Can’t touch this

After toning down the ultra-violence of 18 certificate movie RoboCop for an adolescent gaming audience, The Untouchables should have felt like child’s play for Ocean. Yet despite its tamer 15 certificate, comic book style violence and memorable one-liners, it features several horrific scenes that no parent would want their kids to see on the silver or bedroom TV screen.

Scenes such as the one depicting a thoughtful little girl chasing after a man leaving a bar to return his ‘mislaid’ briefcase. Only to be blown to smithereens when the bomb inside detonates. Validating the scripted butchery at least, her mother’s anguish is partly what motivates Eliot Ness to bring Al Capone to justice.

Or how about the scene where Al Capone murders one of his own cohorts in cold blood by bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat? An act of terror – based on a real incident – he performs at a board meeting surrounded by witnesses who are too traumatised to speak out against him. He knows it too, that’s why it’s all so nonchalantly brazen.

There’s also the grisly moment where Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) shoots a corpse directly in the face at zero range pretending it’s a living gangster to convince one of Capone’s stooges to squeal.

Quite disturbing despite Connery’s often comic (Oscar-winning) performance. Sometimes he even intends to be funny. Not so much where the Scottish-Irish-American accent is concerned! Surely there was a genuinely Irish actor available who would have fit the bill? Liam Neeson perhaps? Nevermind, Connery is brilliant otherwise. Shame he has to die half way through the movie. Warning: spoiler alert!

Mark: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
Mark: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means **** all. It’s a sympathy vote.
(from Trainspotting)

Luckily for their complaints department, none of this horror made it into Ocean’s game, yet the remaining source material was perfect fodder for conversion to the 8 and 16 bit home computer platforms of the era. A simple plot, guns, cops, bad guys, explosions… and baby sitting. What more do you need?

Ocean chose to take charge of the 8-bit Commodore 64 interpretation in-house, whilst all the others (barring the DOS port by Astros Productions), were out-sourced to Liverpool-based Special FX.

With Midnight Resistance still a few months away from completion and Hudson Hawk not due until 1991, Special FX’s track record with Ocean consisted of Batman: The Caped Crusader and Red Heat; neither of which I’d call essential classics. As such, no sane person would gamble on Untouchables being a guaranteed hit.

Untouchables? Looks more like 3x Sherlock Holmes DOS-ing about in this edition.

Whatever the host platform, all variants follow the same genre-blending structure, adopting critical scenes from the movie starring Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith, to determine the backdrop and assignment brief of each of the six stages.

The original storyboards on which these were based were created by Ocean’s in-house artist Michael MacDonald and digitised for inclusion in the game using Deluxe Paint by Andy Rixon. Commonly known credits trivia at the time of release since The One ran a competition to win all seven of the original designs, signed by the Special FX development team, whilst 10 runners up received a copy of the game. Since Untouchables includes six levels, not seven, it does beg the question, what happened to the missing one?

As the movie was loosely inspired by the 1959 TV series, itself based on the 1957 novel of the same name by David Mamet, and that in turn is a vague approximation of the true story on which it hinges, you shouldn’t expect the game to serve as any kind of history lesson substitute. It’s focus is on pure action, which is why you won’t find yourself in court watching the trial of Al Capone, or debating the moral implications of the ‘Chicago Way’.

Jim Malone: You wanna get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way.

Much like in the movie, the star is Eliot Ness (Costner), whose all-consuming objective is to bring down the no. 1 booze smuggling kingpin, Al Capone (De Niro, not Hoskins!), during the preposterous prohibition era of the 1930s. When the authorities prosecuting the perpetrators were imbibing as much contraband as anyone else.

Ness is different, he’s sober and prepared to uphold the law to his dying breath… or until the ban is rescinded, whichever comes first.

Reporter: They say they’re going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then?
Ness: I think I’ll have a drink.

Ness, meet NES Ness!

As the story unfolds we meet the team who aid him in the pursuit to see that justice is served, either at the end of a gun barrel or in court. Branded ‘The Untouchables’ by the press, I think we could all guess that hyperbole would soon be put to the test.

Unusual for such licensed fare, in the game we don’t play solely as the star of the movie, instead flipping between the four members of the posse. Arguably no single character could be considered the main attraction in the movie in any case so it makes sense to replicate this tenet in the pixelated world. Connery and Costner enjoy roughly equal screen time and billing in the roster so would represent the main contenders. Sadly De Niro’s role is closer to an extended cameo. Vito Corleone ‘lite’ if you like. Very lite.

Note the very dark graphics. This is due to transposing the Atari ST’s colour palette without adjustment for the Amiga. If you watch the Amiga longplay you’ll see this has been fixed, perhaps in post-production or using WinUAE’s graphics configuration options. Either way it’s a big improvement, just not ‘authentic’.

Level one aims to emulate the bungled raid on a derelict warehouse believed to be engaged in stashing illegal bootlegged liquor, as seen in the movie. We know Capone has been tipped off with regards to our visit so all we’ll find if we prise open the crates imported from Canada are novelty umbrellas. You should have watched the movie by now you see.

Instead then we’re tasked with capturing bookkeepers and collecting accounting ledgers dropped by fallen adversaries to form the basis of our prosecution of Capone on tax evasion grounds. As history teaches us, ironically this is how he was eventually apprehended and jailed.

At this juncture we have yet to recruit the other three Untouchables so must tackle the mission alone. There’s no time to waste admiring the scenery since the gangster goons encountered are relentless and in endless supply. It’s a case of get in, follow the pointy arrows, gather the incriminating paperwork, and get out again.

In-game graphics may vary. It should go without saying that this is the Spectrum version.

It’s interesting to note that this level turned out very similar to the first level of Beverly Hills Cop by Tynesoft, published right around the same time. Just coincidence I think since both movies feature warehouses and one warehouse brimming with crates looks much like another.

Next up is an Operation Wolf/Cabal style stage inspired by the bridge raid scene that takes place on the Canadian/US border in the movie. It’s our duty to intercept the illicit liquor run by blowing away smugglers with our Tommy gun, as well as obliterating bottles and the Evil Life-Ruining Alcohol within. 100 of them ought to do it. First aid kits confer a health boost, and are collected – somehow – by shooting them too. Don’t ask me.

We view our shotgun’s cross-hair through binoculars wedged in the bottom right corner of the screen while we watch the action roll by in the playfield above the HUD. Jolly tricky it is too to do the two things at once while Capone’s mob hurls bottles and pelts us with bullets.

Another third person perspective shootout scenario constitutes level three, this time played across a double-screen dimly lit backstreet Chicago alleyway. It’s here we find ourselves pinned by the rapid gunfire of Mafia-esque opposition on route to stop George (Capone’s accountant) from making his getaway via the railway station. Should he escape, the evidence of Capone’s misdemeanours will be lost forever. What none of them seem to have considered (in the movie or game) is that if they destroy the damning ledgers, or don’t maintain them in the first place, there’s no case to answer!

We take charge of all four members of the crew, with the option to switch between characters whenever we duck behind the adjacent wall. Selecting the current healthiest Untouchable is taken care of by pushing up or down on the joystick. We can even play as Joe Pesci from Moonwalker, I mean Oscar Wallace. Sorry, it’s the tiny glasses.

This essential time-out buys us precious seconds to reload our pump-action shotgun, or allows our compatriots to recuperate. Which they’ll do automatically whenever not engaged in the action. Only two shots are replenished with each cartridge swap so it’s an exercise in precision and timing rather than brute force. Something the bad guys have no qualms over doling out as they attack unremittingly with Tommy guns and sticks of dynamite.

You’d have got the blues if you bought the Amstrad version. Very film noir.

Curiously, in the movie very little shooting occurs in this alleyway since Ness and Malone arrive too late to save Wallace (the Untouchable no-one remembers) and George (one of Capone’s bookkeepers). Presumably protected in a secure police station, they are about to leave destined for a safe house when assassinated by Nitti posing as an elevator engineer. Slumped against or hanging from the lift’s inside wall they lie motionless, glassy-eyed, politely making sense of the message scrawled in blood… ‘touchable’! Special FX really had to employ artistic license here because all they translated from the movie is the setting.

Level four revolves around the most famous scene in the movie; the one in which Ness stakes out the railway station to arrest Capone’s accountant, Walter Payne, but as it transpires becomes more preoccupied with babysitting duties. More specifically, a commuter is making a hash of getting herself, luggage and baby down the steps simultaneously so Ness offers to help, distracting him from his surveillance duties.

When the baddies show up Ness opens fire and the pram becomes an afterthought. Cut loose it clunks and rattles down the steps in free-fall mode as bullets zing past at all angles, while the oblivious baby within (the stunt coordinator’s son, Collin Hymes), gurgles away as if it’s just another leisurely walk in the park.

In the movie the baby pretty much makes it to the base of the descent unharmed with barely any intervention from the Untouchables, making the slow-motion rescue seem very silly and overblown. Why didn’t the mother just take the lift anyway? I suppose it would have been quite tense the first time I saw it. Today, six minutes worth of slow motion footage of scrutinising a staircase is a bit tedious.

Special FX’s rendition is actually superior. Controlling just Ness we must steer the pram out of harm’s way as it rolls onward under its own volition. Averting bystander carnage, and shooting dead anyone who approaches before they have chance to commit collateral damage infanticide ensures the little tyke touches down safely and the game isn’t prematurely terminated. Should you be too vigorous or fail to ward off stray bullets Collin is flung out of his cot, splattering on the solid marble floor in a pool of blood and guts. Which aside from anything else makes for really embarrassing PR.

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stage stands in for the hostage rescuing scene that occurs right after Ness and George Stone/Giuseppe Petri save the runaway pram-baby (George is trying to play down his Italian-American heritage to distance himself from the Mafia connotations, hence the duel name arrangement). To be fair, it’s a very brief scene in the movie too. It has to be since it’s a ‘now or never’ scenario with no time to cogitate.

Widnes Railway Station (where Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’… allegedly) stands in for Chicago’s Union Station. You know how it is when you’re operating on a shoestring budget.

Emulating the movie’s plot-line we have one chance (one shot) to eliminate the mobster holding Walter Payne (Capone’s chief bookkeeper) hostage at gunpoint. Should he perish our star witness is lost interminably and the trial will fold with Capone being set free… to erm, sell Peach Schnapps and whatnot. Much like Bargain Booze today. Serious repercussions then.

Walter survives to testify thanks to Stone’s sharp-shooting skills. In court Nitti is present by Capone’s side armed with a concealed weapon, 100% approved by the mayor. Ness doesn’t know this at the time, so expecting bloodshed, works with the bailiff to remove him. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what he gets, only outside the courtroom; the bailiff is shot dead and Nitti flees to the roof. Ness gives chase and a roof-top shootout ensues, the gunslingers ducking and weaving behind obstacles to get a clearer shot and swerve returning volleys.

Pot plants (or porcelain cats) can be targeted for a time or energy boost. To reload our weapon we must dodge back into hiding, and ultimately land a total of six hits to bring down the mark. Achieve this and he topples over the precipice of the building, plummeting to his death. Straight through the roof of Ness’s police car in fact, setting up the droll one-liner…

George Stone: Where is Nitti?
Ness: He’s in the car.

A medley of jangley, jolly ragtime tunes accompany our crime-fighting escapades. They’re pleasant enough and would perfectly complement a Saturday carnival in the local park, yet peppering gangsters with lead to the perky riffs of the Chatanooga Choo-Choo or Charleston feels a tad incongruent. Any sort of edgy ambience the game would otherwise have engendered is lost as a result. If the brief was to produce a lighthearted comic-book style caper then that’s a different matter; Special FX nailed it. The movie is, and it isn’t, and it is. It’s head-scratchingly muddled.

We know we’re playing the Untouchables because it says so on the tin. In-game however, Special FX weren’t given permission to imitate the movie cast’s likenesses, so vague approximations are the best we can hope for. Saying that, the title screen is an excellent parody of Costner’s demeanour and build, and elsewhere it’s not so important since we’re often presented with the backs or tops of more diminutive people’s heads. The cartoony aesthetic helps too in this regard in that you aren’t expecting photo realism.

Released in 1990, based on Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie, there wasn’t the usual rush to market to capitalise on a limited cinema release window. Accordingly, with the press junket machine having already been mothballed, no-one should have expected Untouchables to be an impulse-buy chart-storming hit. Regardless, it was a moderate success, leaving bullet holes at positions 7, 9 and 19 in March, February and May 1990 respectively. This can largely be attributed to the overwhelmingly positive response from the gaming press published between December 1989 and January 1990…

Amiga Joker – Jan 1990 – 84%
Generation 4 – Jan 1990 – 94%
Joystick – Jan 1990 – 91%
The One – Dec 1989 – 86%
Zero – Dec 1989 – 93%

Although not an exact curve, the scores tend to decline along with the later dated reviews, and nosedive dramatically where the re-releases are concerned. Amiga Power rated Untouchables 64% in May 1992 and Amiga Format a paltry 38% in the same month.

What this could mean is that reviewers were swayed by the initial appeal of the comic-book style graphics, connection to a movie they were already particularly fond of, or the apparent variety on offer. With more time invested, sans the rush to be the first publication to hit the news stand, perhaps critics were better able to see the cracks, and put the limited gameplay into perspective. With hindsight, Untouchables the game does appear to be more of an accompanying, atmospheric ‘experience’ rather than a solid game in its own right. A collection of affiliated mini-games neatly bound together with plot-progressing newspaper frontpages that set the right tone, evoking memories of a mediocre movie that will forever be overshadowed by Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and so on.

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