Today’s article is a story of killer robots, the mysteries of my childhood and shouting “no, I bloody well didn’t mean “Terminator Genisys” at Google. It’s Probe and Virgin’s 1992 Genesis / Megadrive come-with-me-if-you-want-to-live-em-up The Terminator!
That’s right, it’s a videogame adaptation of the first Terminator movie. I assume I don’t have to explain The Terminator to you, right? Cyborg assassin travels from the future to kill a woman before she can give birth to the future saviour of the human race, Michael Biehn also travels back in time to protect her, Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes one of the biggest stars of the eighties and I just remembered that Bill Paxton has died and how much that sucks. I should watch Frailty again, that was a good Bill Paxton movie. Erm, sorry for the bummer opening there, hopefully the game itself will cheer me up.
I’ve got a bit of history with this game, actually. Way back in the Golden Axe II article – blimey, was that really six years ago? I should get out more – I mentioned the childhood friend who served as my main point of access to the Megadrive. One of the games he had was The Terminator. He also had parents who strictly limited his videogame time to thirty minutes a day, so sometimes we’d play The Terminator, struggle with what I remember as a brutally difficult first stage, not get very far and spend the rest of the day filled with regret that we’d wasted the chance to play Golden Axe II again. Well, today it’s going to be different. I’m going to see the rest of what The Terminator has to offer and put to rest the ghosts of my youth. Then I might play Golden Axe II, just for nostalgia’s sake.
Naturally you play as Kyle Reese, John Connor’s most trusted lieutenant and the man selected to travel back in time. Before you can do that, however, you must make your way across blasted wasteland that now makes up the Earth’s surface, fighting SkyNet’s deadly robots along the way. Here’s one now, a Hunter-Killer tank that Kyle must destroy before he can progress. Of course, Kyle didn’t embark on his mission without arming himself, oh no – he’s got an unlimited supply of… hand grenades? That’s right, hand grenades. They’re kinda slow to use, but by pitching them over-arm towards the Hunter-Killer he will eventually destroy the battle machine. Who would have thought that cricket bowling would turn out to be mankind’s number one survival skill in the post-apocalyptic future?
I say “survival” skill, I made the mistake of getting a little too close to the HK and it ran me over. Kyle Reese: Terminated, also Very Flat. And that’s it, game over, go back to the start of the game. It’s all coming back to me now: one of the reasons we considered The Terminator to be such a difficult game is that you get one life and no continues. That is rough, man. Even Ghosts n’ Goblins gives you a few lives to work with.
The flying Hunter-Killer might look just as dangerous as its land-bound companion, but I think it’s actually easier to get past because Kyle can take the maxim of “fight fire with fire” to a drastic extreme by destroying the robot’s bombs with his own grenades. This gives you a fighting chance of clearing a path through the carpet bombing. Just take it slowly, and you’ll find a way through, because even though it has a supercomputer for a brain the HK isn’t very good at aiming.
The bulk of the first stage takes place in this underground base, which is a shame because it’s rubbish. Vast swarms of Terminators – shirtless, Rambo-looking types – patrol the hallways with their very large guns, constantly surrounding Kyle while he ineffectually lobs grenades at them with all the urgency of a pensioner playing lawn bowls. You make slow, dull progress as you inch through the base, trying to at least eliminate the Terminators in front of you as you gradually creep forwards. There are so many Terminators down here, and they take so long to kill, that avoiding damage is impossible and the game devolves into a frustrating grind in which your success is determined almost totally by luck. If the enemies drop a decent amount of health-refilling bottles, then you might stand a chance. If the random number gods are against you, they’ll drop no health and it’s tough luck, back to the start for you. Oh, and there are certain walls that must be destroyed with timed bombs, of which you have a very limited amount, so if you accidentally drop one in the wrong place then it’s entirely possible to screw yourself.
Then, suddenly everything changes. After blowing up a small robot tank, Kyle finds a gun. With this single change, the first stage of The Terminator immediately flips from being a tedious slog to an absolute cakewalk, a gameplay shift so immediate and total that it’ll make your head spin. The gun lets you attack about five hundred percent faster and its projectiles travel all the way across the screen, allowing you to simply walk forwards and sweep aside any Terminators in your path before they can react. I cannot overemphasise just how vast the difference between the grenades and the assault rifle is. The gun is so good I suspect it was included as propaganda by the NRA.
Despite having the holy and sainted gun on my side, it wasn’t enough to get past the defences that SkyNet have erected to protect their time machine. To infiltrate their inner sanctum, it turns out I have to head back into the base and blow up whatever is powering these defences. I don’t see that being a problem. I’m the Terminator now.
Okay, so there was one slight problem: I got lost. It’s easily done when all the corridors look the same, but eventually I managed to make my way to the installation’s core. That’d be this big machine here, the one that seems to be producing Lucozade. I guess we know what’s in those health-restoring bottles, then. I’ll just leave a time-bomb here and then calmly make my way back to the time machine entrance…
...or I’ll make a mad dash though the stage, trying to remember where the ladder to the surface is as the countdown timer ticks towards my doom. If you were wondering what a Virtual Boy port of this game would look like, well, here you go.
I made it to the time machine. My reward? A lovingly digitised image of Michael Biehn’s naked body. I’ve seen worse cutscenes.
Obviously, Kyle’s first task is to find Sarah Connor so he can protect her. He tries to do this by looking her up in the phone book, which is the part of The Terminator that dates it more than any other. I still haven’t seen Terminator Genisys yet, do they find Sarah Connor by looking for her Twitter account in that one? Kyle also says he’ll need to find a weapon, and I sincerely hope he passes a gun shop before reaching Discount Grenades-R-Us.
Oh, so you did find a weapon, huh? That was quick. And then you shot a policeman. Good job not bringing any attention to yourself, Kyle. Okay, that’s unfair: as soon as I arrived at the beginning of the stage, every single cop in the city was overcome with bloodlust and devoted themselves entirely to murdering Kyle Reese. The LAPD take their public nudity laws very seriously.
Things also get a bit meta with the enormous poster of the Terminator adorning this building. Maybe it’s all part of Kyle’s plan: if he travels to a point in time where he can watch the first Terminator movie, he can then go back in time again and he’ll know exactly what the Terminator is going to do next.
So anyway, stage two is a rather uninspiring run-n-gun battle through the city streets. There’s just not that much to do, honestly. You can climb up to the rooftops and travel that way, but you’ll be attacked by a police helicopter. Or you can hit the streets, where you’ll have to deal with molotov-hurling punks as well as the cops. Swings and roundabouts, really. It all feels a bit bland and empty, but it’s nice to see that the cops and the street punks have put their differences aside. It’s just a shame that the thing that united these disparate groups was wanting me dead.
But I’ve got a gun! A sweet, wonderful shotgun with a hair trigger and infinite ammunition! Except, and I sincerely regret to inform you of this, the gun has a problem. You see, Kyle stores his shotgun under his trenchcoat. This is presumably to avoid attracting attention, despite that horse having not so much “bolted” as “developed warpspeed technology and embarked on a one-horse mission to Neptune.” Now, every time you fire the shotgun, Kyle has to remove it from his coat, and yes, it’s a really nice little animation, what with the fabric flapping and all… but it takes about half a second for him to, ahem, whip his weapon out, thus giving all of your attacks a half-second delay. This is extremely unhelpful in a game like The Terminator, where the enemies spawn endlessly and keep getting back up after you’ve shot them, and it gets worse because every time you move, Kyle puts his gun away. This means you can't move and shoot at the same time, turning this stage from “run-n-gun” to “run, stand still, laboriously remove your gun from your coat, gun, run a couple of paces, stop, repeat.” It’s amazing that such a minor detail could drag the gameplay down so much, but it was a constant source of infuriation while I was playing the rest of the game.
At the end of the stage is the Tech Noir club from the movie, and it looks great. In fact, pretty much all of this game looks great. Sharply detailed backgrounds and sprites, with lots of nice animation flourishes – only a couple of which make the game far less fun to play. Hmm.
Tech Noir, then. It’s where the Terminator and Kyle catch up with Sarah Connor, both in the movie and in this game, and as you can see the Terminator is here already. It’s a fight to the death – no, a fight for the very future of humanity! Except it’s nothing as grand as that implies, because the Terminator doesn’t deal well with stairs. He’s at the top, Kyle’s down below, which means all the Terminator’s bullets fly over Kyles head while our hero blasts the hyper-advanced killing machine in the knees with his shotgun. The Terminator has detailed files, but not on the advantages conferred by holding the high ground, it seems.
With the Terminator momentarily distracted by a) all the shotgun blasts to the knees and b) searching eBay for replacement robot knees, Kyle can whisk Sarah to safety while explaining that she will be the mother of mankind’s saviour. The Terminator is doing a good job of sticking to the plot and action beats of the original movie. It’s doing a less good job of rendering Sarah Connor’s hair, which I cannot see as anything but an Isaac Newton-style wig.
The next stage takes place in the police station. Given how aggressive they were in the previous stage I assume Kyle was brought in in a body bag. There’s a brief scene at the start showing the Terminator driving a car through the station’s reception desk, (as in the movie,) although the developers didn’t bother to include any extra animation so it ends up looking like the desk sergeant calmly sits there as a car flies past him.
The police plays out like a more compressed version of the previous stage, with the only vertical movement being via staircases that take you to the next floor and the same stop-and-go shooting action as before. I do really like this cut-away look, as though the front wall of the police station has been pulled away: it reminds me of all those cut-away “technical manuals” I used to read as a kid. You know what else it reminds me of? Stick with me here – it reminds me of Sega’s classic thieve-em-up Bonanza Bros. It’s a combination of the small rooms and the precise, angular graphics, I think. Oh, and all the cops. Speaking of the Bonanza Bros., if they’re the Bonanza brothers that means their surname is “Bonanza,” right? And their first names are Robo and Mobo. Therefore I submit to you that their full names are Robot Bonanza and Motherboard Bonanza. Do with this information what you will.
I definitely prefer this stage to the last one. It’s got some decent action, even with the shotgun’s delay, and the smaller areas mean you don’t feel quite so swamped by enemies. Plus, there’s the addition of the Terminator himself, wandering through the police station and occasionally getting in your way. You can put him down for a while, but not forever, although he’s suffering from a case of Jason Voorhees-itis and he’d be much more of a threat if he’d chase you at a speed beyond “supermarket browser.”
Having found Sarah and escaped from the police station, the final stage takes place in the factory where the Terminator will meet its eventual end. Well, it will assuming I don’t manage to cock it all up.
It’s just you and the Terminator now. It’s lost all its skin, which actually makes it a bit more difficult to spot against the metal of the factory… but only a little, because it’s bloody relentless, appropriately enough. I’m a little confused about how this stage is supposed to work: I’m fairly sure there’s only one Terminator in the factory with you, but it seems able to teleport around the place at will, repeatedly appearing in front of you as you move forwards. Fortunately it’s even easier to keep at bay than before, because it doesn’t have a gun any more, and as long as you have a quick trigger finger you’ll be able to shoot it fast enough to stop it being a problem.
At some point during the stage – I’m not sure whether it’s tied to your progress or how many times you shoot it – the Terminator’s legs will fall off. That doesn’t slow it down much, mind you. If anything, it becomes faster, what with it being fifty percent lighter now. It’ll still chase you around the stage, dragging itself along the floor and leading to the fairly comical situation where Kyle can daintily prance over the prone murder machine. On the whole, I’d say the Terminator is easy enough to avoid once it’s got no legs.
Sadly, that just makes this death I suffered even more embarrassing. I ran into a dead end while exploring the factory, and the Torsonator managed to pin me in the corner, crushing me against the wall as Kyle’s flinching animation took so long to recover from that I couldn’t jump to safety. Imagine if you were playing this back in the day, on an actual Megadrive, and you managed to get stuck in a corner and killed mere moments from the end of the game, sending you all the way back to the start of the game. That’s how you get a new world record for “longest distance a Megadrive cartridge has been drop-kicked,” that is.
Eventually, I managed to lure what was left of the Terminator into the hydraulic press. Sarah hits the button, the press crushes the Terminator, and it’s game over. It was a real team effort, good job everyone.
Note: Kyle Reese died on his way back to his home planet.
And that’s it for the Megadrive version of The Terminator. After all these years, I’ve finally seen what the rest of the game looks like, and my reaction is, I dunno, a half-hearted shrug? It’s certainly not a bad game, but there are some elements that really drag it down. The ridiculous, randomised difficulty of the pre-gun portion of the first stage and the delay on your shotgun are a pain in the arse, that’s for sure, and only having one life is pretty brutal. On the plus side, it does a good job of sticking to the plot of the movie, and it feels like a Terminator game – saying a licensed game “feels” like its source material is always a vague and unsatisfying way of describing it, but that’s about all I’ve got. The graphics are well above average, and Matt Furniss’ soundtrack is fun too, especially the opening stage’s theme and the surprisingly techno-fied version of the Terminator theme that plays over the end credits. In the middle of all this is the gameplay, a relatively enjoyable if slightly bland variation on the standard action-platformer template. All in all, for me The Terminator falls smack-bang into the vast morass of generic movie tie-in games: not bad enough to be bad, not good enough to good, but merely serviceable. And you know what the irony is? The game’s so short that if we’d had the chance to practise more, we could have completed it in the half-hour of videogaming time my friend was alloted.
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