I don't like to make snap judgements about the games I write about here at VGJunk, but c'mon, this is a Commodore 64 game based on an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. There's about as much chance of it being good as there is of me taking gold in the 100 meters at the next Olympics. It's Grandslam's 1989 not-much-of-anything-really-em-up The Running Man!
There's Arnie now, wearing an expression that seems to say "going to play The Running Man, huh? Well, good luck to you, you big dope."
If you've never seen The Running Man, it's a typical Schwarzenegger action romp, packed with muscles, brutal murders and one-liners that use wit like Jason Voorhees uses a machete - messily, but with a strange charm. It is, I must confess, a personal favourite. Arnold plays Ben Richards, a hulking slab of a man whose sheer muscle weight must surely render any helicopter he climbs aboard unable to take off yet is somehow employed as a police pilot. Richards refuses to gun down unarmed civilians during a riot, and as a result is framed for the eventual massacre. He escapes from a prison labour camp, gets caught again and is forced to participate in The Running Man - a deadly television show where criminals are hunted and killed live on air by "stalkers" - American Gladiators-style psychopaths with names like Buzzsaw and Fireball.
Of course, this being an Arnie movie he ends up killing all the stalkers, exposing the totalitarian powers that be and generally saving the day. The film also features Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac, so there's that.
Like I say, it's one of my favourite movies, because like all good action movies it's packed with terrible puns, an excellent musical theme and even a tiny bit of social commentary mixed in there too. Sadly, if I've learned anything from writing this website it's that the quality of a tie-in game is inversely proportional to how much I like the source material, so it looks like I'm in for a real rough time with this one.
Contestants on The Running Man are launched into the game zone via a rocket-propelled toboggan, which is what you are looking at here. It's not a steering wheel falling through a series of pineapple rings.
Right then, the game itself - it's a side-scrolling action adventure! And here I was expecting a Mario Kart-esque racing game.
There's Ben Richards in the middle of the screen, posing like a classical sculpture. You might think he looks a bit odd, but Arnie spends a lot of the movie wearing a quilted silver and yellow jumpsuit, so I'll cut the developers some slack. It'd be difficult to make that not look odd. As for that brown and blue lump on the right of the screen, I have no idea. It's moving, which is a bit worrying.
Oh I see, the brown lump was a dog. A dog that our hero promptly kicks in the face. I know, I know, Ben is trapped in a desperate struggle to survive, and you'd think years of playing violent videogames would have hardened me to this kind of thing, but my first action in the game was to kick a dog in the face and I felt kinda bad about it. Still, it was me or the dog, I suppose. Okay then, what else is going on in the wacky world of The Running Man?
Well, there's some wonky jumping to be done and as soon as you encounter an obstacle that must be leapt over you'll realise that The Running Man's controls are your true opponent. They're simple enough, limited as they are by the single fire button of the Commodore 64. Left and right on the joystick make you move horizontally, up makes you jump and the fire button lets you kick a dog in the head. That's all very straightforward, but it seems that even this level of simplicity was too much for Grandstand to implement correctly and thus controlling Ben becomes a Sisyphean task as you attempt to wrangle him into doing what you want. Kicking works okay, it comes out fairly fast, but Ben turns around with whippet-like speed of an oil tanker being hauled into port and jumping? You saw that GIF, right? When you jump, Ben launches himself upwards at a forty-five degree angle before reaching what you might laughingly call the "apex" of his ascent, at which point he plunges straight downwards, hits the edge of the platform you were trying to land on and slowly slides back to the ground. It's not particularly conducive to getting where you want to go.
I eventually made it onto the platform after an embarrassing number of failed attempts. Somewhere along the way I realised I could make Ben run by double-tapping the joystick. This unfortunately means I can't use the joke that this is less The Running Man and more The Sauntering Man, but Ben's running speed is slow glacially slow that I think I can just about get away with calling it The Power-Walking / Occasionally Jogging Man.
Also, let's take a moment to look at the background and speculate on exactly where this game is supposed to be taking place. Current leading theories include "a leftover set from a 1930's sci-fi serial" or "a child's drawing of a planetarium."
Shortly - very shortly, as I'll discuss later - you'll find yourself face-to-hockey-mask with the first stalker. His name's Sub Zero, and he's an ice-hockey player with a razor-sharp stick and exploding pucks. That's in the film, at least. In this game he gently glides back and forth, pausing occasionally to smack a puck at you that you can easily jump over. Then you can kick him in the back when he skates past. You both have the same amount of traction despite being on an ice rink, so just chase Sub Zero down, don't give him time to fire his pucks and keep kicking him.
There are a couple of complications to this (literal) ass-kicking, however. One is that if you let the boss get too far away, he'll summon a dog to come and fight you. I'm going to imagine that the dog is wearing four tiny ice skates. Look, I've got to get some enjoyment out of this game.
The second thing is that both Ben and the stalker gradually get their health back during the boss fight. Why? I'm not sure, but if I was to hazard a guess I'd say it was a cynical attempt on the developer's part to stretch the fights out and thus pad the length of an extremely short game.
With enough kicks, Sub Zero will be defeated. Not quite as impressive as in the movie, where he's strangled with barbed wire, but given how slowly Arnie moves in this game I'm just happy for it to be over before I start collecting my pension. Now, it wouldn't be a Schwarzenegger movie without a cheery quip to cap off the carnage, and in the movie Arnie does indeed utter the immortal line "here is Sub Zero... now plain zero!" and we can all agree it's a travesty that there's not an Oscar for Best Post-Murder Witticism. That line is far too good for this game, though, so I suggest we replace it with something that fits the creaking, lumbering mood of the game. I'm going with "he wouldn't puck off so I iced him." Yeah, I think that's at about this game's level.
Between stages you can play a minigame in order to restore your health, which takes the form of a match-the-shapes puzzle. You swap pairs of symbols over until the picture on the left matches the one on the right. It somehow manages to be thunderingly dull and a bit frustrating at the same time, but happily you can just ignore it and the next stage loads anyway. Plus, the reward for successfully solving the puzzle is full health restoration, but you remember when I said you slowly get your health during a boss battle? Yeah, it keeps refilling after the battle, too, so if you just wait around for a while after dispatching the stalker then you can get your health back without having to waste your precious brain cells on the inter-stage sideshow.
Stage two, and I think I might have gotten my ass to Mars. No, wait, that's a different Arnie film. Wherever I am, it's red, built from bricks and functionally identical to stage one.
A dog attacks, and gets kicked in the head. There are a few platforms to jump on to, which proves much more difficult than it should thanks to Ben Richards' refusal to obey the laws of physics and travel in a goddamn arc when he's jumping. The entire stage is roughly six or seven screens long, and that's another of The Running Man's major failings - the sheer pointlessness of half the game. Fighting the stalkers is obviously the main focus of the game, but Grandslam tried to have their cake and eat it by including pre-stalker areas for the player to navigate... except these areas are almost negligible in terms of content and are utterly devoid of fun. Move a few screens forward, kick a dog, jump on a box, congratulations, you've reached the stalker. Rather than taking one of the two sensible paths - either focussing solely on the stalker battles or, you know, actually building some levels - the developers have ended up with the worst of both worlds, the stages limply clinging onto the stalker battles like the deformed conjoined twin that I definitely didn't have removed when I was a kid and whose screams can still be heard in the cold night air.
Oh look, this is new! I found a weapon. It's a stick! I think? Possibly a hammer, or a blind man's cane. It took me a while to figure out how the bloody thing works, but eventually it clicked that you have to hold down the fire button and then press up on the joystick to poke at things with your newly-acquired stick / hammer / meticulously carved ivory backscratcher.
A few steps further and stage two's stalker appears: it's Buzzsaw, who despite being called "Buzzsaw" actually uses a chainsaw and not a buzzsaw. Maybe his real name's Buzz and his choice of weapon was a happy coincidence.
Now, Buzzsaw might look fearsome, what with his whirring blades of death and all, but don't forget that Ben recently found a stick, so on balance I'd probably say I've got the upper hand. How do you use the weapon again? Up and fire?
You see, this is the problem with having the "attack with weapon" command share joystick space with the "jump" command. Having pressed up at just the wrong time, rather than whacking Buzzsaw with my stick I have jumped groin-first into his chainsaw in a misguided attempt to stop the lethal blades by jamming my genitals into the mechanism. It worked out about as well as you'd expect, so I went back to using the kick. That worked much better, and Buzzsaw was quickly defeated / kicked to death.
In the movie, Arnie slices Buzzsaw in half with his own chainsaw - he's a fan of ironic punishment, you see - and informs those around him of Buzzsaw's demise by saying that "he had to split." Again, far too good for this game so I'm going to go ahead and swap that line for "I bet he'll be saw in the morning!"
Three stages in, and already The Running Man has become completely locked into the same formula - a ridiculously short stage only given any length at all by your character's terrible, lethargic controls, followed by a fight with someone who is easily dealt with by walking up to them and giving them a swift kick in the arse. In stage three's case, the new background is vaguely industrial in theme and lemon-lime in flavour. I know, I'm struggling to contain my excitement too.
This stage's stalker is Dynamo. The movie version of Dynamo is an overweight opera singer who is covered in blinking fairy lights and who drives a golf cart / dune buggy thing, and his gimmick is electricity. Also being an opera singer covered in LEDs, that's a gimmick too I suppose. In the game, his bendy legs give him the appearance of a hovering genie wearing a motorcycle helmet.
I found a new weapon along the way. This one appears to be a barbeque fork. It turned out to be just as useless as the stick, so I went back to the trusty kick.
This worked well, because Dynamo has all the tactical acumen of a lobotomised cocker spaniel and he spent the entire fight wandering back and forth near me, allowing my kicks to find their target with minimal effort. Thanks, Dynamo.
Dynamo doesn't get a chirpy one-liner to mark his death in the movie - he's killed by someone who's not Arnie, someone who maybe places slightly more store in the value of human life and can't make jokes about a guy they just electrocuted to death even if he was a sadistic rapist. Luckily for you I have no such qualms, and my suggestion for Dynamo's death-pun is "Dynamo? More like Die-namo!"
By the time stage four rolls around, the game has become so divorced from it's source material as to be unrecognisable. What the hell are those things in the background? It's like M. C. Escher did the interior design at the 1939 World's Fair and he was dead into grey pipes at the time.
Even the stalker gets a rough ride. This is Fireball, and in the movie he was lithe and limber, not like in the game where he's considerably more... lumpy. This is probably because he's got a jetpack. I know I'd start piling on the pounds if I could just fly around the place.
As his name suggests, Fireball can shoot fire as well as being able to fly around the arena, well out of your reach, so you'd expect this to be a tough fight, and indeed it is at least more challenging than the showdown with Dynamo.
Thankfully I found this beach ball, that really turned the tide of battle in my favour. Looks like "beach" comes above "fire" in the Great Hierarchy of Balls (at the top is "Ambassador's," the bottom is "blitz").
Once again, in the movie Fireball is hoisted by his own flammable petard and dies is a fiery explosion, prompting Arnie to say "what a hot head." Honestly, I think that's a bad enough line to fit into this game as-is, but if I had to suggest a replacement it'd be "a sinister, grating chuckle followed by an extended period of heavy breathing."
Hooray, it's the final stage and for once it's a recognisable location from the movie - it's the Running Man studio, where Ben Richards plans to find Killian, the slimy host of the show. It's nice to know what's going on for once, although as usual it's mostly murder. There are no stalkers in this stage, just a few dogs and security guards patrolling the otherwise flat and empty stage. Why, there's a security guard now, and he seems to have left a gun on the floor for me. How considerate!
Yes, it is actually a gun that Ben can use to fire projectiles. I say "use", he doesn't seem to quite have the hang of firearms.
That's not how you use a gun, Ben. Weren't you in the police before you became the nation's favourite televised murder machine? I thought you'd have a handle on basic firearm techniques.
The gunplay and the lack of stalkers does at least mean this stage feels different to the others. Not good, but different, and in a game that has otherwise stuck so rigidly to the template laid out in the first stage "good" and "different" almost mean the same thing. These factors also make the final stage by far the easiest of them all, which is an unusual choice but hey, I'll take it.
This lack of challenge carries through right to the end of the game. Ben Richards has finally reached Killian, the man who put him through all this, and you don't even have to fight him. Grandstand clearly realised that any fight between Arnold and Killian - who was played by the then-in-his-late-fifties Richard Dawson - would have been a touch one-sided. Instead, Richards walks over to the immobile Killian, kicks him into the rocket sled and launches him into the game zone.
That's it, game over. If it seems like an anticlimax, I'll let you in on a little secret - The Running Man's real final boss was those bloody steps just to the left of Killian's podium. I spent fifteen extremely frustrating minutes trying to jump up them, only to not quite make it every single time. Then I went back and killed a couple more security guards and a dog, after which the game would let me jump up onto the ledge. There was no indication that I needed to kill more guys before I could advance, no "you must have taken this many lives during your bloody rampage" counter, no nothing. Those two bloodthirsty steps were the most challenging part of the game. Amazing.
The Running Man is a bad game, but that's hardly surprising because I don't ever think there's been a videogame directly based on an Arnold Schwarzenegger film that's ever been better than "okay". Terminator 2: The Arcade Game is the best I can come up with, the 16-bit versions of True Lies aren't bad, but genuinely good games? I can't think of any, which seems bizarre given just how many Arnie movies fall in to the guns-and-action category that so many videogames are born out of and take their inspiration from.
But what makes The Running Man specifically a bad game? Sadly, pretty much everything. The graphics and music are lacking even considering the time they were made, but it's the (absence of) gameplay that drags this one down. Richards controls like his blood has been replaced with window caulk and the levels are so short that there's no room for enjoyable platforming and combat larks even if those were things that could happen. The fights with the stalkers are rendered laughably straightforward by the computer's non-existent AI, and the weapons you're given aren't just useless, they're actually inferior to your kick because your leg can move faster than any pipe / barebeque fork / beach ball. If you want a far superior Running Man videogame experience, play Smash TV instead.
Once again the Love the Film - Hate the Game theorem is tested and comes out stronger than ever. Sadly, it doesn't work both ways. I should know, I've played Transformers: Dark of the Moon.