I sometimes write about games from my past, with a bit of background on myself and what these games have meant to me at different times in my life.
The Lawnmower Man is one of these games. It’s got special significance to me, because the film (based on a story by Stephen King) was the very first 15-rated movie I saw at the cinema ‘legally’, as a 15 year old; I’d bluffed my way into a few when I was a cocky, but very tiny and young looking, 13 and 14 year old – and I’m still not sure how I got away with it, but I saw The Lawnmower Man on my 15th birthday.
What was especially unusual about it was that I went with my Dad; he wasn’t around much at the time and it had been a while since I last saw him when we met up to go to the movies – this was, sadly, also the last time I ever went to the cinema with him.
What made this even worse is that the film was bloody awful. Despite a promising opening sequence – though daft, it was at least well shot and somewhat unexpected – which saw a hyper-intelligent ape attempting to murder his way out of a virtual reality testing facility. It was downhill from there, though the ‘VR’ sequences were pretty mindblowing to see. These fully CGI-animated scenes haven’t, however, aged well in the slightest.
Nor has the very typically 90s handling of technology, with a laughable fear of virtual reality and a fully-online future, which seemed pretty stupid even at the time (all the phones in the world ringing at once being a standout, unintentionally hilarious technophobia moment).
As an aside, there was an even worse sequel to the first film, which thankfully killed the franchise.
So, despite the sentimental reason of The Lawnmower Man being a rare instance of me spending time with my Dad, I didn’t have any reason to be interested in a game adaptation of it, to be honest. The screenshots I was seeing of the run and gun gameplay were incredibly underwhelming, with a bland, lifeless visual style that was very disappointing by SNES standards.
However, the first person VR sections I saw shots of looked really good – and it was these that made me want to check the game out. I was heavily into cyberpunk at the time and these sections, with names such as ‘Cyber Atlantis’ were scratching a specific itch that wasn’t being dealt with outside of the William Gibson fiction I was reading back in the early 90s.
So when I first tried The Lawnmower Man, having rented it from a local Blockbuster Video, I was incredibly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. Despite the awful visuals of the core run and gun stages, it was a really well designed, highly playable adventure. The VR sections were super smooth and responsive, with a couple of different types of these to spice things up – one in which you just have to get to the exit intact, another (Cyber War) in roughly the same style where you shoot enemies at various checkpoints on your way to the exit and a third (Cyber Run) which sees you flying and shooting across a virtual landscape in third person.
There’s ‘virtual’ boss levels too, which are less successful than the other non-platforming sections but nonetheless do add some variety to proceedings. It’s clear that an awful lot of effort went into making these stages visually and technically satisfying; the platforming sections really did get short shrift here, though there are some nicely large scale bosses to deal with in the ‘real world’ sections.
The one aspect that remains constant throughout – and which has meant that the game has continued to be a favourite of mine – is that the soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It is still one of the best game soundtracks of all time, in my humble and perhaps biased opinion.
If you get the chance, I’d urge you to check out The Lawnmower Man. Skip the film – also, ignore the laughable notion in-game that, using VR, you can physically move from one space to another in the real world – and play what, for me, is a hugely underrated and hidden gem. It’s a rare instance of a game being far better than the source material – and one of the most surprisingly satisfying games of the 16-bit era, particularly from an audio perspective. It’s not a well liked game – perhaps because of its association with the dreadful film – but it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.
Thank you to a friend of mine (@farrelltheferal) for inspiring me to finally write about The Lawnmower Man – something I’d long planned to do!
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