Darkman (NES, 1991)

A brief digression from my usual game-based prattle, right off the top. If I were to ask you to name your favorite film about a masked protagonist, face hideously disfigured and burnt, mounting a revenge campaign against the forces that wronged him, what would be your answer? I’ll even make it a bit easier and narrow the time frame you have to consider — let’s only think movies released between, say, October of 1974, to August of 1990. 

If you answered Phantom of the Paradise, you are correct. That movie is, without a doubt, the best film matching that specific (painfully engineered, even) description for the time period I specified. Sad to say, however, the folks at Nintendo never blessed us with a Phantom of the Paradise licensed game, perhaps a prudent decision. Enter Darkman.

Based on the 1990 film of the same name, Darkman thrusts the player into control of its eponymous hero, a rags-swaddled, trenchcoat wrapped figure donning a fedora. For those familiar with the film, this hero (who can really only be called such if vengeance is in itself a heroic virtue — almost no instances are shown of him scting to improve anybody’s fortunes but his own) was once humble, working-man artificial skin-smith Peyton Westlake. Attacked by thugs under the direction of the sinister Robert G. Durant, Westlake’s laboratory is blown sky high, himself still inside, leaving him repulsively disfigured.

It’s only for necessary context that I explain the film’s plot at even this degree of detail, because loosely as the game adheres to some events of the movie (some surprisingly dense expositional text precedes the first level), both mediums share a critical, glaring deficiency. In the film (directed, I now realize I’ve forgotten to mention, by Sam Raimi), Westlake slaves endlessly to rebuild his synthetic skin machine, and thus produce a new face to cover his grisly visage. He is succesful to a point — the masks render him implausibly indistinguishable from those whose faces he copies, but they carry a fatal flaw. They can only survive for 99 minutes when exposed to light, at which point the molecules melt and break down. It’s from this weakness that the hero gets his name, presumably. The idea that, when under cover of darkness, his power of deception increases.

The problem is that not once throughout the film is any meaningful effort made to make that advantage consequential. He stays out in the sun far too long with a mask on, sure. But at no point does he take advantage of the flip-side of that coin, insisting with some stubbornness to do most of his moving and shaking during daylight hours. Darkman is surely so called because the dark is his friend and ally, but that premise is never delivered upon. It’s as if Batman retained a fear of bats, but never thought to dress up like one to transfer that intimidation to anybody else.

In the game, Darkman’s ghastly injuries are already a done proposition when the player first presses start. Wearing his iconic Darkman attire, you must safely guide the little bastard, running and jumping your way through a series of deeply unsatisfying and surprisingly challenging side-scrolling platformer stages. There is little in the way of art direction or whimsy to distract you from the grindingly simple mechanics at play.

This in itself isn’t worthy of a demerit, as such simplicity was standard fare when this game hit the shelves in 1991. But as any devotee of early platformers will tell you, the precision and grace of those limited controls can illustrate a lot about the care put into a game’s development, and they sure as hell mean a lot when it comes to playability. Darkman’s controls are anything but fluid, or graceful. Jumping and planting yourself onto a moving platform is a challenge, moreso than in most games, and the manner in which you attack and dispatch enemies — a punch, which they’ll follow by lunging forward again and punching you — is deeply frustrating. In some circumstances, it feels as if there’s no clear path to proceed without incurring heavy damage and losing lives. It’s a steep learning curve, so made through sub-optimal control sensitivities.

The platforming is broken up by a few variations, all highly unsatisfying. The first is a sort of high-speed elevator ride, in which you must memorize the correct track to guide your platform along, lest it fly off the rails, taking you with it. This gives way to supreme frustration your first time through the game, as lives are limited, and there isn’t a way to know for sure where safety waits without copious amounts of trial and error.

The second is a photography minigame, in which Darkman has to sneakily steal photos of Durant’s henchmen (the corpulent Pauly, for starters) to help him engineer his masks. The masks allow Darkman to assume the henchmens’ identities during the following level — slap on the Pauly mask, and Darkman becomes a pudgy, baseball-bat wielding bald man in a pink shirt.

The third is a level in which Durant fires at you from his helicopter, a high-speed, forced sidescrolling affair. It bears mentioning that this game is peppered with surprisingly (and perhaps unecessarily) specific references to the film that might give cheer only to a diehard fan, made even stranger by a pervasive feeling of cheapness. It’s as if it was thrown together slapdash, but by people who wanted to make sure it had enough crossover appeal to get those hardcore Darkman fans, desperate to relive all their Darkman memories. I give it some credit for this, as I often do when a game elicits a compelling sense of strangeness.

In the final stage, you must ascend a skyscraper under construction, at the pinnacle finally facing off against Durant. This is one instance in which the game makes no effort to hew to the film’s story, as the final foe Darkman actually squares off with atop the building is not supposed to be Durant, but rather the preening, criminal industrialist Louis Strack Jr. The video game, though, is Strackless, his name never mentioned, face never glimpsed.

It’s not exactly startling to read a review of a movie-licensed NES game and find a bad score at the bottom. I distinctly remember the dismay I’d feel as a child when, on some random occasion, I’d be gifted such a cartridge. These things were, by and large, deeply bad. A lot of them conspicuously couldn’t hide that the skeleton of the game had been designed for other purposes, and was then repurposed and shackled to an existing franchise. You’ll hear more about this whenever I get around to reviewing 1990’s Dirty Harry.

Darkman ultimately avoids this fate, packing just enough references and oddities into its hollow frame to seem novel, and unique. However, that doesn’t make it fun. It doesn’t relieve the finnicky controls, and unforgiving frustration. While as a (really sort of fake) fan of the film I appreciate that bald-headed slob Pauly and gun-legged Skip ended up in NES form, it’s hard to take that as an exonerating feature, rather than a trivial detail that might have glittered, under sunnier skies.