UnReviews:Back to the Future for the NES
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A Trip Back in Time with Back to the Future on the Nintendo Entertainment System
For the first ever UnReviews Retro Review, I really wanted to do something special. It would have to be something that most people could relate to and think back on fondly. After a day's worth of deliberation I finally settled on doing a review of a Nintendo game. After all, just about every household had one and it's still the best selling console of all time. My next dilemma was choosing a game from Nintendo's impressive catalog of 799 titles.I finally settled on a game based on one of the top selling movie franchises in history. LJN Toy's 1989 "classic" Back to the Future. I couldn't remember a thing about the game since I hadn't actually played it in about 20 years, but I still watch the movies to this day so the games gotta be at least somewhat enjoyable right? As an added incentive LJN Toys was responsible for NES gems A Nightmare on Elm Street and Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure. If nothing else it should at the least be a fun trip down Nostalgia Avenue. It turned out to be one hellish nightmare I won't soon forget. I have no idea how 7 year old me could think this game was anywhere close to being fun because 28 year old me was ready to throw it out the window. At the breaking point, I reminded myself that I had a goal to achieve, a mission if you will. I was going to review this turd even if it killed me. So sit back, Velcro up your retro high tops, and enjoy the mind numbing ride that is Back to the Future.
Welcome to Hill Valley
As any good gamer would do, I cracked open the instruction manual to find out what I was getting myself into. The manual describes the game as follows;
Sounds like it follows the movie. So far, so good. At this point my overactive ADD got the best of me and I threw the manual down, blew the dust out of my old cartridge, and fired up my Nintendo. That turned out to be a HUGE mistake. I spent the first few minutes trying to figure out the controls. Direction pad moves left, right, up, and down. Innovative, I know. Start pauses the game. Okay so this is like every other game ever for the NES. B button jumps. Check. A button does... nothing? Hmmm... select does..... nothing. What the hell is going on here?
Level 1 - Streets
Despite the shitty controls and the fact that I didn't get to start out the game by driving the DeLorean into old man Peabody's barn, I'm still relatively optimistic about the game. Apparently, the point of this level is to navigate Marty through the mean streets of Hill Valley before your family photo - located at the bottom of the screen - slowly disappears. This follows the movie premise of you being erased from the future as a consequence of meddling in the past. I know it sounds complicated, so I brought in my friend Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future Trilogy, to explain the finer points of death by time travel. Take it away Doc!
See, it's all perfectly logical. Thanks Chris. I can take it from here. I can prevent being wiped from the plane of existence by collecting alarm clocks scattered all over the streets. Fortunately for me, there are hundreds of alarm clocks littering the streets of Hill Valley. It's a borderline epidemic. Before you ask, I have absolutely no clue how an alarm clock manages to restore the fabric of time, but it does. If facing death by time paradox didn't make for a shitty enough day, I've also got a level timer as well. If I don't make it to the end of the level before the timer expires, it's curtains for ole' Marty. So to recap, time itself is out to get me, a separate timer is breathing down my neck, and oh yeah, there's about a billion obstacles standing between me and the end of the street!
I'll take the time to explain each "villan" for this first level because you're going to be seeing a lot of them. 90% of this game is spent on the streets, with the same few baddies. Apparently, creativity was severely lacking at LJN Toys in 1989.
Hula Girl - In the screen shot to the left, you can see the Hula girl in all her glory. I really don't get this enemy at all. To me, an attractive, scantily clad woman in the middle of the street, gyrating her hips, is never a bad thing. A distraction? Yes. Bad? No. To compound matters, the Hula girls will "blow kisses" at you, which translates to throwing blue blobs at you on Nintendo's state of the art 8 bit graphics system.
Giant Bees - I don't remember a moment in my life that I have ever tapped into such a primal hatred for anything like I did for these fucking bees. For starters, they are the biggest bees ever! as you can see in the center screenshot, they are easily as big as Marty's head. They amuse themselves by flying around Marty attempting to touch him. Due to their insane size, they don't even have to sting him. The sheer force of the bee swinging its massive bulk into Marty is enough to send him back to the start. Did I say I hated these things?
Pink Bullies - These guys are tall, mean, sharply dressed, and looking to pummel McFly for no damn reason other than they can. Maybe it's because it's the 50's and anyone with the last name McFly is bound to attract trouble. Maybe it's excessive rage caused by years of performance enhancing drug use. Maybe it's the fact that someone threw a red shirt in the washer with their white tank tops and turned them pink. Regardless, these guys don't play around. If you manage to dodge them, they throw some kind of weird bluish object at Marty which oddly resembles... the Hula... girls... kisses.... Ohhhhhh.... that's why they're so angry!
Blue Bullies - These guys aren't as common as the pink bullies but can be just as fierce. Instead of trying to let out some of their homoerotic frustrations on Marty, these guys are far more occupied with a much more pressing task - walking around in a square pattern, completely oblivious to their surroundings. I like to think that LJN Toys put these guys in the game in an attempt to teach kids the obvious dangers of walking around in a square pattern in the middle of the street, oblivious to your surroundings. That may not be true, but it helps me sleep at night.
The Movers - Fantastic. As if bullies, teen hormones, and nature weren't enough, now Marty has to deal with another, far more devious, opponent. The American Union worker! These jackasses are too busy moving an invisible sheet of glass back and forth across the street to care that you're about to be wiped from existence. Or maybe they're just practicing moving a sheet of glass across a street so they can nail that next job interview. Whatever. At least they don't try to kiss you.
Obstacles - As if the entire town of Hill Valley out to stop Marty to complete his quest weren't enough, the game kicks it into overdrive with obstacles. You'll face open manholes, (which are not shortcuts to another level. Believe me, I found out the hard way.) Trashcans, and park benches. That's right, park benches. Someone thought it would somehow go unnoticed to place neon green park benches in the middle of the road that kill you. What the fuck is going on in 1955?
My Many, Many, Many Failed Attempts to Cross the Street
At first I thought this would be a breeze. No longer am I a scared little 7 year old who has issues with motor skills and bladder control. Nope. Now I'm a full fledged gamer who has done battles with the likes of Ninja Gaiden, The Flood in Halo, and even Sephiroth in Final Fantasy. What challenge could a Nintendo game from my early childhood pose? Apparently a big one. After the first hour of failing at navigating the streets, I decided that a drinking game was just the trick to put me over the top. So I took a shot everytime I died. After exhausting all booze in my house, (including a bottle of cooking brandy that my wife was not happy about), I still had not made it off the streets. I figured this was the end of it. Retro Reviews was dead before it had even taken flight. I was forced to concede defeat. Then a stroke of luck. Giving it one last effort, for posterities sake, I found myself near the end of the level. Holy crap! I was actually going to make it! Then, from out of nowhere, a bee approached menacingly. I steeled my nerves and fought back the urge to vomit that had been pressing on my throat since Yeager bomb number 4. My brain, awash in a flood of toxic booze, sprung into action and formulated a plan. My vision, blurred by what I can only assume to be mild alcohol poisoning, cleared for a brief moment. I deftly shifted to my left as my finger hovered over the B button. As the giant bee neared, I sprung my trap. I mashed the B button and Marty lept high into the crisp Hill Villey air. Damnit! Are you serious?! Fucking giant bees! Did I mention I hate those things?! Screw it. I'll try again tomorrow.
Finally, I cleared Stage One
Picking up where I had left off the day before, (stage 1 for those keeping tabs), I discovered something I had missed previously. Games are not nearly as hard when sober. After about four attempts I had managed to make it past the first stage. On to Stage 2.
Finally, the streets are nothing but a footnote in my conquest of time itself. I have no idea what challenges await me in Lou's Diner but it can't be that bad. Let's see, the screen opens up with Marty standing behind a counter in the diner. Okay. Oh look, here comes a guy. Maybe it's Marty's dad George. It kind of looks like him and this is where they met in the movie. Maybe he's going to ask me to help him score with Lorraine. Wait. Hey...what the hell are you doing?! That asshole just threw me out of the diner! No!! Not back to the streets!! Anything but that!
After a quick trip to Google, I figured out that you need to throw milkshakes at these "bullies" before they toss you back onto the streets. This is way harder than it sounds though. Your task is made insanely difficult by the fact that the 2-D graphics make depth perception an impossibility. To compound matters, you're never told how many bullies you need to dispatch before being allowed to move on. For a final zinger, the controls are altered for this level. The previously useless A button throws the milkshakes. The B button, which I mashed into oblivion on the streets, is now completely useless. In case you were wondering, select still does nothing.
After a few hours of honing my shake throwing skills, I finally managed to "kill" enough bullies to move on. Looks like the magic number was 50. At least the stupid streets are a thing of the past.
Level 3 - I Hate You Game
Four years after this game was unleashed on the world, a movie called Groundhog's Day was released, starring Bill Murray. In the movie, Murray's character slowly realizes that he is living the same day over and over and over again. No matter what he does throughout the course of his day, when he wakes up, everything has reset itself so to speak. By level three of this game I had to make sure I wasn't in the same situation as Murray. After squaring off against the bullies with my milkshakes of justice in Lou's Café, I found myself back on the streets. Damnit. At least they tried to break the torturous monotony by performing a pallet swap. The streets are now a sandy tan, surrounded by grey walkways. A stark contrast to the previously grey streets with green and tan walkways found in the first level. I would also like to take this time to mention something that I hadn't previously noticed. The in game music. I usually play video games with the sound off, so i can listen to my stereo. For some reason, I decided not to today. I regret having made that decision. The game manual gives musical credit as "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Huey Lewis or "The Power of Love". I do have an issue with "The Power of Love" being converted to midi, sped up, and having just the first three bars of the chorus loop ad infinum. After about 15 minutes, I found myself staring into the deepest recesses of my soul, fighting a battle for my sanity. Yeah. It was that bad. But enough about the soundtrack. Back to the game.
Having learned my lesson from the diner, I decided to check my controls for any sneaky swaps that LJN may have pulled. Direction pad moves Marty. Check. A button jumps. Okay. B button now does nothing. Hmmm. And select summons the spawn of Hell to fight along side Marty in his quest for survival! Just kidding. It still does nothing. After treading through another series of endless streets, facing the same baddies as before, I arrived at my next pitstop, emotionally unscarred for the most part.
Level 4 - Incest Anyone?
You may notice that screen shots are nowhere to be found for this level. There are two reasons for this; 1.) I was just barely hanging on to my sanity at this point in the game and for the most part forgot about everything except making it through the game. 2.) I figured I would test the waters of this level, so to speak, before getting some screenshots. Turns out I beat it on my first try. It was that easy. For those of you wondering why i didn't go back to get some screen shots, you can go to Hell. Because that's what I went through to get to this point in the game. Hell. I'm never going back either. In fact, once this review is complete, I plan on doing horrible, terrible, unspeakable things to my game.
Level 4 finds Marty in the school library, attempting to thwart the affections of his mother, Lorraine. While this is creepy on multiple levels, at least it follows the movie plot. After over 6 hours of gameplay, I haven't seen Biff, George, Goldie Wilson, or the Delorean. Not to mention I still haven't been able to steal some little girls scooter and fashion it into a makeshift skateboard which I can ride around town, dumping manure on Biff and winning over the hearts of the Hill Valley honeys in the process. So helping Marty spurn his mother's advances, while revolting, adds a much needed tie in with the movie.
Marty decides the best thing to do to keep from ending up on the Jerry Springer show is to hide on the opposite side of a large library table that eerily resembles the counter from Lou's Cafe. Lorraine stands on the opposite side and blows kisses at Marty. Marty is tasked with using a textbook to block the kisses. This was actually insanely easy. After blocking 50 kisses and figuring out that the select button is still useless, it's on to the next level.
Level 6 - Yeah, I skipped 5
We're going to hop over level 5 which is more streets. I can't relive it. it's just too painful. To make up for it, I remembered to include a screenshot from level six.
To be perfectly honest, I was looking forward to this part of the game. It's featured on the back of the box, so i knew it was coming. I'm a huge music fan and the school dance scene in the movie where Marty McFly rips out a jaw dropping rendition of Chuck Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode" was, and still is, one of my all time favorite movie scenes. Regardless of how horribly LJN Toys had distorted my opinion of Back to the Future up to this point, it would all be water under the bridge. Unfortunately for me, I keep forgetting that in reality land, I'm constantly getting my hopes up only to have them shattered. This was no exception.
In this level, Marty is supposed to rock out on stage to make his parents, George and Lorraine, fall in love. Disappointment does not scratch the surface of what I felt when playing this level. In order to accomplish your mission, Marty must "catch" floating musical notes with his guitar. Pressing up or down on the directional pad causes Marty to lift his guitar or lower it, respectively. Pressing left or right causes Marty to face that direction. Pressing A or B will do absolutely nothing. Pressing start will pause the game so you can reflect on just why the hell you're actually playing it. And, in a shocking twist, pressing select does abso-fucking-lutely nothing.
I'm guessing that LJN ran out of ideas for this game after level two because this is another easy mission. There are three notes that Marty can grab. Eighth notes, flats, and sharps. Now I'm no Mozart, but I do know my way around a sheet of music. Just as I suspected, eighth notes hit Marty dead center, flats hit Marty low and sharps hit Marty high. Catch enough of these and you'll fill up that giant red bar to the right of the screen and send George and Lorraine running to the nearest closet to bump uglies. Miss a note, and the meter drains significantly, putting you that much closer to being erased from time. Worse yet, one step closer to having to repeat the street level leading up to this stage.
On a positive note, the music actually resembled "Johnny B. Goode", albeit all midi sounding. But the brief hiatus from "The Power of Love" was enough to get the blood pouring out of my ears under control.
After filling the meter, it's on to yet another street stage before hitting the grand finale.
Level 7 - Or 8, I Lost Track
Finally! I get to drive the Delorean! Oh man, this is going to be sweet! I'm going to travel through time, get back to 1985, run from the Libyians, and still have time to take my smoking hot girlfriend to the lake in my new truck for a little bumpin' and grindin'. Not exactly. For the final level Marty must get the Delorean up to 88 miles per hour, (that's roughly 142 KPH for our friends across the pond), before making contact with the wire that Doc Brown, (who is nowhere to be found), has strung across the road. The resulting 1.21 jigawatts of power generated by the ensuing lightning strike will send Marty screaming all the way back to 1985.
Okay. One last time, let me check my controls. Directional pad moves the Delorean, no surprises there. Start pauses the game. A, B, and select do a whole lot of nothing. Really? You couldn't have made one of the buttons a speed boost or honk the horn or flash the lights? Anything? Well, whatever. Time to put this baby to bed.
This level is actually pretty tricky because lightning is constantly striking the road everywhere and causing little dark spots in the road. If you happen to run into one of these dark spots, your car slows down by 15 miles per hour (Sorry metric fans, I'm too lazy to convert that one). So you want to dodge everything on this level to get your car up to 88 mph before hitting the wire. So to recap, Drive fast. Don't hit stuff. Except for the wire. So hit stuff, but don't hit stuff. Ummm... Hit certain stuff. Simple right?
My Final, Agonizing Thoughts
What was supposed to be a pleasant trip back to the carefree innocence that was my childhood turned out to be one of the most painful periods in my life. Like most blockbuster licenses at the time, Back to the Future fell prey to a poorly thought out, poorly designed, and poorly executed gameplan. Looks like the good folks at LJN Toys were counting on name recognition to move this turd. And it worked, at least in my case.
I find it difficult to comprehend how a movie that gave the world such memorable characters as Doc Brown, Biff Tanner, Goldie Wilson, 3-D, and George McFly could spawn a game where none of these characters appear. It may not crack the top 5 worst games ever, but it's definitely in my top 20. If you happen to be looking for a fun little jog back to the days of yore, stay far, far, far away from this abomination. If you insist on playing it, I recommend tearing the select button off of your Nintendo controller before starting. You won't need it, and it will only get in your way.
I give Back to the Future for the NES a pathetic 1 Delorean out of 5. Now if you'll excuse me, my copy of this game has an appointment with the microwave. It may not produce 1.21 jigawatts, but I have a feeling it will send this game to a place where I'll never have to see it again.
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