Prime has an underscan problem. Prime may be a large lad, an absolute unit if you will, but his game clearly over-compensated and there's loads of screenspace that's either borders or just not intended to be seen by the player, in full view when you emulate the game. Or play it at all, honestly. Normally we crop out black borders like this, especially in Mega Drive games, but in the interests of making sure Prime is displayed in its full incompetence, we've not edited these borders out. It's a more authentic experience, or something like that. It's also much, much funnier. Additionally, we're linking to a whole bunch of sources in this one anyway, but we'd like to thank all the sites and people that basically made this entire article possible- GDRI, The Retro Pals (and their playthrough of Prime), SNESCentral, archive.org and wherever we found the scans of Prime from (don't tell our lawyer- oh wait, that's me). Prime is not a game that deserves even half of this work, but we went long for it anyway. I mean, who else is gonna do the job?
Primed for action, baby he's... PRIME!
But alas, in the world of video games in the '90s, poor Prime was not ready for primetime.
This, then, is the story of Malibu Interactive, and their (mostly failed) attempts to bring Malibu Comics' Ultraverse to video games.
(Strap in, folks, this preamble's a long one!)
We're no comic book experts over here (don't even ask us about comics we like, we'll be useless) but the story we're about to tell is intrinsically linked to Malibu Comics, so we'll do our best to stick to the video game side of things, jumping into the comics bit only when absolutely necessary. That's where we'll have to start, I'm afraid. Malibu Comics were a relative newcomer to the medium in the '90s who spent a few years creating series such as Ex-Mutants, Men in Black (yes, that Men in Black) and Alien Nation- many of which were acquired from other defunct comics publishers such as Centaur, Eternity and Aircel- but before their infamous Street Fighter comics (which only ran for three issues before "complications with Capcom and their dislike of [Malibu's] adaptation made them stop), they created The Ultraverse in June 1993. The intent was for all the characters and titles created for the imprint to be part of the same universe, with stories and characters crossing over constantly and being part of a shared universe bible. You can find a summary of the creation and subsequent demise of The Ultraverseover here (we're definitely trusting experts with this one rather than ourselves) that emphasises the amount of promotion the line got, but the thing that strikes us about it is it seems to hit all the key features of the excesses of comics in the early '90s, when nothing could possibly go wrong- comics with video tapes! Holographic covers! 'Signature Series' editions that were pre-signed and are now worthless! That's just an outsider's perspective though, all light-hearted ribbing from an idiot who likes the ~idea~ of comics but found it difficult to get into the American titans of the medium (UK-specific reprints of contemporary Spider-Man comics back then, for instance, started almost immediately with the infamous Clone Saga). Ahem.
Of those characters making up The Ultraverse, one of the first and most successful was Prime, essentially a modern, edgier version of the old Captain Marvel / Shazam tale of an adolescent boy turning into an adult superhero. Kevin Green is an ordinary thirteen-year-old but, due to his parents being involved in shady scientific experiments, can transform into the super-powerful 'Ultra', Prime, but he retains his thirteen-year-old consciousness... And when he runs out of Prime energy, his Prime body destabilises into green protein goo that can suffocate him if he doesn't get out of it. He's a melty boy, that Prime chap. The series tries- key word, 'tries'- to explore the idea of a teenager being given ludicrous powers and how they handle problems and situations that are absolutely not fit to go through- such as him trying to impress a girl at his school, Kelly, with his Prime body even though he looks way too old for her like that- but does so in a pretty clumsy and inherently-'90s-comic kind of way. It's almost interesting, and probably the best issue is #10, where a captured Kevin has to be rescued by Ultraverse comrade Firearm... Which leads directly into Kevin changing into a new Prime form, Rogue Prime, and this is when things go off the rails and Prime starts to really feel like, as I've heard it described, 'a comic written by thirteen-year-olds for thirteen-year-olds'. Mostly when Kelly's mom tries to flirt with Prime. Then Prime gets accused of hassling teenage boys. We tried to force our way through more, but gave up after the art style got a lot worse after the Marvel acquisition, which we'll get to later (the only highlight until this point was the team-up with Hardcase- Prime's better when there's another hero to work with, I guess). It's all over the place, is what it is. Even so, before being bought out, Prime was Malibu's poster boy for the Ultraverse, and as part of expanding their empire, they sought to get him in video games. From there, who knows? We don't, because of what happens later.
We now approach the video game side of things! We got there eventually, right? Now, rather than just farm the property out to a known (or cheap) developer as was usually the case at the time, Malibu had their own video game workhorses to go for. Fortunately, GDRI have been on the case as usual, so we'll be using their information as a basis along with some other sources. So, Malibu Interactive themselves weren't always known by that name- they were originally Acme Interactive, founded in 1991 by Cinemaware's Bob Jacob after the collapse of the company due to, among other things, the failure of It Came from the Desert on the TurboGrafx-CD. Focusing mostly on the Mega Drive, the only games you'll find under that name are a few sports games for Sega like David Robinson's Supreme Court and Evander Holyfield's Real Deal Boxing (itself a port of 1991's ABC Wide World of Sports Boxing / TV Sports Boxing) before they were bought by what was then called Malibu Graphics Publishing Group, then becoming Malibu Comics as a whole with Acme being renamed Malibu Interactive. It's perfect, right? Why go to the trouble of finding a developer to do games based on your properties, when you can get it done yourself? Even better, alongside the founder of Cinemaware were ex-pats from veteran studio Software Creations including legendary video game music composers Tim and Geoff Follin! Under this name you're more likely to know them from the Mega Drive and Mega-CD versions of Batman Returns, but they also did the Ex-Mutants game on the Mega Drive, Dinosaurs for Hire on the Mega Drive, Cliffhanger for pretty much everything that was on, and of course, Prime on the Mega-CD.
... Except we're not talking about the California branch of Malibu Interactive when it comes to Prime. They had a UK studio (two offices, actually- one in Derby, the other in Warrington at the request of Tim Follin as seen in the earlier Game Developer link) who were at one point actively looking for applicants for "popular consoles and upcoming 32 and 64 bit technology" (Page 90). See, that's where the Software Creations staff worked, as they're from the UK too. According to GDRI's research, their list of shipped titles is much slimmer than the California branch, and one of those is The Smurfs, specifically converting it to Mega-CD. Nice. Instead, many of their games- the Mega Drive and Mega-CD versions of Time Trax and two other Malibu Comics properties we'll get to later- were cancelled before release, and that includes a SNES version of Prime. A prototype has surfaced in recent years that explains a lot (we'll have a look at that later too) but for now, it suffices to say that a lot of the assets in the SNES game were eventually used for the Mega-CD Prime game (retitled Ultraverse Prime according to the box) that did get released... Well, if 'only released bundled together with a game from a completely different developer' counts.
This is where Sony Imagesoft comes in, who were really prolific on the Mega-CD, and yes, this story is still going. They're easily up there as one of the busiest publishers on the thing! Too busy, maybe. As theorised by noted Mega-CD advocate and FMV game historian Danny of the Retro Pals, by 1994 Sony Imagesoft had two specific problems with their Mega-CD games- they had overstock of their released games, and also had games they hadn't released yet that were at least close to finished, and this includes Prime, which was advertised in the Prime comics as a standalone release (but using screenshots from the SNES game, presumably also intended to be published by Sony Imagesoft) and was due out in November 1994. By this point, the Mega-CD wasn't out the game just yet but Sony as a whole was moving towards, well, the Playstation so Sony Imagesoft came up with a quick solution to both problems, the Double Deal packs- three releases with two games in each, one in each pair being one of their overstock games, the other being previously unreleased, thus only available in these packs. Everyone wins! In the case of Prime, it would appear it missed that November date, with the only contemporary review we could find being a scathing missive from GamePro's Scary Larry in their April 1995 issue. One of the other Double Deal games, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was reviewed by Sega Visions in their February 1995 issue, so it's fair to put the release window of these packs around very late 1994 to early 1995
Those packs, with the previously-released game first and the new game second, were Hook / Three Ninjas Kick Back, Bram Stoker's Dracula / Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and of course, Microcosm / Ultraverse Prime. While 3 Ninjas Kick Back seems pretty unremarkable, basically being a Mega Drive port with some extra FMV commentary from the Mori Shintaro character (most likely played by Victor Wong himself!) and extra first-person levels, the other two don't quite feel ready for mass consumption. With Frankenstein, this is more a gut feeling than anything very obvious- most noticeably, many FMV sequences in the game play out in absolute silence when you'd think they'd have sound. Ultraverse Prime though, blimey. I have nothing but sympathy for the people who worked on this, as it's clearly something they had to fix up just to get it out the door and make the best of a bad job. How it came to be this way is unclear- whether it was always intended for the Mega-CD and finished up instead of the SNES game simply because manufadturing CDs would be cheaper, or whether the SNES one was too far behind so what was done was switched over to Mega-CD with some CD-appropriate extras thrown on to sweeten the deal, we don't know. We'll never know, unless someone besides Tim Follin comes forward to take ownership of Prime. They probably won't when we start talking about the game, but let it be known- we feel for you, poor people who had to work on Prime. You have our unending sympathy.
... Now we're talking about the game. Honest.
Hit the streets as Prime and save Kelly from Doctor Gross (no, really, that's his name) and his mad experiments!
Surprising no-one, the game itself is, well, bad. It certainly is a scrolling brawler, yes, but one that commits pretty much every sin of the genre. Looking at its Western contemporaries (we'll examine that more a little later), it's fair to say only half of its problems can be put down to it not being finished, the rest is falling into bad habits and trends that other games of the time were prone to falling into as well. The structure is of the style of the time, beat up all the enemies then beat up some more, as are the controls, even if it adopts a more Double Dragon-esque separation between punch and kick attacks, which to be fair was in fellow superhero tie-in game The Tick. Probably the most promising element is the throwing mechanics, which could've been neat to mess around with had they actually been finished. The basic idea is to hold the Punch button to grab foes, and from there you can punch them in the face until they die or break free, piledrive them, throw them behind you or throw them into the background. The last two are the important ones- hurling enemies into the background will usually yield items like letters for the elusive BONUS EXTRA (spell both for an extra life) and do a little environmental damage, but more crucially, throwing behind you is your only crowd control attack. You have a screen-clearing super attack, but this is more like the Mutant Power attack from Konami's X-Men as you only have a limited stock, but you can't even trade in your health for extra uses.
Much like D. D. Crew, then, crowd control is a luxury rather than a given, but at least in D. D. Crew you always have it as a possibility, as awkward as it can be to set up. In Prime though, you don't even have that. Because of the rushed nature of the game, not every enemy can be thrown in every direction! The standard henchmen, for instance, can be thrown every which way but the ticking-time-bomb enemies can't be thrown backwards, and enemies holding bats can't be grabbed at all. This isn't some kind of interesting quirk like big guys being unable to be thrown certain ways in Streets of Rage 1 & 3, it just affects enemies they didn't have grabbable frames for- the heaviest-looking enemies in the game, the apes in the amazon section, can be grabbed and thrown about any way you like. So, what was finished and working made it into the game, and what wasn't... Was not included. Had this been finished properly, Prime would've been at least passable, and far, far less frustrating to play in theory because you'd have way more options available to you. Of course, that's not the only problem Prime has working against it.
The other main problem with the game is in the level design and enemy mob construction or lack thereof. Initially at least, the levels go at a decent clip- there's not much enemy variety in the three areas comprising Act 1, but they're fairly short and the enemies are very, very weak, so they go down pretty easily. The boss battles aren't much fun, mind- lacking the personality and unique attributes seen in other, better brawlers- but they are passable (and, in the case of the very final boss, unintentionally amusing). From Act 2 onwards though, enemies take more punishment but more critically, appear in much larger packs, usually four at a time... Followed by four more, of the same enemy type, several times in a row before you're allowed to move on to fight another enemy type, but again, four of the same kind, almost never combining different enemy types to do anything interesting or mix things up. When a game doesn't have anything like a large selection of weapons or other mechanics, at least some part of the fun of the best games in the genre is how different enemy combos keep things interesting and make you figure out character-specific strategies for different mob make-ups, and this just has nothing! Some of the enemies are at least vaguely interesting, like the bomb people who can start a timer before they blow up, but you fight them in a vacuum, never as part of a fighting unit so to speak.
So, you have a scrolling brawler with very few weapons (and they're all of the throwing variety), most of your best moves aren't actually usable against many of the enemies, there's no crowd control or desperation move beyond very-limited-use screen-clearing bombs, and there's no interesting enemy mob combos. There's almost nothing here, not even anything truly misguided and miserable. The closest the game comes to changing things up are the two dreadful flying sections that are mercifully brief, but come with terrible collision detection and enemies that blindside you and also home in on your location (not helped by the fact that Prime is indeed a large boy with a gigantic hitbox to match). You end up with a game that's just nothing, a game that Exists, and more than anything else, is just boring as well as not properly finished. I mean no ill will when I say that the developers, almost certainly pressed for time and resources, must've just put together whatever they had to hand, with little cohesion or thought put into it. Cutting is shipping; get the damn thing out the door, kicking and screaming if needs be, before the bailiffs show up. The end result is no surprise.
The funny thing about Prime is that even if it was properly finished, had there been more time to polish it up, it'd still be bad, and perhaps even less noteworthy than it is already. The strange circumstances behind its release are the most notable thing about the damn thing, because it otherwise falls into the same traps many other high-profile Western-developed scrolling brawlers blundered into. There's no exact release date for Prime out there, but in the same year consoles saw Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage, The Death & Return of Superman (on SNES at least) and The Tick, which we've picked in particular to identify trends that you can see in Prime too (although that's not to say it was inspired by these games specifically, and not all Western-developed brawlers adhered to them- see The Stone Protectors for something very different but still terrible). From this playbook, Prime takes things such as fast-paced combat that seems satisfying at first, and combines it with levels that are far too long with constantly-repeated enemy mobs that rarely mix and match enemy types, a move set that does not include a traditional crowd-control attack but instead has limited-stock 'bombs' that don't necessarily clear the screen, and a lack of traditional weapons to bolster your move set (usually one-time throwing items instead of things like pipes and bats). Not that every scrolling brawler needs weapons, mind, but it's odd that these Western brawlers share that trait. In a broader sense, these Western belt scrollers all superficially resemble the genre, but that's all it is, superficial- the inner workings are all wrong, and display no proper understanding of what makes good examples of the genre so good. Much like Prime himself, it's a facade, a trick, beneath the appearance there is nothing. Ooh, how philosophical.
Taking a moment to talk about the game's presentation before we're done, the graphics are the other area where Prime shows it probably wasn't finished up properly before release. Prime himself has a lot of animation frames but the enemies are not so lucky, as not only are some missing the aforementioned grabbed / thrown sprites, some of them don't even have fallen / dying sprites- they just blink out of existence in their idle pose! Furthermore, the game's resolution is all over the place as exhibited by those black borders but also by other odd underscan elements like parts of the background separated from the rest that can be seen on real hardware too (at 8:45- Act 1 Scene 3 and 28:47- Act 4 Scene 2). On the plus side, there are some fairly nice-looking bits of art used for post-stage cutscenes that looks like they're straight out of the comics (some straight-up are, but there's a few we couldn't place), done in only slightly by the Mega-CD's colour limitations. The rest of the game's graphics, though, aren't particularly noteworthy.
About the only thing you can really say the game does well, without question, is the music, and that's more of a happy accident really. As we said, Malibu Interactive UK employed a few Software Creations staffers, and that included Tim Follin and his brother Geoff. The Follin brothers had worked on fantastic soundtracks for games such as Silver Surfer, Spider-Man / X-Men: Arcade's Revenge, the NES version of The NewZealand Story, Plok and Equinox, and Tim himself composed the music for Solstice, Treasure Master and (much later) Future Tactics: The Uprising, so they both have a storied history in the industry. This Prime job was one where, by Tim's own admission, he was doing "virtually nothing and getting paid" (ah, now that's the dream, ain't it?) but it was also his first soundtrack for a CD-based game, so with his brother Geoff on instruments (and vocals), he created a... Unique soundtrack for a superhero brawler. There's flute solos, Christmas bells, sick guitar riffs, everything you need to create your own '1990s CD-Based Game Beats to Chill / Study To" YouTube channel save for a picture of Prime doing his homework. The crown jewel is an incredible, amazing title screen theme song that's over seven minutes long, a prog-rock odyssey containing the lyrics "He's gonna get himself some justice!", "Those that he hates are in for a shock" and "He's waiting... For you..." as sung by Geoff Follin himself. It is a work of '90s art, probably the most Mega-CD song in existence.
Such is the power of the PRIME theme song that here it is, in full, courtesy of the Retro Pals.
It even has VH1 Pop-Up Video-style commentary! There's no reason not to listen to this for the rest of the article, honestly.
Still, if nothing else Prime is a good example of a successful merging of a video game and multimedia software in a sense, due to its extra features which were proudly touted on both the adverts for the game and the back of the box. Fifteen full comic book issues- Prime #1-#12, Break Thru #1-#2 and Mantra #7- are available to read although, well, the limitations of the Mega-CD make this... Quite the experience. As it can only display 64 colours on-screen at once, these comics had to be massively crushed in terms of colour depth, resulting in very bizarre-looking pages, and they had to be relettered by hand to remain readable. There's also a video interview with Gerard Jones (arrested in 2018 for child pornography possession) and Len Strazewksi (partly responsible for the Malibu Street Fighter II comics), writers on Prime, and Norm Breyfogle (best known for working on on Batman from 1987 to 1995, he passed away in 2018), artist for the first twelve issues of Prime. These sorts of things are of course commonplace now- how many games can you think of that have unlockable interviews and concept art?- but it's still pretty interesting to see this approach on a games console rather than a home computer from this time period. Malibu would take a more traditional comics-on-disc thing later with CD-ROMIX!, a DOS-based version of Prime #1 with music, voice-acting (oh, yes) and a more dramatic presentation. At least Prime tried on Mega-CD, though.
What happened next, then? Around the time Prime was scheduled to ship as a stand-alone game- November 1994- Malibu was bought by Marvel (and yes, that means Disney now owns Prime, let that haunt your mind for a while). Malibu Comics and the Ultraverse were kept as a going concern for a short while before stopping them and restarting some select titles with the Black September event- leading to Prime meeting Spider-Man!- but then cancelling them for good before 1997. As for their games division, going back to GDRI tells the rest of the story, with Malibu Interactive being snapped up by GameTek of all companies, being incorporated into Padded Cell Studios and working on some American football games, then maybe being bought by Interplay (oh no!) to become V.R.T.O. and work on some more American football games that, this time, didn't get released. As for Tim Follin, he went on to do freelancing instead, which probably worked out better for him in the long run.
Lo, and thus the Ultraverse's one brush with video games was a disaster, and we draw this story from the quarterbin to a close. It was a video game legacy that most people didn't even notice, mind, but a disaster nonetheless, beset by (probably) having to rush something, anything out. The most telling thing about Prime on the Mega-CD is that I've spent as much time as possible not talking about Prime on the Mega-CD. The stuff that's interesting about it (beyond the amazing soundtrack, of course) is everything around the game, not the game itself. Behind the mystery and weirdness there's just nothing. Fortunately for you, now that you know the whole Prime story (well, the video game side of it anyway), you need never play it. You can observe it, as an object, a testament to '90s comics excess, but not actually get close enough to touch it. A safe distance is good enough.
For actually being released- in a world where games like Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill and Bio Force Ape were not- Prime is awarded...
In a sentence, Prime... Exists, but maybe that's not for the best.
And now, it's that time, folks!
We must, inevitably, look at the Prime prototype for the SNES.
I wasn't able to find a proper date for when the Prime beta was dumped, but it's been out there for a long time, since at least 2009 given this SNESCentral article on it (although be advised this has a lot of old and incorrect information, in particular mixing up Malibu Interactive with Malibu Games, a subsidiary of T*HQ who existed around the same time). Not exactly narrowing it down, but it'll do the job for now. So, this prototype has the basics in place, give or take, but with a lot of necessary things missing- no music (although The Cutting Room Floor shows there is a single song in the prototype that simply goes unused), limited sound effects, glitchy graphics in several areas (some smashed wall graphics just show unfinished tiles, enemy profile pics are a mess), and while there are multiple levels and cutscenes in place, there's no text in those cutscenes and, after five stages, you'll reach a point where you can no longer progress. Pausing and pressing Y will skip you ahead a stage which shows the rest of the static cutscenes, and reveals that most of the stages from the Mega-CD version are present in some form... As well as a few ultimately-unused stages, specifically the street in the left screenshot and the vertically-scrolling shmup stage in the middle screenshot. What you'll definitely notice about all the stages in this prototype is that they have way, way more enemy mobs to get through with much larger health bars- most attacks will do just nothing to enemies except for throws, so it is a slog. To think the Mega-CD version toned this down!
Speaking of throws, they actually work against most enemies in this version and you can do all the different types of throw rather than being limited depending on the enemy! It works a little differently here as you have to attack an enemy first then grab them while they're stunned. You also have a move missing from the Mega-CD game, a flying dash performed by holding Forward and pressing Jump that bounces you backwards when it connects, but does a pitiful amount of damage (even less than the other moves). That's all the changes I could really spot though, but even with those additions, this is clearly very rough and in need of a lot of work before being ready for retail. Just a shame there's no date on it. In any case, an important part of the Prime puzzle is preserved with this dump, so that's something at least.
Finally, Malibu were planning on other games based on the Ultraverse, so let's have a quick look at what we know about them.
These are openly advertised in the credits of Prime, as you can see above! What a tease~!
First, there's Firearm, based on one of a few Ultraverse heroes who has no superpowers but he does have gun. As the title suggests. A Mega-CD version was planned but ultimately unreleased with only the incredible title theme by Tim & Geoff Follin remaining (thanks to Ultra Powerful Pal of Gaming Hell Danny of the Retro Pals for mentioning this!) but there was limited coverage of the SNES game, outlined on SNESCentral alongside an extremely early prototype making its way to the internet in 2010. When we say early, we mean it, this thing has no death implemented, only two levels, and glitchiness all over the place, it's just the bare bones of a scrolling action game. What you can see here is a fair bit of care put into the spritework- Firearm himself has smooth animation and there's even a comic panel that appears in the corner of the screen when he's realoading his gun. Certainly more promising than Prime!
Much less is known about The Strangers, a game based on the comic about a group of passengers on a cable car struck by energy from the moon that turned them into 'Ultras'. Unlike Firearm, this was definitely intended for the Mega-CD and there exists a preview in EGM #49 (June 1994), before the release of Prime. We originally found out about this via Unseen64 but Ultra Powerful Pal of Gaming Hell DJ Tatsujin was kind enough to give us a great scan of the original magazine which you can see above. It was going to be a one-on-one fighter, and I don't know about you, but I would be all over a jank-as-heck fighting game made by the Prime team. Jank fighters are good fighters, right?
Speaking of EGM #49... DJ Tatsujin gave us the rest of that magazine section on The Strangers, and it turns out...
... It was actually a four-page spread on Malibu Interactive games! As well as a preview of Prime, Firearm and The Strangers, it has a two-page job ad for programmers at their US branch similar to the one in Edge several decades ago in this article, looking to branch out into 32 and 64-bit consoles. There's a couple of points of interest here- the Prime screenshots all come from the SNES version and claim the game is coming to the SNES, Mega Drive and Game Gear (God, I would love to see that version) and the Firearm section mentions a planned Mega Drive version as well. A pretty interesting find, thanks again DJ Tatsujin!
There is, at least, a happy ending to this story. For me, anyway.
After going through all those terrible Prime comics, I treated myself and reread a bunch of Krazy Kat.