Coming off the heels of a Zelda game, I doubt very many folks are going to be excited to see me talking about a game, based on a movie, on the humble Atari 2600. It wasn’t the most acclaimed disaster film. To the younger crowd it may look too simple. Plus, 9 times out of 10 a game based on a film has turned out craptacular. E.T., gets an undeserved video game badge of awful. (It is, but there are far worse games out there.), There are no less than five, poorly received versions of Shrek out there, and there was even a bad Catwoman game based off an already panned Catwoman movie.
But sometimes, we are greeted with average, or even good movie licensed games. Goldeneye 007, The Star Wars Arcade machine, and Towering Inferno here. So often the thing that makes the adaptations go awry, is not staying close enough to the source material. Goldeneye tried to be a video game re-enactment. The Star Wars Arcade machine, focused on recreating one of the biggest moments in the film. But this game doesn’t do very much of that.
PROS: A frantic game with some risk vs. reward fun.
CONS: Not the best looking 2600 game. Poor sound.
FAVOR: The odds are not in yours.
The Towering Inferno was a disaster movie. We’ve had a few of them over the last couple of decades. There was a higher frequency of them in the late 1970’s though, and while it has some hokey moments, it remains one of the more memorable films of its ilk. This is due to a large cast composed of some of the best actors of the time. Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, even Fred Astaire were all in it. It also had some pretty good practical effects for the time. It gets played mainly these days on cable channels. Usually when nothing else is on in the afternoon on a Saturday. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. The synopsis is basically that an elaborate building was made. But stingily, and so a fire easily breaks out. This traps hundreds of people inside, and Steve McQueen has to lead the fire department in a rescue attempt.
The game version takes some liberties. There is a skyscraper, and it is on fire. But you’re an unnamed fireman. And there are nine buildings on fire. Not just one. At first glance, you won’t know what to make of things. You’ll see the tower, engulfed in flames, and then a helicopter landing. From there you’re immediately thrust into a screen, where the only two recognizable things, are your fireman, and the flames.
But once you realize exactly what you’re supposed to do, it really does become an engrossing game. The screen is actually, a top down view of the floor plan. At the top of the floor is a white block, this represents the people you need to rescue. They’re also represented by a meter of stick figures along the top of the screen. The object is to get your fireman to the white block, and then carry the white block back to safety.
But, in spite of the primitive graphics this is a pretty deep game. Towering Inferno has punitive things rarely seen in games of the era. For example, it isn’t just enough to get the survivors out, you have to get them out in time. You’ll hear a tone to let you know you’re about to run out of time, and when you do another tone will sound off. When that tone sounds off, a stick figure on your survivor bar along the top will disappear. Basically, the people you need to rescue can die of smoke inhalation. If all of the people die from smoke inhalation you lose. If all of your firemen are incinerated in the blaze, you lose.
With this description, I’m sure some of you are asking yourselves “This game sounds impossible! How can this possibly be any good?”. The truth is, Towering Inferno may be a very difficult game, but there is a fun in the madness. When you get your fireman inside, you can shoot your hose, up or down. You have to carefully maneuver between the flames to get to the survivors. You can clear the flames above or below you with water, but there isn’t a big emphasis on putting out the fire. You get 1 point for every flame you extinguish, but you get 25 points for every successful rescue. So you have to decide when it is worth going for the rescue. Often times you’ll find clearing one side of the floor might make it easier for you to get the people out. But chances are a few people will die when you spend a chunk of time putting out fire.
Now, you can technically put out all of the fire on the floor, which will stop the survivors from dying altogether. If you’re successful, you can then easily take them out of the building. But this way is almost impossible to pull off. Because again, even if you can, there’s a good chance the fire will claim at least one victim. More often than not, you’ll need to quickly clear a small path, and rush to the door, then carefully make your way back. If you touch one of the fireballs on the way there or back however, your fireman dies, and the people go back to their original hiding place. I should also note the fires don’t stay in one place, they tend to move around a lot. So you also have to predict where it is going to go next.
But if you are successful, you’ll see the helicopter land on the street, and the survivors run to an off-screen hospital for immediate treatment. The more that survive, the better. But you only need one person to live to continue on. If you can manage to get at least one survivor per floor, you’ll be greeted with victory music, and accompanying flashing lights. But the game isn’t over there. You get sent onto the next tower. The game version of Towering Inferno should have been called Towering Infernos. Because there are 9 buildings to get through.
The game also has a bunch of difficulty modes. If you hit the Game Select switch, you’ll find the second mode lets you continue after losing all of your lives. This kind of defeats the challenge somewhat, but makes it a bit more possible to see all of the buildings. The third mode is what the game refers to as a practice mode. Basically, the game goes on forever, because if you lose, the floor you’re on starts over. You really don’t want to bother with it, unless you just want to blow through the different mazes.
There are also two-player modes in the game. These follow the same rules as the single-player modes, just with two people alternating turns. Playing two-player match ups are a blast though, adding some competition to an already challenging experience. You can also turn flames in the walls on or off with the difficulty switches. Set to hard you can’t really see where they’ll burst out of a wall, where on easy you can. You can’t put out fire hidden in walls though, you have to wait for it to jump out.
If you can look past the primitive graphics, you’ll find this game is pretty good. The gameplay has held up well over the years. I recommend using either a first-party 2600 joystick, a Genesis game pad, or a Suncom Slik-Stik if you can find one. Any of these have more responsive movement which you’ll need in later stages. As you can imagine, the game gets harder as time goes on. Movement can be a little sticky at times, but nothing too bad. The sounds are the one area it isn’t up to standard on, but not so bad you can’t deal with them. Towering Inferno is far from the best game on the system, but it is one of the more interesting ones as well. Moreover, it’s a pretty good game, based on a film. You might want to add it to your retro collection if for no other reason. It’s not particularly rare or expensive either. If you’re collecting 2600 games, and don’t have it, check it out.
Final Score: 7 out of 10