Back to the Future II & III

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, which he requested that I do, 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 a treasure hunt through time. You’ll solve specific puzzle rooms to earn an item, then take that item to another room in another time period. Repeat for the rest… and that’s the game. Yippie!

Alternate 1985, under Biff’s rule, is so corrupt the trash cans are staging a walk-out.

The plot of Back to the Future 2 doesn’t factor in much here, except that the film involved a lot of traveling between three specific years and the game does the same. For the game, evil Biff Tannen 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 now kicking back, watching the time continuum piss itself in confusion. There’s no particular reason given for wanting to destroy time itself, but this is exactly what will happen unless you bounce around the three years, finding and replacing the mischievously-hidden objects.

You have no weapons in the entire game, so you play by running down the streets of 1955, 1985, or 2015 and 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 minigame, all involving platform jumping and clock collection. If you collect all the clocks, you win a misplaced future item. You then have to poke around the levels for secret rooms hidden in pipes or manholes, where you select your item out of an icon list of all the ones you have collected thus far.

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. When you take an item to a hidden room, you have to solve a word scramble to figure out what item it wants. “Milkshake” is probably an easy one to solve. But “Fire_Extinguisher” or “Roulette_Wheel?” C’mon. Those tiny icons are your only clues. Picking the wrong item means that the item will disappear back to its original hidey spot, so you’ll have to go collect it again. There are no saves or passwords of course, but you probably already figured that.

What the fuck?

Enemies make no sense. 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? That’s just the ones you can sort of make out. 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. 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 at least appreciated.

Time periods are 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 years. This allows for some mildly-interesting landmarks that alter across time, like the Courthouse from the film. Connecting streets DO 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 occasional landmarks assist somewhat, but 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.

Somehow, saving time means playing Donkey Kong Jr.

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. That’s a unexpectedly smart use of the time mechanic. Some of the minigames are also mildly inventive, like the one where grabbing each clock builds out part of the level, or where deadly clones are sent after you and mimic your every platform jump. Even though the game looks dated and weird as shit, there’s parts that are interesting to play.

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?) that you must earn keys for. Rooms hidden under rocks are where the items must go. 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 2015 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, so 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, while 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 more creative 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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