In this nostalgic point in history, it’s hard to think of any game, television show, or movie that’s inaccessible. Old television series are available on a wide variety of streaming formats. Is there an episode of Cheers or Night Court you half-remember from your childhood? I bet we can find it on Netflix or Amazon. Likewise, movies are available through many different formats and are frequently re-released on Blu-Ray. Remember that movie where it seemed like the Goonies were fighting Dracula? It’s available right now at Walmart. And games are increasingly backwards compatible or emulated on any platform. But there’s one I never have been able to find, 1983’s animated, quick-time event game Cliff Hanger. It’s a game I loved to watch as a child but never could find as an adult (it doesn’t emulate well apparently and there are rights issues that prevent its re-release). But that all changed when I walked into Joystix Classic Games and Pinball in Houston, Texas. That arcade has everything, from Double Dragon to Tron to Dragon’s Lair (1 and 2 and Space Ace) to The Three Stooges to Qbert to – you guessed it – Cliff Hanger. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it and I was as excited as a ten-year old when I realized that was the day I would finally beat Cliff Hanger.
Cliff Hanger, if you haven’t seen it, is a game very reminiscent of Dragon’s Lair. But, whereas Dragon’s Lair is seemingly ubiquitous across all systems, Cliff Hanger is very hard to find. The animation here was not designed for the game but is actually taken from two animated movies: The Mystery of Mamo and, to a much larger extent, The Castle of Cagliostro which was directed by the awesome Hayao Miyazaki (that movie is pretty awesome in its own right). Both movies depict the adventures of Lupin the Third, a charismatic but immature thief who was the star of a series of manga and movies in Japan. While Lupin has appeared in a number of games, the best depiction by far is Cliff Hanger. The entire game is a series pf quick-time events and has a joystiq with four directions and two buttons: one for hands and one for feet. Playing the game means deciding quickly whether you need Cliff to move in one of the four directions or use his hands or feet. While often this is communicated pretty clearly by the action on the screen, there are definitely moments when guesswork is required.
Cliff Hanger is somewhat difficult to play through the first time. The game does not prompt you towards the correct direction (unlike Space Ace which illuminates briefly the path to take), you have to infer the correct direction to press from the context. However, the game is much easier to replay than games like Dragon’s Lair. In Dragon’s Lair, many sequences could be flipped (so Dirk would need to flee to the left rather than the right) and, if you died, the game would start a new sequence rather than let you play the same sequence again. When you die in Cliff Hanger, the game tells you what you should have done, lets you play the exact sequence again, and never deviates in any way from its story. There are no random sequences or flipped portions. You can literally just write down the correct responses and put them in without looking at the screen.
But then you’d be missing out on one of my favorite stories in games. You’re introduced to Cliff (aka Lupin) as he’s escaping with mafia money from a casino. After escaping the mobsters, Cliff is almost run over by a princess fleeing armed pursuers. Cliff rescues her but she runs away out of concern for his safety. Cliff and friends then are attacked by those pursuers; first by a helicopter that leads to a chase through the (surprisingly wide) sewers and later by armed, ape-like ninjas. Nevertheless, Cliff resolves to save the princess and does so by infiltrating the castle in which she’s held and – disguised as a priest – interrupting her forced marriage. The angry count pursues Cliff and the princess into an enormous clock tower and battles with Cliff along the gigantic gears. Ultimately, they wind up on the clock face, where the count drops the princess from the tower and Cliff dives after her (very much like The Dark Knight). They splash safely into the water below; meanwhile, the damage done to the interior of the clock leads the colossal hands of the clock to smash together, crushing the count. In the epilogue, we see Cliff saying goodbye to the princess with a chaste kiss on the forehead.
I don’t know how well I describe it, but – trust me – it’s awesome. It’s a great game largely because it’s based on a great movie. Thinking about it, I’d love to see other Hayao Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away, or Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Castle in the Clouds receive the same treatment. While gameplay can be a little rough and the editing is a bit jarring, it’s worth it for the fun story. It’s a game I’d always wanted to see played all the way through and I finally was able to beat it myself. I don’t know if you have a game like that. Maybe you always wanted to play through the arcade version of Double Dragon 2 or Ninja Gaiden or Killer Instinct or APB (all of these games are also available at Joystix!). All I can say is that if you have the opportunity to beat the game you never got to beat, take it. It’s better than buying a new game. It’s better than buying a new gaming system. Trust me, while there’s a lot of amazing new experiences to be had in gaming, there’s nothing as much fun as finally landing the one that got away.