Publisher: Sony Imagesoft
Released: November 1993
US Cartridge ID: NES-HG-USA
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Based Carolco’s 1993 Sylvester Stallone blockbuster, Cliffhanger for the NES appeared on shelves six months after the movie’s theatrical release. It was one of six Cliffhanger games released by Sony Imagesoft between 1993-94, and is virtually identical to both the Gameboy and Sega Game Gear versions. Like the film, the story begins with terrorists trying to steal $100 million from a Treasury jet in midflight. An FBI plane shoots the terrorists’ plane down over the Rockies, and the survivors send out a fake distress signal. It is picked up by a ranger, Gabe, who immediately sets out to help the “hikers in distress.”
Cliffhanger is a platform action game that, unlike most licensed-based NES titles, uses the film’s plot directly to drive the course of the game. Many of the six main levels are introduced with cutscenes that paraphrase large sections of the movie in order to provide context for the in-game action; for example, the first stage ends with Gabe finding the head bad guy, Qualen, and the terrorists’ downed plane. They’ve kidnapped Gabe’s partner, Hal, and are now holding him hostage. If Gabe wants to see him again, he must find the suitcases full of money that were scatted in the wreck, and bring them as a ransom. Similar to Die Hard, this cinematic plot framing not only links the game soundly to its source material, but it also provides the player with a justification for their actions.
The platforming action takes place entirely in the mountains, and primarily consists of killing terrorists while collecting money, items, and weapons. While making his way to each destination, Gabe will be assaulted constantly by wolves, dive-bombing birds, and Qualen’s henchmen. Until he can find a limited-use knife, gun, rock, or stick of dynamite, Gabe is left to rely on punching and jump-kicking anything that gets in his way. There are two items that can collected to improve Gabe’s abilities: the climbing gloves, required in order to scale a frozen waterfall in the fifth level, and the spiked boots, needed for traction when running in the snow, allowing Gabe to jump across wide chasms later in the game. If either of these items are missed, the game is rendered unwinnable, and must be restarted. Health can be replenished by finding campfires, and the amount restored is dependent on how much money Gabe has collected; he must burn the money in order to keep him warm while he tends to his wounds.
Cliffhanger controls extremely well. The controls are responsive and quick, and sync up suitably with the fluid animation of the player sprite (as opposed to Prince of Persia, where the animation often makes the control feel loose and unresponsive). There are some odd control mapping choices, however: after finding the spiked shoes, the D-Pad must be held diagonally up and left or right in order to make Gabe break into a run, which can occasionally make clearing large gaps tricky. Item use is also awkward, since the player must tap the A button while holding the Down button to cycle through the inventory. This system occasionally leads to unfair hits, since onscreen enemies will still be actively trying to attack: though the game isn’t paused, Gabe cannot move while selecting an item. Luckily, weapons are unnecessary for most of the game, minimizing this issue.
The music in Cliffhanger is the work of prolific Commodore 64 game composer Mark Cooksey (of Elite, a British game developer popular in the 80’s), resulting in music that is highly reminiscent of the distinctive sound of the C64’s famous SID PSG chip. It’s extremely catchy and effectively conveys the appropriate amount of tension and danger to support the onscreen action. There are too few tracks, though, and they are repeated constantly throughout the game. The graphics don’t fare as well as the sound, the sole highlights being the reasonably good quality digitized photo of Sly at the end of each stage and the aforementioned animations. Gabe and many of his enemies are animated smoothly, but the sprites are tiny and almost completely devoid of detail. Most of the game looks akin to older PC games running in CGA graphics mode – the backgrounds are mostly big swaths of flat color, with the simply drawn mountains covered in speckle patterns of pixels. Many of the levels use garish shades of pink and green to outline platforms and objects, seemingly designed to be as offensive to the eye as possible for no discernible reason. It is also interesting to note that the NES and Gameboy versions are identical to one another, excepting the lack of color and slightly inferior sound quality on the portable version.
Cliffhanger is a tough sell because of its inexcusably poor presentation, made even worse by the fact that the game was released in 1993, when games like Zen: Intergalactic Ninja and Kirby’s Adventure were beginning to push the NES to its limits. If this glaring flaw can be overlooked, though, solid controls, good music, and forgiving game play make Cliffhanger an enjoyable, if short lived, challenge.
Sony Imagesoft, 11/1993