If you’ve ever wished for a choose-your-own-adventure full-motion video (FMV) game send-up of 80s action-hero tropes, I have great news for you. American Hero seems tailor-made to your bizarrely specific fantasies, and you can grab a copy of the GOG version right now as part of IGN Plus.
What is American Hero?
American Hero was originally being developed in the 90s, commenting on the ridiculousness of 80s action tropes. The protagonist, Jack Devon, is tipped off that a chemical attack is being planned by Kruger, an old nemesis. Furthermore, Jack’s former flame is missing and presumed to be involved in Kruger’s plan. Inter-Active and Atari were going to put the game out on Atari Jaguar CD, but the project was ultimately canceled. Ziggurat and Empty Clip have teamed up, restored and remastered the game, meaning people can finally experience it (in both censored and original unrated formats).
Completely over-the-top, American Hero plays out as a sequence of full-motion video (FMV) clips. Every few minutes, Jack will be faced with a choice, which you’ll have to make quickly, prompting the next video clip. Your choices will have consequences, both in the immediate term (did you dodge the car trying to run you over?) and in the longer term (does picking up a weapon in an early scene let you get free from a deadly trap later?). Choosing not to pick an option is also a choice, and there are tons of different ways the story can go.
I had a blast playing it, so check it out and read on to learn more about the production and work that went into restoring this lost title.
American Hero Developer Interview: Alex Lotz, Lead Producer
Screens – American Hero
Q: You’ve shared both the rated and unrated versions of the game with us, even though the giveaway is only for the rated version. Can you speak to the differences between the two versions?
A: When producing the filmed sequences that would have comprised the full motion video content of the never released 1995 Atari Jaguar CD game American Hero, the film crew shot two versions of many of the scenes: “Adult” versions with full nudity, and a second take with clothed or covered bodies that could be distributed to a wider age-range of audiences. The Ziggurat Interactive 2021 release of American Hero used the “less adult” shots (and censored some shots where only the Adult footage survived) in order to comply with ratings board requirements for console distribution. Even the “censored” version of the game was banned from Steam before it could be released there, but GOG.com agreed to carry the game – and will now be the distributor for the new digital release of American Hero Unrated, which uses only the Adult versions of each clip and does not censor any content.
Q: This branching story-telling technique is common in choose-your-own-adventure books, as well as some more modern adventure games, was there ever a discussion of adding your own spin to the game, or expanding on choices, adding some of your own? Or was a 1:1, pure restoration always the only way?
A: The branching of the narrative in American Hero is surprisingly complex, with logic nodes that drive the player’s path through its hundreds of FMVs in strange loops and twists (and decision points with surprising consequences that don’t pay off until much further down the line in the story). It is necessary to play the game multiple times to experience much of what it has to offer, and we were stunned when we realized how many paths through the game can completely miss out on a significant amount of the content the game contains. In some ways it cannot be called a 1:1 pure restoration, at least in the sense that certain mechanics and intended decision consequences from the original designs were left in an incomplete state, so it was necessary to make a design or decision to complete them. We did our best to maintain what we saw as the original vision in the documents available to us as we filled in those gaps.
Q: I wanted an option for subtitles, because they seem to be sporadically included. I also noticed that sometimes a number of decisions needed to be made before certain checkpoints. I feel it would have benefited greatly from more checkpoints. What was the reasoning for the number that were included? Was that how the original game was modeled?
A: The subtitles in the game are for Jack’s internal thoughts, and it’s specifically those lines that are subtitled as they connect to the central mechanic of player decisions. They help provide characterization to Jack, and also give a bit more of a tone and context to the decisions the player can make. Some of these titles are also prompts directly associated with choices the player can make in a given situation. You might also notice that these subtitled lines can vary by playthrough – the designer’s original intention was for the player’s decisions (how aggressive or how passive they are, as shown by the ‘fight or flight’ meter at the top of the screen) to affect Jack’s “mood” and “attitude” in the voiced internal dialog he has in a given situation, which almost adds a ‘role playing’ nuance to the game in how your decisions affect Jack’s self-image and attitude.
Checkpoints were never planned to be included in the original release of American Hero; these were added for this release as we felt there should be some mitigation to how easy it is to unexpectedly die in the game from taking ‘one wrong turn’. We chose checkpoints rather than a ‘save anywhere’ system as we did not want players inadvertently saving at a time when the game had already become unwinnable because of the decisions they had made up to that moment, and we also wanted to nudge players toward exploring the variety of ways the story can unfold based on decisions you’re making around the time of the checkpoints we did include. The checkpoints were chosen more so for how they occur in the decision tree of the game, and to play nicely with the game’s internal logic, and less so to try to space them evenly across anticipated runtime of a play through. The runtime of a given playthrough is pretty hard to anticipate anyway because of all the ways the path through the story can branch – there are so many possible paths that what is the “halfway point” in one playthrough may be “just getting started” in another.
Q: To what degree did the team have to make creative decisions about features, things like collectibles, etc.? Perhaps the VCR layout was new? The CRT lines?
A: The voiceover lines that are subtitled in the game (described above) were written to be included in the game, but they were never recorded at the time of the original production. Timothy Bottoms was kind enough to reprise the role of Jack and record new voiceover for the 2021 release, so there was certainly creative input in directing that performance to fit with the original (we were amazed at how he could bring the character to life again so many years later!). The collectibles, the presentation of the game in a CRT screen, the option to toggle on and off the CRT filter, and the remaster of the footage itself (from low-res to higher-res video) were all new additions in the Ziggurat release.
Q: The lead-in to the game explains that certain sections needed to be spliced together, where connective scenes weren’t completed, originally. What percentage of the game was laid out for the team already, and what was the process like, stitching things back together to create the finished product?
A: We added VCR tracking effects to the footage where there were clips that were outright missing from what remains of the development assets. Fortunately it was just a few clips here and there which were gone, not entire sequences or scenes that were missing from the game. It would be over 95% of the intended content that we were able to salvage for the restoration. While the original game was certainly incomplete, we do think the game would have been completed if the Atari Jaguar CD had not sold poorly at the time.
Q: I got the heroes ending, and quite a few others (including one where I blew myself up messing around with chemicals (come on, how did Laura survive that one?). What were some of the team’s favorite endings or moments?
A: Picking favorite moments in the game is challenging because of how many there are to choose from; any time we revisit the game we realize there are even more outlandish things going on than we remembered from the last time we played it. We love how the game presents itself as mostly a traditional (if bizarre) action movie, but will occasionally throw something at you like a death-ray disco ball, a mind control whistle, and a losing ending where Jack doesn’t die but essentially becomes a zombie. There are also funny moments that reward you for a choice that seems counterintuitive, like choosing to “Pray” when confronted by a group of threatening tough guys. As far as endings go, without spoiling too much, some members of our team were shocked (and others delighted) by one of the game’s decidedly unheroic endings. Rarely have we seen a game put so much effort into illustrating a frank depiction of what happens when you decide not to save the day. The “Never Said I Was A Role Model” achievement is earned when you reach this ending.
American Hero – Unrated Screenshots
Q: It feels like it could have come out today just as easily as in the 90s. I got the impression American Hero was tongue-in-cheek, a send-up of the era of James Bond, MacGyver, and all those other TV or film action heroes. Do you know if there were specific influences, or if a specific tone was intended?
A: The development team for the 2021 release of the game described its video content as “the 90s making fun of the 80s” as they got to know the footage, and we also love the intentionally tongue-in-cheek and campy qualities of the proceedings (there are some wonderfully pulpy performances from some of Krueger’s henchmen and henchwomen). Some documents suggest the main character Jack is (ironically) named after a more wholesome All-American predecessor in Jack Armstrong, the hero of a radio drama series created to promote Wheaties cereal.
Q: The credits have “cast and crew, to the best of our knowledge,” how did the team go about finding out all the information on the original production?
A: In an effort to credit as many people as we could that worked on the original game (and the production of the videos it included), we scoured IMDB, LinkedIn, casting websites, individual actor and stunt performer résumés, historical documents from casting agencies at the time that somehow survived to this day — it was quite a search. It was made even more confusing by the fact that after the game was canceled, there was an attempt to salvage the production into a feature film also called American Hero (about which not much is known, since the negatives were destroyed in a fire causing the movie to be canceled only a few years after the game was!). Some of the game’s cast members returned for the film, some entirely new characters were played by new actors, and some of the same characters from the game were played by new actors for the failed reboot, but we credited all that we could at least semi-reliably place as those involved in the original game.
Q: Any notable stories from the restoration or the original production that you can share?
A: What was very memorable for many that worked on the restoration of the project was the QA process of playing the game through over and over for bug fixing and publishing needs. This was especially memorable as most of this work was occurring during quarantine, so testers needed to find ways to play a game full of nudity while at home with their families, friends, and partners. At one point the person recording footage to include with our submission to the ESRB for a rating application was having to log all the mature content in all the video clips, and he was doing this work from his home while his in-laws were visiting. “I’m doing this for work, I swear” became a running joke among the testers working from home with their roommates, families, and partners during quarantine.
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Brian Barnett writes reviews, guides, features, & more for IGN & GameSpot. You can get your fix of his antics on YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Bluesky, & Backloggd, & check out his video game talk show, The Platformers, on Spotify & Apple Podcasts.