After 30 years in the video game industry, Majesco Entertainment has officially bowed out of the entertainment industry after announcing its merger with medical company PolarityTE, which specializes in tissue regeneration technologies.
Founded in 1986, Majesco was originally a U.S. publisher primarily known for buying up old titles that were abandoned by their original publishers and re-issuing them at dramatically cut prices. Their catalog of re-releases of SNES and Genesis games is extensive, all at bargain prices and in slightly shoddier packaging. Majesco even tried to extend the life span of the 16-bit Genesis by manufacturing the Genesis 3 in 1998 and their version of the SEGA Game Gear in 2001.
Initially hesitant to fully commit the company’s name and reputation to big budget game development, Majesco created an internal development studio called Pipe Dream Interactive in 1999, which developed titles such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six for the SEGA Dreamcast, and several Bomberman games for the GameCube and Game Boy Advance.
By the early 2000s, Majesco began to shift into funding and publishing bigger projects, expanding their catalog with several notable titles, such as BloodRayne and Psychonauts. With a talent for finding critical gems but not financial success, by the early 2010s they became known as the publisher of games aimed at the casual market, such as the Cooking Mama series.
For this feature, we will be reflecting on the greatest steps and missteps Majesco took in their foray into big budget game development, and how they led Majesco to where they are today.
BloodRayne—developed by Terminal Reality and released in the US in 2002 for the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube—was Majesco’s first true breakout title. A third-person hack-and-slash game set in an alternate 1930s, you play as Rayne, a female “dhampir” (half-vampire), who is trying to find her father while fighting vampires and the Nazi army. The first game released to mixed and positive reviews, but was overall well-received and sold well. It would eventually spawn a multimedia franchise encompassing two video game sequels, a comic book series, and three film adaptations.
The first BloodRayne film was released in 2005 to overwhelmingly negative reviews and was a box office bomb, its commercial failure forcing the sequels to go direct-to-video. All three films were directed by the infamous Uwe Boll and are widely regarded as some of the worst video game movies of all time.
Drake of the 99 Dragons
Developed by Idol FX and released on the Xbox in 2003, Drake of the 99 Dragons was meant to be “the result of an imaginary collaboration between famed Hong Kong action director John Woo and Batman: The Animated Series artist Bruce Timm” with its cel-shaded comicbook aesthetic and over-the-top third person “gun-fu” action. You play as Drake, an undead assassin on the warpath to avenge his murdered clan and gifted with several supernatural abilities, such as bullet-time, running on walls, and a never-ending supply of guns that he pulls out of his trench coat instead of reloading.
Idol FX had aspirations for the game to be the beginnings of a multimedia franchise, with a tie-in comicbook and a potential animated television series planned.
Majesco only gave Idol FX 6 months to develop the game, and the result was a near unplayable mess. On release, Drake was heavily criticized for its simplistic graphics, over-use of stock sound effects, disjointed narrative, poorly implemented auto-targeting controls, a frustrating camera, and bug-ridden gameplay. It is considered one of (if not the) worst games on the original Xbox and is frequently included in many “Worst Games of All Time” lists.
Created by Panzer Dragoon director Yukio Futatsugi, Phantom Dust was an Xbox exclusive released in 2004. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that is nothing more than a dust-filled wasteland, you play an unnamed protagonist who is known as an Esper, someone who can control the Dust around them to combat others with a variety of skills. A third-person action-RPG, players collect skills in the form of collectible cards (over 300 in total) to form their “Arsenal” (deck) to take into combat. The combat areas featured destructible environments that players can influence with their skills, changing the battlefield as missions progressed. PVP was also available for up to four players, with support for local splitscreen and online matchmaking via Xbox Live.
On release, Phantom Dust was praised for its graphical fidelity and ambitious and innovative combat system. However, commercially it sold just over 100,000 copies despite the critical praise.
In 2013, Futatsugi expressed his hopes of funding a sequel to Phantom Dust, possibly via Kickstarter. Microsoft Studios’ vice president Phil Spencer also expressed a desire to reboot the game in an interview that same year. At E3 2014, a new Phantom Dust title developed by Darkside Studios was announced for the Xbox One, but this fell through after Darkside Studios closed down.
However, at E3 2016, an announcement was made that a remaster of the original Phantom Dust would be coming to the Xbox One, as well as to PCs running Windows 10, with a scheduled release in 2017. As for a true sequel or reboot, Spencer hopes to eventually find the studio that is a “good fit” for the IP and with the involvement of Futatsugi.
The brainchild of LucasArts alumni Tim Schafer, Psychonauts was the flagship game of Schafer’s Double Fine Productions studio. You play as Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a child gifted with psychic powers who wishes to become a “Psychonaut,” a secret agent who uses their psychic abilities to infiltrate minds. A platform game with puzzle and adventure elements, players are able to use a range of psychic abilities (from levitation to telekinesis) to both navigate the physical world of the camp grounds, as well as levels set within the inner psyche of the different characters.
Psychonauts was originally published by Microsoft and billed as an Xbox exclusive, with development beginning in 2001. However, Double Fine’s inexperience with game development and a failure to meet deadlines ultimately led to Microsoft withdrawing their support. In 2004, a new publishing deal was made with Majesco, and after a 4.5 year development cycle, Psychonauts was finally released on the Xbox, PS2, and PC in 2005.
Despite receiving high critical praise and numerous awards at release for its original concept, witty script, and enjoyable and varied gameplay, Psychonauts sold little more than 100,000 retail copies at release and was a commercial failure for Majesco. The financial losses incurred from funding Psychonauts, as well as other disappointing releases, would be major factor in Majesco’s decision to leave “big-budget game development” the following year.
In 2011, Majesco released the publishing rights of Psychonauts back to Double Fine. After reacquiring the IP, Double Fine was able to update the game for modern systems and redistribute it through digital platforms. They reported “making more from Psychonauts in a year” than the entirety of retail sales under Majesco.
The successfully reinvigorated interest and sales from Psychonauts has prompted development of its sequel (tentatively titled Psychonauts 2), which made its funding goal via Schafer’s crowdfunding platform “Fig.” In addition, a trailer for a Playstation VR spin-off titled Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin was shown at E3 2016.
A large amount of hype surrounded Advent Rising’s development as it was hoped that the first game’s imminent success would eventually lead to a planned trilogy of games, as well as novels and comicbooks. Developed by first-time game developers GlyphX Games, it sported a script written by science fiction writers Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game fame) and Cameron Dayton, with a full orchestral score composed by Tommy Tallarico and Emmanuel Fratianni.
Released on the Xbox in 2005, Advent Rising received lukewarm reviews, with praise given to its overall story and concept but criticizing the many bugs that caused problems, such as freezing on the console. However, it was released on PC a month later, with many of the gameplay bugs ironed out. Regardless, the game failed to find an audience and sold just over 130,000 copies (not including digital copies since its re-release on Steam in 2014).
Advent Rising is notable for the amount of marketing that led up to its release. In addition to boasting a script written by the aforementioned Orson Scott Card, trailers for the game ran in cinemas, and a contest with a $1 million grand prize was planned for the first 500,000 owners of the game. However following the lackluster sales of Advent Rising and Majesco’s rising financial troubles, the contest was ultimately cancelled on its last day with compensation given to players in the form of a choice of other games from Majesco’s catalog.
In addition, while a five issue comicbook series was produced and completed, the series of novels to be authored by Orson Scott Card were scrapped, and other games in the trilogy were also likewise cancelled.
The lack of financial success following the release of Advent Rising, and Psychonauts that same year, ultimately led to Majesco’s decision to move away from big-budget game publishing and to refocus on handhelds and the casual games market.
With their decision to move away from big budget game development, Cooking Mama was developed by Office Create and was one of Majesco’s most successful IPs. A simple touch-based game where you create different recipes through mini-games simulating various cooking steps, it was released on the Nintendo DS in 2006. On the handheld, it found a large and enthusiastic audience, selling a total of over 2.7 million copies globally.
As Cooking Mama became one of Majesco’s most profitable titles, it credited Cooking Mama for its healthy profits the following year.
The success of Cooking Mama and other casual games was also a result of Nintendo’s successful “blue ocean” strategy, where they targeted their marketing for the Wii at non-core gamers to widen the gaming market. As Nintendo brought in the casual gaming audience, Majesco was at the right place and time to take advantage of this untapped gaming market, where their catalog of simple and affordable games found a ready playerbase.
Cooking Mama would eventually receive up to six sequels across both the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii, with spin-offs including Mama’s adventures in Babysitting and Gardening.
The Times They Are A Changin’
However, this honeymoon period for Majesco could not last forever. By 2013 and 2014, Majesco’s financial troubles resurfaced as the rise of smart phones and app stores saturated the casual gaming market, and their catalog of games could no longer generate a profit.
In response, Majesco tried to reshuffle its company strategy yet again, by tapping into the growing indie market with their indie-publishing label Midnight City. Touted as a publisher that would offer personalized publishing support services for indie game developers, several notable titles such as Gone Home and Slender: The Arrival were published under Midnight City.
However, this proved to be not enough to keep Majesco afloat. By 2015, Majesco was no longer developing any new games amid company layoffs and downsizing. It all culminated into this year, as Majesco finally leaves behind the gaming industry to pursue a new and unknown future.
While overall hitting more downs than ups, I think Majesco should be credited for constantly trying with untested new IPs, even if they often missed. The IPs they helped fund and publish were almost all critically acclaimed and aimed high in terms of innovation and scope. But they constantly fell short in the commercial way, which unfortunately were more likely due to Majesco’s own mismanagement of marketing and distribution. Their constant push for “multimedia franchise” opportunities was also premature and costly and didn’t help their bottom line.
Overall, it’s a pity that Majesco could never really find the financial stability or big break they wanted. They will be missed, with the games they helped to publish continuing to be an enduring legacy.