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.