Going beyond the limits is something I always respect. Whether it is in creativity, innovation, or just going all out on a concept that seems impossible, is something that intrigues me. Having Max Payne being made for the Game Boy Advance is a bizarre move to me. I love the system and think it is one of the best handhelds ever, but going out of your way to port a 3D, violent and dark third-person shooter to a system that is not nearly as strong as the consoles it was made for, is beautiful dedication. However, now that the PC-version is so easily available, is there any real reasons to go back to this version besides curiosity?
Same story told similarly
The story follows the same events of the original Max Payne. I loved the story, for how it was told through monologues and interaction with the environment. It has a dark and serious tone, with a lot of personality to it. There is a full review of it, so I would suggest reading that to get the full idea.
Most of the story is intact here actually. The game starts of a bit different with an instant flashback, the dream-sequences are now in cutscenes and some parts of the story have been cut. It is a shame that it lost a part of the story, but luckily: it is only a minor part that they fortunately tweaked to make the sure the story did not feel incomplete losing it. The altered parts are not bad either, since the changes are still effective and well done, with gritty and harsh images. Some of the dialogue and monologues are presented in plain text, but there are plenty of cutscenes from the original version and they are even voice-acted, and still a joy to watch. What is odd, is that the minor details in the backgrounds that served to establish the world around Max and not contribute to the overall plot, are at times in in-game dialogues that you can’t skip. This is the only thing that really baffled me, since it could have been in the background similar to before. There are even many optional trivia that you can choose to check out, such as watching TVs or reading documents, so it could have easily been done similarly. Other than that, it is impressive how much has been kept intact to tell the story similar to its 3D-counterpart.
Story Score: 9/10
A different take and some cuts
Instead of going for a behind-the-back-view like the console versions, Max Payne for the GBA goes for an overhead isometric view, and you still shoot people with every single gun you find on your way. There are a lot of smart moves to this port, such as where you face, will also make the screen turn, centering Max in a corner and giving you a better view of the area you are facing, which is a fantastic touch. You can even see shadow-images of enemies behind environmental objects, and you walk slower while you are shooting to make aiming easier. The enemies are plenty and thankfully: so are ammo and guns. You select your weapons with L, and while there is a huge selection you can acquire, it is easy to pick a weapon with this method. With the lack of buttons, you also never reload, which is certainly odd, but a clever move. The enemies are a joy to fight due to them dodging and jumping around, but not necessarily memorable, except for the weapons they carry that can be a real threat.
Bullet time returns and is still a fantastic use for dodging and shooting enemies. While not as challenging as the console-version, it is much more of a necessity here, since enemies come in packs, and by dodging you will both go further, aim easier and you can shoot faster. This makes activating it without dodging not ideal, since it only makes you shoot faster, but it almost seems like the game recognizes this, since you can only do so by pressing R without moving. You can’t even dodge without going into bullet time (unless you are empty of it). You still fill it by shooting enemies, making it so you will use it, but only if you can get enough bullet time to refill it. While revamped, it is simply just a different take that is balanced, fun and still looks cool. Even the Sniper Rifle is gone, so it is definitely more of an action-heavy game.
Painkillers are also back, but they are altered to refill parts of your health almost at once instead of healing slowly like before. It does not change the game really and they aren’t in plenty supply, but I suppose it was to keep the action going, rather than waiting for it to refill. You still heal a minor portion if your health is on critical, but it is still something you can’t rely upon, only serving to give you a minor chance. Also: you can still only hold onto 8 painkillers at most and they are a necessity for not getting a game-over. Speaking of which, this time, you can’t save anywhere. Instead, you start each chapter with 4 lives and when they are gone, you start from the beginning. This is actually well balanced. You can only save between chapters and each of them doesn’t take too long to beat, about 10/15 minutes. Each time you lose a life, you also start at the beginning of the room you died at, so it is forgiving and makes backtracking only a pain if you lose all of your health. What was also a part for the original Max Payne, was the optional interactivity with environmental stuff, such as reading diaries or listening to the news to add to the story. They are also intact here, with some having cutscenes and others with in-game monologues. While they are often easier to come across due to the more linear level-design, they are still a joy to find.
This is a really unique way of experiencing the first Max Payne-game, and I enjoyed my time with it. However, there are some faults to this port. First of, while thankfully only for a couple of scenarios, there is some platforming to be dealt with and when it is required over instadeath-hazards, it is always too intense and not enjoyable due to Max’ stiff jumps, and the gaps being barely doable. There are also some hazards you will have to get through and while you just have to be quick, they will also take a life away from you. One in particular is hard to see due to pillars blocking the view. Also, the bosses are easy, and feel no different from regular enemies (except for the last one). The game is also incredibly short, clocking in at about 2 and a half hours. There are some levels cut from the original, but this is something I don’t lose sleep over.
Max Payne for the GBA is more action-based and straightforward, since it has much more use of bullet time and demands you having precise shots, good reaction-time and skills. It is different, but certainly fun, despite its minor shortcomings, and with a lot of smart tweaks, it shows that the studio was not just dedicated, but also smart with the port.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
Different engine, same style
Going for an isometric view with more realistic character-models, the game looks pretty good for the system. The characters are all animated well with good walking-cycles, jumping and rolling around. They even have breathing-animations that can barely be seen. The enemies do however look a bit off in the environment, due to how their color-pallets can at times blend into the area and having no shadow. Max has one underneath him to establish more clearly that he is staying on the ground, so it can be a bit weird to not really see the enemies being attached firmly to the ground until they spill blood on it.
Speaking of which, destructible objects, blood and bullet holes that stay in the environments, are neat touches and the game has a lot of similar details. The enemies have an odd habit however to either disappear or remain when they got killed, which I found puzzling. The areas Max travels through are technically good and realistically presented, but they come off as bleak and uninteresting. There are some parts that vary it up, with some rooms having different objects to distinguish them from others, but a bit more to them would have been welcoming. There are some parts with some slowdown due to how many enemies there are on the screen, but it is barely noticeable. One great addition to this version is the bright-slider. The Game Boy Advance had no backlight, and with the later versions and DS having lit screens, you can easily change the tone to make the game clearer visually for the system you are playing on.
Cutscenes look good with the same gritty visuals from the original versions. They are of course in lower quality, but still look good and add to the tone. The voice-acting is a bit muffled, but clear enough to understand what everybody is saying, and they are still well done with James McCaffrey still stealing the show. The sound-effects of guns, screams and tumbling to the ground are also impressive for the system, and I have no complaints there.
There are however only 3 melodies throughout the game. First being the title-screen track, which reminds me of parts of the original Max Payne-theme, but more as a rendition of it. The next is also a melancholic one, complementing the tone of the game, and the last is a hectic tune used for certain fights. The instruments are pretty clear, with tunes of Piano, cymbals and even bongo-drums and despite there being only 3 tracks here, they are all enjoyable and worth listening to, and never got repetitive to me. While Max Payne for the GBA is never going to win an award for the presentation, it is still good and easy on both the eyes and ears.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Some extras for the tiny cartridge
Despite being for a handheld, just about all of the PC-extras are intact here, such as cheat-codes, harder difficulty and time-attack. The extra endings are gone, but there is thankfully a lot to come back to, and by being only 2 and a half hours long: it is also easy to give it another go as well.
Extra Score: 7.5/10
Max Payne for the GBA is a really impressive take on the original version. Being smart with the limitations for the system, as well as telling the same story, is an impressive feat. It is short however, and there are minor parts that are a bit poor, but it still comes recommended both for those who already own the PC-version, and if you never have played Max Payne before, taking this one on the go is not a bad choice. It is not the best version, but definitely different enough to be worth your time.