The Running Man is a video game inspired by the 1987 Arnie Schwarzenegger movie of the same name, in turn loosely based on the 1982 novella. Also known as The Running Man, this was written by Stephen King pretending to be a guy called Richard Bachman, who didn’t actually exist what with being a pseudonym.
Grandslam’s game, developed by Emerald Software in Waterford, Ireland, was published in 1989 and made available for all the popular 8-bit and 16-bit platforms of the time, as well as the MSX, which only three and a bit people in the UK had heard of before YouTube emerged.
In the movie we’re introduced to Ben Richards, a law enforcement helicopter pilot played by Arnie who would be forgiven for no longer recognising his dystopian Californian home town. Like America as a whole, it’s now controlled by a totalitarian police state following a global economic collapse. Two years on, in 2019, Ben is framed for the massacre of a group of unarmed Bakersfield civilians rioting over the scarcity of food supplies because he lacks the callous nature incumbent on opening fire upon them as instructed.
Arnie is sent to a hard labour detention camp, though manages to escape with two resistance fighters; together they flee for their lives. When apprehended the convicts are bundled off to the ICS TV network headquarters that operates a life or death game show in which ‘runners’ are forced to enter an arena where they are hunted to extinction by a ragtag posse of Mad Max-style gladiators known as ‘stalkers’.
Ben negotiates a pardon for his accomplices, Laughlin (supervillain Mr Big in Live and Let Die) and Weiss, by agreeing to participate, all for the entertainment of a disaffected public audience desperate for any diversion from the endurance trial that now passes for modern life. Founder and host, Damon Killian, double-crosses him, however, and all three find themselves at the mercy of ‘Subzero’, ‘Buzzsaw’, ‘Dynamo’ and ‘Fireball’. There is a fifth stalker – Captain Freedom played by wrestler Jesse Ventura – though his clash with Arnie is digitally faked because he no longer wants to ‘play’.
Killian’s game show constitutes a futuristic blood sport with its baying audience betting on the outcome of the mortal bouts. Arnie being Arnie naturally turns the tables on the assumed invincible stalkers, and for the first time in history, they begin to perish. Consequently, he develops a dedicated fan base who would rather gamble their stake on Ben emerging as the unlikely victor, shunning the default antagonist anti-heroes.
Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Killian offers to promote Ben to stalker status; a three-year contract complete with a beach-front luxury condo that would effectively allow him to assume the role of his latest fallen tormentor. Of course Ben declines in the politest possible way, proceeding to expose the show as an orchestrated sham no-one can possibly win.
In fact, Ben is so adamant he won’t be involved in the slaughter of civilians, criminals or otherwise, that he launches Killian into the game zone arena via a rocket-powered sledge. Directly into a Killian-endorsed $6 per can Cadre Cola billboard, resulting in his explosive demise. There’s also a love interest angle I should have mentioned. Oh well, she’s pretty irritating so we’ll move on.
Arnie playing the lead wasn’t a decision King would have made what with being the antithesis of the “scrawny, pre-tubercular protagonist” he conceived. However, he was what moviegoers craved – by this stage, Arnie was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, largely thanks to his eternally celebrated roles in Terminator, Predator and Commando. Had he not accepted the invitation, Christopher Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Dolph Lundgren were waiting in the wings.
Grandslam’s game follows the movie’s premise extremely closely, albeit dropping us straight in at the deep end where staying alive is the only priority. If it weren’t for the momentous animated introduction featuring digitised stills and audio samples extracted from the movie, our abrupt arrival might have seemed a little disjointed and bewildering. This prelude alone occupies one of the two disks on which the game was delivered, deftly framing the ambience of the scene and evoking fond memories of a must-see movie. One that immerses us in a stark, pessimistic future that unnerves the viewer as much as it entertains.
Had the biting social satire and cynical appraisal of the TV industry not hit so close to home, it might have been easier to dismiss The Running Man as pulp fiction, finish your popcorn and never look back. In that regard, Stephen King is far more intelligent and thought-provoking a writer than many people give him credit for. Remarkably some ‘fans’ of his silver screen adaptations are still amazed to realise he was behind the Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption.
Any blanks that remain having viewed the brief animated introduction are plugged by the manual that accompanies the game. As luck – and careful planning – would have it, I have that right here.
“The year is 2019 and the USA has become a totalitarian state. Personal freedoms no longer exist and only television distracts the people from their plight. One show is more popular than any other, The Running Man, a deadly cat and mouse carnival in which the contestants battle for the ultimate prize: survival.
After refusing to fire on unarmed demonstrators Ben Richards is wrongly convicted and labelled the ‘Butcher of Bakersfield’. This is the start of a chain of events which lead to him becoming the ‘star runner’ on ‘The Running Man’. No contestant has ever won. All have perished within the ‘Game Zone’ of a destroyed Los Angeles, hunted down by four lethal ‘Stalkers’.
In Tonight’s show, Ben Richards must survive, prove he is innocent and expose the corrupt propaganda of the ICS network. Ben is launched into the game zone by Damon Killian, the host and inventor of ‘The Running Man’. He promises Killian “I’ll be back!” – no other contestant has ever come close. You are Ben Richards, you must run for your life.”
This entails traipsing through four distinct game zones and finally the TV studio, dispatching stalkers, guards and dogs on course to rooting out the purveyor of punishment himself, Damon Killian, known as Dan in the book.
In fact, that – as well as rebranding the hunters as stalkers – was one of the least significant revisions the source material underwent when adapted. In King’s narrative, our playfield would have encompassed the entire globe with no boundaries to confine Ben’s escape plans, though that might have been a bit trickier to film, and reproduce in pixels.
George P. Cosmatos – the original director – intended to film the entire movie in a shopping mall, as in Dawn of the Dead. Despite his solid track record (he was known for his work on Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Tombstone), the Greco-Italian film director and screenwriter was unceremoniously fired by executive producer, Rob Cohen, and replaced with Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky of Starsky & Hutch fame). Arnie thought he was an awful choice because all his experience revolved around the small screen. Of course, The Running Man is a TV-centric movie, so who knows?
A more arbitrary tweak was the year in which the story is set – in the book Ben exists in 2025, a minor detail changed for the big screen I’d imagine because 30 years on from filming would take us to 2017 and the screenplay writer liked even numbers? Plus we’d have had so much longer to wait for the anniversary and special edition DVD otherwise.
On paper, rather than a cop, Ben is a down on his luck every-man desperately seeking a get rich quick scheme to support his wife and sick daughter. Something tells me he’s not at all happy with his other half having to prostitute herself to makes ends meet.
Ben isn’t coerced to take part in the Running Man game show, he enrols under his own volition, and is required to train for his assignment beforehand. To earn his keep Ben must periodically record selfie videos and relay them to the TV studio as evidence of his on-going survival.
In King’s deeper, grittier desolate tale, the stalkers Ben must evade are a far cry from the cartoon caricatures seen in the movie. To blend in they wear dark, nondescript clothes, keep a low profile, and only the leader – Evan McCone – is specifically named.
Finally, the way Killian gets his comeuppance is far more dramatic in the book – it was likely switched for the silver screen adaptation because it would have been ridiculously expensive and challenging to film. Ben hijacks a plane and wilfully flies it into the TV network headquarters, obliterating the building and crew inside. It’s impact is so intense “it rained fire twenty blocks away”, and of course Ben’s life is sacrificed in the process. His wife and child are dead by this stage so Ben feels he has nothing left to lose. What kind of a perky Hollywood ending is that? Tippex!!!
It’s no use, I’ve postponed it all I can, and I’m out of cunning derailments – it’s time to get back to the game. It’s showtime!!!
GrandSlam Entertainment (previously known as Argus Press Software) didn’t go out of their way to promote the names of the developers responsible. Nevertheless, you’ll find some clues in the high score table; knowing who worked at Emerald between 1988 and 1991 I can probably guess the rest. Let’s see…
Mike is likely CEO, Mike Dixon. Jerr is certainly graphician Jerr O’Carroll. I know that one for a fact as he’s talked about being involved in the project. Dave would be Emerald co-founder, David Martin, formerly of Martech. Doug? Pass. Kel could be Paul or Brian Kelly. ‘A’ might be Aidan Troy. I expect Bill is Billy Newport. Kathy? Dunno. Mark would be artist Mark Cushen. James? I’m stumped. Stephen is possibly a reference to Mr King himself, the Master of the Macabre, and the not so secret author of The Running Man.
That’s a lot of people for such a short, simple game so maybe some of these were just shout-outs to colleagues who weren’t actually involved in the development of The Running Man specifically. You have to fill up the slots with something. It’s the law.
If you see ‘DdIiSsKk’ amongst the leaderboard entries you’ll know someone has been naughty – that’s how you enable the infinite energy cheat.
Jonathan Broggy coded the Spectrum iteration, while Moonwalker programmer, Damian Scattergood aka Mr Z80, contributed the music and sound system. Mark Cushen provided the graphics.
So, as I didn’t get round to saying, it’s a horizontally scrolling arcade action beat ’em up platformer thingy that almost exclusively operates on a single plane. Unsurprisingly there’s a heck of a lot of running involved as you pound through the mostly barren landscapes looking for the next stalker to kick into touch. By default Arnie walks in whichever direction you push the joystick, and you must double tap it left or right to begin running, as in Barbarian. Arnie starred in a movie about a Barbarian once, remember that? It inspired Palace Software’s game which featured Michael Van Wijk on the cover. Michael was once a lupine Gladiator and participated in a Golden Joystick challenge on GamesMaster.
…Come on, will you just let me focus on the task in hand! I’ve told you before about this.
Our hero can punch and kick from the outset, yet later scavenges makeshift weapons from the environment. Examples include pipes, bricks, a baseball bat with nails embedded and a shield that looks suspiciously like a bin lid. I expect that’s because it’s actually a bin lid – that would explain it. Less make-shifty, occasionally you’ll be able to make use of a fallen guard’s gun to eliminate the need for risky close range combat.
Activating these manoeuvres can be a tad tricky because they all share a single fire button, since that’s the Amiga way. In effect you can end up leaping when you really want to punch, or crouching when you actually wanted to pick up an object. It’s not ideal to say the least, and is only exacerbated by the delayed, sludgy controls that necessitate owning a crystal ball in order to execute actions effectively.
Jumping too leaves a lot to be desired. If it’s not precise, it’s not happening. And even when it is, that’s no guarantee. Our one and only chasm-crossing ordeal, for instance, requires you to stand in thin air so you have less of a gap to close when you take the plunge. If you attempt it in the logical way, springing from the last pixel of the ledge you fall to your death, and are obliged to start again from the beginning. That’s the case however far into the game you progress, seeing as you only have a single life with which to complete it. Lucky for us then that’s it’s child’s play. Err… like Kindergarten Cop. Focus damn-it!
Energy pickups are so generous that it’s almost impossible for our vitality to become completely depleted. Medi-kits restore it to maximum in one shot, though regardless of how many we collect our energy is gradually restored simply by virtue of existing. You might imagine this would mean you could stand rooted to the spot until you’re in tip-top health again, only the same can be said of the stalkers so this tactic can turn out to be counter-intuitive.
Your current status health-wise and that of your opponents is displayed on a ticker of sorts in the massive HUD area that occupies about a third of the screen. It’s not much use aside from this as much of the space is dedicated to showing fictional adverts to remind us that we’re a participant in a TV game show. Taking the joke a step further, the action is intermittently interrupted to display full screen ads! Welcome to the future-present of TV broadcasting!
Our route to Killian and the order in which we face the combatants mirrors the chronology of the movie; a nice touch that shows Emerald were paying attention. Subzero is up first. He patrols his ice rink habitat rather like an erstwhile ice hockey champion who these days is putting his skills and equipment to more malevolent uses. His primary weapon is his razor-sharp, serrated ice hockey stick which he wields like a butcher’s cleaver, brutally carving up anyone who dares to stand in his way. That aside you’ll need to dodge his explosive ice-skimming pucks launched with said stick.
Turning your attention to the suburbs you’ll encounter Buzzsaw and his tri-Teflon coated chainsaw. He’s not the brightest button in the box to be fair. Duck or crawl beneath the reach of his power tool and he’ll entirely forget you exist, allowing you to strike at your leisure with a well-timed brick to the chin.
Ironically it’s the guard dogs that cause you more grief than the professional assassins. Nipping away at your ankles and moving faster than most of your human adversaries it’s all too easy to find yourself caught in an attack loop from which it’s impossible to extricate yourself. It has to be said they do emit a convincing yelp, however, when you strike a fatal blow. One that hardly engenders feelings of pride and heroism. I doubt the RSPCA would approve either.
Many people wonder why the dogs were included at all since abusing animals is hardly something game designers or movie directors would normally aspire to. It’s actually one of the quickest ways to alienate an audience, as well as inciting the ire of the American Humane Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Let me explain.
A ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ scene in the movie presents a trailer for another of ICS’s blood-thirsty franchises known as ‘Climbing for Dollars’; a quiz show requiring contestants to scale a sealed room to reach its apex and snag a wad of prize money. One caveat complicates what would otherwise be a pleasant session in a soft play centre; a pack of slathering Dobermans, snarling and rampaging below, await their fall.
King’s novella includes 20 separate references to dogs. Some concern specific threats to Ben’s well-being, whereas others are neutral metaphors. Either way, they aren’t a major plot point, so not featuring prominently in the movie is entirely appropriate.
I suppose they were adopted for inclusion in the game because security guards are traditionally accompanied by alsatians, rottweilers or whatever, and the enemy count and variety would be very lean without them. What would have helped in that regard is sticking Killian’s henchman, Sven-Ole Thorsen, in the studio as an extra. Alternatively have him by Killian’s side until the final reckoning, at which point he abandons his post to go and “score some steroids” having lost faith in the ’cause’, whatever that was.
Zone 3 encompasses a dilapidated interpretation of downtown LA, for the benefit of TV make-believe now home to Dynamo, “the human Christmas tree”. Electricity and running it through human conductors is his forte. That, attempted rape and mowing down terrified runners in his dune buggy. Curiously, that’s, in fact, the second allusion to rape, the first being a kind of pro-rape ‘joke’. Maybe it was considered OK because it was delivered by a woman?
Dynamo was played by professional operatic bass-baritone, Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, who died shortly after appearing in The Running Man at the age of just 34. Before heart failure sabotaged his promising, multifaceted career he was also known for his talents as a wrestler, actor and MIT computer science student.
Oddly, Dynamo engages his vehicle in the game as an additional weapon, posing more of a threat than any other stalker, while Buzzsaw’s motorbike is only granted a cameo appearance in the background scenery of his stomping ground. It’s a shame there’s no option to go joyriding.
Stationed in ‘The Complex’ amidst an entanglement of pipes and ducts is the flamethrower-propelled Fireball, played by former Cleveland Browns fullback, Jim Brown, in the movie. There’s no provision for subverting his fuel line and using him as a human torch so you’ll have to make do with the usual weaponry.
In between stages, puzzle interludes offer us the opportunity to solve conundrums for the prize of an energy top-up. Thankfully these symbol-matching scenarios aren’t a prerequisite to proceeding to the next stage, so you could go and make a coffee until the timer runs down, and pick up a medi-kit later to achieve the same end. They have no inherent value otherwise – sometimes the computer’s randomiser will even scramble the symbols into the correct order, deciphering them immediately with no intervention on your part.
Emerald’s aim here was to emulate the resistance’s efforts to establish an uplink to the ICS satellite. In the movie a team led by Mick Fleetwood (yes, of Fleetwood Mac fame) hacked into it to broadcast the undoctored video footage of the ‘massacre’ that landed Arnie in a detention camp, along with pictures of the dead ‘winners’ of last season’s contest, thus exposing the conspiracy.
Ultimately, we reach the studio where Killian is busily working his magic on a pliable crowd of supporters who are soon to learn he isn’t all they have been led to believe.
If you’ve seen the movie, the finale will come as no surprise as it’s recreated perfectly via another competently animated automated sequence. We shoot and kick a seemingly invincible Killian into the bobsled employed to transport contestants into the game zone, strap him in and sit back to watch the fireworks.
Travelling through a meandering chute at the speed of light Killian is eventually ejected into his own Cadre Coke billboard, rather than the net typically held in place to catch the cannon fodder contestants. It breaks his fall, probably his neck too before a ball of flames envelopes him, and Killian’s reign as the cardinal gladiator coordinator and propaganda peddler is terminated.
Richard Dawson, the original host of real-life game show, Family Feud, was such an inspired casting choice that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying the smarmy, egomaniac, Damon, more convincingly. He really steals the show, and Arnie’s thunder. It’s a good thing they were lifelong friends or Arnie may have taken umbrage and given him a Chinese burn, or pulled his pigtails.
Appraised as a sandwich – as you do! – Running Man the game is held together with a couple of slices of premium grade Hovis bread. Shame about the void in the centre where the filling should go! A bit of limp lettuce and a shrivelled up slice of gherkin is the best we can hope for.
Proper critics at the time employed a more orthodox system of evaluation, assigning a percentage-based score. Weirdos. These ranged between 40% (Zzap!) and 73% (ST Amiga Format).
C&VG, leaning towards the lower end of the spectrum with a 47% bottom line, agreed with me (without going so far as referring to butties of any kind).
“Considering the potential of the film license, it’s a shame Grand Slam hasn’t made more of this. As it stands, it’s a barely average beat ’em up with a brilliant front end – which just isn’t enough to warrant the hefty £25 price tag.”
The Games Machine were equally unimpressed, awarding 51% and 53% respectively to the Atari ST and Amiga versions.
“The old saying (paraphrased), pretty graphics do not necessarily a great game maketh certainly applies here. The makings of a good game are there, but they have been spoiled by frustrating gameplay and poor control.”
“Sad to say the ST version plays just as badly as the Amiga game. Control of Richards is sluggish. When running he looks as if he’s struggling through a vat of treacle.”
Commodore User were far more generous with their praise, though it should be noted that most of their 79% score was earned by the opening prelude alone.
“The intro sequence is probably the most impressive part of the game, and it deserves all the praise it gets. It is nothing short of amazing. It is composed almost entirely from animated digitised scenes from the movie. The producer counts down the start of the show, while random faces flash up on screen. Then come up four short scenes from the movie, closing with the compere, Mr Bald, spinning round, arms wide shouting ‘It’s showtime!’.
Then if that is not enough, you then get to see Arnie catapulted down a tunnel in that bullet-shaped box, just after muttering ‘I’ll be back’. This all takes up one of the two disks you get in the packaging.”
Actually, I suspect the “I’ll be back” voiceover doesn’t belong to Arnie. It sounds like one of the Emerald staff doing an impersonation. I wonder if that was a technical issue, or a licensing restriction.
More enthusiastic than any of the 16-bit folks were Sinclair User who lavished the game with praise and a 90% grade.
“The Running Man is an ideal scenario for a computer game, and so if well implemented would be a corker. Has it been well implemented? Indeed it has by cracky – think of an updated, 1989 scrolling Saboteur with 128K sound and you won’t be far wrong.”
Crucially, Arnie and co. are sleekly and believably animated and the graphics manifest a professional, cinematic flair evocative of the source material.
Parallax scrolling too is effectively executed, lending the environments an illusion of depth. Appropriately camera equipment facilitates this wherever strewn about the landscape, both in the foreground and background, with Arnie passing in between, momentarily disappearing out of view. On one occasion vanishing entirely as he crawls through a discarded pipe, while in the studio he is obscured by camera dollies mounted on cranes as they glide in and out of the vista.
An eminently fitting, pumping action soundtrack accompanies our journey, however, as it’s the only composition you’ll hear throughout it can quickly begin to wear thin.
Simultaneous sound effects and music, or sound effects alone are options, which is refreshing to see in such an early home computer game. The latter are meaty and realistic as though lifted directly from the film reel. It’s a shame then that this immersion is broken by the long load times and in-game references to Emerald Software and Grandslam. Running Man the movie is brimming with product placement for real-world items – the lycra outfits sporting Adidas logos being just one example – so you could argue that Emerald were simply following suit to stay true to the original themes.
Had that attention to detail been embraced elsewhere it might have been nice for the stalkers to be individually referred to by name upon engaging them in battle. More of Arnie’s cheesy one-liners certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss either. They’re a staple in the movie, and Arnie’s signature gimmick generally.
Nevertheless, that’s a minor gripe. What really ruins the game is the poor controls. We begin in a slippy, slidey ice level – the kind universally hated by gamers – and so must battle against exaggerated inertia from the outset. Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t improve much, leaving the ice rink and a garrotted Subzero in our wake.
Pixel perfect precision doesn’t really explain the shoddy jumping mechanics because it’s so illogical. Leap up a step or on top of an obstacle and you’ll be knocked back if Arnie can’t land with 100% of both soles on the ledge. He looks as though he’s hitting an invisible wall and ricocheting off it!
Elsewhere the controls are so unresponsive it’s like swimming through quicksand, making quick responses to changes in your environment an impossibility. This problem would have been inflamed to an unplayable degree had there been more opponents to tackle and the level design wider in scope. It’s certainly no Turrican clone in that regard, and that’s at least something for which we can be grateful.
Stephen King and Arnie deserved much better, and two years on from the movie’s cinema release there was evidently no rush to synchronise the pixelated translation. As source material goes this was a gem, a golden opportunity to devise an arcade game as fun to play as the movie is to watch, or the book to devour in one sitting. Smash TV is thought to have been jointly inspired by the Running Man and Robotron; it’s the game this should have been. It’s relentless, action-packed, addictive and surreal in a wondrous schlock sci-fi kind of way.
As for Emerald’s interpretation, I’d advise you to “keep on running, keep on hiding”. No matter how many “fine days” you wait, Arnie ain’t never “gonna be the one to make you understand”. He’s as perplexed as I am.