Die Hard Trilogy: The Movie Tie-In Video Game That Deserves a Comeback
It’s fair to say that video games based on movies have not always had the best reputation. For every Nintendo’s GoldenEye, PlayStation’s Ghostbusters, or Sega’s Aladdin, we get visual atrociousness in Bad Boys: Miami Takedown, Charlie’s Angels, or Street Fighter: The Movie.
Most games in the tie-in era never lived up to expectations. At their peak, designers were rushing to meet marketed syncopate deadlines set by the movie industry on tight budgets with unrealistic turnarounds, and that often resulted in barebones products. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the games released to lacklustre reviews—or in the case of Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a game so bad that they literally buried it in a landfill!
But there was one game that was an exception to the norm that rarely gets discussed when people speak of tie-ins like GoldenEye (aka the undisputed champion of gaming). That game is Die Hard Trilogy. It’s easy to overlook its contribution, but Die Hard Trilogy was rare proof that the movie tie-in formula could work.
It’s worth mentioning that Die Hard is no stranger to the video game format. In total, there have been eight entries, with some taking serious creative liberties with storytelling—look at Die Hard on the PC Engine, where the opening levels include John McClane battling enemies in the jungle before entering Nakatomi Plaza. Probe Entertainment (Die Hard Trilogy’s developers) and Fox Interactive’s (the game’s publishers) effort was a massive improvement.
Call it nostalgia, but Die Hard Trilogy felt groundbreaking at the time, in both concept and achievement. Having three games on one disc was radical and ambitiously crazy. But unlike Probe’s earlier attempt at a trilogy-based game with the Alien franchise (which was a first-person shooter), the standalone adventures gave gamers a cost-effective choice on the type of challenge they could master—all without leaving their homes to venture out to the nearest arcade.
While it wasn’t a new idea, Trilogy was the first game I remembered that heavily utilised peripheral devices. Die Hard, your typical 3rd person shooter, utilised the PS1 controller, allowing players to roam around the ethereal halls of Nakatomi Plaza, which added to the suspense and dangers that lurked around corners. Die Hard with a Vengeance was the classic driving simulator and was compatible steering wheel, allowing you to disarm bombs with the recklessness of Crazy Taxi and Twisted Metal combined. The best was the Virtua Cop-inspired Die Hard 2, an on-the-rails shooter with a memorable in-game soundtrack. I had the JoyTech “The Real Arcade” light gun with foot pedals when I got the game in 1997 as a birthday present—yep, showing my age right now.
The fun of these games came from how relentlessly frenetic this game set was. With John McClane as your avatar, you were thrown into the hellbent, yippee-ki-yay chaos of intense countdowns and missions that were purely designed to “pick up and play.” And trust me, nothing quite puts into words how frustrating Die Hard with a Vengeance can be when you’re centimetres away from your target only for that on-screen clock face to fully expand and kiss your dreams goodbye.
But without doubt, Die Hard Trilogy can mostly be viewed as a celebration. Released in 1996, it came out the year after the cinematic release of Die Hard with a Vengeance (which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2020). It’s no surprise it’s more of a complete game—at least you’re involved in a boss fight with Simon Gruber. Die Hard with a Vengeance revitalised the film franchise by swapping the stationary battles of Dulles International Airport for the streets of New York, and the synergy is reflected in the video game. Probe Entertainment laid down a marker for an open world environment. You were limited to what you could do because you’re always en route to disarm the bomb and had zero time to explore, but just driving around iconic places like Central Park or hearing an in-game Zeus (sadly not voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) as the moral compass for the carnage were small, authentic details that enhanced the gameplay. And that magic was carried through in the game’s re-creations of Die Hard and Die Hard 2.
Now, there’s a personal reason for why I want a remastered version that relates to my memories of the game and the countless hours I lost playing it. But with remasters being all the rage as we simultaneously erupt in celebratory screams of “my childhood,” I wish there were plans on the horizon for one. Sadly, it looks incredibly unlikely.
Simon Pick—the original lead game designer—doesn’t want it to happen. Fox Interactive (the gaming division of the now defunct 20th Century Fox) joined the endless spiral of video game companies who were absorbed by other brands before finally shutting down in 2006. Probe Entertainment endured the same fate, closing in 2000. And with Disney’s takeover of 20th Century Fox, the idea of re-licensing the franchise is probably not on their agenda, especially after a series of sequels and spin-offs (Viva Las Vegas, Arcade, Vendetta, and Nakatomi Plaza) that failed to live up to their commercially successful predecessor.
But outside of the personal recollections of its clunky 90s aesthetics, there’s something about games during this period that represent a bygone era. Die Hard Trilogy came out when the market was eager to capitalise on the success of big-budget movie franchises but soon realised it was no longer economically viable. Nowadays, the paradigm has shifted for licensed properties. They still exist in some fashion, but studios have separated themselves from the mechanics of the tie-in experience, using the medium to create exclusivity through mobile gaming (along with in-app purchases), micro-transactions, expensive DLC add-ons, or promotional marketing. The same goes for gaming studios; console games today are now being produced to the equivalent of movie productions, lining up Oscar-winning composers, star-studded casts, state-of-the-art technology, and blockbuster budgets. The immersive stories that gamers are now expected to play divert away from being tied specifically to a movie and its narratives.
But in the same way we talk about the preservation of films, it also brings into question on how we preserve games outside of YouTube clips, emulators, and eBay collections. Consoles can help; backwards compatibility is certainly one way to achieve it, but it can only be viewed as a short-term fix that’s dependent on how long Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony intend to support it. Fan re-creations are another avenue, but if the recent news of Ben Colough’s GoldenEye 25 game is anything to go by, then MGM/The Broccoli family issuing a ‘cease and desist’ order shows how easy it is to fall foul of copyright despite the best intentions.
While it is inevitable that not every game will get the remastered treatment in the IP-driven reality we live in, there is a strong argument to be made with certain licensed games; the landmark cornerstones in the industry should be given a new lease on life. As one of the few that ticked all the boxes, Die Hard Trilogy deserves that accolade.
By no means was Die Hard Trilogy perfect; surviving the endless barrage of nameless terrorists (and not accidentally killing the innocent people) in Die Hard 2 was an impossible task without the precision marksmanship of a light gun. And running over pedestrians in Vengeance leaving your windshield in a blood-stained mess probably wouldn’t fly today (although I’ve seen more violence in a Mortal Kombat game).
But there’s something about that imperfectness that still endures.
If anything, Die Hard Trilogy was counterculture—an evolvement of the bedroom developers of the ZX Spectrum/Commodore 64 days who later re-shaped the industry, a genuine product that encapsulated the spirit of the films. Through three iconic settings (a building, an aeroplane, and a NYC taxicab), Trilogy didn’t need a lengthy storyline or set-up… fans already knew it! Its greatest appeal was not feeling like a simple cash grab that either had nothing to do with the events of the film or slapped the brand over a product and called it “Christmas.”
With a twenty-four-year history behind it, Die Hard Trilogy’s charm was that it was a niche game that had no right to work. And against all the odds—like most of John McClane’s adventures—it found a way to punch above its weight.