Koala Lumpur: Mystic Marsupial

When I worked at Colossal Pictures we showed animated series ideas to TV networks every year. One of my pitches was about a marsupial magician called KOALA LUMPUR, who I saw as a tiny, mystical problem solver; a cross between Yoda and Mandrake the magician. His action-hero side kick, named Dr DINGO, was a flea-bitten Indiana Jones in a Goodwill pith helmet.

I felt that a duo comprised of a magic detective koala bear and an adventurer/scientist canine could go anywhere and do anything. Between the two of them there would be so many possibilities for funny episodes. Sluething out whodunnits, exploring watchamacallits and fighting a nutty assortment of baddies with an array of dopey invention-thingamajigs. I drew up some pitch-art and wrote out a list of episode ideas and then took the whole lot down to LA and hopped about the room as I explained it all to some network executives. But, as is the case with many a “good meeting” in LA, it ultimately didn’t go anywhere…

Then, few years later, Stuart Cudlitz and the Colossal Pictures interactive unit found the old pitch materials and thought that this goofy investigative team would be a good basis for a computer game. I knew nothing about computer games back then, or computers either if it comes to that, but I got involved in making a Koala Lumpur game because I thought that it might help get a TV show for the idea (networks are sometimes more interested in ideas that have already been brought to market in some form or other). So we pitched a game called KOALA LUMPUR: MYSTIC MARSUPIAL to a big game publisher called Brøderbund, lo and behold,  they actually gave the project a green-light.

After years of working on, and even occasionally directing, all sorts of projects that were dreamed up by other people, it was incredibly exciting to finally be directing an idea of my own. I really threw myself into the project with gusto, and thought of not much else for several years.

I was very pleased that a couple of my best friends were doing the voices for the main characters; Phil Robinson as KOALA and John Stevenson as Dr. DINGO. I had them in mind from the start and their voices were used to pitch the idea in rough assemblies of the game, yet the powers that be intended to replace them with professional actors in the final product… but came around to my way of thinking when they couldn’t find any voices that were better. John and Phil did a fantastic job of bringing each character to life. Koala had a jumbly blendo accent, that was part Hindi and part Australian, and Dingo sounded like a blustery British colonel.

The division of labor between the two companies was that there was a fair bit of collaboration on the concepting, but that art design and art production was handled by Colossal, and programming and game design was handled by Brøderbund. The early phases of production were very fun indeed. Firstly, the design phase, where we worked closely with Brøderbund game designers, and then the art production, which happened both at Colossal and Chicago’s Startoons Studio (producer of many of great Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s) and I spent quite a bit of time in Chicago, happily working with the Startoons crew there.

Unfortunately, the timing of the Koala Lumpur production was ill-fated for two reasons. Firstly, while our game was being made, the games industry shifted quickly to 3D games, like DOOM and QUAKE, and by the time our 2D game eventually came out, it was already yesterday’s news. The second bit of bad luck was that Colossal Pictures filed for bankruptcy in the midst of production, due to some problems on other productions at the studio. This caused financial and legal rifts between the companies involved and the completion of production was stressful beyond belief.

Brøderbund became severly rattled by Colossal’s financial crisis, and lost faith that Colossal’s art production chores could reliably continue, and thereafter ensured that all game assembly happened 100% at Brøderbund, with the Colossal crew shut out altogether. Without the close collaboration between the two companies that was initially planned, there were some bumps in the final product, and in some cases the art was configured incorrectly. The end-product suffered as a result, and certainly didn’t come out as I had intended. Anyway, despite all the hardship, the game came out on schedule, retitled “KOALA LUMPUR: JOURNEY TO THE EDGE” by some marketing genius, to mixed reviews and moderate sales in the USA. It sold better in Europe, and was very popular Germany, of all places (I am told the German translation was especially funny).

Not long after the KOALA LUMPUR game was released, Colossal Pictures went bust completely. There had been high hopes that the studio could survive the chapter 11 bankruptcy and bounce back but it was not to be, and after 20 years of business, that great studio closed its doors for good. It was a sad and stressful time in more ways than one, for not only did my pet-project get mauled, but the studio too. Colossal Pictures was without a doubt the greatest studio I ever worked at, and I was very sad to see it fail. Interestingly, Brøderbund, which was one of the bigger game companies in the Bay Area when I worked with them in the late 1990s, no longer exists iether, unable to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing market.

After this experience, I came to realise that I just don’t have the stomach (or the brains, balls or spinal chord) for directing big projects, and it just wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be… After this fiasco, I started to focus on on designing, storyboarding and so on; those roles where I could make things, rather than oversee others. This project really taught me the value of collaborative, good-natured crewmembers. I vividly remember those people on the Koala Lumpur crew who were problem-solvers rather than problem-creators, and how grateful I was for their prescence amidst all the other production chaos and politics. I vowed that I myself wanted to be one of those kinds of people henceforth. So as painful as this process was, I learned some very important lessons about professionalism, and creative collaboration that have made me a much better crewmember myself.

Suffice it to say that I look back on the project with a mixture of feelings these days. I learned a lot, but many of the lessons were cautionary rather than inspirational. On the other hand, I still smile when I think about the KOALA LUMPUR SHOW I saw in my mind in the first place, directing THAT could be fun…

37 thoughts on “Koala Lumpur: Mystic Marsupial”

  1. I would totally watch this show. The designs are great and I like the concept.

    I worked on a game when I was with Bluth and they cast the voices for the cinematics locally. Everyone did a great job, but the game developer decided they needed their territory marked and re-cast and re-recorded all of the voices. It went from being pretty entertaining to garbage. I love it when that stuff happens.

    Any ways, these are awesome.

  2. Sam>> Thanks!

    John>> I think that I might look into who owns the rights these days… see if I can get an option on them or something…

    Roque>> I am glad that you like these modelsheets. It’s old stuff but I had fun doing them back then.

  3. You are a friggin genius Jamie!! I love your drawings and ideas. Might these fine characters find a home in the Rocket Rabbit universe??
    -Sorry I didn’t see you at the Maverix show, I was out having baby number 2 with the wife!

    • BKO>> Thanks, Brian. I am glad that you like them. You are right that these characters would fit into the ROCKET RABBIT universe. In fact, it was to replace the missed opportunity of that lost (Koala) TV show that I came up with Rocket in the first place.

      My love to the wife and the new little one!

  4. Even wrinkly and superannuated Dads get a buzz and a glow of pride from having stumbled upon such informative and, yes!, philosophical musings. See you soon, dear boy.

  5. yes! i loved this i remember bill hunt showing me at colossal when he was working on it and we actually had the first discussion about how to turn my glue comic into a cartoon, very cool inspiring stuff Jamie!

  6. I actually made it all the way through the game “Koala Lumpur: Journey to the Edge”. I would probably play it again if all the changes in Windows didn’t make it unplayable.

    You bet I would watch this show!

  7. Great article! Really fabulous to know details of the creation of this Adventure that I like so much.

    I played a lot the game in my youth, and play again until today. It’s one of my all time favorites.

    Thank you Mr. James, and greetings from Brazil! 🙂

  8. Just wanted to say I stumbled upon this blog after hearing about Koala Lumpur in passing. I love behind the scenes info about games and animation pitches and Koala Lumpur has a wonderful style and liveliness to it! As an amateur artist I love trying to learn from these expressive designs. Thanks for the art and keeping info about old games alive!

  9. Such amazing characters. I still have the T-shirt. No longer wearable but reverently kept. You have reminded me of some horrible meetings with Brøderbund that I had repressed until now.

  10. I’ve been wanting to play this since I was a child with his mother’s 60 MHz Pentium I.

    Only managed to snag a copy on Amazon Marketplace almost two decades later and, admittedly, I have yet to actually play it.

    Currently in the process of porting it to ScummVM.

    • oh my, that is a very long wait to play the game! It is pretty silly but I hope that it gives you a little entertainment at least. Thanks very much for commenting!

    • I’m sure I’ll like it. I have an exceptional fondness for silly point and click adventure games.

      Curious, btw. Do you know who owns the rights to it?
      If I succeed in porting it to ScummVM, it would be lovely to bring it to a wider audience and maybe collaborate with the rights holders on a Steam or GOG release.

    • I think KOALA was a coproduction between Colossal Pictures & Broderbund, with shared ownership. But I’m not clear on the % split. Colossal doesn’t exist anymore. Whatever properties it owned were bought by other entities in a bankruptcy case. Not sure who bought what though, or how to untangle that part of it..

      Broderbund was sold many times over, and I think Ubisoft & Riverdeep own their stuff now:

      I would love to see KOALA somehow revived though!

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