The Bumpy History of Back To the Future Video Games

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With the Back To the Future‘s 30th anniversary happening this week, there’s a lot to celebrate with Marty McFly’s 1985 adventure, like the iconic performances by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd or the even pop culture that the films managed to create. (Speaking of which, where’s our hoverboard?!)

That said, not everything in Future‘s history has been smooth. Over the years, various game developers attempted to translate the message of the films into video games, starting with LJN on the NES and eventually in current products from the likes of Telltale Games and Warner Bros. Interactive. While the more recent releases have been good, the other ones…well, not so much.

So here now is a quick history of Back To the Future video games, starting with the rather turbulent early releases and, eventually, getting really “heavy,” as Doc Brown would put it.

Back To the Future (LJN, NES, 1989)

We might as well get started with one of the worst. Coming out around the same time Back To the Future Part II hit theaters, this version was so much of an abomination that the film’s screenwriter, Bob Gale, called it “one of the worst games ever.” And it really is, as it practically has none of the film’s themes intact. You start out by collecting clocks in an automatic scrolling stage to keep Marty from fading away in a family picture, and then ties into three mini-games where you face Biff and his fellow bullies, avoid kisses from your young mom, Lorraine, and eventually keep a guitar in tune while Lorraine and George kiss. None of these levels have any sort of redeeming gameplay, and the fact that the same sped-up version of “The Power of Love” plays pretty much throughout the game–well, you’d probably prefer non-existence compared to listening to it repeatedly.

Back To the Future Part II & III  (LJN, NES, 1990)

Good news, Back To the Future II & III is moderately better than the original game. The bad news, it still stinks. As you might expect, this game features events from both the second and third films in the series, but, instead of trapping you in a continuously moving stage, it has your version of Marty running through side-scrolling stages, avoiding enemies while locating items to continue his journey. While it’s nice seeing events that are actually familiar from the films, the controls are really loose, meaning you’ll be prone to slip-ups quite often in the game. Furthermore, there isn’t a game save feature, nor any sort of password system, so you either need to complete the game in one shot or not at all. Considering its tedium and lack of overall rewards (you don’t even get a fitting happy ending screen, just a bland one), it’s not worth the trouble.

Super Back To the Future II (Toshiba EMI, Super Famicom, 1993)

Here’s another game that failed to do justice to the Back To the Future brand and was so under-received that Toshiba didn’t even see the point in giving it a U.S. release. Super Back To the Future II features an anime-tized version of Marty as he travels into 2015, doing battle with Griff while journeying around on his hoverboard. It’s a side-scrolling platformer with a lot of cute elements, but it also has problematic gameplay (again, too loose) and graphics plagued with glitches and lag. At least the music is pretty good, but you can easily buy the movie soundtracks for much, much cheaper.

Back To the Future III (Arena Entertainment, Sega Genesis, 1991)

We’re not sure what the developers at Probe Entertainment were thinking on this one. Back To the Future III only consists of four stages overall–far less than the typical Genesis game–and most players can’t even complete the first one, in which Doc Brown attempts to rescue Clara Clayton while dodging every obstacle under the sun. We’re talking falling rocks, birds… practically everything is out to get him. If you survive that, you have to put up with a lame target shooting game, a poorly controlled isometric shootout sequence against Buford Tannen’s men, and a frustrating train sequence. Throw in incredibly annoying music (nothing close to the film’s soundtrack) and bad visuals, and you have one of the worst Back To the Future games yet.

Universal Studios Theme Park (Kemco, Nintendo GameCube, 2001)

Although the full game (if you can call it a game) isn’t based on Back To the Future, Universal Studios Theme Park does feature a mini game based on the ride of the same name, where you pursue a badly voiced Biff Tannen (what, they couldn’t afford Thomas Wilson?) in his DeLorean using your own DeLorean. It really doesn’t make sense, but the mini-game does offer a variety of time eras to zip through, as well as the original theme from the movies. Unfortunately, the controls leave a lot to be desired, and the game is over far too soon for its own good. Fans who are nostalgic for Universal stuff may want to hunt the game down, but there’s not enough Future to go around here.

Back To the Future Pinball (Data East, Arcade, 1990)

Data East had a good run of licensed pinball tables in its day, including offerings for Lethal Weapon and Star Wars–and Back To the Future is no exception. The table layout is fantastic when it comes to skill shots and setting up a journey through the film series, and also features the use of three of its songs (including ZZ Top’s “Doubleback”) and the use of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown character. Still, it is a bit weird seeing a replacement for Marty McFly’s character, since Michael J. Fox didn’t give permission to use his image for the table. Instead, he was replaced with some secondary model, and it was a little too obvious to see. Still, if you can find it in an arcade, it’s worth a try.

Back To the Future: The Game (Telltale Games, various consoles, 2011, 2015)

Well before Telltale produced games based on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, one of its early episodic releases was Back To the Future, a quasi-sequel to the series that once again puts Marty McFly in an interesting scenario, as he has to rescue Doc Brown from turmoil in the past. Featuring a number of interactive sequences and puzzles, Back To the Future: The Game spread across five episodes, and featured a number of talents from the movies, including Michael J. Fox, who filmed a cameo for the closing episode. The original game is great fun for fans of the series (especially those wanting a Back To the Future IV), and those who missed it the first time around can experience a special Anniversary Edition, available now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – complete with Thomas F. Wilson voicing his Biff Tannen character. Can’t beat that, butthead!

Lego Dimensions: Back To the Future Playset (WB Games, various consoles, 2015)

Just in time for the original film’s 30th anniversary release, WB Games released a separate Lego Dimensions playset based on Back to the Future, featuring Marty McFly and a pair of devices that users could build to put into the main release. In it, players will experiment in Doc Brown’s lab, before traveling back to 1955 and finding themselves in a position to get back to the future with the help of a bolt of lightning. Those of you familiar with previous Lego games will find this set to their liking, even if the main level itself is only about 30-40 minutes long. Not to worry, as there’s also an open Hill Valley-based level to explore, and plenty of stuff to build within it. For good measure, both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are included in this set, voicing Marty McFly and Doc Brown, respectively. It’s a little pricey (the set goes for $29.99), but for fans, it’s certainly worth it.

Which Back To the Future games are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!

Image source: Universal City Studios via  Blastr

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