Someone to watch over me

Apparently someone called Ray Lee-Odour starred in the 1994 dystopian sci-fi action movie, No Escape. Personally I don’t think he stinks at all, he’s a fantastic actor. He looks a lot like one of the gangsters from Goodfellas as it happens.

Google him and the top result is ‘Smelly Cat’. You know, the song Phoebe sings in Friends. Maybe this explains why No Escape isn’t so well known or fondly remembered. It’s a shame since this alternative futuristic prison drama isn’t half bad; kind of a cross between Gilligan’s Island, Lord of the Flies and Mad Max set in the no longer distant year of 2022. Don’t expect Shawshank Redemption or Green Mile mind you, otherwise, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s not nearly so erudite or ponderous, although it has pretensions in that direction without actually saying anything too deep and meaningful concerning the human plight.

Ray plays formidable former US Marine lifer, Captain John Robbins, who is imprisoned on a remote tropical island known as Absolom for murdering his superior officer. No guards or cells are necessary since it’s situated 200 miles from the mainland.

Warden: You have come here from all over the world because society has no further use for you. The international prison system has given up all hope of your rehabilitation. This place will now be your holding pen until your death. Because death is the only way out. There is no chance of reprieve here, No possibility of escape. You are condemned. Either accept it… Or die…

Robbins, deep down, is one of the good guys, despite following an order to lead an air raid, callously slaying a party of innocent Benghazi civilians. He’s subsequently ‘incarcerated’ for belatedly protesting the command employing lethal force, making him more of a maverick anti-hero. Robbins endures recurring spells of PTSD as a result of his military ordeal – not something your average cold-blooded executioner would allow to grip their psyche.

Stoic and independent, verging on antisocial, Robbins is ironically often portrayed as the most empathetic of the inmates, priming him as the (initially unlikely) saviour of the downtrodden proletariat. As the story unravels his character develops in accordance with the traditional hero role. A less edgy Robbins emerges as he’s given a roadmap to the typical happy Hollywood ending. Quite a deviation from his usual wrong side of the tracks baddie portrayal… see Unlawful Entry (1992) and Cop Land (1997).

Warden: Was there something you wanted to add?

Robbins: Don’t ever turn your back on me again.

Arrogant, yet not stupid, he doesn’t. Robbins is escorted out of the room by armed guards whilst the warden’s gaze remains steadfastly fixed on his unpredictable, latest captive.

Absolom is run by a megalomaniacal warden (played by Michael Lerner) who’s not opposed to a spot of electrical torture and treats his punitive playground like a vaguely scientific, sociological experiment. Why is never fully explained, probably due to over-zealous script-hacking. No Escape is loosely based on Richard Herley’s 1987 novel, The Penal Colony, which no doubt fills in any gaps in the plot.

 

 

Dumped on the Alcatraz-esque island (North Queensland, Australia as it happens) from a helicopter, Robbins meets two antagonistic, diametrically opposed societies who each want to adopt him in recognition of his advanced survival skills. Problem is, Robbins is a lone wolf who only wants to escape to normality ASAP.

 

 

The Father: You’ve got a terrible case of ‘nobody tells me what to do’.

It’s a long film and as he’s in no rush to embrace the insiders’ noble cause to expose the ‘truth’ (whatever that is), or the ‘law of the jungle’ approach of the outsiders. Given that both groups are subjugated convict guinea pigs it’s not clear why there’s even a distinction.

 

Name aside, what distinguishes them is civility. The insiders are a humanitarian organisation centred around pseudo-socialist ideals, focused on developing the necessary technology to elope to civilisation.

Their highly organised, fortified camp is guarded by head of security, Hawkins (Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame), whilst ‘The Father’ (Lance Henriksen) provides spiritual guidance and dictatorial hegemony.

His strict policies (particularly those culminating in eviction for failure to fulfil watchman duties) are sometimes questioned, though he rationalises their necessity on the basis that the alternative is assault from the outsiders.

 

He has a point; one devious method they have to gain entry is to tether the wooden struts of the perimeter fence to a hefty tree, then chop it down. As the tree topples over away from the barricade, it brings it crashing down to the ground, leaving the insiders wide open to infiltration. Clever.

I should point out that ‘watchman’ in this case isn’t sexist. Not a single woman appears in the movie. Now you could argue that’s sexist.

Marek: I have removed all the heads of state…

(Dumps out sack full of decapitated remains)

Marek: …I really want to be in charge!

Savagery defines the outsiders who are only interested in hedonism and, apart from the leader, haven’t got two brain cells to rub together. Their commander in chief is volatile, unhinged sociopath, Walter Marek (played by Stuart Wilson) whose main goal is to keep his rabble of minions in line whilst amusing himself by orchestrating gladiatorial bouts between them. Played by 400 extras, he’ll surely have his work cut out, so will need to capitalise on every last ounce of his inimitable charisma.

Marek: …that’s not funny

(he suddenly decapitates his insubordinate underling)

Marek: HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA! Now, that’s funny!

Marek, in true nutjob, tinpot oligarch style, manipulates Robbins into fighting Ralph, his prize warrior, to prove his mettle and entertain the troops. It’s got to be the most memorable scene in the movie.

Marek: Isn’t this wonderful? Two hundred deluxe rooms, heated outdoor pool, and a staff of caring professionals.

(pauses)

Marek: I’m sorry, I’m being rude! My name is Walter Marek, I’m your resident director. Welcome to vacation paradise!

Robbins: I hope you take plastic.

Marek: We most certainly do! We elicit all forms of payment here. Now, I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling a stimulating variety of activities for you here.

Robbins: (bored) Shuffleboard?

Marek: Water sports!

(shoves Robbins over the edge into a net)

Marek: Now because our activities are so rigorous, we’re very selective about our clientele. So… just to get that ol’ heart pumping, we thought: five minutes in the pool with Ralph!

(gestures to huge, menacing thug)

Marek: Our director of aquatic activities!

Startling him and his gobsmacked followers, Robbins pulls an Indiana Jones-style manoeuvre (see Raiders of the Lost Ark) dispatching the Goliath with a perfectly timed, flung machete to the chest. One shot and he plummets to his death, the pond beneath breaking his fall. Who takes a sword to a gunfight?

Ralph: (Licks knife, uses it to smash a statute, then screams threateningly) AAAAHHHHH!

Robbins: (Hurls knife into ‘Ralph’s’ chest, killing him instantly. The mob is shocked into silence for several seconds)

Marek: That’s extraordinary. It’s not EXACTLY what we had in mind, but…

(laughs)

Marek: Extraordinary!

Marek: I could use a man like you! A position on my staff, perhaps?

(gestures at Ralph’s body)

Marek: we appear to have an opening! Think about it! Your own room, full run of the place, free meals: anyone you can catch, kill and eat!

Robbins: (sarcastic) How’s your health plan?

Marek: Eh, well it’s not really necessary, is it? I mean the average life-expectancy around here is, what? Six months?

(leans into Robbins’ face)

Marek: I’ve been here seven years.

Marek’s offer of a high-ranking role amidst his gang of misfit outcasts isn’t met with much enthusiasm. Robbins’ response is to recklessly push Marek into the paddling pool battle arena, steal his rocket launcher and depart the sanctuary of the camp, establishing him as a renegade who acts on impulse, never stopping to weigh up the repercussions of his choices.

Marek: Now, anyone who would like to disagree with me, would you please raise your right hand.

(looks around)

Marek: If you’ve got one.

Fleeing the inevitable deadly pursuit and poisoned dart incident, Robbins finds himself harboured by the insiders, under the tutelage of The Father. An arrangement that turns out to be mutually beneficial. Their raison d’etre is to construct a seaworthy vessel to take the prisoners to safety undetected. Only to do this they’ll need a distributor, which can only be sourced from within the outsiders’ camp. Robbins, the most motivated member of the group, offers to retrieve the essential part in exchange for a place on the getaway boat. Thus begins tribal warfare. Goodies vs baddies, logic and science vs instant gratification and psychosis.

Oh come on Winston, it’s not that boring!

 

Robbins ultimately comes to realise that his mission – meting out justice upon the authorities who forced him into the impossible situation that led him to Absolom – aligns with the insiders’ drive to expose the corrupt wardens who run this literal prison state.

In the melee that ensues between insiders and outsiders, The Father is mortally wounded and dies, the tragedy ameliorated only by knowledge of his terminal medical condition. He’s already on borrowed time thanks to the gift of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

On his deathbed The Father imparts his wish for Robbins to take on the leadership mantle, fulfilling his strategy to expose corruption within the distant ruling authority.

Robbins reluctantly-sort-of-silently agrees, though is immediately more concerned with tricking Marek and co. into an ambush trap. He and his band of merry men enter the fort under the assumption that it’s been abandoned, only for sniper Robbins to jump out armed with Marek’s stolen rocket launcher.

 

Fearing the thermal footprint of the targetted incendiary bomb will be detected and arouse suspicion, the warden sets off for the island in a Russian Kamov Ka-27 ‘Helix’ anti-submarine helicopter, accompanied by a team of soldiers. You know I like to be precise. It’s not clear what he plans to do on arrival since the damage has already been done.

Robbins discovers that King killed the insiders’ boat-building engineering guru and is colluding with the warden. Spying his opportunity to avert further incursions, Robbins forces King to relay new landing coordinates to the warden, lying in wait to hijack his helicopter. Crew executed and the warden evicted to face the wrath of the outsiders, Robbins along with several of the surviving insiders head inland to raise the alarm.

 

How The Father’s journal provides any sort of incriminating evidence against the unscrupulous penal regime is anyone’s guess. In effect, we’re left wondering if they’ll just be thrown in a different jail or asylum upon imparting their tall tale.

No Escape was a box office flop, earning just $15.3 million from a production budget of $20 million. Nevertheless, Psygnosis wouldn’t have known this upon commencement of their video game translation for the SNES and SEGA Mega Drive. They might not have bothered otherwise.

It’s funny how so many people call it an obscure cartridge, yet YouTube is brimming with video footage of it, captured from both emulators and real hardware. It’s also not often mentioned that it was actually developed by Bits Corporation and only published by Psygnosis. As was often the case in the ’90s, the licenced accompaniment evolved into a fairly traditional, predictable platformer similar to Psygnosis’ other action movie tie-in, Cliffhanger.

Nonetheless, a couple of elements serve to improve upon that bargain bin disaster. Robbins and his cohorts were all brought to life via the art of rotoscoping technology in a similar vein to Prince of Persia and Flashback. Consequently, they animate smoothly and realistically; Robbins jumps up to overhead platforms, grips the edge and pulls himself clear, runs at dual speeds, leaps various distances, crouches with arms outstretched for balance etc. It’s all convincingly lifelike.

“Robbins is a little difficult to control, which doesn’t help matters any. The game looks sort of like Flashback, but doesn’t play as well. You’re better off watching TV.”

Video Games & Computer Entertainment (50%, Genesis, May 1995)

Unlike most standard platformers, No Escape is non-linear. It’s, therefore, possible to tackle the levels in any order employing a map of the island as a launchpad, returning to previous areas once new objects have been acquired/assembled through trading with a few familiar characters stationed within the insiders’ camp. If your progress has come to a grinding halt in one level, it’s viable to locate the exit and approach the overarching mission from a different angle while you wait for other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

“Overall, this cart doesn’t deliver the escapist adventure that 16-bit gamers need. With an unwieldy interface and confusingly similar levels, you may be saying no to No Escape.”

GamePro (70%, Genesis, May 1995)

Stages are many and sprawling with little guidance as to how items should be combined to achieve subgoals, where to find them and where they should subsequently be deployed. Despite clues offered by our prisoner cohorts, that’s the real test, leaving most gamers floundering. I’ve only seen one longplay of No Escape and that’s more of a three and a half hour playthrough complete with swearing, ranting, and hair-pulling frustration etc. I’m not criticising at all; it’s an excruciating chore to make any progress, so any wailing and rage-quitting is totally justified. I certainly haven’t got the patience to stick with it. Great job, Torsvik Von Clemson.

Typical switch manipulation trope shenanigans are present and correct. Some toggles are even hidden behind enemies that need to be dispatched before they are unveiled, so it isn’t wise to dodge all threats assuming you’ve cunningly conserved energy reserves, saving valuable time and stress.

An alternative means of travel entails entering treehouse doors that teleport Robbins around the environment. Often this is the best way to view a previously unvisited area without making a blind leap of faith since there’s no facility to look around from a fixed vantage point. Take your chances and you’re likely to end up impaled on a set of protruding spikes – much like Marek in the movie.

 

Spikes are everywhere and lethal a la Rick Dangerous or Super Pitfall, ensuring we get to witness Robbins’ Platoon style death throes more often than we would playing Platoon or watching Willem Dafoe’s infamous scene on a constant loop for as many days as the Vietnam war rumbled on.

Part of the problem is that controls aren’t as responsive or reliable as they could be, causing the player to flub crucial jumps and having to retrace their steps to try again. Assuming the ground below doesn’t harbour some deadly threat or other.

Given that opponent castaways respawn faster than a speeding bullet, it’s pointless to waste time trying to keep them under control. They’re relentless, brutal savages, duly earning the right to call themselves cannibals. You’d be best advised to scamper up the nearest assailable vine or perform the double-tap run manoeuvre at every opportunity, eschewing such encounters.

Bullets, now they’d really help. Sadly all we have at our disposal by default are our flailing limbs… a feeble punch and several varieties of kick aimed at ankle, waist or head height. Any other weaponry or traps need to be constructed through the combination of items acquired from trading points or scavenged from the landscape. Predominantly though we’ll find that Robbins’ most pernicious tool is a torch; a prerequisite for entering the crepuscular mole men’s tunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As tedious as all the backtracking and object-gathering can be, it’s refreshing to see that an effort has been made to mirror the movie. A nicely drawn, animated introduction leads us into the action, neatly setting the scene whether we’ve watched the movie or not.

 

 

Extreme boss battles don’t really feature seeing as Robbins only encounters ordinary humans. These do however put in an appearance, including Ralph tooled up with his trademark halberd poised over the pool arena…

Marek living the high life in his salubrious ‘hotel’…

…and the warden who makes an appropriately dramatic entrance via a helicopter, accompanied by armed guards, would you believe?

 

If you suffer from aviophobia it’s possible to duff him up and then make your exit from the island via a stealth boat instead… although I wouldn’t recommend it having witnessed the outcome in the movie.

An alternative scenario entails reaching this area without encountering the warden at all should you have failed to find the necessary equipment to assemble a landing beacon (bulbs and charged batteries), and radio transceiver (antenna and handset + dusty circuit board + soldering iron). In effect, the end isn’t necessarily the end, being such a non-linear affair. Hang on a minute, this doesn’t make much sense, does it? The helicopter arrives with or without our DIY hardware being deployed, the only difference is whether or not the warden puts in a personal appearance.

Furthermore, I gather it’s feasible to skip many other parts of the game, concentrating only on the elements that absolutely need to be completed to engage with the warden and escape, so that should be a fun experiment for speedrunners. Good luck monkey-barring your way over the erupting lava pit of doom to reach the finale. I’ve seen it beaten in the Mega Drive rendition, yet the SNES equivalent seems that much more rigged against our success. I recorded about an hour’s worth of my cheating attempts to overcome the evil incarnate sequence before giving up. It’s possible to skip straight to the helicopter section via an Action Replay code. Then that’s not the point, is it? I’m sure I’ll give it another shot at some point in the future, making sure I don’t arrive empty-handed. It’s as infuriating as it is addictive.

Assuming you’ve jumped through all the critical hoops in the right order, a respectable animated conclusion follows the warden’s defeat.

 

 

 

Well, it’s different, combining adventure-based fetch-quest elements with frantic action platforming. You’ve got to congratulate the developers for that at least. Far too difficult for most human* players and even a substantial challenge when applying cheats to become invincible since that’s not nearly enough to get off the island this side of 2050. You’d manage it eventually through exploration of every last pixel of real estate and sheer trial and error manipulation of objects as in a point and click adventure game. Are you likely to be sufficiently motivated to keep plugging away though? That’s the big question. Association with the movie – assuming that appeals – will only carry it so far.

Unfortunately, what skews people’s opinion is the failure to make the more innovative content accessible. For anyone who skipped the manual or never had one to begin with, the menu systems which must be navigated in order to trade with villagers appear overly convoluted and unintuitive. As a result, so many gamers are entirely flummoxed by the core element that permits progress to be made. Little wonder then that their experience is coloured by extreme frustration.

Finding the manual is tricky until you realise that there’s a huge torrent compilation of SNES documentation all neatly packaged and available via archive.org. Download the individual document via the zip listing page, or instruct your torrent client to single out the one relevant file and you’ll have it in seconds. It’s well-written, comprehensive and takes great strides to tie the game to its source material. Never mind the torch, adding the manual to your inventory should be your first trial. Achieve that and you’re halfway towards a newfound appreciation of No Escape. For any pro gamers not fazed by stodgy controls and seeking a hardcore challenge, this is it. Let’s see how efficiently it can be longplayed so cowards like me can benefit from your suffering.

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