15/11/2014

THE LAWNMOWER MAN (GENESIS / MEGADRIVE)

Clear out your neural ports, jack into the virtual cyberzone and pick yourself a radical online hacker handle - I'm thinking W3BW1ZARD666 - because it's time to leave meatspace behind and save the world from some very dated CG graphics. That's right, it's a videogame adaptation of the 1992 Pierce Brosnan movie that was definitely not based on a Stephen King short story, and Mr. King's lawyers will want to have a word with you if say otherwise - it's The Lawnmower Man, brought to the Sega Megadrive in 1994 by Time Warner Interactive!


Now, I've only seen The Lawnmower Man once, and that was probably about twenty years ago, but from what I can remember it's about a guy who is made more intelligent through the liberal application of Virtual Reality. Time and the advent of the YouTube comments section has shown us the people most certainly do not become more intelligent when plugged into computers for long periods of time, but the nineties were a more optimistic time.


Here's the Lawnmower Man himself. His name is Jobe, and he's a simpleton. Hi, Jobe. The super-grainy film capture here is supposed to show Jobe pushing a lawnmower, but to me it looks more like he's ripping red strands of gore from a mutilated carcass. I haven't been sleeping well recently. Some of The Lawnmower Man's later levels might help with that, actually.


This is Dr. Angelo, portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the move and a small clump of pixels in this game. He's the scientist who does the very scientific and totally ethical brain-tampering on Jobe, and at first it works - Jobe becomes more intelligent, he engages in some virtual reality sex that looks like someone ordered "a commercial for an early-nineties graphics card, but, you know, erotic," and he develops telekinetic powers, as very clever people tend to do. Stephen Hawking's wheelchair doesn't have a motor in it, he pushes it around with his mind.
To make matters worse, a sinister government agency called The Shop tampers with Jobe's VR funtimes, turning him evil to study the potential military applications of an insane cyber-god with magic brain powers who can be contained by no boundaries. The Shop? More like Weyland-Yutani, am I right?


Only Angelo and Carla can break into Jobe's virtual domain and defeat him. Oh, hang on, it says all that in the screenshot. That's what we're going to be doing in this one, then - travelling into the virtual world to confront a madman with a giant head, just like a contestant on GamesMaster. You can choose to play as either Dr. Angelo or Carla, the mother of Jobe's young friend. She presumably has no experience of virtual reality or saving the world, so I think I'm going to go with Pierce Brosnan on this one. There's no difference between the two characters as far as I could see anyway, so let's hurry up and get plugged into the Matrix. Unless "the Matrix" is a legally-protected trademark of Warner Bros., in which case we'll call it "Blocky Floating World" instead.


The future of computer technology, brought vividly to life by the raw power of the Sega Genesis! Remember, Sega does what Nintendon't, except in this case because there was a very similar version of The Lawnmower Man released for the SNES that has more stages and the power of Mode 7 behind it.
Now, it's very easy to scoff at the primitive slabs of scenery on display here, so I will. It's like slowly drifting through a Lego model of post-Blitz Coventry, or a pair of disembodied hands floating along on a mission to throttle whoever built this extremely dull set of shadow puppets. Aside from that, this VR swoosh-em-up works fairly well. You're always moving forwards, and your goal is to make it from one end of the area to the other without smashing face-first into the scenery. Each time you bump into an object you lose a hit point, and when you lose them all you're sent back to the start. You can move left, right, up and down, so presumably you're flying Superman-style and not walking forwards with your arms outstretched like you're trying to find the bathroom in an unfamiliar house with the lights off, and it all controls pretty well: there's enough momentum in your movements to keep things interesting, but not so much that you lurch uncontrollably around the screen. It's hardly the most exciting videogame action you'll ever encounter - which is a shame, because it makes up about 50% of the game - but it's not terrible.


I think I may have found the exit. Okay, now what?


Oh, so The Lawnmower Man is one of these games, by which I mean games that try out a bunch of different gameplay styles without ever focussing on any one style long enough for it to become a satisfying experience. I know I haven't played any of the component parts aside from the VR bit, but I'm still confident in this early assessment.
This is the other large chunk of TLM's gameplay, a generally solid if rather uninspired run-n-gun romp that presents me with a dilemma: I can't tell if it takes place in virtual reality or not. On one hand, Angelo is carrying a gun the size of a small child that launches a shower of small triangles at the rampaging band of tiny, leotard-clad monkey men that swarm towards him, and that makes me think that this may not be the real world. In the other hand, this is all taking place in an otherwise normal suburban street, whereas the last VR area was, well, you saw it and it looked considerably less real than this.


I've decided to put that question out of my mind for now as I concentrate on fighting this unassuming white saloon. You see all those little brown dots? That's what's left of Dr. Angelo after this car hit him. If I'd know he was actually a mound of cappuccino foam masquerading as a human I would have been a bit more careful with him. I should really be more careful in general, because you die in one hit during these side-scrolling stages and enemies tend to appear in your path very suddenly. This car certainly did, but it's pretty easy to jump over, so I did that. Then I jumped over it again when it drove back the other way, and then again, and again. It wasn't until I messed up a jump and landed on the car's roof that I discovered that's what you're supposed to do, and slamming feet-first into the roof makes the car stop. A policeman got out, so I shot him. You'd better hope this is taking place in Virtual Reality, Dr. Angelo, otherwise there are going to be some difficult questions waiting for you when all this is over.


After a bit of running and gunning - gunning down officers of the law, that is, although in my defence they were trying to kill me both through vehicular homicide and then using standard police-issue molotov cocktails - I found a portal to another VR stage. Gameplay-wise it's the same as the last one, but this time I'm flying through Cyber Atlantis. This main difference between Cyber Atlantis and Regular Atlantis is that Cyber Atlantis didn't finish sinking all the way, and if Atlantis was completely decorated in a beige and purple colour scheme then frankly it deserved to be lost beneath the waves.


"Dr. Angelo, drop your weapon and place your hands above your head. Pay no mind time the fiery rainbow that encircles me. All policemen have that here in what is most definitely the real world. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to be incinerated down to your component atoms by my fiery rainbow. You have the right to either remain silent or issue a blood-curdling scream, it's your choice."


This miniboss fight against a man on a motorcycle isn't that interesting by itself, but I would like to point out that his black shirt makes it look as though there's just a set of limbs and a head riding that thing. He also appears to be shooting a jet of flame from his knee. That's why Dr. Angelo's wearing kneepads, they contain the raging knee-fires that beset everyone who meddles with Virtual Reality.


Now we're in another cyber zone, one that looks like Angelo has somehow warped himself inside an Atari 2600 game, but something's different. Have you spotted what it is? That's right, his health bar is slightly longer. Oh, and his right hand is a gun now.


That's because this is a Cyber War Zone, and periodically you'll be stopped so that you can engage in the carnival game that is shooting these little robots. The giant THREAT icon hovering around them is - and I do hope I'm not Alanis Morisette-ing the word here - ironic, because they're about as threatening as a feather pillow behind an inch of safety glass. They do shoot at you, but as long as you keep moving from side to side they'll never hit you, and in the whole game I think I managed to take damage from them once. This might make the shooting sections sound boring, and they are - they're easy enough to be frivolous but long enough to grind on your patience - but this is the part of The Lawnmower Man that I think could have benefited from being a game in it's own right. The scrolling is smooth, aiming is accurate and it's the most unique of the game styles, so with more focus, more enemies and more challenge you could build something enjoyable on these foundations. That didn't happen, though, so enjoy plinking away at the one enemy type the Cyber War Zones have to offer.


Oh cool, I found a helicopter! You get to fly it and everything, so I'll use it to traverse this gap where a bridge has been destroyed. Now I just have to land it. Easy... easy... there we go, I've got it!


I don't got it. I never got it, in fact - I tried several times, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to land this helicopter without it exploding and killing me. I approached the landing with all the care and delicacy I could muster, but the second the skids brushed the ground with all the lightness of an angel's kiss Angelo was killed in the ensuing fireball. In the end I just gave up and took the loss of a life. I'm sure it'll be fine. Collecting all the CDs that fly out of the enemies you kill will probably give me an extra life eventually anyway.


"If they have a problem with you, and if they can find you, then maybe you can be killed by... The A-Team! Daaah dah daah daaah, dah dah dahhh!"


Then I had to fight a pair of petrol pumps. That was easy enough, but I wasn't expecting a burning man to emerge from the wreckage. I mean, I wasn't expecting to be fighting petrol pumps either but I thought destroying them would be the end of it, you know? I'm not sure who this person is, but going by the sign on the gas station I think it must be Harley. Sorry about ruining your livelihood and then setting you on fire, Harley, but this kind of collateral damage has to be expected when you're trying to take down a evil super-intelligent computer force. I can't help be feel somewhat responsible, because I am almost entirely responsible.


Somewhere in the depths of cyberspace, the unholy union of man and hang-glider soars through a subpar recreation of Sonic the Hedgehog 2's special stage. It was no fun for anyone.
Thankfully the least common of The Lawnmower Man's stages are these tube flyer affairs, ugly experiences of being trapped in a dimension filled with unwanted Christmas ornaments where the high speeds and twitchy controls mean that trying not to bump into the sides and thus lose health quickly becomes painfully frustrating, especially given the general pleasantness of the other stages. It feels, both graphically and mechanically, like these stages were handed off to the work experience kid just so they had something to do besides make the tea. I'd like to say that The Lawnmower Man's mix-and-match approach to gameplay types was an attempt to capture the fractured natured of existing in both the real world and the virtual realm but a) that sounds pretentious as hell and b) I'm pretty sure it's not true.


Now I'm in some kind of factory, and the graphics artist seem to have gone on strike. It's very grey. Very grey indeed, and mostly composed of slender platforms and lifts that expose huge tracts of the bland, unchanging background. It's a shame, because up until now I've been really enjoying the graphics of the non-VR sections - they're in that really small, fine style that I like, and they're mostly quite interesting.


I don't have anything to say about this VR stage beyond "listen to this".


Aww, the Non-Threatening Robots have built themselves a little castle, how adorable! Unfortunately, their habit of standing right in the windows and having the front door open means that the castle offers little protection from whatever it is I'm shooting at them. Little balls of anti-virus software, maybe?


Okay, the side-scrolling stages must take place in virtual reality because I'm fighting giant robot wasps, and those don't exist in the real world. I would have heard about giant robot wasps if they were an actual thing, mostly through newspaper headlines like ROBOT WASP MENACE TO END HUMAN CIVILIZATION and ROBOT WASPS ENSLAVE ALL, EAT JAM.
Thankfully I had just the right weapon to take them down. There are three types of gun available in The Lawnmower Man - a narrow spread shot that fires the aforementioned little triangles in a mostly horizontal direction, a laser that rebels against the very concept of firearms by having its projectiles randomly turn at 90 degree angles, making it almost entirely useless, and the circle launcher. The circle launcher is by far and away the best, because it fires massive hoops of energy that encircle and destroy any target they hit. Once you've got the circle launcher, the rest of TLM's side-scrolling stages gain a new level of challenge: the challenge of making sure you never accidentally collect the items that switch you to one of the other guns. This means you spend a lot of time waiting for those items to flicker and disappear so you can make your way forwards - not much fun, but it beats having that sodding laser equipped.


"Dr. Pepper, what's the worst that could happen? Well, the vending machine could be infected by a sinister computer sentience, causing it to kill our customers by launching cans of our delicious soft drink into their faces at high speed? No, I didn't think it sounded very likely either but then I saw a scientist get hit with a can of pop so hard that he goddamn exploded and I was forced to revise my opinion."


Now it's raining X-Wing pilots, who have grown bored with all their free time after defeating the Empire and have taken to harassing scientists by wearing jetpacks and buzzing around them. Why does Dr. Angelo violently disintegrate if lightly brushed against by another human? I dunno, he must not eat his vegetables or something.
One neat thing about these states is that the panel in the middle of your status bar changes depending on what's happening in the stage. Sometimes Jobe's cyber-face appears to grimace at the player, it displays details of power-ups that you've just collected and best of all it shows information on the nearest enemy, as you can see in the screenshot above. It's not practical, usable information, just pictures and random pixels meant to imply text, but if you pay attention to it then it can sometimes let you know what enemies you'll be facing before they get on-screen, and that can go some way towards alleviating the problem of bad guys appearing right in your path that these stages suffer from.


I already implied that these VR sections look a lot like Star Fox, didn't I? Rats.


We're deep into The Lawnmower Man's closing stages now, and there's another Cyber Run to be negotiated. My eyeballs pray for mercy, but there is no mercy to be found amongst the whirling colours and flashing lights, only the frustration of repeatedly taking damage from obstacles you'll swear you avoided. It goes on for bloody ages and if you lose a life you're sent back to the start, and I could avoided so many of my Cyber Run deaths if only Dr. Angelo would fly with his arms pointing forwards like he does in the other stages instead of switching to hang-glider mode. Why are you doing that, Angelo? So you can catch the updrafts that exist here in this dark tunnel of cyberspace? C'mon, man, you look ridiculous.


Just before you fight the final boss, the entire point of the game is reiterated for the player. You know, just in case they forgot. I'm not sure that picture is going to help anyone's comprehension, mind you. It looks like a still from a surreal toothpaste advert where the amorphous avatars of toothpaste and chocolate caramel do battle.


Here is the final boss battle, and it's Space Harrier starring Bad Box Art Mega Man! The VR enhancements have given Jobe the incredible power to make his head really big.


Really, really big. Or maybe he's just moving closer to you, it's hard to tell in cyberspace. Anyway, Dr. Angelo is no longer a hang-glider, which is good, and you can move freely around the screen in a manner that means comparisons to Space Harrier are so inevitable that I've made two in two paragraphs. Naturally you're shooting at Jobe, who for his part is shooting back by launching fire from various parts of his facial anatomy, but Jobe himself is not the real target.


Shoot your failed science experiment enough times and he'll get out of the way for a short while, allowing you to focus your fire on these cyber-portals. Shoot them all enough times to change them from "Access Granted" to "Access Denied" and you win. Somehow. I understand that it stops Jobe from escaping into the wider internet, but he's still around, isn't he? With his telekinesis and his murderous rage? It kinda feels like those things might come back to bite me in the arse if I don't deal with them now.


You're right, incredibly underwhelming ending sequence, I should just forget about what's going on and just accept that The Lawnmower Man is over. Now I have to try and sum up my feelings about it, which is more difficult that usual because there are are four or five distinct games in here, so let's take it one piece at a time. The side-scrolling section are mostly decent, or at least not bad, but they never get anywhere close to breaking out of complete mediocrity. The VR stages are well-built and had a lot of potential but suffer the most from the game's lack of focus. There are also a few too many of them with no gameplay variety, especially when you get towards the end and you're flying through a "Cyber Office". The tunnel shooter sections are just plain bad, with ugly graphics, over-sensitive controls and gameplay that's at once boring and anger-inducing. Then there's the final boss fight, which is pretty good.


Overall, The Lawnmower Man coalesces into a grey putty of averageness. Far better than I thought it was going to be but not good enough for me to recommend that you play it unless you're really into the "potential virtual reality future" aesthetic of the nineties, it's got "licensed Megadrive game" written all over it. That was my time with The Lawnmower Man, then. Number of lawns mowed: zero.

9 comments:

  1. Max Headroom can bitchslap Jobe.

    With a smile on his face! :D

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    1. Funny you should say that, since Matt Frewer (Max Headroom's actor) played Jobe in the sequel to the movie :P

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    2. The Lawnmower Man movie was definately in the right place at the right time, since it came out in March 1992, one year shortly after the groundbreaking CGI inspiration of Terminator 2 in July 1991.

      On a $10 million budget, it was a small hit, making $32 million at the box office, continuing to do well on video, including a 140-minute director's cut.

      It also ushered in a subgenre of cyberpunk movies in the mid 1990's, often using Virtual Reality, including Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, and Disclosure.

      Given Lawnmower Man's success, it's no surprise New Line Cinema wanted a sequel, but given it was four years since the original self-contained flick came out, who cared anymore? Maybe that's why they decided this follow-up to an R-rated movie would be a PG-13 flick aimed at teenagers who likely never saw the first one, with an eye on making a third movie centered on teens with superpowers, which clearly never happened.

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  2. It's one of those cases I don't mind having spent the €3 or €4 it cost me some years back, but I'd be livid if I spent 10 times that 20 years ago. I kinda like the virtual world levels, but they're as half-assed as the run-and-gun bits. It's not good, but when compared to the standard LJN releases (or even some later PS1/PS2 tie-ins), it' hard to get worked up about a game that, well, works (except the PAL MCD version, pressed with the wrong country code, recalled and nobody bothered to re-issue) and is enjoyable at times.

    I still think who did Race The Sun (http://flippfly.com/racethesun/) was a fan of the VR sections. It's like they picked up the concept and made a decent effort out of it.

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    1. Ha ha, I didn't know that about the Mega CD version, that's amazing.

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  3. I think you were a little rough on this one. The Genesis does a pretty serviceable facsimile of the Super NES's much-hyped Mode 7 effects, and it deserves credit for that at the very least. The game itself is pretty average, sure, but it's got moxie. I enjoyed Red Zone for similar reasons, even if sounded like it was named after a 1990s deodorant.

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    1. Maybe I was a bit harsh on it, I think I just have less and less tolerance for really average games these days, but yiu're right, the Genesis does handle the 3D effects rather well in this one.

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  4. Those VR stages do look cool in a very 90's way. I kinda wish they didn't have the side scrolling stages (or at least made them weirder) so the game could be just one long acid trip. I doubt it would make the game better, but it might make it a bit more interesting.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, like I said, it really would have benefited for from the developers picking one element of the game and focussing on making it good, and the side-scrolling bits really needed something to lift them above the usual run n gun stuff.

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