Back to the Future
Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre: Run-and-Gun Action
Here we are again. Another film adaptation game on the NES, another trial I have wittingly thrown myself into. I’ve made no secret of my love for the somewhat broken Friday the 13th and my enjoyment of the slightly-more-broken Nightmare on Elm Street. That said, those games are also based off of films that I love. Is it biased to give games leeway because we love the source material? Kind of. I still stand by the idea that Friday the 13th has more to offer than it gets credit for, at the very least.
That said, what happens when a game comes up for a property that you’re ambivalent about? Don’t get me wrong- I really enjoy the Back to the Future films. I didn’t grow up watching them every day or anything, though. In fact, I didn’t watch the entirety of the first film until sometime in my late high school career. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t have the nostalgia factor that some of my favorites have.
I did, however, have vague memories of playing the game on Nintendo a while ago. My childhood mind had some recollections of near-impossible minigames and something about running down a street. For whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to try to fill in those gaps and go back to play Back to the Future now that I’ve grown a bit and found an appreciation for particular game design choices and gained more of a critical eye for ways older games could be improved on.
I’m sure you can already tell how this went, but let’s push forward and maybe we’ll learn a thing or two along the journey!
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Back to the Future, the movie follows Marty McFly, a teenager who finds himself accidentally transported back to 1955. While there, he accidentally alters history, impeding his parents from ever falling in love. If they didn’t fall in love, however, he would never come to be born. Realizing this, he has to find a way to bring his parents back together so that he and his siblings don’t disappear from existence while also trying to find his way back to his own time.
The game follows this plot pretty faithfully. While interviews indicate that Bob Gale, one of the screenwriters, refused to advise on the game’s development until it was too far along to be altered, the game follows Marty as he travels across his hometown of Hill Valley, trying to achieve everything he does in the film: dodging bullies, skateboarding around town and generally trying to set his parents up while his mother tries to become his girlfriend.
Yeah, the 80s were creative and weird.
Back to the Future plays out in two different styles of gameplay. The main method of play involves the player controlling Marty as he runs down sections of the Hill Valley streets, trying to get from one end to the other in one piece as fast as he can. Not unlike Paperboy, the game turns Marty into a perpetually running force. You can control his speed and where he is directed, but he doesn’t stop moving toward his goal unless he runs into an obstacle. Between killer bees, hula-hooping teenyboppers, and angry bullies, you’ll see Marty fall on his face multiple times throughout the short time the game plays out.
There are also a number of factors working against Marty that are more passive than the enemies, however. Each new section grants a particular amount of time to get to the end of the street. If it runs out, Marty fails, disappearing from existence and forcing the player to start that area again. At the bottom of the screen, there is also a picture not unlike the picture Marty refers to in the film. The more the player gets damaged and loses lives, the people in the picture fade away. If the center figure of Marty disappears, it’s game over.
Luckily, there are beneficial items strewn throughout the streets to help with these issues. By collecting clocks as you travel, you can preserve the picture for longer (collecting 100 brings the picture back to full exposure, which is extra helpful). Along with that, if you can keep Marty on his feet for a while, you can pick up a bowling ball, allowing him to lob them at enemies for points and to clear his path. Keep him upright even longer, you can find a skateboard which will make him travel much faster. Should you get hit or run into anything, though, all of your powerups are lost so it’s important to be alert at all times.
There are three minigames to be played, as well, though they all play in a somewhat similar fashion with Marty in one part of the screen while some element comes toward him from another. The first has him behind the counter at a local diner, throwing food at incoming bullies to ward them away. The next involves his mother, Lorraine, blowing kisses in the form of hearts which he must block with a notebook. Finally, the climactic scene at the school dance has him taking the stage with his guitar where he needs to catch musical notes to fill a gauge and make his parents fall in love. When these are boiled down, they all handle about the same by moving Marty or some part of Marty up and down the screen to line up with the objects he needs to block or catch with the exception being that a button needs to be pushed for him to ward off bullies in the first sequence.
The final ‘boss’ plays out like the street running portions but has the famous DeLorean racing toward its goal, dodging lightning bolts with the right and left directionals that will slow it down. If it reaches the end of the road at 88 MPH, Marty makes it back to his time and everything goes back to normal! If not…
The Good, The Bad, And…
Oh, where to begin? How about at the end? The game’s final stage is a slap in the face to anyone who has made it that far. Despite offering up a number of lives to the player, the final stage is exactly as it implies. Should you succeed, you get the usual short text ending that LJN gave so frequently before being dumped back into the title screen. Should you fail, that’s it. The game is done with you. You are told that Marty is stuck in 1955 and yet again, you are dumped unceremoniously back to the title screen. The game’s short enough, so if a player really feels like going back through to try again, more power to them. I can’t imagine, even as a naive and hopeful kid, I would have wanted to wade through again just to take another chance at such a poorly conceived finale.
The game itself is also just riddled with problems. The street sequences are incredibly repetitive and rely on a few cheap tricks to blindside players. For example, some enemies will shoot things at you while some won’t. You may not know which is which until you try to narrowly avoid some other obstacle or pick up a powerup. Given how few enemies there are in the game, it feels like an attempt at cheap padding rather than keeping the player on their toes. Not to mention the hitboxes are just terrible, resulting in some projectiles passing right through Marty while some will knock him down from what the player will find should be a safe distance.
It’s rare that I triple up on negatives for a game, but I feel like rules are made to be bent every so often so- here we are. The minigames also feel like cheap attempts to trick the player. You aren’t given any guidance regarding how long you have to survive these interludes (unless it’s in the manual which most people have lost at this point, if they had it at all). The diner sequence seems to be a “go until you lose” type of bonus round while if you miss dodging just one of Lorraine’s kisses, you have to replay the lead-up street sequence to the minigame again and make another attempt. I’m not even sure how to lose the “on stage” sequence since I was doing terribly with it before I caught how I was supposed to play.
The game really is just a mess, but I’m sure I can find a positive. It’s short. Even with deaths and its difficulty, I got through to the end in about an hour or so. There.
For the most part, the game is okay to look at. There only real problem I had myself was with the Lorraine minigame as the colors were clashing a bit, making my objective difficult to manage. Everything looks like it should, and while the streets have monotonous gameplay, the palette seems to change to indicate the passage of time from morning to night as you continue through. There’s nothing special here but the look of the game is probably the least offensive factor.
If you read my review on Friday the 13th, you’ll know that the limited soundtrack was one of my least favorite factors of the game. Back to the Future makes that soundtrack look like a full night at the opera. The only musical tracks that play are during the street scenes and during the concert minigame. The concert sounded vaguely like “Johnny B. Goode” from the film so I’ll give some points there. Supposedly, the street theme is a riff on “The Power of Love”. If it was, I never want to hear that song again. The rendition eventually just feels like a staccato of the same five or so notes over and over again, creating a droning and eventually grating tune that had me anxious to get to the next minigame. The other two had no music, for the record, only using sound effects for a couple of elements in each.
In the interest of being fair, the original Back to the Future doesn’t exactly lend itself to an action game like the NES was saturated with. It’s a fun movie, but this is almost like someone saw the skateboard sequence from the film and decided to throw a game around that. It never really pans out into an entertaining endeavor, though.
If you really feel the need to go back and play Back to the Future to try it-
All right, listen. Let me talk to you plainly here. I get those inclinations, too. Obviously, I empathize or you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Unless you’re a collector or a completionist, just go watch the movie. Grab some snacks, curl up in a blanket or with a loved one, and just go pop in a DVD or Blu-Ray or whatever medium you prefer. Back to the Future is a mess from beginning to end, and I can promise you that you are going to enjoy watching Michael J. Fox and the other folks who made a solid classic film over an hour and a half far more than you will while looking for quality or fun in this cartridge.