Just like a remorseless space monster dropping into your vicinity and methodically killing off your high-trained military squad mates, here’s another VGJunk article to ruin your week! This time it’s Pack-In-Video’s 1989 NES possibly-didn’t-watch-the-source-material-em-up Predator, where gravity is the deadliest foe of all and the scorpions are mighty indeed.
There’s the Predator now, appearing on the title screen and looking at the game’s logo in a pose that suggests it didn’t expect to see the words “SCHWARZENEGGER PREDATOR” hanging over its its head. Or maybe it’s trying to read that subtitle. It is a little difficult to make out. My best guess is “soox the muxt hill eegix.” Probably could have gone with a better-defined font there, chaps.
So, the Predator. It comes from space, it hunts humans and other creatures for sport, it has a face like a crab trying to escape from some kind of biological orifice. They’ve popped up a few times in other articles here at VGJunk, but up until now they’ve always been paired with the Xenomorphs of the Alien movies. Not today, though: the Predator gets top billing and is the only killer alien in this game – well, sort of, as we shall see.
Also featured is Arnold Schwarzenegger, naturally. He was the star of the movie as Major “Dutch” Schaefer, and he’s the character you’ll be playing as during the game. There’s nothing unusual about that, when it comes to real-life actors appearing in videogames I’ve probably spent more time playing as Arnie – or at least as bootleg Arnie clones – than anyone else. What is surprising, especially given the quality of the rest of the game, is that this is a rather good likeness of Schwarzenegger. Immediately recognisable as Arnie, muscled like one of those giant 'roided-out bulls, rendered in tasteful monochrome. Yeah, I genuinely like this title screen.
You also get a brief cutscene setting up the story, which is nice but a trifle unnecessary. Predator is not the most densely plotted movie, after all. It does mention that Dutch’s original mission was to fight some guerillas in the jungle, and apparently he didn’t do a great job at clearing these guerillas out because there are still hundreds of them knocking about. In Dutch’s defence, he was kinda distracted from his original mission.
The game begins, and let’s address the elephant in the room: Dutch is very pink. Now, I’ve got nothing against men wearing pink, obviously. It can be a perfectly fine sartorial choice. I don’t own any pink clothes but that’s because I’m 90% a goth, I’m not morally opposed to them or anything. However, when you’re on a covert mission deep in the jungle, perhaps dressing like a furious blancmange is not the best choice for remaining undetected. On the plus side, it does make your character easy to see against the often very dark backgrounds.
What else can we glean from this opening screen? Well, that thing on the right might look like a rock but it’s definitely alive. It’s got eyes, and those eyes are pulsating, so it looks like the Predator isn’t the only alien in town. Also, despite being a soldier Dutch doesn’t start with a gun, or any weapons. All he has are his bare fists, which I’m not too disappointed about. In the movie, Dutch defeats the Predator using mud and sharp sticks, so it’s not like he can’t improvise with the things he finds laying around.
Something I did find was a supply of hand grenades. The game calls them “PINE” in the status bar, which I assume is in reference to their pineapple-like shape and not because they’re infused with the scent of a Norwegian forest. Unfortunately, the grenades are a bit crap. They take a few seconds to explode, which makes timing their deployment so they actually hit the enemies a struggle, and they can also damage Dutch if he’s standing too close. They can destroy certain blocks, like the red ones on the right of the screenshot above. I had assumed that’s how you were meant to progress – blow up the wall and move on while avoiding the patrolling guerillas. That didn’t work, though. The grenades land on the floor and can thus only destroy the bottom row of blocks, and because Dutch can’t move while crouching you can’t create a big enough pathway for him to get through. So I retraced my steps, intending to take the upper path over the blocks… except you can’t jump high enough to get back up there, so as far as I could see I was completely trapped down here, unable to make progress in either direction. That fact that I managed to get irrevocably stuck about two screens in does not exactly bode well for Predator’s quality, does it? Even taking into account my general incompetence, it’s a poor start.
So I blew myself up, lost a life and took the top path. While I was up there, I discovered that Dutch can ride on top of these scorpions. That is one buff scorpion, if it can carry Arnie’s considerable bulk. If only the scorpion had some way to defend itself from people climbing on its back, it wouldn’t have to suffer this indignity.
After that early blip, I started to make some progress. I found a machine gun, a huge improvement on the grenades, and Predator began to reveal itself as a side-scrolling action-platforming adventure in a fairly typical mould. Your goal is to find the exit door in each of the (fairly short) stages, hopping over bottomless pits and fighting the guerillas and weird creatures that block your path.
Having made it to the next stage, there’s some good news and some bad news. The good news? I got all my health back, which is useful because I lost seventy percent of my hit points to my own bloody grenades. The bad news is that I had my machine gun taken away, so Dutch is back to punching enemies and searching the level for power-ups.
Not that I particularly need weapons in this stage, because it almost entirely about jumping. In fact, jumping, leaping, prancing and so on makes up about eighty percent of Predator’s gameplay, much of it involving Dutch making his way across narrow, single-block platforms. It is unfortunate, then, that making Dutch jump is an absolute pain in the arse. The problem is that he’s really bad at jumping. He’s slow and unpredictable when he’s in the air, and there’s absolutely no pleasure to be found in the simple act of moving the big pink lump around the screen. It’s worse when Dutch lands, because he’s extremely slippery and you’re going to lose many, many lives when you thought you’d made a safe landing only for Dutch to skid right off the edge of the platform. Platforming in Predator contains precisely zero fun, and when you consider how much of the gameplay is platforming you can see that’s going to make this game something of a slog.
It turns out that the first two stages were merely a warm-up, and once you enter this cave Predator decides it’s time to make you regret turning the game on in the first place. Enemy numbers are hugely increased, projectiles fill the air like a wedding at a confetti factory and even though he’s in a cave Dutch can still fall to his death because the “sides” of the platforms aren’t solid and you can walk – or more likely, slide – right though them. Maybe it’s just me, and I was in a bad mood or something, but the only response I could muster to this barrage was a long, drawn out “uuuuugghh” sound. At least some of the monsters are interesting to look at. They’ve got nothing to do with the movie, sure, but I’m never going to disappointed to see big-mouthed cartoon ghosts or bizarre seaweed-hands.
Of particular note is the strange creature on the middle of the screenshot above. What is this thing? A weird hopping alien with a slightly skull-like face and wings, in an art style completely at odds with the action-movie tone of Predator: it looks more like a villain from a Fantasy Zone game than something that should be sharing screen space with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I understand that if you’re trying to make a videogame based on Predator, it’s going to be difficult to keep things interesting when the source material only has one antagonist, but as much as I like them I’m not sure that “rubbery toy monsters from a vending machine capsule” was the best choice of aesthetic in this specific case.
Upon reaching the end of this stage, Dutch comes face-to-face with the terrifying, deadly Predator. No, really. That’s the Predator on the right. I know it doesn’t look much like a Predator. It doesn’t look much like anything, apart from maybe a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toy that's been left out in the sun for too long. I can kinda see that it’s supposed to have the Predator’s trademark dreadlocks, but on this sprite they look more like an unwashed mullet.
As for actually fighting the Predator, I was really hoping it was going to be more interesting than the platforming but I’m not allowed to have nice things, apparently. Dutch has collected a laser rifle, the only weapon that can hurt the Predator. In response to this threat, the Predator tries to jump on Dutch’s head. Just… don’t stand underneath the Predator. Shoot the Predator when it lands and it will try to jump on Dutch again, but it doesn’t really move forward so it’s extremely easy to trap the Predator in a loop where it just keeps jumping and getting shot.
It’s particularly entertaining that the Predator responds to this punishment by curling into a ball like a petulant child who’s just had his shoulder-mounted plasma cannon confiscated.
So, your first encounter with the dreaded Predator is pretty goddamn underwhelming. At least it being easy was a nice change of pace from the rest of the game, which has been difficult but not in a fun, challenging way – rather, it has the same niggling, frustrating difficulty level that so many badly-made and poorly designed games seem to share.
After clearing the first Predator encounter – the first of many, sadly – you get another brief cutscene showing Dutch finding the flayed bodies of his comrades hanging from some trees. Despite the horror of this scene, Dutch manages to retain enough composure to use the grammatically correct “whomever” while he’s planning his vengeance.
Hang on, what? Big Mode? Am I going to be playing as Tom Hanks?
Oh, I see. Predator has sprung a completely different playstyle on me. This is giving me conflicting emotions. On the one hand, any change from the dire platforming is welcome. On the other, given how bad rest of the game has been I’m not holding out much hope that the developers have the chops to make this side-scrolling run-n-gun section enjoyable to play. At the very least, I’m relieved I won’t have to do much jumping for a while.
Big Mode is certainly living up to its name in terms of sprites, anyway. They’re rather impressive for a NES game, and the artist has managed to give Dutch a facial expression that really sums up how you’d feel if you were forced to do battle with floating Predator heads in a fuschia void. Unfortunately, the gameplay here isn’t as impressive as the graphics. Dutch walks from the left, enemies come in from the right and you have to either shoot them or jump over them. It feels unfinished, more than anything, but I suppose it’s not too bad. Its saving grace is that you have a fairly large health bar, so you can absorb a few of the almost-unavoidable hits. I suppose the weirdness of the floating Predator heads works in its favour, too.
The Predator appears again at the end of the stage, having remembered to keep one head in reserve for itself. It spends most of the fight being invisible, which sounds like it would be a real pain in the arse but the bigness of Big Mode saves the day – the Predator takes up so much of the screen that it’s difficult not to hit it so long as you keep firing in its general direction, and that’s the only direction you can fire in.
After that, it’s back to non-big-mode, and Predator continues in the same cycle for the rest of the game. You do a few stages of awkward platforming in the jungle, go through the same fight against the Predator that’s modelled its combat style on Super Mario, endure another stage of Big Mode and repeat until the game is done. Nothing much changes during the rest of the stages: they get a bit more complicated and a lot more difficult, but the basic gameplay doesn’t change much and it’s not like the platforming gets any more enjoyable. There are occasional moments that offer the slightest hint that things might get a bit more interesting, like the section pictured above where you have to ride a scorpion to get the extra height needed to collect the laser gun, but they’re very few and far between.
A couple of the stages have Dutch carving his way through the rock walls using the grenades or the laser, which is about as entertaining as it gets. They’d be more fun if the grenades were more predictable in their movements, and there were a couple of times I manage to throw a grenade in such a way that it got stuck inside a block. This means that I potentially could have escaped from the trap I fell into at the very beginning of the game, but having to rely on what I’m ninety-nine percent certain is a glitch to do so doesn’t exactly make it a practical choice.
Every now and then you’ll come across a stage that’s a bit more expansive that the others, with multiple vertical levels to climb between. That’s what the fingers at the top-right of the above screenshot indicate, they’re showing you that you can either go up or down to a new screen.
While in a better game the addition of some exploration elements might be a welcome addition, they mean nothing if the simple act of moving your character around ispainfully un-fun, and in case you haven’t being paying attention controlling Dutch really isn’t any fun. He’s slow and stodgy, and a martyr to platforms that are only a single block wide, and those make up the vast majority of Predator’s jumping “puzzles.” The biggest difference in the larger stages is the extra layer of frustration that comes from having to climb all the way back up when you miss a jump and fall down three screens.
I’ll admit I’m being quite hard on Predator. I wouldn’t say I’m being more harsh than it deserves, but at least part of why I’m having such a miserable time with it is because, somewhere amongst the bullshit of the platforms that behave like they’re made of warm butter and the enemy placement that feels both random and calculated to be as annoying as possible, there’s the tiny glimmer of a half-decent game. Simply tightening up the jumping physics alone would make it a hundred times more enjoyable, and on top of that it does have an appealing atmosphere of eerie strangeness, with some engagingly alien backgrounds and lots of charmingly-drawn monsters. The gulf in quality between the games might make such a comparison seem obscene, but Predator has just a smidgen of Metroid about it. If that had been expanded upon, and the game was more about exploration and collecting useful items rather than hopping across narrow platforms it would probably be a lot, lot better.
As for Big Mode… well, I don’t think you can do much to improve that without completely reworking it. Part of the problem is that it’s too big, que ironico. The sheer bulk of it makes it difficult to get into any kind of rhythm, and trying dodging projectiles is a losing game when Dutch takes up so much of the screen. If you want to play a NES game where Arnie runs horizontally and shoots aliens with a big gun, there’s always Contra.
Here’s one thing you can’t take away from Predator: I’m fairly sure it’s the only videogame where Schwarzenegger can punch a butterfly to death.
After what felt like hundreds of stages but was actually only about thirty or so – and I managed to skip a few because some stages have multiple exits – I made it to the final area. A small blue bird flew over Dutch’s head and tried to shit on him. Not for the first time, I wondered exactly what the hell is going on with this game. It’s certainly not very Predator-y, is it? When the Predator itself shows up it doesn’t feel like a Predator, and even with the official Predator license it feels more like an Asylum “mockbuster” with a title like Alien Hunter.
Of course, part of the problem is that Predator is a difficult movie to adapt into a videogame, even for a top-notch developer. There’s only one monster to fight, and a lot of the time said monster is invisible and hiding in a tree – not exactly conducive to exciting gameplay. Even to this day I don’t think there’s been a good videogame about the Predator that retains its “silent hunter” persona. The Alien vs. Predator arcade brawler is amazing, for example, but it doesn’t have much in common with the movie. Now that videogame technology has advanced to its current level, however, I’ve got a pitch for you. How about a Predator game where you play as a Predator, doing the things that the Predator does best? I’m imagining a combination of Metal Gear Solid and the Batman Arkham games, where you stalk your prey, try to remain undetected and make sure you don’t kill defenceless targets. There might be some pushback against playing as a space monster that murders and flays human beings, so have the Predator go after Moon Nazis or something, or even a variety of dangerous alien creatures including, of course, the Xenomorphs. Is someone writing this down? This is a solid-gold idea, my friends.
Anyway, back to the Predator game we do have, and it’s time for the final boss. It’s a huge floating Predator head. The only way this fight could have been more lazily designed is if the developers just made you fight the regular, body-having Predator again. It’s a really ugly sprite, too – it looks more like Jason Voorhees’ mask from Jason X resting on a pile of bin-bags.
The fight itself isn’t interesting, either. The head bobs around the screen, disgorging the occasional projectile. Shoot it when you get the chance, don’t let the Predator’s attacks touch you. It’s as dull as it is simple.
Oh shit, the Predator means business now – it’s taken its mask off and everything! Perhaps it was hoping the sight of its grim visage would distract me, and that I wouldn’t notice that this half of the fight is exactly the same as the first half. Nice try, Predator, but you won’t fool me so easily.
A few more laser bolts later, and the Predator is defeated. Dutch calls it “one ugly beast,” and, hey, ouch, insult to injury. Dutch could have been even less graceless in victory, I suppose - “beast” is a lot less offensive than what he calls the Predator in the movie.
But wait! The Predator has one last trick up its sleeve. Literally, in fact, and it activates its wrist-mounted self-destruct sequence. After all this toil and struggle, after battling against insurmountable odds and defecating birds, has Dutch finally been defeated in what should have been his moment of triumph?
No, of course not. I have survived. A stark message saying “you have survived” is a rather fitting way for Predator to end, in truth – at points I could definitely feel my will to live slipping away as Dutch drifted off the edge of yet another minuscule platform. It was a bruising game to get through, and not just because it was difficult (although it is difficult) but because it’s just so unpleasant to play. Cumbersome, repetitive, unrewarding, all these are accurate descriptions of Predator for the NES. In an alternate universe maybe there’s a version of this game with better controls and a final boss that doesn’t look like a cheap Halloween mask caught in an updraught, but I can only play the version we have in our reality and I wish I bloody hadn’t.
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