Remember virtual reality? What pretty reasonably looked like the future of modern computing ended up being little more than a 90s fad. But what a fad it was. I remember playing at a mall kiosk, goggles, gloves and all. I bought a book/CD combo filled with examples of up-and-coming virtual reality engines. You’d load the demos up on the computer and could maneuver a lanky polygon man around a flat-shaded virtual office park (looking laughable by today’s standards), turning on lights, monitors, and the like. A local electronics store had a shelf dedicated to VHS compilations of “computer art” (Pixar’s lamp and ball project almost always headlined). Cyber Michael Douglas floated along in VR looking for files to implicate real-world Demi Moore. Even Homer Simpson took a 3D spin inside a computer, for no real reason other than it was neat.
The Lawnmower Man is one of those cautionary tales, where something new, unknown, and thus defenseless is presented as the terrifying undoing of society (Well it COULD happen! Who really knows?!). The console cash-ins came through on time, and that should have marked the end of it. Except that multimedia applications were starting to come around, drive speeds could pull data off a disk at a reasonable clip, and processor power was starting to be able to begin to fake what Silicon Graphics supercomputers were promising on the silver screen. In that soup was born this game.
This version of The Lawnmower Man came to the PC first, and a troubled port staggered to the Sega CD later. The SCD was, of course, trying to qualify its own multimedia revolution, and so it was a match made in digital heaven. The idea is that you are actually playing the kind of digital animation you could previously only watch on cassette, and directly affecting the outcome in a manner almost identical to the virtual reality its based on. As you can guess, this doesn’t happen.
You control Pierce Brosnan’s professor from the film as he braves a series of minigames inside the digital theme park of the idiot-turned-cybergod Jobe. What levels could be taken from the film were, with the rest filled out as a series of “inspired-by” challenges. This makes it a bit silly as all… well, ALL of the characters who died in the film have been turned into stage bosses; from the government director to the fucking chimpanzee. You’ll battle each in a series of puzzles and action minigames, all the while being wowed by the virtual world your oblong black console is churning out.
Naturally, the Sega CD couldn’t possibly generate these worlds in real time, so you’re just looking at another FMV game, this time comprised of pre-rendered computer graphics. If you were really fascinated by digital art, and the possibilities of VR itself, I can see the draw. There are some neat reflections and decent character animation for the era. Unfortunately, the whole experience fails to be either impressive or interactive. Due to the usual Sega CD compression, the video won’t match even one of those VHS demo reels, and the limits of FMV gameplay actually make it more annoying than just watching such a tape.
The entire show is a series of minigames with simplified interaction. There is no interface, so you must rely on a narrator’s voice to tell you when and what buttons to push. Most every sequence breaks out into similar timing challenges, and if you don’t hit the right button at just the right time, the sequence restarts. Meanwhile, very poorly captured (and monochrome, for whatever reason) video clips from the movie play between levels as you “access CyberJobe’s memory banks.” These don’t serve a plot purpose, since the game takes place after the film, so they’re pretty much reminders of “hey, remember that part in the movie when…” Often, you’ll get a video clip of the excellent Angel Studios renders of a VR sequence from the film before you play through a two-dollar version of that same sequence.
Like most of its brethren, Lawnmower Man claims on its box to be an “interactive movie.” Interactive movie here means that you will watch some lengthy movie clips of questionable animation quality, then be instructed by a disembodied God-voice to “turn right.” If you don’t hit the D-Pad to “turn right,” then you have to restart the movie. If not, on we go. It’s the same old shit since Dragon’s Lair, and though a few standard puzzles break up the “run and jump for your life” segments, they all have the annoying habit of dumping you back to start after a single misstep. These sequences get reused as you go on, in harder versions without a guiding voice or on screen indicators.
What’s made worse is that the Sega CD introduces some lag between these clips and your input, so the moment you’re told to “turn left” isn’t the exact moment you need to be pressing the button. Sometimes it’s a little before, sometimes a little after. Presumably, you’re supposed to use the early sections with voice/arrow indicators as tutorials to learn the timing, but it still doesn’t feel natural. Meanwhile, sometimes just holding or mashing the button down will let you pass, sometimes the game treats that as an action that came too early, which results in you getting speared, crushed, shot, or crucified by virtual glass and run over by a lawnmower.
The story goes that there exists an epic 2-disc version for the PC, with cleaner renders and more colors. I’d like to see it for academia’s sake, but it won’t help this version. Adding to the usual compression, and the artifacts and softness it brings, is a strongly reduced set of colors. I first thought your cyber avatar was chromed silver to make him resemble the T-1000. In reality, I suspect it’s to keep him easy to render in the computer, and less of a strain on the compression when put to video. The lack of detail and similar blue, metallic colors will continue throughout the entire game. It makes for some pretty boring landscapes, and despite the sacrifices, the video still chops considerably.
So why did I seek this game out to review it? First of all, the difficulty of tracking down a copy is legendary; something about the production run getting recalled or having the wrong region codes, or somesuch. Second, no one in history appears to have reviewed this game, or at least, no one whose review made it to the Internet. Third, I heard about this game when I was doing the SNES review, and heard that it was a puzzle game based on events in the movie, and thought that would be more intriguing than a simple platformer. This is not quite true. It’s more fair to call the entire game a disjointed collection of mini-sequences stolen from the movie. The technical limitations (or just plain old broken code) result in a number of unfair challenges. Even if you tracked out a move list to win, the discrepancy between when you press the key and when the SCD notices will far too often result in you getting your lawn mowed.
The game certainly has an undeserved level of mystique because of its recall, but hopefully this review will save just one young, bright-eyed child from a $10 second-hand purchase on Ebay. The movie’s goofy and senseless, but I’d still rather see it again than try to suffer through another minute of this trash. The funny part is, the SNES version is actually a better representation of the VR parts of the film. If SCI had spent less time on trying to match the visuals of the film (an impossible task for the time) and more time on giving you something to interact with for greater than 2% of the time (when you press that “jump now” button), then they might have had a real game instead of this collection of plodding crap-a-mation.
A fine lesson on why interactive movies never took off can be found here.
Well, let’s put it this way. The game exists, but you’d never know it if it didn’t.