Author: John Legendoffzelda
Three years after the end of the Back to the Future film series, long after America gave up on the notion of a good video game adaptation, the Japan-exclusive music label Toshiba EMI released Super Back to the Future II. The game’s quality might remind players of a throwaway remark Michael J. Fox made in Back to the Future Part III, that “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Relying on the series installment with the most rollicking plot and highest concentration of visual inventiveness, this is a largely unique creation that comes the closest (before the 2010 game adaptation, anyway) to a great BTTF game. It’s an amusing and creative interpretation, and both the concept and presentation certainly outdo LJN’s infamous ineptitude – notably disapproved of by both James Rolfe and original screenwriter Bob Gale. But what makes it come close without really getting there, is that it’s centered on a gameplay idea that’s rather unpolished and only partially realized. Not everyone who tries it is going to be won over.
The game’s text is all in Japanese, but players can easily piece together the context, given that the game simply repeats the story of Back to the Future Part II. Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to 2015, where Marty experiences future shock and saves the reputation of his son; then they go back to 1985, which because of a mistake made by Marty has been corrupted into a reality where Biff Tannen lords over a desolate Hill Valley. Then they go further back to 1955 to stop Biff from ever coming into power. This retelling of the movie is wholly distinct from any others; it does stop short of the coda that back in the day advertised Part III, but more importantly, its uniqueness is defined by its striking and inimitable aesthetic.
Across all three periods of time, the California town of Hill Valley is remade by the game into an Osamu Tezuka-style wonderland. All the people have big anime heads with wide, expressive eyes; Biff and his future progeny in particular have giant-sized bodies that outline their roles as the antagonists; and the streets and buildings are covered in sleek and optimistic colors. The entire look of the game is very in sync with the film’s idealistic depiction of life in 2015, and this melding of viewpoints puts it well ahead of its same-license counterparts.
A more mixed innovation offered by the game comes from its structure. Marty, whose eyes aren’t exactly wide but rather twinkle with determination, speeds through all the different versions of Hill Valley entirely on his hoverboard. The device in the movies was a pink children’s toy that turned out to be the whole series’ best special effect and the second-most novel creation after the DeLorean; the novelty about it remains, and the sight of Marty riding it is still interesting. But in the execution of that sight, the game recalls odd titles like Skate or Die 2, ones that compromised the Newtonian thrill of skateboarding by making it a clunky update on the usual platforming business. Even with the presence of electromagnetic hover things underneath in place of wheels, this game does the same kind of thing as well.
Marty’s trip through the three versions of Hill Valley is divided into a large handful of side-scrolling stages where he rides around collecting coins and finishes by crossing a checkered banner that’s waiting at the end. The stage layouts do help all the hoverboarding by being twisty and winding in a Sonic sort of way, but they don’t keep up that design scheme enough – the stages aren’t grandly dizzying, and they don’t provide enough set-pieces that really make use of that central mechanic. A lot of it is just simple floating platforms to climb or to wait for like elevators, with bouncy springs and dangerous spiked balls strewn about. Certain pieces such as inclines and special walls that Marty can climb like an unconventional ladder are enjoyable contrasts, and fortunately there’s an even distribution of them throughout the game so players don’t feel wedged into counter-intuitiveness by what they’re doing. If only the distribution were in the inclines’ favor.
Those coins that Marty collects along his way are used to buy power-ups from the numerous vending machines that are scattered around each stage. The process is actually a neat variation on item distribution: the player moves past one of them, loses some of his coins as a vending fee, the machine explodes, and the player skates away with an extra hit point or a glowing shield. These items are good to come across, but they aren’t too requisite to defeat any enemies. When they’re not robots, the enemies are just random impeding people who race on-screen on motorcycles or stand around launching cartoon-size projectiles. Marty can efficiently eliminate both them and their projectiles with his standard jump, a backwards-tumbling ollie that doubles as another piece of cool visual flair (The animation cycle of the jump is so mesmerizing, that the designers placed it on the box art). It’s handy for the boss fights, too, which are tailored to the film’s story and place Marty in a confined space against his foe, whom for the most part will be either of the hulking Tannens; The jump attack usually works better than trying to use the arenas’ environmental weapons, F.Y.I.
The enemies and boss battles are what should make the player invested in the shields and hit points, but what will do that instead are the stage layouts – the not so fun parts with the creaky platform crossing and natural obstacles, where Marty might run into a spiked ball if he skates too far or if the player can’t pull off a hide-saving jump because the controls are strange. The A button gets Marty to jump and the B button makes him push his foot along the ground to accelerate, and since the latter button usually does the primary action in a Super Nintendo game, there’s some confusion to be had. But even a mastery of these flip-flopped controls doesn’t make any of the hoverboard-platforming easier to enjoy.
What’s still enjoyable, thankfully, is the whole anime style of the game, and the pleasant array of audio that goes with it. Explosions and enemy defeats happen with a Game Boy-sounding crunch, the one odd sound effect in the game’s library but still something that people can get used to; the real aural achievement, anyway, is the outstanding re-creation of Alan Silvestri’s main theme. The player’s going to hear it a lot, in both its vanilla orchestral form and in awesome variations like a Super Mario Kart-style remix. Additional pieces of music like the urgent boss-fight theme are equally interesting. Leave it to a music label to give this video game both the movie’s great theme and other original music tracks.
Music aside, Super Back to the Future II would be oversold if it were called the franchise’s perfect game. It has too many problems with the inspired gameplay choice it makes, no matter how much inventiveness it puts on-screen. Critics who looked at the movie back in its theatrical run had a similar problem: coming off of the first film’s perfection, they felt that the special effects and knotty storytelling of the sequel deprived it of anything meaningful. As for whichever one I prefer, I’ll say it’s the one where the audience gets to see Doc Brown accidentally travel to 1885.
Three out of five stars.
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