The holidays are over now, and if you’re anything like me, you spent a lovely two hours watching the greatest Christmas movie ever made. And if you’re anything like me, you then ducked into your closet and pulled out the ragged box and 5 1/4″ floppy disks for a game you bought off Ebay long ago, ready to keep the festive spirit alive with a quirky tie-in featuring some advanced technology for 1989. (If you’re not like me, I still hope you watched Die Hard.)
This particular title is one of the first examples of what would become the modern third person shooter. The manual claims the design team created an entirely new 3D technology, and I’m going to trust its contemporary boasting over my own memory. Truly revolutionary or not, their engine is certainly impressive. The game takes place entirely within the film’s skyscraper, with floors rendered real-time in 3D. A sprite of the heroic John McClane is placed firmly in the center, with sprite-based enemies scaling appropriately to show distance. The surrounding world is made of monochrome polygons (similar to Corporation) but with basic shading, and a greater amount of decoration (including polygon potted plants, desks, and chairs). There are also 16-color renditions of stills from the film that tell the story through occasional cutscenes.
McClane prowls the polygon halls across six distinct levels. The progression of levels is always linear and replicates key moments from the film. The first floor requires you to locate a security station to unlock the stairs and proceed – you’ll need to reference code grids in the manual to do this. Next, it’s off to the rooftops where you’ll encounter your first guys with machine guns. After shooting out a fan, you’ll scour a boardroom level, contact the police, and find supplies needed to recreate McClane’s computer monitor bomb. The final few levels have you fighting Karl hand to hand, leaping off the roof via a fire hose, and rescuing your wife held hostage by the terrorist leader. You’ll also need to do it all in 20 minutes, tracked by a digital timer at the top of the screen.
Each of the individual levels is open to exploration. You drive McClane with the number pad, moving forward, backward, and sidestepping with relative ease. You have to hold the Shift key down as a modifier to turn 90 degrees at a time. It’s a bit odd, but it works. Most inventory goodies you find will come from dispatching terrorists and searching their bodies with the S key. Items range from guns and health to mission items and a radio to track messages between the crooks. Bathrooms hold first aid kits, which store a few uses before running out. Blue tiles on the walls can be used to display a helpful map of the current level – useful because the monochrome hallways and relative lack of detail make it easy to get lost.
While the third person view doesn’t do much for navigation – this could have been an FPS for all intents and purposes – it does help with the combat system. Guns are scarce and enemies can absorb a few bullets, so hand-to-hand combat becomes your primary means of introducing yourself. Unarmed terrorists looking for a fight will walk up to McClane and lock in place. You hold down the space bar as a combat modifier, and the number pad keys now control punches, kicks, jumps, and dodges.
The system reminds me of BioForge, and is about as clunky. The value of many of these options is also dubious – you can block, but it doesn’t seem to actually negate any damage. There aren’t enough animations to signal a particular attack is coming and respond, so it becomes a paper-rock-scissors level of guesswork, or as I found, a rush to get a groove of punch/kick/punch going that your opponent can’t break. Terrorists also have tangibly different skill levels, so you will encounter faster and stronger foes throughout the regular levels. Their paths are somewhat random but the stats don’t change – the guy with the cigarettes in the first level is always tougher than they guy with the cord.
Other terrorists are armed. Charging them is an appropriately terrible idea, so G (M for machine guns) and H switch between your guns and hands. Confusingly, the combat system changes for guns. You don’t hold down space bar anymore, instead, one tap (while holding a gun) puts you into “aim mode” and any taps after will fire. 4 and 6 on the number pad aim the gun to about eight horizontal positions, but you only seem to need to point in the general direction of your target. Flying bullets are displayed as red crosses. It’s in your interest to avoid these, either by using a corner for cover or sidestepping. If you dodge enough bullets, many enemies will run out and switch to fists. In another nice move, you can point your own gun at unarmed foes and send them scurrying away.
It’s these controls that become the game’s biggest barrier to entry. Simply put, you’ll need to practice them over and over until you no longer “panic” when under attack. On the melee side, the game’s slow speed doesn’t respond well to button mashing. McClane is also stunned briefly after each punch he takes, forcing you to be as patient as a zen master to get that crucial combo going. I’ve also noticed that USB keyboards don’t seem to respond correctly to having the space bar held down as a modifier, so a small percentage of strikes just don’t fire – an unintended issue not present with PS/2 boards.
The shift in mechanics when guns get involved doesn’t seem drastic in print, but simple issues like needing to tap the space bar versus hold it, and needing to avoid the Shift key (which now drops you from gun mode) become a lot to remember. Gun battles particularly require you to keep some mobility, as each bullet that hits you drops you out of aim mode. This means dodging around until they run out, or just marching up to another shooter, whacking the space bar as fast as possible, and accepting any damage you take. The controls will get you around, but they really aren’t sharp enough for strategy; overall, the biggest disappointment.
The 20 minute time limit means this is a short game by nature, but the overall lack of health kits and movement fidelity more than make up for it. There are no saves, so you’re going to have to restart countless times while fighting the controls all the way. There are, however, multiple endings, and some ways to play differently. How does the story change if you choose not to drop the body in the boardroom and alert the police? What happens if you never encounter Karl’s brother and take his radio? Or what’s behind the door near the end if you manage to hold the key in your inventory the whole game (hint: something helpful).
Make no mistake, this version of Die Hard is brilliant and inventive for 1989 – reminding me a lot of The Terminator‘s shot at new and complex gameplay ideas. The 3D engine runs very well and its approximations of setpieces from the flick are easy enough to identify. But the controls are also too clunky to imagine many players seriously sticking with it. There’s a reason you don’t see any photos or YouTube videos past the first level, and it took me, literally, weeks (plus a custom version of DosBox supporting save states) to get to the point where I could write this. Neat for the historical value, but not something you’re likely to want to play yourself.
Follow the movie and affect its plot in small ways. Pretty excellent early 3D engine, with some moderately gimmicky third person elements.
Finicky to emulate properly (2300 cycles on a simple CPU for DosBox seems ideal). Controls get overly complicated and don’t always share logical keymappings between modes. No saves, limited health, and tough foes mean beating it will require some serious dedication.