Die Hard Predator
Image: Time Extension / 20th Century Fox

Something we don't see a lot of anymore are game adaptations of films. There might be a few still, especially if under a large IP umbrella like Marvel, but it's nothing compared to the 1990s when seemingly every film had a chance at becoming a game. UK publisher Ocean was famous for producing these, and its story is fairly well documented. What's less documented is the Japanese side of film-to-game adaptations. As it turns out, even if a game's credits may imply it was Western developed, such as Die Hard on NES, it may actually have come from Japan. But to disentangle this untold history, we need some inside sources.

Bill Swartz and Kelly Rogers were both interviewed for The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, given that when they both worked at Activision, they were involved in the localisation and publishing of Japanese SNES shmup BioMetal, by Athena. You may remember BioMetal as that game with the officially licensed 2 Unlimited soundtrack. Given that both Activision interviewees were credited on the sublime Die Hard for NES – designed by Tony Van and yet attributed to Pack-in-Video – naturally, they had to be grilled on this too!

Die Hard on NES is a top-down action-adventure that closely follows the film and, at a glance, resembles Zelda or Metal Gear. It's also one of the best games on the NES, with a line-of-sight visual system where rooms and enemies are only displayed if your character is facing them, a dynamic weapons system where you can sacrifice your machine gun to access air ducts, inventive item functionality facilitating optional goals and multiple endings, and an organic (almost procedurally-generated) game flow as enemies react to your actions and the floors you're on. In 1991, there was little else like it – the game feels almost alive.

"This was one of my first titles as a full-time tester - I might have been lead tester, in fact," says Rogers, fondly. "I loved this game! It was really fun to play with great immersion in the environment as you point out. It had kind of a 'lighted cone' thing, for your field of vision. When you moved, it would show in 2D just what your character was seeing. Testers loved Die Hard on NES; it added a level of realism not often used in games at that time, since the First-Person Shooter format had yet to be fully realised. Ton Van was designer. He worked most directly with Pack-in-Video."

You may recognise Tony Van as the man behind Shadowrun on the Mega Drive (there's even some slight similarities between Die Hard and Shadowrun). Sega-16 had a lengthy interview with him in 2005. Sadly it's been impossible to contact him again, even after a personal introduction from Sega-16 founder Ken Horowitz. Mr Van, if you're reading this, Time Extension would love to chat.

Which leads us to Activision Japan's former Managing Director, and later Activision US' Senior Vice President, Bill Swartz. "Activision Japan, previously Mediagenic Japan, had been around for a long time," says Swartz. "I took it over in 1990 and ran it until 2000, and I'm happy to say for at least 8 of those 10 years it was the first or second most profitable Activision operational unit. Activision Japan did a number of things, including sales of Activision properties, licensing, development, and publishing."

Swartz was also credited on Die Hard, alongside Rogers. "For Die Hard, make sure you talk to Tom Sloper," suggests Swartz. "Tom was a producer at Mediagenic and managed that product in Japan for a few months. We actually overlapped in Japan briefly. One of the Die Hard titles - again, this was before me, but might have been Mega Drive? - was slopped together overnight by Pack-in-Video switching sprites with one of their other titles because they hadn't touched it for the year they were supposed to be developing it."

Reskinning an already existing game in development to match an acquired license happened frequently in game development, so shouldn't be surprising. What is surprising is the mention of a Mega Drive version, since the only Japanese-developed Die Hard games by Pack-in-Video were for the NES and PC Engine. While possible Pack-in-Video developed a Die Hard for Mega Drive which went unreleased, Swartz's description definitely sounds like the PC Engine game, which featured McClane wading through swamps and other stuff not in the movie. A hasty reskin of a mid-development action game seems a plausible and logical explanation. We sent a YouTube link to Swartz, showing the PC Engine version, asking if he can confirm it, to which he replied: "I think so, but I'm afraid I could not swear to it."

Swartz didn't reveal much about Die Hard, but his answer led us to Tom Sloper of Sloperama. Take some time to browse his website - Sloper is a fascinating figure in the history of game development, given how open he is and how much of his career he's meticulously documented.

Sloper also gave an incredible interview to GDRI where he discusses Pack-in-Video and Die Hard:

At this time (1988 to 1993), Activision was actively engaged in sublicensing properties to Japan as a way of synergising licenses for games. Instead of spending money to develop the game for North America, we took the rights to Japan and sublicensed them. The Japanese sublicensee would develop the game for the Japanese market first, then we would localise the game for the North American market. It was a way of reducing development cost, but it had some disadvantages in terms of creative control. If you give a Japanese developer a game design document, they don't treat it as a guideline - it's taken literally. Tony Van wrote a design for Die Hard on NES and when I got the game back from Pack-in-Video, I was blown away by how the game was exactly like the design.

Given their roles at Activision and liaisons with Pack-in-Video, I next asked Swartz and Rogers about Predator on the MSX2 and NES - just in case they knew something. The NES version was published by Pack-in-Video in Japan, and Activision in the US.

Both MSX2 and NES versions of Predator were apparently developed by Klon in Japan, which later rebranded itself as Dual Corporation. Predator is a longstanding mystery, since while the two versions share assets and look similar, they are astoundingly different in function. The MSX2 game is excellent and reasonably faithful to the movie, copying the aesthetics of Metroid in places, and featuring multiple branching paths, selectable weapons, and traps which don't kill you but rather send you to an earlier part of the level.

Meanwhile, the Famicom and NES versions are painfully bizarre fever dreams. Power-ups do more harm than good; by default, you can only punch, but if you pick up grenades you should reset, since they are worse than useless. Every stage is abysmally designed, with tiny slippery platforms above bottomless pits and giant impassable barriers beset by endless waves of enemies. Even the developers lacked faith in their designs, since they included a suicide button for when you get trapped in scenery - yes, the game actually expects you to kill yourself if it soft-locks itself. That's not even taking into account the "Big Levels" with broken physics and garish colour clash.

It is incomprehensible how the same studio, clearly sharing visual and audio assets – and actual code – could produce such extremely disparate games on hardware similar enough to allow a straight port. (There was also a port of the NES version to the TRS-80 CoCo, which just confuses things further.)

Rogers was asked directly if he knew anything at all. "I was test manager on Alien Vs. Predator for SNES with Tom Sloper as lead producer," he says, revealing a proximity to the license, but not that specific game. "Anyways, not much to say here, it was part of the Hollywood vision and the gameplay [on SNES] was decent - mainly it was about the licensing of recognised characters."

Given Sloper's name again, we contacted him directly and asked about the MSX2 disparities. "I didn't know there was an MSX2 version. I think I had an MSX2 computer in my office for a while," explained Sloper. "Activision sublicensed the Predator NES rights to a Japanese company, who probably designed their own game without knowledge of any other versions. I joined the project after it had already been started, and my primary responsibility was to make the Japanese game palatable to Western audiences."

In the aforementioned GDRI interview Sloper sheds a little more light on how the licensing worked, using Alien Vs. Predator on SNES as an example:

I needed a design doc to provide to 20th Century Fox. When I got it, it was just three pages of bullet points. Not spectacular, but reasonable. Fox approved it, but when we got the actual game from the developer, Bill Swartz and Fox and I were surprised - and I don't mean in a good way. It was a fighting game! Going back to the design doc, I figured this out by reading between the lines. The doc said that when the weapons were gone, you'd have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It wasn't at all clear that most of the time you'd be punching the aliens. I asked the Japanese side what they were thinking, and they said, 'Fighting games are very popular in Japan now.'

All of this information builds a framework for understanding how film licenses worked, but still hasn't explained the Predator on MSX2 / NES mystery.

We threw the question to Swartz, since Sloper had mentioned him. "Not sure about Predator on NES," admits Swartz. "I do remember cleaning up a mess when it arrived in the form of Alien Vs. Predator on SNES, which was developed and published in Japan by a long-gone company called IGS, working with a developer by the name of Jordan. These were called 'Knight Rider deals' and referred to anything, not just films, we held the IP for. US rights and a US localisation were baked-in from the start, and a required deliverable. These deals gave us zero creative control, and often had other issues as well. They were great for the time, but as the industry and Activision matured, we stepped away from them fairly quickly."

This is pure speculation on our part, but having read all the interview material it seems the MSX2 version of Predator was maybe the lead project, and Klon retroactively shoehorned the assets and material to fit whatever design brief was given for Activision's NES version. It's plausible, since the "Big Mode" appears hastily tacked on to the FC / NES game, but was not present on MSX2.

We may never know the truth about Predator, but Swartz's revelation about "Knight Rider deals" describes a fascinating era of video game history. Over time film studios realised the value of licensing out game adaptations, and as the industry matured the framework that facilitated Knight Rider deals faded away. Film licenses traditionally receive a lot of criticism for being awful, but there were some gems released, such as Die Hard on NES. Which film license was your favourite?