Whatever your opinion might be on fast food outlet McDonald's, it has been allied with some surprisingly decent video game crossovers over the years. Global Gladiators on the Genesis / Mega Drive was a fun time (and boasted a wonderful Tommy Tallarico soundtrack), and while McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure might not be Japanese developer Treasure's finest hour, it's a solid enough platformer.
We got another game to add to this list recently, thanks to the arrival of Grimace's Birthday on the Game Boy Color. That's right – a new game based on the famous burger joint was published on Nintendo's portable system in 2023, and it's all thanks to the fact that McDonald's is celebrating the birthday of the titular fictional character.
Grimace's Birthday is the work of artist and game designer Tom Lockwood (AKA: Gumpy Function) and programmer Bryan Taylor (AKA: Pearacidic). Lockwood is one of the better-known developers operating in the world of Game Boy homebrew, and got into creating software for the defunct system to pursue one of his earliest ambitions.
"About three years ago, I quit work to become a full-time Dad," Lockwood tells Time Extension. "In doing so, I had some time to tinker and decided to pursue a childhood dream of making games. I was drawn to GB Studio after seeing a short clip on YouTube for a few reasons. Firstly, it's a fairly quick and painless IDE (integrated development environment) to use, and the limitations that come with Game Boy development breed creativity and innovation. It also comes with the added bonus of easily playing your creations on a Nintendo console, and there is a lot to be said about releasing a game that you can hold in your own two hands. It's a rarity nowadays to see any indie titles released through physical media. More and more, I feel the consoles are shifting towards a digital-only model, so I want to be able to make games that a collector can put on their shelf and own forever. It helps that my sensibilities as a gamer align heavily with the retro genres, that of platformer and puzzle games – I want to make what I want to play. Making Game Boy games just ticks all the boxes."
It helps that my sensibilities as a gamer align heavily with the retro genres, that of platformer and puzzle games – I want to make what I want to play. Making Game Boy games just ticks all the boxes
Taylor's route into the world of Game Boy development is similar. "My first game jam working with a team was in 2020," he explains. "It wasn't a great game, and I did the art, but I saw something unique in GB Studio's development process: limitations. My issue in previous games and endeavours was in scope, but GB Studio's art and code limitations let me push it to the very edge of what it was capable of, which allowed me to excel within those walls. I eventually went on to start coding the games myself so I could control the story of what I was putting out."
So how did these two homebrew coders get to work with such a huge company? "The advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy came to Krool Toys in hopes of partnering on something to release in tandem with a new campaign they were launching for Grimace's Birthday," reveals Lockwood. "To their surprise, McDonald's welcomed the idea of a retro video game given that it fits in with the nostalgic spirit of Grimace and the McDonald's characters at large. Once the design brief was laid out by Krool Toys in significant detail and approved by McDonald's, Krool Toys hired myself as Artist, Game Designer, Level Designer and Team Manager, Bryan Taylor as Programmer, and Blezz Beats would take on music and SFX production. This kind of project is rare. The last McDonald's title that saw a release on a video game console was Treasure's McDonald's Treasure Land Adventures for the Sega Genesis in 1993, so it was a thrill for all of us to be fortunate enough to work on a project such as Grimace's Birthday."
Amazingly, the game was created from scratch in just seven weeks – an astonishingly short length of time, even for a small-scale homebrew game. "It took some time for McDonald’s to approve the brief, and Krool Toys was only able to begin the project once that was signed off in full," says Lockwood. "As Grimace’s Birthday was already set in stone according to McDonald’s marketing plan, that left us with quite the tight deadline to complete and deliver a ROM ready for release."
As Grimace’s Birthday was already set in stone according to McDonald’s marketing plan, that left us with quite the tight deadline to complete and deliver a ROM ready for release
It was here that GB Studio really came into its own, making the development process as painless as possible. "GB Studio allows for an incredibly streamlined approach to game design and content creation," continues Lockwood. "With me taking on so many roles, I was able to save a lot of time as I didn’t need to communicate the minutiae of my ideas to a large number of people. Art was being created with my own game and level design in mind, so that aspect of content creation was very efficient. Having said that, the cutscenes themselves were a considerable amount of work. The sheer volume of screens to draw took some time, and of course, there were plenty of revisions as feedback came in."
Prior to working on the game, Lockwood and Taylor had collaborated with one another before, and this also helped speed up the process. "I had already worked with Bryan on In the Dark, a sci-fi puzzle game for the GB/GBC," Lockwood says. "We are currently developing a considerably more complex sequel at the moment, so we both have a great understanding of each other's workflow. He also happens to be a wizard when it comes to coding GB Studio games." As for the audio, Swedish audio wizard Blezz Beats was something of an unknown quantity to both Lockwood and Taylor, but that didn't turn out to be an issue. "Krool Toys commissioned Blezz Beats to take care of the music and SFX," Lockwood says. "I had never worked with Blezz before, but his output was incredible."
Working with a massive, multi-national corporation like McDonald's meant that there was plenty of 'toing-and-froing' to ensure that everything in the game would be 'on-brand'. During this process, Krool Toys served as the vital connection between McDonald's and the developers. "[They] would have weekly meetings with McDonald’s," Lockwood explains. "While we had more or less free rein over designing mechanics and the broader game design, the visuals were something that McDonald’s took very seriously. Their characters are the face of their brand. Whether the characters themselves or the environments they find themselves in, any art asset I created would need to be approved before we could consider it final. At one point, we had electricity running through the cables in the traditional platforming sections of the game that would zap Grimace if he touched a spark. We later changed that mechanic to a squirrel that you could bounce on because the idea of electrocuting Grimace didn’t sit well with McDonald’s and their kid-friendly brand."
We later changed that mechanic to a squirrel that you could bounce on because the idea of electrocuting Grimace didn’t sit well with McDonald’s and their kid-friendly brand
Speaking of towing the company line, a few people have commented on the absence of McDonald's clown mascot Ronald. Lockwood explains that this was an intentional move. "We were not allowed to include Ronald in the game. In the end, this game is about Grimace – who is my personal favourite of the lot anyway – and including Ronald would have potentially stolen the spotlight. In any case, I think it's nice to give the side crew of the McDonald’s mascots time in the spotlight all to their own. McDonald’s wanted to include a retro cake they used to produce in the '80s. It can be seen in the form of one of the three cakes during the final mini-game and has a birthday note to Grimace from Ronald, so at least his presence is felt to some degree."
The manner in which Grimace's Birthday was made available to the public feels as retro as the game itself – it's effectively a video game within a promotional website, something that was very popular in the early days of the internet. "The game you play on the official website is, in fact, a Game Boy ROM wrapped in an emulator," explains Lockwood. "GB Studio has an 'export to web' function that takes care of that for you and makes playing a ROM in a browser incredibly easy to implement. By virtue of this, the .gb file is just sitting there, ready to be downloaded from the back end by anyone with the knowledge to do so. We actually predicted the ROM would be found and shared online; the retro enthusiast scene can be a savvy and driven bunch when they want to be. So I included a DMG lock-out screen if you try to play the game on the DMG or Pocket rather than a GBC. The website build will always emulate the GBC, but on real hardware, there would be graphical issues galore if it was played on the original Game Boy."
Once the game was discovered, it swiftly went viral, thanks to social media. Lockwood admits the sheer volume of attention focused on Grimace's Birthday has taken him aback. "It’s been surreal. It went viral before Krool Toys and McDonald’s posted the game on their own socials, so the level of attention it received in such a short amount of time has been a massive surprise. It's been so long since McDonald’s has done something like this, and the fact that it's made for the GBC was always going to get handheld enthusiasts excited, so I wasn’t worried that it would fall into obscurity. Having said that, no one in the team expected such a warm reception."
We actually predicted the ROM would be found and shared online; the retro enthusiast scene can be a savvy and driven bunch when they want to be
Unlike back in the early '90, when games were 'done' the moment they were committed to a cartridge, modern homebrew titles can be augmented and improved if the developers wish to do so. Grimace's Birthday has been updated a few times already, and Lockwood has further ideas for how it can be made even better.
"As far as any changes go now that the project is out in the wild, I would have loved to expand on the skateboarding mechanics given more time. It’s a short game, and with only a couple of skateboarding levels, I feel there is more gold to mine there. It wasn’t mandatory in the design brief, but I included the score attack and free skate mode in the game as a way to allow people the opportunity to keep skating post-game. It uses similar mechanics to the base game, but it was a good solution for creating more skating content quickly under the time constraints. I’m a big fan of speedrunning, so I would have loved to include a Time Attack mode too, just to give more options to speedrunners, specifically."
While it's easy enough to get Grimace's Birthday up and running on original Game Boy hardware using a flash cart, there are plenty of people out there who would happily pay good money to own a proper physical cartridge of the game – and Lockwood admits this is something he and his team would love to see happen. "The whole dev team would love to produce an official physical version! We all feel that the intended way to ultimately play this game is on real hardware. There have certainly been many people online asking for it, and I do wonder what kind of game we would end up with if we could expand its scope into a full-release title. In the end, the decision to release a physical version lies with McDonald’s (*cough* ask @McDonald’s *cough*)."
It was never going to have the scope of a project like that, given we were not making a full release and only had seven weeks. But for people to say it belongs alongside Treasure Land fills both myself and the team with considerable pride
So, after waiting for decades, we finally have another McDonald's video game to play and enjoy. For Lockwood and his team, there's a feeling of honour which comes from joining the likes of Global Gladiators and McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure – and the other related interactive escapades we've seen over the years.
"I’m actually a big fan of Donaldland on the Famicom," he says. "Even though it has some serious design flaws, I can’t help but be charmed by a McDonald’s 8-bit game, even a bad one. And, of course, I love Treasure’s own Mcdonald’s Treasure Land Adventure. It's so hard to come by a decent licensed game, and the ultimate goal with a project such as this is to end up with something that is not only nice because it has lovable, recognisable characters in it, but is also engaging to play on a strictly mechanical level. During development, I was thinking, 'Can I make a game as good as McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure?' My answer to that was, 'Probably not, but I’m going to try!' It was never going to have the scope of a project like that, given we were not making a full release and only had seven weeks. But for people to say it belongs alongside Treasure Land fills both myself and the team with considerable pride!"