Adapt And Die

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

Huck This

Since when did Tom Sawyer have demons and dinosaurs?

By Drew Toal • April 8, 2013

Adapt And Die is an ongoing look at how works of film, television, and literature have been distorted in lousy games.

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1989)

The beloved American author and humorist Mark Twain famously requested that his autobiography be released 100 years after his death, so that his biting posthumous observations wouldn’t afflict any of his thin-skinned contemporaries. Unfortunately, this embargo didn’t cover brainless takes on his large body of work, and over the years there have been plenty of terrible adaptations. The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn have been especially abused. And in 1989, nearly 80 years after his death, Mark Twain undoubtedly rolled over in his grave when his greatest characters were brought to the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Tom Sawyer, the book, is the quintessential boyhood romp. Like most young boys, Tom is constantly getting into trouble, falling in and out of love, and camping out in the woods with his best bud after faking his own death just to scare the pants off his Aunt Polly. It’s nothing most of us haven’t done. (Sorry, Mom!) Much of the book’s magic rests on Tom’s youthful conception of adult ideas. He has the imagination to turn any mundane task into an epic quest. For adult readers long past this age of innocence and wonder, going along for the adolescent ride is a delight. It’s not, however, the most compelling source material for a video game. It’s charming to imagine Tom tricking the other kids into painting a fence, for instance, but the very nature of the trick would make it a dull prospect for a player—although virtual fence-painting might be the very thing the Kinect was meant for.

Fortunately for players of the NES version, the developers decided to forgo the fence-painting. It’s the adaptation’s sole redeeming quality. The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, the game, begins with Tom dozing off in class, so it’s understood that the whole thing will take place in the world of dreams. Five seconds in, and it has already employed the worst of fictional devices. That’s a bad sign. You play as Tom (a second player can use Huck, the Luigi to Tom’s Mario), who must rescue love interest Becky Thatcher from the clutches of Injun Joe. It’s convenient for the game’s story that Twain was not immune to all of his period’s prejudices.

Still, battling the inherent badness of the not-so-noble savage isn’t quite enough to propel the game’s action. So Adventures also includes a giant octopus, a sunglasses-wearing monkey collective that fuses into an ersatz Grape Ape, a comically large zeppelin, and a Tonto-fied Injun Joe riding on the neck of a sad-faced dinosaur. Tom and Huck comport themselves like the pint-sized hoodlums that they are, running through levels and chucking rocks at enemies. Five of the six levels are Castlevania-style side-scrolling—the second level is a bird’s-eye-view ride down the Mississippi. Tom and Huck’s immediate goal is to stone their antagonists to death.

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it,” Twain wrote of Tom. “Namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Victory in The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, though, isn’t all that tough to manage. While Tom and Huck do succumb after only one hit from an enemy, the level-ending bosses are as laughably easy as they are nonsensical. And let’s not forget that Adventures was released in an era that had its share of near-impossible, deeply satisfying endgame gatekeepers. After finally beating Ninja Gaiden, which came out around the same time, I was shaking from the prolonged, extreme concentration it demanded. So not only is Injun Joe reduced to a racist, anachronistic joke astride a prehistoric sea monster, but he’s also an impotent one. Without much skill, you can defeat poor Joe before he fires a single arrow. I’m also fairly certain that Twain’s Injun Joe wasn’t meant to wear a feathered headdress.

But I suppose the headdress does speak to Twain’s failure as a moral voice. Even though Twain never gave Injun Joe the Native American minstrel treatment, he still painted him as an image of unrepentant evil. Where Huckleberry Finn was a pitch-perfect morality play about slavery (aside from its ridiculous concluding chapters), Twain didn’t feel the same imperative to lambast the perpetrators of “manifest destiny,” or to recognize its victims as such, when it came to Tom Sawyer.

For my part, here’s how I choose to interpret the ending of the Tom Sawyer game: Becky wasn’t kidnapped. She ran away because little shits like Tom and Huck were making her life miserable, setting her hair on fire and getting mud on her dress. Becky falls in with Injun Joe the same way that Huck hooks up with the escaped slave Jim. They overcome their initial mistrust and find they have a lot in common. Injun Joe even shows her his secret dinosaur cave. Then Tom shows up, full of his own prejudices and with a pocket full of death-dealing rocks. He calls out Injun Joe. Injun Joe says goodbye to Becky, sheds a single tear, mounts Nessie, and heroically returns Tom’s barrage with his bow and arrows (of course). But Injun Joe falls. All that remains are three feathers from his headdress, which Tom collects as a grisly trophy. Becky, heartbroken but composed, walks over to Tom and kisses him, “thanking” her savior. She silently vows to never forget Injun Joe, and to one day feed Tom’s remains to the dinosaur, who’s now wearing a creepy smile. Because it’s over.

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  • PugsMalone

    No mention of Square’s Tom Sawyer RPG, which never made it overseas? I’m not sure why it never got localized.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/2b/Square_Tom_Sawyer_screenshot_blackface.png

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      GAAAAH!  It’s a Shadow Man with caterpillars for lips!

      Also, that is horrifying.

    • Citric

      I was hoping someone would mention Square’s Tom Sawyer, just because posting images of the game was grounds for instant post deletion on a message board I once visited.

      • Sleverin

         Them’s some mighty big lips thar…dunno how he’s gonna eat all that there tasty watermelon with them lips in the way….

    • George_Liquor

      That’s some fine minstreling. Thanks, Square.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Eh, everyone’s heard about that surely.  I bet Winkysoft (awesome name) has a more interesting story.  They went from this and video board games (I love this American Success cover http://www.generation-msx.nl/software/winky-soft/american-success/release/1371 ) to fricking Super Robot Wars.  How’d that happen?  Did Banpresto look at this Tom Sawyer monstrosity and say, “Only someone who put purple gorillas into 1800s American literature could adequately capture the insanity/inanity of our robot animated series.  Let’s give them a license to print money until the end of days,”?

      • Citric

        The original concept was Super Racism Wars, where exaggerated stereotypes from all around the world would do battle against each other. 

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          Only through their pioneering work in the field of digital ethnic caricature could World Heroes, Street Fighter, Galaxy Fight, Kaiser Knuckle, Justice Academy/Rival Schools, and so many others have come to pass.

          Bless you, Winkysoft.  Bless you.

        • Steve McCoy

          Well, some of the SRW games do have characters from G Gundam…

        • George_Liquor

          @GhaleonQ:disqus  Galaxy Fight, now there’s a deep cut! I’m trying to remember anything about that game past the pink-haired cat girl with the enormous furry boobs… and I’m failing.

      • feisto

        Maybe it’s because they didn’t make this game…at least, according to their website, which doesn’t mention the game at all in its list of previously developed games (but does mention American Success).

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          Yeah, I went there 1st, too, since GameFAQs looked wrong and I didn’t see any credits on the longplay screen.  (A guy, kidfenris, who runs a well-known website doesn’t even know!) 

          That said, some companies are good about credits (musicians, too, weirdly; Japanese musicians will always put b-sides and compilation songs on their websites) on work-for-hire and some aren’t.  Example: http://www.vanpool.jp/work.html  They also did work on what were localized as LIttle King’s Story and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, but they aren’t listed.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxxLJzuo2K0 doesn't look similar to Super Robot Wars or that great, but Ruin?  http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm9099870  WHOA.  It’s like The Legend Of Zelda: The Adventure Of Link.  Same year, too, probably in development at the same time.

          People should register for Nico Nico Doga, especially now that they merged the worldwide and Japanese sites, but I’ll describe what I’m watching if you don’t want to do s

          Title screen: White sabertooth tiger with giant white wings is staring down a hydra or possiblly the “Yamata No Orochi.”  “RUIN.”  Fantastic.

          A man in a t-shirt and jeans or possibly an ancient martial arts uniform wanders around an empty village.  Is this Quest For Glory?  Is this even a role-playing game?

          Oh, snap, we’re in a 1st-person dungeon.  Is it Phantasy Star?  No!  A giant armored tanuki appears, and you cut to the lower-screen, where it turns into a The Adventure Of Link/Rent-A-Hero-style fighting/action game where you chop-socky each other until 1 of you dies!

          I guess what I’m saying is, thanks feisto, for making me find this stuff.

    • Boonehams

      When I saw the article title, I went straight to the comments section to see if anyone mentioned the Square Tom Sawyer game.  Thank you for not disappointing me.

  • Citric

    That is the world’s saddest dinosaur.

    • PaganPoet

      You’d be sad too if you have a racial caricature on your neck trying to kill a preteen boy. Or if you were in this game in any sort of capacity.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Injun Joe named the poor thing ‘Dickhead,’ too. That man is unrepentant!

  • craigward

    You know “Jim” wasn’t his full name.  If you’re not going to honor Twain, at least honor Louis CK and call him “Umm, Jim”

    • PaganPoet

      N-Word Jim

    • Andrew

      What’s wrong with “Nigger Jim”? It’s a character’s name for chrissakes. It’s not like we can travel back in time and convince Samuel Clements to use a different moniker.

      And if “Nigger” offends you, I suggest you never watch “The Dambusters” either. Or “Trading Places”

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        “What’s wrong” with it is that it contains probably the most toxic, offensive, hateful word in American English. Which can make it touchy to bring up, these days. It’s not like we can travel back in time and use it in Samuel Clemens’s context, where it didn’t carry the same baggage.

        • Andrew

          Ah- that’s okay then, I don’t speak American English.

        • PaganPoet

          I’m clutching my pearls over here.

        • Roswulf

          @Andrew2000:disqus  the idea that because you “don’t speak American English” you are under no obligation to avoid patently offensive and prejudiced language in a context where it can be read by those who may be wounded  by it.

          Given this is a games site, the most obvious examples of such misbehavior that come to mind revolve around gender and sexuality. If you log on to XBLA and start calling people pussies and fags, you are being a homophobic and sexist pig whether you grew up in Lincolnshire, Melbourne, or Tuscaloosa. If you know words are hurtful (and you do), especially if they are linked to centuries of oppression and violence, don’t say them.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          I honestly can’t think of an analogue to it in other Englishes, or other languages. Even within American English, I feel like that word is without equal in terms of its potential for harm, its hate-laden baggage, and blanket inappropriacy in virtually all situations (I’d say c–t and f—-t are the closest, but even they don’t feel as “beyond the pale” to me – in a completely subjective way).

          It’s not really analogous to something like “spaz,” which is an innocent insult in the US, but deeply offensive to people in the UK. While I’m not a fan of America’s norms being uncritically adopted or adhered to in other cultures, the level of toxicity that word has in American English is so profound I would strongly recommend against using it in other contexts – especially public on-line forums with an international audience.

        • George_Liquor

           @Andrew2000:disqus Greetings from the USA! Thing is, there’s a bit of cultural baggage hanging off that particular word which generally discourages us “American English” speakers from casually tossing it around in conversation. For more information, I would like to direct you to American history from the early 1600s to 1865. And then from 1865 to about 1963. And from 1963 to pretty much today.

      • Roswulf

        No. No it isn’t. Jim’s name is Jim. As Wikipedia points out (and I confirmed with a quick search) the words in question appear next to each other precisely once in the novel, in a context where they are unambiguously not a name. It is used by Huck in a letter in which the young boy betrays Jim, having been warped by his society to believe that he risks damnation by virtue of treating Jim as a human being and a friend.

        What you claim as a name used by Mark Twain is a racial slur applied by a number of white critics discussing Jim after the writing of Huck Finn. Said white critics were, by and large, racist on a scale seldom seen in the modern world. There is nothing remotely noble about following in their steps. Stop it.

        It is of course true that a large number of white characters in a book deeply thematically concerned with racism use the aforementioned ethnic slur against Jim, but at no point does Twain himself (through the voice of Huck) endorse the idea that such vile reductionism is at the naming core of this man.

    • George_Liquor

      @craigward:disqus Radical subject change: I just learned what your avatar is, and it’s fantastic. Now get off the bed!

  • Andrew

    Today’s Tom Sawyer he gets high on you and the space he invades he gets by on you.

    • Electric Dragon

      It’s Saturday night, I have no date, a two litre bottle of Shasta and my all-Rush mixtape. Let’s rock.

  • Steve McCoy

    Nice writeup. I have to admit I have a soft spot for these nutso adaptations of the NES days. The surrealism adds to the fun — although they were NES games, so usually still aren’t very fun. Dinosaurs are a staple.

    I also like the idea of videogame sequels to non-videogames like The Goonies II, Jurassic Park 2, Tron 2.0. Someday I’ll combine the two and make my dream games: The Devil and Daniel Webster 2, a sequel to the movie, it’s a Zelda-like where you have to collect eight pieces of delicious pie so you can taunt Mr. Scratch; and Casablanca 2, a 2D platformer where Rick has to make delicious cheeseburgers to level up.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Tron 2.0 was actually really fun, and made more sense story-wise than Tron:Legacy.

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      Mr. Scratch? Huh. First thing I thought of was Alan Wake, but it’s apparently a relatively common thing.

      • George_Liquor

        Any relation to Pitch?

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Goonies 2 is actually a sequel to the apparently quite bizarre Japan-only Goonies 1 game. Though I prefer the idea of it as a bonkers game sequel to the movie.

  • Cloks

    I think my favorite literary NES adaptation was Catch 22. There were fifty levels – or was it fifty-five? – and the only way to beat the game was to not beat the game.

    • neodocT

       The only way to advance to the next level was to die. But if you died, you restarted the level.

    • neodocT

       Also, where are the snow levels of yesteryear?

      • Electric Dragon

        Où sont les nivôses d’antan?

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      Man, passing that game would have been a feather in my cap.  But I had to return it before I beat it, which was a black eye.

      • http://warren-peace.blogspot.com/ WarrenPeace

        I’ll never forget uncovering Snowden’s Secret, although it wasn’t as well-hidden as it could have been. Figuring out how to get in to see Major Major Major Major was no picnic either.

        • neodocT

           I could not have beat the game without abusing the MissingMil0 glitch for infinite money.

  • stakkalee

    Now I want an Uncle Tom’s Cabin videogame where Tom and Eliza are chased to Canada by Simon Legree and his Baba Yaga-esque walking cabin mech.

  • WaxTom

    Still better then The Celebrated Jumping Frogger of Calaveras County.

    • His_Space_Holiness

      I’m fond of The Man That Corrupted Liberty City myself.

  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    This is brilliant, especially the alternate interpretation of the ending.   I think you have proven that you are ready to undertake the most horrible of all adaptations: the dreaded “Bible Adventures!”  (I’d do it myself, but I’m waiting till I can get my hands on a version that has a “Song of Solomon” mini-game).

  • Effigy_Power

    This is less fun than previously indicated. Let this corny slice of Americana be your tomb for all eternity.

    • George_Liquor

      The big brain am winning again! I am the greetest! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Now I am leaving Earth for no raisin! 

  • duwease

    I faintly remember renting this.  Multiple times.  Young me is the reason terrible things are so profitable.

    • George_Liquor

      You’re not alone. It took three straight weekends of rentals for me to figure out that Total Recall for NES was a complete piece of shit.