Back to the Future: Episode 1 - It’s About Time review

The Good:
  • Every part of the game feels like old-school Back to the Future
  • Voice acting, music, and sound effects are excellent
  • Cartoon art style flawlessly captures the movies' spirit
  • Strikes just the right balance between pure nostalgia and its own new direction
The Bad:
  • Very linear with very easy puzzles
  • Awkward, console-oriented movement controls
  • Spotty lip-syncing detracts from an otherwise brilliant presentation
Back to the Future 1
Back to the Future 1
The Good:
  • Every part of the game feels like old-school Back to the Future
  • Voice acting, music, and sound effects are excellent
  • Cartoon art style flawlessly captures the movies' spirit
  • Strikes just the right balance between pure nostalgia and its own new direction
The Bad:
  • Very linear with very easy puzzles
  • Awkward, console-oriented movement controls
  • Spotty lip-syncing detracts from an otherwise brilliant presentation
Our Verdict: While light on the gameplay side, the first episode of Back to the Future absolutely nails the charm, humor, and sense of adventure that made the films so much fun.
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Back to the Future is one of those films I can’t remember seeing for the first time. I grew up watching it almost every day, and according to my parents, when I was two years old I could recite most of the script line for line. My earliest memory is of standing on a stool in front of my couch re-enacting the intro scene with Marty and the giant guitar amp. So you could say that I was more than a little excited when Telltale announced they were developing an episodic adventure based on the franchise. I tried to lower my expectations into the realm of human possibility in order to avoid disappointment, but after seeing how Telltale matched and even surpassed expectations with the Monkey Island and Sam & Max series, I couldn't help but expect greatness.

So now the first episode of Back to the Future: The Game is here. Has Telltale done justice to the beloved film franchise with It's About Time? Coming from someone who gets chills of nostalgia at the sight of a red puffy down vest, the short answer is a definite "Yes." The longer answer is "Yyyyyyeeeeesssssss… if you don't mind easy puzzles and very little gameplay."

The initial episode takes place after the events of the third film. Months have passed without word from Doc Brown, and Marty McFly is starting to feel melancholic. His father is presiding over a sale of Doc's property, as he’s presumed to be dead. During the sale, the DeLorean suddenly appears in the driveway outside, looking good as new. Inside is a tape-recorded message from Doc explaining that the car has been programmed to automatically return in the event that he remains missing for a specified time--which means that he's in trouble. Finding him should be easy, he says. Just go to the date and time specified on the "Date Last Traveled" panel of the dashboard. But there's one problem: the panel is blank. And so Marty must search out clues to Doc's location in time. Of course, things get much more complicated from there.

The single most impressive thing about the game is how natural an extension of the films it is. Everything from the dialogue to the soundtrack to the streaks of light when the DeLorean time travels is spot-on. I broke out into a stupid grin every few minutes as I came across some iconic detail and thought to myself "They nailed it." The story itself straddles the line between slavish devotion to the original films and finding its own direction. It always feels faithful, but never like a retread. All of the staples of Back to the Future are here: you'll travel to a different era in Hill Valley's history, encounter characters both new and familiar (and their ancestors), and race against the clock to prevent a catastrophic disruption of the space-time continuum. But there are also new characters, new locations to visit, and the promise of some intriguing twists and turns to come.

The original movies are so enduring primarily because of the characters. Marty and Doc Brown are infinitely likeable. But even beyond them are an endless supply of quirky characters: Biff Tannen, George McFly, Vice Principal Strickland. I say the supply is endless because one of the greatest pleasures of the series is the cyclical way that characters and their relationships change (or don't change) over the decades: seeing the interactions between a given era's Tannen and McFly is always a treat. Telltale clearly understands this, so most of the characters we meet are younger versions or relatives of characters we know and love, written with sly, winking cleverness. The game also stays true to the tradition of revisiting familiar scenes with new characters, such as the various riffs on Biff bullying George McFly in the diner. Seeing these scenes play out is a joy, mostly because the dialogue is spot-on. Marty talks like the Marty we remember--a good kid with a bit of a mischievous streak who will stop at nothing to help out his friends and loved ones. Doc is as eccentric and affable as ever. And Biff, as always, is a lot of fun to hate.

The films were also notable for their deft blending of fantasy, suspense, and comedy, and Back to the Future proves that Telltale’s comedic chops aren't limited to former LucasArts franchises. While many of the game's biggest laughs are nods to jokes from the films, the new material holds its own. It may not reach the absurd sublimity of Sam & Max, but Marty's attempts at blending into a new era's culture and Doc's penchant for overly dramatic exclamations are always good for a laugh. Yet as funny as the game is, it never forgets that Back to the Future has its dark side. The movies have always had high stakes and high drama. After all, these characters are often fighting to save their own existence from being snuffed out by time paradoxes. The game has its darker moments as well, upping the dramatic ante from other goofier Telltale fare, not only with the occasional gunfight or threats of potential assassination, but also in more subtle ways. When Marty visits Doc's abandoned lab and comes across his myriad inventions and belongings, the sense of bittersweet nostalgia is palpable and affecting.

All of the authenticity in the world would be wasted if the voice acting for such famous characters was butchered. But fear not. Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc, clearly relishing the character's propensity for scene-stealing eccentricity. If he sounds a bit more haggard than in the movies, well, it has been twenty years, and the difference isn't so marked as to be distracting. When it was revealed that Michael J. Fox would not be providing the voiceover for Marty, many feared the worst. After all, who could possibly recreate Fox's signature puberty-straddling, voice-cracking tone? The answer is AJ LoCascio. This young newcomer with no prior voice acting experience is so good at capturing the sound and spirit of Marty that even Christopher Lloyd admitted to thinking he was listening to an old recording of Fox. If you're really listening for it, you can tell that it's an imitator, but I can't imagine anyone doing a more stellar job. The rest of the cast fares well too, with new characters delivering very capable performances, such as a plucky Hill Valley reporter and some mafia-style thugs.

The soundtrack and effects play as big a role as anything in making the game feel genuine. The sound effects are mostly ripped straight from the films: the DeLorean's various bleeps and bloops and hums are all there, which makes punching in the four-dimensional coordinates on the dashboard and turning on the flux capacitor all the more satisfying. There are few surprises here, but the sound is uniformly excellent. Better still, from the very first seconds of the game, when the familiar descending chimes play over the intro, until the bombastic fanfare over the ending credits, the musical score is gorgeously repurposed, alternating between adrenaline-pumping suspense and charming lightness, while sometimes simply magical. Themes from the original soundtrack (I know what you're wondering—and yes, there's some Huey Lewis music included) are used to great effect, mostly in cutscenes, while new material smartly incorporates cues from the film score. The soundtrack as a whole lends a welcome cinematic urgency to the game that makes everything feel a little more dynamic and dramatic than previous Telltale games.

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