We’ll let you in to a secret here: when we first get in touch with old Commodore Format writers, a few of them will quietly tell us that they were journalists before they were gamers and are unable to remember anything much about the software that they reviewed. Either that, or they’ve worked across so many magazines covering so many different formats that everything is a blur. They can’t remember where Your Sinclair finished and Commodore Format started. That’s why you hear so often that Lemmings is a favourite game: it’s a safe bet, because it came out on everything.There is one exception here, though. Everyone – everyone – can remember Dick Tracy, usually with a haunted kind of laugh. Andy Dyer and Sean Masterson mention it specifically in our chats with them. Its awfulness has taken on a sort of mythological status now, and when we first announced our intentions to write about it the flurry of “Dick Tracy? More like Shit Tracy” comments were predictable.
But here’s the thing. Everybody knows it’s awful, but that’s the only thing they know. We wanted to find out something else about the game. OK, OK. It’s the pits. But why? Surely nobody sets out to make something so bad. There had to be a story. And it turns out that there was.
The Dick Tracy comic strip goes back to 1931, but Titus’ multi format walk-right-and-punch/shoot game is based on the 1989 Disney movie starring Warren Beatty and Madonna. It grossed over $100m in the US, but was nowhere near as successful as had been hoped, and in much of the world bypassed cinemas and went straight to video. This part is important, so keep it in mind.
Chasing down mobsters in a retro comic book landscape sounds good, doesn’t it? The reality, though, is quite different. From the off, something feels wrong. On level one you walk right. You press fire as a mobster approaches. He “dies” (or rather, immediately disappears from the screen) if your fist connects with him. Then you walk some more and do exactly the same thing. Level complete! On the next stage, you get a gun after hitting a mobster. You can then walk right and shoot a few people. Level complete!
It goes on like this if you bother to continue with absolutely no variation. The music is decent enough in places, and there’s a good loading screen – but that’s about it. The graphics are terrible: they’re chunky and slow. Dick’s sprite is lame – literally. The game doesn’t scroll, either: it flicks. And when it does, everything stutters. There’s also the weird collision detection: you can “punch” a baddie from some distance away, and sometimes you can fire a bullet and it’ll whizz off the right hand side of the screen…and re-appear on the left.
Now then. Bad games are ten-a-penny, and you can see all of the above in plenty of poor 8-bit releases. But the more you look at Dick Tracy, the more you see that there is something else going on here. There’s the game’s clock, for example. It doesn’t move. And sometimes you’re standing there in a vast open space with nothing to do. Rushed is not the word. It’s more like…unfinished.
And it turns out that’s exactly what it was.
MEET THE PROGRAMMER
Dick Tracy was coded entirely by first-timer Don French. “I answered an ad for a C64 assembly language programmer”, he says. “I think it was run in the San Francisco Chronicle. There was some company in the Bay Area that hired me and they had the contract with Disney to do the C64 and Apple versions.”
It wasn’t long before Don realised things were wrong.
“I wrote the entire program myself, but I did not design it. That is, Disney had a design and script that I and the PC team and the Apple guy had to follow. The program was written entirely in assembly language, but like all the other versions, it was never finished. Disney pulled the plug on all versions when it became clear that they had badly misjudged the time it would take to get them out. No-one was near done when the movie hit the silver screen. Plus, I think that the movie wasn’t doing that well and the merchandising wasn’t selling. The game design was kind of lame anyway. It offered me the opportunity to learn how to write interupt driven smooth scrolling screen animation, though. Not that I ever used it again.”
Our hunch, based on as thorough an investigation as we could, is that France-based Titus – who owned the rights to the game outside the US – bought this C64 code from Disney and released the unfinished game in Europe, desperate to recoup anything from what was turning out to be a dud of a license.
A CLOSER LOOK
The C64 version is the least finished Dick Tracy by far. A rummage around the code reveals a mass of unused sprites. Check this out:
There are supposed to be mobsters at the windows and Dick was intended to be able to shoot upwards at them. None of this is in the released game, but it’s all hidden away. You can also see that there are clear “death” animations for the mobsters. Rather than simply vanish, they were meant to fall over and properly die. As for Dick, he was supposed to be far more agile. We can see what look like “jump” and “kick” animations.
There’s more: the intermission screens, featuring a 1930s style newspaper, are missing the headlines which tell you the story of the film. And the end-of-level boss fights are set up…but there is nobody to kill! The game just jumps straight to a cut scene of the cops dragging the gangster off. This isn’t an oversight or a lack of care: there simply wasn’t time to do any more and the game wasn’t intended to see the light of day. Some console versions of the game have a driving section, although it’s not clear if such a thing was intended for the C64. Finally, let’s just cut back to Don’s point about the scrolling: Dick Tracy doesn’t scroll, but he clearly intended it to. The jittery flick-screen was obviously meant only for the development phase.
We could go on, but you get the idea. We’ve mocked up a screenshot for you here using the sprites that we uncovered, and can show you now for the first time what Dick Tracy was more likely supposed to look like.
Given what we now know, it seems desperately unfair to think ill of Dick Tracy‘s programmer. A game in its early stages should never get as far as the shop shelf. Think of it like this: if Dick Tracy was uncovered by Games That Weren’t we’d look at what was there and be marveling at the beginnings of what could’ve been a great game. Instead, a few week’s work was released for twelve quid and the narrative is very different.
That said, we’ve become rather fond of Dick Tracy this week, even just for its ridiculousness. In what other industry would such a product be released? People today would be calling trading standards. Perhaps it would’ve faired around the mid range scores if it’d been complete – but it’s unlikely we’d be talking about it today. Almost a quarter of a century later, Dick Tracy certainly has that. CF
CF SAID: “Find a better use for the cassette – a door wedge, or cheap confetti.”
WE SAY: It’s all very unfair on the programmer, but you can only review what’s put in front of you.
- Read Gordon Houghton’s full review
- What the rival magazines said and what you think
- Go back to CF’s Worst Rated homepage
- Play Dick Tracy (requires C64 emulator)
CREDITS: This piece wouldn’t have been possible without Jim Lawless, who interviewed programmer Don French. Read his blog. The Dick Tracy sprite sheet and mock up was by Christopher Heppinstall exclusively for the Commodore Format Archive.