While playing and remembering various movie tie-ins products, there was one question I had no answer to: how did a publisher decide which movie to license to a game developer? Despite still not having a clear answer, for the sake of this article, though, my guess would be: box office success with teen and pre-teen audience, the gamers of the 90s. It is still puzzling how an R-rated flick, with violence and sexual innuendos galore, that came and went without much fanfare, got milked to death in 1993/94 with games barely talked about nowadays.
Even more perplexing, many of the titles were set up as a continuation of the story, even going so far as writing a sequel to… uhm… the sequel. Indeed, it’s The Lawnmower Man, allegedly based on a Steven King’ short story (he later sued to have his name removed, because the movie had nothing to do with the novel), which for some reason got tie-in games for not one, but seven different platforms.
Strap in your VR helmet.
Movie licensed games were a peculiar breed in the 90s, a textbook case of caveat emptor. One thing was certain though: they were – for the most part – licensed out of movies suitable for teenagers. Still, if an actor loved by the kids was attached to the project, Stallone or Schwarzenegger come to mind, then games for R-rated movies like True Lies or Total Recall would undoubtlessly get made. The Lawnmower Man had no big names, its only draw for the young ‘uns were the (in)famous virtual reality effects that already looked dated by 1995.
The plot of the movie goes that simpleton Jobe becomes the subject of VR mind altering experiments by “The Shop”, the evil company where Dr. Angelo works. While the good doctor tries his best to save him, there’s no stopping the ever growing powers of Jobe. He ends becoming a virtual god out for blood cause he did not appreciate the evil firm’s project to turn him into a war machine, or he just went mad, I’m not entirely sure. This is musty 90s cheese which is better left in the cellar to age, even though, as a kid, I admit being fascinated.
What game design lessons can we learn from the wild licensing of The Lawnmower Man?
Game design lesson #1 – when the movie’s plot is not enough, make up your own sequel
Apparently SCi – formerly Sales Curve interactive – considered the plot not strong enough to be featured in a game. Yeah, figure that. Thusly, all different iterations of the tie-ins videogame either act as a sequel to the movie or add a “fourth act” to the original plot. Well, all except one but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The PC/MAC/Sega CD version is a rather shoddy Full Motion Video collection of quicktime events, vaguely inspired by the events taking place in the movie. It is about brain power, so let’s have IQ questions! They had monkeys in the movie, so let’s have an orangutan boss! They used some of the characters that died in the movie as the three bosses you’ll have to defeat in order to progress. No, they don’t bother explaining how, I guess Jobe can also resurrect the dead from his virtual realm.
For the most part, gameplay is a poor man’s Dragon’s Lair: watch a video and wait for a voice to tell you which button to press. But they had a property and they were gonna use it: as a reward for completing the levels, the player is treated to several of the movie sequences in poor grainy quality. Oh joy! Let’s be fair: Dragon’s Lair had the beautiful Don Bluth animated graphics, not that kind of pixelated pre-rendered 3D graphics which might have been amazing in 1993, but have rather aged poorly, especially seeing them now in full screen.
At the end of the movie, Jobe seemed to vanish into thin air (well, cyber air) only to reappear at the last minute, in the form of every phone in the world ringing. Beyond being a cybergod – the original title of the movie before one of the producers stumbled upon King’s novel – he was also the perfect telemarketer. The game starts right after the movie: God Jobe is out for revenge (again?) and decides to trap the three protagonists in his virtual realm, leaving good Doctor Angelo free to roam in his virtual realm so that he can prove himself worthy to rescue… umm *checks notes*… Carla and Peter.
Obviously there’s no final boss fight, the endgame is yet another quicktime event, then Dr Angelo goes back to reality and Cyberjobe just seems to repent. Then all of a sudden tentacles appear out of the ground and… To be continued. Epic conclusion to a tragic saga. One could make the case that this would be, at least, a game suitable for people with bad eyesight or limited ability, but the semi-incomprehensible IQ tests seem to nullify even that, while the grainy “virtual reality” graphics tend to transform everything into a pixelated mess.
I think it is fair to give it up for SCi: they managed to make a game that has aged worse than the movie.
Game design lesson #2 – if no one likes your game, make an identical sequel but just a tiny bit better
For some godforsaken reason, SCi managed to squeeze out a sequel to their Lawnmower Man videogame in six months, two years before the official direct-to-video sequel.
Cyberwar takes place right after the end of the first movie (even though the previous game ended on a cliffhanger, who even remembers that?). Yet again, Dr. Angelo goes to the virtual realm to defeat Jobe because he found out his old programs are still intact… or something.
Strong feelings of “haven’t I played this before?” wash over the player, since indeed, this is another collection of quicktime events. To be fair, the sequel is slightly more complex than the original, in that it is possible to, at least, choose the order in which to face the levels. Also, since SCi wasn’t bound by the movie anymore, there are some slightly more fun gameplay variations like “guess the door where the monster appears and shoot him”.
But don’t be fooled in thinking this is an action game, because the focus is still on timed events and IQ questions: press the button at the right time or lose a life. The graphics are still boring as sin and gameplay trudges along the bare minimum of what one could consider “an interactive movie”. But one thing isn’t clear to me in 2020: since they weren’t gonna mention the Lawnmower man in the title and the plot is nothing more than a one minute monologue at the start, with Brosnan being the only actor shown in a three seconds clip from the original movie, why bother licensing the movie at all?
Was the Lawnmower Man still such a hot property two years after its release, in 1994? Was the first game such a success to warrant a sequel? I’m guessing both questions should be answered with a resounding “no”.
For the Japan-only PsX conversion, they got smart, the cover makes no direct reference to the movie and I’m pretty sure, nothing in the game does either.
The only interesting thing about Cyberwar is the 90 seconds game over sequence, with Jobe sending Angelo to a medieval castle where an evil creature will have him for lunch. Yeah, the only sliver of light, everything else in the game is boring and predictable but hey, who are we to complain? I reckon kids in 1994 were more than happy to manoeuver the unforgettable Dr Angelo, the hero of the Lawnmower Man series, rendered as Silver Surfer suffering from chickenpox.
Game design lesson #3 – to confuse things further, develop two different versions of the same game
The two 16bit versions of The Lawnmower Man, at first glance, look to be exactly the same game, with the Sega Genesis’ looking pretty close to its Super Nintendo counterpart: VR sequences and all. Still, it was without the aid of the SuperFX chip, so one might go so far as to call it “impressive”. Both are action games where the player chooses to play as our dear Dr. Angelo or Carla (another very memorable character of the franchise), that alternate classic 2D platforming shooting sequences with first person VR 3D sequences. One might – reasonably – expect the games to work as a sequel to the movie but, alas, it’s not that simple.
The Sega Genesis version is cut short, for some reason, after Dr Angelo’s arrival at “The Shop”, the main villains’ HQ, making it the ONLY Lawnmower Man licensed game that seems to strictly follow the events of the movie. The Genesis version alternates the same levels over and over, clubbering the player to death with VR sequences and 2D levels in “the Shop”, then it is up to fight against Jobe and then, finally, the game ends. I could see the point in removing complicated graphical effects, but entire levels?
The SNES version, then, should be deemed as the “extended cut”: having different 2D action levels and a racing sequence where, on a motorbike, the player’s only objective is getting to the end of the level. There’s also a second boss fight, with the “Doomplayer”, a sort of main villain (wasn’t it Jobe?), which I didn’t bother checking if it was even referenced in the original movie. Basically, the game’s plot goes that, even after Angelo defeats Jobe, the Shop still goes ahead with their plans of creating a ubermensch for war purposes. Thus the head honcho of the company will have to be defeated in order to end this once and for all. There surely is no cliffhanger here.
To be fair, The Lawnmower Man – either on Sega and Nintendo – is not a bad videogame, especially as far as tie-ins products went in the early 90s: it looks decent and plays okay, even though the Genesis version gets horrendously repetitive after a while, but that is mainly because of someone deciding level design was clearly overrated The VR sections, while not really fun to play, at least showcase some interesting 3D first person graphics for a 16bit console. Some of the levels do actually look impressive, like “cyber office” and “cyber Egypt”, unfortunately these also start to “cyber blur” into one another after a while.
As a small trivia for lovers of nostalgia like yours truly, both 16bit versions were apparently designed by Simon Pick, a name that will definitely ring a bell for old Commodore 64 fans, since he was responsible for peculiar titles like Mad Nurse and Slimey’s Mine.
(bonus) Game design lesson #4 – do not underestimate the little people
The Gameboy version is perhaps the most interesting title out of them all. It aims pretty high, wanting to be a faithful conversion of the SNES version and, surprisingly, most levels did make the cut. It is another mixture of action platformer with VR levels sliced in between. While the Genesis version was cut short with the ending being placed right after Jobe’s defeat, the Gameboy wasn’t: definitely a case of “bits” not making much difference here.
Unfortunately, instead of redrawing the graphics, they decided to compress them for the small screen, thus it is rather difficult to make out what the player is supposed to be collecting or shooting at. But it’s not all bad, at least the VR levels showcase some decent 3D for the portable console. There is also a Space Harrier-like sequence where Dr Angelo shoots at the security robots of the Shop, coming at the player in waves.
The driving sequence also made the cut even if, for some reason, Dr Angelo is now driving a car instead of a motorbike. Perhaps the choice was made for visibility purposes on a small screen? They could have advertised it as “an exclusive level for the portable console”, for sure. As with the SNES version, Dr. Angelo is tasked with defeating Jobe first and then, “five years after the events that led Jobe to become the VR king”, the final bout against The Doomplayer.
Does it come as a surprise to anyone that the official movie sequel to the Lawnmower man – that basically nobody saw – which came out four years after the first one, doesn’t follow the events of any of the games? Guess not.
At the end of the all this cyber madness, how about drawing some cyber conclusions?
If the 80s were a complicated time for home computer owners with the wild market of Arcade conversions, a topic which will definitely need its own set of articles, the 90s were perplexing for licensed games. Publishers were more than happy to rely on poorly developed titles since, as long as the license was strong enough, return on investment was pretty safe. With the Lawnmower Man, though, watching the movie and then delving into the videogames is a weird experience. While not all of them are terrible, with the Gameboy one being almost impressive, I was extremely baffled by the liberty that SCi took with the, admittedly, limited material of the movie and how far they took the franchise while… well, nobody really cared.
They could have rewritten the plot as a VR lovestory between Angelo and Jobe and nobody would have cared anyway, which is probably the best note I can end on.
Excuse me, for now I will be looking for a backdoor to live in where I can be happy forever and ever.