The time from 1990 to 1994 was the golden age of games as starring vehicles for junk food mascots. Few remember, but some will never forget, the convoluted, hyper-caloric brilliance of Yo! Noid, Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool, and Cool Spot. Of the myriad snack-hocking titles, however, the super-sized, special sauce-soaked, Big Mac-Daddy of them all is unquestionably Virgin Interactive’s M.C. Kids.
Featuring cameos by most of the beloved McDonald’s characters – with the unfortunate omission of Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, and the hapless Filet-O-Fish-repping Captain Crook – the platformer sends two feebly hip-hop-styled kids, Mick and Mack, on a whirlwind adventure through McDonaldland. On the trail of Ronald McDonald’s magic bag (purloined, of course, by America’s favourite fast-food kleptomaniac, the Hamburglar), the duo use all their swagger and street cred to collect hidden puzzle cards throughout seven epileptically vibrant worlds: Ronald’s Clubhouse, Birdie’s Treehouse, Grimace’s Highlands (who knew the big purple oaf was Scottish?), the Professor’s Workshop, CosMC’s Retreat on the moon, and a final McShowdown in Hamburglar’s Hideout in the belly of an active volcano.
M.C. Kids features optional one or two player modes, with Super Mario Bros. 3-style player swapping once a level is completed or a player dies. Both Mick and Mack have identical move lists and although gameplay-wise there is zero difference between the two, Mack is preferable with that irresistible Kid N’ Play-esque hi-top fade. In bonus stages, players also have the ability to hit a special block with moon icon to toggle between Mick and Mack to curb any “who gets to be who” bickering.
The action is typical for a side-scroller, with the kids proceeding through relatively short stages by running, jumping, ducking, and vanquishing baddies by hoisting and hurling blocks at them (à la the Super Mario Bros. 2 radishes). The controls are adequately responsive, although jumping is a trifle awkward as the boys have taken a page out of Luigi’s playbook with the frantic, wobbly air running that makes precise landings problematic. The inability to jump on enemies can be counterintuitive for the classic gamer and spells trouble for those who fail to economise their throwing blocks.
However, there are also a few fun and original elements to the otherwise standard gameplay: springy trampolines, spinner blocks that invert gravity and allow the player to traverse the level upside-down, counter-directional blocks that send you hurtling back to the beginning of the level, magical warp zippers, and epically bouncy mega-trampolines that launch players holding blocks to the top of the screen with a supremely gratifying “DA-DOING”.
The difficulty of the average M.C. Kids stage ranges between a patronising cinch and a sadistic exercise in futility, with little room in between. The cutesy-poo adversaries will rarely damage even the novice player, yet power-ups are near impossible to come by and ultra-vertical levels make it hard to gauge whether or not you’re leaping to your doom. Similarly, locating the hidden puzzle cards that must be collected in order to advance to the next world is often as simple as looking up, but at times it is an unfair, more than half-hour egg hunt from Hell. The abundant extra lives help compensate for the extreme trial-and-error nature of the game, but they are far too easy to find. The bonus stages that occur after you collect 100 Golden Arches furnish you with a solid four or five extra lives and the ability to revisit completed stages ad infinitum allows for cheesy 1-Up stockpiling.
Like any self-respecting final level, Hamburglar’s Hideout cranks up the heat. However, it’s a jarring, zero-to-sixty quickening featuring a nightmarishly tricky ride over lava on a platform (in all likelihood designed by some deranged Aleister Crowley disciple) that players steer by pressing the D-Pad in the direction opposite of the way in which they want to go. It's very likely that nobody, with the possible exception of a patient with a rare form of thumb dyslexia, can beat this level in under ten tries. Parental groups have long criticised McDonald’s for using its characters to sell children unhealthy food that leads to obesity, but getting stuck on this merciless level will definitely give its fair share of kids incentive to get up and play outside.
The generally uneven difficulty level leaves M.C. Kids a shade below some of its NES side-scrolling adventure contemporaries like the Adventure Island and Super Mario Bros. series. In addition, the disappointing absence of boss and mini-boss battles can diminish a player’s overall sense of accomplishment. Even when you reach the Hamburglar, a pretty obvious opportunity for confrontation, he just leaps about and screams “Robble help! Robble magic bag robble escaped!” and the kids just continue on their quest for the bag: an egregious miscarriage of McJustice. If someone stole your most prized possession and you caught up with them, you wouldn’t let them off the hook simply because they had adorable buck teeth and a speech impediment.
Despite these shortcomings, the colourful graphics, imaginative Sid and Marty Kroft-esque level and enemy design, innovative game physics, and exceptionally jocular score make M.C. Kids worthy of at least one or two full playthroughs. At the very least, the conclusion of each level with a bodacious airborne high-five between Mick and Mack should trigger a hint of a Ronald McDonald smile in the most cynical gamer. Its aforementioned faults, however, make for a slightly above average but overall mediocre experience.