SSPA – The Terminator

I don’t really know how I feel about the works of director James Cameron. I like a good number of his films, but some of this other movies just don’t do it for me. I felt that the direction taken by Rambo: First Blood Part II didn’t really do the original any justice, but that’s less on Cameron’s directing and more on Stallone’s writing. As a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, and its claustrophobic horror setting, I dislike Cameron’s over the top action take on the series with the fan-favorite sequel, Aliens. The Abyss is interesting and well shot, albeit rather preachy at the end. True Lies was fun, but Titanic was pretty dull, and Avatar may have been impressive in IMAX 3D, but standing on its own as a story, it’s pretty weak.

The man’s career has had ups and downs like any writer director. In the end, I think that as mixed a bag as his filmography is, he truly does have a talent for cinematography and composition, and nowhere does his skill for direction shine brighter than his classic sci-fi action films The Terminator, and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. These movies show off Cameron’s gifts for directing, shot composition, and design, while being entertaining stories to boot. 

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The first movie kept a steady stream of suspense and horror with the deadly Terminator passing through modern society, leaving a bloody trail as it hunts down an unwitting and defenseless young woman, Sarah Connor. Her only hope is Kyle Reese, a man hounded by the police who knows what the Terminator is capable of, but no one believes him. It’s a fantastic thriller with superb acting, and a shining example of Cameron’s skills as director. The film was a huge hit and seven years later it received arguably one of the best sequels ever made, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The second film continued the story of Sarah Connor with her son John, as a new threat faces the future of mankind. 

With the movie being such a success and so influential to the progress of sci-fi and action cinema, one would think that a tie in video game would be in order. Well, at the time of the film’s release in 1984, that prospect was shaky at best. Nintendo wasn’t big on the gaming scene in the US yet, and the video game crash of 1982 made many a developer gun-shy about big budget video games no matter how popular the licence. By the time things had calmed down for the gaming market, The Terminator was still a well loved film, but a big new game didn’t really seem right for most developers. That changed in 1990 when a still young Bethesda produced the first official Terminator video game.

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What Bethesda produced was an interesting early 3D first person shooting game that let you take on the heroic role of Kyle Reese as you defend Sarah Connor, or the more villainous role of the Terminator hunting down our heroes. Although the game saw success at the time, it’s quite a chore to go back to. The menu interfaces are cumbersome to navigate, and the overall design is clunky. 

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Although PC gamers got a taste of the franchise, home console players were left in the dark for a while. One attempt at an NES adaptation got close. The Sunsoft title Journey To Silius began life as a planned Terminator game in 1989. Sadly though, the licence fell through and the developers had to change gears quite suddenly. They still produced an excellent side-scrolling shooter, and the influence of the original Terminator film is very clear in a number of the level and boss designs.

Sadly, it wasn’t until the release of Terminator 2 that interest in games based on the movies really hit hard. Unfortunately, Terminator fans shouldn’t have wished for the games on a monkey’s paw. Similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Terminator came to many different systems from the NES to the Game Gear, and the quality was low across the board. However, there was one title that managed to pull through in the eyes of the public. The question is, is it just good in comparison to the much worse versions, or is the game a genuine lost treasure?

Title

Story:

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In 1997, Cyberdyne Systems launched their new global defense system, SkyNet. Soon after, the system became self aware and Cyberdyne attempted to shut it down. Unfortunately, they were not quick enough, and to defend itself, SkyNet launched a nuclear attack that triggered an all out atomic holocaust. From the rubble, Skynet built a new race of machines to rule with one directive, the total extermination of the human race. Straggling survivors were rounded up in death camps and forced to work in factories to build more machines. All hope seemed lost, until one man rose against the menace of SkyNet, John Connor. Traveling across the destroyed United States, John set about freeing groups of human survivors. He organized a resistance to take down the machines. In 2029, the final assault on SkyNet was set in motion, and humanity reclaimed their planet.

But SkyNet had one last desperate move. Using experimental time traveling technology, it sent one of their infiltration units, back in time to 1984 with the mission to kill the mother of the resistance leader, Sarah Connor. This machine is a terminator; CyberDyne systems model T-800 101, a metallic endoskeleton under living tissue. Looking like a man, it is capable of infiltrating past society and will hunt its target no matter the cost. John must send someone back in time to protect Sarah. A young Sargent, Kyle Reese, volunteers for the mission and is sent back in time to defeat the supposedly unstoppable killing machine.

Story-wise, the game follows the movie from a different perspective. In the film we don’t really know what’s going on when we start. We see the Terminator arrive in 1984 and promptly murder some street punks, while Kyle appears some distance away and avoids the cops. Form then we follow Sarah as the other two close in on her. The game is entirely from Kyle’s perspective. We start in 2029 during the assault on SkyNet, and about half way through the game we are transported to the past. It’s an interesting spin on the story since the film only alludes to the events in the future and shows some flashbacks, and it serves the game quite nicely. The only really stumbling block is the ending and here we get into some trouble with time travel.

-spoilers start-

Over the course of the movie, Kyle and Sarah fall in love and it becomes apparent that Kyle is in fact, John Connor’s father. Unfortunately, after a passionate night together, their love is torn asunder by the Terminator, as a dangerous chase corners Kyle and Sarah in a factory. In a desperate attempt to save Sarah, Kyle confronts the machine, and after a severe beating he manages to light a pipe bomb and stick it in the terminator’s chassis. The explosion and other injuries kill Kyle, and and wounded Sarah just barely manages to destroy the still moving terminator in a hydraulic press. After recovering, Sarah is shown to be pregnant with John as she prepares to train her son for the fight ahead.

The Terminator series canon is pretty confusing, but the time loop established in the first film on its own works out. 

-John Connor takes down SkyNet in 2029,

-SkyNet retaliates by sending the Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. 

-John sends Kyle Reese back to protect Sarah. 

-Kyle fathers John, convinces Sarah to train for the war, and destroys the terminator.

-Kyle dies in the battle

The paradox of time travel is resolved by the deaths of Kyle and the terminator. There is no robot roaming around 1984, and Kyle is incapable of stopping CyberDyne from creating SkyNet. Time will proceed in such a way as to result in SkyNet being defeated and starting the loop over.

Although the Sega Genesis and Game Gear Terminator games end with Kyle sacrificing himself to kill the terminator, no other versions so, including this one. If Kyle does not die, theoretically events could still play out alright as long as Kyle doesn’t try to stop CyberDyne. If he did and SkyNet never existed, then Kyle would never have been sent back in time, and if he never came back, then how did he stop SkyNet from existing? This paradox is the bane of the series. For as good a film as the first sequel is, all the new time travel stuff added in that film and the later sequels just make this confusing set of paradoxes that leave the series nowhere to go. 

Anyway, changing Kyle’s fate in the game isn’t a major sticking point, but it’s fun to do a little navel gazing with how it would change the series.

-spoilers end-

Bottom line: It’s a great story and although there are some potential story quirks, this was based on the first movie, so any consequences down the line with the sequels don’t really matter.

Gameplay:

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The Terminator is a 2D platform shooter. You take control of Kyle Reese as he fights through the battlefield around Skynet for the final push to overthrow the machines. The goal in each level is to get to the end in one piece and take out a boss here and there. As far as control is concerned, it’s pretty good. Kyle moves quickly and can leap a good distance to avoid enemy fire and clear gaps. He can also crouch below enemy fire, shoot while climbing ladders, and stock up grenades for heavier threats. The shooting control is not bad, but it doesn’t reach the ease of play and freedom of movement that a game like Contra reaches. In Contra it’s easy to fire in eight directions, and when you crouch you go prone, flat against the floor, to avoid all fire. In the terminator, Kyle mainly shoots in one direction, though you can look up and diagonally. Unfortunately you cannot shoot down while jumping, and when you go up stairs, you always shoot diagonally. It’s a little difficult to get used to, but once you’ve got the hang of things it really isn’t that bad.

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Kyle’s gun starts out pretty pathetic. It fires slowly, and you’re almost guaranteed to take a hit when facing off against a robot. Fortunately, you can upgrade your rifle to become automatic and then increase in power. These upgrades are hidden in the levels, but once you’ve found them you won’t lose them, until you hit the midpoint of the game that is. Once Kyle is transported back to 1984, he loses his weapons and you have to start from scratch again.This isn’t too much of a hassle though, as you’ll have become pretty adept at the mechanics of the game by this point and the upgrades in the past aren’t terribly difficult to find.

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The action in the game is pretty fast paced. If you wind up in the path of a robot’s attack, you could see yourself dying in no time at all. Fortunately, every level has checkpoints strewn throughout, and when you die, you restart at the last checkpoint almost instantly. Health packs, grenades, and temporary shields are hidden everywhere and when you’re in a pinch, you’ll usually be able to find some relief. All in all, the game has good control with some imperfection, but not enough to ruin the experience.

Presentation:

Mt. Skull

Whoa Nelly! The presentation is strong with this one. Every level has excellent background and foreground designs that fit the tone of the game perfectly, while also being fully recognizable as scenes from the movie. From the battleground in 2029 (pile of skulls and all), to the streets of LA, Tech Noir, the police station, and automated factory, the colorful and detailed levels bring to mind the scenes from the movie they depict. On that note, this is another Sega CD game that opts for compressed FMV clips of the source material. These clips look pretty bad, and the colors are so washed out that at times you can’t tell what your looking at. However, the clips do fit into the game’s levels in a way that makes you feel like you’re playing the movie. 

At the end of the second stage you destroy an HK tank (the one with the robotic torso from the movie). Once you kill it you beat the level and the clip they use is of Kyle Reese destroying that very robot in the film as he heads off to the Skynet base. A similar scene is when you go through the time machine, the game plays the scene when Kyle arrives in 1984, steals a shotgun, and heads off into the night, with the game picking up right at that point. You’d think this would be pretty straight forward stuff; your game is based on a movie, use clips from the movie to tell the story, but I’ve found that to be the exception to the rule with this system and it’s really neat to see these clips from such a fantastic movie, used properly in the game.

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The character animation is also very nice. Kyle’s movements are smooth and look better than most games of this era.There are quite a few enemy sprites, however they don’t have quite as much detail as Kyle. Also, while you won’t find anything odd about fighting a bunch of the same robots in the future, it’s pretty odd to fight waves of the same two punks in the past.

Music this time was provided by Tommy Tallarico. He’s been a part of the industry for a long time and worked on many games over the last thirty years. He’s probably most famous for the live symphony concert Video Games Live. For this game, the soundtrack he made is an all out extreme rock smash. Every stage has an awesome track that gets you super pumped to slag the forces of evil. I couldn’t find a low point in the whole game. It puts me in mind of Spencer Nilsen’s Batman Returns score, but with an excellent game to back it up.

It’s also interesting to note that of all the video games based on The Terminator, this version is the only one to have Brad Fiedel’s original theme song from the movie. The only other version to get close would be the DOS game, but even that was a remix. The Sega CD version got the real deal.

Conclusion

The Terminator is yet another example of how the Sega CD could have been great. It is a solid run and gun platformer that does it’s source material justice. The graphics are good, the music is great, and it’s easy to pick up and play. It’s still not immune to the trends of the time, with the compressed FMV scenes, but there are brief and serve the narrative. It’s a shame the film’s only good game was on such a niche system, but sometimes you have to dig through the dirt to find gold. 

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