Back to the Future II & III

Back to the Future II & III
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Game Name: Back to the Future 2 & 3
Platforms: NES
Publisher(s): LJN
Developer(s): Beam Software
Genre(s): Platformer
Release Date: 1990

Static made the point last week that many of my recent games have fallen into the “good” or at least “average” categories. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed something particularly heinous, and he requested that I do so since they usually turn out to be amusing reads. I was happy to oblige, and I knew right where to go – back the well, so to speak. Or in this case, back to the future.

We’ve already gone over how bad the first Back to the Future was. The sequel follows the same formula of overlong “overworld” sequences broken up by minigames ripped from classic Atari titles. Except in this case, you’ll be doing the digital equivalent of a treasure hunt through time. You will solve specific puzzle rooms to earn an item, and then take that item to another room in another time period, then repeat for the rest… and that’s the game. Yippie!

I’ll spare you a long synopsis of Back to the Future 2. It doesn’t factor too much into the game plot anyway, except that the film involved a lot of traveling between three specific years, and the game does the same. Basically, the main villain has stolen your time machine and thirty objects from the film’s three time periods. He’s hidden each one in a wrong year, and is kicking back and watching the time continuum piss itself over the resulting confusion. There’s no particular reason he has for wanting to destroy time itself, but this is exactly what will happen unless you bounce around the three years, and find and replace the mischievously-hidden objects.

So throughout the game, you will do things like locate and return a Walkman to 1985, and a single fucking milkshake to 1955. Now I love Chaos Theory as much as the next guy; butterfly flaps its wings in China and you get rain instead of snow in Deleware, etc, etc. But I find it hard to believe that someone is going to carbon-date a milkshake, realize it’s from the past, and… what’s the big fucking deal again? Regardless, it doesn’t matter that no one will ever logically know these everyday objects are from the wrong time – God knows, and He is angry.

You play by running down the streets of 1955, 1985, or 2015, stomping on the heads of bad guys in order to get keys. Keys unlock giant, floating, Twilight Zone doors scattered around the levels. Behind the doors are a one-screen Atari 2600 style of minigame, all involving platform jumping and clock collection. When you collect all the clocks, you win an misplaced future item. You then have to poke around the levels for secret rooms hidden in pipes or manholes, where you select the item out of an icon list of all the ones you have collected thus far.

And here’s the final laugh – you’re never TOLD what the item is when you pick it up. The screen literally informs you that “you have picked up ….?” You must then rely on NES detail to figure out what you have acquired – and we all know how well that works. To further insult you, each item-placing room doesn’t directly tell you what item it requires – you have to solve a word scramble based on what you think the items you have could possibly be. “Milkshake” is probably an easy one to solve. But “Fire_Extinguisher” or “Roulette_Wheel?” C’mon. Picking the wrong item means that the item will disappear back to its original hidey spot, and you’ll have to go collect it again. There are no saves or passwords of course, but you probably already figured that.

Seriously, what the fuck?

The game itself rides in on the crazy horse with its collection of unexplained, outlandish enemies. NES Logic has never looked so insane. I guess you can chalk walking hamburgers with eyes and flying ghost faces up to the disruption of the time continuum. The enemies will change their look based on the time period, but retain their behavior – so the stout, walking hamburger becomes a stout, walking trash can. Just like Nightmare on Elm Street you can easily spot an enemy through his new “disguise,” but the intent to separate the time periods distinctly is appreciated.

Still, their designs are strange, and there are more than a few who absolutely defy identification; like a yellow dinosaur dropped from a moving cloud, or what appears to be a smiling, hopping pickle in a top hat.  I mean… the game needed enemies, but these look like character designs for some other game altogether. Or maybe LJN wanted to make it inviting for the kids. Or more likely, they just had nothing left. I could totally buy the idea of a creatively-bankrupt LJN/Beam Software by 1990.

The game is divided into streets accessible through gates passing by in the background. There are sixteen streets in all, and they do not change their layout throughout the three time periods. This allows for some mildly-interesting landmarks that alter across time, like the Courthouse from the film. The game implications are that the connectors change between time periods, so some streets are inaccessible from one period and require shuttling back and forth with the time machine. However, it’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out what street you’re on. The gates contain some kind of marker system which may be a clue, and the landmarks assist somewhat, though there aren’t enough of them to really help. You’ll need hand-drawn maps if you want to finish the game – and that more than anything will probably affect whether you want to play.

I must give some credit that the time possibilities are not completely overlooked. I already talked about using the time machine to get to streets you can’t access directly. Once you find a remote for the DeLorean, you can call it to you at any time and jump to one of the three years, provided you’ve collected enough fuel icons to pay for the trip. However, every time you jump to a specific year and back, you create a clone of yourself that will show up as an enemy somewhere in the level. More jumping means more clones, and a greater likelihood that you will cross paths. The clones mirror your movements and will kill you if they touch you, so you must lure them to a death at the bottom of a pit – a proposition that seems sketchy for your continued existence, at best. You can also collect an acorn that you can plant anywhere in the level. When you travel into the future, it will have turned into a sturdy stalk you can climb to reach unreachable platforms.

Some of the minigames are also mildly inventive, like the one where grabbing a clock reveals part of the level each time, or where deadly clones are sent after you and mimick your every platform jump. Fairly clever ideas, at least more so than I was expecting.

There’s a “3” in that title, isn’t there? The two films were shot back to back, so I presume this is some side effect of the license or a plan to tie in with both. Either way, the “third” game is identical to what you’ve been playing all along, except taking place in the American Old West. This could really be considered the fourth time period, though you do not travel between years anymore, or have access to the DeLorean. Instead, you have a few desert screens that you wander through, with Western items hiding in locked caves (locked CAVES?) you must get keys for, and then rooms hidden under rocks that you must place them in. The main difference is that the treasure hunt is all contained to one time period, which obviously looks different.

Cameo by Smokey the Bear

A different look for each year has been created and maintained. 1955 looks bright and lush, while 1985 looks black and green to suggest the apocalyptic results of dinking with time. The western look of Back to the Future 3 arguably looks the best, despite the fact that entire game seems to have been added as an afterthought. I suspect they were able to reuse textures from another desert game, since nothing about it looks particularly exclusive to the franchise. Music is fairly standard, again with one theme for each time period, one of which simply reuses the main title theme. They sort of dissolve into the background, and give the impression that they were created and implemented mostly to fill some kind of music requirement.

Effects are a weaker point with an annoying “sproing” jumping sound, and the reverse for dying/falling. A generic pickup chime and a scratch for being hit complete the set. The truly irritating part is a bird that carries a shrill theme announcing its presence for no apparent reason. The background music dies while this piercing tune plays as long as the bird is near the screen, though the bird is not a unique or special enemy that requires specific attention. It becomes special when you flee just to avoid the sound, or reach frantically for the mute button.

I can say that Back to the Future 2 and 3 offers more gameplay than the original, and is barely a better game. The treasure hunt is a fairly creative idea, and the time travel elements aren’t completely forgotten. Still, the whole plot is more like a college prank than anything particularly devious, and the main game comes off like a frustrating combination of Mario and Metroid. The treasure hunt aspect is mostly an excuse to move you through the levels and force you to look in obscure places and play average minigames to win. It has more thought put into it than the typical quickie action scroller, but is still on overall failure.

 

The Good

It’s better than the first Back to the Future game.

The Bad

One of the most hallucinogenic, uninteresting, and generally lame scavenger hunts you could ever participate in.

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