Total Recall

This game is something of a classic for video game reviewal. In what was, admittedly, not journalism’s most professional hour, Sushi-X of Electronic Gaming Monthly panned the game with a flippant two-sentence review that ended by declaring the game a “Total Reject!” Acclaim responded with a threat to pull all advertisements from EGM unless the game was re-reviewed. It got resolved, but it was among the largest public arguments over whether game reviews were journalism or just part of the marketing arm.

Quaid’s on the run.

If you’ve never seen the film Total Recall, minimize this window and go give it a rental. It’s prime Schwarzenegger sci-fi – campy, brutal, violent, and with a plot that asks some thoughtful questions for you to ponder on the way home from the theater. The central concept is that Arnold is an everyday construction worker in a futuristic city. A turn of events reveals that his life as he knows it may be a lie – his real memories stolen and covered up by a fascist government running the colony on Mars. What does he know that the Martian government is so desperate to hide? He shoots his way through Earth and the Red Planet in search of his past, while a younger (yet still balding) Michael Ironside dogs his ass at every turn. Meanwhile, everyone in the vicinity dies horribly.

Credit where it is due, the team at Interplay seems to have actually seen the film. The NES game gives more (and more accurate) nods to the film than Ocean’s version for the Amiga/C64. Buildings resemble the concrete architecture seen in the film’s version of Earth, Michael Ironside’s character chases behind you in some of the levels (and kills you instantly if he catches up), and many of the major scenes get an 8-bit replication – from the x-ray scanner in the subway, to the customs facility on Mars (complete with windows that can be shot out, sucking anyone nearby to their face-popping deaths). Cutscenes feature impressive likenesses of the major characters and will glaze over the main plot points, so while seeing the film will obviously help you get the references, you won’t be left out if you haven’t.

Still, good ideas mean nothing without solid execution, and Total Recall fails to avoid the movie-to-game stereotype of “rushed cash-in” due to its bland side-scrolling gameplay. It’s frustrating, cheap, and repetitive. Enemies can lay down a spread of automatic gunfire, easily chipping away at the player’s four health bars, while rare health pickups restore a measly 1/4 of a damaged bar. Guns do as much damage as a punch, and most enemies will require upwards of seven hits with either to dispatch, while they charge mindlessly at you. Arnold also drops like a stone, making many of the more tricky platform jumps almost impossible if you’re playing without emulated save states.

Remember the part in the movie when Oddjob showed up? No?

Collision detection is the combat’s major downfall. Arnold must be at a very specific distance to hit enemies with his default punch, so enemies that get too close can’t be touched. The game also loves to pit an unarmed Arnold against gun-toting enemies. Sometimes he can knock the gun away and use it himself, but he can’t pull off automatic fire like his enemies can. And should Arnold find himself with a weapon, he will confidently toss it away at the end of each level, certain that it has served its purpose. What’s that? The cops have barricaded the subway? Goddamn it! I KNEW I should have kept that gun around!

Levels have been made “gamey” for no particular reason, other than to appeal to the common ideas of what a platformer should include. Guys will throw bombs down stairs at you, flying drones will weave tough-to-hit patterns like the Medusas in Castlevania, and you’ll have to dodge spiked balls on chains, lasers, and platform jump around excessively. Likewise, you’ll fight skeletons, feral cats, guys with boomerangs, bums with torches, and midgets in pink jumpsuits – all of which obviously never featured in the film. An overhead taxi mission later on also tries to shake up the gameplay by offering an arcade-style driving challenge. You’ll have to fight loose controls while dodging traffic, bullets, and trying to thread the vehicle between various narrow alleyways. It’s radically different from the rest of the game, and poorly implemented to boot.

Arnold can’t even hold his own against four feet of fighting fury.

The strangest feature by far is the game’s legendary overuse of midgets. Actually, it seems to be just one – a bearded guy in a pink jumpsuit about half Arnold’s height. Perhaps this is meant to make Arnold look all the more fearsome and buff, perhaps it’s an inside joke, but no matter what the excuse is, it’s incredibly odd. In the first level, if you do not jump past every single corner, the bearded midget will pull you into an alley and into fight. In the same level, the same pink-wearing midget pops out of every trash can and shoots at you.

In a later level you will come across some vagrants that will spring up and attack you with torches if you get too close. They’re wearing trench coats when you approach, then fling them off to reveal… yes, you guessed it, it’s the same bearded midget. He’s a pretty damn good fighter too, hopping around like a Jack Russel terrier and causing impressive amounts of damage – or maybe Arnold’s just worse than you’d expect.

The presentation is certainly the lowest point. Backgrounds look decent enough, though repeated textures are frequent. This gets worse as the game goes on, culminating in a Martian cave level that simply uses the same tiled red rock texture as its entire background. Level design can be frequently confusing, with many platforms that blend into the background art and few clear directions about where to go to advance to the next screen. Sound effects are stock and scratchy, and some effects (like punching rats) use digital garbage noises I haven’t heard since the Atari 2600.

I remember this scene being way more awesome in the flick.

Three music themes exist in the game – one for the title screen, one for Earth, and one for Mars. This means you’ll be listening to the same short loops for your entire time with the game. Even worse, they restart at every screen change, for no reason other than bad programming. Every. Screen. Change. If you can actually put up with the dodgy combat system and the sinking jumps, this music will almost certainly drive you far, far away.

People love to play up shortcomings for comedy value, and many classic game complaints are more exaggeration than fact. In that sense, Total Recall is not the worst game ever made like you might have heard. However, there are no hidden gems to find in here. Points to Interplay for following the movie, but they’ve created a bog-standard platformer with too many gameplay and presentation blemishes to be worth anyone’s time. Well, at least not until someone releases a version with commentary by Joel and the Bots.

I guess the best way I can sum Total Recall up is with a simple story. When I was about eight years old, I forcefully suggested that a friend rent this game with his money so we could play it, because I was convinced it was going to be “totally awesome.” We don’t speak anymore.


The Good

They followed the movie. Potential amusement if played while under the influence of adult beverages.

The Bad

Standard platformer that doesn’t even work that well. Poor jumping, quirky hit detection, only one or two looped themes.

Final Score

One out of five bearded midget heads.


Our Score
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3 thoughts on “Total Recall

  1. Great review of this lousy game J Man, lol at some comments like the Jack Russel terrier comment, I had one, she (Buttercup/Shania) passed away a few years ago, and yes they do jump around a lot!

    Also that’s very odd indeed regarding the purple midgets that abound in this game. Unless the move studio
    gave the game design company a script or movie that had a few cut scenes in it and one had a midget dressed that way (or even a few!) it’s very odd, maybe an inside joke indeed.

    1. This reminds me that I need to get back to cleaning up the formatting of my older reviews. And maybe make an animated gif of the attacking/dancing cats.

  2. While 95% of people on most of any retro gaming sites will rate this as a bad game, I was less harsh I’d say. I have played some of the hardest to play games on the nes, and some of them are truly maddening when trying to get anywhere in the game. Games such as Adventure of Dino Riki, Operation Thunderbolt, and more than a few others lead the way. This game after awhile of failure and repeat learning for me became a game where I learned to conquer it’s quirks, and THAT is what I got from it, succeeding in a game that most can’t cut it in. In fact I have a reputation for making some games look easy, try it yourself and well…you got 99% of all the reviews of this game. One thing the major reviewers said “this game is playable”, no guns…fine, got it. Not like the movie? Good, I still got it. For someone who likes a challenge this game can be fun, if you like a challenge.

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