I’m always only ever an inch away from starting a Total Recall blog. For better or worse, it’s probably my favorite movie of all time. There’s a surprising amount of stuff to unpack with Total Recall too – the would-be Cronenberg treatment, the Piers Anthony novelization that took severe liberties with the story, the spin-off TV series that’s more of a Blade Runner continuation than anything having to do with Mars and Recall, and of course the 2012 remake that I thought was more fun than expected but turned out to be bereft of any of the charm of the world of the original. We’re looking at the NES game today, though, a game that is everything that’s great and terrible about the NES landscape of the early ’90s.
The game follows the trajectory of the movie, more or less. It does a better job than Piers Anthony’s version, at least. You start out at the point where Quaid’s already visited Recall and the world is beginning to turn on him. The first order of business? Go to a movie theater where, no lie, Total Recall is playing. Strike one!
The gameplay’s a side-scroller with severely dialed up artificial difficulty. I don’t know what it is about this specific dystopia but either the thugs on your tail have spent a lot of time training attack dogs or there’s a rabies situation that’s out of control. The graphics are really beautiful – prettier than they need to be.
Moving through the city, you return to your apartment only to fight your “wife” Lori. Richter’s on your tail as you head into the subway, triggering the iconic security checkpoint on your way there. The game really makes a meal of the subway level, with Quaid needing to climb up onto the top of subway cars to fight these thugs. And their dogs.
You go to the factory where you have to kill some (non-canon) hoboes and dodge some Mario-esque obstacles…to get a tip on how to get to Mars more quickly next time.
Once you’re on Mars the game avoids a chance to let you live through the epic “Two Weeks” sequence and you’re just running through the spaceport on a high alert security situation. Once through the spaceport you’re in Bennie’s cab (presumably) in a Combat-esque top-down mobile shooter. The change in gameplay is impressive and refreshing, and then you’re back to the punishing platformer once you hit Venusville.
Make it to the Last Resort and you’re instantly thrust into the area behind the Last Resort, the mutant catacombs where Bennie sells you out. There are also skeletons that come to life and boulders that drop down on you to artificially create more peril. The boss battle is Bennie, though, which is great.
With Bennie down you’re at the artifact – skipping any sort of threat to Venusville/Mars in general, any sort of taunt by Cohaagen, any elevation of the stakes whatsoever. You fight through armed guards (which existed in the movie) and jet-pack troopers (which did not) as the artifact goes haywire around you. You finally get to the control center where you fight a really, really, cheap Cohaagen that jumps like crazy, and save Mars which was apparently in trouble but you’d never know it from the game.
And that’s it. No justice for Richter. No Thumbelina. No Kuato. No Melina AT ALL. Instead you get a platformer that did more than it needed to yet didn’t manage to do enough. It’s not a good game. It’s more punishing than it deserves to be, the bosses are lazy, the music is repetitive, and several elements just don’t make any sense. But at the end of it all it’s a chance to spend more time in the world of Total Recall, and that’s all it was ever intended to do. That’s all that 12-year-old me wanted, and all that any kid who was a fan of the movie wanted. Quality was secondary to license for a lot of 90s-era NES titles and, while the acceptability of that fact would quickly change in the SNES and N64 eras, we weren’t quite there yet. For the time being, we (I) were still in that ’80s mode of anything related to the license being a valid way to spend time.
I’d hit the game on the use of “I’ll Be Back”, but Quaid actually says it in the movie so that’s more on Arnold for double-dipping. Still, unacceptable.
Here’s a playthrough.