In our never-ending quest to prove that Canada ruins everything, RGM would like to introduce Gamers Exhibit A. Let the record so state the writer is holding up a copy of Dirty Harry for the NES, programmed by now-bankrupt Canadian developer Gray Matter, and published in 1990 by Mindscape, Inc. With the cartridge now entered into evidence, we shall proceed with the inquisition. Prosecution shall begin with their opening statement: “I know what you’re thinking: will RGM rate my game an F, or only a D-minus? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is Revenge of the License, the most powerful column focused on licensed video games in the world, and would blow the dust clean off your connectors, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well? Do ya, game…?’
Actually the more important question here is who would dare to make a game based on Clint Eastwood’s tough-as-nails Harry Callahan character and fail to make it the most spectacular criminal-shooting, suspect-beating, rights-violating simulator in the history of video games? Seriously, Eastwood turns 85 this year, and despite being more than twice my age, I have no doubt who would prevail if the two of us wound up in a fight because he’s the most terrifying senior citizen on the planet. Clint Eastwood could kill me using nothing but his eyebrows, the nape of his neck, and the back of one knee–and that’s assuming I somehow managed to wrestle the gun from his hand prior to our altercation. That’s today, in 2015. So you can only imagine what a much younger Eastwood could do to a person in 1990 when he was still a few years away from collecting Social Security. I can only assume the president himself intervened to prevent Eastwood from flying northward to create an international incident upon learning how badly Gray Matter manhandled a game based on his exploits.
Dirty Harry, carrying the unofficial subtitle ‘The War Against Drugs’, puts the player in the well-worn shoes of Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department. Rather than re-telling any of Callahan’s five previous legendary on-screen exploits, the game serves as a sort of unofficial sixth story that takes place after 1988’s “The Dead Pool”. This time, the detective who draws all the dirty jobs sees a new drug kingpin, calling himself The Anaconda, flooding the streets with the largest supply of illegal narcotics the city has ever seen after murdering the previous drug lord known as The Dealmaker. Callahan asks to be assigned to the case only to be told by his superiors to take a vacation instead. Thus, with no official status and no badge to hide behind should things go wrong, Harry decides the best vacation he could take is straight to the heart of The Anaconda’s drug operation. So far, so good. We’d all watch this if it was made into a movie, right? Of course we would. So why wouldn’t we play a game based on this story?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Dirty Harry is something of a mess. Controls are all over the place and confusing as heck. Up + B to throw a kick? Push A + B to jump? A to aim your gun, then A again to shoot? The default position for game control design is that the more frequently you have to use a given action in the game, the less-complex it should be to pull off. I understand the NES controller only has two buttons plus Start and Select (which is not used at all in this game), but somehow other games managed to work out coherent control schemes without resorting to something so needlessly complex and so violently against the muscle memory we’ve all developed as the result of playing other games. Gray Matter takes none of this into consideration, making even the simple act of navigating the levels an exercise in frustration.
Speaking of those levels, what would you say if I told you the game has only three stages? Super Mario Bros., the first title virtually every American NES gamer experienced at home, had eight worlds, each with four stages, and the best Dirty Harry can manage is three? Granted, each of these stages is pretty large: the first stage comprises a number of streets, alleys, run-down buildings, and a trip to the sewers, but even so this just seems like too few areas, especially when the action is as repetitive as it is here. Harry blows away punks, dodges traps like floor lasers, jumps on snakes, wrenches open locked doors, and kicks open nightstands in a seemingly ceaseless orgy of vandalism and it’s about as fun as watching your aunt and uncle’s vacation slides, because the game mechanics don’t account for the possibility a gamer might want to enjoy the game he or she is playing.
We’ll put you in a standard Dirty Harry situation: you’ve just crowbared your way into the fifth apartment in your latest string of unsanctioned burglaries looking for drugs when you’re confronted with an innocuous-looking chest of drawers and are forced to make a vital decision. You could kick it open, in which case it might be filled with drugs, cash, or other useful materials. Or you could avoid opening it, because someone might have booby-trapped it with explosives which will injure your sixty-year-old legs. Is there any way to tell what might be in that chest of drawers? Of course not. Which is why you’ll kick it open, and curse loudly when it blows up in your face. And this is a problem you’ll face over and over because the only way to get the items you need to progress in the game is to search literally every nook and cranny while hoping Chuck Norris doesn’t sue you for performing too many roundhouse kicks without his permission.
Now, in all fairness, the game doesn’t randomize the locations of items so if you blow open a safe to discover it contains bullets, you can rest assured that safe will always have bullets in it. Likewise, empty containers will always be empty, and ones rigged with bombs will always contain bombs. And hey, doors that lead to empty rooms with no possible exit except to physically reset the NES will always lead to that same Twilight Zone-ish nightmare, so as long as you remember where everything is for your next playthrough, you’ll be just fine. Thanks, game, thanks a lot.
See, this is why Dirty Harry deserves a Dirty Sanchez. Its developers show no logic in their design of things, and progress is expected to be made via trial-and-error and rote memorization without any help from them and no indication as to what makes overcoming certain puzzles possible. Example: early on in the first stage, there’s a door guarded by a massive thug who you cannot fight, because his punches send you flying across the room. The door behind him is open, and you’ve got to assume there’s something important back there because who guards a totally empty room, but getting past him is impossible. Unless you backtrack to that building later, after jumping in front of a random guy just hanging out in the hallway of a later apartment, which causes him to trade clothes with Harry. Now, clad in a white suit instead of a blue one, the guard is content to let Harry pass without so much as a wedgie so he can rescue the woman being held hostage, who rewards him with several extra lives. Without someone explicitly explaining how this works, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to get past the world’s worst bouncer, and even if you did randomly figure out how to trade clothing there’s nothing in the game that says, “Oh, by the way, now you’re disguised and the guy in Apartment 1 will let you pass.” Trial and error with no help at all from anybody. If I wanted that, I’d be playing Deathtrap Dungeon (which, don’t worry, we’ll get into that catastrophe one of these days too).
One final thought: the Dirty Harry films were cultural icons of the 1970s, so why did somebody think it would be an awesome idea to try and keep the franchise going in 1990? “The Dead Pool” is, by all accounts, the worst film of a series that had steadily declined in popularity with each sequel that came out. Why set out to acquire the license to a film series that was already on its way out to pasture? What could you possibly hope to accomplish? If your desire was to send the series out on a high note via your 8-bit tie-in, Gray Matter, then you failed in the worst possible fashion. If your desire was a quick cash grab, then you also failed spectacularly, because by 1990 the Dirty Harry ship had long-since left port.
When the best things anyone can say about your game is that the password system includes some cute nods to other Eastwood movies, and you got a nice PCM sample of Eastwood’s famous “Go ahead…make my day” line for the title screen, there’s really nothing else that needs to be said. Gray Matter, hopefully you learned your lesson on this one. Sometimes, when a man asks if you feel lucky, the wrong answer can be, “I gots to know.” How these guys went on to create the awesome Return to Castle Wolfenstein is unclear, but they should be glad for the opportunity. Otherwise their swan song might have been The Crow: City of Angels on the Saturn, and that would have been even more embarrassing.