Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum (Review)

I didn’t grow-up with Garbage Pail Kids. I was born in 1989, and the final set of stickers during the original 80s fad was set to release that year, but it got cancelled. After looking at the archives at the excellent resource site GeePeeKay, yea, good call that was. I mean, Christ! That’s some sick shit in those cards. It feels like, by the end, Garbage Pail Kids became more about being mean-spirited, like they were trying to deliberately bait controversy because that grew the franchise in the first place. Having said that, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the brand. When my Godfather’s son gave me his comic book collection when I was six, the boxes they came in were covered in GPK stickers. Plus Topps occasionally revived them for brief comebacks starting in the 2000s. Hell, for a while, my LaserDisc collecting father had the god awful Garbage Pail Kids movie listed on his “treasure hunt” list of discs he hadn’t added to his collection (in turns out it never even released on LD, maybe. There’s still debate on if it came out in Japan, I think). It’s one of those brands that an outsider looking-in can’t believe was as big as it was at its height. It was easily bigger in the 80s than the 90s fads of MY childhood like Tamagotchi or Furbies. I’m telling you, I would have made a much better child of the 80s than I was as a 90s kid. I mean, have you seen how shitty our Transformers looked? And don’t even get me started on our Voltron!

MIND BLOWN!!

Of course, the one thing missing from Garbage Pail Kids was a video game. 1984 was too late to end up on the Atari 2600, and it never would have been on Colecovision for.. uh.. obvious reasons. Nintendo would never have allowed the brand on the NES because they used to think bodily fluids were the devil’s brew, and Sega didn’t get cool until 1991. Garbage Pail Kids just had shitty timing all around to transition to gaming, really. And that’s why the real story behind Retrotrainment’s Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum literally, no joke, brought tears to my eyes. Because kids of the 80s used to spread rumors that they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was FOR SURE coming to the NES, even claiming they’d seen it listed in game magazines. It never actually happened, because no such game was ever in development. Since kids knew it had to be coming because their friend said their uncle worked at Nintendo and told them it was happening, they assumed Nintendo had put the screws to it. Well, it took 35 years, but someone did something about it! Retrotainment teamed with The Goldbergs writer Adam F. Goldberg and Topps Trading Cards to make that mid-80s elementary school recess fantasy come true. They even created an elaborate meta story behind the game that it WAS developed in the mid-80s, then cancelled and buried until the ROM was unearthed in 2022. The trailer for this was so convincing that my friend Ryan was open to the possibility it was actually true. It’s absolutely criminal this video only has 11K views as of this writing. This just did not find its audience, and that’s heartbreaking.

That’s why I hadn’t even heard of this new Garbage Pail Kids game leading up to this week. Somehow, it just didn’t spread through social media. So, for those who don’t know, this is a 2022 NES game that you can actually pre-order now on cartridge. OR you can buy it right now for all modern platforms, where it plays on the same excellent NES emulator by Digital Eclipse used in collections like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection or SNK 40th Anniversary. If you buy this on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, or Steam, it comes with a boatload of extras. On the emulation side of things, you get a fully-loaded “Infinity Gauntlet of Emulation” which is my term for the six key “Gems” of emulation: save states, rewind, flicker removal, screen filters, button mapping, and a full tool-assisted play-through video that lets you take control of the action any time you want. Media extras include the soundtrack, two short films (including the above trailer), concept art, and more. My favorite feature was the side-by-side comparisons of the real GPK cards and their in-game 8-bit counterparts (48 total characters from the cards are used somewhere in the game). I got a kick out of seeing how close some of the game sprites came to the real cards, while others weren’t even in the ballpark.

And now I want a sequel more than I want to live to be 60.

Of course, if the game itself was no good, all these extras would be downright obnoxious. Which would be fitting for Garbage Pail Kids, and then I could crack jokes like “it belongs in the trash.” But alas, it’s one of the best original NES games of the homebrew era. Seriously, no joke, this is a phenomenal platformer. The meta concept of “lost 1986 – 88 licensed NES game” had me worried. Let’s face it: most licensed games on the NES from that era sucked, with rare exceptions like Goonies II or Capcom’s work on Disney properties. A developer aspiring to pay a mostly-accurate homage to both Garbage Pail Kids and 80s licensed games could have turned in a barely playable LJN-like effort and said “GET IT?” But, instead, Retrotainment gave us a game that feels genuinely true to the GPK license while also serving as a proper tribute to the best licensed 8-bit efforts from companies like Konami and Capcom. Nice graphics. Really good play control. Feels like they weren’t just stuck with the brand as part of a cash grab and they’d rather be doing anything else. No, this is a labor of love, and you feel it every single second of gameplay.

The humongous bosses feature some really impressive graphics. YES, you can sometimes “see the seams” of how they’re really not that big (this one here is a good example, the arms never move) but it feels so gosh-darn true to the time period that you can’t help but be charmed. Most importantly, all six bosses are fun.

You have four player characters, six decently-sized levels, six very fun boss fights, and extras to collect. I’ll start with the one and only major complaint: Garbage Pail Kids is let down by very mediocre sound design. I’ve never been a sound or music person, as I have legitimate physical issues that muck up music for me. But just the sound effects alone really take the punch out of GPK. It’s a really light, overly-conservative set of sound effects that just didn’t work for me, and in fact, it took away greatly from the OOMPH of the combat. In eleven years of doing game reviews, I can count on one hand the amount of times sound effects were so poorly done that they stood out to me, and I’m not happy they happened here, because most everything else is really nice.

Enemies comically fly off-screen when you kill them. That part works, but I just hate how little pizzazz there is to the sound effects. This is one of those games that I hope other developers study, where the whole game is incredibly fun and polished to the point that it makes you wonder how they got the sound so wrong?

There’s also some inconsistencies with collision boxes, especially when using the main Mad Mike character. It’s never a deal breaker, and the collision issues almost universally favor the player, but it also combines with the poor catalog of sound effects (and I don’t think the music is very good either, but again, that I can’t claim expertise in) to take away from the action feeling like it has real-world weight, velocity, and inertia to it. Imagine if you played Super Mario 1 and you went to stop a Goomba, and the stomp happened with visible distance between you and it, AND that famous Mario “WOO BOOP” sound when you do the stomp was instead a subdued “pff.” I’ve always said gameplay is king, but GPK is a prime example of how skimping on sound becomes distracting. In a game as good as this, that one area being really bad sticks out like a sore thumb. Which is probably a GPK card, come to think of it.

Garbage Pail Kids were “Trading Card Stickers” and the “trading” part is worked into the game with a fairly good system. Each stage has a guide character that you’ll encounter throughout the level who offers you tips and then offers to trade cards with you. There’s 39 cards total to collect. 4 of them actually can be used for special abilities in the game, the most valuable of which brings a character you’ve run out of health with back to life. 35 of the cards are for decoration only and can either be acquired via trading or by finding them randomly in garbage cans placed around the stage. When you trade, each card is assigned a 1 – 10 value, and you must trade cards equal to the value (or within one point) to get a trade to happen. Do you know what part of GPK lore they didn’t use? STICKERS! Gotta save something for the sequel, I suppose. (Shakes Fist) AND THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL!! So help me God, I can’t be responsible for actions if there isn’t one!

Now, let’s get to the great stuff: if Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum had really come out in 1988, it would be remembered as a legend of the NES era. The six levels are all incredibly fun to explore, especially so with how they designed the player characters. You swap between the four on the fly with the SELECT button. Each of the four characters has unique abilities, and three of the four are so different that they fundamentally change the sub-genre of the game. Use Mad Mike and GPK feels like a 2D sword game, something like Rastan or Wizards & Warriors where you have to attack enemies directly (the bonus to this is he does the most damage). Use Leaky Lindsay to essentially turn GPK into a gun-based platformer like Mega Man or Contra as she fires snot projectiles at enemies. I used her the most. Use Patty Putty and the gameplay feels really different, as GPK becomes a Mario-like hop ‘n bop style game. The only of the four who feels like he’s not world-altering is Luke Puke, who can vomit out puddles which are effective on enemies below you. I used him the least, BUT, I did find plenty of uses for him. The level design feels like it’s well-suited for all four characters and has sections designed with specific characters in mind. It’s like a very gross, lower-budget Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, only with just as much vampires.

Hiroshi Yamauchi is doing backflips in his grave.

Each of the six levels (sorry, no finale level or ultimate boss), which can be taken in any order, feel completely unique from each-other and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. None really stand-out, either, but I mean that in a good way. Garbage Pail Kids is that rare game where the level design is consistently fun from start to finish. There’s no weak-links and plenty of surprises. A stage themed around dinosaurs suddenly has a summer camp area. A stage themed around hell suddenly has a cafeteria. The team behind this really stretched their imaginations on this one and created a dazzling variety of settings that you want to see more of. My only real complaint is the rare blind jump, and even then, you actually can sort of circumvent them (or peek at the jump by holding down). There’s a nice assortment of enemies, only one of which I was annoyed by (a girl being struck by lightning, which caused a screen flashing. I don’t have seizures as badly as I used to but that stuff can still make me pretty sick). If I had to complain, I wish they did more with locating buttons to open doors, as I liked the exploration elements most of all. Plus, the difficulty felt just right for me. There’s four adjustable difficulty levels, and you can make your own challenge.

Some “fans” are actually demanding that Retrotainment and Digital Eclipse remove the multiple difficulty settings and emulation options and make GPK “Nintendo Hard.” I’m really not kidding. Can you imagine how full of yourself you have to be to demand a developer not try to make a game for as many people as possible? First off, how fucking insecure must you be in your own ability to just not use those options if you don’t want them? It’d be like an alcoholic going into a bar and demanding they stop selling drinks. So, Mr. MAKE IT NINTENDO HARD, is it that you have no self-control, or is that your way of trying to brag to the world you’re some kind of master player on the down low, because either way is laughable. Also, if you ever used a guide or a cheat code back in the day, or a Game Genie, bitch, you ain’t no more Nintendo Hard than anyone who uses rewind on an emulator. I wonder how many of these people who cry about rewind or save states can recite the Konami Code by heart. Seems like people who demand Nintendo Hard shouldn’t be able to do that, right?

Garbage Pail Kids also never strays from platforming, but given that it can often be disastrous when platformers veer too far off course, that might have been the right call. Instead, there are two mini-games, one of each hidden in every stage. Outhouses take you to a button mashing mini-game that I hated. I can’t mash buttons these days. I even had to have my Dad beat one for me, which is pretty sad. I’m 33, he’s 73, and he got it on his first try. The better mini-game is Buggy Betty’s. She’s hidden in every stage and offers a usable card if you can complete an electric maze without hitting the walls in three tries or less. There’s no bonus for collecting all 39 cards, but I wanted to anyway. It wasn’t that hard to get them all. I figured out that if you enter and exit a stage over and over, you’ll get a chance to trade for different cards every time. I finished the game with 35 cards and only needed maybe two post-credits minutes to get the remaining four.

The controls for the fly girl mazes were perfect, as was the collision detection. There were some tight squeezes too, like the one seen here. Yet, it was never unfair. Side Note: Buggy Betty is also one of the four super-power cards in the game. Pause the game and activate her card and you turn into her for ten seconds. There was only one section in the entire game I needed to use her, and another where I used Adam Bomb’s clear-all-the-enemies power.

Garbage Pail Kids for the NES (and by virtue of emulation, all modern consoles) is maybe the biggest surprise I’ve come across in years at Indie Gamer Chick. I’m stunned by how much I loved my time with it (which was only about two hours of total playtime, maybe). I was NOT this game’s target audience. I’m NOT nostalgic for Garbage Pail Kids. I think Garbage Pail Kids are stupid and gross and I don’t get the appeal in them at all. Transformers I get. G.I. Joe I get. Garbage Pail Kids? What the hell, 80s kids? Garbage Pail Kids are fucking disgusting! Yuck! So, being immune to GPK memberberries, this had to stand entirely on its gameplay merits. Boy, does it. It’s one of 2022’s best games, indie or otherwise. It’s a genuinely great game. Ignoring the sound design issues, everything about this works. As I neared the end of the final level, I didn’t want my time with GPK to be over! The entire time, my enthusiasm to see what came next never dipped even a little bit. The bosses, especially, were both fun to battle and felt like amazing rewards, like proper boss fights should feel. With no a smidge of love for the source material, I walked away from Garbage Pail Kids thinking “you heartless bastards better support this because I WANT MORE! I need a sequel and I need it like five minutes ago!”

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Garbage Pail Kids as an IP means nothing to me. BUT, it meant something to the people who came together to make Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum. I’m always mindful when I review games at IGC that whether I love them or hate them, they could very well be something that the developers had in mind from the time they were little kids. My job here is to play and review those dreams. But, it’s rare that the dream in question actually gets to use the actual dream license from the designer’s childhood. Usually, they have to “file the serial number off” it and do their own creation. This is one of those very rare instances where the dream came completely true: working with the license, and making the game they always dreamed of. Imagine how hard it would be to say THAT game sucked. Thankfully, I’m off the hook. Garbage Pail Kids is a wonderful game by an elite indie developer, one of 2022’s best video games, and one of the best indies I’ve ever played. It feels true to the license, true to the time frame it was supposed to have been “lost” from, and most importantly, true to the dream. And it’s a dream come true. How can you not admire that? And now, by virtue of making this game, some kids that talked about how they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was coming to the NES on a playground at school in the 80s have now become part of that very franchise’s lore.. forever. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart. Hell, I bet they even made a GPK card of that, too.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #16 of 305 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 97.5 Percentile of All 639 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 94.8 Percentile of All 305 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum was developed by Retrotainment
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, NES Cart (Limited Edition)

$9.99 said “there’s only one Cathy with a C card in the history of GPK? OH COME ON TOPPS YOU BUTTHOLES” in the making of this review. I will not stand for this discrimination of Cathys with Cs. Everyone knows the Kathy with a Ks are objectively awful people!

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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