This Game Won't Make You Feel Lucky
Dirty Harry (1990)
The NES certainly had a diverse and interesting library. For video game executives, it was still an early era of video games, when graphics were getting just good enough that you could depict characters and action at a level where things were, you know, recognizable. You look at the old Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. games from the Atari, such as The Empire Strikes Back or Jedi Arena, and while you can tell you're playing a Star Wars game, it's just an impression. The graphics are basic, the game play rudimentary at best, and you can tell that the game was released because it had a license attached, not because it was good. But what these games showed was that a licensed property could sell even the worst garbage.
That held true for the NES as well, but with the improved graphics and controls (over the consoles of the previous era), there was a chance for a real game to be buried in a licensed game. Many companies flocked to the licensed game scene, snatching up properties that could be converted in the quick money-making titles. Most of these games were crap (examples include: The Karate Kid, Jaws, Friday the 13th), and while any of them might have has certain limited charms, there's no way to view these titles as anything other than cartridges full of disappointments.
In that same vein we have the Dirty Harry game. Released in 1990, two years after the final Dirty HarryInspired by the Zodiac killer's spree of murders, this series of action flicks finds the titular character, Dirty Harry, fighting all kinds of ruffians and ne'er-do-wells with gruffness, a gun, and (far too much) street justice., this ended up being the last true adventure for that (legitimately pretty awful) cop. Not that Gray Matter and publisher Mindscape could have known that at the time. Over the years the Dirty Harry films had been dependable blockbusters, and while the fifth film in the series, The Dead Pool, had landed with a thud at the Box Office, the license still had to seem like a decently hot property. A known character on the hottest system in video gaming (for the time), that does sound like way to print money. If only the game had been any good.
Like many licensed properties of the era, the 1990 Dirty Harry game feels like a rushed and under-developed adventure. It finds Harry, out on the streets, on the hunt for The Anaconda, a powerful drug lord making his move on San Francisco. Naturally, of course, Harry is the only man that can hunt (and kill) this dangerous criminal, getting justice for the streets of San Fran. It's just Harry, his wits, and a big-ass gun to help him save the day, as only a cop (of Harry's caliber) could do.
Stylistically this game does make you feel like you're playing a Dirty Harry adventure, and by that I mean there's barely any story, Harry does hardly any actually police work, and he spends most of his time brutally murdering anyone that gets in his way. While some of the movies (Magnum Force, The Enforcer) tried to tone down Harry's worst impulses, most of the time he was a one-man vigilante force, and this game sticks to that interpretation. He's a lawless vigilante on the side of the angels, at least as far as this game is concerned.
In practice what this boils down to in a fairly rote and generic action beat-em-up. Harry has two modes of play in this game: side-scrolling and (slightly) top-down exploration. Most of the time, Harry will be set on the streets (or docks, or warehouses) of San Francisco and he'll need to navigate his way through waves of enemies as he finds his path through the stages. But to find the right path he'll have to enter into buildings where, in apartments and offices, he'll be able to find items necessary to get him through the adventure. These zones are explored from a (fairly limited) three-quarter perspective, giving the illusion of Harry roaming through buildings. He'll find traps, fight bad guys, and collect explosives (and other items) before moving on.
The first major issue with Dirty Harry is that the combat is pretty awful. For whatever reason Harry (a man not really known for his street-fighting skills) is forced to kick and punch his way through the waves of re-spawning enemies Sure, he can shoot the with his gun but he has limited ammo and that has to be conserved. So much of the time you're smacking around foes while they blindly charge at you (or shoot at you), and you'll end up soaking a ton of damage from the relentless horde, dying frequently. It's the kind of game where challenge and difficulty are set high to patch over game play that is, otherwise, too shallow to make for much of an experience.
Now, in concept I like the idea that Harry has to go through buildings, looking for items and clues to advance his adventure. It almost feels like a Metroidvania, adding adventure and exploration elements onto a standard side-scroller. If the game could have fleshed this concept out more, letting Harry do real detective work (and a little less street-fighting) it could have made for (potentially) a very intriguing adventure title. I get what the developers were going for in concept, they just weren't able to pull it off at all.
Bear in mind the exploration is very limited. You can go through a lot of apartments and offices, collecting items, but most of these items have no real bearing on the adventure and just fill up slots in the inventory. Unless you know where you're going and what you're doing, you'll end up spending a lot of time going through rooms collecting useless bonus points when the one thing you need to advance is in a different room, off in another building, that you didn't even know you needed to visit at all.
This gets to another major issue with the game: it absolutely doesn't tell you anything about your mission. All of the story for the game is contained in the instruction manual (and good luck finding an intact copy of one now) and there's no dialogue in the game itself. So if you load the game up and wonder what you're supposed to be doing or where you should go, realize you're not alone. The game gives you now hit, no idea of your objective. You're just plunked down on the city streets, left to aimlessly wander through a series of interconnected roads and buildings without any clear direction as to what to do. Its frustrating.
Now, sure, you can find a walkthrough Online today that will guide you through the buildings and rooms of the city, followed by the tunnels of the sewers, the rooms of the docks, and then the final warehouse areas. Back in the day, though, there was no way you were going to find anything in depth enough to get you through this title. The obtuse game design seems like it was meant to waste the time of anyone that bought the game. It's an adventure that, through it's lack of any kind of guidance or tips in game, leaves you stuck for hours until you find one random thing that suddenly lets you access other areas. If, of course, you even make it that far.
Topping things off, Dirty Harry is a bland and ugly game. It certainly doesn't feel like a proper adventure for Harry Callahan, looking more like a generic scroller that just so happened to have the Dirty Harry license slapped on the side. And maybe that's exactly what happened; I can't imagine, after the failure of The Dead Pool that anyone was too excited to work on a Dirty Harry game. Even if they thought the name still had some cachet, there was probably a directive to not waste too much time on this game just in case it bombed. So they took a basic adventure and slapped Harry's name on it to try and milk whatever dollars they could out of the property.
Licensed games had been reviled over the years and Dirty Harry for the NES illustrates why. It's a malformed game where all the challenge comes from the fact that players won't know where to go or what to do. If the goal was to waste time and frustrate players, then Gray Matter succeeded. This was one of the least fun experiences I've had on the NES.