Console: Sega Genesis
In a not-too-distant apocalyptic future, machines have taken over and pushed mankind to the brink of extinction. You are Kyle Reese, a futuristic soldier on a desperate mission to travel back through time and save humanity. The plan? To gain access to time travel equipment by openly assaulting an enemy base overflowing with nearly invincible killer robots. Single-handedly. Without a gun. The game gives you one life, and there are no continues.
Most games tend to start out easy and then progressively difficult, but much like its namesake, The Terminator lets you know right from the start that it hates you, your family, your friends, and basically all of humanity. Within 5 seconds of starting the game, you have to destroy a gigantic laser-equipped tank that can kill you instantly if it touches you. You don’t get a gun until the second level, so your only weapon against it is hand grenades. One other thing – the grenades are so ineffective that they might actually just be rocks. On the plus side, at least you won’t have to do much back-tracking after it kills you.
Should you survive the tank encounter, you can begin making your way toward the enemy base, where you’ll only have to worry about fighting your way past an infinite number of heavily armed robotic Arnold Swartzenegger clones. Did I mention that you still don’t have a gun?
At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that your character has a few other key limitations. You can’t shoot or throw grenades while ducking, jumping, or running. You also can’t aim up or down, or crawl forward. This, combined with the cramped levels, makes it almost impossible to dodge enemy fire. As a result, fighting the Terminators is pretty much a battle of attrition – you take a few steps, throw rocks at your enemies while they shoot you in the head, then take a few more steps forward and repeat the process. If you’re lucky, which seems extremely unlikely considering that you’re playing this godforsaken game in the first place, your enemies will drop enough health packs to keep you alive for a while. Even so, there will eventually come a time where terminators will start appearing both ahead of and behind you. At this point you’ll have to make a tough decision – you can either spend valuable seconds killing the ones on your rear, while the terminators ahead of you gang up and shoot you to pieces, or else you can ignore them to keep moving on, and simply let them sap your health for the rest of the stage. Don’t bother spending a lot of time worrying about this decision, though – you’re pretty much screwed either way.
If you get through the first stage, and that’s a pretty optimistic assumption to make since 95% of you won’t, you’ll find yourself in Los Angles, 1984. This being the 1980s, or “present day” as the game likes to call it despite coming out in 1991, there’s only one Terminator for you to worry about, though you now have to deal with the police as well as homeless people. At first this may sound easier than the previous level, especially since you’ve upgraded from throwing rocks at your enemies to wielding a shotgun (which you keep tucked under a trench coat, so that you look like a flasher every time you attempt to shoot something), but apparently officers of the LAPD are immortal, and can shrug off major shotgun wounds after a few seconds rest. Hobos, being civicly minded, attempt to aid the police by throwing firebombs at you. Hey, what did you expect? It’s LA.
Despite your best efforts to avoid capture, you begin the third stage in police custody. Jail is a little different in The Terminator than what you might be expecting. For one thing, all the criminals are allowed to walk around freely while fully armed. For another thing, the police (as well as various incarcerated hobos), are still trying to kill you. Your goal in this level is simply to avoid being killed, find Sarah Connor before the Terminator does, and break out of prison by walking out the front door. Staying true to the film, the final level takes place in a factory where you finally crush the Terminator in an industrial press, which was the only way to really kill one of those things back in 1984. Apparently the weapons of 20 years ago are no match for the rocks of tomorrow.
The main problem with Terminator is that it’s extremely frustrating, and that’s at least partially to blame on the controls. With better control, this could have been a decent run & gun action game whose extreme difficulty might have made revered among hardcore gamers. Instead, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting hit, and fighting back means standing in place and almost certainly taking more damage than it’s worth. As a result, you spend most levels just trying to rush through to the end before all your health gets sapped away.
Speaking of the difficulty, it’s probably worth mentioning there is an option to make the game easier or harder. After about my 10,000th failed attempt to get through the first level, I finally swallowed my pride and set the difficulty to easy. Six minutes later, I had beaten the entire game without ever coming close to dying. That’s either some extremely poor design, or else my Genesis has learned how to be sarcastic. The game also features 2 higher difficulty settings, which I didn’t try. I assume that next highest difficulty simply takes you to the Game Over screen as soon as the game starts, and the hardest setting does the same thing while sending painful electric shocks through the controller.