Once upon a time in the west

Typically old 8 and 16-bit computer games were released accompanied by a flimsy pamphlet that would be ashamed to call itself a manual for fear of overselling its station in life. Back to the Future III bucked that trend when its publishers, Imageworks, drafted in a couple of veteran computer game journalists to devise its documentation; namely Gary Whitta and Jim Willis of ACE and The One fame.

58 pages long and translated into multiple languages it covers everything from operating instructions tailored towards the various platforms the game is available for, the structure of each of the four levels (including tips to help you beat them), to how they tie into the movie scenes from which they took inspiration.

It includes screen captures from the classic movie written/directed by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, as well as the computer game, and summarises the plot of the whole Back to the Future trilogy for anyone who had been living in an undiscovered bear cave for the previous six years. A time during which DeLoreanism first swept the globe, making deities of Doc Emmett Brown and Marty McFly. I’m sure I read somewhere that this is now an officially recognised religion. 😉

Anyway, I think my point is that since Gary and Jim did such a great job of explaining the scenario I don’t need to bother. Doc’s letter to Marty (written in 1885, yet received 70 years later) also covers the same ground providing a neatly packaged synopsis early on in the movie before anyone had chance to get confused. Of course inexplicable plot holes and time travel paradoxes still exist… it’s a kid’s sci-fi flick, not ‘In Search of the Edge of Time’.

If only the game was half as competently constructed. Regrettably it’s a collection of disjointed reflex-testing exercises that would be well suited to the desktop distractions model offered by simple web games. As if to prove the point, two of which can be practised at any time, out of sequence, trampling on any sense of coherence or progression.

First out of the stalls is a frantic horseback race to save the love of Doc’s life, Clara Clayton, from tumbling to her death over the precipice of Shonash Ravine. It’s not quite as easy as telling her to avoid walking so close to the edge since she’s trapped on a runaway horse-drawn wagon buckboard, careening out of control thanks to the sudden appearance of a snake.

 

 

This level in particular appears to have been influenced by Mastertronic’s 1985 action-shooting game, Kane, though the western theme permeates throughout. Hmm, that possibly-maybe might have been instigated by the movie genre.

 

 

Doc takes to his trusty (automatically galloping) steed to intervene, leaping over or ducking under obstacles and luggage, shooting the baddie Indians (and their tomahawk projectiles) and scooping up Clara’s desert-strewn clothing to earn bonus points.

Marty McFly: I had this horrible nightmare. Dreamed I w-… dreamed I was in a western. And I was being chased by all these Indians… and a bear.

Maggie McFly: Well… you’re safe and sound here, now, at the McFly farm.

Marty McFly: McFly farm? Why, you’re my, you’re my, my… who are you?

A mini-me progress bar at the base of the screen indicates the distance between Doc and Clara, as well as her proximity to ravine-bottom splattery. On each occasion Doc is knocked from his horse, more of that elusive time stuff slips through his fingers… and as we know, time is everything in a Back to the Future game.

We can try again of course. Marty and Doc even draw attention to all their failed attempts as though they have the opportunity to go back in time to fix these mistakes. Erm… despite the whole movie revolving around not being able to do that quite as easily as they could with 1985 technology at their disposal.

Oh well, given that Clara refers to the benefits of being Mary Poppins (she can fly using an umbrella) …who didn’t exist until 1934, we should probably leave the nitpickers’ toolkit in the workshop.

Towards the climactic denouement Doc’s perspective switches from side-scrolling to bird’s eye view as he finds himself wedged between a rock and a hard place. Hurtling towards the top of the screen we must dodge the Indians’ arrows and cavalry’s bullets, as well as any inconvenient desert ‘furniture’. We’re free to take potshots at the Indians, yet the cavalry should be avoided since they’re the good guys. We probably shouldn’t get into that political hornet’s nest.

 

 

 

 

This transitions into another almost identical scenario that has Doc bounding through an in-progress bank robbery orchestrated by Buford and his scurvy gang of miscreants. It was actually the ‘Pine City Stage’ stagecoach they held up in the movie. Close enough I suppose.

Prior to this it’s absolutely manic, ridiculously difficult, repetitive, frustrating and not remotely fun to play. Oh, and heavy. Very, very heavy… man.

All of which explains why most people never progress beyond the first section of the first level, content to let gravity decide Clara’s fate. On the plus side, should she shuffle off this mortal coil the ravine is renamed to commemorate her tragic demise. That’s some consolation, surely?

(Marty teases Doc about his and Clara’s reaction to each other)

Doc: Well, she did have quite a shock. After all, Miss Clayton almost ended up at the bottom of Clayton Ravine…

(realising)

Doc: Clayton Ravine…

Marty McFly: Holy s**t, Doc! Clayton Ravine was named after a teacher. They say she fell in there a hundred years ago.

Doc: A hundred years ago? That’s this year!

Marty McFly: Every kid in school knows that story ’cause we all have teachers we’d like to see fall into that ravine.

Clara’s runaway wagon scene (and name) is thought to have been inspired by a similar real life event involving Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens. If you believe the possibly true tall tale. Some historians dispute it.

Whilst in the game her gravestone states Clara died in 1855, this was actually the year she was born, making her 30 years old when we meet the Hill Valley school teacher in the movie. Oops. Maybe Hugh Riley – who created the graphics – was thinking of 1955, the year Marty and Doc travelled back to in the first movie? 30 is a bit of a recurring theme of course – they visit 2015 in the second movie.

In any case Clara really should be dead as would be the case if Doc hadn’t intervened, changing the course of history by being in the right place at the right time. Unless of course you believe in ‘que sera sera’?

In the movie’s alternative timeline Doc travels back to 1885 in the DeLorean and is asked to collect Clara from the train station. Consequently she doesn’t need to rent a wagon and horses to get home. Had this not been the case they wouldn’t have met or fallen madly in love (at first sight), and she would now be deceased.

You do have to ask yourself though, is it a fair swap? I mean, given that by existing in a time in which he shouldn’t, Doc is shot in the back by Buford Tannen a week later, ending up six feet under. He effectively dies to save Clara.

Well he would have if Marty hadn’t got wind of this turn of events and gone back in the DeLorean to 1885, thereby creating another fork in time to save Doc from (un)certain death. Hi-ho, Silver!

Marty McFly: (discovers a picture of Doc) Doc, look.

Young Doc: Great Scott. It’s me! Then, it is true. All of it. It is me who goes back there and gets shot.

Marty McFly: It’s not gonna happen, Doc. After you fix the time circuits and put new tires on the DeLorean, I’m gonna go back to 1885 and I’m bringing you home.

We could explore the various butterfly effects of living in a Docless world, but it would get exceedingly complicated and I’m too much of a gutless yella-belly to take that on. I wish I could ask Stephen Hawking for an opinion. 🙁

Next on the agenda (if you play them out of sequence like I did) is frisbee-chucking target practice. Well actually they’re Frisbie Pie tins and – now playing as Marty – we’re launching them at Buford Tannen and his cowboy stooges.

 

We have unlimited ‘ammo’ supplies, can apply after-touch swerve to our throws, and for an additional challenge must avoid decapitating an innocent blind guy out walking his dog. Is that you Stevie? I Wonder.

Our goal is to cut down Buford and his mentally challenged gang before the oven door placed over our chest in lieu of armour is destroyed. It will absorb only a limited number of shots before its protective powers are lost and Marty becomes a sitting duck.

 

Townsman 3: Good luck tomorrow, Mr. Eastwood. We’ll be prayin’ for ya.

Marty McFly: Thanks.

Undertaker: (holding a funeral suit) Good morning, Mr. Eastwood. Interest you in a new suit for tomorrow?

Marty McFly: Uh, I’m-I’m fine. Thanks.

First aligning ourselves with the moving targets we must hit each of Buford’s 6 goons 3 times prior to taking on the main man himself. A task far easier than the first once you get a feel for the awkward controls and quirky isometric perspective.

This section alludes to the scene in the movie in which Marty – eating a slice of pie – spots the name of its manufacturers in the base of the dish. It dawns on him that this must be where the concept for the toy with the very similar name emanated.

Marty McFly: (holding up a plate that says ‘Frisbee’) Hey, Frisbee, far-out.

Seamus McFly: What was the meanin’ of that?

Maggie McFly: It was right in front of him.

Ding! Caught in a light-bulb moment he decides to use it as a projectile to knock the gun out of Buford’s grubby mit as he attempts to shoot Doc, thus saving him and rewriting history (again). Foreshadowing the incident, a frisbee can be spotted in the window of the ‘Blast from the Past’ antique shop in 2015, as seen in BTTF II.

Frisbie Pies exist in our world too, inextricably linked to the origin of the toys. Production ceased in 1958 following the closure of its Bridgeport (Connecticut) factory, however, as of 2016 they are on sale once again.

Level 3 – the shooting gallery – takes place in the midst of the Hill Valley Festival clock-tower unveiling party. It was designed in tribute to the scene in which Marty is challenged to demonstrate his shooting prowess at Samuel Colt’s Patent Firearms sales wagon stand.

 

 

Handling a Colt Peacemaker like a pro – under the alias Clint Eastwood – he impresses salesman, Elmer H. Johnson, so much that he offers him the $12 gun for free, evening up the odds in preparation for his showdown with Buford.

 

Biff Tannen’s great-grandfather, Buford Tannen.

 

Colt gun salesman: Where’d you learn to shoot like that?

Marty: 7-Eleven.

Marty demonstrates what a “crack shot” he is playing the Wild Gunman coin-op in Cafe ’80s (BTTF 2, 1989).

Colt gun salesman: I’d like for you to have this new Colt Peacemaker and gun belt. Free of charge.

Marty McFly: Free?

Colt gun salesman: I want everybody to know that the gun that shot Buford Tannen was a Colt Peacemaker.

Marty McFly: Hey-hey, no problem. Thanks a lot!

Colt gun salesman: Of course, uh, you understand, that if you lose, I’m takin’ it back.

Marty McFly: Thanks again.

Mimicking the movie, our sharp-shooting skills are put to the test during the Hill Valley Festival celebration, only now we’re also up against the clock. With the benefit of unlimited ammo we’re tasked with shooting pop-up or sliding wooden targets in the guise of ducks or Buford’s gunslingers. Or even what looks like a World War I soldier wearing a tin hat (?). Meet the quota – avoiding civilian collateral damage – and the prize is ours; a .45 Colt.

Our final challenge – one that can’t be practised like the target shooting games – takes place on top of the ‘borrowed’ locomotive used to shunt our fuel-less DeLorean along a train track towards the ravine.

Engineer: Is this a holdup?

Doc: It’s a science experiment! Stop the train just before you hit the switch track up ahead!

 

 

 

 

Doc: Mr. Fusion powers the time circuits and the flux capacitor. But the internal combustion engine runs on ordinary gasoline, it always has. There’s not going to be a gas station around here until sometime in the next century. Without gasoline, we can’t get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour.

Marty’s objective is to traverse the roof from back to front against the clock, dodging obstacles and dispatching Buford’s gang and disgruntled train engineers using left over pie trays or our fists.

Along the way we must collect eight ‘presto logs’ (made from pressed wood and pulverised anthracite) in the right order to turbo-charge the temperature of the train’s furnace 11mph at a time. In the absence of plutonium or Mr. Fusion this will allow it to reach an unprecedented speed of 88mph… the magic velocity that enables time travel, courtesy of a nuclear reaction yielding 1.21 gigawatts of energy.

Doc: (into the walkie-talkie from inside the cab of the train) Each detonation will be accompanied by a sudden burst of acceleration. Hopefully, we’ll hit 88 mph, before the needle gets much past 2,000.

Marty McFly: (into the walkie-talkie) Why, what-what happens after it hits 2,000?

Doc: (into the walkie-talkie) The whole boiler explodes.

Marty McFly: Perfect!

During the 19th century period in which the movie is set, the fastest locomotive would have been the Eight Wheeler Steam Engine. Despite breaking speed records at the time, it would have struggled to top 45 miles per hour, making it an unlikely candidate for instigating time travel. Just sayin’.

What? It’s just a movie? Get outta here!

(Marty and Doc are asking how fast the train could go)

Marty McFly: Do you think it’s possible to get it up to… 90?

Engineer: Ha! 90? Tarnation, son, who’d ever need to be in such a hurry?

Doc: Well, it’s just a little bet he and I have, that’s all. Theoretically speaking, could it be done?

Engineer: Well, I suppose if you had a straight stretch of track with a level grade, and you weren’t haulin’ no cars behind you, and if you can get the fire hot enough, and I’m talkin’ about hotter than the blazes of hell and damnation itself… then yes, it might be possible to get her up that fast.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade meets Back to the Future III. Note there’s no circus or circus train in the latter movie.

Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade: The Action Game (Amiga version) developed by Tiertex and published by US Gold in 1989.

Finally we must evade the engine’s steam jets and jump down to the DeLorean with the help of Marty’s hoverboard to slip into the driver’s seat and soar Back to the Future to enjoy the rest of our unmapped life. It’s what we make of it, you know.

Slightly different to the way it plays out in the movie since Marty is already seated in the DeLorean when the detached train engine begins pushing it. He clambers over the carriages initially with Doc when heading for the driver to ‘persuade’ him to hand over control. It’s Doc who uses the hoverboard to rescue Clara when he realises that she’s followed him to salvage their stalled relationship.

 

In both mediums the train achieves ‘temporal displacement’ just before reaching the end of the under construction track – ta da! – making the transition to 1985 feasible. At which point the rails are safely in place having been completed in 1886, allowing Marty to cross the gorge without plunging to his pillow… I mean death.

 

 

 

 

 

Doc: (consulting a map of the train line) This spur runs off the main line three miles down to Clayton Ravine. There’s a long stretch of track that will still exist in 1985. This is where we’ll push the DeLorean with the locomotive. Funny, this map calls Clayton Ravine ‘Shonash Ravine’… that must be an old Indian name for it. It’s perfect, a nice long run that goes clear across the bridge over the ravine, you know, over near that Hilldale housing development.

Marty McFly: Right, Doc, but according to this map, there is no bridge.

(cut to Marty and Doc standing at the end of the track overlooking the ravine)

Marty McFly: Well, Doc, we can scratch that idea. I mean, we can’t wait around a year and a half for this thing to get finished.

Doc: Marty, it’s perfect, you’re just not thinking fourth-dimensionally!

Marty McFly: Right, right. I have a real problem with that.

Doc: Don’t you see? The bridge will exist in 1985. It’s safe and still in use. Therefore, as long as we get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour before we hit the edge of the ravine, we’ll instantaneously arrive at a point in time where the bridge is completed. We’ll have track under us and coast safely across the ravine!

Marty McFly: What about the locomotive?

Doc: It’ll be a spectacular wreck. Too bad no one will be around to see it.

 

Later when Marty returns to 1885 observant viewers will note that the ravine where he is presumed to have perished in a catastrophic train explosion has once again been renamed; this time in honour of Mr Eastwood. In case you were wondering, the real one loved the running joke (and multiple allusions to his movies) and was happy to approve the use of his name.

Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen: What’s your name, dude?

Marty McFly: Uh, Mar- Eastwood. Clint Eastwood.

Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen: What kind of stupid name is that?

 

 

 

Doc: As you reminded me, Marty, I’m a scientist, so I must be scientific about this. I cautioned you about disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit. Therefore, I must do no less. We shall proceed as planned, and as soon as we return to 1985, we’ll destroy this infernal machine. Travelling through time has become much too painful.

Marty McFly: (sadly) Well, Doc, it’s destroyed. Just like you wanted.

 

Doc: Marty! It runs on steam!

(Doc opens the cab and Clara is standing next to him)

Doc: Meet the family. Clara you know.

Clara Clayton: Hi, Marty.

Marty McFly: Ma’am!

Doc: These are our boys: Jules, and Verne!

(they walk out as Doc introduces them)

Doc: Boys, this is Marty and Jennifer.

(they wave at them and Marty and Jennifer wave back)

 

 

To get the game out in the wild before the hype-train took a nose-dive Probe’s BTTF3 was always going to be a primitive action affair with a quick turnaround and limited long-term appeal. Keep in mind we had to wait a couple more decades before Telltale began developing BTTF themed adventure games with a bit more depth and longevity.

Back to the Future: The Game – Episode 1: It’s About Time (published in 2010 for Windows, iPad and Apple Mac).

Limitations aside, Probe’s interpretation did what it set out to do; convince parent’s and kids to part with their cash in exchange for a licensed movie game that evokes fond memories of a beloved franchise, without necessarily setting the tarmac alight. Coder Jim Baguley capably fulfilled the brief by ensuring it all gelled together neatly with no nasty glitches or collision detection issues, and that the controls function as well as can be expected via a one button joystick. Do we blame Jim or designer, Hugh Riley, for making the first and last levels horribly unfair and infuriating?

It does look and sound the part, featuring some competent animation, nicely drawn backdrops, and sprites that approximate their silver screen counterparts without infringing any licensing clauses. Barry Leitch’s rendition of the iconic opening theme tune is another highlight, whilst the remainder of the music elicits appropriate wild west motifs.

Several critics had a stab at identifying the origin of these catchy western riffs and decided some are homages to/rip-offs of ZZ Top’s Doubleback (the band themselves feature in the movie), Apache by The Shadows, the theme tune to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Stan Jones’ Ghost Riders in the Sky. Yeah, I can hear it in some cases. With others I think they were reaching a bit too far. They didn’t have YouTube at their fingertips to compare the tracks side by side.

For anyone with minimal expectations of the game’s entertainment value and two minutes to kill before the wonderful real thing is repeated on TV for the zillionth time, it’s an OK-ish diversion for the littl’uns.

But don’t let me slant your opinion; the final verdict has yet to be written. This review is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

And remember kids, the information superhighway never had any roads. It doesn’t need ’em!

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