Had it not been for the ill-advised deal between Nintendo and Philips, the CD-I system would just be a forgotten footnote, an expensive game system that ran decent versions of FMV games like Burn: Cycle* and Brain Dead 13, and also broke ground in the field of playing a tiny selection of low-resolution, expensive movies on CD. If, in 1995, you wanted to play Mad Dog McCreeand then watch Top Gun, there was no better choice than the CD-I ... except maybe the 3D0.
Thanks to Nintendo's contractually-obligated help, however, the CD-I will be remembered not as an also-ran in a race nobody cared about, but as the system that spawned Mario and Zelda games worse than anything committed to pink cartridge by Color Dreams.
(*The best thing about Burn: Cycle was the box on the $2 PC copy I got a few years ago, which was covered in heat-sensitive material, so it changed colors like a mood ring. I think I gave the game away or something.)
It's not exactly that the CD-I couldn't handle a Mario game. Instead of allowing Nintendo to develop the games, or even an established company, Philips handed the properties off to neophyte developers and inexperienced animation companies operating out of apartments.
What would you do if you were handed the most famous video game license in the world, and given the opportunity to make a new entry in that franchise on an exciting new console capable of unprecedented visual displays? If you're Fantasy Factory, you would make a game about making sure all of the doors in a hotel are closed. To be fair, it's a hotel with some Koopas in it or something. The game ostensibly has something to do with saving Peach, but since there's no possible way for that to make sense, we must rely on what we can observe: apparently Bowser has nefariously plotted to have his underlings open doors in ... his own hotels, thus wasting air conditioning and increasing his own electric bill. Mario and Luigi must heroically latch all the doors and save their archenemy from having his hallways get too cold.
While the three Zelda CD-I games are execrable because they were made poorly, at least they were platformers and adventure games and such. Hotel Mario is conceptually terrible. Imagine Elevator Action without the action.
It's actually a terribly ironic turn of events: the most technologically advanced hardware to date to have a Mario game ends up with ... a single-screen arcade game. How nostalgic! Meanwhile, the graphically impressive, expansive Mario platformer, Super Mario Wacky Worlds, was cancelled. Not that there was much chance of it being good, anyway.
No discussion of a Nintendo CD-I game is complete without a look at the cutscenes. Hotel Mario is full of the same amateurish, garishly colorful, shaky, randomly zooming animation that makes Zelda fans want to bomb some dodongos. On the upside (or the downside, if you've ever spent a significant amount of time watching these things), the cutscenes from the Nintendo CD-I games have inspired a rush of "creativity" among the YouTube crowd, who busily hack together "YouTube Poops" (bizarre, nonsensical mashups) -- and even live-action adaptations -- based on the games' cinemas.
Virtually Overlooked is a weekly feature that spotlights games that aren't yet on the Virtual Console, but should be. Want more Virtually Overlooked? Check out the first year!