platform: NES
Date: 1989
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Beam Software


I recently discovered the Johnny games, a series of old Game Maker games made by Kimberly Kubus (Sparlatacus), through a labyrinth of dead links starting at cly5m’s (of Seiklus fame) website. While I couldn’t find any of the games online or even any footage of them, I played through one of cly5m’s fangames, Johnny’s Odyssey, which revolves around a great “game mechanic” and has a wonderful, MSPaint aesthetic. While having nothing to do with Johnny, the games and their aesthetic and the hushed internet murmurs surrounding them reminded me of another game, a Cactus game, which pushes the MSPaint aesthetic into a new level of internet gaudiness and punk flamboyance: Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf is essentially a series of progressively difficult minigames set to the tunes of band Fucking Werewolf ASSO.

It’s a really tough game that I’ve never been able to beat, but its spastics are legendary and have been on my mind all week.

So what does this have to do with The Three Stooges, some Activsion licensed game for the NES? The Three Stooges, an NES port of a Cinemaware Commodore Amiga game, is also essentially a series of progressively difficult minigames, only instead of surreal, glittery punk, it has a Columbia-era, 1930s Three Stooges aesthetic. And yet, the game is every bit as untamed and non-sequitured as Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf. It’s surprising, really, because on paper, The Three Stooges seems more like an archaic ancestor to Mario Party or something, but it’s more Fucking Werewolf than anything, but because of its grounds in reality, it’s even more grotesque.

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The game’s something of an enigma. Its sound design and graphics are top-notch. The minigames range from sort of enjoyable to completely unremarkable to absurdly impossible. I’ve never beaten the game, but it’s far from an impossibility. My GameFAQs reviews are decidedly polarized, and the game has an average rating of three out of five. It’s not a bad game, nor is it a good game, nor is it even a mediocre one. It’s sort of hauntingly difficult to talk about. The Angry Video Game Nerd briefly reviews the game, complaining about how weird and awful and kind of sad it is, which is funny, but doesn’t really get to the heart of the game.

The Three Stooges starts off with this “Ghostbusters II” gag, where the Ghostbusters logo comes up, as if players were playing some Ghostbuster’s game. Then the Stooges come out, Larry, Moe, and Curly, my favorite of the Stooges lineups and I think the most iconic, and they comment on “being in the wrong game” and how it “looks like a kid’s game.” The voices (yeah, voices on the NES) are surprisingly spot-on and sound clear and expressive. This was the first time I had heard real voices in a video game when my brother picked this up years after it had come out in the early ‘90s.

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After this, players learn that the Three Stooges are supposed to earn $5000 to save an orphanage. The game even shows the sad garbled pixels of 8-bit orphans hanging around “Ma’s Orphanage,” which gives the game a strangely depressing tone. The mustache-curling, pork pie hat wearing evil banker sprite is extreme and archetypal and all-around menacing. This is not a joyous game, but instead a manic depressive one.

What follows is a random minigame choice, which includes several games, the occasional free money bag, and mousetraps, which are there for laughs and time wasting (on my first play through today, I initially got the mousetrap twice in a row). Players must complete the minigames in order to collect cash, and each minigame played counts as a day closer to the orphanage being repossessed. It’s difficult to describe the flurry of unintentionally Dadaesque series of moments that make up the bulk of the game, to do them justice through mere text.

– – –

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There’s a trivia game with unintuitive controls, a pie throwing match between the Stooges (who are hired as waiters) and three members of the bourgeoisie, a very awkward slapping match where players control Moe and must keep a meter of slaps from getting too high or too low (I’ve never successfully finished this), as well as a vertically scrolling hospital level where players catch red crosses and ram into patients. The hospital level is home to some of the NES’s greatest, most expressive sprites, especially the guy walking on crutches, which are reminiscent of early LucasArts game art.

But the two minigames that truly send the game into schizophrenic territory (and receive the most derision from players) are the cracker-eating contest (based on the short Dutiful But Dumb) and the boxing match (based on Punch Drunks).

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The cracker-eating contest really perplexed me a kid. Curly has to eat crackers floating in soup with a spoon but oysters pop out of the soup and eat the crackers first. This is actually what happens in the short, with a frustrated Curly ended up shooting the bowl of soup with a gun by the end, but having never seen the short as a kid, this whole segment did not make sense.

The spoon has sluggish controls and to scoop up the cracker involves very precise aim. The oysters, which don’t even resemble anything other than a vague, brown 8-bit orifices, pop up at random and float under the crackers to let players know that that cracker is going to get eaten. But the oysters can hang there indefinitely. Some oysters eat the cracker quickly and some don’t, disallowing any strategy here. The spoon is so slow that oftentimes the oyster will devour the cracker long before the spoon even had a chance to get to that side of the bowl.

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Adding to the stark strangeness of this scenario is the fact that whenever an oyster gets away with a cracker, the screen cuts to Curly sitting there, wearing this insane, unexplained 8-bit version of what he wears in the short, with this series of deranged expressions on his face and he makes this grating, awful, muffled noise. Again, the visuals and sound are great technically, but the choices of colors and sounds are so berserk and disconcerting. Everything from the strange orange tint to the morose teal background to even the odd perspective of how the table is drawn is just so deranged.

Then there’s the boxing match minigame. It begins with a haunting image of Larry holding a broken violin with these jarring purple flashing lights and an insane NES version of “Pop Goes the Weasel” droning in the background. This used to actually frighten me as a kid. According to the Wikipedia article for the short film, Larry needs to play “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which puts Curly into a violent “fugue” so he’ll win a boxing match. Larry breaks the violin (unexplained how in the game) and must find a radio, which apparently, in the 1930s, always plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

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Pretty crazy, even for a fetch quest, but what makes the minigame stand out is its high level of difficulty and very busy screen. At the top left, players see Curly in the boxing ring, getting smashed up by an arbitrarily giant boxing glove of Killer Killduff, while on the top right sits a ticking timer. The bottom half of the screen is devoted to the actual minigame, which features Larry scrolling to the right (and then to the left), dodging boxes, ladders, poles, fire hydrants, and what looks like a corpse.

The controls here are surprisingly responsive, with Larry’s momentum being taken into account, but the actual design of the game is too difficult, with each object having an awkwardly large hit box that Larry will smack into. Players need to run in order to make to to the end, but running means Larry will hit every hurdle, which means the clock will still run out of time. I don’t recall ever beating this one. Again, the colors and sounds are so bizarre, with the pervading orange and salmon color returning. I’m not sure if the 1930s aesthetic is informing the color choices.

After a number of days, the Stooges revisit the orphanage, probably with not enough money to save it. Out of all the minigames, I’ve won the most money from the cracker-eating contest, as it’s the only game where players can actually get better at.

– – –

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When I posted about The Addams Family NES game, I wrote that the game’s charms parallel the show’s charms and that the license’s quirks showed through. The Three Stooges is a hilarious, loud, obnoxious, and sometimes disturbing game, so I guess that it too “stays true to the material.” The original version, the Amiga version, looks much cleaner than the NES port. It features detailed backgrounds, large sprites, and even more voice clips. It also has a good number of digitized images from the shorts that tell the game’s story.

But it’s the NES version that I go back to. It’s a garish game with generally poor controls and sometimes I wonder if the slapstick humor of the license crossed over into the game design itself, adding to the frustrating hilarity of trying to play it, as if the Three Stooges themselves had to make it. Playing The Three Stooges does recall playing Fucking Werewolf, as both are stark and baffling mindfuck collections of minigames, yet The Three Stooges is more ambiguous. It’s not informed by punk or internet kitsch, nor it is simply a bad game (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance). Its high level of crudeness is almost mysterious, and the fact that it is a Three Stooges NES game does not exactly explain this away. The Three Stooges is akin to the choppy, vibrant and flat games of Newgrounds, and also feels like it could be a contemporary anti-game, but it could never fit in with either of those things, forever to remain a mildly known licensed NES title.

  1. mjlambert1 said:

    I think this game is underrated and gets a bad rap. I have gone back to it and enjoyed more now than I did as a kid. I am surprised by the fact there isn’t a mini-game based off of “Disorder in the Court,” their most famous short.

    • A Disorder in the Court would be insane! You’d have to shoot scurrying toupees, which would seem even crazier than the boxing one to kids who have never seen the shorts.

  2. asteroid2000 said:

    Message me, i have johnny games

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