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Game Boy Demakes: Max Payne

This is a part of a continuing series of posts covering Game Boy downports of popular console titles. You can find a detailed introduction here.

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Max Payne for the GBA was released in 2003, a little over two years after the PC version. With a story essentially identical to the PC game, Max Payne tells the violent noir tragedy of the titular character, an undercover agent investigating the trade of Valkyr, a new illegal substance that has appeared on the streets of New York. While probing a bank robbery, Max is framed for the killing of his only contact on the right side of justice. Against his better judgment, Max then sets out on a bloody quest to gain vengeance against those who would destroy him, ultimately resulting in him confronting the root cause of the Valkyr trade.

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For the handheld version, we see the popular noir third person action title converted into an isometric shooter. As one might imagine, this has many drawbacks. Max will often get attacked by unseen enemies just off screen which can get frustrating in some of the more wide open environments where it is difficult to pinpoint where those enemies are. Also, Max is only able to shoot in the direction he’s facing which can make evasion of enemy fire difficult, as you can only move in the direction you’re trying to fire in. In addition, there’s some light platforming which can be difficult since it’s hard to gauge relative positions in 3D space (if you’ve ever played Landstalker, you know this is a problem for isometric games). The problem with platforming is exacerbated since missing a jump results in instant death, and, unlike the PC version where you can quick save anywhere, the GBA version only allows four deaths before the entire level must be restarted again.

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It may sound like a frustrating game, but many of these idiosyncrasies are alleviated somewhat by the game’s bullet time. Max Payne is well known as possibly the first game to deploy a Matrix-style “bullet time” feature which allows players to slow down time and line up shots. The bullet time is limited by a timer which can be replenished with each kill. It seems that they were very conscious with the problems of aiming controls, as the GBA version is very generous with its timer, and it’s something you will need to rely on heavily to make it through the game successfully. Because of the aforementioned issues with combat, you will probably spend most of your time in bullet time where it’s far easier to aim. Consequently, the game is often rather bereft of challenge.

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Max Payne GBA tells essentially the same story as the much lauded PC version. Many of the set pieces remain, such as storming Club Ragnarock and the rooftop chase of Vinni Gognitti. While the combat can be sketchy in the handheld version, it does manage to nail the moodiness and gloom of the original. The game is fully voice acted, with many of the original’s lines intact. Cutscenes are also in the familiar comic book panel style. Some fans will be glad to hear that the dream sections of Max’s family are largely no longer playable sections, instead relegated to cutscenes.

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It’s difficult for me to recommend this game, even to Max Payne fans. While it completely manages to capture the atmosphere of the original game in spite of the lo-fi GBA graphics, the core game play is only okay at best. I won’t say it’s terrible, as it usually offers a means of working around its idiosyncrasies, but it’s really not exceptional either. And if you’ve already played the original version, you basically know the story (and if you haven’t, you should go play that version).

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