It amazes me how developers can screw up formula games. Take the side-scroller; you have hundreds of examples demonstrating clearly what works. You have a mold of general rules, clear cases of what plays best – practically a damn template of how to make a good game. Yet designers still take this template, start to fill in the blanks… then ignore the rules and fuck it all up!

Cliffhanger the game shares more in common with the Stallone flick than just its name and plot. They both also suck. A lot. As in the film, you play as an expert hiker (our man Sly) and must find three briefcases full o’ cash, that have scattered across a high-altitude mountain. An evil John Lithgow is using you to retrieve these cases, but also sends his hordes of bad guys out to stop you. Perhaps the brief cutscenes explain this paradox, but who really cares?


So as Stallone’s character, it’s up to you to fight a whole bunch of cardboard cutout bad guys and try not to get killed by the dangerous environment that is a high-altitude mountain. It’s not the most stellar of innovative ideas, but at least sounds interesting enough on paper. Well, why doesn’t it work?

Collision Detection [ko*li*shon de*tekt*shon] (noun) – 1) A trigger in video games that registers when one object on screen touches another. 2) How the game knows you’ve hit a bad guy or tripped on a hazard. 3) Something really vital for beat-em-up games.

In Cliffhanger the collision detection is so horrible that most often enemies will hit you, but your attacks pass cleanly through them. I’ll just let that marinate a while. Standing toe to toe, you can’t hit your enemies while they can hit you. When your entire game is based on fighting, and you can’t fight, then you lose a little of the enjoyment, yes?

There are also some serious balancing issues with characters and weapons. You can do one type of punch or one type of kick, and both are quite weak. Repeated button tapping results in combos, but most of those attacks within the combo don’t register because of the bad detection. Weapons also rule the playing field. One knife grunt can toss out his deadly blades, remove 1/5 of your life, and have more knives in the air as you’re getting back up. Getting slashed by this same guy sends you to the ground instantly, and there are times where you can’t fight back since he’s waiting for you when you get back up. However, in a strange sort of balancing act, a knife in your hands will do the same amounts of damage to your enemies. Once you have the knife, you can dominate just by slashing it around, which is fine since actually fighting isn’t fun at all. The gun is twice as bad about this, though limited by its small ammo.

Enemies are among the dumbest you can find. Only two enemies at a time will attack you, with any others standing frozen, waiting for their turn. Since enemies usually come in groups of three, this does not make much sense. They’re not great fighters at all, and if it weren’t for the fact that most of your attacks will miss their mark, you would clean house against these guys. Sensing this, the designers used some royally cheap methods to keep these guys a challenge. Weapon enemies, the knife guys and machine gunners, will hang back as far as they can and attack with their grossly overpowered weapons. Enemies also can completely block your attacks while your block button absorbs virtually nothing. The bosses follow a similar pattern of cheapness – the first boss for example is so unintelligent that he leaps at you and easily shot away until he gets to half of his life. Then he charges around and is immune to bullets. Bullets!

The environment at least look pretty decent, and some work probably went into the details. Snowy environment are portrayed well enough that you know what they’re supposed to be. Trees and cliffs look fine. It’s not realistic by any sense, but good for hand-drawn work. These environment also try to get used as more than just backgrounds, with a number of rock-climbing sections, and one where you have to outrun an avalanche. Still, most of the time you’re just doing standard side-scroller tricks such as jumping on logs and platforms to get past large gaps. Also, you can easily fall into these deadly gaps but your foes cannot. Seriously – one of the main draws of fighting on a mountain is to throw the bad guys right off it. Alas.

Sound is below average. The music sounds clear, but is pretty unimpressive. Sound effects are pathetic. Punching and kicking sound exactly like Mr. Phlem working up the world’s largest loogie. Knife effects sound like some guy holding a microphone to his lips and making a whick whick whick noise. Jumping produces a grunt of entirely too much effort – the kind reserved for picking up small buses or dropping a rather large deuce. The gun sounds just fine.

Control is pretty bad, though half of its frustration must be attributed to the terrible collision detection. Still, its other problems are pretty clear. Running is achieved through double tapping left or right and holding it – 50% of the time this works, 50% of the time you just stand their looking confused, as if Sly is waiting for his next line. This does NOT help you when you’re trying to get past the environment traps. When fighting, starting a combo means you must finish the combo – you can’t start another attack or even turn around until the animations are finished. This means with attacks such as the knife, you can start swinging, kill your bad guy, and then be stomped from behind while you’re waiting to stop flailing the knife around in front of you.


The Good

Well, even though there are plenty of side-scrollers that are available and much better than this one, Cliffhanger does have its moments.

The Bad

Oh wait, no it doesn’t.

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5 thoughts on “Cliffhanger

  1. The curse of the $1-shelf of SNES games made this an impulse-buy for me, even after I’d read this review.

    So far (and granted I’ve only fought Fat Guy With Ponytail and Knife Guy) but I can kind of “game” the collision detection issue by always approaching at a diagonal, so I get Gabe’s stumpy arms within punching range without getting within their superior attack range…I think I do the same thing for my beloved Rival Turf, I guess.

    Granted, I tend to like really crappy games, but I’m not suffering as much from Cliffhanger‘s collision detection as I am from the Avalanche level, which is just brutal. It sounds like your article implies there’s only ONE such level, which would make me more likely to go back and try the game again 🙂

    But given that there’s so many environmental hazards (plenty of cliffs to fall off) and only a finite number of continues, and I’m wondering if I over-paid :O

    1. Oh gad… a review from 2002. Back when I didn’t really finish them, I just got tired and stopped writing.

      I actually don’t remember any of this game, but I might revisit it. Cliffhanger for the Sega CD had a revised avalanche level similar to OutRun.

  2. Yeah, OutRun-driving-game style avalanche-avoiding would be more fun than the SNES’s “run/jump/die” version 🙂 Brawling games never have precision jumping controls!

    Since I gave up on this game during the avalanche, I decided to write about both it AND Cutthroat Island at the same time…they both have the same really tough mining-cart-type levels that caused me (and probably most gamers looking for fun rather than bragging rights) to quit before level 3!

      1. It is most definitely THAT Cutthroat Island!

        Unfortunately, my experience has been that, to play it for more than a few minutes, you’ll need one of the following:

        a) lightning-fast mining cart level reflexes
        b) save states (to save after each obstacle in the mining cart level)
        c) a SNES game genie (to enable the disabled “level select” cheat)

        Since I have none of those things, I’m curious what the rest of the game is like 😀

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