From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a seasonal game that teaches the world it is better to give than to receive. At least when you’re talking about fatal injuries.

I’ve never actually seen Die Hard. Sorry. I saw the third on a plane once, though I don’t remember much of the plot, except for a bit where Bruce Willis wears a plaque declaring his dislike of everybody and that guy who rather impolitely declared that he already had a surplus of serpents aboard his Monday to Friday plane was unimpressed. 

I’m assuming Die Hard is good, because it has Alan Rickman in it and it’s not Alice in Wonderland. Beyond that, I only know three things. First, it’s an educational tale about the importance of shoes. Second, it is directly responsible for Hudson Hawk. Third, it’s about Bruce Willis killing thieves in a tower, and not in fact a tragic tale of a Welshman expiring in the wake of a massive Viagra overdose.

Oh, and for some reason it’s become as synonymous with Christmas as The Snowman, Scrooge, and the disappointment of missing batteries. In fact, it was on the other day. Too bad I was busy playing the video game instead of watching it.

Even though it’s not exactly a Christmas game, unless your idea of seasonal generosity is “Bullets for everyone,” Die Hard is one of the few that are memorable. There are a few more directly associated, like Spud, an adventure in which you play Santa’s grandson, and a few holiday releases like Jazz Jackrabbit: Holiday Hare (opens in new tab), but they’re mostly forgotten.

Is my... is my speech popping out of my box again? Oh, how embarrassing.

Is my… is my speech popping out of my box again? Oh, how embarrassing.

Oddly, that also appears to have been the fate of this game from 1989. Is it good? In a word: no. In seven words: no, nope, nah, haha, nein, uh-uh, cusinart. It is however surprisingly advanced for its time; a real-time 3D action adventure that was clearly built from the ground up to replicate the movie as much as possible, give or take not being able to license Bruce Willis’ face for the title screen.

Compare that to the game that NES owners got, two years later…

Suddenly, the problems with the PC version of Die Hard seem a lot more forgivable. And it’s very true to its goal, not least because it is hard, and you will die. You will die a lot, and not by the sword.

Not too surprisingly, the game expects that you’ve seen the movie. Since I haven’t, I have to guess what’s going on. Some random guy pretending to be Bruce Willis is in the toilets of a big empty office building, presumably at Christmas, when the Metatron from the half of Dogma before two stoned idiots showed up to ruin the movie appears with some goons and takes everyone hostage.

In 20 minutes, he will break the security in the tower and steal its delicious caramel middle, and presumably shoot the hostages on the grounds that when you’ve got hostages, it’s a shame not to see if they’re satisfying to pop open like bubblewrap. Bruce Willis has to fight his way through the offices and corridors and conveniently sized vents to stop him, and then it turns out that he was a ghost all along.

I think that’s about the gist of it, anyway. Normally, it wouldn’t matter, since story and early action adventures were usually passing comrades at best. Here though, they’re uncharacteristically intertwined. 

The whole game runs on that time limit, with a constant view of how close Professor Snape is to breaking the security in the top left, a radio for updates on how things are going, and only a handful of enemies. Of course, you only have a handful of bullets, and a distinct lack of armour or bullet-resistant flab. So that’s a problem. You also can’t save, and have to get through the whole game on one life.

On the plus side, you do get to keep your shoes on.

And that bomb’s a real son of a breach.

The 3D is actually super impressive for the time, even keeping things simple. The… one second… the tower’s called what? Naked Tony Plaza? OK, I see no reason to query that. The offices and corridors of Naked Tony Plaza are very detailed, with ceiling lights, plant pots in the corridors, noticeboards on the walls, and a fair amount of sprite-based animation so that Not Bruce can do things like roll around, crane his arm left and right to shoot crooks, and get into fist fights. Again, remember, 1989. 

It also does this at a reasonable speed and level of fluidity, unlike… well, let’s do a direct comparison. Here’s Castle Master from the following year, using a technology called Freescape, essentially the Crysis of the 8-bit era.

I don’t know about great. I mean, it’s OK…

Point to Die Hard, I think. (The engine later made its way to TV in the short-lived BBC2 gameshow Cyber Zone, featuring Craig Charles and about seven actual polygons (opens in new tab). But I digress.) 

Here’s another comparison: Corporation, also from 1990. At the time, this was a highly respected game from future Tomb Raider creators Core Design. Predating Wolfenstein 3D, it has a reasonable claim to being one of the earliest real first-person shooters. Certainly, it helped pave the way for both games like System Shock, and engines that didn’t suck.

You could send in a photo and have yourself in the game, in the bottom left. So, neat.

You could send in a photo and have yourself in the game, in the bottom left. So, neat.

Die Hard’s looking pretty good about now, wouldn’t you say?

Well, it's looking OK.

Well, it’s looking OK.

As a license, it’s pretty reminiscent of what Bethesda originally did with The Terminator, up to and including not being able to get the star’s likeness. By that I don’t mean it’s a cat-and-mouse game with a killer robot, but something designed around the movie’s needs. 

It’s a simpler game though, and easily covered. Starting in the toilets, you explore the first floor to take out some randomly placed enemies and hunt for a few key items. With a lighter you can sneak through vents, otherwise Bruce Willis just complains they’re too dark like some kind of wuss. With cigarettes, you can give yourself cancer… or presumably get past some security. With a radio, as mentioned, you get updates from Whoever Alan Rickman Was in Love Actually, like how many security gates remain, and the early shock reveal that Tony has been killed.

I have no idea who Tony is, admittedly, but… wait! No! Not Naked Tony! He had so many people still to show his penis to! Oh, if only his lifestyle had revolved around bulletproof vests! Or at least…

Huh? Nakatomi Plaza? Oh. Well, screw Tony then.

Aside from not being able to take much damage, Bruce Willis’ two biggest weaknesses are limited ammo (and only being able to shoot by waving his broken arm around), and fighting like a declawed kitten when out of bullets. 

Even so, with a bit of luck it’s easy to get to the roof, and from the roof down to another floor via the ancient art of sliding down a fire hose. At this point though, things get much harder and more random, thanks to lots more crooks with guns and no shortage of bugs to help them out. 

Down on the next level, I immediately and repeatedly get stunlocked by an enemy, and the entire game ends long before getting to Hans Gruber’s accent and helping reaffirm British actors playing villains in Hollywood movies for the next three decades. So, that’s a bit disappointing. Still, I’m fairly sure the initial slice gets the general gist across. Aa flawed game, but one that did at least try to be more than just another sidescroller.