Back to the Future, the movie, has surprising origins. For the start of a timeless franchise, BTTF began as simply an idle thought inspired by an old yearbook: “If I knew my parents in high school, what would I think of them? Would I think them nerds? Bullies? … Sluts?” From that simple premise, an ageless trilogy was born, and everything involved (the time travel, the DeLorean, even Doc) was invented to serve a plot that got a teenage boy back to a place where his mom had a different kind of love for her son. It’s easy to forget after trips to the future and the Old West, but the only reason Marty McFly had an adventure at all was to serve a fairly mundane premise (“I bet dad was a nerd!”).
Videogames are forged in much the same fires. I’ve mentioned it before, but some of the greatest games and franchises came from simple concepts like “how about two guys fight” or “here’s an animal that runs fast”. The canon story of the Mega Man franchise involves thousands of years and having to learn the plural of “apocalypse”, and it’s all in the service of explaining why you have to talk to a monkey every time you want to save. The best videogames perfectly integrate their gimmicks with their gameplay and stories, and, sometimes, you get a portal gun out of the deal.
Unfortunately, there are also licensed games. Licensed games, by definition, must properly serve their corporate masters, so, more often than not, you get a big pile of crappy gameplay recklessly duct taped to a movie or book’s original plot. It’s just as rare to see a movie translate well to a videogame as it is to see a videogame transition properly to the big screen. It’s not impossible, but it’s often pretty damn difficult to translate the pacing of a movie to a game where there must be constant “somethings” happening. It can kind of work for an action movie (assuming the action movie features approximately 12,000,000,000 random mooks), but apply that same kind of a thinking to a sci-fi action comedy, and, well, good luck.
So I don’t envy LJN for having to make a Back to the Future videogame. You could potentially make individual games out of parts of the Back to the Future story, but attempting to tie it all together? Recall that Marty spent an entire day locked in a garage. That is not a good premise for a level! So, while there are a lot of great moments in BTTF, bringing all those moments together in a manner that would be coherent wouldn’t really work for a videogame.
So LJN said, “Hey, screw it, let’s try to cram everything in here anyway.”
It didn’t work out well.
The biggest problem here is that LJN chose to base most of the game on Marty walks around aimlessly. It’s true that, if you really pay attention to BTTF, Marty spends a lot of time just walking between Doc’s place, the high school, and certain modest billboards. Fortunately, not much of the cinematic run time is given over to actually watching Marty walk down suburban 50’s streets while he avoids bees, hula hoops, and conspicuous bowling pins. However, LJN must have loved the idea of Marty on the tough streets of idyllic Hill Valley, because every “world” features at least three stupid segments of, basically, BTTF: The Endless Runner. I’ll give LJN credit for being ahead of its time on this one, but, in a universe that could involve driving a DeLorean, we’re stuck spending 80% of the game hoofing it. Sometimes there’s a skateboard, but the only way that enhances gameplay is by making the stupid game end faster.
Luckily, someone noticed this “gameplay” was about as fun as sitting in a deep fryer, so every few stages are punctuated with another iconic scene from the movie.
And LJN continued to get it wrong.
The first minigame is BTTF Tapper. Marty is at Lou’s Café, and he must repel a fundamental army of bullies with… root beer? As you can probably guess from my glib titling of the area, this bit plays a lot like Midway’s old Tapper game, and the gameplay is simply sliding Marty up and down to properly lob projectiles at approaching malcontents. This is about where every single childhood playthrough ended for Wee Goggle Bob, because you must eliminate, I believe, 20,000 bullies before you’re allowed to proceed. If you fail, you’re forced back to the start of the most recent walking stage, and then, hopefully, you’ll have better luck next time.
This is a weird way to memorialize Lou’s Café in videogame form. You may recall that there is a bully confrontation at Lou’s Café, but the real joy of that scene occurs right outside, when Marty creates a makeshift skateboard, and leaves Biff… in a crappy situation. This thrilling action sequence is ignored so Marty can serve drinks. Huh.
The next minigame makes a little more sense, but only marginally. I suppose the game had to acknowledge time traveling oedipal complexes eventually, so at “The School”, Marty must attempt to repel the romantic advances of his mother through heart catching. While this could have translated to an X-rated game of Janken, what we wind up with is basically the previous Tapper challenge in reverse. Lorraine Baines produces a series of hearts, and Marty must “block” those hearts by… running straight into them. It is completely unintuitive, and you’re likely to lose a life immediately thanks to the total lack of an explanation beforehand (pop quiz: do you dodge or catch projectiles in every videogame ever made?). However, this challenge is about a million times easier to complete than the Tapper segment, particularly after having completed that gauntlet. Tapper is the Turbo Tunnel of BTTF, Heart Catcher is practically a Kirby game.
But no time for love, Dr. Jones, it’s time for the Under the Sea Dance. Lorraine is finally willing to settle for George, and Marty has to get those cute kids back together through Guitar Hero. I have to give LJN credit here, this primitive rhythm game is pretty alright for its era. You must “catch” music notes to keep the song going and your parents’ libido throbbing, and, if you understand music at all, it’s remarkably easy. Regular notes are always “middle”, flats are always low, and sharps are always high. I can’t speak to how closely the arrangement actually resembles Johnny B Goode, but there are rhythm games even today that have worse interfaces than this ’89 NES game. Good job, LJN, you got one thing right.
Then again, this interpretation of the dance ignores all the other fun stuff that Marty could be doing during this scene, like ducking thugs or helping in a game of Punch-Out with Biff. Still! Good effort! Maybe we can revisit this scene in the sequel (whoops, nope).
And then, finally, we have Marty trying to make his way back to the future. It’s the night of the big thunderstorm, and (finally!) we’re behind the wheel of the DeLorean. It’s time to drive home! And… it sucks.
The gameplay here is theoretically sound. You’ve got to hit that iconic 88 MPH, but you have to avoid lesser lightning bolts along the way. Luckily, you don’t have to assist Doc Brown in inventing the zip line, but every little bolt drastically hampers your speed. And it doesn’t matter if you maintain 88 MPH for the entire level, if you whiff at the finish line, guess what happens? That’s right, it’s an instant Game Over, and you’re right back to the beginning of the game. Not the previous level, you have to complete everything all over again. Considering this is the first time you ever see DeLorean gameplay, making the event pass/fail is downright punishing. But don’t worry! You’ll get another chance if you play the entire game again!
I.. don’t think many people spring for that option.
Back to the Future: The Movie is an amazing movie based on a simple idea. Back to the Future: The NES game is dreadful, and based only on pointless greed. Guess which one founded an empire.
FGC #196 Back to the Future
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System, and don’t expect to see it anywhere else.
- Number of players: For such a great cast of memorable characters, we’ve only got Marty. Doc is presumably narrating to the player, but he isn’t even seen, left alone an available second player.
- Just play the gig man: Most of the game has one background track, which is actually a sped up version of The Power of Love. It’s practically unrecognizable, though, so screw that noise.
- So, did you beat it: This was one of my precious few NES games as a child, and, yes, I actually beat it on the original hardware. And it was on my first go of the DeLorean stage to boot. And then… I never beat it again. I tried to showcase my mad skillz for my friends, but I was never able to complete that stage without save states again. Now I’m old and bitter.
- An end: Oh, and your reward for completing this game is a single written paragraph about Marty successfully returning to his own time. You don’t even get a cathartic image of Marty living his new, high-rolling 80’s lifestyle.
- Did you know? Bob Gale, one of the writers of Back to the Future, called this abomination the worst videogame ever, and recommended people not buy it. Another fine Bob from history, folks.
- Would I play again: No. Never. And that stupid song is going to be stuck in my head forever, too.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine! I’ve never been able to determine if that is the best title ever, or the worst. Maybe we’ll figure it out. Please look forward to it!