Genre: Platform Developer: The Cartoon Mavericks Publisher: Domark Players: 1 Released: 1994
The year is 1994, and the U.S. is preparing to host the soccer World Cup. This was, back at the time, a curious development for many. After all, while in most of the rest of the world soccer was considered the favorite number one sport, the U.S. had up to this point been mostly indifferent about it. After all, baseball, American football, basketball, and ice hockey were (and still are) more popular there; and in 1994 there wasn’t even a professional soccer league. So while the rest of the world, as usual, was getting pumped up for the big event, Americans were busy raising public awareness regarding the sport of soccer, trying their best to make the World Cup a huge success, which, to their credit, it was.
Meanwhile, in the world of video games, another huge craze was going on. In a trend started by a certain console manufacturer involving a particular blue hedgehog, mascot-based platformers were all the rage. Developers from all over the world tried to come up with the next new thing, trying to create the next media sensation starring a video game character. During the same time, video games had to face a lot of scrutiny. People were condemning the seemingly increasing depiction of violence in a media that was directed at young, impressionable children. In an attempt to counteract this, many companies tried to shoehorn in lectures and more positive inspiration into media aimed at children – in the era of Captain Planet, this usually came in the form of environmental messages.
So, at the height of all of this, someone at British company Domark stood up and said “wait, football is popular, mascot-based platformers are popular, and environmental messages are in as well? Let’s roll them all into one and create the most popular game of them all!” In order to come up with a character, they played a bit around with their company name (Domark – Marko), and voilá: Marko (known as Marko’s Magic Football outside the U.S.) was born.
1994 was indeed a good year for soccer-based platform games it seems, as there were not one, but at least three different games with that premise released in the year of the U.S. World Cup. Aside from Marko, there were also The Hurricanes (based on a TV series about a soccer team that was created to cash in on the increasing popularity of soccer due to the World Cup as well) and another one called Soccer Kid aka Kid Kleets, which was released on several platforms but for some reason never on the Genesis. Though it’s hard to tell who ripped off who exactly (The Hurricanes were definitely released last, but there is some confusion over at what time Soccer Kid – whose in-game-story dealt explicitly with the theft of the World Cup trophy – came out exactly. I’ve found magazine coverage for the same game on the same platform that were up to two years apart!). The fact remains that Marko hit the Genesis in early summer 1994 just in time for the World Cup, at least in PAL regions. The U.S. might have had to wait a bit longer. A couple of months later a Mega CD version of the game was also released in Europe (which was brought to the U.S. by Good Deal Games many years later).
So, what’s the story? The evil Colonel Brown, owner of the Sterling Toy company, unites with a mad scientist to create a strange green concoction that turns innocent creatures into sludge monsters under his command. With this weapon at hand, the sinister mastermind intends to take over… THE ENTIRE TOWN of North Sterlington! Apparently even super villains have to aim low first. Also, I don’t quite get the schematics of the plan. It seems Colonel Brown operates under the logic:
- Create mutant slime monsters
- Take over a small town
Anyway, our protagonist Marko, a soccer-crazed little kid who apparently was out playing soccer all by himself, witnesses some henchmen pouring the green mutagen into the sewers and watches a rat turn into a sludge monster. During all of this, he drops his football into the green goo, whereupon his trusted old sporting good gains magical capabilities. Instead of diving in head first into the green slime in order to become some kind of soccer-based superhero named “Super Soccer” or “The Football Captain himself (come on, you were all thinking it!), he picks up his ball and decides to use it to put an end to Colonel Brown’s sinister machinations. That’s right. No other kid shall get a football with magical properties than Marko! Egotistic little twat!
As the backstory already suggests, Marko is a rather cartoony affair. The visuals are definitely directed at kids. Characters sport huge heads and big, googly eyes, and the environments are rather colorful for the most part. Our titular character Marko himself also possesses a wide range of various animations, whether he’s balancing the ball on his foot or head, jumping in various styles, or simply walking and running. He moves very smoothly and fluidly, which is definitely a pleasant surprise. The same variety doesn’t necessarily apply to his enemies though, but for the most part, everything plays out just fine. The soundtrack tries to go along with the cartoony feel and consists mostly of bouncy, bubbly compositions. Unfortunately, the resulting tunes are not only rather dull and unimpressive, but the sound quality is a bit murky as well. The composers really didn’t put the Genesis sound chip to good use there.
On his quest to face Colonel Brown in the towering Sterling Toys building, Marko comes across many foes. Most of those are mutated green slime critters or the occasional people, though sometimes he also faces environmental hazards like spikes, animals (rats, birds and cats), or crazy hunters shooting at little boys. In order to make his way through the levels, Marko must rely on his magical football. By tapping or pressing the C button, Marko can use the ball to dispatch enemies in a variety of ways. He can pull off various maneuvers, including a strong bicycle kick that does more damage than the regular one or bouncing the ball on his head. Marko can also use his football to bounce off of in order to reach higher platforms. This way of controlling a projectile needs some getting used to, but eventually you will be able to perform really high jumps by first bouncing the ball on your head, letting it drop to the ground and then using the rebound to catapult yourself in the air. You’ll need to master these techniques for later levels as well. When walking or running along, the ball usually sticks to Marko’s foot unless it gets kicked, is jumped over, or drops off of a ledge in a remarkably realistic fashion. Since it’s a football of titular magical proportions, however, pressing the C button will teleport the ball right back to Marko at any time. In true soccer fashion, at no times does Marko use his hand. This is a football, after all.
In a weird way, the game is both easy and hard at the same time. Individual levels aren’t usually that long, and aside from the typical labyrinthine layout of the obligatory sewer level, maneuvering through the stages doesn’t pose too much of a problem. However, due to the size of the characters, there’s often not much room to maneuver in order to avoid getting hit. Marko also has a jumping capability that puts any star basketballer to shame. These jumps are very floaty though and sometimes a bit hard to aim. The A button prompts Marko to run, which is sometimes necessary to bridge larger gaps or pass obstacles. The running, jumping, and all the different ball maneuvers take some time getting used to. Even when mastered, the size of the characters and the sometimes unexpectedly popping in hazards, combined with a certain lack of accuracy in the controls, will cause some cheap hits every once in a while. Getting through a level without losing a life will be tough. Thankfully, upon reaching the next stage you receive a password, and continuing with that password will let you start again with three lives, so this balances the issue out again if you’re not seeking to get a particularly high score.
While the game is designed rather well and nicely animated, gameplay itself could have been improved. Marko’s controls and the game flow in general feel rather sluggish, which is odd considering the huge amount of detailed animation on the main character. Also, the collision detection seems a bit iffy. This becomes most apparent when picking up soda cans. Oh yeah, remember what I said earlier about shoehorning in environmental messages? Well, aside from the obvious plot point of green gooey mutagens and dumping them into the sewers being bad, the game also urges Marko to pick up soda cans along his way. Sometimes they are lying around on the ground, sometimes they are hanging from floating balloons for some reason. Every few levels, the stage exit is marked by some sort of recycling machine which converts each collected can into points. Gather enough points, and you gain an extra live. Sometimes, you need to go out of your way in order to gather up enough cans, while reaching the level exit itself is usually a rather straightforward affair. So, picking up the cans is usually too much of a bother, which is pretty ironic for an attempt to teach the importance of recycling to children.
Marko’s Magic Football isn’t without its charm. The soccer ball certainly is a gimmick, but it isn’t a bad one, and the amount of animation on the main character is enjoyable to look at. Once you get a hang on the controls, the game plays out just fine for the most part. The colorful palette used will certainly appeal to kids. However, the game flow moves along rather slowly, and both the level design and the gameplay itself are lacking in polish. Also, the Genesis sound isn’t good at all; the soundtrack of the latter Sega CD release is much, much better. With improved graphics (specifically regarding the size of the characters), better acoustics, and a tighter mechanic, this game could have been a real contender. Overall, it lacks the endurance to become a truly memorable title, but if you’re in the mood for a quirky little platformer with a unique little gameplay gimmick, give Marko a try.
SCORE: 6 out of 10