Total Recall is a classic. It’s safe to say that now having experienced the Colin Farrell remake like some sort of theatrical carjacking. Paul Verhoeven’s Philip K. Dick adaptation is flawed, dated, and sort of ugly to look at, like a sweater from the late ’70s. Like many classics of the era, Total Recall was graced with a game adaptation. Unfortunately, it was the early ’90s, and the Nintendo Entertainment System was the best thing available.
For those who have been in a commune for the past 30 years, Total Recall tells the story of a man whose identity is not what he thinks. He becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that spans two planets, and no one is who they seem to be. There are also mutants. The plot of the game is to walk to the right and not be beaten by cats, people in windows, and oddly small assassins.
The film features iconic heavies like Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, and Dean Norris doing what they do best. Sharon Stone, in an early role, plays a double-crossing femme fatale. There’s even the mysterious Kuato, who is quite simply a chest deformity with ESP. The game’s main adversaries are a hobo who throws his hat and the main villain jumping up and down. Perhaps his secret attack is to encourage the player to laugh to death.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In the days where the technology simply wasn’t there to achieve a fair approximation of a film’s content, creativity reigned. There are plenty of examples of games that found the essence of what made a feature film compelling and delivered solid entertainment. The Total Recall game adaptation is not one of them. It was a rushed product, and because the NES was such a reliable system for platformers, the entire concept of the film was shoehorned into that genre. It doesn’t work because the play mechanics are rudimental, to be generous.
The game is filled with cheap hits, opponents who appear from out of nowhere, and a surprising inability for the player to jump and shoot at the same time. Luckily, the game is very brief to play. The film rides completely on Paul Verhoeven’s ingenuity and a few very clever set pieces. The game’s best moment plays upon this as the player engages in combat while in an X-ray booth. There’s something about the film that makes it more fun today than even a decade ago. The film was a sensation and then became a bit of an oddity. A diversion between better films by all involved. Time has given Total Recall a new life now. It’s delightfully analog, something rare for modern science-fiction films.
There is no reason to play the Total Recall game. Even when it was new it was laughable. It’s a keystone example of an era where licensed games were the norm, and the development cycles were extremely short. What would work as a phone app simply wasn’t up to snuff in that era where gaming was all about patterns and playability.
It is, however, a charming reminder of simpler times. Today, everything is heavily tested and steered as part of the marketing machine for a film or television project. To play a Total Recall game where a character played by the imposing and stout Arnold Schwarzenegger can be bested by an orange tabby is surreal. A wooden fence filled with holes leads to the character being punched to death. It’s terrific comic relief and somehow actually improves the viewing of the film in retrospect.
In that way, it may be the perfect adaptation, because it is quite simply stealing none of the film’s thunder.