With some movie-game adaptations, you have to wonder what the publishers were smoking when they emptied their piggy banks to secure the licence. Other movies are so action-packed, bursting with quotable lines and absurd caricatures that publishers would need their heads examined if they didn’t bulldoze heaven and earth to convert them.
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China with its body count of 46, grotesque animatronics, and death by exploding head/falling Buddha statue is a prime example. Midway – the developers of Mortal Kombat – certainly thought so. After they’d finished borrowing from Taiwanese wuxia movie, Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976), Midway turned their attention to martial arts spoof, Big Trouble, swiping one of the three elemental ‘Storm’ masters from the set and renaming him Raiden.
Call it Karma; they were themselves a rehash of the Masters of Death from Samurai movie, Shogun Assassin (1980).
Midway appreciated Big Trouble’s cast so much, Lo Pan – albeit less conspicuously – partially became the inspiration for Shang Tsung’s design. It’s no coincidence that Mortal Kombat’s ultimate nemesis is a demonic, shape-shifting, soul-eating warlock.
Perhaps if Electric Dreams hadn’t been first in line to make 20th Century Fox an offer in 1986 Midway may have based a whole, official game around Big Trouble in Little China. It wouldn’t have cost much, movie studios were clueless about the fiscal potential of gaming crossovers back then.
Sadly it wasn’t to be. What transpired wasn’t a revered one-on-one beat ’em up augmented with fatalities and special moves, but a three-on… entire ninja henchman clan, arcade fighting platformer that failed miserably to capture the zany frenetic lunacy of its cinematic source material.
Whilst Mortal Kombat flourished, evolving into a lucrative franchise with tentacles in every pie, Big Trouble never broke loose from its 8-bit mould. Electric Dreams’ offering is the only conversion of its kind, thankfully a one-miss wonder.
Banality abounds, and yet Big Trouble does introduce some commendable deviations from the norm that make it noteworthy. All three of the cult-classic fantasy comedy’s protagonists star in Electric Dream’s homage, each playable options. It’s a one-player game starring three combatants, kind of simultaneously.
In this regard, it’s a similar proposition to Electric Dreams’ six-player Aliens game, also released in 1987. Although that was forged from the Space Hulk mould.
Considered counterculture for the era, we can switch between these three lead sprites at will whilst the ‘backseat’ heroes follow in the shadows until called upon for support. They actually disappear off-screen while the selected character takes centre stage so are no help whatsoever. Hmmf. Gracie would pitch in too except they know her “face and they’d wanna push it in”. Totally understandable.
Jack, Egg and Wang each possess their own energy reserves, weapons, strengths, weaknesses and traits, making them better equipped to tackle some situations than others. Operating independently, food must be collected on an individual basis to replenish their health bars, thereby ensuring they all survive long enough to pitch in with the final encounter. Similarly, it’s not possible to retrieve all weapons with the same character and then distribute them amongst the rest of the party. You could say it embraces some light RPG elements in that regard.
Scrolling right to left (gasp!) each level attempts to mirror a key scene captured from the movie. Blink and you’ll miss the transitions since the whole game runs continuously on a single plane, much like the early Kung Fu titles that take place on a never-ending stage. Following the chronology of the movie, we begin in Chinatown, progressing to the sewer beneath (reached via a pole in the Ghostbuster’s Fire Station 23 in the movie!)…
Not the only Big Trouble-Ghostbusters crossover… check out the 1959 Cadillac Series 62.
Emerging from the stinking sludge festering beneath Chinatown’s sanitised neon lights and takeaways we reach Lo Pan’s underground lair and finally his shopping mall-esque marriage chamber.
Yup, “China is here”, not that I “even know what the hell that means”.
Jack punches, or shoots an automatic machine gun once found (an Intratec TEC-9 in the movie). Wang Chi – the martial arts expert – wields a (breakable) sword. While magician (or “little bastard sorcerer” if you prefer) Egg Shen rides a cloud (don’t ask!) and zaps enemies with magic, or lightning bolts once his attack is enhanced with collectable potions.
Where’s the beer-bottle-chopping mini-game?
And what happened to the tourist-dodging bonus stage?
Jack Burton: What’s in the flask, Egg? Magic potion?
Egg Shen: Yeah.
Jack Burton: Thought so, good. What do we do, drink it?
Egg Shen: Yeah!
Jack Burton: Good! Thought so.
Jack Burton: Feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible.
Wang Chi: Me, too. I got a very positive attitude about this.
With the exception of Egg’s odd means of transport and the absence of Jack’s Gerber TAC boot knife, it all vaguely ties into Big Trouble’s silver screen counterpart. As much as an 8-bit gaming translation can; it’s a tall order obviously.
Big Trouble’s premise is synonymous whether you’re watching or playing. Lo Pan has been damned by first sovereign emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to spend the rest of his days alternately as an incorporeal spirit “scattered across time, trapped in the world of formlessness”, or a fossilised wheelchair-bound crone who can barely tie his own shoelaces. Either way his “soul swims” in “the darkest magic”.
Jack Burton: Which Lo Pan? Little old basket case on wheels or the ten-foot tall roadblock?
Is anyone else wondering if Final Fight’s Belgar was a Lo Pan proselyte? Definitely not the first pseudo-cripple villain ever, though certainly one of the most recognisable.
To break the curse Davey boy (yes, he’s an ancient Chinaman called David) must track down a green-eyed lady, marry her to appease Ching Dai, the God of the East, turning her into one of his “beloved disciples”, then sacrifice her to keep the emperor sweet.
Wing’s girlfriend, Miao Yin, has “creamy jade” green eyes! What a stroke of luck. It can’t be that rare after all. I looked it up; it’s estimated that 2% of the world’s population have green eyes. Not an insignificant number then. Dave can’t have been looking too hard if this curse has been rumbling on for thousands of years. Oh, wait, that only applies to Chinese people under exceptional circumstances. Backpedal, backpedal, backpedal…
“There is a village in northwestern China called Liqian, whose people are thought to be descended from Roman General Marcus Crassus’ mysteriously missing army. Two-thirds of the inhabitants today have green eyes and blonde hair.”
‘Gregarious Green Eye Facts’ (eyesite.co.uk)
Jack Burton: Jack what? I’m supposed to buy this s**t? 2000 years, he can’t find one broad to fit the bill? Come on, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong!
Lo Pan: There have been others, to be sure. There are always others. But you know, Mr Burton, the difficulties between men and women. How seldom it works out? Yet we all keep trying, like fools.
Well whatever, that’s the driving impetus for the entire story arc. Wang (originally to be played by Jackie Chan) goes to meet his girlfriend Miao Yin at the airport. She’s been flying on one of those massive winged creatures apparently and returned to a sort of hangout for… planes, that’s what you call ’em – where people are dropped off and grilled on their proclivity towards terrorism and whatnot. Did you think I was talking about dragons? Falcor maybe?
Miao Yin arrives only to be kidnapped by the ‘Lords of Death’ and taken to a brothel.
To answer your question: Eskimo anti-snowblindness googles. I can’t help with your second question; ‘why?’
They were really there to capture another Chinese girl being met by lawyer, Gracie “she’s trouble” Law, but settled for Miao Yin instead when Jack scuppered their plans. Not what Jack would call “crackerjack timing”.
A lawyer called ‘Law’? How jolly convenient.
Miao Yin is then re-kidnapped by the Storm masters on Lo Pan’s behalf. For the rest of the movie, our rescue party chums are preoccupied with attempting to emancipate her as well as Gracie, who also happens to have super-rare green eyes and so is equally coveted by Lo Pan. They’re a lot “like leather bucket seats, it’s double the price”. Kim Cattrall and Suzee Pai who played Gracie and Miao Yin respectively would have been perfectly safe what with their bog-standard brown eyes. They wore contacts for the movie, dangling themselves like bait on a hook for big fish, Dave.
Lo Pan’s devious scheme entails sacrificing Gracie and marrying t’other one to live out his “earthly pleasures with Miao Yin”. Typical! These dictators always insist on having their “best of two worlds” and eating it. Likely one of those soft eggy sponge varieties that are all the rage in Hong Kong.
Lo Pan: And when I find her, I will marry her…
Wang Chi: Never!
Lo Pan: Ching Dai will be appeased, my curse will be lifted!
Jack Burton: And you can go on to rule the universe from beyond the grave.
Lo Pan: Indeed!
Jack Burton: Or check into a psycho ward, whichever comes first, right?
Jack Burton: All I know is, this Lo Pan character comes out of thin air in the middle of a goddamn alley while his buddies are flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds, and he just stands there waiting for me to drive my truck straight through him with light coming out of his mouth!
One set piece martial arts extravaganza follows the next with barely anything in-between to link them or a second’s rest bite to stop and get your breath back. It’s tantamount to a live-action cartoon caper. One in which Hong Kong Phooey would feel right at home.
Let’s check out how the manual sums it up to see if Focus Creative Enterprises and MD (Mevlut Dinc) Software were paying attention. Electric Dreams were just the publishers you see. Quizzed by C64.com what if anything he’d go back and change about any of his games Mev revealed, “In retrospect, I would have refused to code Big Trouble! :)”. So it’s not just the gamers who suffered through the experience!
“The villainous Mandarin Lo Pan is trying to appease a demon in order to secure a mortal body. To do this he must first marry a green-eyed girl and then sacrifice her.
Lo Pan’s henchmen kidnap Gracie Law and Miao Yin, the girlfriends of Jack Burton and Wang Chi, who both have green eyes, and take the girls down into Lo Pan’s underground empire beneath the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco.
Jack Burton, Wang Chi and their friend Egg Shen have to fight their way through the streets of Chinatown and down into the sewers and rooms of the underground domain of the Mandarin.”
Interesting that game designers, Focus, chose to make Lo Pan authentically oriental, dropping the Dave altogether.
“Big Trouble in Little China was of course a major film licence, but also a rescue project for me, I wasn’t at all involved in the design, we just had to do the programming.”
– Mevlut Dinc, interview with C64.com (June 2015)
It’s not unusual for Chinese people to adopt English first names when living in the western world, nevertheless here it was designed to contribute to the absurdity of the situation. What lots of people who don’t appreciate the movie fail to realise is that Big Trouble is a farce, a satirical parody of Asian martial arts movies and Hollywood’s lack of imagination. Its tongue is so firmly in cheek it’s poking through to the other side.
Jack played by Kurt Russell (having turned down the starring role in Highlander) is a bumbling, incompetent braggart of a buffoon who talks the talk, achieving very little. Fox wanted to cast Jack Nicholson or Clint Eastwood instead, which could have worked fine. Both have proven they can do comedy. This was the fourth of five times Carpenter had cast Kurt so they clearly had an affinity for working together.
That’s odd, suddenly I feel like heading out on the highway, looking for adventure. Wish I had a motorbike. Ka-ching!
Anyway, backtracking, that’s the joke; Jack presents himself as the All-America intrepid Hollywood leading man hero, and subsequently spends much of his time unconscious or otherwise disengaged. A kind of pound shop Flash Gordon; he appears to be the genuine article hanging on the peg in shiny plastic bubble packaging… smoking and disintegrating in use once the batteries are inserted.
Jack Burton: We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?
One way or another he swerves most of the action by unwittingly taking himself out of the loop. Driven by delusions of grandeur, Jack remains clueless as to his ineptitude, his machismo bluster never faltering. In Kurt’s words, he delineates “a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up.”
Despite headlining the posters looking like Bruce Willis in his Die Hard signature bedraggled vest, Jack is the sidekick babysat by two real heroes who actually know what they’re doing. Everyone around Jack compensates for his deficiencies, somehow turning the tables in their favour. Kurt himself hit the nail on the head when he stated “at heart he thinks he’s Indiana Jones, but the circumstances are always too much for him”.
Exposition is conspicuously crow-barred in between battles, if at all. Before anyone has chance to digest or question it the kung fu juggernaut hurtles onward to the next set-piece. It’s a whirlwind of supersonic choreographed stand-offs and John Wayne channelling, which makes perfect sense when you realise that Big Trouble was originally envisioned as a western before Carpenter decided to modernise it, instructing an exhaustive redaction courtesy of a new screenwriter (W. D. Richter). Why? He deemed its antecedent by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein to be “outrageously unreadable, though it had many interesting elements.”
Further personalising his work, Carpenter contributed the soundtrack along with American composer Alan Howarth. He wasn’t just dabbling at it, he’s a bonafide musician despite being synonymous with directing.
Due to its unorthodox approach and blending of traditional genres, Big Trouble doesn’t fall neatly into a pre-packaged PR person’s marketing template. Kurt, can you take it from here?
One more wafer-thin mint Monsieur Creosote?
“This is a difficult picture to sell, because it’s hard to explain. It’s a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It’s bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast.”
Cheers, well put. Thus Fox had no idea how to sell Big Trouble. Their answer was to bolt on a disjointed introductory scene set in a lawyer’s office to convince the audience there’s no need to panic; Jack is exactly who we expect him to be and will be saving the world before we know it.
Strange then that the $3m newspaper ad campaign posed the question, “Who is Jack Burton?” as if Fox still couldn’t grasp the concept of leading with a leading man in possession of no leadership qualities, and required some input from the moviegoers to help them decide.
Equally nebulous, for the trailer Fox ultimately plumped for a voiceover that went a lot like this…
“There is a hidden world where ancient evil weaves a modern mystery. They call it Little China. It’s where big trouble was waiting for Jack Burton. They told him to go to hell… and that’s just where he’s going. Jack Burton’s coming to rescue your summer! 20th Century Fox presents Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.”
Jack Burton: I don’t get this at all. I thought Lo Pan…
Lo Pan: Shut up, Mr Burton! You are not brought upon this world to get it!
Appropriate enough the accompanying game tries or at least claims to be a bit of a Jack of all trades mishmash of genres.
“The game is played with three characters:
1) Jack Burton, the all American hero who is very handy with his ‘Bushmaster’ gun. When controlling Jack Burton the game becomes a ‘Shoot ’em up’.
2) Wang Chi, the martial arts expert who is carrying a sword, in which case the game becomes a ‘Hack ’em up’.
3) Egg Shen the Chinese magician who travels on a mystical floating cloud, in which case the game becomes a magical ‘Zap ’em up’.
You may switch between these three characters at any time during the game so that you may choose the best character to deal with each situation. The other two characters will follow the one you are controlling.”
Hang on one cotton-pickin’ minute there partner, they’re all the same thing. You’re just switching sprites and weapons and telling us we’re getting three games in one. Ooh, you cheeky monkeys, you. What a swizz; all Big Trouble amounts to is a clone of Irem’s Kung-Fu Master with a couple of extra protagonists chucked in.
Don’t expect Jack’s Freightliner FLC 120 Pork Chop Express to begin levitating, causing the game to flip into R-Type mode. As fun as that would be, it’s not exactly canon.
Mev did take inspiration from the bare bones of the plot reasonably faithfully in certain areas. In the sewer, for instance, we’re pitted against disembodied Chinese dragon heads that lunge at us from dimly lit archways.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign of Lo Pan’s Sasquatch-like ‘Chinese Wildman’ demon servant who is spotted on camera more frequently. Being invincible the former must be avoided rather than attacked. Ask Thunder, he’ll tell you. “Play your cards right… you live to talk about it!”
In the movie Lo Pan’s furry toady survives the assault on his boss’s lair, stowing away on Jack’s truck in the closing scene, suggesting he’s latched onto a new master now that the old one is no more.
Some propose this may have been an indication that a sequel was originally intended to follow prior to disappointing box office results kiboshing the rumoured project. Possibly one co-starring Jack’s new disciple, parodying Han Solo’s relationship with Chewbacca? Or would Clint Eastwood and Clyde (the orangutan) be a more appropriate parallel?
Anyone who guessed this might be where Carpenter was heading would have felt rather smug when in June 2014 the first issue of BOOM! Studio’s belated comic book was published, confirming the odd couple’s union. Written by Carpenter himself in conjunction with Eric Powell you can be sure that the ‘Pete’ and Jack double act is now part of official BTILC lore.
Lo Pan’s floating eyeball spy gets equal attention in the game, none in fact. It doesn’t have any means of attack so something more creative to explain its inclusion would have been called for.
Jack Burton: Oh, my god, no. Please! What is that? Don’t tell me!
Egg Shen: A guardian. What it sees, Lo Pan knows!
Mostly our opponents are of the generic ninja trope bad guy variety that could have been plucked from any vaguely theme-appropriate medium. “Punks from Chinatown”. Some are armed, some not. All are under strict instruction to hunt the “human beings” and “boil them until their flesh falls off”.
More interesting are the elemental Storm masters who protect Lo Pan – at least they’re distinguishable from the throng of stereotypes seen in both the movie and game.
Though not sufficiently engaging to convince the critics who across the board awarded the game scores ranging from dire to mediocre…
“Even though the film was not a top-biller I enjoyed it. The game of the film will be received less favourably. Too many beat-em-up games in too short a space of time. It has the marks of Electric Dreams’ stunning graphics. Even the multicharacter option is unique (relatively). But it’s not one I shall be dying to play every night.”
“I found the action tedious: just a constant stream of warriors to bump off. The character switching is nice but they could have made more of it. The graphics and animation are good, but just wandering along a street and having the occasional fight can’t be considered a great game.”
Amstrad Action (64%, June 1987)
“All of which sounds pretty neat, doesn’t it? But the fact is that the game quickly becomes repetitive and you end up not really caring if you save the girls or not.”
Computer & Video Games (60%, Spectrum/C64, June 1987)
“Big Trouble in Little China is a better than average beat-em-up and will no doubt appeal to fans of this type of game, but there is nothing in the game to make you sit and take notice; especially if you are fed up with the seemingly endless run of martial art games.”
Computer Gamer (60%, C64, June 1987)
Julian Rignall – “A very sarcastic ‘whoopee’ to announce the arrival of yet another dire piece of software. Why was this ever released? The film has disappeared into the depths of obscurity, and the game is so lame that it is in desperate need of a wheelchair. The program is basically a simple Kung-Fu Master clone, severely lacking in action and variety. It is both unexciting and tedious, and I soon became totally and utterly bored. Another session only consolidated this view, and turning the power off came as a welcome relief. As for the tenner price tag – Electric Dreams ought to have a wet blanket thrown over them.”
Steve Jarratt – “Not so hot on the heels of the John Carpenter film comes the somewhat less inspiring licensed computer game. Big Trouble borrows heavily from the film in all but its action, a commodity in which this binary edition is sadly lacking. The endless repetition becomes too much, as one henchman follows another to that Little China in the sky. I even found my mind wandering while I was playing, which is a fair indication of the degree to which it grabbed my attention.”
Richard Eddy – “The film bombed, and if there’s any justice in the world the licensed game will follow it. It’s extremely dull, consisting of three characters walking along a scrolling background, beating up anything that gets in their way – no thanks! Big Trouble In Little China has an unpolished feel about it, as if no-one could really be bothered with making it look smart, or at least tarting it up to hide the uninspiring gameplay. I wouldn’t bother with this if I were you, it isn’t worth the money or effort.”
“A poor tie-in and a weak addition to the beat-’em-up range. You’d be better off seeing the film four times instead.”
Zzap! (34%, C64, June 1987)
Big Trouble obviously rests heavily on what we in the west believe we know about oriental spiritual mysticism and martial arts. It largely gets away with it without too much criticism because the assumptions tend to be of a positive nature. Otherwise, you could argue that it’s highly racist and offensive. If found guilty Carpenter and Co. could even have been sent to hell. “Chinese have a lot of Hells”.
Which would be silly; of course we should expect Big Trouble to revel in lazy cliches since that’s at the heart of its humour. It’s a crucial part of satire in general. It wouldn’t be remotely funny if the characters were a sensitive, balanced reflection of those veritably found in Chinese communities.
Keyboard controls make about as much sense (left = I, right= O, up = Y, down = H, fire = P). Cramped, awkward and needlessly unguessable. Why not just stick with the standard 8-bit QAOP and space configuration? Less chance of developing arthritis, surely? At least switching between characters is more logical; B for Jack Burton, C for Wang Chi and S for Egg Shen. Maybe making it all so obscure was intended to confuse anyone with a dodgy copy with no manual.
Wang Chi: You ready, Jack?
Jack Burton: I was born ready.
Everything up until we meet ‘Mr Big‘ is fairly monotonous, all 10-15 minutes of it. De-icing the cake, level four is merely a palette-swapped rehash of the preceding stage. 1000x more effort was channelled into producing the official board and card games.
Worse still, the entirety of the Amstrad adaptation is simply a lazy Spectrum port, completely failing to capitalise on the CPC’s enhanced colour palette.
And don’t expect to hear any in-game music; in all three variations, it evaporates along with the title screen. Lo Pan is the main event, the only event really worth persevering for, and even he’s a shabby shadow of the Ming the Merciless wannabe we all know and, er…
“To actually defeat Lo Pan (who appears on a flying cloud in the Marriage Chamber) you will need the combined combat skills of all three characters; as he has the power of regeneration
he will need to be shot, zapped and run through a number of times to finally kill him once and for all. After you have accomplished this Miao Yin and Gracie Law will be found and the evil of Lo Pan will have been defeated.”
Lo Pan? With that gaudy green attire and all the airborne shenanigans, he looks more like Peter Pan. I bet Dave wishes he shared his eternal youth too.
Whilst not strictly necessary in order to trounce his crusty backside it can’t hurt to throw everything we’ve got at him to disseminate the pain between our three uniquely tooled up heroes.
Even so, he takes an eternity to kill, making it tough to determine if we’re doing any damage or not.
Jack Burton: I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.
Eventually, our damsels in distress appear, just in time to see their captor croak. A simple text ‘game over’ message lets us know that’s all folks and presumably the pretty, green-eyed female population can sleep easy again. No congratulatory fanfare or animation is forthcoming, nuffink, nada, zilch. I hope you found this in the bargain bin because it certainly wasn’t worth the full retail price. £7.99 – £14.99 depending on the platform in case you were wondering.
A shame since the closing scenes of the movie are funnier than anything that preceded it. Jack informs Lo Pan he can “can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave”, launching a perfectly timed knife at the tyrant’s forehead. In doing so Jack finally acquaints himself with his inner saviour, extricating the stunning princess with whom he’s been infatuated since first laying eyes on her at the airport. It’s “all in the reflexes” apparently… or a case of ‘second time’s a charm’.
Lo Pan: (Catches Jack’s knife in midair, pauses to examine it, nodding in approval) Good knife. Goodbye, Mr Burton.
Jack Burton: (quickly catches knife and throws it back, hitting Lo Pan right between the eyes)
Lo Pan: (Lo Pan falls backwards and impacts the ground with a shockwave that sets the statues ringing the room falling like dominoes, shattering to bits)
Gracie’s defences thaw, however, just as we expect them to kiss and drive off into the sunset together, Jack nonchalantly rebuffs her, casually hitting the highway alone, assuming it wouldn’t work out anyway.
Margo: God, aren’t you even gonna kiss her goodbye?
Jack Burton: Nope. Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.
It’s the perfect conclusion to a decidedly unHollywood heretic of a movie. One that plays by its own rules, to hell with trite convention and conformity.
Jack Burton: May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.
Like it or not, you have to give credit to any scriptwriter or director who is prepared to put their own vision ahead of box office takings and gamble on the audience’s reaction.
As it happens it paid off… long after so many critics and moviegoers had dismissed the initial fiscal flop as cheesy and preposterous. It’s fondly remembered precisely because it’s over the top, illogical and Kurt Russell is prepared to poke fun at himself, pushing ego aside to deliver the comedic performance of his career.
On that note – as in the movie – I’ll leave you to ponder Jack’s parting words of wisdom. No doubt a shrewd philosophy to live (or die) by!
Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earthquakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”