When it comes to Dick Tracy and video games, people generally think of the NES game developed by Bandai because they saw people like the Angry Video Game Nerd and Game Grumps, among many others I’m sure, riff on it in a YouTube video. Unfortunately for Dick Tracy, people picked the wrong title to showcase for their video productions as there’s a much, much better game based on the property for Nintendo’s then major competitor, Sega, on the Genesis. I’ve looked at a lot of games that crossed both the SNES and the Genesis and the conclusion that I’ve normally come to, with a few outliers like Captain America and The Avengers, is that when it comes to picking between a Sega or Nintendo version of a game, you stick with Nintendo. Dick Tracy is a game that goes against that trend and is not only a game that showed just how more powerful that Genesis was over the NES, but is an interesting take on the side-scrolling action game.
At a glance, Dick Tracy looks like any other movie based game from the 90’s: a side-scrolling action game where you move left to right dispatching bad guys, and you would be half right, that is indeed what a lot of the game is, but there’s a twist: Enemies not only come at you from your left and right, but from the background as well. In most levels Dick has two weapons, a pistol and a tommy gun, with the former being used for enemies in your immediate path and the latter for those in the background. When holding down the fire button for the tommy gun, you stop moving and then take control of a targeting reticule like a rail-shooter. Think a side-scroller mixed with The Punisher on the NES and you’d be on the right track, or even Blade on the GBC with more mobility. Dick Tracy doesn’t try to be, dare I say it, as ambitious or true to the source material as Bandai’s game, but for those who can think of “detective work” as shooting and punching a bunch of guys, this game will be right up your alley.
What makes this game so great is that it does a lot with the one gameplay mechanic over the course of the game and slowly introduces new wrinkles into the formula and curves the difficulty accordingly. In stage one things seem pretty straight forward as enemies on the left and right plain don’t know how to duck and shoot so that’s what you do, so really the main threat only comes from foes in the background. This changes pretty quickly as you have to be quick on your toes dodging bullets high, low and from the background as well. In other levels your without a weapon and have to rethink all your tactics as you’ll have to get up close and personal with bad guys not only shooting at you, but running at you with knives as well.
Breaking up the walking, punching and shooting action even further are levels where you get to ride on the side of a police car where the mechanics are expanded on further. In these stages you have to learn how to ride along the top of your car or use it as cover against enemies firing from cars in the background. This of course is also mixed in with mobsters both in front and behind you shooting high and low.
After the shooting and scrolling stages you come up against bosses in the form of characters from the film like Flattop, Prunceface and eventually Big Boy. Much like the stages they start out pretty easy to take down, but get brutally tough towards the games end. Your still dealing with regular goons all the while your fighting the bosses along with the bosses themselves who have powerful weapons like grenades that can cause debris to fall down on top of you or their own version of your tommy gun that is really tricky to dodge.
If I had to find fault with Dick Tracy it would be that the game gets brutally hard, even on the easy difficulty. You can up your continues and lives, as well as earn new continues from a bonus game between levels, but even winning that as the game goes on gets extremely hard. The game also throws a loop at you really late in the game with some really cheap plat-forming deaths as up until that point, they were non-existent and for a good reason. Dick Tracy is not the nimblest of video game protagonists and even when your speeding alongside a police car getting shot at from every angle possible, you feel as that you’re moving at a snail’s pace, as evidenced by your progress meter for a stage that moves about as fast the mountain climber in the Plinko game on the Price is Right. What probably doesn’t help this is that Dick Tracy is not that interesting a game to look at with a lot of the stages tending to look the same only with different coloured buildings or a warehouse.
Problems aside, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I stuck Dick Tracy into my Sega Genesis, and I was pleasantly surprised by a game that no one was really talking about. Having to deal with enemies in the background with your tommy gun is a great mechanic and the game does a good job of slowly introducing new ways to keep the action fresh and not overwhelm the player right from the start, though the difficulty can get quite extreme towards the end. Anyone who’s a fan of Dick Tracy and got burned by the NES game should give this game a look if they’ve got the equipment hanging around, it could be that like me you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.