Retro Gaming

Dick Tracy (NES): Licensed to Kill

dick tracy nesDick Tracy (NES)

Game Vitals:

Released: August 1990 by Realtime Associates on the NES and Sega Genesis. Gameboy and Sega Master System in 1991.

David Warhol founded Realtime Associates in 1986 with a group of ex-Mattel Electronics employees with the intention of developing games for the Intellivision game system. Most recently they released the Intellivision Lives! compilation titles for XBox, Nintendo Gamecube and Playstation 2 consoles.

Realtime has been responsible for a large number of forgettable and memorably miserable licensed game titles. We’ll revisit their ability to “craft” “classic” video games when we get to The Rocketeer (NES) and hopefully even the spinoff from the Warlock (Genesis) films. The latter of which is news to me. These totally overlooked titles based on films completely unworthy of adaptation always intrigue me.

Dick Tracy’s August 1990

  • The U.S. commits naval forces to Iraq, and Operation Desert Shield formerly begins
  • Mike Tyson charged with sexual harassment.
  • George Steinbrenner steps down as Yankee owner.
  • East and West Germany announced that they would unite on October 3rd.
  • Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” rules over the Billboard chart for the entire month.
  • Ghost reclaimed the top spot at the box office on August 5th in its 4th week in release. It would regain the top spot in its 8th week of release on September 3rd.

The “Original”

dick tracy quad teaser poster
Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Since the game wasn’t sold to capitalize on the sudden success of the 1931 comic strip or 1937 serial with prepubescent boys of the late 20th century, we’ll call the 1990 film “the original” and carry on with our conversation, ignoring the cries of purists.

Dick Tracy‘s winding path to cinemas began in the early 1980’s when Top Gun scribes Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. began the adaptation of the 1930’s comic serial. Before Warren Beatty became the shepherd of the project, names such as Steven Spielberg, John Landis and even Walter Hill had been attached to direct. Let’s all take a few moments to consider a Walter Hill version of Dick Tracy.

Walter Hill's The Warriors. Imagine them, I suppose, in banana yellow leather vests.

Before Beatty’s Dick Tracy hit theaters in June of 1990, the movie’s promotional campaign suffocated us all with top-of-mind awareness. Anyone remember the following MTV “Be Dick Tracy” contest? How about the Dick Tracy Crimestopper Game at McDonald’s that turned us all into scratch-off addicts. Disney’s MGM Studios even had a musical stage show based on the character called the Diamond Double Cross. Somewhere I’m sure Al Pacino popped out of a Happy Meal having already eaten all of your fries. Insert some line about saying hello to his little friend here.

Disney foisted Dick Tracy up as the tentpole movie of the summer. This, of course, coming on the heels of the success of Tim Burton’s Batman the prior yearThe wave of cinematic comic-book adaptations in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s seems downright quaint compared to the times in which we’re currently living where every blockbuster has its roots in comics or graphic novels.

The most interesting aspect of this 1990’s comic-book takeover was that Batman‘s box office didn’t kickstart a superhero trend; it inspired a reconsideration and reconstitution of all manner of graphic idols. In addition to Dick Tracy, properties such as The Shadow, The Crow, The Mask, Tank Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all made their theatrical debuts in the first half of the 1990’s.

It wasn’t until my recent rewatch of Dick Tracy for this column that I recognized how heavily the film leans on Batman. At one point our titular hero falls through a skylight, and Beatty orients the scene in such a way that recalls the Caped Crusader’s plunge into the Flugelheim Museum to rescue Vicki Vale. Tracy leaps onto lampposts and scales buildings — very Batman activities, just without any style or grace. Even Beatty’s stuntman seems to labor during long distance running shots just to make his performance, relative to the less-than-nimble Beatty, more believable.

batman skylight plunge
In case you missed it, this is not Dick Tracy.

Beatty also tabbed Danny Elfman to score his film. Elfman’s Batman score — now iconic — overlaps his work on Dick Tracy. A close listen will have you wondering if these were merely excerpts of the former score. Naturally, the close artistic proximity of the two compositions will lend echoes of similarity, but close your eyes and in the absence of Tracy‘s garish primary colors you might just visualize Michael Keaton busting Gotham goons.

All this is rather comical (pun absolutely intended) since the original Dick Tracy strip heavily influenced Batman. Batman borrowed the grotesque lineup of villains, the looming and dangerous city as central character, and the vigilante crime fighter character.

dick tracy comic

Overall, Beatty’s Dick Tracy is a weightless, but beautiful reimagining of the original comics. In many ways it feels like a lesser Batman/Who Framed Roger Rabbit hybrid. I wasn’t drawn at all to the Tracy character — Tracy by nature is a pure-as-snow, goody-two-shoes detective, and Beatty’s representation offers no further shading. I was more drawn to the grey areas of Madonna’s nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney. Sidenote: Did anyone else recall that this PG-rated film revealed Madonna’s nipples? Because I’m pretty sure 12-year-old me would have remembered that.

madonna dick tracy

Looking back on the film from 2017, you’ll spend your time admiring the gorgeous matte paintings and makeup prosthetics and less time caring about the blandly two-dimensional narrative. That said, the visual artistry and bold color palette compensate for many shortcomings, and Beatty’s movie remains a testament to the lasting potency of old-school practical filmmaking in the modern era. If only he’d allowed the character more room to breathe away from the comic-page window-frame.

Dick Tracy Gameplay

Unlike Days of Thunder, I recall having firsthand experience with the licensed video game product known as Dick Tracy. Before I get into my contemporary experience with the game, let’s revisit my feelings from 1990.

warren beatty shampoo
Warren Beatty in Shampoo best summarizes the dead look in my eye after renting Dick Tracy for the NES.

By this point in 1990, Sega had already released its 16-bit, next generation console. (Nintendo’s 16-bit console would not arrive until 1991.) By the end of the year, I’d turned my attention away from buying new NES games because I’d begun scrimping and saving to purchase the Sega Genesis. (That was a lot of mowed lawns in 1990 dollars.) I rented rather than bought most games at this point. The late-era NES decline in overall quality began as developers turned their attention toward the 16-bit future.

So I rented Dick Tracy. I returned it before it was due back at the video store.

dick tracy NES

Dick Tracy belongs to that thankfully forgotten variety of games called “unnecessarily hard as balls,” or #UHAB for short. You begin as comic book Dick Tracy, not as Warren Beatty Dick Tracy. This happened for a couple of reasons. In order for the game to immediately capitalize on the film’s expected box office supremacy, it would have been in development long before story or script availability. Second, can you imagine a game in which you control an 8-bit Warren Beatty? This opens up a world of possibilities. 8-bit John Reed from Reds. 8-bit John McCabe from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Bud Stamper from Splendor in the Grass.

As Dick Tracy, you must solve crimes. You receive one clue and then you must drive out into the city, avoiding rooftop snipers and other cars, in order to follow up on said clues. Now, since this is a #UHAB game, you only get one life, and each sniper bullet or contact with another car takes you down a 1/2 health star. Did I mention that there are snipers on just about every other rooftop and your car does nothing to protect you? Sure, the car shoots, but it only shoots straight ahead (where there’s — with one exception — nothing at which to shoot) and all the snipers shoot at 45-degree angles! I admire Dick’s steadfast determination to solve these crimes, but maybe his time would have been better spent ridding the city of its rampant sniper infestation.

Dick Tracy NES

If you avoid the snipers (and oncoming traffic) long enough to find the next clue (without a map screen or reasonable sense of direction), you’ll enter a building and begin the side-scrolling portion of the game. Here you’ll realize that while Dick Tracy might have a nimble mind, he’s largely incapable of avoiding oncoming fire because of his lethargic movement, which makes sense in real life, but makes a platform game intolerable. Your best tactic is to run straight at every goon, fists flailing, and hope for the best.

You have a gun. That’s nice for awhile, but of course you’ll run out of bullets. Plus, it’s far more fun to punch people so that they bounce around the screen like a pinball with the super punch power-up. And because you’re goody-two-shoes Dick Tracy if you shoot an unarmed goon, you also lose some life! Yeah! You have to wait until they shoot you to know if they’ve got a gun or not. DID I MENTION YOU ONLY HAVE 4 STARS OF LIFE?!

dick tracy nes

When you run out of stars, OOPS! No continues. No more lives. You have to get all 4 clues without dying. There are life-restoring power ups, but they’re rare and it’s not obvious how to use them. Also, apparently you can restore stars by going back to the police station. SURE! If you can get past the snipers to get there on 1/2 star!

Some games are fun by virtue of their difficulty. They reward with fair obstacles and continued progress through the game. Not so with Dick. The game mechanics — the poor driving, the awkward side-scrolling platform gameplay, the inability to continue — all contribute to my visceral and lasting memory of Dick Tracy the NES game as a complete and worthless pain in the ass.

With infinite patience you could theoretically pick off each sniper by getting out of the car and shooting them on foot. You could. They don’t respawn, but this would take ages. And keep in mind there are four more mysteries/levels to solve in order to beat this game. With another round of infinite patience, you could learn the patterns of attack in the platform segments and eventually track down all four clues and finally arrest your target suspect.

On the other hand, you could also just give it to some annoying kid that you really hate and hope they suffer as much as you did.

My Gameplay Video:

I stepped up my gameplay videography this time around and added a little commentary. I really didn’t want to do one of those angry gameplay videos, because “rage” seem to be the default setting for terrible retro game design. Since we’re dealing strictly with licensed game properties, we already know the gameplay’s going to be questionable. There’s no surprises, so let’s just play it as it lies.


Days of Thunder was hard, but generally mindless racetrack circling. Dick Tracy is one of the quintessential UHABs, a legendary time suck that rewards only with blinding, white-hot rage and frustration.

dick tracy nes fail



It sounds pretty good to find clues and investigate crimes like a real detective! Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego with platform elements. Appearances can be deceiving, however, especially in the world of licensed games. Consider 2011’s L.A. Noire the evolution of this brand of gaming. Even that merely provided the illusion of an open-world detective procedural.

The Modern and Wisened 30Hz Judgment

An improved version of Dick Tracy emerged for the Sega Genesis in 1991. The 16-bit visuals certainly helped make the game’s (although lesser) difficulty tolerable. Suggesting that the Genesis iteration was much improved probably won’t sell anyone on its 2017 playability, but if you had a hankering to revisit Dick Tracy, definitely go straight for the Genesis and the ability to use the tommy gun on a bunch of thugs that had it coming.

dick tracy sega genesis

As far as the NES version goes, well… if you must play it, like someone’s quite literally got a gun to your head, holding your children hostage, you must play this to save their life… take a Xanax and settle in for lazy gameplay mechanics and impossible frustration. Enjoy!


Children of today will wonder what the hell we were all thinking when 1930’s serial detective Dick Tracy was suddenly all over the place during the summer of 1990. Were we blinded by the yellow jacket? Swayed by omnipresent marketing? Wooed by intense primary colors? Probably. And it was fun while it lasted, though it lasted little more than a few months and enthusiasm had likely already waned by the release of the NES game.

Disney flat out overestimated the market for a new iteration of Dick Tracy, which had been wholly dormant since a terrible Saturday-morning cartoon in the 1960’s. Batman, meanwhile, had remained a pop-culture icon despite his theatrical hiatus.

Looking back on that summer, the would-be Dick Tracy takeover never really happened. The Hollywood marketing machine manufactured a paper zeitgeist. The film received a mixed reception and a lower than expected box office tally. It’s $167 million fell well short of Batman‘s $250 million. And though talks of a Dick Tracy 2 simmered, Beatty claims that the sequel never happened because of a Tribune Media lawsuit.

Revisiting Beatty’s film I gained a new appreciation for the technically magnificent rendering of a live action comic-book world. I recommend giving the film another look. Leave the rest of the hype, game included, for archaeologists to study when they uncover the 1990’s archives and wonder what the hell we were all doing with our lives in the thoroughly confused year of 1990.

Based on conversations I’ve had during the last week, the movie remains a nostalgic benchmark. The film (and Disney’s marketing) imprinted on all of us. As kids of a certain age we’d quite literally never seen anything like it in 1990.

retro gaming licensed to kill

Licensed to Kill returns in a couple of weeks when I once again consider the merits of a game that should have been forgotten. For each LICENSED TO KILL column, I’ll play another licensed game and revisit the corresponding film or source material. I’ll play the game for a minimum of an hour — no matter how excruciating that experience might be. You vote on the titles I play. I suffer the consequences.

Past columns: Days of Thunder (NES)