I once promised I’d never write about Cliffhanger seeing as it’s an abysmal, absolute, utter piece of… sub-optimal software inspired by a forgettable, brainless movie. Let me start by saying pffft. Who am I to tell me what to do?
“Don’t buy this game. It really is crap of the lowest order and it should be mercilessly stabbed with knives if you ever see it. Really.”
The One (21%, June 1994)
When movie critique royalty Siskel and Ebert evaluated the $70m summer blockbuster they dedicated just under four minutes of discussion to it, and the majority of that time was spent bickering about whether or not it actually has a plot. Siskel vehemently argued NO. Ebert deftly swerved the question while passionately praising the magnificent scenery, incredible stunt-work and special effects.
Both were right; the latter is undeniable, yet the movie certainly does suffer due to its weak premise, nonsensical plot devices and absence of character depth/evolution. Although I’m sure Psygnosis would have appreciated the linear mundanity since the premise required no dumbing down for the various gaming translations. Playable Cliffhangers were released for *deep breath* …all the systems. I can’t be bothered listing them. That would be as tedious as you having to watch the movie again to get the gist of the story.
Hang on, I won’t leave you dangling. A government plane is transporting over $100m in uncirculated bills over the Colorado Rockies (actually filmed in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Dolomites, Italy) when it’s hijacked by corrupt treasury agent, Richard Travers (played by Rex Linn). Frank Tripp from CSI: Miami in case that means anything to you. No idea personally.
A tense shootout ensues between the two factions wrestling for control of the operation (dodgy vs legit government officials). Assuming they know who to trust, the good guys back the wrong horse, and all of them end up dead. On a plane. With guns. And bullets. On a plane. Depressurisation. Oxygen depletion.
Eric Qualen: Kill a few people, they call you a murderer. Kill a million and you’re a conqueror.
More bizarre yet is what follows. Archvillain and former military intelligence officer Eric Qualen (played by John Lithgow with a laughably synthetic British accent) shows up in another plane to put the second stage of the heist into action; transferring Travers and the three cash cases containing “suits, socks, 100 million dollars – the usual stuff” from the government plane to the getaway aircraft via a zip-wire whilst they remain in high-velocity flight at an altitude of 15,000 feet.
Why bother? Why not keep it simple; take control of the plane, fly it to a secure location, offload the booty and split the spoils between the co-conspirators? Playing musical planes is totally pointless.
Well, from a box office figures perspective it wouldn’t be quite so spectacular to play it safe, that’s why. Cliffhanger is most notable for its acknowledgement in the Guinness Book of World Records for showcasing the most fiscally extravagant aerial stunt ever performed. One that had to be filmed in the US because it would have been illegal in Europe where the surrogate Rockies were based. Simon Crane – the stuntman responsible – was paid $1m for his involvement alone. It was uninsured because no-one would.
It’s all for nothing as it happens since a supposedly dead FBI agent does a Lazarus and shoots down the getaway vehicle, causing the hydraulics to malfunction and the plane to lose altitude.
Crash-landing into the bleak snow-swamped mountains they raise a distress call to the local emergency services, omitting any terroristy confessions to avert the whole arrest and rotting in jail for the rest of eternity deal.
Enter veteran rangers Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Walker (Sly Stallone) and Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker aka Merle from The Walking Dead) who answer the call with the best of intentions and are taken hostage before they can alert the authorities.
Cliffhanger opens with a pivotal scene that sets up the strained relationship between Hal and Gabe. Perhaps that’s worth mentioning. One day Hal took his girlfriend rock-climbing. She was very inexperienced so a bit of a liability. Note the past tense – she fell to her death when her harness snapped. Gabe did his utmost to save her, but couldn’t hang on long enough to make a difference. Hal watched on uselessly from the side-lines and still holds a grudge against Gabe for not being Superman.
They’ve been estranged for eight months when forced back together by what they believe to be accidental emergency circumstances. Professional climbers inform us that much of the movie is nonsense from a technical point of view, and the credits even include a disclaimer to say that the harness was tampered with so as to fail.
Being expert mountaineers and muscly athletes, the crooks assume Hal and Gabe will make perfect loot-recovering gophers. Each of the cases have been fitted with a tracking beacon so that should help. Gabe is sent up a 90-degree incline rock-face to recover case 1, while Hal is held captive on the ground as an insurance policy. As an extra incentive for returning with the bounty intact the gang confiscate Gabe’s jacket, reasoning that he can only survive so long in the freezing conditions without it.
Or could it be that since the production companies (there were four of them) had paid big bucks for Sly’s services they were adamant he wasn’t going to be covering up those prize-winning muscles, even in sub-zero temperatures?
Note that this aspect of the movie was implemented rather inventively as the game’s energy system. Absorb hits or just stand still shivering and Sly’s temperature (measured in degrees Celsius) depletes, generously restoring fully and automatically each time a new level commences.
Punch him and he gets colder rather than bleeding. Hmm. I bet he’s willing to sacrifice his love by the end. Ho-ho. You know, like the song? Cold as ice? Qualen had no qualms about it.
Eric Qualen: Do you know what real love is, Kristel?
Eric Qualen: (whispers in her ear) Sacrifice…
Qualan and his goons become impatient waiting for him to return with the spoils so start yanking on Gabe’s tether, causing him to panic and hack it off. They respond by opening fire, sparking an avalanche and the death of one of the disposable baddies. Gabe has a cunning brainwave; chuck the case down the cliff face to give the impression he’s been hit, in the hope they’ll cease pursuing him. He’s already broken open its security lock with a rock, and as luck would have it, the case hits a craggy outcrop during the descent, bursting open, scattering the money beyond reach. A far more flamboyant visual effect!
Eric Qualen: (to Tucker after Gabe has apparently been swept off the mountain during an avalanche) Your friend just had the most expensive funeral in history…
Bingo! They’re fooled, buying him some time to team up with another ranger, Jessie Deighan, in an abandoned log cabin (aka the Gordon Douglas memorial shack).
This is conveniently equipped with vintage climbing gear, the use of which will render their rescue mission that bit more treacherous. C is for contrived boys and girls. Breaking the display cabinet Jessie finds him a thin ‘sweader’ to wear, and his body temperature regulation problem is miraculously solved. I think that’s American for jumper.
Jessie: This rope looks 60 years old. Will it hold?
Gabe: Don’t think so.
Jessie: Bad answer.
Now the race is on to recover cash cows 2 and 3. For as long as they remain unfound the thugs will keep Hal alive to serve as a tourist guide and health and safety adviser. Gabe knows that if he can get to them first they can be used as a bargaining chip to secure the safe return of his pal and co-worker, Hal.
As I said, the perfect premise for a video game. Essential things need to be retrieved from the wilderness and we’re rewarded whenever we do. That it’s money in this instance is par for the course.
Normally we’d be swapping it in a shop for weapons and whatnot. Here we’re more likely to burn it to keep warm as Sly does in the movie. These $1,000 bills courtesy of the Denver Mint (who in reality only manufacture coins) “are only used for international banking exchange” so perhaps not totally insane.
Gabe: It costs a fortune to heat this place.
Anyway, as weapons are found littering the environment, there’s no need to buy them… a pistol, dynamite, rocks, and throwing knives. Once the well runs dry we revert back to using our fists and feet as offensive weapons so can never be considered entirely defenceless.
OK, so that’s our motivation sorted. Now we need some bad guys to pose as obstacles and give us something satisfying to beat up. Blimey eck, these things are formulaic. Why do we bother playing ’em?
“I hope this isn’t the future of Amiga games. I really do. More trash but better than some of the other trash they’ve released this month. Psygnosis may have made a bit of cash out of these games but they really have damaged their reputation no end. I somehow doubt that it was worth it in the long run. I mean, do they really think that today’s youngsters are willing to shell out twenty quid for something that won’t last them half an hour. Film licences are all well and good, but it would be nice if there was at least some sort of game behind the celluloid-inspired title.”
Amiga Action (30%, August 1994)
In the movie Gabe is up against a small posse of adversaries and he doesn’t come into contact with them all that frequently because – being unarmed – his aim is to stay out of their reach. It’s a typical cat and mouse affair, “Die Hard in the mountains” as it was coined at the time. Spartan, desolate landscapes in mind, it doesn’t immediately scream platformer beat ’em up potential. Did I mention that’s what this is? They all are no matter which system you own.
Spidersoft took charge of the development duties where the Amiga title was concerned. Their remnants are now known as Rockstar Lincoln, who became such stopping by at 21st Century Entertainment Ltd and Take-Two Interactive on route owing to the usual mergers and acquisitions rigmarole we’ve come to expect from developers of yore. It would take all day to list their output, produced under each of these guises and would mean nothing since so many different people were involved across several decades. What they worked on for the Amiga under the Spidersoft label can be whittled down to Thomas The Tank Engine’s Pinball and Pinball Mania.
Surprisingly very little actual climbing goes on in the Amiga game. Make the most of this bit.
There are snowboarding and rock-climbing interludes in the console versions, though these too are primarily platformers.
On the SNES and Mega Drive they’re closer to Double Dragon than the Amiga iteration, only not as much fun to play. Less platform bouncing and more button and head mashing. Equally hated regardless. Switch off your brain before pressing start and your chances of succeeding hike exponentially.
“Fair graphics but poor animation. Very choppy gameplay. Poor control and lack of variation in enemies. Uncreative; poor man’s Double Dragon.”
Electronic Gaming Monthly (SNES, 48%, January 1994)
“Stallone’s movie becomes a sub-standard beat-up-the-bad-guys game following the same plot. Control is sluggish and you can’t save your progress, so it gets frustrating.”
Game Players (SNES, 40%, December 1993)
“Although you get fight scenes, harrowing jumps, and chase action, Cliffhanger’s uneven gameplay will keep it from being a smash.”
GamePro (US) (MD, 50%, December 1993)
Programmer Chris Shrigley has kindly made available the source code for the Sega Mega Drive version via his home page should anyone have the talent to port a proper 16-bit interpretation to the Amiga. For all its faults it’s an improvement over the NES port that was foisted on us.
“Cliffhanger? No, it isn’t. Don’t buy it, you’ll only encourage them to bring out more of this sort of unmitigated rubbish. And I don’t think any of us want that.”
Amiga Power (19%, July 1994)
Oh yeah, baddies. So to get around the problem of these being few and far between Spidersoft (on behalf of Psygnosis) turned nature into a threat. Well, it is anyway, except they really extenuated the concept here to give us something to work with. From the outset we’re viciously lynched by endangered golden eagles and wolves, as well as succumbing to sliding snow-caps, tumbling rocks and razor-sharp stalactites.
Campfires which you’d expect to do us harm actually defrost Gabe, restoring his health, providing he has enough money to burn. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief here since the fires continue to roar whether we feed them or not.
A Mega fire… with blast processing no doubt.
Obviously then it’s counterproductive to steer clear of them. What isn’t immediately apparent is that you can actually stand on top of campfires without turning into a human torch.
You won’t encounter any rabbits. Killing one for the silver screen caused Sly enough trouble during filming, plus the outlay of an additional $100,000 for re-shoots believe it or not. It would seem that test audiences don’t approve of fluffy pet abuse. Who knew?
It’s quite a while before we meet those two-legged problems… humans (seeing as the body count in the movie only amounts to 17). It’s hard to tell who some of them are supposed to be, just generic bruisers for hire I expect. If they were anyone in particular we’d only be able to kill each of them once and that would create a lot more work for the developers. Or a lot of empty landscapes.
Other one-on-one brawls were seemingly adapted from set-piece movie scenes such as the scrap between Hal and Craig Fairbrass (former pro footballer, Delmar)… who isn’t an Australian. How is it possible to confuse British with Australian?
Delmar: Tell me… do you like soccer? It’s a great sport. I was a f**kin’ good striker.
Hal Tucker: (grabbing shotgun off Delmar’s back) Season’s over, asshole!
Setting timed TNT booby-traps is a significant plot-point in the movie, and receives a passing reference in the game without enacting any real implications. I only mention it here so I can insert one of the best lines from the movie and make it seem vaguely relevant. Text doesn’t do it justice, it’s all in the droll delivery.
Eric Qualen: (watching Kristel assemble the bomb) You’ll make a good wife for someone one day.
Kristel: You should see me bake a cake.
Without a doubt, the best aspect of the game is the part where we get to treat a KO-ed henchman as a human surfboard and ride safely over a series of spikes embedded in a descending ramp. This too was inspired by the movie, the main difference being that there are no spikes on the big screen, so the thug in question has a smoother ride up until slipping over the precipice, never to be heard from again.
Tougher than any of these incidents are the chasms. Many are precisely as wide as the span of Sly’s jump so we have to time our leap to leave the ledge right on the very last pixel to make it safely across.
I learnt from Ironclaw that some jumps can only be accomplished by first taking a run-up, and how you go about this isn’t immediately obvious. You need to pull diagonally down when walking in the right direction, yet it only works providing you have sufficient space in which to build up momentum. Even then it’s tricky to pull off regularly. Stupid given that extreme jumps are so common.
Unreliable controls are a recurring theme sadly – unforgivable for a platformer. They – and we – live or die by them. Changing weapons should be a simple matter of pulling down and pressing fire once we’ve collected a power-up. About one in every ten attempts it will work! Not helpful when you’ve got a gun pointed at your head and need to be quick on the draw.
As Ironclaw explains in the description of his YouTube longplay, there’s no manual available out in the wild so he had to work out the controls through trial and error. He’s got more stamina and patience than me.
Although Ironclaw doesn’t mention this, I gather that collecting hiking boots supes up our grippiness. I can’t say I could tell the difference personally so maybe this is another one of those hit or miss design flaws that plague this game.
It’s little wonder no-one has taken the time to scan the manual – Cliffhanger is almost universally hated. Back then, now and quite likely forever and ever, amen. There’s one copy available on UK eBay at the time of writing (listed at a ‘buy it now’ price of £50) suggesting that the circulation back in 1994 wasn’t exactly extensive.
Similarly, grabbing hold of ropes in order to traverse a crevice requires that we jump exactly as high as their elevation. Any higher and we sail right past and then fall back down to the ground fruitlessly. If we screw this up and fall down a bottomless pit to our death we must start again from the beginning of the level …which is all jolly inconvenient it has to be said. Especially for Sylvester Stallone since he had a fear of heights before filming commenced believe it or not. He agreed to make the movie to conquer it. That’s extreme therapy!
Hal Tucker: Gravity’s a bitch, ain’t it?
It’s funny because he was more concerned about the harmless bats that were on the cast list at one point. One scene was to feature living, breathing, squawking, real ones, although they were removed on the insistence of Sly and his co-star, Janine Turner, and later reintroduce via CGI due to …erm, artistic differences.
Spidersoft spotted these and replicated them in the game. Obviously they’re not friendly. Wolves also make an appearance for a reason, although it’s not clear why they’re orange and look more like foxes – in one scene they hungrily circle Brett who has parachuted into the forest to escape enemy gunfire, been knocked unconscious and left hanging in a tree.
Brett is one half of a kind of Bill and Ted bodacious surfer dude double act who think it’s perfectly reasonable to pull up next to Gabe in their jeep and strike up a casual chit-chat catch-up while driving along a winding, mountainous road rather than sending him an IM. They could even have been modelled on the TMNT, only they’re totally tubular extreme snow sports/base-jumping dudes.
What’s not entirely rad is that Brett’s bestest buddy is shot dead in the back in cold blood just for being a witness. Even severely irritating people probably don’t deserve that.
Gabe: I’ve been working up in Denver.
Brett: Work? Don’t say that word man!
Evan: Man, I hate work. Even when somebody else is doing it.
Every mountain rescue team needs a helicopter pilot, and in this instance, it’s amateur artist and all-round nice guy, Frank. He’s such a good-natured chap he even smiles affably all the way through Sarah’s failed rescue attempt.
Frank stumbles across Brett, scatters the wolves with warning shots fired at the sky, rouses and frees him. Frank isn’t critical to the plot, though his helicopter is – he’s the knight in shining armour who swoops in to rescue his colleagues from the icy death-trap wilderness only to be snipered out of existence by Qualen who takes a fancy to his shiny red chopper.
More than a millionaire’s plaything he sees it as his ticket to freedom and doesn’t appreciate the meddling pilot getting in the way. In any case, Frank is surplus to requirements since Qualen himself is a qualified flyboy.
Qualen: You want to kill me, don’t you, Tucker? Well, get a number and get in line.
Qualen doesn’t intend to escape without some of the stolen cash so takes Jessie hostage, threatening to do nasty things to her if Gabe doesn’t hand it over in exchange for his kind-of-sort-of love interest. A dramatic, shooty-explosive standoff finale ensues – Sly hurls the money into the rotary blades to spite Qualen and hooks the chopper to a tow rope attached to a flimsy metal ladder, managing to bring it down.
Breaking its fall, somehow the ladder supports the upside-down chopper’s weight allowing the two-man war to advance to the next phase; a fistfight on top of the chopper’s upturned undercarriage as it – and their lives – literally hang in the balance.
Qualen ultimately falls to his doom, and obviously the hero survives to climb another day.
Gabe: Remember, s**thead! Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times!
Well, I think a blind snow-person could have predicted that one. The Grinch-like toy manufacturer from Santa Claus the Movie versus Rocky Balboa! Who would you put your money on?
Everyone knows snow-people can’t see without coal lumps. Duh!
Hal Tucker: If you’re looking for Qualen, try about 4,000 feet south of here. He’ll be the one wearing the helicopter.
Naturally, the game duplicates this conclusion. Qualen attacks us in the mountain rescue chopper, we dislodge him and continue to kick his butt face to face on the mountain peaks.
Homeward bound. Home where my thought’s escaping…
“Cliffhanger is an abominable game, though. It looks very poor, the control system is tricky and the chances are you’ll finish it within a couple of days. So you won’t have to play it again will you? Hurrah!”
Amiga Format (18%, June 1994)
“Well, it’s just about a playable game. But I really do mean ‘just’.”
Amiga Power (19%, July 1994)
“I can tell you why Cliffhanger was so bad… we were spread very thinly because we had so many products in development, and we were constantly forced by Sony (then ‘Sony Imagesoft’) to do film tie-ins. Anything that was not for the Mega-CD (development for which was part of Sony’s grand plan) got farmed out to external developers, but the deadlines were so ridiculous that it’s no surprise that some of them were so bad. I remember walking into the test room and seeing Cliffhanger for the first time. It was a bit of a shocker.
The only good thing about it was that we all got to go and see the film before it was on general release.”
Mike Clarke, former Psygnosis musician (EAB discussion)
As a result, it doesn’t amount to much. A few short levels that can be completed in about twenty minutes once you know what you’re doing, so even priced at a sub-premium £20, Cliffhanger was shamelessly extortionate (note that re-released as a budget title it reached no. 9 in the sales charts). Lack of attention to detail abounds; a mediocre platformer cobbled together with minimal effort. Bounce on a bridge and it remains as unyielding as concrete. Clamber beneath a supposedly free-swinging rope and it may as well be solid steel. Trivial minutia of course, yet it tells you everything you need to know. Then again, dispatch a foe and they’ll plunge into the abyss rather than dying on the spot, which is – I’m sure you’ll agree – pertinent to the source material. It’s some consolation I suppose – I know I wouldn’t refuse an early exit!
$255m was the box office smash return, making the movie a clear winner, as a financial investment at least. By comparison Psygnosis would have been lucky to recoup £2.55 factoring in all the refunds I imagine would have been demanded by disgruntled customers, and compensation paid out for PTSD etc.
“Awful collision detection, bad graphics, crap sound and it’ll only take you four hours to finish it. And that’s if you’re patient enough to.”
Amiga Power (19%, July 1994)
At least with the console incarnations, we’re offered the added dimension of the multi-genre approach and the gameplay mechanics are marginally more engaging. There’s the slightest hint of Streets of Rage about them, albeit in a highly diluted form. That’s partly the upshot of the extra move the 16-bit console editions introduce. It’s a combination of a crouching sweep and a roundhouse that would be useful if it didn’t drastically deplete Gabe’s energy whenever executed. This caveat prevents us from abusing the killer move, obviously, otherwise, it would be a walk in the park.
Sega CD owners were treated to a further bonus; FMV clips digitised from the movie to heighten the sense of immersion and empathy with Gabe’s plight. At the time the inclusion of any video content no matter how short, ugly and compression-artefact-ridden was considered a big deal. Developers had to do something to justify the upgrade to CD-capable hardware – this and a CD-quality soundtrack was generally the extent of it during the early days.
What we received on the Amiga are a few static, digitised images, mostly the one depicting Sly edging his way around a vertical rock face.
That and the ‘game over’ screen. Actually you may only ever see this once.
These are supported by caricature style narrative screens to advance the plot. They’re nicely drawn, setting the scene more effectively than the in-game graphics, particularly those involving silhouettes of the cast against a lily-white backdrop.
Stark contrasts hold a significant influence over the artistic direction of the movie so this is an affectionate touch. Contrast this with the protagonist’s sprite; Gabe shuffles along like Boris Johnson out for a morning power walk in a leafy London ornamental garden. Even his man-booby-pecs are identical. Then there are the baddies who shimmy back and forth along the precarious clifftop ledges with their dukes permanently held rigid at chest height, locked in the ‘come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough’ stance. It could be worse I suppose – in the NES version we play as Peter Pan! Maybe Sly was on holiday that week.
Cliffhanger the movie was nominated for several ‘worsts’ at the 14th Golden Raspberry Awards… picture, supporting actor (John Lithgow), supporting actress (Janine Turner), and screenplay. It’s not an entry in Stallone’s filmography that evokes impassioned revulsion, while some fans seem to really appreciate the all-out-action plot and largely unmeddled with cinematography. Imagine how much more there would have been to debate had David Bowie or Christopher Walken played Gabe’s nemesis as director, Renny Harlin, envisioned before settling upon John Lithgow.
Personally I think it’s the movie you only give a passing thought to when setting out to write about a licensed Amiga game tie-in and have already covered all the competent, respectable ones.