What a Waste(land)

Mad Max (1990 NES Game)

It’s easy to say that video games based on movies are always bad. There are plenty of terrible movie adaptations, to be sure, from Back to the Future to Fight Club, to the game often considered the worst movie adaptation ever made: E.T: The Extraterrestrial. Most of those games are cheap cash-ins and you can tell. As much as I might enjoy games like Jaws and Friday the 13th, I won’t deny that they fail to live up to the movie series they’re based on. They’re cheap games made cheaply, and seemingly without a ton of care put in.

But then, if we’re being fair, how much could a developer really do with the NES? The console had a lot of great games for it, no doubt, but the best of them were ones designed within the known limitations of the console. Chips could be added, memory could be tweaked, batteries could add saves, but there was a core limit to the console that really couldn’t be pushed past. If you wanted to make a good game you had to work within the bounds of the NES, but considering that movies weren’t limited in their style and scope, trying to translate them down into the tiny limitations of the NES often led to bad games. We expect better when, really, we should have expected what we got.

I don’t think, conceptually, the Mad Max NES game (released in 1990) was meant to be a bad game. It’s clear that the team at Gray Matter (the game’s developers) had a solid little game concept they were working with, something inspired by the Mad MaxStarted with a single 1970s Australian exploitation flick (a popular genre in the country at the time), the Mad Max series went on to spawn three sequels, an entire genre, style, and what many consider the greatest action film of all time, Fury Road. Not bad from a little low-budget film about cars smashing each other after the fall of society. series. It provides a decent representation of the Wasteland from the films, and it had just enough varied gameplay that, in the right context, you could actually see this being a (mildly) successful game. For the right audience, maybe this game was even fun.

Of course, the right audience were fans of the Amiga. This game wasn’t originally a licensed Mad Max title but, instead, a loosely inspired knock-off called Road Raider. Originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, the game was praised for its presentation and difficulty, providing a nice highlight for that computer’s library. But then, the NES didn’t have the graphical power of the Amiga, so when Gray Matter brought the title over to become a licensed Mad Max game, they had to do some adjustments. The graphics are simpler, the pixels less detailed, and everything feels a little flatter.

That’s fine. That’s the NES for ya. What matters is that, when driving around on the overworld of the stages you get to see Max’s car and blow up other cars and it all looks pretty decent for an NES game. Not fantastic, but decent, and considering how terrible many other movie-to-NES conversions ended up looking, the fact that they could nail even a basic representation of the Wasteland on the NES is pretty impressive. It is fun to drive around on the overworld, your car chugging, cars driving around you, and feeling like you’re in a Mad Max game. In those moments it all comes together.

Sadly, it’s in all other respects that the game falls apart. To start, the game is broken up into two major zones, overworld and arena battles, and only one of those two feels true to the film series. The overworld is fun with its broken streets and expanses of desert, but the arena areas are stale and boring. Your goal in the arena is to, one, kill all the other cars and, two, find the exit. The exit won’t open until all the other cars are dealt with and there are a lot of cars in the arena. It will take a few minutes for all of them to spawn, drive to you (because they always know where you are), and let you kill them, over and over. And it’s not like the combat in the arena is varied as you have no weapons there, just your car’s bumper and death pits everywhere. These sucks are tedious and obnoxious.

Driving on the open world sections is better, but you do have considerations to take into account. Your goal here is to earn enough currency to buy an arena pass to move on to the next area. You have only so much fuel and ammo and you have to find more lest you die, or your car runs out of fuel, and that’s it for Max. You have to drive around, looking for enclaves (marked by little sheds) you can drive into, and this presents a new play mode for you to deal with as well: top down dungeon exploration.

Note, these sections also suck. You have to find water, ammo, fuel, and keys in these areas, working to clear out any enclave you find until you have enough water to trade at shops in the Wasteland to earn that arena pass. In theory that’s fine, but the play style of these overhead areas is about as tedious as everything else in this game. You run around mazes, shooting endless waves of bad guys (two at a time as this game isn’t competent like Super Smash T.V.), until you’ve found everything worth finding and move on.

And that’s it, that’s all you do. You loot the Wasteland to get money, then go into boring arenas to kill other cars, all before being dumped out back onto the Wasteland for the next level. Do this three times, and then it’s on to a final boss to kill. Oh, and you better have found the items you need to kill this final boss or it’s game over almost instantly. This is a cruel trick the developers play on you and, frankly, it shouldn’t have been in the game at all.

In the third Wasteland zone, one of the enclaves will have a crossbow in it. Collect that, and all the ammo you can, and when you go to fight the final boss you’ll have a weapon to use and all the ammo you need for it. Why Max can’t use his shotgun instead and has to use a crossbow for this is never explained, mind you, and the game doesn’t tell you that you need a crossbow until you need it. So you just have to know. The boss fight itself isn’t hard, just annoying, but the whole process for getting there is needlessly obtuse and purposefully vague.

Oh, and if you die in the boss fight and try to password back to it, enjoy realizing you don’t have enough ammo to do the deed. There is a password for the boss, but the game gives you less crossbow ammo than you need to finish the boss off, and you can’t do melee attacks; it’s crossbow or nothing. So if you game over, you need to go back to the third Wasteland stage to get the crossbow and ammo you need or you are never clearing the game. That’s bad game design.

I appreciate the effort put into this game, both in its original Amiga form and then as the NES Mad Max. It’s a noble effort and the designers very nearly make a game that at least feels like something belonging in the Mad Max universe. But basic game play issues, and poor design elements, ruin what could have been a fun time driving around the Wasteland. More focus on what actually worked, and less game modes that are tedious to play, could have elevated this game. It’s a flat experience that, you realize, could have been so much more.