Back to the Future: The Game Review

The 1980s were a good decade for blockbuster films. Grandiose action comedies with ample opportunity for a few good explosions, these films also provided perfect fodder for videogames. Sure, the Atari 2600 and the NES weren't able to do much more than platforming or shoot em up versions of these films, but occasionally they were pretty fun.

Not the Back to the Future games. Those games were terrible titles that had little to do with the films, and were either weird skateboarding titles or a terrible platformer. While the films had plenty of exciting action moments, story, dialogue and exposition were so important to the film that making a game out of one element from the films makes for a bad game. Too bad no one ever thought about making a Back to the Future adventure game focused primarily on story. If Indiana Jones could do it, Back to the Future would have been better.

Well, Telltale Games got around to it, just twenty years later. It's for the best, as the resulting Back to the Future: The Game is a thoroughly engrossing adventure title with a story that sidles up to the film trilogy with no difficulty whatsoever. It's like running into an old college friend and finding that nothing between the two of you has changed. Visually beautiful with some of the best voice work in a game this year, Back to the Future: The Game is an utter joy to play.

Like most of Telltale's titles, Back to the Future: The Game is broken up into episodes. A full season will set you back about $25, which is a really great deal for the equivalent of a whole new interactive Back to the Future film. Any fan of the franchise would do well to pick up at least the first episode “It's About Time.” Clocking in around three hours, “It's About Time” takes place about six months after the events of the third film. Doc has been AWOL since zooming off in a time-traveling train, and his stuff is being sold off by the bank. Marty is doing all he can to stop the sale, but with the unexpected arrival of the time traveling DeLorean, sans the Doc, it's off to a Prohibition-era Hill Valley to save Doc, assist Marty's grandfather from Biff's gangster father Kid Tannen, and even run into a teenage Doc Brown. The story is hilarious, the plot is engrossing, and the return of Doc, Marty, Mr. McFly and Biff brought a smile to my face.

It definitely follows the template of the films, even going so far as to replicate jokes from the movies (Marty's commentary on a 1930's shark film; Kid Tannen's close relationship to a manure truck). In many other franchises, this may be a problem, but with Back to the Future, it creates a cozy and familiar world instantly recognizable. There is a self-reference here that indicates Telltale is made up of some major fans of the movies, and they are more than ready to take a stab at this universe.

They did get it mostly right, but there are some odd omissions. For example, Doc's wife Clara and her children are nowhere to be seen, and while Doc does extrapolate a bit on them, they are mostly “out of sight, out of mind.” Additionally, Jennifer and Marty's mom are out of the picture for now, so the game does feel a little…small. With four more episodes, hopefully some of these characters will make an appearance.

However, it truthfully is a little small. Since this is the first of five episodes, there really is only one main area, with a bunch of smaller side areas with one or two puzzles to complete each. That really is not much, and while spending time running around the famous courthouse square in 1931 is initially fun, it would have been nice to have more areas to explore. Thankfully, there is a solid sense of cohesiveness, and the story is designed to feel mostly complete, with a decent enough of a cliffhanger to tease for the next episode. With five episodes in total, there should be more than enough to replicate the plot of a fully featured film.

Like a lot of Telltale games, certain areas are repeated (barely excusable considering Marty goes back at different times, but whatever) and even a couple of the puzzles are used a more than once (oh hi voice recorder!). While not necessarily a bad thing, the puzzles are certainly on the easier side. I'm no adventure game genius, but I was able to get through most of the puzzles with no assistance. The times I did use the in-game hint system, I never felt like it was outright giving me the answer, but smartly pushing me in the right direction. Ultimately, this is one of the easier Telltale games, and the focus on story and narrative over gameplay is evident here. Pretty much anyone will have a great time with the game, just don't come here expecting a mind-bending game.

The visuals are very unique, striking a balance between realistic and outright cartoon. This avoids the problem of the uncanny valley, and it allows the characters to emote in a way that makes sense, especially with their eyes. Doc and Marty in particular, look great, and the new characters fit in pretty well, although Edna in particular seems more like a Sam and Max character than a Back to the Future figure. Over all, however, the game looks great, even on lower graphical settings. It'd be interesting to see how the game looks on the future PS3 and iPad ports.

The voice work is outstanding, in particular. Bringing Christopher Lloyd back to voice Doc Brown means he sounds just like the 1985 original. Marty McFly was unfortunately not voiced by Michael J. Fox. Thankfully, the voice actor Telltale hired to voice Marty, AJ LoCascio, does one of the best replications I've ever heard. Down to every voice crack and Marty-esque inflection perfectly replicates Fox's Marty, which is a very good thing. The music score is also outstanding, and the vaguely Huey Lewis and the News audio clips round things out nicely.

All in all, this first episode of Back to the Future: The Game bodes well for the following episodes. With a funny and engrossing story, and outstanding voice work, this is one game any fan of the franchise would do well to play. Yeah, some of the characters are a little out of place (here's looking at you, Edna), and the puzzles don't quite strike the balance between brain-teasing and being just plain easy. Everything comes together in the end to create a feel good cinematic experience that any fan of Back to the Future will want to check out, and everyone else would do well to check it out.