The School Of History: The Blues Brothers

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Put down your controller and shake a tail feather. Although it’s considered a cult classic, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of, let alone seen, The Blues Brothers. Trying to find someone who’s played the Blues Brothers game, however, is a bit of a challenge. For a movie spin off, the game came to the party quite late. The film hit cinemas in 1980, but Titus didn’t release their game until 1991, over a decade after Jake and Elwood had set out to save the orphanage. Unlike most movie tie-ins, this one was actually pretty good, probably because it was so far removed from the film that it can’t really be considered a tie-in at all.

In 1990 the film was reissued on laserdisc, which could explain the otherwise random release date for the game. Another explanation could be the based on the continued existence of the band who, despite John Belushi’s death in 1982, continued to tour and record, albeit with different vocalists. The band had released a new live album in 1990, and were set to release a studio album in 1992. While the world hadn’t once again been gripped by blues fever, there was seemingly enough going on justify a video game tie-in.

Not that the game really tied into the Blues Brothers. Aside from featuring a VGA likeness of the stylishly dressed brothers, and some groovy 8-bit renditions of the films soundtrack, The Blues Brothers had nothing to do with the movie. In the game, Jake and Elwood had to make it to a concert, but their gear had gone missing along the way. With no way to make their music, it was up to the brothers to search the town and find all the equipment in time for the show. Fortunately, the guys had a rough idea of where the instruments where, and these locations made up the five levels you had to hunt through.

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Damn you evil diabolic Grannies.

The roadie responsible for hauling their gear took some strange detours on the way to the gig, as their posters and instruments ended up in some rather odd places. First, you had to find your guitar in a shopping mall, then some gear at the chemical factory, a prison, the towns sewers, and finally a construction site. Level design was good but fairly standard, aside from a few clever innovations which added a touch of strategy to the jumping elements. Particularly noteworthy was the inclusion of frozen floors, which caused you to lose your grip and potentially slide into enemies. In these sections, timing was everything.

You could play as either Jake, Elwood, or both, as The Blues Brothers included a two player mode, making it one of the earliest (but certainly not the first) games to offer co-op. Each character was almost exactly the same, save for Jake’s stomach, which limited his attacking abilities. While the brothers were wanted criminals, they weren’t murderers, so instead of being gifted with weapons, you had to pick up crates scattered around each level, to throw at your enemies. This is where Elwood would come in handy, as fast-paced players could run at some enemies and smash them in the face with a box. Jake had a bit too much of a stomach for that.

But nothing quite compared to how bizarre and inexplicable some of the enemies were. At first you encountered standard opponents, police, thugs etc, but not long after, you’d have to face up to trolley riding grannies. From then on, every human being was out to get you, whether it was pissed off construction workers, needle throwing scientists, or a Jesus looking character armed with a bag of rocks. Maybe the Illinois police department had hired as many mercenaries as possible to track down the elusive musicians? Even the animal kingdom had a bone to pick with the brothers, launching egg bombing birds and giant prison rodents at the pair, while indescribable mutants took personal offense to any uninvited humans in their sewers.

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No, bad Jesus!

When it came to designing the environments and enemies, Titus threw any hint of reality out the window and just went with whatever seemed entertaining. To this day, American penitentiaries haven’t introduced spike traps as a means of keeping inmates inside, but Titus apparently saw this as a fundamental element of social reformation. This was, after all, before the days that gamers demanded justification for what they saw on screen.

Despite its quirkiness, The Blues Brothers was a solid platformer with a high degree of difficulty. The camera didn’t track the player, and only moved to the next section when you reached the edge of the screen. This meant that you’d often have to blindly run into rooms potentially filled with enemies which required quick thinking and a quick trigger (or crate?) finger. Each level had one checkpoint, but there were no saves between levels, so you had to finish the game in one sitting. Combine this with moving platforms, fast adversaries and ranged attacks, and you’ve got a difficult game. Plus it was very nice to look at, boasting a vibrant, detailed colour palette with relatively advanced graphics for the time and a few nice aesthetic touches.

The game was released on various platforms over the next three years, with some level modifications and graphical improvements. The ports varied in their quality, some of which turned the game from an enjoyable quirky platformer (The DOS version), to a stupidly off the wall product with broken controls. A few versions even introduced new levels, new enemies and even mini challenges such as unmasking a goggled shark (NES). These were less warmly received, particularly the Amstrad CPC version.

The Blues Brothers stands out as a relatively good platformer with an unmeasurable degree of madness that makes you wonder what Titus got up to during development. If The Blues Brothers wasn’t written on the box it’s unlikely that the game would have sparked much interest, but Titus injected a degree of legitimacy into their game by employing the musical brethren. Whether it’s the fond memories of the film or the perfect 8-bit reimagining of the soundtrack, there’s enough fun in The Blues Brothers to make you want to play it all the way to sweet home Chicago.

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