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Remembering… True Lies

I didn’t watch R rated movies when I was a kid, or at least, I didn’t as far as my parents were aware. Many days after school I’d spend the few post-school hours before my parents returned home from work with my neighborhood friends. Most of that time was jeopardized with bike riding, video games and sports, but on the rare occasion that my friend’s father had rented something killer, it contained the occasional action flick.

Sitting in front of his dad’s mammoth projection set, we were pulled by our jugulars into the no-holds-barred worlds of Seagal, Willis and Schwarzenegger. As we sat there, eyes glued to every brutal neck snapping, I remember that uneasy thrill of doing something I shouldn’t have been. John McClane was my new best friend and the Nakatomi Plaza was our secret playground.

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Of all the action movies my friend and I watched together, one stood above the rest: True Lies. Long before he was ‘The Governator’, Arnold Schwarzenegger was perhaps the most implausible secret agent in movie history, but I didn’t care. From the moment Harry Tasker slammed two Dobermans’ heads into one another, advising them to ‘Stay’, I was sold. And from there, it kept getting better. From Tom Arnold’s wise cracks, to Bill Paxton’s sleazy con man, to Jamie Lee Curtis’ eye opening strip tease, I was hooked, even if I couldn’t fully appreciate why.

Not long after, I happened upon True Lies for the Sega Genesis at my local rental shop. Finally, here was my invitation to join the Omega Sector.

Popping the cartridge into my console, my friends and I were sucked back into the movie. Donning our finest tux, we were informed we had to plant a bug on a computer on the second floor of the embassy. As we walked through the gala, we were shocked to find no one shooting at us. Women traipsed around the party in cocktail dresses while the men were busy yelling into their primitive cellular phones, oblivious to our debonair Harry Tasker, pistol in hand. Patrolling the event were some thugs in blue suits, packing the signature weapon of 90s movie bad guys, the Uzi machine pistol. But for some reason, they were indifferent to us. Living up to our reputations as young boys, we started mowing down random party goers.

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Killing our first civilian, Tom Arnold chimed in to give us an earful – apparently, there would be repercussions for our actions. My friends and I thought the consequences were rather obvious; the wall flowers with Uzis had clearly taken notice of us. From this point forward, True Lies became the hard-nosed action game I still remember to this day.

Employing the same top-down perspective as many classic shooters that came before it, including Robotron, Smash TV and Zombies Ate My Neighbors, True Lies was the precise, almost methodical alternative. Making it from one room to the next was a struggle, a puzzle that required you to be cognizant of your environment, your enemies and your health. Although you could absorb twenty-four bullets before Harry would finally keel over, dive rolling headlong into danger was a sure fire recipe for death.

Managing your health and remaining lives became a common balancing act. True Lies’ stages were massive labyrinths, separated by the occasional locked door or random mission objective. Traversing them was a deliberate endeavor and there was never any telling where your next breather might be. Like a good survival horror game, health packs were spaced out in a way that felt challenging without seeming impossible. Each pack was a reprieve, a reward to congratulate you for making it there, allowing you to stave off death that much longer.

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Playing True Lies required a lot of us as players, both physically and mentally. To facilitate its ‘think first, shoot later’ design, the game employed a directional lock button, which kept Harry facing a single direction. At this point strafing was a common concept in the world of first-person shooters, but it was still a relative oddity from any other perspective. This seemingly simple mechanic made taking cover not only a viable strategy, but an essential one. Engaging enemies was no longer as simple as walking up to them and shooting. You had to play the angles, find the spots where you could expose as little of Harry’s body as possible and still make your shots.

Camping behind barriers wouldn’t always work and when it didn’t, you would need to leave the security of cover to engage your aggressors. Each enemy type could easily be identified by their differing sprites and weapon of choice; quickly identifying them was crucial to every conflict. Each enemy type and each weapon acted differently, which means you would have to learn the individual ranges and fire rates to safely close ground. Projectiles and characters were restricted to eight-way movement, meaning a smart player could exploit the limited firing radius of the bad guys to move in.

Close combat was by far the riskiest proposition in True Lies and also the most exhilarating. The enemy AI was much more adept at changing directions quickly to land shots at close range, but the rush of a direct shotgun blast was both intoxicating and satisfying. Countering the versatile armaments of Aziz’s terrorists, Harry packed a diverse assortment of weapons himself; each one, from Harry’s own Uzi, to the landmine, possessed specific, indispensable uses.

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Despite True Lies’ meticulous game design, all we wanted as children was to be Harry Tasker, and it delivered. One second we were fleeing from the embassy, chased by dogs, men on skies and attack helicopters. The next level we cornered our mark in the men’s room at a public mall, only to be ambushed by an endless wave of terrorists spawning from a row of seemingly empty stalls. True Lies gave us the keys to a Harrier jet and told us to save the world, and if we didn’t, our game over screen was replaced with a rippling mushroom cloud – talk about high stakes.

After renting True Lies three or four times, I finally asked my parents for it one birthday. It’s been a staple in my Genesis ever since. Every time I pop it in the 16-bit rendition of the movie’s theme gets my heart pumping. Then, when I play it, I remember why I loved the 90s, I remember why I still love a good challenge, and I remember what it feels like to watch your first R rated flick, without your parents’ knowledge.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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