Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Closer Look at Back to the Future

A Closer Look at
Back to the Future (NES)

As long as you forget that this is a game based on a movie, and a very cool movie, Back to the Future for the NES isn’t that bad of a game.

Back to the Future for the NES is a vertical scrolling shooting game with four mini-game “boss” levels. The main part of the game features you as “Marty McFly” trapped in 1955. (I put the name in () because I do not recall Marty wearing a black muscle shirt in the movie, so I am only guessing that you are supposed to be Marty…) Your goal is to reach four distinct points in your parents’ history and make sure that they fall in love and get married, and that you get back to 1985. To reach each of these four clutch points, you’ll have to survive four danger filled city blocks rife with open manholes, “bullies,” and bees. Lots of bees.

Doesn’t sound much like the Hill Valley you remember from the movie? Me either. As a matter of fact, apart from the four mini-game boss levels, there is very little here that would even hint that the game is representative of the movie. I’ll get to the mini-game levels in a minute, but first let’s focus on the main game.

The main game has you navigating the increasingly active streets of Hill Valley where hula hoop girls throw small blue wads of something at you, Guido-esque bullies menace you, and bees are everywhere. I repeat, bees are everywhere. Initially you have to maneuver yourself so that you avoid these dangers. Eventually you will have the opportunity to pick up a bowling ball power-up that allows you to throw infinite bowling balls at your enemies, yes even the bees! If you are successful enough to avoid getting touched by anything on the screen, and I mean anything even a park bench or fence, you will get the opportunity to mount a skateboard and race to the finish of the block, still avoiding bees.

Now I don’t know about you, but my favorite part of Back to the Future , the movie, is the part where Marty rides a skateboard four city blocks chucking bowling balls at Italian ruffians and endless hordes of bees. I realize that the makers of the game were trying to take a science fiction comedy and turn it into a video game, but some of the liberties taken here are just absurd. The only part of the main game that even suggests that this is a Back to the Future tie-in is the “health meter/timer.” At the bottom of the screen is a very loose interpretation of the photo Marty has in his wallet of his brother and sister (pretty mediocre photographic fakery—ELB). As you work your way through the level, the picture fades out (as if it has been erased from existence…). Run into enough delays and the picture fades, and so do you. To help stave off the impending erasure, you can pick up hundreds of clocks that litter the Hill Valley streets. Each clock restores a bit of the picture. However, there is also an additional timer for each block that cannot be slowed. Run out of time on that counter and you’ll fade out no matter what.

If the people at LJN wanted to make a great Back to the Future game, they really should have spent more time developing the mini-game levels or, you know, watching the film. The mini-games are where the game really shines. Each level is reached once four city blocks have been completed. Shockingly, the levels are actually based on scenes in the movie. The first scene takes place in Lou’s Coffee Shop. Marty must fend off Biff’s cronies by throwing milkshakes at them. In the second game, Marty must fend off his mother Lorraine’s amorous advances at Hill Valley High. Third, you must make sure your parents kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. You’ll have to catch all the notes you can on your guitar before the picture fades away to set the mood for this fateful smooch. Finally, you’ll have to drive the Delorean down the street and across the wire at the exact moment the lightning bolt strikes the clock tower or you’ll be stuck in 1955 forever. These levels are the real meat and potatoes of the game and you really only tolerate the monotonous street levels so that you can have a crack at these babies.

As a whole, this game isn’t terribly put together or executed. The street levels increase in difficulty between mini-game levels at a reasonable rate and evaluated simply as a vertical shooter, the game succeeds in presenting a reasonable challenge. The mini-games are equally challenging and take some practice to master, but are not impossible to beat. The punishment for failing the mini-game levels however, is another round of street levels, so I recommend you get competent quickly. Graphically, the game is sound if not impressive. Again, the mini-game levels look heads above the average graphics of the street levels. The soundtrack is probably the biggest letdown in the game. The music is casio-keyboard simple and extremely repetitive. I suggest you listen to the music for one street level and then put in a Huey Lewis CD (tape if you’ve got it). Thus far I have been able to clear the Dance stage and have made it halfway to the Clock Tower, but the later street levels are so hard they demand an almost perfect run. With so many swarming bees that isn’t likely. That said I do feel that with a few more games under my belt I can make it to the Clock Tower and eventually back to 1985. The game doesn’t feel unbeatable.

In the final estimation, Back to the Future for the NES is closer to classic than crap. I realize that statement is a bit scandalous, but the only real failure of BttF is in its attempt to be a movie adaptation. If you called this game “Skateboardin’ Adventures” the disappointment level would drop ten points. Ultimately what we have here is an average scrolling shooter with some better than average mini-games. The game is playable and the controls are simple enough that you’ll be at Lou’s in no time. Just don’t come here looking for classic Back to the Future action and you’ll be fine.


If you are really determined to see this thing to its natural conclusion here are some tips that might help you along:

On the street levels: The bowling ball and the skateboard are essential to success here, especially in the levels between the Dance and the Clock Tower. Practice hitting the bees early on, because in later levels they will swarm en masse and your skills will need to be sharp if you are to survive. The skateboard can be dangerous if you do not master jumping with it, but once you do it makes the whole experience much more tolerable. Not only will you zoom through levels (again a must in later levels) but you’ll pick up clocks faster and keep your picture intact longer. Do not pass these two items up. Note: The skateboard only appears if you already have the bowling ball.

Lou’s CafĂ©: Do not forget about the super shake that clears all on-screen bullies at once. Use it in a pinch or if you mis-throw a regular shake. You don’t often get a second chance to correct an ill aimed toss. After about 25 bullies, the waitress will bring you another super shake, so use it with confidence.

School: This level is pretty easy. Marty’s book is pretty wide and can usually block hearts on two levels at once giving you a little flexibility on your positioning. I find that more often than not the hearts sneak by underneath my position rather than behind. Just sail along, Kaboom! style and things should be fine.

The Dance: This is the easiest mini-game I encountered once you learn the secret pattern of the notes. Sharps are always high, flats are always low, and the other notes are always in the middle. As long as you remember that, you should clear this level perfect every time.
88 miles per hour: Once I get to this level, I will update this section and tell you how I managed to get back to 1985.

Your Friend in Time

My next Closer Look will be at the two Beauty and the Beast games for the SEGA Genesis.

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