Review by ramsiverse

Reviewed: 03/09/09

A game that shouldn't have been made


Before I begin, I want to address one simple question I have for LJN, the developers of the video game, Back to the Future: Why did there need to be a video game based on Back to the Future? Let me answer my own rhetorical question. The movie was a success. It was unique, funny, and had a great presentation. After all, it spawned two other sequels that were just as popular and well-received as the first. The film appealed to a large fan base, including children. And that’s what happened. Back in the days when Nintendo was for kids, developers would do anything to get them to beg their parents for money. The fruits of their labor? Games like this and Karate Kid and Wayne‘s World, which are developed within a couple of months and hit the shelves as fast as possible without so much effort made to ensure that the game is actually good. The name on the box will sell the game, and that’s all LJN wanted. I don’t think they realized , or maybe they didn’t care, that those same kids would look at that LJN label next time and remember the pain they went through in their previous garbage. Was I ranting? Let’s get into the game…

When I first heard of Back to the Future for NES, thankfully I was about 19 and not 9. I wondered how they could make such a game, like the “Da Vinci Code” video game or “Lost“. The movie had very few elements that could be made into a game, so I was mystified, and yet curious. So what’s it all about?

You play as Marty, which is mentioned in text throughout the game. You walk along the streets of Hill Valley; a constantly-moving screen going upwards with your character. There are roughly 15 of these levels with extremely similar designs. Some are positively replicants of one another. There is a 200 NES-second time limit on each stage, equivalent of about a minute and a half on Earth-time. Along the way, you encounter various obstacles that, when touched, slow you down. If you don’t make it to the end of the stage in time, Marty fades out of existence and you have to complete the level again. After every four of these “walking levels”, you must complete a mini-game that corresponds to selected events from the hit film. Four of these events are included and mostly involve moving up and down to catch or avoid obstacles, much like the walking levels.

My first complaint about the gameplay is that it’s boring. I said there were 15 levels of these walking stages, but they all play the same way. If I were to play any of them at random, I couldn’t tell you where they were placed in the game. They’re all the same. In the later levels, the enemies become more aggressive and the levels seem slightly longer, but it’s really the same level times 15. LJN must have known this, because they added the sub-stages to evenly-space the monotony. It wouldn’t surprise me if they wanted to release the game as entirely walking stages.

The mini-games are pathetic. The first one is too hard the first time you play it. I was so surprised to see something new that I wasn’t prepared for a different game. Again, you’re Marty, and this time you’re at Lou’s café. Behind the bar, you must fend off at least 50 bullies to continue on to the next walking level. How do you fend them off? With milkshakes. Marty has an endless supply of milkshakes and is able to throw them perfectly straight. Move Marty up and down, and when a bully comes, line up Marty with the bully and throw. The main problem is that it’s too hard to tell where you’re going to throw. You’re having to keep your eyes on opposite ends of the screen and line it up. It’s terrible. To aid you in this madness, you can use what I’ve heard called a “super shake”, which eliminates all enemies on screen. Marty doesn’t even throw it; everyone just falls down, shakes their head, then turn into 100’s.

The other mini-games are bad, but bearable. In one, you have to fend off Lorraine’s affections by moving up and down and catching all of the hearts she throws at you. I don’t get it; I guess it’s supposed to be symbolic. I mean, I doubt they meant Lorraine to actually throw hearts at you. So what happens when you lose and miss a heart? Does that mean that Marty succumbed to his mother’s affections? Gross…

The mini-game where you play the guitar is odd. You have to catch notes that are flying toward you from the left and right. Catch enough and a thermometer on the side will fill up and an enlarging heart will appear between your parents, signifying either a heart attack or love. Why a thermometer? I wouldn’t consider that to be a hot scene by any definition. Now I’m no musician, but I doubt this mini-game is anything like playing Johnny Be Good. Still, it’s nice to hear some different music for a change.

The last mini-game involves the Delorean. And you may think, “Yeah! I remember that from the movie! This should be awesome!” Well, needless to say, it isn’t. Before the stage begins, a message appears saying, “You’ve only got one chance to get back,” or something like that. And they’re not kidding; screw up once and it’s Game Over. Whatever extra lives you have are gone and you start back at the very beginning so you better make it count. You control the Delorean as you head upwards on a very tiny length of road, dodging lightning bolts. What sucks is that you never know where the lightning is going to strike, so you end up driving over the pot holes they create, slowing you down significantly. If you don’t get up to 88 mph by the end of the stage, you don’t make it. Once, I made it up to 87 mph and lost. Harsh. I see where LJN was going with this. In the movie, everything was riding on that one event. Really, the suspense involved Doc Brown and his setting up the wire, but the point was that there was only one shot, so LJN thought that there should be no extra chances with it, either. But wait, when you don’t make it to the end of the street in time on the walking stages, Marty vanishes, presumably from existence. And yet that’s forgivable… whatever, I don’t care…

I went into all the mini-games, but the main game is in the walking. Let’s start with the obstacles. Guys in red or blue will try to touch you (I guess they are bullies), hoola-hooping girls will shoot something your way, and vicious bees will constantly thwart your attempts to reach the end. Also, the streets are a mess for 1955, as you’ll find numerous trash cans, misplaced planters, and open manholes all over the place. Even touching the walls will cause you fall down. Touching the walls? Seriously? They did that in Silver Surfer, too. Terrible, just terrible…

I wanna talk about the bees. There are more bees than any other enemy in the game and they will be your constant cause of death. But why bees? Bees are normally docile, so why do each and every one of them want Marty dead? Does time travel envelope you in sugar or pollen? And there are so many of them! Personally, I hate bees. They freak me out, so to put myself in Marty’s position is a personal hell of mine. They were difficult to avoid when I first played, but I found that keeping to either side of the screen causes them to make a big swoop off-screen and won’t return.

Speaking of off-screen antics, that pisses me off more than anything. In most games, when an enemy is off-screen, they pose no more threat to you. Not in Back to the Future, though. Many times I assumed that I was in the clear once the hoola-hoop girls were led out the bottom of the screen, then a stray ‘bullet’ will suddenly take me out! Sometimes a bee that I assumed had gone away will come back out of the bottom of the screen, leaving me no time to react. You have the ability to roam all around the screen, but it’s often best to stay near the bottom.

So how do you protect yourself from all of the horrors of Hill Valley? If you survive long enough in a given stage, you’ll encounter a small black object. For the longest time, I avoided it because I thought it was an obstacle. Nothing really looks like what it’s supposed to in this game, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Especially Marty; why is he wearing a black shirt and helmet? Anyway, this black object is apparently a projectile weapon for you. From what other people have said and from the tiny three holes that are visible, I can conclude that it’s a bowling ball. Why a bowling ball? It has nothing to do with the film and absolutely nothing to do with physics. Marty can throw the balls so fast and with such un-erring accuracy that I had trouble accepting it as a bowling ball. Use it to hit certain things in your path, including bees. You get a lot of points for hitting bees, which is understandable. If I saw someone throw a bowling ball at a bee and have it connect, I’d probably give the guy five dollars.

Survive longer after you get the bowling ball and you’ll find a skateboard. Now that’s more like the movie. The skateboard makes you go faster, which is both good and bad since it gets you to the end faster and makes it harder to avoid obstacles. You can also jump, but it doesn’t do much for you. You can hop over trash cans and planters, but don’t try to jump over benches. Who do you think you are? Rocky Balboa? But jumping over fences? No problem.

As you can see from my rating, this game can’t be the worst. It may have a lot of mistakes, but I can think of two things that are redeemable. The gameplay, although dull and repetitive, isn’t actually too bad for an NES game. One- the controls are solid. Marty moves around at a reasonable speed, which is necessary in this kind of game. And two- flying down (or up, rather) the street on the skateboard is surprisingly fun. Though it’s not always easy to avoid hitting things, it moves fast and presents a good challenge. I only wish you could always have the skateboard.

I chose not to go into detail about the clocks that you pick up because they really just seem to be for points, and to give you something to collect. There’s also something about a picture of Doc, Marty, and Marty’s brother at the bottom of the screen that I don’t understand. As time goes by, one of them starts to disappear. Collect clocks to make them come back. I’ve never had all three of them disappear and it’s very easy to keep them from doing so, so it must not add too much to the game anyway.

The ending is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. I had to play through this game several times before I was able to get back to 1985, and when I finally did, I was treated with some corny text, then back to the title screen. Zero replay value. It took me about 20 minutes to beat the game.

I also want to mention the music. It’s awful. It’s not from the film, even though the film had a great theme to work off of, and it loops over and over again until the very end. The track itself is quite repetitive, so hearing it constantly makes a bad game even worse. So plug in the stereo and listen to something else. And while you’re at it, just turn off this horrible game.

Rating: 3

Product Release: Back to the Future (US, 09/30/89)

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