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The Terminator (Sega CD) artwork

The Terminator (Sega CD) review

"We ended up with lame Terminator games for both the SNES and Genesis, perpetuating the belief that movie-based games always suck. But The Terminator for Sega CD is different. This isn't an enhanced port of the twenty-minute Genesis game -- it's a lengthy, redesigned adventure with plenty of action and hidden secrets throughout each stage, and it definitely does not suck."

Terminator 2: Judgment Day made a half-billion dollars at the box office. That's a huge chunk of money today, but back in 1991, that was enough to buy a third-world nation. What had once been known as "that cool '80s sci-fi film" suddenly became the most marketable franchise of the moment, and videogame publishers couldn't resist the allure of some sweet, succulent tie-in cash.

That's how we ended up with lame Terminator games for both the SNES and Genesis, perpetuating the belief that movie-based games always suck. But The Terminator for Sega CD is different. This isn't an enhanced port of the twenty-minute Genesis game -- it's a lengthy, redesigned adventure with plenty of action and hidden secrets throughout each stage, and it definitely does not suck.

The Terminator opens in a shocking future, an era in which humans are hunted by mechanical warriors. All the elements of civilization that we take for granted -- housing, schools, markets, farmland, art -- have been reduced to smoldering rubble. This is the world of Kyle Reese, and the game placed his fate -- nay, humanity's fate -- in my hands. Can I escape this horrifying future? Can I travel back in time and protect the human race? Is it possible to protect my attractive love interest? Or will the merciless terminator, who stalks me endlessly, seal the world's doom?

In other words, The Terminator is about jumping over pits, climbing ladders, and shooting things.

An action platformer doesn't succeed based on its narrative progression. It succeeds by being freakin' cool, and that means SMOOTH ACTION, SWEET VISUALS, and LOTS OF SECRETS. Aside from grainy video sequences between levels (universally skipped by all 16-bit kids), nothing ever breaks the action. No tutorials, no long-winded revelations, no talking arms, no pacifistic messages, no nonsense!

From the first moment Kyle runs through a dilapidated building, it's obvious that the developers put a lot of care into giving us smooth but swift animation. Kyle's fluid leg motions drive the ladies wild, and when he obtains a trenchcoat that billows in the wind -- watch out! This is different from other games of the era like Out of this World or Prince of Persia, which looked silky but controlled slowly. Kyle moves rapidly and responds to player input immediately, whether he's jumping, lobbing grenades, or gunning enemies down with eight-directional aim. The early levels are a bit too sparsely populated, which cuts down on the amount of smooth shooting, but this improves in later stages as Kyle stylishly fends off robotic hounds, mohawk punks, and police cruisers. I particularly appreciate the shotgun's exaggerated recoil.

In addition to slick animation, The Terminator also shows off vibrant colors and imaginative backgrounds. Even the apocalyptic stages include appealing details, such as the moon shining above blue night skies, smoke rising from abandoned campfires, lightning bolts flashing in the distance, and piles of skulls scrolling by in cool parallax style. It's always fun to explore attractive scenery, although the game rewards exploration in other ways, via powerups hidden throughout each stage. While re-playing the game for this review, I discovered a nook in the first level that I hadn't seen before -- "I can climb down that fence into a hidden area? Cool!" It's not every day that I discover a secret that's been undiscovered for ten years.

So now that I've told you why The Terminator is a good 16-bit platformer, here's why someone in the year 2012 should care about this particular platformer any more than they should care about Mystic Defender, Kendo Rage, or numerous other good 16-bit action games:

Great music.

A lot of people know of Tommy Tallarico as "that guy who used to be on G4", but what more people ought to know is that he's a remarkable videogame music composer and performer.

Consider the track called "Metamorphosis", which plays during one of The Terminator's factory stages. It kicks off with reverberating percussion and rhythmic staccato notes, which represent the sound of machine presses and the clockwork nature of an assembly line. There's a steam effect in there, too, which adds an interesting timbre while reinforcing the song's industrial nature. It's an elaborate but restrained piece. Even when the melody rises in intensity and volume, even as it reaches the breaking point where it's about to bust through that brick wall like the Kool-Aid Man . . . it calms. The music slows down and breathes. And then, after we've accepted its methodical rhythm, the song explodes with unexpected frenzy.

"Visions" is another favorite track. I like the melody most of all, but listen to the percussion sometime. Aside from a brief eight-measure sequence, it never stands out -- and even during that sequence, it only stands out as a means to reinforce how vacant the instrumentation has become. Overall, the percussion performs as percussion should: a supporting role to enhance the depth of the music. But if you listen closely -- you'll probably need headphones -- it's amazing how often the pattern shifts, sometimes only slightly, to keep up with the main musical line. I'm impressed by how thoroughly each of The Terminator's tracks have been arranged and performed.

A lot of people love "Destinations Unknown", but I think I've dissected the music enough. Point is, Tommy Tallarico's soundtrack was completely unlike anything coming out of Japan, which means it's completely unlike anything else we were hearing in 16-bit action games, since Japan ruled that generation. From the opening to the ending, this is music that tells a story. You don't even have to play the game to enjoy that. But if you do play The Terminator, it won't let you down. It's better than those other movie-based videogames. Play it for yourself. You'll see -- and hear -- that I'm right.

Kenshiru's avatar
Freelance review by Pat Floyd (September 26, 2012)

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Suskie posted September 27, 2012:

That's weird. Just last week I went on a massive nostalgia trip with the soundtrack for Advent Rising, which was composed by none other than Tommy Tallarico. I wasn't aware of anything else he'd done, but his work on that game alone was enough to convince me that he's a genius. I'd recommend this track. Or this one. Hell, just listen to the whole thing. It's exactly as you describe the soundtrack for this Terminator game: music that tells a story. (Unfortunately, Advent Rising itself is a mess of a game, but the amazing music goes a long way in giving it redeeming value.)

I really, really liked this review, mainly for that unexpected but powerful angle you took at the end. I doubt I'll ever give this game a try (I'm not much of a retro guy), but thanks for the music recs and the engaging read!
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zippdementia posted September 28, 2012:

Yeah, Suskie, the tracks in the Sega Terminator are really effin' good!

For a moment I thought this was a review of the NES Terminator and I was feeling obligated to burn it with acid fire, but then I realized you were talking, quite intelligently and compellingly, about what is probably the only good Terminator game on the market.

Which is kinda insane, that we haven't seen a remake of some of these games.

Thank you for those links, by the way. I'm going to have to rip those.

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