Let’s say you hit the jackpot. You just chased down one of the biggest licenses you could hope to land. A legendary bulwark of American cinema based on a best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, “The Godfather” is a guaranteed slam-dunk in the gaming world no matter what you deliver. So how do you pay homage to this incredible story, create a worthy tie-in for the third film which is due to be released very soon, and leave even the most ardent nitpickers with no ground upon which to stand? How do you capture the nuance of character, the feeling of running a crime syndicate, the internal struggle of the desire to leave contrasted with the family that keeps pulling you back in? If you’re publisher U.S. Gold in 1992, you apparently look at what Data East did with Robocop four years earlier and say, “That’ll do.”
The Godfather: The Action Game casts you in the role of a minor mafioso, a thug looking to prove himself on the streets of New York in the service of the Corleone family. “Proving yourself to the Corleone family” in this case entails walking to the right while making enough corpses to fill Times Square. Boy, you sure couldn’t pull that off with any kind of generic shooter–you need the likes of The Godfather to really drive home the point (/sarcasm). Why do I do this to myself?
I will say this: the game’s opening sequence is damn impressive. The Amiga’s graphical and sound capabilities utterly blew away the competition at the time, and the intro to The Godfather is no exception. A newspaper spins to the center of the screen, the headline screaming “MOB MASSACRE” before swirling away to reveal the location: New York, 1946. The war’s over, our boys have come home, and we’re treated to a gorgeous cinematic of the Big Apple’s skyline as the story is laid out for the roughly 42 people in the world who don’t know The Godfather deals with organized crime.
From the skyline, we pan down in a gorgeous showcase of the Amiga’s ability to handle multiple parallax scrolling backgrounds without breaking a sweat: six different layers stand between us and the one that serves as the backdrop for the first stage. This last layer is a rendering of an apartment building so detailed (by 1992’s standards) that you see every individual brick, every slat on the window blinds, every wrought iron bar on the fire escapes as the camera continues to pan in a downward diagonal, inching closer to the sidewalk until we can read the address numbers, the shop names painted on the windows, then continues gliding along to show an intersection with more different buildings on the other side of the street. Period-accurate cars drive back and forth along the street, an elevated train zips by in the background. More signs advertise a hotel, a bar, a bus stop, and in walks our hero…
If this was all I saw of The Godfather and had to base my entire review on the opening sequences for the various levels (the car bomb that opens stage 2 in 1957 is equally impressive), I’d be singing the game’s praises to heaven and back. Unfortunately while it looks gorgeous and the artists clearly took plenty of time to render the locations (walk to the end of the level and you’ll never encounter a repeated texture for any shop sign), everything else about The Godfather screams ‘inadequacy’ with a lung capacity it shouldn’t surprise me to find. The biggest offender of all is gameplay.
Beyond having only the most tenuous connections to the franchise (the 1940’s setting comes from the first, there’s a visit to Cuba as a nod to the second, and a boss fight with a helicopter linking it to the third), the gameplay elements could have been swiped from any of hundreds of previous games where the protagonist saunters to the right and fires his gun. 1988’s Robocop arcade game was already mentioned, but you can likely think of dozens of other examples: Bad Dudes, Vigilante, Rygar, Rastan, hell even Super Mario Bros. all have this same design document. Your job as the new Corleone muscle is to walk the streets and kill anyone who gives you a hard time. You’ve got plenty of bullets, and a generous life meter, but the rival gangs are on the warpath and won’t hesitate to snipe you from the windows, come at you on foot, or even execute a vicious drive-by. While it might be tempting to hold down the fire button and slaughter everyone in the streets, Don Vito Corleone looks down on those who spill innocent blood–make sure that guy plans to punch you in the jaw before you turn him into pavement pizza, or you’ll be the one sleeping with the fishes.
The other problem with the side-scrolling stages is the presence of police. Naturally you don’t want to give the long arm of the law any reason to wrap itself around your neck and squeeze, so the cops wandering the street boost the difficulty level. On the other hand, it’s absurd to watch one of New York’s (Vegas’s, or wherever) Finest drift up and down the sidewalk blissfully unconcerned while you and four other felons play a deadly game of lead transfusion. I get that New Yorkers aren’t phased by much, but a four block run-and-gun scenario should at least lead to some flashing lights and screaming bystanders, right?
The third-person side-scrolling stages are broken up with short first-person shooter stages similar to Operation Wolf and Lethal Enforcers where you patrol the screen with your crosshairs, waiting for gun-toting enemies to pop up so you can cap them first. These are nicely done, with large character sprites and a small amount of animation like opening curtains and swiveling chairs, but they’re far too short and feel like an afterthought to the main game. I like them, they fit, but there aren’t enough of them to keep your interest for long.
A word about difficulty shouldn’t go amiss here either. The Godfather is not easy, and it doesn’t care. Beyond the cops and civilians, there are the plethora of enemies who will always outnumber you and attack from multiple angles. Your life bar is generous, but health recovery items restore too little to matter much in the long run, and even though whole decades pass between stages, your life bar doesn’t recover a single pixel. Seriously, twelve years go by after completing stage 1, but apparently Don Corleone’s medical plan doesn’t cover fixing up his own workers. True to reality, you have but a single life to give to the family. Don’t worry, they’ll fix you up with a nice tombstone when you bite the big one.
The Godfather isn’t a terrible game, but it’s a complete waste of such a recognizable property. Making a generic side-scrolling action title in 1992 isn’t pushing any boundaries, completely ignores what makes the source material compelling in the first place, and insults the story by showcasing a Corleone family satisfied with wanton brutality and bloodshed in the streets instead of the nuanced justice handed out as strictly business in the film. Instead, developer Creative Materials stripped any facet of cerebral strategy from the project and left an unsatisfying walk-and-gun in its place. Even more surprising, the gaming press of the day went nuts over this, dropping 80% and 90%+ scores on it all over the place. Without the license, this game would be a slightly above-average 2D side scroller. With the added weight of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic however, The Godfather: The Action Game loses all respect. As Don Corleone says, “Respect is earned, not given. These people have done nothing to earn my respect.” Amen, Godfather. Amen.