Back to the Future: The Game: Episode 1

"It's abundantly clear that the folks at Telltale hold Back to the Future close to their heart, and their dedication shows throughout the game."

Back to the Future and I go way back. The films have long been my favorite trilogy, and I now own them on three different formats. When the first movie returned to theaters in October 2010 for its 25th anniversary, you can bet I was there. I'm quite certain that Back to the Future introducing my younger self to stories about time travel even played a role in what would become my favorite RPG of all time, Chrono Trigger. To say that these movies are near and dear to my heart is an understatement. That said, when Telltale Games announced plans to create an episodic series of games based on the movies, I was both thrilled and nervous at the prospect. Even with folks like script writer Bob Gale and the talented Christopher Lloyd involved, I wondered: could these games ever hope to live up to the standards I'd inevitably hold them to?

Tell me doctor, where are we going this time?

The game opens with an inventive recreation of the DeLorean's first trip through time, as seen in the first movie. This time, however, we witness the event as Marty McFly did, through the lens of his JVC camcorder. It's a lovely bit of nostalgia for fans, and the scene's unexpected twists foreshadow events to come. Part of how the sequence deviates from the original is the introduction of Doc's notebook, which apparently contains information on everything one would need to know about building a time machine.

Once the previous scene is revealed to be a dream, we find ourselves in 1986, six months after the events of the third film. The city officials of Hill Valley have decided they want to build a parking garage where Doc's house currently sits, and with Doc missing for months, begin the process of selling off his possessions. Overseeing this estate sale is Marty's father, George McFly. You take on the role of Marty McFly, who is none too pleased with the idea of people rummaging through his friend's belongings. It's here where we first see Telltale's dedication to the authenticity of its source material: Doc's home has all the familiar elements you'll remember from the movie: the wall of clocks (most notably, of course, the vintage cat clock), the oversized amplifier, and even the automated dog food dispenser. And there's plenty more to see that fans will appreciate.

Where the game really gets going is when the DeLorean – seemingly recovered from its run-in with a train in Back to the Future Part III – appears outside, driverless. Inside we find a tape recorder with a distress call from the Doc! It seems something has gone wrong, and it's up to Marty to travel to the 1930s and find out what's become of the Doc. Most of Episode I takes place in the 1930s, and has you interacting with new and old characters alike, including the ancestors of some familiar faces. It's a premise that not only keeps you interested in what's going to happen next, but has enough air of adventure to really feel at home within the franchise.

Please excuse the crudity of these textures.

The visuals are a mixed bag. The character models and locales were clearly created with care and animate well, but – at least on the iPad – some of the textures are of much lower resolution than they should be. It's by no means an ugly game – it just feels like it should look much cleaner and crisper than it does.

The use of low-res textures would make sense if it kept the game running at a smooth frame rate, but that's often not the case. Upon first launching the game, you'll probably see a slight amount of lag on the title screen – not the most comforting sign. The game itself may run fine for you, or you may encounter excessive lag, skipping audio and choppy animations. In my time with it, it's clear that the game is a resource hog: even with just a few other apps running on my iOS 4-based iPad, Back to the Future struggled to keep up. It was only when I quit every other app (and rebooted for good measure) that performance moved into the 'acceptable' realm. In short, the game is certainly playable, but you may have to do some prep work first, and try not to run other apps in the background.

You mean you have to use your hands? That's like a... really great idea.

Interacting with the game is where it becomes clear what a perfect fit graphic adventures are on touch screen devices. Moving Marty around the environments is handled my touching anywhere on the iPad's screen and dragging in the direction you wish to move. It's similar to a virtual analog stick, but being able to touch anywhere on-screen gives you more freedom than many games offer. Interacting with people and objects is as simple as touching them. It's a very organic experience. I've played the PlayStation 3 version a bit for comparison's sake, and for gameplay purposes, the iPad is absolutely the best way to experience this game.

There is one big caveat to playing on the iPad that I learned the hard way: the game does not save your progress automatically if you leave the app or accidentally hit the Home button (while say, taking screen shots for a review). While you can put the iPad to sleep and not lose your place, it's otherwise imperative to go into the game menu and save your progress. As temporary state saving is commonplace on iOS apps, especially since 2010's release of iOS 4 brought multitasking into the mix, this feels like a huge oversight.

You know that new sound you're looking for? This isn't it – but that's a good thing

There isn't a great deal to say about the game's music, but that's because most of the soundtrack is directly from the movies, from Alan Silvestri's epic score to a bit of Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love." I was overjoyed to hear the "real" music in the game, as it makes for an even more authentic Back to the Future experience.

Speaking of authenticity, let's talk voice actors. Christopher Lloyd is here as the Doc, and rightfully so. Sure, he sounds older, but who doesn't after 25 years? When I heard that Michael J. Fox wouldn't be voicing Marty, I wasn't exactly surprised, all things considered, but wondered if replacing him would hurt the game. I don't know how it happened, but Marty's voice actor (AJ Locascio) sounds so similar to Michael J. Fox, it's uncanny. I'm sure Telltale knew the role could make or break the production, and the guy does a fantastic job. Seriously, I can't say enough good things about him.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

So where does this leave us? Was it worth waiting until 2011 to finally get a decent game based on Back to the Future? Absolutely. While the iPad version suffers from numerous technical drawbacks, most could be addressed in an update, and I hope that future episodes will play a bit more smoothly. That aside, what we're left with is a story that truly feels like it belongs in the Back to the Future universe. The characters are spot-on, and there are more than enough references to movie moments and lines to make any fan smile. It's abundantly clear that the folks at Telltale hold Back to the Future close to their heart, and their dedication shows throughout the game. This was truly a labor of love on Telltale's part, and I can't wait to get into the other episodes to see where the story goes from here.

To Be Continued...

(This review was written based on version 1.0 of the game, running on a 2010 iPad with iOS 4.2.1.)

© 2011 Telltale Games. All rights reserved.