In October of 2014, I proclaimed The Ring: Terror’s Realm on the Sega Dreamcast the absolute worst licensed video game ever made. It fails in so many spectacular ways and creates such a train wreck of confusion and absurdity that I devoted an entire article to explaining this point. A little over a year later, a new challenger has joined the fight. Please give a lukewarm, limp-wristed shake of the hand to No Escape for the Super Nintendo. And the crowd goes ‘meh’.
“No Escape” is a 1994 popcorn flick where Ray Liotta of “Goodfellas” fame plays a soldier named Robbins who guns down his commanding officer for being a dickweed and is sent to prison for doing the right thing. Once he arrives, his skills as a soldier single him out for attention by the warden who decides he’d make a fine addition to Absolom. An island straight out of nightmares, Absolom has no walls, no bars, no gates, no guards. Prisoners are condemned to Absolom for the rest of their lives, and often ‘the rest of their lives’ translates to ‘an hour or so’, given the place looks like a cannibal-infested, Mad Max-ish apocalyptic wasteland. Fortunately for Robbins he finds the closest thing to civilization on Absolom (a clan calling themselves “The Insiders”), becomes a member of the tribe, and conspires with Lance Henriksen and Kevin Dillon to break out and tell the world about this blatant violation of human rights and “Lord of the Flies” copyright.
No Escape, by contrast, is a 1994 action/adventure title which bears a passing resemblance to the film but is a much more realistic depiction of what awaits the unsuspecting in prison: unrelenting beatings, getting jumped by rival gangs, and a dodgy control mechanic that takes a few hours to get used to. And that’s just the first level! Damn, who were the sadistic pricks behind this game? Wait a moment. I sense something: a presence I’ve not felt since…
Oh come on–Bits Studio again? What the hell, Carl? What did I do to deserve–look, is this about the chocolate fountain thing? Come on: I apologized, insurance covered nearly all of the damage, and we both know that intern wasn’t going to amount to anything anyway. Maybe you should think about not serving Steel Reserve at New Year’s Eve parties, and we wouldn’t have these little errors in judgement, hmm? Some people just cannot take a joke, and then stuff like this happens:
No Escape starts off really well, with a nearly four-minute long opening sequence which sets the stage for Robbins getting the ol’ heave-ho on to the island which is to be his new cell. Unfortunately between this and the rotoscoped actors used to give the game some graphical oomph, this point is where the developers ran out of money. Bits Studios’ 16-bit calling card always seems to be controls so dodgy you wouldn’t consider leaving them alone with your dog for five minutes. This would be fine if there weren’t always a rampaging horde of Outsiders pining for your rich, supple man-flesh chasing you through the jungles. Mess with the controls long enough and you’ll realize Robbins is capable of defending himself with his feet and fists. You’ll also realize there are more cannibals than Robbins has uppercuts: no sooner do you down one of the freaks than another sprints in from off-camera to take his place. Your only hope is to run (double-tap the control pad and hope the game accepts both inputs).
Running is all well and good, but the Outsiders (like all good ol’ boys who play the most dangerous game) have rigged a variety of snares and traps along the trails. The ground gives way to reveal rows of metal-tipped spears to skewer the unwary. Rocks and tires drop from the trees to bash noggins. Spiked logs are deployed to hamstring prey that moves too quickly. Robbins starts with a decent enough health bar (he is a soldier, after all), but it doesn’t take long for traps and Outsider fists to take their toll which is why it’s important to both find safety and start collecting useful bits of gear as soon as possible. The good news is your health is restored every time you transition from screen to screen. The bad news is, those transitions cannot happen fast enough, and until you get familiar with the level layouts it’s not uncommon to lose every life you have on the very first screen. Bits Studios adheres to simple game design methodology: “If you quit before the first boss fight, it doesn’t matter because we still got your money.”
Safety is found is the camp called home by the Insiders, a group led by Father, who carve out a living by banding together to provide shelter, food, and even business opportunities via trade. The whole camp runs on the barter system, with each person interested in different things. If you’ve got something neat, and the other person has something you need, see if you can swap: a broken Ruger pistol for a screwdriver, a can of gasoline for a crowbar, a purloined letter for a map of the coastline? All this and more are possible, and this is where the adventure part comes in.
When not at the Insider’s Camp, Robbins can muck around in his inventory to make new things by combining items. Unfortunately there’s no real way to tell what is useful from what is crap, so until you put lots of time experimenting with what goes where, you won’t make much progress in this area.
Additionally while No Escape wants to encourage open-world exploration, it does absolutely no hand holding in this regard. Some areas of the island are accessible, but others may be locked off until you’re better prepared (you need a light source before you can go exploring the underground area, for example). While there are only five areas on the island, each of those areas has multiple stages to pass through, each with its own group of enemies, hazards, and cast-off bits to collect.
No Escape actually has the trappings of a decent adventure platformer buried somewhere in its design document, and it would have been awesome to see what a truly great developer could have pulled off with the concept. I like the idea, and it’s certainly an untried avenue for the 16-bit world, but Bits Studio was the wrong fit for this game. Whether it was rushed to market in time for the film’s release, or nobody on the team cared enough to polish up controls which kill you just as often as the Outsiders, No Escape is best condemned to its own island where no one else has to put up with its bullshit.