Sierra On-Line was still at the top of its adventure gaming mojo in the early 90s and Dynamix also dabbled in the same genre diversifying its library as a part of the company after it was acquired.
Its titles were very different from the family friendly fare that Sierra often promoted. Games like Rise of the Dragon and Heart of China were often aimed at more adult audiences due to their their subject matter which dealt with anything from drug use to forced slavery.
The visionary behind both of those games, Jeff Tunnell, wanted his newest project, The Adventures of Willy Beamish, to take a different approach away from the dark world he had created in Rise of the Dragon and actually make something that his kids could play. While both of his previous adventures relied on ‘realistic’ props and utilized digitized frames of real people, Beamish would become an interactive cartoon instead with a bit of adult humor thrown in to keep parents amused. It would also be in third person where players would see Willy Beamish as opposed to the first-person perspective of the last two adventures.
Instead of a world crisis or a kingdom to save, or a journey halfway around the world, Willy Beamish’s adventures in 1991 would take place from the perspective of a nine-year old protagonist starting his summer vacation quest to become the ultimate winner at the World Nintari Championships. It won’t be easy. In between figuring out to win a local competition for frog jumping with his best pet pal, Horny, and trying to save the neighborhood from a real-estate conspiracy, he also has to deal with chores and bullies with occasional help from his ghostly grandfather.
The box also included a few neat extras like stickers with the main characters’ faces on them including that of the Leona Helmsly lookalike villain in the game. The “manual” was also inventive — it was illustrated like a 9 year-old’s notebook complete with graffiti, cut out articles, and even a speech Willy wrote for himself for when he fulfilled his dream of being the ultimate Nintari champion. It was a stand out example of how much effort was put into extras like that in those years, something of a lost art today.
A team of seasoned animators whose professional experience included work at studios such as Hanna-Barbera, Disney, and Filmation were hired to bring Willy and his world to life. Pat Clark had worked on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in 1985. Rene Garcia’s history stretched as far back as the Flintstones cartoon series from the 60s to the Little Mermaid in ’89. Sherry Wheeler’s experience had also included stints with He-Man, She-Ra, Bravestarr, and as an artist for an episode of The Simpsons in 1990. They and many others in a team consisting of 40 plus members created the world of Willy Beamish, frame by frame, and had the cels scanned in, colored on computers (aside from the backdrops which were simply scanned in), and then stitched together by programmers and designers.
The team also included a couple whose experience covered stints at NBC and animation giant, DIC, Tony and Meryl Perutz, who took responsibility for scripting out the scenes as well as delicately balancing what was acceptable humor and what wasn’t. If Willy Beamish is anything else, it’s a humorous, light-hearted game that almost never takes itself too seriously to have fun much like its protagonist.
Puzzle-wise, Beamish throws in even more timed puzzles with “death” consequence, especially towards the end. That’s one of the big differences with Dynamix’s approach as opposed to its more traditional peers with the game punishing the player for simply not reacting fast enough to figure out a situation instead of because a critical mistake had been made by the player. Back then, death wasn’t unusual in adventure games for doing something wrong…or simply boneheaded.
In Dynamix’s case, the game could end simply because you couldn’t pixel hunt fast enough for that vital item lost in the watercolor-like backdrops. And it knew it, celebrating Willy’s end with a number of bizarre — and sometimes surprisingly brutal — endings. It was almost as if the game was designed to put a stop to the player’s run in as many ways possible.
Willy Beamish makes no apologies in treating these moments like an arcade adventure without a health bar where dying puts you back at wherever the last checkpoint may have been. So while you’re trying to figure out a solution in specific instances, the game counts down until it decides that it’s over. It felt about as welcome in a point ‘n click as mandatory action sequences without the option to skip.
Willy’s adventures came out on a number of different platforms aside from the IBM PC MS-DOS version which arrived on 7 5.25″ disks or 6 3.5″ ones and requiring 8.5 MB of HD space for installation — a kingly sum of space back in those days when a 15ms 21 MB drive from Seagate could cost upwards of $200 (roughly $342.95 in today’s dollars).
The Amiga version came out in 1992 on twelve disks, as one example, and can be played from them resulting in one of the major criticisms being the long load times and repetitive swapping. Conversely, the Amiga version could also be installed on a hard drive to improve performance, though it is interesting to see a number of older reviews crush the game because of this one point. After experiencing how often one can restore from a saved game because of the timed puzzles, I can only guess at the monumental patience they must have had.
An enhanced version featuring spoken lines and a new intro would later be released in 1992 for IBM PCs, riding the CD-ROM wave. The Sega CD would also get its own version in 1993 with with slightly washed out visuals because of its limited palette, a tweaked intro (though not the extended one that appeared in the IBM PC CD-ROM talkie version) and a number of smaller changes such as omitting Willy Beamish’s daydreaming sequence at the Nintari Championships during detention.
Even the ending was changed for whatever reason. Instead of a climax cutscene at the Nintari Championships, Willy’s face would pop up and break the fourth wall, congratulating the player and hinting at sequel while promoting the Sega CD in an unusual turn of in-game marketing. The port would make up for that in other ways such as a vastly improved score and turning the arcade cut-scene of Willy’s Nintari practice into a full fledged arcade shooter.
It wasn’t an experience that Jeff Tunnell recalled fondly in an interview with Sega-16 in 2005 noting that if Sega wasn’t still “on top of the world” at the time, Dynamix wouldn’t have opted to do the work needed to bring Rise of the Dragon and Willy Beamish over to the system — especially if they knew how things would turn out. Beamish would also be criticized for the exceptionally long loads on Sega’s add-on which included an interactive screen saver with “laser balls” to help ease the wait. Still, the company like many others then wanted “in” on the exploding console market.
It’s not a bad adventure game, though it’s reliance on real-time puzzles often resulting in “death” made it a restore-a-thon which wasn’t something many other adventure games following Dynamix’s brief venture into the genre would emulate. It’s also somewhat short compared to its peers — something that Dynamix’s previous adventures also had in common — though it balanced that against the multiple methods the player could approach a number of puzzles encouraging replayability.
But it also has charm. Loads of it. The animated style created by a team of seasoned animators, the cast of colorful characters making up his story, and the trouble that he can create or avoid, transform the experience into something found with Saturday morning cartoons when they actually had Saturday morning cartoons worth watching back then outside of cable. That is, if the timed puzzles haven’t worn away the novelty by the time you reach the end. Nevertheless, at the time, it was a stunning achievement if only because the visual treatment of its colorful world blended in so many disciplines together in using the medium as a storytelling device.
Today, the game is like much of Dynamix’s other titles in the nebulous world of abandonware and it had a strange bug that I can’t be sure had been a part of the game or not outside of emulation. It was at the frog contest where Willy had to submit his contest form. Handing the form over before the contest guy announces how much time is left before it starts never actually starts it, even after advancing time.
Other than that, outside of having a vintage 286 or better running MS-DOS 5.0 or above, DOSBox was the way to go, at least for the IBM PC disk version. The Sierra Help Pages even have a DOSBox installer for the game as they also do for Heart of China and Rise of the Dragon.
As for the creator, Jeff Tunnell, after Willy Beamish he continued on with Jeff Tunnell Productions to bring out The Incredible Machine in ’93 eventually coming back to Dynamix and seeing it through another famous title, Tribes: Starsiege. Today, he’s still building new experiences, a little more than twenty years after Willy Beamish first stepped out from the sketch pads as a punk-haired prototype. Mr. Tunnell kept himself busy, founding Garage Games who are responsible for the Torque 3D engine, founding PushButton Labs who were behind Playdom’s Social City, and going ahead to do it again by founding Spotkin who focus on mobile gaming and have a spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine with Contraption Maker.
Willy Beamish might not be the ‘greatest’ adventure game and it had quite a few faults, but in its day, it was an incredible milestone. Looking back on it and Dynamix’s other games, they covered a wide spectrum of themes from a mature, sci-fi potboiler like Rise to a carefree, animated cartoon adventure demonstrating a creative energy that dared to distinguish its titles from the rest of Sierra’s library. However brief Dynamix’s turn in adventures was, and despite their shortcomings, they did their part in helping pave the way for others such as Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series and Wadjet Eye’s indie sci-fi adventure, Gemini Rue.
In Willy Beamish’s world, that’d be an A+ in his notebook.