In the classic science-fiction film Back to the Future: Part II (Zemeckis, 1989), series protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels from 1985 to the hyper-realistic future of 2015. October 21, 2015, to be specific which, despite the numerous iconic dates and times visited in the Back to the Future trilogy (ibid, 1985 to 1990), gains additional significance as screenwriter Bob Gale chose this date as the most absurd prediction for when the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series and for being named as “Back to the Future Day”, a day to both celebrate all things Back to the Future and all things science.
Released: 13 October 2015
Originally Released: 29 September 2011
Developer: Telltale Games
Also Available For: Mobile, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360
The Back to the Future trilogy is one of the most beloved, iconic, successful, and influential film trilogies, and science-fiction movies, of all time. Sitting in a rare category where each film is as good, if not better, than the last, the trilogy made over $960 million in worldwide gross and has seen numerous adaptations in comic books, cartoons, and other media. For years, talk and rumours of a sequel and reboot have, thankfully, been shot down by both co-writer Bob Gale and co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis; despite this, a pretty decent animated series and a series of comic books could have been seen as the official continuation of the films until Telltale Games secured the license to create videogames based on some of Universal Pictures’ most successful film franchises.
With Gale brought onboard as a story consultant and reworking several of Zemeckis’ original concepts for Part II, the game has been stated to being the closest to a fourth film fans can expect but also taking place in an alternative timeline in the Back to the Future multiverse. With Christopher Lloyd returning to voice his iconic character Doctor Emmet “Doc” Brown and even Michael J. Fox popping up in a cameo appearance, Back to the Future: The Game featured music ripped straight from the films and an extremely faithful recreation of the trilogy’s distinct visual aesthetic despite its cartoonish graphical style. The game was originally released in five individual, downloadable episodes before being collected in a physical edition and, a little later, re-released for the next generation of consoles with Thomas F. Wilson returning to lend his voice to this updated release. Though the game was eventually delisted after the closure of Telltale Games, it received generally positive reviews upon release and, despite some reservations about certain aspects and mechanics of the game, it was Telltale’s most successful title prior to the release of The Walking Dead: The Game (Telltale Games, 2012).
Six months after the events of Back to the Future: Part III (Zemeckis, 1990), Doc Brown has gone missing and is presumed dead. However, when his DeLorean time machine randomly reappears in 1986, Marty McFly travels back to 1931 to find his old friend and bring him home only to run into Doc’s younger self, his own father as a youth, and inadvertently create a dystopian alternative timeline that the two must work together to repair to finally return back…to the future.
Back to the Future: The Game places you firmly in the role of Marty McFly, the young protégé of crackpot scientist “Doc” Emmet Brown. As Marty, you’ll explore various locations and time periods in the fictional town of Hill Valley, interacting with both new and familiar Back to the Future characters, solving rudimentary puzzles, and obtaining and using items to progress the plot further.
Telltale Games were famous for creating digital adventures games, essentially interactive movies, rather than traditional action-orientated videogames. My experience with their titles has, so far, been limited to playing free episodes of some of their other titles and Back to the Future: The Game is the first time I’ve sat down and played one of their games from start to finish. Interestingly, Back to the Future: The Game plays very differently from the Telltale Titles I’ve played before; unlike titles like Batman: The Telltale Series (Telltale Games, 2016), Back to the Future features much more emphasis on exploration and player movement over quick-time events or altering the story through a variety of responses.
Sadly, though, the game’s controls are quite stiff and clunky; Marty plods around like wading through thick sludge and, while you can hold B to “run”, you’ll never move much faster than a sluggish pace. Considering the game is a glorified point-and-click adventure rather than an action-packed game, this isn’t a massive issue except that the game’s dodgy camera and some awkward map layouts can make it more of a chore to control Marty than it needs to be and I found myself getting unnecessarily turned around or confused thanks to the camera’s positioning or stuck on parts of the environment.
As the game was originally released in five separate chapters, this collected edition is similarly divided in such a way; from the main menu, you can select any chapter at any time and begin a new game as you wish but you’ll need to make liberal use of the game’s save function if you want to earn all of the game’s Achievements with a minimum of fuss as there’s no way to jump to different parts of each chapter. This also affects the game’s replayability as there’s no way of skipping cutscenes or quickly advancing through story elements, which can make subsequent playthroughs far more tedious than they need to be and make gameplay frustrating when you’ve made a mistake and have to sit through entire cutscenes or lines of dialogue with no way of skipping them.
As far as I can tell, unlike other Telltale Games, there’s no way to really “lose” when playing Back to the Future: The Game; even if you fail to figure out some puzzles or events, you won’t get a traditional game over screen and can simply continue until you get the right sequence or choose the right dialogue option. It can be amusing to select the wrong option and see how characters react or to try and use various items on other characters or parts of the map as Marty, or other characters, will generally have something funny to say or will chew you out for being stupid.
The bulk of Back to the Future: The Game’s “action” is made up of character interactions and interacting with the various detailed environments you find yourself in. You can talk to and interact with pretty much everything, learning more about these familiar and new characters and the various timelines Marty ends up in, which can be fun and interesting. Generally, you’ll pick up subtle hints and tips by talking to certain characters but you can also enable or disable in-game hints and mission objects to give you a vague idea of where you need to go and what you need to do. Because of this, it can sometimes be a little difficult to figure out exactly what it is you need to do; you can take your time and explore multiple options at your leisure but, if you’re chasing Achievements, you might want to use a guide as there are a lot of missable Achievements in this game and it can be tiresome having to play through the majority of one of the game’s five chapters just to get to the part you need.
Compounding the issue is that the game’s interface is quite clunky at times; you can access your inventory at any time with X. From here, you can examine items and place them into your hands to use on other characters or your environment but, oddly, items will automatically remove themselves from your hands after a few seconds, which gets very annoying as you might find an item you need to use has randomly vanished from your hands right as you need to use it. Similarly, it can be difficult to interact with characters and other elements thanks to the game’s clunky “targeting” system; as you wander around, points of interest will be automatically highlight so you can interact with them but your point of interest might suddenly switch as you get closer, meaning you talk to the wrong person at the wrong time. By holding down the R trigger, you can see every element in the immediate area highlighted and use the right analogue stick to select the one you want but I found this to be equally awkward and clunky and that it was generally easier to just position myself near where I needed to be and edge myself closer to my intended target.
Even without these issues, some of the game’s puzzles can be needlessly frustrating; most are a simple case of talking to the right people to learn what you need or where to go but others involve pressing panic switches at the right time, selecting items around your environment to distract other characters, or finding certain items to convince a character to help you. While most of them boil down to a simple case of trail and error, and some are quite fun (like getting into a play-off against Marty’s rival and recreating his iconic and elaborate guitar performance from the first film), others are extremely complex or annoying. In particular, you’ll be required to listen out for certain code words from Doc’s younger self to correctly make rocket fuel (which must be done flawlessly to earn an Achievement), tediously manipulate your environment to create an incriminating Mind Map, or rescue your younger father with as little disruption as possible.
Graphics and Sound:
Like all Telltale Games, Back to the Future: The Game utilises a distinctly cartoony visual aesthetic that takes the general likeness of the franchise’s iconic characters and transforms them into amusing and charming caricatures of themselves. It’s a unique aesthetic, to be, sure and, while it does work for this style of game, characters can tend to look a little…off, at times, plodding and jerking around like marionettes and looking quite basic. I also noticed a few oddities and graphical glitches at times, such as items not breaking like you might realistically expect, background elements glitching out, or items and graphics randomly vanishing from cutscenes.
The game’s environments can be quite bland, at times, but all the iconic locations you remember from the films are here: Marty’s house, Doc’s lab, and, of course, the iconic clock tower and town square. While the maps and environments aren’t especially large, they are varied in that you can enter different buildings in different chapters to learn more about different characters, and there’s generally a lot to do, see, and interact with despite how empty and lifeless some of the locations can be. It’s simple but largely very effective and, thanks to the game visiting new time periods (mainly 1931 and another alternative timeline), adds new wrinkles to the lore of the franchise.
Honestly, my only real complaint with the game’s visual style is that Marty takes his appearance largely from the first movie; I don’t know why it is that so much Back to the Future merchandise only ever seems to recreate his attire from the first film rather than giving him a new look but it’s a little disappointing so I was glad to see him dress in period-appropriate clothing as the story progressed. Of course, what really makes Back to the Future: The Game an attractive prospect is the top-notch voice acting (A.J. Locascio does a great Michael J. Fox impression, Lloyd is fantastic as always as Doc (if noticeably aged in his gravelly delivery), and Fox himself even crops up in the game’s final chapter for a voice cameo) and the soundtrack, which is largely comprised of Alan Silvestri’s iconic score from the movies. It’s just a shame, then, that a lot of the game’s dialogue is muted or drowned out by the music or sound effects, meaning you may need to adjust the audio settings from the main menu.
Enemies and Bosses:
Given the nature of the game, there aren’t traditional enemies or bosses as in other videogames; instead, as per the plot, you will be stopped or obstructed by numerous characters who require you to say the right thing, bring them certain items, or you to perform a certain action before they will help you or let you pass.
As you might expect, you’ll run into Biff Tannen and his various ancestors and incarnations throughout the game’s story. His father, mobster Irving “Kid” Tannen is one of the game’s primary antagonists while you’re back in 1931. You’ll need to work with Marty’s father to get Kid arrested, lie to him about your credentials as a mobster, and set up an elaborate series of events to burn him out of a high-rise window as he shoots at you with a Thompson machine gun. After Marty and Doc inadvertently alter their future, you’ll also have a confrontation with Biff and his newly-acquired brothers, dodging swings from their baseball bats until you can get them all in position to be electrocuted.
After altering the past in 1931, Marty crash-lands in an alternative version of his present in which Hill Valley is a veritable utopia thanks to a stringent police state lorded over by none of than a heavily altered version of Doc, known as “Citizen Brown”. While Marty is able to win Doc over and make him see that his dreams have been perverted by his new wife, Edna Strickland, this version of Doc later grows directly antagonistic when he has second thoughts about restoring Marty’s timeline. This leads Marty into directly opposing his friend and mentor to ensure that Doc’s younger self stays on the path towards science rather and societal correction.
As a result, the game’s primary antagonist turns out to be Edna Strickland, a seemingly harmless character in the game’s first chapter who ends up manipulating Doc’s brilliance into brainwashing the “hooligans” of Hill Valley into being more law-abiding and docile civilians. So committed against sin and vice is Edna that it leads her to not only burn down the local speakeasy, setting in motion the events of the game’s plot, but also stealing the time machine and accidentally erasing Hill Valley from existence. When Doc and Marty travel back to 1876 to confront her, they must manipulate her fragile state of mind to learn the date and time of her arson to set things right, which ultimately leads to the player having to set up an elaborate trap involving sand bags and a chandelier to end her misguided plot.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As an interactive movie, there aren’t really any power-ups in the traditional sense of the word to be found. Instead, as you interact with others and further the plot, you’ll acquire a variety of items to be used in specific situations. Some of these will need to be handed to Doc’s faithful dog, Einstein, to progress the story or set up distractions and events you need to move the plot along, others will need to be brought to specific characters to convince them to help you or otherwise alter their destinies.
There isn’t really much else to Back to the Future: The Game; as mentioned, there are a number of Achievements to acquire, with a lot of them being easily missed without a guide, which is probably where the bulk of your next playthrough will be concentrated. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s story (essentially a new take on the familiar story beats of the original trilogy) and the voice acting is entertaining enough to warrant another playthrough but, as you can’t really affect characters in the same way as in other Telltale Games, there isn’t as much incentive to try different dialogue options as in the studio’s other releases. The 30th Anniversary Edition of the game also comes with a behind the scenes video…that can no longer be viewed as the servers and Telltale’s website have long been shut down. I would have expected this edition of the game to come with, at least, a gallery of concept and development art but apparently this was too much to ask for and you simply get a questionably improved version of the base game.
Your enjoyment of Back to the Future: The Game will most likely depend on how enjoyable you find glorified point-and-click adventures and your level of patience. It’s not an especially hard or lengthy title (each chapter takes maybe an hour or so, depending on how you get on with the game’s vague hints and fetch-quests), nor or is an especially attractive or complex game, but it’s a fun enough distraction for what it is, with far more required of the player than other Telltale Games I’ve played.
What elevates the game is, of course, the voice acting and the level of fidelity it has to its source material. As a continuation of the trilogy’s storyline, the game works incredibly well, advancing each character’s story while still exploring new, unseen avenues into their pasts and characterisation. Like Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Terminal Reality/Red Fly Studio, 2009), Back to the Future: The Game is a worthy continuation of a beloved franchise that is let down only by some graphical and gameplay hiccups and, perhaps, the genre of game the films have been adapted into. Had the game, perhaps, mixed up some of its methodical pace and adventure aspects with a few more action-orientated sections (like actually driving the DeLorean or taking part in one of the iconic chase scenes) and had some actual branching pathways, it might have been even better but, as is, it’s an inoffensive and decent enough little game.
Could Be Better
Did you ever play Back to the Future: The Game? Is so, what did you think of it? Did you find any oddities or get scuppered by the odd camera and control scheme? What did you think of its plot and attempts to continue the Back to the Future trilogy? Which Telltale Game, or Back to the Future film, is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Back to the Future Day today? Whatever you think about Back to the Future, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.