Friday, 2 November 2018

Mega Drive Review - Back to the Future III (Game 172)

The ‘Back to the Future’ films are universally adored. But before Telltales’ point-and-click adventure series, why was every game based on such a beloved franchise unanimously awful? 

Developed by Images
Published by Image Works
Released in 1990

Whenever I tell people I spend my free time writing about and playing old video games they always ask the same thing: “What’s your favourite game then?” I struggle to answer and at best typically name ‘Super Mario Kart’, ‘Uncharted 2’ or ‘Chrono Trigger’ but my honest answer could include any game from a pool of thirty. However, when asked to name my favourite film series there is never any doubt; I love the ‘Back to the Future’ films over all other movies. They’re the perfect mix of humour adventure and science fiction. Perhaps down to their time travelling narratives they don’t age and it’s hard to think of many other thirty year old films, that continue to attract new audiences today. “There aren't many films we'd describe as perfect, but Robert Zemeckis's oh-so-'80s time travel tale fits the bill” says Time Out magazine. Total Film and Empire magazines have included it in their Greatest Films of all time lists. The film series was even selected for preservation by the American Government as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant".

Considering the original script for ‘Back to the Future’ was selected by the Writers Guild of America as the 56th best screenplay of all time, the writer and co-producer of the series, Bob Gale is certainly qualified to pass comment on the games that carry the ‘Back to the Future’ name. Before Telltale Games’ universally praised point-and-click series, Gale never disguised his hatred of playable interpretations of his much loved trilogy. “The history of ‘Back to the Future’ in video games has not been a pretty one” Gale admits. “I actually publicly did some press telling people not to buy [the NES ‘Back to the Future’ Game]. It was so crappy.”
Keen to protect the brand, Gale even attempted to be involved in development of games based on his very popular movie. His desire to contribute was not well received by the game’s developers though. “The attitude was; you’re from Hollywood. You don’t know anything about video games.” However, Gale did know about games. At the time he was an eager player. Any fan of the trilogy will even cite a scene in the second film when a young Elijah Woods watches Michael J Fox play ‘Wild Gunman’. “I’m no stranger to video games. I’ve played them since ‘Pong’ was in the arcades” claims Gale. “I bought an Atari 2600. I’ve been playing games since then. I was as aggravated as everyone else back in the 8-bit days at those really God-awful Nintendo ‘Back to the Future’ cartridges that came out.” 

In a conversation with GameBeat, Bob Gale admits that a 16-bit game based on ‘Back to the Future III’ was not much better than the “total garbage, truly awful” NES game.


GamesBeat: I remember renting ‘Back to the Future III’ for the Genesis. I could never get past the first level, which was Doc Brown on the horse. I just kept dying.

Gale: That game was so ridiculously hard. The history of [my] movies-turned-into video games is a pretty tragic one, I’ve got to say.


Bob Gale can easily pinpoint what was going wrong, not just with adaptations of his films, but also with licensed games in general. “It was always more about getting the game out to time it with the release of the movie, [rather] than doing a good game. I remember a guy from the game industry, saying “a game that’s late is only late until the day it ships. A game that’s crap is crap forever”. The Shigeru Miyamoto opinion that Gale is quoting could certainly have been said about the Mega Drive adaptation of ‘Back to the Future III’ a game so horribly bad that is often called one of the worst games on the console. 

Today ‘Back to the Future III’ would be described as a mini-game compilation. Obviously based on the (weakest) third film in the trilogy, it follows the adventures of teenager Marty McFly and mad scientist Doc Brown as they attempt to escape from the Wild West using a time travelling Delorean car. The game takes four of the most memorable scenes from the film and offers a level based on each. Each of these levels plays differently with the playable protagonist and gameplay continually changing. Each level only lasts around three minutes but the game’s infamous difficulty means you’ll likely have to spend hours replaying them until you master the technique needed to finish each. If this sounds monotonous, repetitive, frustrating and boring you’d be right. 



The first stage is the most well known, simply because the majority of people wouldn’t have been able to finish it. You play as Doc riding a horse who has to prevent Clara Clayton from falling into a ravine. Gameplay is best described as one long quick-time event only without any button prompts. It seems everything in the old west is out to stop Doc, outlaws will be gunning him down, barrels will be bouncing along his path, mosquitoes will be swooping and it seems he’s taken a route that involves leaping over dozens of crevasses. When faced with an obstacle, a player must react accordingly; pressing a relevant button in response to the position of the hazard. Failure to do this causes Doc to tumble from his horse and three mistakes means he won’t get to Clara in time to save her. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a game’s opening level would ease you in gently, this certainly isn’t the case with ‘Back to the Future III’. On the Mega Drive the level goes so quickly that you have a fraction of a second to respond. As all the hazards are predetermined success really just depends on memorising the button presses. The game was released on other systems and on many the gameplay is notably slower.
All other versions of ‘Back to the Future III’ also includes a section of the level where the horse is viewed from above. Gameplay at this point changes to a ‘Smash TV’ style game, where Doc continually moves up the screen and a player must focus their attention on shooting the foes on the beside him. It’s. not that much fun, but at least it’s more enjoyable than avoiding random objects and it’s omission in the Mega Drive version is painfully felt. Even the cassette based Spectrum and C64 versions have the over-head horse ride section, so why is it absent in a game designed for a much more powerful home console ? 

With enough luck or persistence you can eventually save Clara and the second level is a shooting gallery, inspired by the clock tower party in the film. Marty is given a colt pistol and with this he must shoot targets from a first person perspective. It starts off enjoyable but the score required to pass the level is excessively high. Most targets must be hit to accumulate the minimum requirement and a joypad is hardly the most precise input device when it comes to moving a targeting reticule. On the Mega Drive, as with the first stage, everything just moves far to fast. Once again the Amiga version is superior as the marginally slower pace makes everything less frantic. The music is also bizarrely catchy on the Amiga game.
It’s sadly not same ZZ Top ditty used in the film, but it certainly sounds better than the awful music that accompanies the level on the Mega Drive. For me this was the best level in the game, and I recall it was actually given away free on an Amiga Action cover disc. 



Shooting enough targets opens the next level; an isometric shoot out with Mad Dog Tannan's gang. Considering that Marty is awarded a Colt pistol for successfully completing the previous stage, his use of a pie tray is some what strange.
However it is the best choice as in this stage the player seems to be impervious to bullets while enemies seem highly susceptible to baked food containers. The players viewpoint makes aiming tricky, but that isn’t that much of a problem as it seems almost impossible to lose during this level. While I failed hundreds of times on the first stage, this third one proved no problem. The fourth stage provides very little reward though, as it’s a return to random death and impossible odds. 

The game concludes with a side scrolling platform level that counter intuitively moves right to left. The goal is to reach the engine where the time travelling Delorean car can be found and there’s a strict time limit. Reflecting the awful opening stage the game’s conclusion also ends with a memory test as only one route through the stage leads to success and even then you’ll need to hope that no enemies lay in wait as you don’t get sufficient time to attack them. 

There’s an argument to be had that a game which offers four very different modes of play, presents variety. This would be true if any of the levels were that fun to play. The best, the shoot out stage, I really just a mild distraction and were it any longer it’s appeal would wear thin. I also wonder if I enjoyed it more because revisiting it reminded me of the catchy Amiga soundtrack that had been exhumed from my long term memory after 25 years. The Amiga version of ‘Back to the Future III’ while not good is better, and knowing this restores my faith in usually reliable reviewer Stuart Campbell. In Amiga Power he called ‘Back to the Future III’ “probably the second best movie licence game ever”. I can however name dozens of licensed games you should spent your money on before this. Amiga Action were equally enamoured particularly by the visuals. “Each of the four sections is reasonably well executed and relates well to the film. Graphics and sound are atmospheric, drawing heavily on the motion picture for inspiration.” While the Mega Drive has the same sprites as the Amiga version, they look noticeably inferior on the console. SegaRetro.Org has identified the reason for this: an embarrassing developer error. Evidently, “an error in the Mega Drive version's palette storage results in the game appearing darker than it actually should be”. The website goes on to clarify that on 16bit Sega games “bit order of palette colors is 0000BBB0GGG0RRR0” . However “this game, uses 00000BBB0GGG0RRR by mistake.” The additional 0 means smaller values are ignored and “because smaller values are darker, the colors will thus appear darker.” 


But don’t feel too short changed if you opted for the Mega Drive edition over the visually and aurally better Amiga game; it could be worse you could have bought ‘Back to the Future III” on the Master System. This version has an easier first level as half the obstructions are gone and the shooting gallery stage has been dropped meaning you get only 75% of the number levels. 
The bizarre thing about ‘Back to the Future III’ on the Mega Drive is that the better you get at the game, the worse it becomes. Once you’ve memorised the order of obstacles you must avoid to save Clara, perfected the aim in the shooting gallery and learnt the safe route through the train, you can finish the game on every attempt. From start to finish the game now takes me less than ten minutes, and in actual fact you’ve probably spent longer reading this article. It’s a frustrating aggravating experience and by the time you’ve perfected the technique you’ll never want to play it again. It’s not even as if there’s much reward for saving the time travelling Delorean from plummeting off a cliff in the last level. While the Amiga version has a short animated denouement, on Sega’s 16 bit Machine this has been dropped. All you get is a single screen and a quote from the film that is written in such a narrow font it’s hard to read. Even this scrolls too quickly to comfortably read, so the game starts and ends with something going too fast to be enjoyable. To make things worse, the bits in between really aren’t much better.

Bob Gale believes the NES ‘Back to the Future’ tie in game was “one of the worst games ever”. The Mega Drive game isn’t that bad, but it’s certainly astoundingly poor.

It’s depressingly that for 25 years this awful Genesis game was considered the best thing fans of the beloved ‘Back to the Future’ series could play. Thankfully, Telltale Games’ have since finally created a game worthy of the beloved film trilogy, and ‘Back to the Future’ is no longer known for its fantastic films and awful video games. 




Where did I get this game from?
While at the Play Expo in London this year, I saw this game for £18 on Sore Thumbs Retro’s stall. Giddy with the excitement of the day, I threw caution to the wind thinking this infamously bad game couldn’t be that bad – after all I’d played the alright Amiga game and knew it was similar. 

How wrong I was.


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