Retro Video Game Review: Dirty Harry (NES)

Overall Rating: 1/5 Stars

“Go ahead, make my day.”

These words, spoken by the character Harry Callahan in the film Dirty Harry, form one of the most famous and highly touted movie quotes of all time. Their distinct delivery, given by the gritty thespian Clint Eastwood, lens them a singular appeal that can hardly be matched by any other line.

When a big pixel-blasting face shot of Harry appears on the title screen of the Dirty Harry video game, released in 1990 on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a decent voice effect proceeds to utter those immortal words. This is the highlight of the experience. It all goes downhill from there.


The player controls Harry, who can press Start to view his inventory, showing how many of certain items he has, like beginning with 25 rounds in his enormous pistol and 2 crowbars with which to pry open locks inside buildings. He can later find items like health-restoring chili dogs, plastic explosives for killing snakes, a flashlight necessary to see in the sewers, or temporary power-ups like using garbage can lids as a makeshift shield against molotov cocktails flung by hoodlums above.

The A button uses the selected item, the B button punches, Up and B utilizes a more powerful kick, pressing A and B together enables Harry to jump, Left and Right travel in the respective direction, Down ducks, and Up is used to climb ladders and enter doorways. The Select button serves no purpose. Harry has a health meter comprised of ten units.

The goal of the game is to defeat the new kingpin drug dealer Anaconda, who killed the previous head crime honcho. To do so, Harry must venture through three levels, each progressively punishing: The Streets, the Waterfront, then Alcatraz.

Gameplay consists of killing enemies, searching for necessary items to get past certain areas and defeat particular bosses, and generally exploring every single square inch of the stages. Also, in the interior portions, Harry must kick everything in sight, such as dressers and boxes, in order to find the things stashed within. Eventually, he must contend with such pesky enemies as falling rocks and remote-control cars.

This is not a fun video game. It is extraordinarily challenging, but not in a good way, like Mega Man 2 or Ninja Gaiden. No, the execution is herky-jerky, the progress mechanic contrived, the controls stiff, and the overall impression smelly. The whole game just feels like mindless wandering, done under the relentless onslaught of thugs and mercenaries.

You come across a boss, only to find that you need plastic explosives to get past him, thus making it necessary to backtrack everywhere just to find the stupid explosives. You want to get further in the Waterfront, but need a flashlight, so have to explore every door hoping to kick open the right container to get one. It is just so incredibly monotonous, unrewarding, hard and stupid. There is no skill, flair, or creativity involved in its design, merely the very basics of programming implemented to give something that can loosely be considered a “game.”

Oh, and it has two endings. If you do especially well in beating the game, you get a commendation medal from the mayor. A password can be used to immediately access the second or third level, but without any gained items. Even if you use the password CLYDE, which grants infinite lives, Dirty Harry still just feels like a pointless, futile exercise in hellish torture.


The interior shots looks appropriately gray and dreary, and some of the enemy characterizations do, indeed, appear to be hoods and gangsters and drug dealers and enormous muscular bad guys. The levels are actually somewhat decently detailed and defined. However, the snakes look ridiculous, Harry does not look intimidating, some of the animations are awkward (try jumping), and there are flickering issues. The title screen looks sweet. Seriously, the best way to enjoy this game is to turn it on, enjoy the title screen, and turn it off.


The sound effects are surprisingly subdued, being largely explosions and gunshots and all. They sound more like innocent clicks and modest pops. The music is okay, but the soundtrack tends to rely too much on buzzy staccato notes, barely attempting to really portray any sense of appropriate atmosphere. Fortunately, the audio department can, at least, claim to not be too distracting.


Even before starting the game, there are some bad omens to indicate that it is going to be very bad. For example, the first three pages of the instruction booklet are many paragraphs of texts, merely trying to tell the storyline. Additionally, the game starts you off between two thugs who soon begin beating you up, while an elevated third chump throws projectiles at you.

But perhaps the most damning sign was the fact that Mindscape, already a questionable publisher, chose such a strange license to make a game from. Sure, taking an action movie and producing a cheap, quick video game was a popular tactic back in the day, and Dirty Harry was reasonably popular; however, it was made in 1971, not exactly the most current or “hot” of time periods to cover. Then again, NES games were also made concerning the Three Stooges and Mickey Mouse, so perhaps this is not the greatest grounds for criticism.

Which is where the gameplay comes in. This game sucks. There are constant little reminders that this is a bad game, into which minimal effort was given for quality control. One more sample: At one point, I was exploring a room, when a thug jumped out from behind a dresser. It sounds menacing, but appears comical, considering how much bigger he is than the dresser. This alone would have been forgivable, but once I cleared the room of all enemies and items, I left – only to suddenly be shot at by a sniper, leaning out the door of the room I had just emptied. That was ridiculous, yet only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as far as considering the flaws of this game goes, in its deserving run for one stars out of five.

The true tragedy is that the concept, of a side-scrolling street-exploring run-‘n’-gun platformer with both exterior and interior elements to explore with various weapons, had true potential. Done well, this could have been the Grand Theft Auto of its day, or at least a grittier, more urban version of something like Contra or a Double Dragon II with guns. Alas, it is not. Go ahead, Dirty Harry cartridge, make my day, by burning in a fire.

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