Ignoring director Robert Zemeckis’ trilogy of uncanny valley heavy motion-capture films released in the 2000s, the famed filmmaker has had a pretty solid resume. Many of Zemeckis’ films have received high praise, and are remembered as classics of their respective decades, such as Forest Gump and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Perhaps the most beloved Robert Zemeckis film, however, is Back to the Future. With its unique blending of genres (a time-traveling/buddy comedy/high school drama), tightly wound storytelling (a movie about time travel that makes sense!), and its memorable characters, Back to the Future is one of the quintessential “80s movies.”
Like so many other beloved films of the 80s and early 90s, Back to the Future received an NES game courtesy of the now-defunct LJN, who became infamous for their ability to take seemingly any movie, and create a rushed, broken game out of it. And LJN’s treatment of Back to the Future frequently ranks as one of their biggest crimes against beloved movies.
Basically, the game works like this: You play as Marty McFly, the hero from the film famously portrayed by Michael J. Fox, and you make your way across rail-like stages, where you have to avoid enemies, collect clocks, and make it to the end of the stage with as much time left as possible. In between each series of walking stages are levels where you have to throw root beer floats at bullies, or collect hearts from love-struck high schoolers (or something).
In other words, it has nothing to do with the movie.
Mistake number one – which has been pointed out time and again – is that Marty bears no resemblance to the film’s main character. Sure, this was NES and developers could only do so much, but when the character’s red life vest and brown hair are replaced with a sleeveless black shirt and black hair, you get the impression they didn’t even try.
That’s actually the least of the game’s faults, however, as the actual gameplay is much, much worse.
In the walking stages, Marty automatically moves forward, with the player needing to guide him away from obstacles and enemies (which range from bees to hula girls) and grab the aforementioned clocks. There are two timers at the bottom of the screen. One of them, the more obvious timer, simply counts down how long you have to reach the end of the level. Every time an enemy hits you, you lose time on this timer. If it reaches zero, you lose a life. And however much time you have left when you reach the end of the level is multiplied into points.
The second timer is presented as a picture at the center of the bottom of the screen, and is suppose to represent the photograph of Marty, his brother and his sister from the movie (the one where each figure in the photo slowly disappears as Marty keeps inadvertently altering time). This timer works over the course of the walking levels, with the pictured characters slowly disappearing. For every 100 clocks you collect, you reset this timer.
Okay, things may not sound all that bad from that description, but where things really begin to fall apart are with the way Marty himself plays. For one thing, Marty’s standard jump is completely useless. If you try to jump over an enemy or obstacle, you just smack right into it, leaving you wondering why the jump was even included. You can, at times, find a skateboard (hey, something from the movie!), which allows you to move faster, and even makes the jump successful in leaping over some obstacles, but it also makes Marty move so fast that it becomes really easy to run into walls, and to miss out on collecting the clocks. So it’s a power-up that actively works against your goal.
To make matters worse, the enemies are all over the place, and most of them move much faster than Marty (of course). The worst are the bees, who will continuously follow you for a good while before they fly away. You can fight back enemies by picking up a bowling ball (remember the bowling scene from the movie? Me either), but if you get hit once, you lose the bowling ball as well as precious time.
As one final middle finger to the players, the clocks, skateboards and bowling balls are often placed directly in front of walls which will knock you down and steal time when touched. No point in even attempting to get those items, since you’ll just be punished for it as soon as you grab them, so then why are they even there? Back to the Future on NES was trolling before trolling was a thing.
Perhaps the worst bit of all is the music, which is just an obnoxious, sporadic loop of noise that repeats throughout the majority of the game. From the title screen and any level that features music (save for the final stage), it’s just the same scratching loop over and over again.
You may think that when you finally manage to get to one of the stages that doesn’t involve automatic walking, you are getting some kind of reprieve (not only are they different, but that awful music is muted as well). Sadly, you’d be wrong, as these stages may be even worse than the walking ones.
In the first such level, the one where you are throwing those root beer floats at bullies, Marty is confined behind the store counter. You can move up and down, and throw the delicious beverages at the oncoming bullies, who will charge towards Marty in different rows. Marty must continuously move up and down to make sure he’s in position to hit the closest bully. The problem is it’s incredibly difficult to make out when you are and are not in the right spot until the bullies are right in front of you. And should even just one of them make it to the counter, you not only lose a life, but go back to the previous walking stage!
Keep in mind that you have to successfully defeat 50 bullies in order to finish this level alone, and said bullies increase in speed, and even start showing up in packs as you defeat more and more of them. I doubt most players would have the patience to continue with the game past this levels, but if they do, they can look forward to more walking stages, capped off with levels of similar difficulty to the root beer one. It’s a mess.
Back to the Future on NES should rank among the worst licensed games ever made. Up there with LJN’s own Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure. It not only has virtually nothing to do with the beloved film it’s based on (save for the title), but even without the mockery of its source material, it would still be a flat-out terrible piece of game design.