Movie licensed games can be handled in many different ways. Sometimes they can be really imaginative experiences that put the player into the midst of the film’s action. SunSoft’s adaptation of Batman (1989) on the NES is a good example of this, a fantastic action platformer set right at the climax of the film to let you feel the thrill of being a superhero. Other times they can be companion pieces to the film that expand on the characters and plot. Atari’s Enter the Matrix (2003) was an ambitious project that resolved key plot points of the second Matrix film to make the game a cannon part of the larger franchise. One of the stranger possibilities is when a developer doesn’t know what to do with a game and makes multiple versions across many platforms that retell the events of the film. Ocean Software developed four different video game adaptations of Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1991) across the NES, Gameboy, and several home computers, all of which offer slightly different retellings of the movie. Today’s game is an example of a company taking a different and rather lazy approach to a movie license.
Accolade was a game company from the mid-eighties till the mid-nineties. They mainly focused on games produced for home computers like the Commodore 64, and Amiga. Probably what they are most well known for was their attempt at a mascot character, Bubsy the Bobcat. In 1992, Accolade acquired the licensing rights to the Jean Claude Van Damme film Universal Soldier. The movie was okay. It was a decent action film about a soldier who is revived from death as a brain dead super soldier. While it was a decent flick, there was certainly some potential in the premise for an action game. However, Accolade decided to take a cheaper route. They also happened to be in possession of the rights to a popular series of computer games known as Turrican, and rather than expend the time and money to produce an original game, Accolade merely altered some of the assets of Turrican II and released it on the Sega Genesis as Universal Soldier.
Luc Deveraux is an American soldier stationed in Vietnam. After a long and stressful tour, the leader of Deveraux’s squad, Sargent Andrew Scott, loses his mind and butchers his men as well as a near by village. Before Scott can kill more innocent civilians, Deveraux fights and ultimately kills him, becoming fatally wounded in the process. The US military covers up the embarrassing episode and recovers the bodies of the American soldiers. They are then used for an experimental process to revive them as the perfect controllable killing machines. Twenty years later, they are activated, but Deveraux’s mind breaks through his conditioning. Now he is on the run from the Army brass who do not want his existence revealed, as well as a revived Sargent Scott out for revenge.
Although this is the plot of the film, it does not make any sense in game. As I said before, this game is in reality Turrican II, a game about a cyborg soldier fighting an alien empire across the cosmos. So, instead of Deveraux taking on the other Universal Soldiers, Police, or Vietcong, like in the film, he is beset by flying robots, dragons, and other alien life. The haphazard manner at which the game has been ported means that there are no cut scenes like in the original game, and makes no attempt to explain what is happening in the levels. A couple of stages have been changed to resemble scene from the film, like the Vietnam jungle at the start and a level designed around the Motel scene from the film.
The Turrican games are action platformers that focus on exploring large, maze like levels until finding the exit or a boss. The player has a gun that can be upgraded by finding new weapons in flying pods a la Contra. These weapons offer some variety and finding multiple icons of the same weapon make them stronger. You can also take a page from Samus Aran’s book and curl into a ball to attack enemies and drop bombs, as well as a few other special weapons.
Something that takes a little getting used to is the shooting control. The game was originally designed for home computers like the Commodore 64. The Commodore keyboard did not have directional buttons, it had two keys that toggle between up and down, and left and right. To accommodate the lack of upward and downward aiming, you are also given a machine gun that can shoot in a circle around the player, however you must stand still while using it. The gun’s range can be extended with upgrade icons like the normal weapons. It’s an interesting way to work around the limited control of a computer, but on the Genesis it is a shame they didn’t expand your options.
Although the game controls well on the Genesis, the size of the levels is problematic. It is very easy to get lost in some of the larger levels. Enemies permanently disappear after being defeated, which can be helpful in finding your way, but you can end up spending a lot of time searching for the way onwards. You also do not have any recovery time from a hit, meaning that you can be drained of almost all of your health just by touching an enemy too long.
Presentation: Turrican II on the left, Universal Soldier on the right
Turrican II is a colorful game. All the levels are unique and sprawling with tons of variety in the enemies. Graphically, it’s rather impressive, with distinct levels, and some rather nice animation of the player character when moving or using the machine gun. The only real disappointments in the graphics are the changes made for the sake of the license. Several levels and boss fights have been removed for the console port, but the more upsetting change is the loss of the creative boss designs for more mundane enemies. For example, in the water processing plant level, the boss in Turrican II is a towering robotic wall that you have to take out by landing hits at the right time. In Universal Soldier, you just fight a series of helicopters before moving on. I understand that they were trying to make the bosses more in line with things that might have been in the film, but the amount of other worldly scenery and enemies make that a losing battle.
Probably the most baffling change was the replacing of several unique bosses with fights against a gigantic Andrew Scott. These moments in the original Turrican two were occupied by giant robot samurai and dragons. Now you merely fight a giant bouncing Dolph Lundgren at various times. This includes the final boss who has been changed from a huge robot, to a huge Scott. It’s a little disappointing.
The music is very poor. The Sega Genesis can sound good, but the ported music is just ear splitting. It isn’t as varied or as smooth as the original Commodore/Amiga soundtrack and there are fewer voice clips in game.
With the way this license was handled, it would be unfair to judge Universal Soldier as an adaptation of the film. It is more reasonable to consider it as a port of Turrican II. With that in mind, I’m afraid it falls short of its potential. The changes only serve to cheapen what could have been a more solid console release. Accolade had released the first Turrican on the Genesis before releasing this, and with how much of this game is unchanged from the sequel, it appears that the decision to make the cosmetic alterations occurred late in development. Later Turrican games would be released unaltered or tailored for consoles, but this one was a let down. Ultimately they wanted to kill two birds with one stone, and in a way, that’s exactly what they did, let down two prospective franchises for the price of one.