Sunday 20 October 2019

The Terminator for the MegaDrive/Genesis

The new installment, Terminator: Dark Fate is due imminently so it's a good time to return to the original and, more specifically, its video game outing on Sega's monster machine. Released in 1992 in the wake of Terminator 2's box office triumph, 16-bit programming superstar, David Perry and friends, managed to make a video game out of a film you would think is un-adaptable. At least according to the terms of the day. There's one baddy and a lot of killing, but it's the titular cyborg that offs anyone in its way and jolly old Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese aren't in much of a position to stop it. Not a premise that might lend itself to a game, unless you played the terminator itself. And so in the best traditions of the day they made an action platformer and slapped a licence on it. Though, to be fair, The Terminator does not suffer from a lack of thought. It manages to follow the plot of the film in its own idiosyncratic way.

At this point in the film franchise's life, one of the more beguiling aspects of the Terminator films were the very brief flash forwards to the post-apocalyptic machine-infested future. And so to set the first level in this future was a good choice and a nod to the fans. The second smart choice was to have you set upon by the giant tank droid famous for crushing human skulls in the flicks. Armed only with grenades, it's a simple enough battle but one immediately suggesting there lies goodly things within - and it looked very compelling in the TV campaign and on GamesMaster. Once you get inside Skynet's base your passage through the tunnels is blocked by a never-ending supply of terminators. And you, a mere flesh and blood human, shrugs off the hail of bullets as if you were Arnie himself. Thankfully health drops from the ceiling at regular intervals, demonstrating the programmers knew it was too hard but couldn't be arsed to go back and adjust enemy spawning. Eventually you acquire a gun and plough through the terminators with ease. You locate Skynet's core, blow it up and make your way to the next stage.

The ensuing cut scene establishes you've passed through the time hole into 1984, and you have to locate Sarah Connor before the terminator does. This means making your way through some light platforming while avoiding the attentions of bomb-throwing thugs and the LAPD's finest. One curious design decision here was, despite your being armed with a shot gun (and it sounds really meaty as well), the thugs perish as you blow them away but the cops are merely rendered unconscious. It takes four blasts to fell them, then they get up and come after you again. I suppose as the film has the terminator massacring coppers, which is obviously a Very Bad Thing, then you as the goodie can't be seen to do the same. Nor, for that matter, are there many games, certainly at the time, that allowed you to shoot up the police. One of the reasons why the original Grand Theft Auto and, to a lesser extent, Driver proved controversial. Anyway, you make it through the two sub levels to the Tech Noir club to face off against the terminator. Blast him enough and you're able to get past him to rescue Sarah. The next stage is the police station. You break out of your cell and have to race to the top of the station, facing off against the same bomb-throwing goons, the fuzz and, of course, the terminator itself. Please note it departs from the film by not shooting any police. Like the lead up to the club scene the level is quite linear. And then we're in the factory, where the terminator has had all its flesh burned off and its out to get you. This means it spawns fairly randomly whenever it disappears off the screen, but as long as you keep it walking/crawling behind Reese you can lead it straight into the compactor. Terminator terminated.

Sounds like a simple game? Yes. And a short one? Definitely. If you know what you're doing, it takes about 15-20 minutes start to finish. That was unforgivably short by 1992 standards, and one of the reasons why it was panned. The game was passable (indeed, teenage me would regularly return to it precisely because it was a short burst of undemanding action), there just wasn't enough of it - especially for the £34.99 price tag. This reflected the contrasts in the game. At one level it was clever and thought through, appealing to Terminator fans and showing the film due fidelity. On the whole Kyle Reese was well-animated, which was a hallmark of all Perry's 16-bit work. But in other bits, there was a certain shoddiness. The lay out of the second level was pretty unimaginative and the distinct lack of enemy types didn't help, and the spawning on the first stage was ludicrous. Reaching the end of a stage meant a jarring transportation to the score summary screen, and yes, the lack of content is a big issue - unless you're of the sort who likes playing the same competent action-platformer over and over. The fact this was put on a four megabit cartridge and its corners are far from smooth suggest this was a quick money grab, of churning something out that appeared technically proficient and swish to catch the T2 backwash and hit the market before the T2 games landed on home formats. And it worked. The Terminator troubled the charts for months and was a commercial success, and Perry carried his upward trajectory to bigger and more lavish projects.

What to make of this game almost 30 years on. Well, it's not one that often appears on YouTube MegaDrive retrospectives despite the hype it got at the time. In the UK at least. It was turned out as a cash grab, and as such was entirely forgettable.

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