Retro Video Game Reviews: Cliffhanger (NES)

Overall Rating: 1.5/5 Stars
The formula of “cheaply and quickly produce a Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge that capitalizes on a popular movie or other license” was certainly rampant throughout the life cycle of the NES console, a terrible trend that produced dozens of shoddy, low-quality games.

In 1993, Sony Imagesoft developed what seemed to be yet another title in the long line of poor license-based 8-bit video games. This would be Cliffhanger, based on the Sylvester Stallone action film released in the same year about a rescue climber that sets out on a mission to save the victims of a plane crash, only to learn that the “victims” are actually terrorists that had been shot down trying to steal millions of dollars from a U.S. treasury plan. What ensues is a so-called action-packed chase through mountain terrain with plenty of punching, ducking, jumping, running, boulder-dodging, and the occasional flying leap.


Controlling Gabe, the protagonist, the player must traverse several stages in this two-dimensional platformer, occasionally defeating bosses and gaining items that include enhanced weapons and an early pair of boots that enables running. Precision jumping, item-finding, boulder-dodging, and creature-killing are all included in the adventure.

The actual gameplay mechanics are not inherently terrible, but there are a few notable quirks that seem to purposefully defy convention and somewhat counterintuitive. For example, in order to run, does the control scheme call for holding one button while also holding the directional pad left or right? No, so maybe it includes the popular “dash” function, which enables running via a double-tap of the directional pad? No; instead, the player must find the pair of boots on the first level, then hold the directional pad diagonally up-left or up-right for a second or two in order to suddenly toggle into a run. This is an odd control, yet necessary to master in order to make some of the jumps. Then there is the inexplicable campfires. In the film, Gabe and the obligatory female love interest seek shelter one night in the mountains and must burn money to survive. In the game, Gabe encounters little things that are obviously campfires; if the player has never seen the movie or read the instruction booklet, then every gaming instinct shouts “Avoid them! Dodge them! Jump over them!” But, no, this would be misguided, as the campfires actually amazingly heal the player, and restore the health bar to an extent dependent on the amount of money available to “burn” that the player has collected. This is incredible.

In addition, the hit detection is not quite tightly developed. Sometimes it actually too forgiving, one instance being the seemingly sci-fi superhero ease of which Gabe dispatches of bird through incredible flying kicks. Another time is whenever Gabe is standing on an edge; he can hang remarkably fall of without falling, although this is probably appropriate considering the game is called Cliffhanger. In contrast, however, some of the boulder-dodging portions of the quest (the second level is a major headache) are aggravatingly difficult, along with some of the boss fights, including a couple of the very rare portions of the game where the crouch function may be used to some sort of advantageous effect.


Cliffhanger looks terrible. The backgrounds have this weird dotted effect; not quite pixelated, but more like the pointillist style of painting, where an image is comprised of hundreds of little dots rather than lines, curves, and collections of shapes. This alone would be forgivable, but not only are the mountains dotted, but many of them are green. This lends the game a sickly appearance, for which there is no cure in sight.

The animations are fairly smooth, but the sprite animations include too many frames and actually serve to slow gameplay down more than they should. Whenever Gabe turns from one direction to the other, rather than do it instantaneously like most other NES games, there is a split-second spent displaying a sprite frame showing Gabe facing you, the player, playing the game. It is an odd effect, along with the not-quite-right jumping animations as well. This may be forgivable if the player-character at least resembled Sly in all his muscle-bound action-hero glory, but alas, the faceless green jumpsuit-wearing pale figure looks nothing like the muscular hero intended.


The sound effects are basic and lame. The music is utterly atrocious, like an early PC game, with the background tracks sounding like they were put through a staccato filter, and a general “hey make this theme suck” feature. There were probably Atari 2600 games with superior sound. Typically, the soundtrack should not make a real difference in gameplay experience, only to perhaps enhance it, but in certain parts of Cliffhanger (load up the title screen, for one) the sound truly is bad enough to be distracting.


For a license game, Cliffhanger is half-decent and actually manages to be playable. In a broader view, though, this title represents a gaming concept that failed to meet its great potential. For every aspect it got correct (starting with multiple lives and continues, item pick-ups, varying obstacles, gameplay frame that can scroll back and forth as necessary), there are components to keep it from being truly fun (unnecessarily frustrating portions, bizarre sprite animation flow, inexcusably bad graphics and sound for a game released so late in the NES library). Even without stretching subjective context, this would seem like a below-average platformer. But when you step back and realize that this was made well after the Mega Man games, Legend of Zelda, the Super Mario Bros. titles, Metroid, Capcom’s work with Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck and Duck Tales, Kirby’s Adventure, Adventure Island, and other examples, and see how superior those cartridges are to Cliffhanger, you begin to realize that the folks who created this game intentionally chose to produce a cheap, uninspired, shallow, sub-par gaming experience. For that sin, and the end result, this can only rescue one and a half stars out of five.