It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Tv world.
The basic plotline of a videogame, how would you describe it? Going back to the medium’s roots, could be just… not dying. A rather straightforward objective, which we can all cater to, but not really a story. More often than not your quest was about saving the princess, obviously Super Mario Bros or the Legend of Zelda spring to mind. But sometimes women don’t need to be saved, you know? Maybe they just want to fall in love with your money, so that’s how Archie begins his story in Mad TV. He sees Betty presenting her programme, immediately falls in love and is bound to impress her at all costs. Problem is: the moment he walks in the TV station he gets hired as an executive producer, thus now his head is on the line.
Mad Tv is a tv station manager simulator, an all but forgotten sub-genre that saw maybe four titles released in the last twenty years or so. Ironically enough, the Rainbow Arts title, the grandaddy of them all, manages to be arguably way more entertaining and addictive than all of the others. This is mainly because nothing is ever taken too seriously, but instead played for laughs, sometimes maybe going a bit too far in wasting the player’s time. Mad TV plays in a Sim Tower framework: you and your competitors travel between different floors in order to produce shows, buy ads to be shown and schedule the daily programming. All while trying to mantain healthy finances for the station, which is gonna be the main reason you’ll end up getting sacked a lot, especially in the beginning.
The game is played in “real time”, you can’t stop or control the clock in any way, so planning ahead is required as soon as you start. This is a rather obvious leftover from the “read the manual first” era, since here a tutorial was badly needed. Adding insult to injury, there’s no real “grace period”, as soon as you start things get immediately difficult. First order of business will be carefully choosing which ad you can broadcast without recurring in penalties, since most of them require a minimum of audience or have to be shown during certain movies. If you don’t do all of this, you’ll end with empty slots in your daily programming, losing money and audience. Once you start losing audience, there’s really no way of getting it back, mainly because of the other two competitors. The learning curve is pretty harsh at the beginning, even just remembering every door’s function and avoiding wasting time in rooms which are apparently only there for laughs will take a while. Probably the worst offender is having to wait for the elevator to arrive while your other competitors are busy, which can be a great “social success” metaphore really.
The interface is simple but pretty well designed for 1991, everything fits in the bottom half of the screen: in the lower left corner you’ll see the current programme, in the lower right the audience currently watching and in the center your money and various stats. Since you’re constantly running against the clock, some shortcuts in the interface could have helped, but no, you’ll have to walk to every room to do anything. Still, despite the harsh learning curve, it’s still fun to immerse in a small capitalistic capsule where money gets you love and a perfect life. All the extra money you earn will have to go towards presents for Betty, your televised love affair, since marriage is your final objective. So, it’s a story of romance, marriage, and lots of money, just like real life!
Graphics have a lot of character, looking straight out of a 80s low budget comics, like MAD Magazine. Oh well, that makes sense I guess! I always especially liked the audience’s animations in the interface, like falling asleep at night or walking away during a movie. The sound design is interesting in that every room has its own little soundtrack, sometimes music other times noises used to great effect. Like in the boss’ room which has an ominous collection of distant thunder-like sounds which already spell disaster for you. A perfect example of how personality can work wonders to inject life into a game, obfuscating even its small problems. The Sim Tower map, while wasting a bit of your time in the long run, is a nice design touch, more fun than boring static screens. I still don’t know the point of the infamous useless rooms, if not for the laughs, but alright.
The “executive tv producer manager” (or rather, tv station manager) is a sim subgenre that never really took off, as opposed to the ubiquitous “videogame development sim” which has multiplied like rabbits in the last decade. Even today, Mad Tv manages to offer an intriguing plate to the player. While the simulation doesn’t, for obvious reasons, go for realism for the sake of it, it does a pretty convincing job in portraying the role of an executive producer who balances self produced shows, movies bought at the market and ad revenues. The game’s ruthelessness is the only gripe I have with it, everything else is still pretty well designed and entertaining even today. The design choice of structuring the whole game around a tower and balancing a serious tone with some nifty managing touches is really hard to achieve today, in 1991 it was nothing short of a miracle.
The game was designed by Ralph Stock, which had nothing to do with the direct sequel, Mad Tv 2, released in 1996 and developed by Grenwood (thanks Hoagie!). In 1994 there was also a spin-off of some kind, designed by Stock, Mad News, centered around managing a newspaper and released under the “Mad Business” moniker. Unfortunately, Rainbow Arts released both of those two titles only in german speaking territories. Ralph is also the main guy behind the much well known series, at least in Germany, Emergency, which is still running strong after 10 different titles.
Finding a comparison with another game is not really that easy, since Mad Tv stands alone in its genre. The perfect balance of comedy and strategical simulation brings to mind the much more well known and loved Theme Park. Since that is an easy title to recommend, I would also choose something more obscure, if you’re looking for that sweet balance of seriousness and laughs. Sid Meier’s Golf which was a combined joint effort between Sid and Maxis and that hits that sweet little niche of being immensely playable but weird enough to come back to, with a kind of design between crazisness à la The Sims and strategic seriousness like Civilization.
While writing this article I discovered there’s a fan remake of the game, available for free, with the not really exciting title “TV Tower”. The latest version is from June of last year and still in beta, doesn’t seem like it will actually get a stable release. It still does play okay as a basic graphical upgrade of Mad Tv, minus the Betty main plot: you just work and try to earn more money and audience than your competitors. Unfortunately the main reason I can’t really recommend it to everyone is that the english translation is all over the place. The tutorial is in german only, while the movie descriptions are only partially translated, which is weird since there’s three other languages available. So why not finish at least the english translation first? No clue. Anyway, as long as you know the original game it’s fine and free, there’s no reason to play this one over the original but if you don’t really like to use Dosbox…