Fuggedaboutit… US Gold’s Godfather game for the Amiga that is (YouTube script)

click here for the video version

The Godfather, considered by the American Film Institute to be the second greatest movie in cinematic history, replete with breathtaking action set pieces and some of the most convincing character development ever seen on the silver screen, remains perfect fodder for gaming interpretations. We lucky Amigans were to receive two adaptations to fully exploit each of these core strengths, in the same way that the movie that wasn’t – Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – was ‘converted’ into both an isometric action game and a point and click adventure.

In The Godfather’s case US Gold secured the lucrative license to pixelise Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro et al with a view to developing titles for the DOS, Atari ST and Amiga platform. Being more of a publishing outfit US Gold subcontracted the development duties to Delphine and Creative Materials who were to focus on the disparate homages in isolation rather than joining forces.

Whereas Fate of Atlantis the adventure game was the one that hit the high notes, its lesser known top-down action counterpart largely sidelined, The Godfather’s point and click equivalent failed to materialise. Its Autumn 1992 ETA approached and passed with no explanation for its absence, despite being under construction since November 1990, backed by a US Gold-approved 60 page design draft.

Nevertheless, thanks to a Euro Gamer article published in July 2013 I can put you in the picture so to speak…

As graphician, Paul Cuisset, revealed to Euro Gamer’s features and reviews editor, Martin Robinson…

“US Gold approached us at that time, and they had The Godfather license. They wanted to make a game with this. So we started thinking about porting the story to the future. But we went quite far into the future – so far that finally they told us that the game was absolutely not The Godfather.”

Save for veering irrevocably off-brief, Delphine knew they had a potential winner on their hands so their work in progress futuristic extension of the Godfather universe continued to evolve. In 1992 – a year after Godfather the action game was unveiled – it was released as Flashback, a rotoscoped 2D platformer in a similar vein to Prince of Persia that is still held dear to the hearts of many retro gamers today. It was a massive success, universally acclaimed by the UK Amiga gaming press.

Just when Delphine thought they were out, ‘they’ pulled them back in!

Creative Materials – formerly responsible for the Amiga’s Final Fight and ESWAT arcade conversions – were the ones to bring home the bacon. Although in retrospect, a pillow-mounted horse’s head may have been more appropriate!

What resulted was sadly little more than a RoboCop clone, albeit an exquisitely stylish affair featuring meticulously elaborate, alluring pixel art courtesy of Pete Lyon, and judiciously atmospheric music composed by Justin Scharvona. Unlike EA’s 2006 open world, sandbox Godfather game, for copyright reasons, sadly it’s not Nino Rota’s ‘Speak Softly Love’. Accordingly you won’t spot any of the movie cast in-game either.

EA put US Gold in the shade in the voice acting department too, managing to secure the services of James Caan as Sonny Corleone, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen and Abe Vigoda as Salvatore Tessio. Even Marlon Brando got onboard; naturally he would have played Don Vito Corleone had poor health not sabotaged his performance. A single line was all that would be recorded before Marlon passed away at the age of 80; the result of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure.

Back in 1991 I imagine his and his cohort’s colossal fees would simply be beyond the reach of US Gold. Thus Creative Materials’ contribution to the Godfather macrocosm became the least Godfathery Godfather game in the history of Godfather games. Not that there’s a burgeoning back catalogue from which to choose. Three if you exclude the rehashed editions of EA’s first entry.

Whilst the Amiga game’s visuals are exceptional throughout, it’s the animated introduction that really raises the bar. Dominated by high-rise buildings, New York’s ominously imposing skyline is presented as the camera pans to explore the rundown slums. Radiantly illuminated windows are the perfect contrast to drab, shaling brickwork, bringing to life the cloistering homes within.

Reminiscent of a 3D hobby craft pop-out birthday card, the apartment blocks protrude to varying degrees. Facilitated by still fairly fresh parallax scrolling technology – the scenery gliding by at irregular rates determined by its depth in the landscape – it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and plunge head first into the surreal world of ‘made’ men and cut-throat mob rivalry.

Ignoring the ‘filler’ puzzles, as in Ocean’s licensed movie adaptation, The Godfather is split between two distinct modes of play; 2D scrolling platforming and Operation Wolf-esque shooting galleries. The latter not so much ‘on-rails’ scrollers as fixed view varieties taking place in self-contained, single screen locales.

Beyond the title screen – showcasing a still of Al Pacino playing Don Michael Corleone – the game takes only superficial inspiration from the entire trilogy on which it’s based. Thus emerges a collection of amorphous characters and a generic plot set against an auditory backdrop of nonspecific, foreboding Sicilian music.

While the cast only represent stereotypical mobsters, care has certainly been taken to reproduce some of the intricate detail from the source material. Names of the rival families and their accomplices, for instance, can be seen adorning the signage in downtown New York. Though what having bricks dropped on your head from a great height has to do with the Corleone experience is anyone’s guess.

As a Gestalt the game evokes the right sentiment and themes, although never really capturing the essence of the truly epic saga.

Analogous to Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel and its silver screen translation courtesy of Francis Ford-Coppola, Creative Materials’ game revolves around the real life Italian-American Mafia organisation comprising New York’s ‘Five Families’. You play as an anonymous, loyal lackey – a ‘cugine’ if you like – tasked with protecting the Don of your clan from “the bad guys”, as the reverse side of the box puts it. Though how anyone can tell the goodies and baddies apart is a bit of an enigma. Is it feasible for instance to run a benevolent gambling, protection and union racket for the benefit of the community? Has anyone ever met a nice gangster?

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

Thanks Mr Puzo. That answers that question then.

As twilight descends, in your efforts to protect the head of The Family you initially pather the dilapidated streets of post-war New York, gunning down gangsters and trying your damnedest to keep the pram-pushing mums and cops bullet-free. For any stray shrapnel lodged in innocent bystanders will chip away at your ‘standing’ (or reputation) with the elders. Once it ebbs away to nothing you’re disowned and it’s game over. This being one of the two ways you can expire; obviously the other entails absorbing too many bullets yourself.

Operating at the behest of the Don in the criminal underworld you can’t just coast through the scenarios with your gun concealed hoping no-one will notice to avoid any collateral damage. To boost your standing you must actively go in for the kill. As long as you don’t accidentally gun them down, the police will be content to turn a blind eye to the massacre since they’re on the payroll.

While you keep one eye on the cops, you might like to keep the other on the homage-laden scenery. On the Rothstein Kosher Poultry Market for instance. Arnold ‘the brain’ Rothstein was a real world Jewish-American kingpin who operated in New York. He was a gambler, a racketeer and a businessman… when he wasn’t busy fixing major sporting events. Rothstein was assassinated at the age of 46 for failing to pay his gambling debts. The poker game in which he racked up debts equivalent to $4.5m in 2006 money was believed to have been rigged.

You’ll also notice a sign reading ‘Tattaglia’ positioned over a boarded up building. This is in honour of one of the ‘Five Families’, founded by Philip Tattaglia and featured in the Godfather movies, yet plucked straight from real life mob culture.

After teaming up with drug-lord Virgil Sollozzo they arrange to have Vito Corleone assassinated. He survives the shooting but it leads to his retirement and son Michael’s meteoric rise to power. Don Tattaglia pulls the strings that result in Sonny’s murder in retaliation for the assassination of Bruno Tattaglia. Michael’s riposte is to order Rocco Lampone to whack Don Tattaglia, hence the in-game joke that they are out of business.

‘Santino Hardware’ is a reference to Sonny Corleone. Santino his birth name, ‘Sonny’ being his commonly used nickname.

‘Tomasino Gunsmith’ refers to an old Sicilian friend of Vito’s. They go into partnership together to manufacture and distribute their respective olive oil products.

In another time and place there exists a little local store known as ‘Kowalski Hardware’, likely an allusion to Stanley Kowalski, the name of the character Marlon Brando played in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 1951.

The Puzo sign over a shop doorway needs no explanation obviously. Oh I could go on all day detailing the game’s crafty intimations towards the trilogy, but alas time is no friend of ours.

Complicating matters, not all is as it first appears. Is that harmless looking ‘dame’ reaching in her handbag for her lipstick, or a revolver? Should you do a Han Solo before finding out for certain and risk the grave consequences, or wait for her to make the first move?

While we mull it over, thugs drive by in ’40s vintage Buicks, Cadilacs, and Lincolns taking potshots and attempting to mow us down. More crowd against the upper windows wielding Tommy guns locked on your forehead. Take them out of the equation first and they crumple, keeling over the window sill to persist as a lifeless corpse rather than de-materialising to maintain the scroll rate. And that does suffer it should be noted. A stock A500 really doesn’t cut it.

Reach the end of the level and a guardian confrontation awaits. Slightly more hefty and light-footed than your average goon, these possess the intelligence to strafe beyond reach of your hail of gunshot, making them surprisingly difficult to dispatch. At least it’s some consolation to know that crouching while their return volleys sail over your head will buy you some respite, allowing you to relay a bullet across every plane of the playfield as you shimmy from top to bottom and back again.

If you don’t count the flashbacks to 1902 etc, as in the movie trilogy our journey takes place over a period of four decades. Each era represents a different level, ushered in by a spinning newspaper, its front-page reporting a composite of fictitious and real world major breaking stories. A clever bridging device, albeit one lifted straight from the Godfather movies, that – by drawing upon gangster movie tropes – subtly turns back the clock to immerse us into the Mafia milieu.

Before leaving the purview of the first movie for the bright lights and iniquity of Las Vegas we visit a sleazy bar and barber shop; the setting for two of the game’s first person perspective funfair style shootouts. Thugs slide into view from behind doors, from under the counter or by twisting round in synchrony perched on revolving chairs like cat-stroking Bond villains. Both locations are shown fleetingly in the movie.

Switching to casino-land for level two we must avenge the slaughter that results from a bomb planted in one of the Corleone’s vehicles. Heading for the perpetrator’s lair we see the name of Johnny Fontane in flashing lights to hype his next stage performance. Johnny – based on Frank Sinatra – appears in the seminal movie as Vito’s godson, and a renowned singer. Desperate to break into the movie business Johnny seeks Vito’s help. In response he instructs consigliere, Tom Hagen, to lean on industry bigwig Jack Woltz to offer him a role in one of his productions; an upcoming war movie. Gentle persuasion fails to swing it because there’s already bad blood between Fontane and Woltz, Woltz believing that Fontane sabotaged the career of one of his extremely talented proteges. Cue the horse’s head in the bed trick. An offer he couldn’t refuse!

Las Vegas also features in the movie as a safe haven for Vito’s son, Fredo, who is offered sanctuary by Moe Greene when violence between the warring factions escalates. That’s what tends to happen when one Don guns down another in the street and his formerly mild-mannered son retaliates by assassinating the perpetrator along with his police bodyguard. Plenty of artistic scope then for Creative Materials to work with.

While you’re imbibing the lush scenery be sure to clock the Ben-Hur poster in the entrance to the final destination; the Colosseum. Another Paramount Pictures IP, though harking back to 1959 appropriately correlating to the period in which level 2 takes place.

Havana, Cuba during the swinging ’60s serves as the backdrop for level 3, taking inspiration from The Godfather part II. In the movie – in the midst of the Cuban Revolution – Michael travels to Havana with his double-crossing business partner, Hyman Roth, to negotiate their commercial interests with former real life Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista. He was actually overthrown in 1959, but never-mind. Small print.

We see out the decade with a trip to Hyman’s heavily guarded palatial mansion, standing in stark contrast to the surrounding shanty town. Presumably the purpose of our visit is to avenge the attempted assassination of Michael Corleone, as informed by the movie. To his astonishment and disgust, the one that takes place in his own home, putting the lives of his wife and child in jeopardy.

Michael and his bodyguard set out to eliminate the threat to his authority, although the scheme doesn’t quite run according to plan. In the heat of the melee Roth’s right-hand man Johnny Ola perishes along with Michael’s bodyguard, while Roth himself escapes.

No doubt with ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘We Are Family’ playing somewhere on a distant jukebox we make the transition to the disco era where we find ourselves skulking around a luxury playboy’s marina in Miami, Florida.

We’re on the trail of a cadre of unspecified ‘baddies’ stowed away on a lavish behemoth of an ocean-faring cruiser. Our plan is to infiltrate the vessel and dish up Cornish clotted cream and jam scones and tea wearing a frilly maid’s outfit.

No wait… my mistake. We need to garrote the scurvy pirate-wannabes and chuck ’em overboard. That would make more sense.

Note here the name of the vessel, Cockaigne. In medieval myth this is defined as the land of plenty where every extravagant whim and hedonistic pleasure is catered for.

Miami is another location taken from Godfather II. It’s the setting for a meeting that takes place between Hyman and Michael. Michael knows Hyman was behind his assassination attempt, but Hyman doesn’t know that he knows so must play nicely and bide his time to rebalance the misaligned scales.

A conservatory within the decadent mansion of one of the Dons is our final destination. It’s now the ’80s (despite our sprite remaining unchanged in four decades!), and we’ve arrived in Atlanta City to play guardian angel during a meeting of the family leaders. Mirroring Godfather III a helicopter looms over the proceedings to gun down the attendees. It’s our duty to take out the chopper before it riddles us all with bullet holes, and ensure that the peace talks reach an amicable conclusion.

In the movie the conference has been arranged to debate Michael’s purchase of shares in the real estate company, Internazionale Immobiliare. Connie’s godfather, Don Altobello, and his associates want to muscle in on the deal so are in attendance to hash out the terms. Mid-discussion Zasa storms out, reacting badly to the news that he had been shut out of the payoff. Before the dust has settled all hell breaks loose in the shape of a helicopter, leaving everyone to speculate over who is behind the sting as they dive for cover.

My everlasting, overwhelming memory of the Godfather series concerns its raw intensity of emotion and dramatic tension. It takes place in a realm totally alien to the average cinema goer, yet from the outset you’re transfixed. Blackmail, extortion, police corruption, drug dealing, ordering hits and vengeance in the form of extreme violence are quickly accepted as normal, everyday occurrences. Anyone can die at any moment, their demise occasionally orchestrated by their own family. Time-honoured protocols operate… and can be turned on their head in a flurry of schizophrenic rage.

Over the course of 9 hours we witness the expiration of Vito’s reign, the ascension of Michael’s and his ultimate downfall. His lines resonate with quiet foreboding, ambition, a craving for supreme power, pompous pride and finally regret. On route to this underworld apex little else matters and Michael’s single-mindedness is all-consuming, infectious even. Our own mundane world on hold, we can believe this is what it’s all about; power and control. This is what defines a man. Until it all comes crashing down and Michael realises that everything he has striven for is utterly worthless. That he has lost sight of what really matters and the hourglass of redemption has trickled its last grain of sand.

How one can possibly emulate a legendary chronicle this potent and poignant on the small monitor is a question as impenetrable as the meaning of life. Failure was inevitable, and Creative Materials certainly prove my point. Their translation is a bit of a cop out… a Robo Cop out.

To be fair it wasn’t entirely their fault, as programmer Richard Aplin points out over on the game’s Lemon Amiga database entry page…

“The graphics by Pete Lyon are fantastic. I remember how impressed we all were when he started producing such great stuff. The game-play… Ugh. US Gold wanted a picture-book and nobody had any serious idea how it would actually be, y’know, fun. ;-)”

It sounds to me that what it lacked from the start is an actual design plan. With some licenses – particularly those aimed at a very young audience – it’s enough to simply wave the IP in kid’s faces in order to shift copies, and possibly even put a smile on their faces. With a property like The Godfather that targets a more mature and discerning crowd you really have to deliver a product to match the immense expectations the license demands.

That said, the game reached number 9 in the Gallup sales charts in March 1992 regardless (source: C&VG). So sufficient numbers of people must have been swept away by the hype generated for the VHS release of the third movie to make it worth everyone’s time and effort.

It’s certainly a polished product on the surface. Its cover borrows the iconic puppetry artwork from the original 1972 theatrical release poster, imbuing it with an air of authenticity, while the package was accompanied with an 8 page ‘pictographic history of the trilogy’ and family tree as seen in Godfather II.

Yet it’s Pete Lyon’s sublime 32 colour pixel art that would really have charmed the cash out of your pockets had you not read the mostly lousy reviews. They even improve determined by the amount of RAM detected in your system. The graphics alone I imagine would have occupied the majority of the storage capacity spread across the (unprotected) 6 disks on which The Godfather was delivered alongside a copyright check code wheel.

It’s the minor, intricate details that really draw attention. The transparent newspaper dispensing boxes in Las Vegas that allow the partially obscured scenery to penetrate from behind as you pass by. Throughout the buildings endure damage rather than serving only as static backdrops, and in a quiet suburb we can witness snow-caps sliding off the shop canopies as they melt.

By way of compensation for the disappointing playability, fans of the trilogy can at least watch the playthrough from end to end without having to wrangle with the game’s awkward controls and spasmodic scrolling. It’s almost an abridged Sicilian tragedy in its own right!

Leave a Reply