The ’90s Back to the Future games really were manure

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week… take me awaaaaay, I don’t miiiiind. But you’d better promise me, you’ll improve your game design.

When you’ve got a beloved movie, you need at least a game or two to go with it, even if its creators willingly or otherwise end up tricking kids into such expensive disappointment that even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher shakes his head in disapproval. The greatest ’80s movie about dangerous driving and barely averted incest was hardly going to be an exception, even if the PC was spared the worst of the licensing horror. But with two separate shots at the target, did either Back to the Future II or Back to the Future III manage to beat the odds?

Wow, this is heavy. No, wait. The controls just suck.

Wow, this is heavy. No, wait. The controls just suck.

Of course not. Both games were awful, as you’d expect —though at least both were better than the truly eye-popping Back to the Future II & III on Nintendo, if only on the grounds that pretty much everything is, including chewing foil paper, bubonic plague, and finding half a worm inside your apple.

At this point in gaming history, movie conversions were going to be one of two things: a platformer, or a collection of minigames doing their best to pluck some scenes and stretch them out long enough to fill a floppy disk or so. Both of these games took the second route, not unreasonably assuming that anyone buying them would know the movies backward, and only just backing down from adding ‘recent concussion’ to the recommended system specs on the grounds that it couldn’t possibly hurt. 

They did at least fail in weird and wonderful ways though, so let’s jump into…



Right from the start, Back to the Future 2 is an awful experience. It starts with a configuration menu that goes out of its way to try and trick you into playing in PC speaker mode rather than fancy-pants Adlib, just so that it can demonstrate what the themes would have sounded like if performed by a phlegm-gargling robot. Then it thrusts you into a version of Hill Valley 2015 so dangerous, so hostile, that Biff’s evil version later in the game feels like a quiet vacation.

Imagine playing Paperboy, only with nothing so powerful as a rolled up newspaper for defense. Marty hoverboards down the road under constant siege from the same handful of respawning goons, including a buxom waitress, Old Biff and his cane, and police cars that want nothing more than to knock him off his hoverboard and onto his ass—something that makes much more sense when you realise that one of the items you can pick up is a box of plutonium. As a wise man might have said “I’m sure that in 2055 plutonium is available in every corner drug store, but in 2015 it’ll give you pocket cancer.

“Wait, didn’t they drop the plutonium thing in favour of Mr. Fusion?” you might be asking. Nerd. But yes! I like to imagine that this Marty is secretly a mastermind in training, whose overall plan was to buy the Sports Almanac to raise money, then use his new plutonium stockpile to bomb the parts of the world he’s unable to buy—while of course wearing futuristic tennis shoes and drinking Pepsi, two of the other items just scattered around and collectible for a few considerably less lethal bonus points.

At this point, it seems best to just beat Old Biff to death and hide his corpse in that bin. What? Just saying.

At this point, it seems best to just beat Old Biff to death and hide his corpse in that bin. What? Just saying.

Aside from this, at least Back To The Future II earns a few Doc Brownie points for its creators at least having watched the movie at some point—something that wasn’t guaranteed, as the likes of A Week of Garfield or anything with the letters ‘LJN’ on the box so ably demonstrate.

We’re not talking many points though, just enough to cover that if you survive long enough, you pass sights like the showing of Jaws 19 and the other locations from the movie. Also, it loses most of them at the end, with its final challenge—the huge lake in front of the town hall. As every bojo knows, hoverboards don’t work on water unless you have power. Or, apparently, unless you just keep pushing forward. It turns out that hoverboards use Looney Tunes physics, with Marty only getting a soaking when he looks down and realises he’s done something dumb. Oh, and speaking of things that are dumb:

Hotline Hill Valley (If only...)

Hotline Hill Valley (If only…)

Ah, Level 2. This one takes the unusual decision to stop the ‘action’ stone dead in favour of the world’s slowest, least interesting logic puzzle. In this one, you play the magic spirit of the doors in Marty’s future home, with the goal being to get Jennifer out before she bumps into anyone and creates a time paradox that destroys the world. (As opposed to when she met herself and just fainted without killing herself or anything.) It’s a hilariously simple puzzle built on the idea that when a person sees an open door, they are compelled to go through it. You use this quirk of human psychology to push them between different rooms and clear a path. This is how you save the day, and also get rid of annoying house guests.

Or alternatively you use the cheat code ‘einstein’ at the start of the game. This doesn’t help you beat the puzzle, which is only remotely challenging because of the tight time limit and the human brain shutting down like an overheated CPU in the face of this much boredom. It does however mean that when you fail and it asks “Try Again?”, answering “No” makes it shrug a silent “Not without cause” and skip to the next level. Hurrah! Take that, Geisha. If only all bad levels were so accommodating.



Level 3 is particularly weird, feeling like a level air-lifted in from a Terminator game. Remember how Marty was a martial badass who fought his way through Hell Valley by kicking everyone—even the ladies—right in the balls? It would have been a lot quicker. Again, I can’t help but think we’re dealing with some alternate timeline Marty here, who doesn’t so much recoil in horror at the burning cars and sleaze empire all around as take a cold look and decide “It will be mine. Oh, yes.”

It’s a long stage too, with much ball-kicking between Marty’s starting point and Biff’s Casino, and sadly no super-move in which Marty screams a digitised “This is for YOU!” and takes out enemies by holding them down and shoving plutonium rods from the future deep into deeply unpleasant places. As with all the stages, the controls are sluggish enough to leave a trail of slime, and even the game’s manual highlights Marty’s lack of moves—actual quote: “You may want more, but remember, Marty is no Bruce Lee.” Really? You put Marty McFly into a beat-em-up and you are telling me he’s not a street fighter? The oh-so-kickable balls on you, game. Big enough to create a gravitational field.

The weirdest part though is midway through the level, when for no apparent reason rolling barrels start flying onto the screen. Does Donkey Kong want a piece of Marty? It’s never explained. Instead, the scene again rather takes a fundamental part of the movie—that Marty gets his arse handed to him on a Biff Tannen commemorative plate and only just escapes back to 1955—and decides “Nah.”

This time, Marty handily defeats Biff to the point that he goes flying off the bottom of the screen and into World -1. Spoilsport Doc Brown though sweeps right in to take him back to 1955 and prevent everything from going wrong in the first place. After this level, it does rather feel like Marty’s solution would be to go a bit further back in time and kill Biff’s mum, but Doc Brown isn’t quite ready for that level of conquering evil. Instead, it’s off to the Wow, If You Haven’t Seen The Movie You’re Really Confused At This Point Dance. What’s up next in this exciting adventure?

...a sliding block puzzle.

…a sliding block puzzle.

No. No no no. No. No. No. Nope, no, no. Not happening. Not a chance. No. No. No no no no no no. N to the O to the ! No way, no how. Nononononono. Nono, small robot you know, friend of Ulysses. No.

NOW can we just kill Old Biff? It's not murder after the beat-em-up, just tying off loose ends.

NOW can we just kill Old Biff? It’s not murder after the beat-em-up, just tying off loose ends.

And so to the final level, which is exactly the same as the first level only with the future stuff replaced by 1950s stuff. Except one minor thing—Marty is still casually zooming around town on a hoverboard. Well, it’s not like he has a reason to, y’know, actively avoid contaminating the timestream at this point. Worst case scenario, he’ll simply order his subjects to forget it ever happened after finally smacking Doc Brown on the back of the head with a tyre iron and declaring himself the Time King.

The main weird thing that pops out of this level, aside from the fact that I have no idea how anyone could endure it without the infinite-energy cheat code I feel precisely no shame for using, is that 1955 is full to bursting point with manure guys. It’s as if they all heard there was a Back to the Future chase scene going on and all wanted to do their part for slapstick comedy. Either that, or it’s the tacit acknowledgement from the designers to the players that yes, this game of theirs is officially full of shit.

If you made it through all of that, this screen was the ending. The entire ending.

“The Search For More Money”

Wow. Who wouldn’t want to endure more of this?

Well, let’s jump in and see if it was any better. Or less worse, to keep our expectations reasonable.

Ah, Back To The Future III. Even Dragon's Lair offered more warning before its first death.

Ah, Back To The Future III. Even Dragon’s Lair offered more warning before its first death.

Back To The Future III again takes the minigame approach, choosing some… odd parts of the movie. The first one is fair enough: the scene where Doc Brown’s lady-love Clara is on a one-way trip to the bottom of what Marty knows as Clayton Ravine. He’s on horseback, with the goal being to remain on horseback long enough to play the hero. 

The problem with this stage is that he has a life expectancy of about five picoseconds, thanks to truly sadistic design that starts off by throwing a huge boulder right at his face and then becomes a pixel-perfect jumping and ducking gauntlet. Donkey Kong doesn’t show up with his barrels, but everything else that can possibly hit Doc in the face does. Boulders. Insects. Repeatedly, the ground, thanks to a horse that loves nothing more than coming to a dead stop and sending him flying onto his arse at the slightest provocation.

It’s not helped by the colour palette that makes it really hard to see what’s coming, or the fact that Doc’s huge sprite allows for almost no leeway when dodging or responding to pitfalls. If you’re not psychic, you’re not getting through most of this stage, and if you are, you should have known better than to play this in the first place. Also next week’s Lottery numbers. Feel free to share.

Ouch! Right in my fourth wall!

Ouch! Right in my fourth wall!

What’s really odd about the stage is that both the intro and ending change as you keep failing it, and you will keep failing it. Initially, it’s played straight, Doc and Marty giving their best “Oh no!” as they see it. Subsequent attempts have Marty going “Forget it, Doc, I’ll do it!”, Doc being reduced to “Oh no Marty, there she goes again!” and even Clara getting bored of falling to her death.

The two levels that follow are about as laid-back. The final one of course is a platforming thing set on Doc’s time train, but I didn’t get that far for reasons I think can be best summed up with a picture of a keyboard, broken and snapped in frustration. Still, in theory, of all the many other scenes of adventure in Back to the Future III, which do you think were the obvious to make into a game?

The completely pointless shooting gallery? You win a prize! Your prize is terrible controls.

Nope, not doing a 'classy' joke about having a steady hand. Shame on you for thinking it.

Nope, not doing a ‘classy’ joke about having a steady hand. Shame on you for thinking it.

Still, at least it suits a minigame, which is more than many licenses managed. The Flintstones game over on the Sega Master System made an entire level about painting a wall, which at least put it a step or two above the creators of Myst, who willingly chose to try and compete with watching one dry.

What follows is either a work of genius, or utter desperation. You remember the scene in the movie where Marty throws off Biff’s ancestor’s aim by throwing a pie tin at his hand?

Back to the Future III has an… uh… interesting take on that.

Couldn't at least one level have tried to show how the West was fun?

Couldn’t at least one level have tried to show how the West was fun?

Yes, in this version, Marty throws more discs at his enemies than the entire cast of Tron. That snapping sound you can hear is the concept not even trying to stretch to five seconds, never mind a shooting gallery where he uses mad frisbee skills to take out a whole gang of gunslingers (while trying to avoid a blind man who wanders in from the future with his dog for some reason). 

I suppose it could have been worse. If quicktime-events had been around, I’m sure there would have been a whole level where he dances to avoid bullets, and at least we were spared a platforming bit where it turns out the mine in which they hid the Delorean was full of deadly bats and ghosts. Still, pie plates? Seriously? Pie plates?

The sad thing is that as awful as these games were, by the standard of movie licenses at the time Back to the Future III was slightly above average. The average being as low as it was, this is not exactly something to cheer about, but still. At least the more recent Telltale adventure tried to do some interesting things with the storyline, even if the game itself was fairly wretched most of the time (a particular low point being Marty having to cheat to beat someone in a guitar-off, despite him being canonically being able to play well enough to invent rock and roll). Still, there were some genuinely good moments in there, a highlight being the surprisingly compassionate introduction of initially sinister-sounding Citizen Brown in the series’ alternate timeline. Not enough of them, but some.

Maybe if there’s a sequel one day, we can finish the story of Marty’s evil alternate self as he continues his quest to conquer time and space and find somewhere safe to ditch Doc Brown’s corpse. That would probably be worth playing. Back to the Future IV: Emperor McFly. He seized the Earth in an iron fist, and slew the good and the great and those who dared call him chicken. Historians just wish he hadn’t done it with pie plates. Wow, did that make the history textbooks dumber in a hurry.

Don't patronise me.

Don’t patronise me.

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