Although some of its earlier movie licences were rather shoddy, Ocean soon discovered a solid template and made some of the best examples around. Along with Robocop and Batman The Movie, The Untouchables is considered to be one of the best examples of Ocean’s film tie-ins. Here Gary Bracey and James Higgins reveal how the magic happened.
Is there a science to creating a good videogame tie-in? We’d argue the case that there is, and put it to you that Ocean Software proved the formula could be captured. Of its biggest videogames based on blockbusters – RoboCop, Batman: The Movie and The Untouchables – the latter release might have been the least successful, but in terms of offering a faithful replication of the action captured on celluloid it was arguably the most exemplary of the three.
While the first stage is the weakest, it still has nice touches like being able to juggle enemies.
Having reared a couple of licensed turkeys at the start of the Eighties, with its interactive Highlander and Knight Rider cassette tapes mystifying everyone remotely familiar with the properties, thankfully it didn’t take long for things at Ocean Software to take a dramatic turn for the better. Joining the company at the time that those two infamous games were midway through development, Gary Bracey was brought in to oversee projects at Ocean and quickly became concerned about the state of play (literally) at the company. With both Highlander and Knight Rider being developed by external freelancers, he identified that the culture at Ocean had to change dramatically if the standard of licensed game tie-ins was to improve. To help a better class of product emerge from its gates, Gary set about growing in-house development at Ocean, in order to allow greater control and observation of game projects that would have previously been outsourced to contracted coders. Like Eliot Ness – leader of the US Treasury’s Untouchables prohibition enforcement squad – he shook things up by putting together a crack team.
In 1985 Ocean secured the game rights to the films Rambo, Short Circuit and a then-little unknown quantity from Orion Pictures called RoboCop. Part of Gary’s role at Ocean was to read and inspect the scripts sent to the company for consideration, and, after reading the script to RoboCop, Gary’s feeling was that the picture could go one of two ways: it would either go on to become a massive hit or its B-Movie qualities would see it fade into straight-to-video obscurity…promptly followed by a more obscure computer game. As we all know, Gary decided to take a punt on the script and the movie became a box-office sensation, raking in $8 million in its opening weekend in the US. And, when Ocean did an excellent number on the movie’s videogame adaptation, the game flew off retail shelves quicker than you could say ‘Lose the arm!’.
The shooting sections are highly satisfying and all manage to look great. This is the Commodore 64 version.
One of the most successful Spectrum games of all time, and the most successful release in Ocean’s history, RoboCop marked an important turning point for the developer and the business of videogame licensing. Following RoboCop’s unprecedented videogame success, licensed games were fast becoming one of the most lucrative and popular game genres of the Eighties, and Ocean soon found itself the go-to company for the biggest movie studios looking to turn their intellectual properties into slices of interactive entertainment.
Ocean’s new circle of Hollywood friends included massive movie mill Paramount Pictures. First approaching Ocean to develop a videogame adaptation of its USAF-recruitment-video-posing-as-action-flick Top Gun in 1987, the studio then asked it to adapt Brian De Palma’s forthcoming star-riddled prohibition mob epic The Untouchables. Gary recounts the point where Ocean acquired the license: “We had a good relationship with Paramount, but it was offered to us quite late on,” remembers Gary. “In fact, I think the film was actually in post-production when we acquired the license. We got to see an unfinished cut of the final film, which had a couple of missing scenes and effects – the part where Frank Nitti fell from the high-rise building was quite amusing without all the special effects.”
Gary left that early screening of the movie an instant fan. He reminisces: “The combination of De Palma, Costner, Connery and DeNiro… plus the Chicago mob. How could you not love it?” He also felt the star-studded picture contained several memorable action sequences that could be used to base a number of exciting gameplay elements on. This was all that was needed to convince him that Ocean could do something special with the property, and so work quickly started on adapting The Untouchables from the big screen to microcomputer monitors.
This super stage captures one of the best bits from the film.
Development on The Untouchables began around the same time that the film opened in theaters. The Spectrum and Amstrad versions of the game were created by programmer James Higgins and artist Martin McDonald; the C64 game was worked on by John Meegan and artist Stephen Thompson; and the ST and Amiga 16-bit versions were outsourced to Liverpool-based software house Special FX Software. Jonathan Dunn wrote and composed the music, doing a sterling job in capturing the moody, gritty tone of the film and repeating the same magic he had performed previously for RoboCop. It wasn’t just the game’s music that played loudly to its cinema origins, either: the entire game was presented as a movie, to the extent that the opening credits in the Spectrum version listed James and Martin as directors, and other developers were credited for more whimsical roles, such as Wardrobe and Pedantic Criticism. Programmer Colin Porch was even listed as Best Boy.
Save for a copy of the script and the usual production stills, Gary and James told us that Ocean received very little in the way of input and assets from Paramount Pictures, and no direction regarding how the game should look and play. The film studio was happy to leave Ocean to its own devices, bar one stipulation: “We were forbidden from using Costner’s likeness within the game, if I recall correctly”, says Gary. “We just had to base the game on the memory of the screening. But the usual script and official stills were as much as we were given.”
While poor Kevin was left out in the cold at the request of Paramount, everything else in the picture was fair game, and it would be fair to say was used. Indeed, the game’s design stuck so close to the events in the movie that we would go so far as to claim that The Untouchables was the most faithful film-to-videogame adaptation Ocean put out. So how exactly did the team decide which scenes from the picture to include in the game?
Make sure that Frank Nitty gets his just deserves. Just like he does in the film.
“I organised a ‘round table’ discussion, whereby we took collective opinions of which scenes would work best and how they might be implemented.” explains Gary. “There were some very iconic moments in that film, and so we felt it would be good to incorporate as many as possible. Because of the variety of these, I elected from the beginning to make this a ‘multi-style’ game, but the main design input came from the team of developers behind it.”
Set across six levels that encompassed a variety of gameplay styles, The Untouchables was brimming with diversity and fan-service. Mirroring the structure of the movie almost to the letter, the game’s opening level saw Ness raiding a Chicago Warehouse, where the resolute prohibition agent had to battle with armed mobsters while trying to secure incriminating evidence of Capone’s illegal dealings. From here, the action followed on to the newly-banded Untouchables’ first mission together, where, taking position on a bridge, they tired to prevent bootleggers from smuggling booze across the US/Canadian border. Many other memorable scenes from the movie were impressively digitised in The Untouchables, and everybody had their favourite section in the game.
“I like the alley section the most,” says James, “mostly for aesthetic reasons – I thought it looked cool, and still does for its time. With the versions I did, my least favourite has to be the train station steps – it’s not particularly well-executed, I feel, and not especially appealing to look at either.”