Licensed games are no strangers to being lost in time. As properties change hands, and publishers disappear from existence, games based on TV shows and movies tend to disappear into the ether. Sometimes it’s a shame (see GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64). Sometimes we’re all better off (see Superman for Nintendo 64). And sometimes there’s something else entirely, like Universal Soldier.
Universal Soldier was a 1992 Roland Emmerich joint starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. It had something to do with reanimating dead soldiers to create an elite task force. I know what you’re thinking. “What could possibly go wrong?” Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out. Action movies like this were ripe for video game adaptations, and publishers considered these licenses to be a fast track to big profits. Typically speaking, they weren’t wrong. Licensed games were often huge hits, and since aspects like plot and setting were already taken care of by the source material, they required less effort to produce than creating something from scratch. Accolade, a publisher founded by former Activision staffers in the mid 80’s, was the lucky winner of the Universal Soldier license, but they had another money saving plan up their sleeves.
Accolade had also acquired the rights to create console ports of the Turrican franchise. For those not in the know, Turrican is a sci-fi shooter series that had become popular on PC’s in the early 90’s. It primarily involves an armored space-dude shooting stuff, platforming, and occasionally rolling into a ball and dropping bombs everywhere. It’s equal parts platformer and shooter, somewhere between Mega Man and Metroid. There’s hidden power-ups strewn about, and the stages are typically fairly open and large. You have a standard gun which can be augmented to do all sorts of things, similar to how your main weapon would work in a scrolling shooter like Gradius or R-Type. Then you have a secondary gun which can be fired in any direction, as long as you are stationary. Finally, you have what is essentially the morph ball from Metroid, except less stealthy and more weaponized. You can zoom around as a spiky ball and cause all sorts of carnage. It’s very fast and slightly unwieldy, but once you get a grip on it, it’s really cool. It’s weird, but that’s Turrican. Weird, but fun.
Following Accolade’s successful port of the original Turrican to the Sega Genesis, it wasn’t long before a port of Turrican 2 was given the green light. However, having just spent a chunk of money acquiring the Universal Soldier license, the powers that be saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and decided that it would be a great idea to attempt to shoehorn the Universal Soldier IP into Turrican 2, and thus Universal Soldier for the Sega Genesis was born. On paper, this seemed like a brilliant strategy. In practice, things were a bit… off.
Like I mentioned before, the Turrican series may be totally awesome, but it’s also really freaking strange. As such, some of the weirdness had to be altered to make it fit with its new movie license. For example, where in the original game you might fight some sort of giant death robot, in Universal Soldier you fight a giant Dolph Lundgren with a jetpack. Then there’s the ball rolling mechanic. While Turrican’s protagonist looked as natural as one can performing a stunt like that, Universal Soldier replaced the little robot looking dude with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Let me tell you, when considering the concept of Van Damme rolling himself into a tiny spiky ball and bouncing around, the word “natural” isn’t exactly what comes to mind. He certainly never did that in the movie.
It’s things like this that put Universal Soldier in a strange position. On one hand, people who were anticipating a sequel to Turrican likely had no idea that Universal Soldier was actually the game they were looking for. On the other hand, fans of the movie who bought the game were probably very confused by just how little resemblance the game had with its source material. While their intentions were sound, Accolade had inadvertently ostracized any audience this game might have had. In the end, Universal Soldier got itself some critical acclaim, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire in terms of sales. For the most part, it’s been forgotten as just another action movie tie in game, laid to rest with games like Cliffhanger and Judge Dredd for all eternity.
The thing is, it’s the Turrican pedigree that makes this game more than that. Turrican went on to become something of a cult hit franchise on its own, and its sequels Mega Turrican, Super Turrican, and Super Turrican 2 are some of the most collectible games on their respective platforms. In an effort to make Turrican more appealing to a wider audience, Accolade doomed the only home console port of Turrican 2 to be forever locked behind the Universal Soldier license, effectively making it impossible to port to a modern console without considerable investment from a prospective publisher. I say prospective publisher because Accolade folded in 1999, meaning that if anyone did want to rerelease this gem, that’s just one more hurdle to overcome.
Turrican’s sequels can currently be found on the Wii Virtual Console, and while they may be better games, introducing awesome mechanics like the grappling hook, Universal Soldier is still well worth tracking down. Unfortunately, the likelihood of it getting ported to modern consoles remains slim, thanks to the movie license. That said, since it has faded into obscurity, it’s a pretty easy game to find. Where Mega Turrican on the Genesis can fetch a pretty penny, this game can be bought for a song. And speaking of songs, you can’t talk Turrican without mentioning the series’ incredible score. Universal Soldier’s soundtrack fortunately retains Turrican 2’s music, and much like the rest of the Turrican series, it’s as good as, if not better than, the action itself, and that’s saying something.
Strangely enough, this isn’t the only game this type of licensing has been applied to over the years. (Look up the history of Yo! Noid sometime, for example). It’s a shame that things like this happened back then, but it does make for one heck of an interesting story. Just think, if Accolade never shoved the movie license into Turrican 2, we may have never seen 16-bit, giant, cybernetic Dolph Lundgren. And who wants to live in a world without that?