The Strange History of Terminator Games

In honor of Terminator Genisys, Den of Geek takes a look back at the best and worst Terminator games!

Terminator Genisys sees eponymous androids traveling back in time again. Specifically back to 1991, as they’re trying to make Terminator 2 again, because that was the last time these movies were any good.

But while the franchise destroys its own history, we’re trawling the Terminator timelines to find the best and worst games for each film. And since terminators are amazing ass-kicking machines that look like they come from the future, we’ll also be targeting the most advanced technology used for each title.

The Terminator

The Terminator was the perfect combination of unbelievable special effects and absolutely believable human reactions. Those reactions being different versions of people looking at Arnold Schwarzenegger and thinking, “there’s no way that’s human,” then turning that gut feeling into an awesomely indestructible action franchise.

Best: The Terminator 

1993 | Sega CD

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This isn’t just the best original Terminator game, it’s one of the best Terminator anythings. In 1993, this truly felt like future technology had been sent back in time to kick our human asses, and was so good at the job we enjoyed the process. It didn’t waste then-revolutionary CD storage capacity on overlong FMV (Fuzzy Massive Video). It knew we were playing because we’d already seen a great movie and we wanted to kick ass. It filled all that extra space for explosions and rock music, and both blasted big holes in the timestream.

If this games’ version of Kyle Reese had been in the movie, he’d have blown the Terminator apart, leapt over the pieces, slam-dunked grenades into Skynet’s central processing unit, and carried Sarah Connor into a future where the only “road of bones” was their honeymoon. If John Connor had had this Kyle for a father in Terminator 2, the kid wouldn’t have been such a wise ass.

Worst: The Terminator 

1992 | NES

Terminator on the NES was harder than filling Dante’s nine levels of hell with cement and less fun to grind through. It’s difficult in the same way that whittling your own tooth is difficult: extremely painful, looks awful, and there’s less than no reason to do so. The sound is an endlessly repeating snooze alarm, and the graphics look a bit moldy.

Kyle Reese is painfully slow, incapable of performing the most basic tasks, and when he travels into the past, he forgets to bring a gun and has to spend the rest of the game flailing at armed opponents with his soft fleshy fists. You’d swear the NES was taking the Terminator’s side to mock humanity and make us suffer.

Advanced Technology: The Terminator 

1990 | DOS

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The DOS version of Terminator was a complex effort to create a sophisticated simulation using primitive technology. It wasn’t just a great game, it incarnated both the plot AND the making of the movie, creating something far cooler than the technology should have allowed. This first title really did represent the first Terminator: it was far cooler than many of the technically more advanced Terminator games which would follow it. It made a mockery of every lazy cash-in by rendering an immense area of Los Angeles and allowing the player to be Kyle Reese or the Terminator.

The city is stuffed with banks, gun ranges, surgical centers, everything a time-traveler on an action mission could ever want. If it had been any more detailed, John Connor would have used it to train Kyle before sending him. The immense and interactive environment of the game makes sense when you realize it was an early Bethesda work. It’s nice to know that Skyrim has somehow descended from time-travelling Terminators. And if you’ll excuse us, we’ve just had the greatest idea for a mod in the history of everything.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2 is the greatest sequel anything ever had. If there’s ever a Second Coming, the Lord will have to return on a hover-bike that explodes oil tankers to even approach this level of upgrade.

Best: Terminator 2: Judgment Day / T2: The Arcade Game 

1991 | Arcade / 1991 | SNES

The Terminator 2: Judgment Day arcade cabinet was an immensely impressive machine made only of machine guns and set pieces. Everything a Terminator game should be. You fought through the future war, defended the armored van from the liquid nitrogen truck, aimed skillful shots to drench the T-1000 in liquid nitrogen, and you even got to fight the iconic Hunter Killer Tank from the original movie’s opening. Which is why every player spent so many quarters, they could have melted them down to destroy their very own T-1000.

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At the time, some smartasses mocked the game because you could take out near-invincible Terminators with a few gunshots, turning fiction’s most intimidating enemies into idiotic cannon fodder. Little did we know that this advanced time machine was trying to warn us about Terminator Salvation!

Worst: Terminator 2: Judgment Day 

1993 | SNES

The Super Nintendo’s Terminator 2 game was unworthy of every adjective and noun in the first half of this sentence. Even the Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Slot Game wasn’t worse than this. At least kids didn’t expect to enjoy that. When someone sits down to gamble on video slots, they’re actively demanding that an unfeeling computer system destroy their lives.

But in some ways, it was a meta-narrative masterpiece on the dangers of time-travel. Enemies can destroy you from off the screen, which makes it one of the worst-engineered shooters in history, but being killed by enemies you never saw coming was the whole point of Skynet’s temporal attacks. You can also get lost and stuck on the first level, unaware that you have to access one of the absolutely identical phone boxes to complete your mission…which is the real risk most time travel movies don’t acknowledge. Movie time-travellers always seem to turn up within five minutes of important events, instead of getting stuck hours, days, even years from their destination.

Advanced Technology: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Pinball, 1991)

1991 | Pinball

This is a game where a shiny metal thing bashes around dominating and destroying everything else. It’s the most perfect T-1000 possible. Especially since it’s a machine where you can’t ever truly win: the machine will eventually end you.

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It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are out of credits. It’s just a matter of how much you can score before that happens. That’s the perfect incarnation of the Terminator.

In fact, “score before you get killed” was Kyle Reese’s entire mission.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3 was the only movie to film a metaphor for its own position in the series: an old man staggering around waving the desecrated corpse of the previous movies, except all the old characters had been replaced with guns.

Best: Least Worst: Terminator 3: The Redemption 

2004 | PS, Xbox, GC

In what may be the first cross-meta-media review of a movie, there simply isn’t a best game for this movie. It’s based entirely on robots exploding things and still nobody could make a good game. That’s failure on par with Scrooge McDuck dying of thirst in his swimming pool: he sacrificed everything for money, but in reality it was just painful to get through.

But since we have to choose something, we’ll take The Redemption. Which tried to combine shooting, vehicle, and close-combat sections, and did about as well as anyone trying to do those three things simultaneously: a painful failure which still provides passers-by with a few amusing moments. Although any game that lets you hotwire and ride a Hunter-Killer like the world’s most aggressive Segway is worth some kind of award.

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Worst: Terminator 3: War of the Machines 

2003 | PC

A Terminators-versus-humans first person shooter should have been a slam-dunk. Atari couldn’t have screwed it harder if they’d dropped their shorts in the center of the court and popped the ball by trying to love it. The only possible explanation is Atari heroically trying to sabotage Skynet, pumping out combat code where the Terminator bots keep walking into walls and are incapable of aiming weapons.

But even if it saves the future of humanity, the price for anyone playing this game is still too high.

Advanced Technology: Terminator 3 Pinball

2003 | Pinball

The Terminator 3 pinball machine was similar to the Terminator 2 pinball machine, with some slightly changed trajectories and a bit of extra voice acting, and it was still the best thing connected to this entry in the franchise.

Terminator Salvation

After Terminator 3, somebody said “At least things can’t get any worse!” and Warner Bros teamed up with the universe to teach him/her a lesson. Which is the only truly Terminator thing about this movie. The entire point of the franchise is that things can always get worse.

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Best: Terminator Salvation 

2010 | Arcade

The arcade game truly was the salvation of the worst bits of the movie: being able to blow advanced robots to pieces with a few bullets makes perfect sense in an arcade game. In fact, if Christian Bale had just been using a light gun in the movie, nobody would have complained. “Of COURSE arcade game guns can kick computerized ass,” we’d say. “That’s what they’re FOR.”

It didn’t just rock, it reversed the polarity of movie-to-game conversions by making a game much better than the movie. Which is why we’re giving this game the Advanced Technology award as well. Makers Play Mechanix are clearly on a mission to upload abused movie franchises into the safer world of arcade cabinets. They followed Salvation with Aliens: Armageddon, where humans hunt down hordes of xenomorphs, which was also infinitely better than the abysmal movie sequels out at the time. Basically, if it’s made of silicon, Play Mechanix are training you to destroy it. We think they might actually have been sent back from the future.

In an accidental taster of what could be the greatest crossover yet, some versions of the Salvation cabinet use the Aliens Pulse Rifle from an earlier game. That would make so much sense! Terminators would be the perfect way to fight Aliens! Play Mechanix, you can complete your chrono-mission to train us against the future by making that game!

Worst: Terminator Salvation 

2009 | PC, PS3, X360

Terminator Salvation was an absolute tragedy. It was made in 2009, when every other game was also a third-person cover-based shooter with enemies who could soak up hundreds of bullets, and they still failed to make one that worked. There will never be a better time for a flanking-and-tactics humans-versus-Terminator game. The sales pitch boasted brand new Terminators constructed for the game, which sounds great until you see the T-7T.

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That’s not an exciting new design. That’s half a spiderbot. And that’s the only new Skynet system in the game. You don’t build 50% of an arachnobot and start claiming creativity. Mobile turrets have been in every anti-robot shooter since we developed the technology to understand that sentence.

Worse, the game gained popularity as a rental because of its easily unlocked achievements and trophies. That’s how bad the game was at Terminating: humans would borrow it because it was easier to defeat than all the other software.

Original Games

Best: The Terminator: Future Shock 

1995 | DOS

Another example of the Terminator franchise being ahead of its time. Future Shock featured fully 3D texture-mapping and mouselook control before Quake capitalized on the same inventions. Possibly to compensate how the previous Terminator: Rampage game came out after Doom, and was basically Doom with a hastily applied cybernetic moustache.

Future Shock was an excellent shooter, but it made the same mistake as Skynet: it had humans versus machines while underestimating the power of lots of humans shooting at the same time. Lacking a multiplayer mode, Future Shock would only have a couple of months of single player fun before being terminated by an industry-reshaping Quake.

Worst: Robocop vs, The Terminator 

1993 | Sega Genesis, Game Gear, Master System, SNES, NES, Game Boy

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This was the worst case of technology inexplicably missing the point since, well, since every shot a Terminator has ever fired at an important human character. One problem is that you can’t be the Terminator. Which means they’ve missed half the point of their own title. The other problem is that they don’t seem to know what a Robocop is either. That’s 100% failure.

Well, it’s either that or the metal armor is just a Styrofoam shell somebody dropped over Mario, because he can jump like a cyborg kangaroo and climb ladders like a hyper-accelerated squirrel. Clearly OCP worked out how to digitize animal powers to give him an organic advantage over the synthetic machines.

Well, either that, or the developers just dumped Robocop sprites into a totally unrelated Platform Game #4 they just had lying around for a quick buck.

Advanced Technology: The Terminator: I’m Back! / Terminator Revenge 

2004 | Mobile / 2007 | Mobile

The Terminators took over smartphones over a decade ago. Because going back to dominate obsolete technology is their primary programming. The Terminator: I’m Back was basically the Ikari Warriors versus Terminators, which is the video game hero battle we’d set up if we actually had a real time machine.

Unfortunately, the follow-up Terminator Revenge would make the most mechanical mistakes, having you repeat the same simple tasks over and over again, and assuming you’d continue to robotically annihilate humans without hope or joy. It’s possible it was the first role-playing game where you play as a Terminator.

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Why are these in the advanced technology section? Because if Skynet ever does come online, it no longer needs to bother with nuclear warheads. It won’t have to work to make cyborg connections between flesh and machine. All it has to do is infiltrate our smartphones and we’ll do whatever it says.