True Lies
Image: 20th Century Fox

Few actors have had as great an impact on the world of gaming as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years, many of his biggest blockbusters have been turned into popular video games, while his likeness has served as the unofficial inspiration for countless artists. Not everything the star touched, though, was guaranteed to be an instant success, with former staff from the New York-based publisher Acclaim and Melbourne developer Beam Software claiming they struggled when trying to adapt his 1994 film True Lies for the SNES and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

One of the major issues was the film's unconventional story, with the developers puzzling over how to create a decent variety of levels from the material onscreen. In case you've never seen True Lies before, the film's plot follows a U.S. government agent, named Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who discovers his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) is having an affair. The film mixes action, comedy, and romance, with Tasker having to save his marriage at the same time as apprehending a dangerous terrorist named Salim Abu Aziz. Unlike many of Schwarzenegger's films, it isn't just a straight action picture, with Tasker also spending time trailing his wife and intimidating her new partner, a sleazy used car salesman (played by Bill Paxton). Because of this, Acclaim worried was worried it wouldn't make a clean transition into a video game.

In the past, Time Extension spoke to Acclaim producer Dan Feinstein and Beam Software designer Ian Malcolm about the challenges of adapting the James Cameron film for its video game tie-in. During one of these conversations, Feinstein even revealed that the project at one point was close to being dropped due to the difficulty in creating an exciting action game from the license. Nevertheless, the two companies managed to pull something together, with the result now being somewhat of a hidden gem. Here's the story of how they did it, and how it almost didn't happen at all.

In the early '90s, Acclaim made a lucrative agreement for the console rights to whatever Arnold Schwarzenegger made next following the success of the home ports of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Acclaim was expecting the star to make another Terminator, another straight-action movie that would essentially be a license to print money, but when it was invited to a screening of his new film True Lies, the publisher didn't know what to make of it.

As Feinstein explains: "We had a license with Arnold Schwarzenegger to do his next few movies I believe. So the next movie after that, he decides to do True Lies, which isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger the superhero. It was with, I believe, Jamie Lee Curtis and him. We saw a special showing and we all walked out like, ‘Where’s the game?’ There wasn’t much to go with..."

At the developer Beam, the response wasn't much different, though the team only had the scripts to go from, as opposed to a full screening. As Malcolm recalls, "We had the same reaction that Danny did, which is 'Ah, where's the game?' There's a lot of relationships and marital infidelity stuff in there. But then, at the same time, we went 'Ah, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger, he probably has a gun in at least 30% of the scenes of the film.' We can probably do something with that."

Acclaim and Beam Software ended up jettisoning much of the subplot about Tasker's wife and instead opted to make a straight top-down action shooter that saw the player run and gun their way through nine distinct levels (some of which actually appeared in the film and others which were simply "inspired" by its events).

Malcolm remembers, "In the end, we went, ‘Well, the start of the game and the start of the film kind of join up and the end of the film sort of kind of joins up.' But you’re right about the other ones. Like literally yeah, when Jamie Lee Curtis goes through Chinatown, we went, ‘Oh, at least [the China level is] kind of inspired by it’, you know. We were really scratching for some levels that did tie in. Then, the scene with the horse and all the rest of it, very, very briefly in the film Schwarzenegger’s riding a horse through the park, but because we hadn’t seen the film, in all good faith we went, ‘Well, we can’t do the horse, but we’ll have him running through the park.’"

Problems with the project apparently didn't just stop at the difficulties of making it tie into the film. According to both Feinstein and Malcolm, development dragged on due to an unfocused development. Panicked feedback went to and fro between the two companies. And, according to Feinstein, at one point Acclaim even considered dumping the license, arguing that the pieces just weren't coming together into "a cohesive whole".

The problem was we started adding features to it, which would then break it. So we added a dive roll-in [...] but you could actually dive roll your way through the entire game essentially

"The problem was we started adding features to it, which would then break it," says Malcolm. "So we added a dive roll-in, which was a nice animation, and it was a really good thing for hectic situations and all the rest of it. But then the feedback we were getting — I can actually remember now — one of them was you could actually dive roll your way through the entire game essentially. And so one of the things that we did to counteract that was planting the mines; Harry using the mines and the mines actually dotted around some of the levels weren't in the original design."

In addition to the dive roll, other late features included the strafe lock and polish for its second level, which took place in a mall. This level featured non-enemy characters such as shoppers and businessmen that had a bunch of fun animations (like hiding under a newspaper whenever the gunfire starts). It also included some comically-named stores based on developer in-jokes, including "Everybody Loves String" and "Uncle Furry's".

"It’s stupid and daft now," says Malcolm, "But my producer at Beam Justin Halliday and I were also just making up names for all the shops, but then it was getting to a point where the feedback we were getting from Acclaim was ‘Remove this shop name’, ‘This is not good’, or ‘We don’t understand this one.’ To the point where in the end, there’s a shop in there called Humour Gap. We put that one in and that was one of the last changes because there was clearly a humour gap between us and them."

As history tells us, both teams persevered and produced a surprisingly fun tie-in in the end, which still bears some resemblance to the original property it was based on. The title isn't talked about much today, but it's an enjoyable action game even without much knowledge of the film itself.

Have you played True Lies before? Let us know what you think of it below!