Back to the Future (NES) Review

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.



Why Back to the Future Part 2 is One of the Best Sequels Ever


Today is the day.

October 21 2015. The day Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown arrive from 1985 in Back to the Future Part 2 (despite what countless Twitter posts have stated in the past, today is actually the day). Although we may not yet have self-tying shoelaces, Jaws 19, or hoverboards, the film had a very fun outlook on the future for its time, and even got a few things right (wall-mounted TVs, hands-free video games, a nostalgia-fueled pop culture, etc.). But more importantly, Back to the Future Part 2 is one of the best film sequels ever made. And what better day to reflect on its merits than today?

First thing’s first, Back to the Future Part 2 is not quite as good as the original, if only because the original is pretty much a flawless movie. Part 2 contains a couple of small plot holes with its time travel that the first film miraculously avoided. It also isn’t a sequel the uninitiated can jump into. Seeing as it literally picks up where the first film left off, it doesn’t give newcomers a proper introduction to Marty and Doc. This is a sequel strictly for fans.

But not being quite as good as the original Back to the Future is no unforgivable sin, and despite the flaws, Back to the Future Part 2 more than holds its own due to its sheer entertainment value (which somehow does match its predecessor), and for how it takes the concept of the series and stretches it to its creative limits.

“Why are we not dressing like this?!”

As mentioned, the movie begins immediately at the end of the events from the first film (though it needed to be recreated from the ground up, as actress Claudia Wells, who portrayed Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer in the first film, was unavailable and her role needed to be recast). This means that Part 2 jumps right into the action, and the film immediately travels from the original 1985 setting into the movie’s fantastic vision of 2015.

Though we may laugh at how whimsical and technologically advanced Back to the Future 2’s depiction of 2015 is compared to the time we’re now living in, it really is one of the cinema’s more enjoyable depictions of a science fiction future. It’s fun, colorful, and optimistic, but not without its problems. Despite its fantastic nature, the film’s futuristic 2015 still feels like an everyday kind of place (even if the main characters are more entertaining than every day people could ever be).

As much as we talk about Back to the Future 2’s 2015, and as wonderfully realized as it is (pay attention to all the background details to see how much love went into making the 2015 of BttF2), it only serves as the backdrop to the film’s first act. After an elderly version of series’ antagonist Biff Tannen steals the DeLorean time machine and gives his past self a 2015 sports almanac to become a surefire billionaire, Marty and Doc return to a very different 1985.

In this alternate 1985, the now rich and powerful Biff has bought the city of Hill Valley and turned it into a place of pure corruption. While much of this now-perversed Hill Valley is comically exaggerated, it actually takes the series into some dark territory. As much as Hill Valley has changed, so has the tone of the film. Though because of the smart script and constantly moving plot, it never feels out of place.

Then we have the glorious crescendo of Back to the Future 2’s creativity. The third act takes Marty and Doc back to 1955 to stop the elderly 2015 Biff’s plot by ridding 1955 Biff of the almanac, thus fixing the timeline and undoing the alternate 1985.

“Time travel in Back to the Future actually makes sense! The characters’ actions in the past change the things we saw in the present, instead of resulting in them.”

What makes this third act so amazing is that Marty and Doc frequently interact with the same situations they interacted with in the first film. And this isn’t in that weird “they’re presence in the past makes things the way they were to begin with” kind of time travel of most movies. Marty and Doc altered the past in the first film, and their present had been altered by Biff in the first act of the second film, and now that they’re once again back where they were in the first movie, Marty and Doc are trying to make sure nothing they accomplished the first time around gets altered, otherwise they could create a time paradox!

Back to the Future Part 2 very cleverly handles all three of its timeframes, and weaves them together in one very creative whole. It takes full advantage of the series’ time travel setup by sending its heroes to three very different takes on its world (the future, a dark, alternate present, and the events of the first movie).

"Being called a "butthead" has never been more intimidating."
“Being called a “butthead” has never been more intimidating.”

This also gives us a chance to see new sides to the characters, with the most notable being Biff Tannen. In the beginning of the film we see him as his more chilled-out middle-aged self, then as his plotting, elderly version from 2015. He becomes a full-on monster in the alternate timeline, and then the movie turns him back into the brutish 1955 bully from the first film. And that’s without mentioning Biff’s grandson Griff (who, like Biff, is portrayed by Tom Wilson), who is basically a more exaggerated version of bully Biff in 2015.

"Second film meets first film."
“Second film meets first film.”

There’s just so much that happens in Back to the Future Part 2. It creates so much out of its concept and it wonderfully connects with the first movie. Universal Studios was dead set on making a Back to the Future sequel with or without director Robert Zemeckis after the success of the original, but we should all be glad that Zemeckis decided to jump onboard to make the sequel he wanted. Because of the input of the series’ creators, Back to the Future Part 2 boasts clever writing, smooth pacing, an interesting story, and a constant sense of invention.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Part 3, though a fun movie in its own right, falls considerably short of Part 2. When Part 3 sends Marty McFly ad Doc Brown to the wild west, it stays there, perfectly content in being a small-scale western and only bringing up time travel when it’s necessary. But Part 2 has so many ideas, and wants to do so much with them that Marty and Doc’s adventures throughout its two hour running time could have been its own series. Instead they come together in a fitting whole that, despite boasting so much, never feels bloated or cluttered.

Sadly, we may not live in the 2015 that Marty McFly arrived in. But in this 2015, we can still look back at Back to the Future Part 2 as one of the best sequels ever made.