Fashionably Late: Back to the Future: The Game

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Video games based on licenses from other media have long had a reputation for being extremely bad, and that reputation is definitely not undeserved. I remember many a frustrating weekend as a child where, for my weekly rental from the video store, I succumbed to my naiveté and picked out a game based on my favorite TV show or movie du jour, only to find myself stuck playing a subpar piece of crap for the next two days.

These games were typically made by toy companies who bought the rights to make a game the way they would buy the rights to make action figures, then handed the project off to a no-name developer, gave them a strict deadline and told them to have it ready to release on that date, whatever it took. In the case of movie-based games, that deadline often coincided with the release of the film in question, which meant that developers typically had less than a year to make something playable.

OK, "playable" might be a bit of a stretch...

OK, “playable” might be a bit of a stretch…

These titles weren’t all bad, mind you; there were exceptions. Most of the games based on Disney licenses were pretty solid, being developed first by Capcom (of Mega Man and Street Fighter fame), and later by Virgin Interactive. Konami made a few really good games based on Warner Bros. cartoons like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes, and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

Anything Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related was developed by LucasArts, so it was bound to be good. But for the most part, if a game was based on a TV show or movie, and it had any other publisher or developer’s logo on the box, it was in your best interest to stay far, far away.

These days licensed games have been making something of a comeback. Thankfully, this time around, parent companies seem to have realized that making a good game takes time–often as much time as making a movie, if not more–resulting in longer development times.

The projects themselves tend to be going to much more competent developers, as well. And with the advent of smartphone games, companies looking to use a game as advertisement for a movie are much more likely to hire a developer to make a cheap mobile title, cloning another successful game, than they are to crowd the console and PC market with low-quality material.

Additionally, now there are companies who are buying the licenses to old films and making strong games for the fans of these enduring franchises. Granted, some of these are still ill-advised cash-ins (the recent Rambo and Aliens games come to mind), but most are labors of love, developed by fans of the source material for fans of the source material, often featuring voice talent from the original cast or even original writers contributing to the story.

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands...

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands…

Telltale Games’ Back to the Future: The Game thankfully falls into the latter category. When the Back to the Future films were originally released, they received very poor treatment on the video game front; if you want more details on those abominations, James Rolfe (as his Angry Video Game Nerd character) released a video covering them in far greater detail than I could here.

But a few years ago, Telltale announced that they were partnering with Universal to adapt some of their classic movie properties into games, and one of these titles was Back to the Future. This was honestly some of the most exciting video game news I’d heard that year.

Telltale, for those who don’t know, is a company that’s sort of been acting as a spiritual successor to LucasArts’ old adventure game division. They’ve made new installments to both the Sam and Max and Monkey Island series, made a hilarious game based on the long-dormant Homestar Runner web cartoon, and recently they’ve been working on more serious fare with The Walking Dead (based on the awesome comic book, not the mediocre TV show) and Fables.

They are the company for graphic adventure games, or at the very least they’re neck-and-neck with Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, so they were a great choice to make this game.

As excited as I was to play this title (I bought the season pass as soon as it was released), I ended up getting side-tracked from it for a few years, mostly, I think, due to the episodic nature of its release. Telltale has this habit of releasing its games in downloadable form, through a series of episodes. All of the previous Telltale titles I played, I bought and played all the episodes at once. Back to the Future was the first one I started following from its release, and I quickly discovered that this format only served to allow me to be distracted by other games in between releases.

And that’s how it took me almost three years to play through one of my most anticipated games of 2010; from here on in, I think I’ll just stick to waiting on Telltale titles until all the episodes are released, then shotgunning them at one go. Hell, it works for Netflix, why mess with a good thing?

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I suppose I could just take the DeLorean ahead a few months…

The story begins on a rather depressing note 7 months after the end of Back to the Future Part III. Doc Brown hasn’t been seen in Hill Valley since that time, and the bank is selling off his estate to cover his debts.

Marty, who is desperately trying to convince people that Doc is still alive, is surprised when another DeLorean time machine, identical to the destroyed original, arrives outside Doc’s house with Einstein (Doc’s dog) in tow. Inside the DeLorean, Marty finds a recorded message from Doc, saying that he’s stuck somewhere in the past, and that the new DeLorean’s auto-retrieval function sent it to seek out Marty for a rescue.

Marty must travel back to 1931, where Doc has been mistaken for the arsonist who burned down a speakeasy, and enlist Doc’s 1931 counterpart to help break Doc out of jail and save him from lethal reprisal at the hands of Biff’s gangster father, Kid Tannen. However, this series of events alters the timeline, forcing Marty and Doc to fix the damage they’ve done in order to prevent a horrible future and the destruction of Hill Valley itself.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

It’s a fantastic story that feels right at home with the original trilogy (no doubt thanks to the involvement of trilogy screenwriter Bob Gale) and plays with the alternate timeline elements I love so much in Part II. The new characters introduced by the game feel like they belong with the returning ones, and the game is packed with the all the humor, witty writing and Easter eggs you’d expect from a Telltale game.

The gameplay is that of a classic graphic adventure title. Players control Marty, move him through the environment, and click on objects to examine them, collect them, and solve puzzles with them, or to talk to other characters.

To advance the plot, the player must solve puzzles, which usually involves some combination of talking to the right characters, using the right combination of items and working with simple logic. Most of the puzzles make enough sense that an experienced player can solve them easily, but a few of them are more tricky and could easily obstruct game progress.

Trust me, it's more exciting than it sounds.

Trust me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

Fortunately, Telltale built in a hint system, which progressively gives more information on how to solve the current puzzle each time it’s used, before finally telling the player the answer if they’re truly stumped. Of course, a few of the puzzles are difficult not because the solution is hard to guess at, but because it’s hard to implement, requiring a series of specific actions in a row or requiring fairly precise timing to pull off, so the hint system is far from being a “win button.”

The controls, while generally simple and solid, do occasionally cause problems. A few puzzles in particular are difficult to solve on a console version of the game (I played it on my PS3), because of the game’s tendency to try to correct for the imprecision of using an analog stick (rather than a mouse) by having the selector automatically target items in the environment as Marty moves past them.

This auto-selection can result in you accidentally clicking an object you didn’t mean to click on, which presents a problem in some puzzles where the goal is to click a particular object at a particular time. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these puzzles throughout the game, so the frustration level is pretty minimal, but it is still a minor issue that needs to be addressed.

Next I’ll talk about the graphics and sound design, but before that, I need to get something off my chest; I love Telltale’s games, but I really loathe the Telltale Tool engine they use to make them. I have never played a single game from Telltale that was without issues. Their games are, on balance, very simple both graphically and in terms of design, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the Telltale Tool struggles with them.

Framerates are wildly inconsistent regardless of the platform, which can cause cheap deaths in a few of their titles, and some of their games are very crash-prone; I still haven’t finished their Monkey Island game because it’s so prone to crashing on my PS3. Back to the Future is one of their more stable titles, but it still suffers from graphical hiccups and lag.

Someday, Guybrush...someday. *Sigh*

Someday, Guybrush…someday. *Sigh*

All that being said, I like the visual design of the game. Rather than try to make the game photorealistic (I shudder to imagine the uncanny valley versions of Marty and Doc), the game uses a caricature-like style to render its characters, and the environments are similarly colorful and cartoony. The graphics are simple, but they work, and aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, they’re quite pleasing to the eye. Nothing to write home about, but perfectly serviceable.

The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The soundtrack features several pieces from the films, including Alan Silvestri’s orchestral theme and “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as some original compositions that, while not quite up to Silvestri’s standard of excellence, fit in unobtrusively with the rest of the score. The sound effects are likewise very good, and feature all the effects you’ll remember from the movies.

But perhaps the best aspect is the voice acting. The voice acting in Telltale’s games is always excellent, and while they had to bring in a number of sound-alikes to voice some of the returning characters, they did manage to get some key talent to reprise their original roles.

The biggest of these is Christopher Lloyd, returning to voice Doc Brown, and I’ve got to say, hearing Lloyd play Doc again makes the entire game worthwhile for me, and I looked forward to every interaction I had with Doc as a result of it. Claudia Wells, the original actress who played Jennifer Parker, also reprises her role, and does an excellent job of it.

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around...

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around…

Regrettably, Michael J. Fox apparently wasn’t available to reprise the role of Marty when production began on the game, but Telltale found an absolutely amazing sound-alike in A.J. LoCasio. He’s a dead ringer for how Fox sounded at that age, and it’s incredibly easy to forget that it’s not Fox voicing the character. But they were able to bring Fox in during the final episode to make a couple of fun voice cameos that I won’t spoil for you here; suffice it to say that if you are a fan of the films, you’re in for a real treat.

And really, that’s the best way to summarize this review; if you’re a fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, then this game was tailor-made for you. For all its flaws, there’s so much heart, wit and love for the source material on display that you just can’t stay mad at this game, even at its most annoying moments.

Developers take note; if you’re going to make a game based on a beloved film property, this is the way you should do it. My only real complaint is that, after the game’s (slight) cliffhanger ending, there is no firm word of a Season 2 yet. Maybe once Telltale is done with The Walking Dead or Fables, we might hear something. But still, if this is all we get, I think I’m satisfied.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching, and in the spirit of the season, I’m playing through a horror game. Join me next time for my own road movie through Hell…

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