I've been playing a lot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 this week and, naturally, it's been yet another opportunity to consider the sorry state of the licensed movie tie-in. There's something about the movie game in general and it's that, with one or two exceptions, they're usually steaming piles of rubbish. From the short development cycles to the lack of funds and resources, the fact that everyone knows it's a cynical ploy to get people to buy games thanks to a franchise's brand identity. You would have thought that after a couple of decades, publishers would have realised that we'd cottoned on to their money spinning plans, that we'd learned crossover tie-ins are often below-par and occasionally offensive. E.T. almost killed off the entire industry for good!
But the thing is, every so often there'd be a game that came along that bucked the trend and showed that if you made a moderately good game, you could sell bucketloads off of the back of a movie licence, one of the first instances being back in 1988 with a game called RoboCop.
If you don't know the story of RoboCop, or if you haven't seen the movie, you should probably rectify that immediately. For expediency's sake, however, here's a little mini synopsis. Police Officer Alex Murphy is killed on duty by a bunch of criminal hoodlums. Thankfully, this being the future and all, several large corporations have been looking to cybernetics and the future of law enforcement. One such corporation, OCP, succeeds in building a robot enforcer...only thing is, it has a few fairly major programming errors and is pretty much insane. However, another of OCP's employees, Bob Morton, basically gathers up Murphy's dead bits and creates the perfect cyborg: a winning synthesis between man and machine that can kick a whole lot of bottom. Of course, RoboCop is a big hit a first, but then Morton winds up dead, it turns out that big evil corporations are run by evil people, there's lots of backstabbing, loads of violence and ultimately RoboCop uncovers a tangled mess of corruption that involves both Detroit's criminal scene and his creators.
Developed in 1988 by Data East for the arcades, overseen by that grand behemoth of 80s and 90s licensed mediocrity Ocean Software, RoboCop was a side-scrolling action title that stuck to Paul Verhoeven's gloriously violent film really quite closely. One part Bad Dudes to four parts Contra, a slower and more sluggish Contra, the game kicked off with RoboCop exacting swift justice to the miscreants of Detroit with his fists. It was simple stuff, with the titular character occasionally busting out sampled speech from the film and instructing his adversaries to 'Drop your weapons!' or pithily commenting on some fisticuffs with a 'Your move, creep!'It wasn't too not too long, though, before the game let you use the Auto 9 handgun and you could start picking off punks with impunity from range. The presentation was actually fairly impressive by the standards of its contemporaries. The settings were all different, no cut-and-paste stuff here, and RoboCop himself was pretty well animated.
RoboCop did well in the arcades and was later ported by Ocean, over to a whole bunch of consoles with mixed reception. But it was the ZX Spectrum version which really took off. With stunning scores across the board from publications such as Crash, Sinclair User, C&VG, and The Games Machine, RoboCop was a huge hit for the system.This was due to a number of reasons. Firstly, most publications highlighted the opinion that the Spectrum version was actually vastly superior to those found in the arcades. The silky smooth scrolling and animation had a lot to do with that, so too the level of speech implemented in the game and the level of the visual detail. The game had a nice little tendency to shift into soft focus whenever Murphy died, the clarity returning when the action resumed, rather than RoboCop just falling out the sky.
It wasn't just the critics who liked it, either. Sinclair owners bought it in droves, with the game remaining at the top of the sales charts for the platform for over eighteen months. It was hardly a masterpiece, in fact in all honesty it got pretty damned repetitive. But movie tie-ins were expected to be only good for removing dog poo for a cycle path even then, and RoboCop proved that building a solid game and staying true to one's source material could pay dividends.
Ocean, of course, went on to make a vast number of really poor licensed titles, but they also knocked it out of the park with Batman later on. It was this, though, that really made their name. As for RoboCop himself, well he had a rough time of it too. The sequel was pretty bad, although the third game did pretty well, and introduced a number of 3D elements on 16-bit systems. He briefly popped up again in 2003 thanks to the criminally awful Titus Software (also responsible for Superman 64), but we don't like to talk about that these days.