There are moments in Telltale’s latest episodic adventure series that will remind you exactly why you love Back to the Future. And you do. By law, you do. The little twinkling sound as the story starts. The sheer joy of seeing Marty and Doc reunited for one last adventure. The moment the DeLorean hits 88mph. Nostalgic hits like that fondle the old geek glands like nothing else, and just for a split second, a game that offers them can do no wrong.
Unfortunately, Back to the Future is five episodes long, and those warm fuzzies are a distant memory by the end of the first. For the rest of the game, you have to make do with Telltale at their least inspired, clearly focused more on hammering their latest licence around their standard adventure game template, rather than working out how best to turn Back to the Future into a game. There are no cool time-travel brain twisters like the ones back in Day of the Tentacle for instance. None.
Instead, you’re forced to stumble through lots and lots of very easy, uninspired, but worst of all, boring puzzles, based more on cartoon logic than the tropes of the films. Where those had romanticised but iconic time periods, Telltale fail miserably at making their own circa 1931 Hill Valley anything more than a studio lot. A studio lot full of comedy gangsters and slapstick that makes Bugsy Malone look like Goodfellas. Almost everything you bump into feels, if not bad, cheap, rushed and phoned-in.
The one exception is the main storyline linking all of the puzzles. This time, we get to see Doc’s past, back at the start of his scientific career, with the timeline first put at risk by one of Biff’s gangster ancestors, and then a love affair that risks turning Hill Valley into a Big Brother style state.
What makes it work is that despite some incredibly silly individual moments, there turns out to be an incredibly strong emotional core to the story. As with all decent spinoffs, the best bits are when it expands on the films’ philosophies and asks new questions. Without wanting to spoil anything, the big one here is precisely what gives Marty the right to choose the ‘correct’ timeline, just because it’s better for him and his loved ones. The game still often struggles to find that authentic Back to the Future feel, the final episode especially going off the rails several times, but at least it tries.
With the same story, better puzzles, and the licence taken more seriously, this could have been the Back to the Future game fans deserve. As it is, while its adventure chops make it more than one of those old side-scrolling platformers with a popular movie’s logo on the box, the exact same kind of production-line thinking is clearly, painfully, in full force here. Marty and Doc deserved better. So did we.