A video game developer would have to actively try very, very hard in order to make a game more frustrating than Dick Tracy on NES. Though it was released in 1990, around the same time as the Dick Tracy feature film, this Bandai game was more inspired by the original comic strip of the yellow-clad detective. Not that it matters, really. A bad game is a bad game, no matter the source of inspiration. And Dick Tracy on NES is indeed a bad game.
The first issue with the game is its setup. As soon as the game starts, you have a mugshot screen featuring six different subjects. Dick Tracy might have been an interesting game, if it actually made you look for clues to deduce which suspect is guilty. Instead, the game already tells you which of the six is the culprit of the game’s first crime, and you simply have to look for enough clues to have him arrested (if you try to arrest them before finding each clue, you’ll just go back to the police station to continue looking for the clues). The four subsequent crimes that Dick Tracy has to solve follow a similar pattern, which really makes you wonder why the developers didn’t just present the game as a traditional side-scroller. Dick Tracy had the opportunity to make players feel like a detective (if even just a little); instead, the detective-y bits are nothing but window dressing.
That’s only the beginning. Dick Tracy includes an overworld map, presented as the big city. You traverse this overworld via Dick Tracy’s car and, my lord, the driving controls are bad. The game forces players to stay in the right lane which, while realistic, makes the driving controls feel really restrictive. When combined with how awkward the turning is, and the driving controls are just a mess.
Yet, that’s not even the worst part of the overworld. That would be the snipers. Yes, atop most of the buildings in the city are snipers, who will shoot at you repeatedly, and drain your health before you even make it to one of your destinations. You can shoot from the car, but it only shoots straight, which makes hitting the snipers nearly impossible. You can exit the car, which gives you more range in movement (and thus, shooting as well), but having to stop the car to exit just to get rid of the snipers just makes the game all the more tedious.
You may be wondering “why not just move around the overworld on foot?” The answer to that is you can’t. As soon as you exit the car, you can only walk around to what’s currently on-screen. Between the horrible controls and the barrages of snipers, driving the car is one of the game’s worst elements, yet it’s the element the game forces you to do the most.
When you actually make it to one of your destinations, things don’t get much better. Dick Tracy can jump, punch, and can use a gun. But in the on-foot stages, Dick Tracy has limited ammo, and can’t shoot unarmed enemies, otherwise you’ll take damage. Sure, it’s realistic that a good cop wouldn’t shoot an unarmed criminal, but the enemies appear on screen so suddenly that you might not have switch back to your fists before hitting the B button. You’ll be shooting at an armed enemy, only for an unarmed guy to appear on-screen and walk in front of the bullet. And with how much the stages love to bombard you enemies, trying to keep track of what enemies are in front of you and what item/weapon you’re currently using just gets way too hectic.
Dick Tracy can swap between his fists, a gun, and first aid kits by pressing the select button. The punches and gun are used by pressing B when they’re selected, but to use a first aid kit to heal yourself, you have to press the select button and B at the same time. Why the developers made such a bonkers design choice is anyone’s guess.
What’s worse with the health situation is that Dick can only carry two first aid kits at a time, and they aren’t always easy to come by. And while they replenish all of your health when used,Dick only has a handful of health, with most of it, once again, being depleted by the snipers in the overworld.
This brings me to the game’s gravest flaw: You only have one life. Just one. If you die, it’s game over and back to the beginning of the game. There is a password system, but only in between cases. And again, going through just one case by finding all the clues, and apprehending the culprit, with all those driving sections sprinkled in between, is no walk in the park. And with players only able to hold onto two first aid kits at a time, the whole experience is unforgiving and unfair.
Dick Tracy is one of the worst games on the NES. Its squandered potential of 8-bit crime solving is further muddled by its atrocious controls, tedious pacing, and its unreasonable difficulty..