OK, so the screenshots from this one aren't super-huge, I guess, but they still felt a little big, a little chonk. As usual, you should click them to see them at their maximum power.
Additionally, shout-out to Dragon's Lair Project who have done some excellent work documenting LaserDisc games of all kinds. Even the bad ones.
It's time for another arcade LaserDisc game! These are always fun.
Today the game is Cliff Hanger, the end result of wanting a game to play just like your favourite anime.
Stern Electronics weren't in the arcade industry for a huge amount of time, but while they were there, they did their part. You may know them for home-grown affairs like Berzerk and Anteater, but they're also well-known for bringing many of Konami's earliest games- including Scramble, Frogger and Pooyan- to American arcades. As with every red-blooded American arcade distributor, though, Stern wanted to get a slice of the LaserDisc pie while it was still steaming from the success of Dragon's Lair. However, while at least four LaserDisc projects can be attached to the Stern name, only two- Cliff Hanger and Goal to Go- actually made it to market. You can see the others at The Dragon's Lair Project, which includes both games by Stern and a company called LaserDisc Computer Systems, who it seems were working with Stern for distribution, as was the plan for Atomic Castle, but Pitchman, also on that page, is just an LDCS joint with no specific attachment to Stern. The point here is, the world is truly a worse-off place without Atomic Castle being released (look at that flyer!)... Well, that and Stern clearly wanted to at least make an effort. Perhaps original games like those were too much for the company, so they opted for something a little easier, something that could be worked on by a grand total of four credited people. That game would be 1983's Cliff Hanger
So, how do you make any kind of LaserDisc game beyond creating the footage yourself? Get the footage from somewhere else, of course! This is not the first time this site's looked at a game that's taken that route- I refer you, of course, to the Data East disaster that is Bega's Battle- but that was a very different beast, where the recontextualised footage was used for a very basic gallery shooter in the vein of Galaga or Satan's Hollow. This time, the approach is more traditional, taking a series of action setpieces from the first two theatrically-released Lupin III animated films, the first one just titled Lupin III from 1978 (the death scene plus the helicopter sequence with Lupin in the red jacket, the film was later retitled Lupin III: Lupin vs. the Clone in Japan and is commonly called The Mystery of Mamo in Western circles) and the second titled Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro from 1981 (the rest of the game's footage, with Lupin in the green coat) and turning that into a Dragon's Lair-style Quick Time Event-em-up. No longer the famous thief Arsène Lupin III cavorting around the world, the player is thrust into the role of Cliff Hanger, described by the attract mode narration (of course it has narration, this is a clone of Dragon's Lair after all) as "a lovable outcast" who fights to give hope to the helpless as he robs a casino, fights ninjas and tries to save the Princess Clarisse (she kept her name) from the villainous Count Draco (Cagliostro in the original film). All in a day's work for our Cliff and his pals Jeff (Daisuke Jigen) and, uh, Samurai (Goemon Ishikawa XIII)!
Now, you might be thinking calling this a Dragon's Lair clone is a little unfair, but hey, I'm only saying what was being said at the time the game was released (check out Video Games - January, 1984's sixth page here)! It's also a good way to look at the game seeing as Dragon's Lair and other games of its ilk use footage made for the purposes of being used in a LaserDisc game, while Cliff Hanger's footage, to put it mildly, was not meant for a video game. There are some key differences beyond that though, so let's get started. The format is largely what you'd expect, but Cliff Hanger has two action buttons as well as a stick instead of Dragon's Lair's single button and stick setup- one button for Cliff's hands and one for his feet. This plays into the main difference between the two games, as Cliff Hanger actually provides prompts for what to press rather than just making a part of the screen flash and leaving you to it. Well... Sort-of. What it actually does is flash up either 'STICK' or 'ACTION' at the bottom of the screen telling you which part of the control panel you'll be using, but not necessarily what you'll be doing. As an example, the opening sequence where Cliff and Jeff escape from the casino has you jumping over railings- the game flashes up 'ACTION' so you need to press the Feet button to jump over them. Afterwards, Cliff and Jeff make it to their getaway car and 'ACTION' flashes up again, so you'll be pressing the Hands button to open the car door, then 'STICK' appears- press Up on the lever to drive away! That's the general gist of it- sort-of figure out what the game wants you to do based on what you're seeing on-screen, and don't mess it up or Cliff gets a date with the hangman. It sounds like a great idea in theory- why make your own animation, that's expensive, just license it from elsewhere!- and examples of pulling this trick off do exist, such as The Masked Rider: Kamen Rider ZO on Mega-CD (no, really) so can Cliff Hanger do it as well?
Well... Kind-of. It mostly works, in the first few scenes for certain, but this is one of the weaker entries in this genre even at this point in history, with most of the issues being a result of repurposing footage. For a start, some of the inputs you need to do are really... Not what you'd expect. One of the most egregious examples is during the helicopter scene, where you hear Cliff shout out "TAKE A RIGHT!" with a prompt to use the stick popping up so you might think you need to press right!... Except because of the way the shot is framed, Cliff's right is actually the player's up, so that's what you need to press. The next few inputs are also really strange, all sorts of different directions from a weird camera angle that kind of make sense but are still pretty awkward to process, especially since they're rapid-fire. Other examples include the second car chase sequence where you have to press the Hands button when Cliff is about to drive away (I was expecting the Feet button because, you know, he has to put the pedal to the metal) and the final set of inputs in the game have you doing a series of actions like grabbing onto the side of the castle and reaching out to grab Clarisse that seem like they'd be for your Hands button, but are all Feet inputs instead. It's little things like this that make it feel very obvious that the footage was made for something other than a game, leading to the framing of many of the shots not being ideal for this purpose and thus to situations like these. To be fair, several of the scenes and shots are picked fairly well, but the outliers do stand out and ruin things a little. Additionally, later scenes- in particular the one where Cliff busts through the window to save Clarisse- start with an immediate input that just seems designed to rob you of a life. Not used too often, fortunately, but still an annoyance.
One other problem is later on, the game throws multiple inputs at you in rapid succession, like four at a time in the space of a second or two. Not entirely uncommon of course- the final segments of Road Avenger on the Mega-CD are pretty ruthless and give you little time between them- but here, because of the way some of the footage is framed, it's hard to tell what you've done and what needs to be done next (mostly thinking of the castle climb sequence here). Then again, some of it is straight-up mashing the same button like the fight with Count Draco, so it semi-balances out. The final element that the repurposed animation brings up is the reuse of clips. Early on there's some bits that get looped a few times- grenades being thrown at your car, machinegun fire from the helicopter- but then there's the ninja scene. Oh, the ninja scene. The fourth major sequence in the game, to make this scene work at all Stern took about 15 seconds of original footage and stretched it out to just over a minute with constant clip reuse (the record being the shot of Cliff narrowly avoiding a knife to the gut, reused twelve times with each time requiring the exact same input) and this not only looks really sloppy, but it feels a little disorientating, especially since to progress you must commit these scenes to memory... But the constant repeating makes it really easy to forget where you were in the sequence, leading to you having to redo it a lot. This is a point where people give up, and can you blame them? It's a shame because it starts out pretty OK, but reaches a nadir with the ninja scene, then the following few scenes do it less before it returns with a vengeance for the clock tower sequence, so the game feels really lop-sided and inconsistent. Additionally, some scenes get reused for the death reel even if they're also used as part of a successful sequence, which is just confusing (especially in the swimming sequence). Of course, Stern couldn't exactly make their own footage to compensate, so they were just doing what they could with what they had, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
To its credit though, Cliff Hanger may not be a great entry in this particular genre, but it's certainly not the worst, and most of that is down to it being competent on a technical level. That sounds a little silly, but there are definitely examples in the LaserDisc field that don't even clear that hurdle (hi there, Badlands!). Beyond anything else, the animation is of course fantastic- this is movie-grade stuff and looks great, even if there's a slight disconnect with the Mamo and Cagliostro footage (Cliff has a much harsher, more angled look to him in the Mamo scenes)- and the voicework is, well, not good but endearingly goofy, which certainly makes it memorable. The actual prompts may sometimes be unhelpful but the game is very happy to accept inputs quite promptly, and beyond some incorrect clips appearing for a fraction of a second at the end of each scene, there's no weird black-outs or anything like that- the odd awkward cut, for certain, but nothing that stops the footage dead. I imagine the 'YOU'VE BLOWN IT!' screens that appear upon failure help with this, making for a smoother transition between the current footage and something from the failure reel without an offputting black screen inbetween. Before it starts with weird input requests and reusing footage, it's not terrible! There's also a surprisingly robust set of operator dip switches that offer some very welcome tweaks, notably the options to switch off the failure clip showing Cliff being hung (probably for locations that would rather not have that kind of grim footage on display, but this also speeds things up after you fluff up) and a feature that explicitly tells the player what button they had to press for a particular action after a selectable number of consecutive failures on that action which, honestly, should've been on by default. Not all arcade games are quite as kind with their settings!
I can't say for certain how well Cliff Hanger actually did back in the day, but anecdotal evidence suggests a mixed response. For a start, they offered a conversion kit to change Cliff Hanger to Goal to Go, perhaps suggesting a lack of confidence in the older game (although then again, it may just be a concession to arcade operators so they don't have 'dead wood' on their hands with their LaserDisc-based cabs... But you usually advertise such a feature to replace rival games, not your own). There's also the fact that, even at the time, reviews were a little here and there- Computer Games Magazine from April 1984 (second and third pages here) had some scathing reviews with one player providing an amazing pull quote, "Personally, I don't want to work that hard. I don't want to think that much. I want to kill." (wow, kid, tone it down). However, it did get an entire episode of Starcade dedicated to it (which we'll see in a minute) and I've seen people now and then fondly remember the game and how it was fairly widely distributed, for whatever that's worth. Shortly afterwards Stern would quietly leave the arcade industry- probably because of that whole American market crash in 1983, but who knows- and the name would disappear from arcades until Gary Stern, the son of founder Sam Stern, revived the brand from the ashes of Sega Pinball, and that's what the company is basically known for nowadays, the only name in Pinball Town. As for Cliff Hanger, it was just another hanger-on (Arf! Arf!) in the LaserDisc space that was already plenty crowded. It's not even close to being in the big leagues with the likes of Time Gal, but it's done competently enough, and the quality of its footage and decent responsiveness keep it out of the single-heart death zone. Small mercies an' all that!
For throwing its hat into the LaserDisc ring with limited success, Cliff Hanger is awarded...
In a sentence, Cliff Hanger is...
Something you're probably best watching on Blu-ray instead.