Input. That’s information! Listen, I am full of it.

If you find it easier to identify with extraterrestrial protagonists when they’re constructed from metal and motherboards and dream in binary, Short Circuit is your no. 5 guy. I mean SAINT; ‘Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport’ robot.

“I’m not a robot!”, exclaimed the robot.

“Pipe down Shorty, we’ll get to that.”

Sharing with E.T. similarly wide-eyed with wonder vocal inflexions and a vaguely parallel fish out of water plight, Short Circuit managed to tap our need to humanise the non-human. While E.T. arrived on earth by accident, forever fixated on returning home, Short Circuit was built here by engineers, content to stay put… as long as he could live in freedom on his own happy-clappy hippy terms.

There have been many movie character candidates we could designate as the ‘Jar Jar Binks of their day’ – Johnny 5 is right up there on the least wanted list. He’s a hyperactive, stimulation-craving three-day-old baby in a RoboCop suit. Havoc-hatching, needy and nerve-janglingly repetitive. Worse still he runs without batteries or fuel and is almost impossible to power down.

Before being struck by lightning during a weaponised robot sales pitch – thereby becoming sentient and ALIVE – 5 was merely a number. One of 15 subservient, dead-behind the-eyes droids designed to lay and detonate nuclear weapons for warmongering megalomaniacs.

 

Stephanie Speck: Here’s the deal: Number 5 is alive. I mean, he is really alive, like you and me. You see?

Newton Crosby: I understand. They can seem quite life-like. But, they are still machines. Just like your stereo or your vacuum cleaner.

Stephanie Speck: No. I know he’s a machine. You’re a machine. I’m a machine. We’re alive! How it happens, who the hell knows? But, it has happened.

Breaking loose from his Nova Robotics lab home/prison, Johnny fortuitously teams up with a sympathetic companion. Steph-fan-knee played by Ally Sheedy is a kooky animal-sheltering mobile food ‘technician’ with a soft spot for underdog lost causes. Stephanie becomes his life coach, English tutor, and best friend. It’s even hinted at that they may become lovers in a bizarre Howard the duck kind of interpersonal dynamic.

 

(Stephanie is in the bath)

Number 5: (confused) Stephanie… change color!

Stephanie Speck: (looks down, embarrassed, reaches for a towel) Uh…

Number 5: Attractive! Nice software. Mmm.

Stephanie Speck: Boy, you sure don’t talk like a machine.

Johnny’s inventors – played by Steve Guttenberg and sidekick Fisher Stevens – are tasked by the soulless military with tracking down and returning or disassembling their baby. He’s an $11m killing machine liability and PR disaster that needs to be reined in at any cost.

Newton and Ben – Johnny’s surrogate fathers – having designed him for supposedly philanthropic reasons somehow fail to notice that they work for the military who happen to be in the death-dealing business.

As clueless as they are it eventually dawns on Ben and Newton that they may not have been commissioned to engineer a high-tech, budget-busting, labour-saving, daisy-picking device. That tank-decimating laser should really have given them a clue.

Maybe Johnny set the record straight himself once he’d evolved into a self-aware miracle beyond the scope of anything previously envisioned by science boffins. Whatever the case, they finally get on board with the plan to protect Johnny from disassembly. With the nerds and crazy cat lady on the same side, it can’t possibly fail.

Aside from the $1.4m robot, what people remember Short Circuit for is token Indian character, Ben Jabituya, played by Fisher Stevens. Actually he was born Steven Fisher, changing it for Actors’ Equity Association registration reasons.

No-one would have batted an eyelid had Fisher not been an artificially tanned Jewish Caucasian with dyed black hair, wearing contact lenses, faking a cliched East Indian approximation of pidgin English for comic effect.

As it was his very believable portrayal became a race issue. Would western audiences not have accepted a genuine Indian playing an Indian? Did he have to be a goofy, born-yesterday-naive Indian in the first place? After wixing up his mords for the tenth time it felt a bit like flogging a dead Malapropism.

Ben Jabituya: Newton, we are wasting valueless time here.

Ben Jabituya: Oh, and that is not the worst of it, Dr Marner.

Dr Howard Mariner: Don’t tell me its laser is still armed.

Ben Jabituya: Bimbo!

Ben Jabituya is known as Ben Jahveri in the sequel for no apparent reason, while Steve Guttenberg declined to make a comeback under any name due to TriStar not being able to show him a finished script. Part three was planned, yet cancelled when part two failed to capture the audiences’ attention. Disney did make amends, however, in 2008 by remaking Short Circuit, renaming him WALL-E for copyright reasons.

While on the lam Johnny learns to embrace the wacky ways of we the earth people, in turn teaching us that life is precious, nature is beautiful and flourishing friendships can spring from the least likely places.

Being an attack droid armed with a laser gun Johnny fights back when absolutely necessary, in the most PG, non-threatening way imaginable. His pursuers have no such compunctions, resolving to contain the situation executing deadly force. They blow Johnny to smithereens with a Huey-mounted rocket launcher and that’s that. No. 5 is permanently disassembled. Game over.

Only the obliterated SAINT turns out to be a decoy built by Johnny with spare parts (he ‘inputs’ a lot of Haynes manuals and there’s one for everything). Phew! That was a close call. Security chief Captain Skroeder and the military, ticking the mission accomplished box call off the hunt, leaving Johnny free to live out his days tank-tracking through the poppy fields, blithely chasing butterflies and so on. Hoorah!

 

Newton suddenly remembers he has a 40-acre plot of inherited land lying empty in Montana they can all evacuate to. If he hooks up with Stephanie they can live there together unhindered surrounded by rescued animals, and their strangest pet of all, Johnny.

…or are Stephanie and Johnny planning to get hitched while Newton plays gooseberry? It’s really not clear.

Earning $40.7m at the box office from a modest stake of $9m, the movie was a marginal success. One Ocean hoped to capitalise on by producing an accompanying game for each of the three main 8-bit home computers.

Similar yet coded independently by separate teams, the game delivers a two in one split-genre deal. A frustrating/challenging action-adventure segment, followed by a basic, single plane platformer that’s over in a couple of minutes if you’re a longplay pro with the reflexes of a ninja alligator.

Or is it a three in one affair? Delve just beneath the surface and you might find that you get more game than you bargained for…

Short Circuit treat

John Morris has found an exciting extra game on Ocean’s Short Circuit called Fruit Machine. John says it’s better than Short Circuit itself. All you have to do is load the game as usual and then follow these instructions:

r, get programs, search draw unit, get blue passcard, I, search palm, get coin, d, d, d, use blue password, open door, d, r, u, go to desk, use pound coin.

If you keep searching the desk, you keep getting the pound coin – up to 50 more times. And there you have a free (well, sort of) rival to Code Masters’ new Fruit Machine Simulator!”

C&VG (February 1988)

Only Johnny exists in gameland, his fellow cast members dropped from the roll call. It’s down to us then to break him out of the Nova Robotics lab against the clock.

Think of this initial test as a sort of dumbed-down Dizzy episode where the majority of the puzzles on offer involve recovering colour-coded passkeys, passwords and a Chub key in order to escape from the secure facility. Sneaking around patrolling guards to track down the SAINT manual, hardware and software can be combined to enhance Johnny’s specs. Barebones object-oriented conundrums that somehow remain obscure and impenetrable despite appearing so simple on the surface.

It might have been easier if you could store an unlimited stash of objects and attempt to use everything with everything point ‘n’ click style. No such luck! Some versions cap our ‘pocket’ capacity at two items, forcing us to locate all the critical kit and drop it in the relevant places two at a time.

Any additional objects that may become useful later on must be hidden around the plant. Preferably close to where they’ll be needed. If not, much backtracking between the 25 screens is required, inflating the illusion of an expansive environment.

Obviously, this takes an eternity and is about as much fun as watching a white bloke pretending to be Apu. Imagine trying to play Monkey Island with a two-slot inventory.

Watching the Spectrum or C64 longplay to assist us in beating the Amstrad version (or vice versa) won’t achieve much because the required steps vary accordingly. That several stages of the solution demand the execution of precisely timed actions rather than logical thinking or trial and error adventuring, doesn’t help in the least.

Howard Marner: Crosby, we’re going to have to ask you to surrender the robot.

Newton Crosby: Stat?

Howard Marner: Stat!

Newton Crosby: What does that mean, anyway?

Howard Marner: I don’t know. But that’s not the point.

Should you be curious, ‘stat’ is a medical abridgement for urgent. It derives from the Latin word ‘statum’, meaning immediately.

Complicating matters Johnny must earn his capabilities by collecting and installing ROM chips, interfacing with the computer terminals to do so.

Number 5: Malfunction. Need input.

Once available we use the space bar to switch between jump, utilise, search and laser functions.

At least in the movie, the sound effect that coincides with activation of Johnny’s laser shots is the same one used to indicate that the Ghostbusters’ Proton Packs are powering up. Aren’t audio banks handy?

This isn’t the only intriguing throwback to a classic ’80s movie we all know and love. Short Circuit was filmed in sleepy little US port city, Astoria, Oregon… as was The Goonies. The bank featured in the latter is now a museum paying homage to the city’s movie set credentials.

Astoria has also served as background scenery for The Black Stallion, Kindergarten Cop, Free Willy, Free Willy 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Benji the Hunted, Come See the Paradise, The Ring Two, Into the Wild, The Guardian, and Green Room.

Sorry, I’m hardwired to forget that the game exists given a slither of a chance.

Like all half-competent adventure games, we’re led astray by a number of distracting red herrings. A cute, yet completely useless Andrex puppy for instance. They’re kind of relevant in that Stephanie is an animal caregiver so has domestic and wild pets of all kinds bursting out of her ears. Think of the Benism potential there.

While Ocean had a dabble at correlating the two mediums, this is mostly reflected in the manual. Either way, they forgot that Short Circuit is supposed to be a comedy. That said, I can understand how they might have missed or chosen to ignore this.

“OK, so everything is almost perfect, why then no screen star? The game is entertaining enough, but imagine it without a big-name licence. You now have a pretty, little arcade adventure. Forget for a moment the luscious graphics and sound. You now have a basic, pick up and drop arcade adventure. If that is what you’re looking for, fine. If not, don’t be blinded by the name and screenshots.”

Commodore User (April 1987)

 

Escaping the Nova Robotics lab is an incident that happens quickly and very early in the movie. It’s not something you’d expect to consume the majority of the game. Learning new skills, adaptation to gaining sentience and all the ‘humour’ that arises from this is entirely ignored.

To be fair Short Circuit is probably hilarious if you’re five years old. Nevertheless, it’s not one of those films that has something to offer adults as well as children. Maybe Three Stooges fans enjoy the part where three SAINTs are reconfigured to parody the slapstick trio. One thing’s for sure – kids wouldn’t have had a clue who they are supposed to be. Dusting a prepubescent-targeted movie with a few expletives shouldn’t automatically make it more appealing to adults.

Ben: I am sporting a tremendous woody right now.

Newton: And then Schroeder came in with his Gestapo and ruined it all.

Ben: Those bunch of male-type organs.

Any attempts at adult-oriented humour tend to stem from Ben and fall flat, feeling a bit creepy and out of place.

Moving swiftly on. We were going to take a peek at the manual…

“Number 5 is alive! – a robot in the SAINT (Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport) series has gone haywire. A million to one chance has resulted in a lightning bolt striking the automaton and bringing it consciousness.

Now the scientist who put him together wants to take him apart again to find out what went wrong. The President of Nova Robotics wants to capture him before the weapons he is carrying kill millions of civilians – and the security chief wants to blow him up so that he can get home in time for dinner.

You are number five… you are alive and you aim to stay that way!”

That covers it I suppose, explaining why in part two of the game we find ourselves being chased by military personnel, SAINT robots (and a Dalek!). In this extremely primitive glide and jump platformer we must flee our tormenters, bounding over holes and crocodile-infested swamps whilst dodging birds, squirrels, snakes and other wildlife.

“A none-too-faithful film tie-in becomes a fairly playable budget game until you reach load two. It looks and sounds okay, but there’s not much game to play…”

C&VG (62%, C64, December 1989)

“The gameplay is almost identical, but monochrome graphics look crisper and add to the atmosphere.”

C&VG (64%, Spectrum, December 1989)

“Colourful sprites and backdrops have a realistic metallic sheen to them, and the music is as good as you can expect from the Amstrad. The game’s the same, though.”

C&VG (62%, Amstrad, December 1989)

In the movie, Johnny mourns the loss of an unrepairable grasshopper he accidentally crushes in his enthusiasm to mimic its jumping behaviour.

Number 5: Error. Grasshopper disassembled… Re-assemble!

Hence in the Speccy game, our life-force is measured by way of a depression/conscience metre. Kill too many adorable little critters (or bots/soldiers) and this creeps up until Johnny is only fit for Prozac-assisted rehab.

Newton Crosby: Why did you disobey your program?

Number 5: Program say to kill, to disassemble, to make dead. Number 5 cannot.

Newton Crosby: Why ‘cannot’?

Number 5: Is wrong! Newton Crosby, PhD not know this?

Newton Crosby: Of course I know it’s wrong to kill, but who told you?

Number 5: I told me.

Come into contact with one of the Nova reconnaissance robots or a soldier and we’re a gonna. In C64land our laser, while lethal, only comes into play as a stun gun. Shoot the soldiers’ belt buckles causing their pants to fall down around their ankles and they’ll momentarily be frozen to the spot, allowing Johnny to escape safely.

SAINT bots don’t wear trousers, nevertheless, the same applies. A neat, kiddy-friendly way to sidestep the violence dilemma in either medium.

In the movie, it’s Stephanie’s abusive boyfriend who bears the brunt of Johnny’s very diluted, low-key wrath. Before de-trousering him, Johnny disassembles his four-wheeled pride and joy 1976 Pontiac Firebird causing him to admit defeat and “punch the road”, as Ben would put it.

In the Spectrum game, our laser can be deployed against soldiers or the other SAINT bots, permanently decapitating the nuisances. We don’t get away with it mind you – here the morality issue is dealt with via the conscience metre. Max it out and it’s game over.

Reach the end of the C64 version’s woodland slalom chase and we wrap up our journey by constructing a Johnny imposter, as in the movie. It’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it, so if this section appeals it’s possible to launch straight back into it by pressing F5 during the lab escape phase to repeat it.

Don’t take it for granted, the Spectrum version just loops upon reaching the end. Even if we beat part two without injuring a single living creature (try disabling the collision detection) there’s no reward for our hard work. Hmmph, it looks like the programmer – Paul Owens – ran out of time.

Speccy part one, in contrast, ends with a congratulations and game complete message, which is all a bit confusing.

“Okay, so the film was quite good for the most part, but this tie-in has captured none of its excitement or cuteness. Number Five moves much too slowly for my liking, and takes far too long to react to joystick movements.

The first stage contains some nice scenery, but the general presentation is very hard on the eyes. The second stage is very repetitive, and is no fun at all.

Short Circuit is very boring, and hasn’t used the good points to bring it to life.”

Paul – Crash (71%, May 1987)

“I don’t know what to make of Short Circuit. The first part lacks depth, but is somehow still compelling – and the second is merely an arcade pattern game (which also appeals for some obscure reason).

The graphics are very good, with the main character well drawn and animated – the rooms and backgrounds are also pretty (if a little sparse).

The sound is up to Ocean’s usual high standards; there’s a great tune on the title screen and some useful effects during play.

Short Circuit works well, but I’d recommend a couple of trial plays before buying.”

Ben – Crash (71%, May 1987)

“Short Circuit is one of the best film licences for ages and represents good value with the inclusion of a second, and very different, game.

The first part, the 3D arcade adventure, is constructed well with just the right amounts of exploration, puzzles and thought involved. The scrolling printer on the status panel works to good effect giving what could have been a rather dull information screen a bit of life.

The second part may prove frustrating as Five has only one life and it’s really a matter of gradually learning what happens when and making sure that you’re positioned in the right place. Well, worth checking out.”

Rick – Crash (71%, May 1987)

As movie licence gaming spin-offs go Short Circuit is limited in scope with a distinctly budgety feel. It’s neither an enthralling adventure game or an accomplished platformer. Merely a smattering of loosely apposite elements that evoke the ‘heart-warming’ robots-are-people-too silver screen fable. If you have any complaints please direct them towards Mr Yates.

If you manage to get hold of the C64 version it might be more enjoyable to boot it up just to listen to Martin Galway’s excellent rendition of ‘Who’s Johnny’ and play Rise of the Robots on your Amiga instead. That’s not an endorsement of either.

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