Developer: Gray Matter
Released: July 1990
Looking at ‘bad’ NES games usually results in the same few answers: LJN, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kid Kool, Color Dreams, most movie games, Silver Surfer and Deadly Towers. I’m willing to give most things a chance, and I can honestly say I really enjoy Silver Surfer, Double Dragon III and several LJN games. As for my own personal hive of misery, there’s a more diverse selection, as a brave explorer will find atrocities under the name of THQ, Mindscape and Ocean; PC ports that seem to have no controls; late-era rush jobs; programming lifted from the Game Boy; HES and Gluk nonsense. My NES bottom ten runs as follows:
10: Moon Ranger (Bunch)
9: Secret Scout in the Temple of Demise (Color Dreams)
8: James Bond Jr. (THQ)
7: Rocky and Bullwinkle (THQ)
6: Action 52 (Active Enterprises)
5: Robocop 2 (Data East, Ocean)
4: Chiller (AGCI, HES)
3: Destroyer (Gluk)
2: Dragon’s Lair (Sony Imagesoft, Elite)
And right at the top, we have the very worst: Mad Max. A game from my least favourite publisher Mindscape; developed by Gray Matter, creator of such awful titles as Wayne’s World (16-bit) and The Crow: City of Angels; based on the Mel Gibson movie set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with themes too cerebral to properly translate into an old-school video game. This wasn’t the only time these two titans of terrible collaborated on an NES game: Dirty Harry, Infiltrator and Captain Planet all came from this unholy marriage. All three of these games are needlessly difficult and obtuse, providing almost no entertainment, but they’re nothing on Mad Max.
Vehicular combat games aren’t all that common on the NES: the two Spy Hunter games, Jackal, Death Race and RoadBlasters (one of only two good Mindscape games) are the only other ones that spring to mind. Combining combat and exploration is usually a good idea in a game, as well. Mad Max has both: you throw dynamite at other cars and obstacles to clear the way, in order to walk into caves to stock up on important items, shooting rabid men as you go. Sounds like a good idea, but there’s a number of blunders destroying the fun; for instance, the controls.
In an overhead driving game, the standard is to have Left and Right turn the vehicle with another button for the accelerator and brake. Mad Max maps the D-pad to the direction and the accelerator, so hold down a direction to start moving and you’ll reach top speed in a couple of seconds. The acceleration is lumpy, though, and the car is forced to go slow unless it’s on the road. The A button throws dynamite in the direction you’re facing, while the B button acts as a brake, and the car stops just as quickly by letting go of the D-pad, which makes the brake useless. Worse than the controller setup is the mechanic of handling a collision. Enemies appear right out of nowhere, the road is surrounded by towers housing people who toss dynamite at you, and the road is full of rockpiles and tyre blockades, and if you hit anything your car stops moving and spins out of control. If you attempt to accelerate, the enemy will still be blocking your way unless you blow it up. If it’s a tower, it will have thrown another explosive at you and forced you to slow down again. Because of the spinout, you will be facing the wrong way to dynamite anything. It is possible to fight back if you have enough dynamite, but there’s absolutely no way to avoid being damaged and losing control repeatedly. Thanks to this, the combat is reduced to a time-consuming, stodgy war of attrition – and the loser is almost always the player.
But hey, controls aren’t everything. Mad Max’s controls are certainly bad, but they at least get the car where it needs to go. Plenty of bad games have good controls. Even games with bad controls can still be good – look at Golgo 13, Strider, Low G Man or, let’s be honest, Metroid – as long as they provide a fun experience that the controls only tarnish a little. The total experience provided by this cartridge is akin to toothache on a sleepless night. Mindscape’s decision to limit everything makes the game pretty much unplayable. But why is that?
By ‘limit everything’, I mean EVERYTHING. Fuel, dynamite, car damage, Max’s health and gunshot ammo. Because your dynamite is limited, it’s best to only use it for roadblocks and not enemies. But that means your car will get damaged a lot more. So use dynamite to blow them up – but oh no, now you’ve run out and can’t get past the heap of rubble! Choose your poison. Even worse is dealing with the fuel meter. You start with three-eighths of a tank, which is enough for you to drive around for about 90 seconds. This is nowhere near enough to get you around the level on the road, let alone on the dirt. I made a map of the first level and it took me at least eight attempts just to figure out the layout.
Adding to the misery is the fact that your car consumes just as much fuel when at a standstill (ugh) and none of the cave entrances are visible from the road, so you’ll have to explore every nook and cranny of the poorly designed environment just to find them – which would be fine except that the car can’t hold enough fuel for any long period of discovery. I can’t imagine how many times you’d have to die just to figure out where the caves are in relation to the road – pity the guy who wrote the GameFAQs for it. On top of this, with cars constantly crashing into you, even more time is wasted and it all adds up. The levels aren’t actually all that huge, but the tiny fuel allowance and out-of-the-way locations make it feel like they go on forever. There aren’t any major landmarks to help either, and you need to visit at least one of the caves to be able to get to the arena. The arena pass must be bought from the shop, which also offers car repairs, fuel and dynamite, but there’s not enough food and water to trade for anything too substantial once the pass is yours. If only you could dynamite the entrance.
The caves are also a pile of vomit. You run around and shoot men hungry for the items you’re taking, and like the road levels, you’ll have to comb every bit of the area to find everything you need. Enemies take three or four shots to kill, and they never stop coming. The bullets are far more generously offered than the dynamite, starting with about 120, so running out of ammo isn’t usually an issue, thankfully. Unfortunately, Mindscape couldn’t resist chucking in another piece of cheapness and put keys in there to open doors. Some of the rooms contain items, another key, both or none. Again, it’s not possible to see the whole way into each room and every item is too far away to be visible without walking in and using a key. This is a nasty trick, depending on pure luck and memorisation as to whether you get what you need to survive or have to leave the cave in an unready state and face certain death.
I can think of a large number of solutions off the top of my head to fix the game’s busted design. How about the car stops consuming fuel when it stops moving? How about allowing Max to get out of the car in search of a cave when it runs out of fuel? How about allowing the doors to be be blown up by a huge amount of bullets? How about being able to shoot bullets when in the car? Of course, any one of these could take a lot of time that the bastards at Gray Matter didn’t have, so how about just giving me more stuff?!?
The only real way to beat the first level is to head for the cave on the top-left of the level, collect all the items, head back to the shop at the start, buy some extra fuel and an arena pass, and drag the car’s twitching frame kicking and screaming to the arena entrance. There’s a chance that works if you don’t run into too many enemies, wasting precious fuel, time and damage in the process when what you have is just barely enough to get you there. There’s no way to keep the car in decent shape, since there’s little food/water currency in the levels and most of it has to go to the arena pass and extra fuel. The entirety of the gameplay in Mad Max is figuring out how exactly Mindscape is forcing you to conserve your resources along an unclear, predetermined path with the illusion of freedom, while the items you have are eternally dwindling. There are few things more depressing in the realm of video games than buying up all the items, heading for the exit and destroying the car or running out of fuel while trying fruitlessly to escape from the clutches of the enemy cars.
Once you get into the arena, you have to destroy 25 cars. This is done by knocking them into pits, because in Gray Matter’s infinite wisdom, they decided you shouldn’t be allowed to use what dynamite you still have. Therefore, you have to crash into the other cars, depleting your valuable damage meter. I found that the best way to do it was to sit by a hole that opened and closed and tried to avoid direct contact in favour of them driving straight into the death zone – it was much less likely to plunge me into the same hole and kept some of what life I had left. Driving into other cars should be the fun part of the game, but the fact that you’re still limited on damage and fuel makes it yet another thing that causes death. The arena layout is a maze, you have to find the exit without falling to your doom, there’s no possible strategy to knocking the enemies around and you car has no advantage in strength. On top of that, if you run out of time or destroy your car three times, it’s back to the desert. Did I mention that the car controls terribly?
One thing I have to give Mindscape is that the sampled sound effects are technically impressive, for the car driving, braking, being hit, pits opening and closing and Max shooting or yelping in pain when hit – only thing is, there’s no music in the driving segments, which is where most of the time is spent, and the low-definition rumbles and crashes wear a man down after a few minutes. The graphics are ugly and washed-out, and there’s no variation or detail in how anything looks. The backgrounds to the levels are a simple palette-swap from orange to red and green, and the arenas are more scratchy monochromes. The terrible production values make an already miserable game even harder to sit through.
And all of what I’ve described is only the first level. There’s only three in the game, so if there was any room for error, the game would be over within 20 minutes. Thanks to the tyrannical limits on everything, it takes forever. Later levels play out the same, with finding caves, shooting enemies, dynamiting obstacles, pushing cars into pits, and fighting the awful inventory from start to finish, except it’s even more harrowing with more cars to destroy, more confusing layouts and even more items required. There’s a final boss, where you have to pick up crossbow arrows in the caves of level 3, because if you password ahead to the third arena, you won’t have enough to kill him, even if you hit him with every single arrow and dodge all of his. How incompetent does a game have to be to issue a password that makes the game unbeatable? Not that it matters, since I was only able to beat the first level and I wouldn’t recommend anyone try harder than I did.
It can’t be overstated: Mad Max is a soul-crushing experience. With all of the different level types, it could have been some good if the player was given more freedom. As it is, it plays out like a starvation simulator. I suppose that’s kind of accurate to the film, but there’s no way in hell that that could ever make for an enjoyable game in any way. What infuriates me most of all is the illusion of choice. It’s set up to look like an exploratory, free-roaming game and yet there’s no freedom whatsoever, especially when all the enemies are on your tail and you can’t fight them off without suffering for it later. I’m tired and sad, and I have Mindscape to thank for it.