While playing and remembering various movie tie-ins products, there was one question I found myself unable to answer: how did a publisher decide which movie to license to a game developer (or viceversa)? 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, hence, the gamers of the 90s. It is still puzzling how an R-rated flick like The Lawnmower Man, 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. The movie, for some reason got tie-in games not for one, but seven different platforms: from Sega Genesis to PC and even Game Boy. So, for the sake of this article, but not my sanity, I have played them all. Time to strap in my 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. But, surely enough, there were exceptions, if an actor loved by the kids was attached to a project, Stallone or Schwarzenegger come to mind, then games for R-rated movies like True Lies or Total Recall would get made despite the original movie not being suitable for kids and teenagers. The Lawnmower Man? Well, it had no big action stars attached, 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 stark raving mad, I’m not entirely sure. Really, just a poor excuse to feature Virtual Reality and CG in a movie, both of which were all the rage at the time. Despite the movie being musty 90s cheese, better left in the cellar to age waiting for a moment when it can be appreciated, as a kid, I remember being fascinated.
What game design lessons is it possible to learn from the wild licensing of The Lawnmower Man?
Lesson #1 - When The Movie's Plot Is Not Enough, Make Up Your Own
Apparently SCi – formerly Sales Curve interactive – considered the plot of the movie not suitable, or strong enough, to be featured in a game. Yeah, figure that. Thusly, all different iterations of the tie-in games 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.
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 appeared to also be the perfect telemarketer. The PC/Mac/Sega CD game starts right after the end of the movie: God Jobe is out for revenge (again?) and decides to trap the three protagonists in his virtual realm. Still, he decides to leave 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.
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 as subjects of experiments, so let’s have an orangutan boss. It is easy to see where they got most of their ideas from. SCi even used some of the characters that died in the movie as the three bosses that Dr. Angelo will have to defeat in order to progress. No, they don’t bother explaining how and why they came back. I guess Jobe can also resurrect the dead in his virtual realm.
For the most part, the 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 licensed 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 at least had the beautiful Don Bluth animated graphics, not this kind of pixelated pre-rendered 3D graphics which might have been amazing in 1993, but have aged poorly, especially seeing them now in full screen.
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… A great “To be continued” appears, indeed, an 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 develop a game that has aged worse than the movie.
Lesson #2 - If A Game Suceeds, Make Right Away An Identical Sequel
For some godforsaken reason, SCi managed to squeeze out a sequel to their Lawnmower Man videogame in six months, exclusively on PC. This was a full two years before the official movie sequel, that would be released direct-to-video only.
Cyberwar takes place right after the end of the first movie, despite the previous game ending on a cliffhanger. My guess is that not even SCi bothered to remember that, despite being only a few months before. 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, Cyberwar 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 into 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 could be considered “an interactive movie”. But one thing isn’t clear to me in the year of our Cybergod 2020. Since they weren’t gonna mention The Lawnmower Man movie even 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, why even bother with the license at all?
Was the Lawnmower Man still such a hot property two years after its release, in 1994? If it was, I would guess it would be referenced much more. Was the first game such a success to warrant a sequel? Apparently, SCi had developed a more graphically advanced version of the original game, using the full 256 color power of the PC, but had decided to shelve it and, instead, worked on an an entirely new sequel. Why did they think that the license would still be relevant six months after, I have no clue.
For the Japan-only available conversion for the Sony Playstation, they got smart, with the cover making no direct reference to the movie and, I’m pretty sure, nothing in the game does either.
The two games were designed by Clement Chambers and Fergus McNeill, two names that will be familiar with those that love obscure trash since they were also behind the infamous The Town with No Name. Despite the quality of their early works, in Europe they were among the few developers who had developed multimedia products on CDs, so it made sense for them to design both games. Alongside the two designers, the one 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 be able to once again wear the shoes of that unforgettable hero of the Lawnmower Man “series” Dr Angelo, rendered as Silver Surfer suffering from chickenpox.
Lesson #3 - To Confuse Players, Develop Two Different Versions Of The Same Console Game
The two different 16bit versions of The Lawnmower Man, at first glance, look to be exactly the same game. Indeed, the Sega Genesis’ version even looks pretty close to its Super Nintendo counterpart, VR sequences and all. Considering it was developed without the aid of the SuperFX chip, one might even go so far as to call it “graphically 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 levels 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. Again.
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 closely replicates the events of the movie. Also, the Genesis version seems to alternate the same levels over and over, clubbering the player to death with VR sequences and 2D levels in “the Shop”, with no variations whatsoever. Then it is time to fight against Jobe and, finally, the game ends. I could see the point in removing complicated graphical effects, but entire levels that would break up the monotony?
The SNES version, then, should be considered as the “extended cut”: having different 2D action stages and a racing sequence where, on a motorbike, the player’s only objective is getting to the end of the level. The Super Nintendo version features a second boss fight after Jobe, with the “Doomplayer”, a sort of main villain (I guess?), which I didn’t bother checking if it was ever referenced in the original movie. Basically, the game’s plot explains 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 their attempts at creating a Cybergod, once and for all. There surely is no cliffhanger here.
To be fair, The Lawnmower Man – either on the Sega and Nintendo 16bits – is not a terrible videogame, especially as far as tie-ins products went in the early 90s: it looks decent and plays okay. Sure, the Genesis version gets horrendously repetitive after a while, but that is mainly because of someone deciding variety in levels was clearly an overrated feature. The VR sections, while not really fun to play, at least showcase some interesting 3D first person graphics for a 16 bit console. Some of the levels actually do 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 gaming history, 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.
Lesson #4 - Little Console Might Suprise You
The Gameboy version is perhaps the most interesting title out of the whole bunch of Lawnmower Man licensed multimedia experiences. It definitely was an ambitious title, trying to be a faithful conversion of the SNES version. Surprisingly, most levels did seem to make the cut. It is another mixture of action platforming sequences 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.
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 it was swapped 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 Super Nintendo version, Dr. Angelo is tasked with defeating Jobe first and then, “five years after the events that led Jobe to become the VR king” (which sounds like a nostalgic Twitch streamer), the final bout against The Doomplayer.
Does it come as a surprise to anyone that the official movie sequel to the Lawnmower man – a rather shoddy sequel that nobody saw – which came out four years after its predecessor, doesn’t follow the events of any of the games? Guess not.
At the end of the all this cyber madness, let us draw 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 baffled by the liberty that SCi took with the, admittedly, limited story of the movie and how far they took the franchise while… well, nobody really seemed to care. 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, now I will be looking for a backdoor to live in where I can be happy forever and ever.
Thank you for reading.
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A few thoughts to complete this article :
– In Europe, the movie licensing trend peaked on home computers at the same time than the arcade conversions (the late 80’s, aka the “license war”), and it mostly came from the same British publishers. It vanished around 1993 with the supremacy of the IBM PC, Jurassic Park and The Lawnmower Man are the last species of this trend. However, it still went well on consoles.
– There was a big hype around this movie at the time, a kind of Tron of the ’90s. In 1992, there were already news about its making, and in 1993 mgazines run several articles about the movie and VR in general. I guess SCI thought it would a good subject for a CD-ROM game, when it was a fascinating technological innovation. Too bad it turned out to be a collection of uninspired mini-games, like many movie conversions (remember Back to the Future 2/3 ?).
– The story about the sequel was that SCI wanted to make two versions of the first game, one in 32 colous for single-speed CD-ROM drives, and one in 256 colours for 2x drives. They sold the 32 colour version with a note to order the upgraded version, but as faster models of CD-ROM drives appeared quickly, they decided to scrap the 256 colour version to make a whole new sequel. This decision was criticized in the European press.
– The two games can be compared to Rise of the Robots 1&2, with a first game trying to impress with modelized graphics yet being a big turkey, and a sequel trying to do things better but without the novelty factor.
– The computer game was designed/directed by Clement Chambers and Fergus McNeill, who had worked previously on Psycho Killer and Town With No Name. They could be considered as European pioneers of CD-ROM games, but they definitely didn’t know how to use efficiently the capacities of the CD-ROM to design a good game.
Thanks a lot for the information, these are exactly the kind of comments I welcome here. I will see to try and update a bit the article as soon as I have time. I had no idea the guys behind the awful Town with no Name were responsible for this…!
I have the dubious honour of being one of the team that worked on these CD ROM games. It was a strange time indeed. The technology being used was brand new and the mini games were created on the fly to test out what was possible. There wasn’t a lot of time for thorough design so really it was just a case of whatever you made first went it. The team grew for Cyberwar, but there was a fair bit of re-use of assets. The bottom line is, although the games were bad, they made money because so many people were desperate for content to show off their new CD ROMS.
Hey Glenn, thank you for your comment, very interesting. Since I have just been talking with Clem Chambers, I’ve sent you an e-mail to talk a bit about your experience with the games. Thank you!