Back to the Retro!

Posted by Steven Collier on Oct. 20th, 2015

Great Scott! In just a few, short hours it will be October 21st 2015. So according to Back to the Future II, we should finally have hover-boards, flying cars, and smart clothes by no later than 4:29 PM tomorrow! I don’t know about you, but I’m stoked!

Unfortunately, it’s looking like Robert Zemeckis' vision of 2015 wasn’t quite on the money. Or maybe it was, and Marty McFly’s time-hopping tomfoolery created an alternate 2015, which just ruined it for the rest of us. It’s impossible to tell. Time travel is tricky business. However, delving into the past isn’t just possible, it’s DKOldies specialty. So, get out your denim and slap on a puffer vest! Today, we’re heading back to the 80’s to revisit the NES games inspired by the legendary film trilogy!

In Back to the Future, players control Marty from a top-down perspective, as he rushes across the streets of Hill Valley. Along the way, he’ll have to dodge all manner of obstacles, and take out any locals who get in his way. Much like in the movie, McFly is in a literal race against time. He must restore order to the time-space continuum before he is erased from existence.

In another nice nod to Robert Zemeckis’ landmark film, Marty’s health is represented by a photograph of family members who slowly disappear from sight as the game progresses. This fading carries over from level to level, and once everyone vanishes, it’s game over. The only way to restore the picture and Marty’s temporal stability is to collect clocks scattered throughout each level. The effect is a little hokey, but it gets the intended message across perfectly: time is of the essence.

This game is meant to be played FAST! As if the spooky doom photo wasn’t enough to worry about, every level also features its own unique countdown timer. So, there’s never a moment where you can afford to take a breather. The game only offers two power-ups to aid Marty in his quest: a speed-enhancing skateboard, and a bowling ball that can be used as a projectile weapon. It’s ironic that a game about a kid trying to prevent any actions that might alter the future requires Marty to run amok down main street, lobbing bowling balls at every civilian in sight. However, it does make for a fun and frenetic gameplay experience.

To mix things up, Back to the future also features four mini-games that recreate scenes from the movie. There’s a diner fight, where you hide behind a counter and lob milkshakes at Biff and his gang. Another requires Marty to dodge his mom’s romantic advances. Later, players are required to collect music notes while performing "Johnny be Good" at the school prom. Finally, you get to make a suicide run through a lightning storm, in the iconic Delorean. And you had better make sure you hit 88 MPH when you cross the goal, or it’s an instant game over.

Back to the Future has garnered a bad reputation over the years, mainly for having little to do with the movie's plot. But, I don't think that's fair. With only 8-bits to work with, it would be almost impossible to recreate any movie scene for scene. As a game, Back to the Future is a blast to play! The street-run levels do a great job of implementing responsive controls with gameplay that rewards speed and precision. The best way to describe Back to the Future is that it’s like a much more aggressive version of Paperboy. And, in my book, that’s pretty dang cool.

The game’s sequel is another matter, though. Back to the Future II & III differs from its predecessor in just about every way imaginable. Gone is the madcap pace of the original. This is a traditional platformer with a focus on exploration. The plot is that thanks to Biff's reckless time-travel, all kinds of items have been misplaced across the time-stream and must be returned to their proper locations in order to set the past, present, and future right.

As such, Marty must traverse two versions of the same level: one set in 1985 and the other in a nightmarish 2015. This actually involved a really neat time travel mechanic that is pretty impressive. Let’s say there’s a door that’s just out of Marty’s reach in 2015. The player can hop into the Delorean, go back to the same spot in 1985, plant a tree, and then return to 2015 when the plant has fully grown, so that they have a means of climbing to the previously inaccessible area. These puzzle mechanics are loads of fun and encourage players to experiment with every tool at their disposal.

Unfortunately, this is where the game’s fatal flaw comes into play: it has no save feature. Not even a password input. You have to beat it in one sitting or not at all. And that’s just not practical considering there are a grand total of 30 items to be unlocked, collected, and restored. Even if you already know where every item is located, and how to solve each puzzle, the game can still take over 2-3 hours to beat. A blind-run is easily double that. This prohibitively long play time, makes this inspired game feel more tedious and repetitive than it needs to.

Fortunately, modern consoles like the Retron 5 allow you to save your progress whenever you want. So today’s players can approach Back to the Future II & III at their own pace. This completely fixes the game’s most glaring flaw, and allows you to really take in all the clever details that went into this otherwise charming game, with a ton of clever puzzles.

Even though 2015 isn't everything we were promised thirty years ago, modern technology is making a lot of classic games more accessible than ever before. If you’re feeling nostalgic and want to revisit these NES titles, there’s never been a better time to go Back to the Future.

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