Just slap a big logo over that Terminator shot, Taro.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Sunsoft's Journey to Silius, released for the NES in 1990.]

Journey to Silius is the rare game that’s interesting not for what it is, but for what it almost was. Created in 1989, it was first planned as an NES adaptation of James Cameron’s The Terminator, but at some point before the decade’s end, Sunsoft lost the license, possibly to LJN. In remarkably short order, Sunsoft’s programmers yanked all but trace elements of the Terminator license and turned what remained into yet another game driven by jumping and shooting.

And so Journey to Silius arrived in 1990, in what was perhaps the busiest year ever in the NES market. Everyone wanted Super Mario Bros. 3, and, once they had it, Super C, Final Fantasy, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man 3, Crystalis, Startropics, Rescue Rangers, Ninja Gaiden II, and even B-listers like Dinowarz, Code Name: Viper and Burai Fighter all waited. Silius was probably lucky to land its one-page Nintendo Power debut.

Sunsoft's Requiem for a DreamJourney to Harlan Ellison Lawsuits

And it was partly Sunsoft’s fault. After stripping away the Terminator tie-in, the company added only a simple story. Jay’s father is a key scientist in a race to establish a new space colony. Jay’s father is murdered by terrorists, who, judging by the intro, drop an atomic bomb on him. Jay discovers this and, with an expression suggesting either murderous determination or heroin addiction, sets out to avenge his father.

A tow-headed kid in a white space suit, Jay isn’t terribly charismatic, and neither are the apparently all-robot “terrorists” he faces. Colored in various shades of gray, the enemies could easily be reused sprites from the game’s Terminator days, which would’ve needed mechanical grunts bland enough to avoid breaking the movie’s tone. In fact, half the fun of Silius comes from spotting the leftovers: spindly-legged mechs from Sunsoft’s original Terminator preview became a single sub-boss in Silius, and the final battle features a bulkier version of The Terminator’s unmistakable T-800 endoskeleton. Even the game’s first boss, a helicopter that disgorges robot ostriches, could be a revamped model of The Terminator’s flying Hunter Killer.

The scenery itself is generally disappointing, though there’s an impressive atmosphere in the first level’s vistas of charred cities and dark skies. Yes, it’s clearly the future envisioned by The Terminator, with a few embellishments (Cameron’s world of coldly genocidal machines never included cutesy wanted posters), but it quickly gives way to duller futuristic corridors and conveyor belts in the later levels.

seriously what the hell is that even supposed to be it looks like a big gray drumstick or a buttplugSunsoft had issues

Yet Sunsoft was rarely sloppy about gameplay (Fester’s Quest excepted), and Silius holds together fairly well. Jay, starting out with a pistol and a spreading “shotgun,” finds new weapons just before every boss, getting a machine gun, homing missiles, a laser, and a grenade launcher. And if the enemies of Silius look boring, they’re at least varied and unpredictably placed. Too bad there are only five levels of them.

Unfortunately, Sunsoft was also prone to overcompensation. If a game was short, the Sunsoft School of Game Design called for making it so hard that most players would quit halfway through the whole grueling ordeal. From its second stage on, Silius demands rigid attention, laying out crafty enemy patterns and penalizing the player for the smallest slip. And the game can’t really take the challenge, as Jay doesn’t have the reflexes of the Contra heroes, the agility of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu or even the useful weapons of Mega Man. Instead, Jay’s weapon meter drains quickly, and he slips out of control when dropping from any height.

And then I travel back in time to murder your family! But I'm NOT a Terminator! Not even a "Congraturations"

Indeed, Sunsoft’s designers weren’t even trying by the end. The last level is a frustrating, repetitive obstacle course, the final boss has only one attack, and the game’s ending simply shows a space colony floating in orbit. If you want to see the accompanying dialogue (which consists of “Father, look! Our colony’s completed now!”), you’ll have to check the game’s hard data. The programmers forgot to show the words on the screen.

But there’s one thing about Silius that stands out: the music. Sunsoft arguably had the best composers of the NES era, and Silius got a soundtrack better that it perhaps deserved. There’s a driving beat under the typical 8-bit melodies, and an opening stage theme so catchy that the developers used it again in the last level. Not that I complain.

Perhaps Sunsoft didn’t care too much about Silius. The game’s U.S. release didn’t even get proper cover art; the box just shows a retouched screenshot of Jay firing at a big robotic bowling pin. The Japanese release, on the other had, got the title Raf World (pronounced “Rough World”), along with blatantly Star Wars-inspired cover art and a new Jay sprite: a helmeted warrior that’s even less memorable.

Like Super C, but not as funLost in translation

Then again, things could’ve been worse for Silius. In the early ‘90s, Sunsoft also made Sunman, a superhero-themed action title that, like Silius, was built on the remains of a licensed game: in this case, a Superman title. Sunman was never even announced, and its existence wasn’t even brought to light until a prototype cartridge turned up in Spain several years ago. Silius might have met the same fate.

Journey to Silius would’ve impressed more as The Terminator NES game, if only because of the lowered standards among licensed titles (a similar thing happened to Sunsoft’s original, unjustly revered Batman). Still, Silius has its fans today. They point to its straightforward challenges, its impressive soundtrack, and the fact that, for a game notable only for its brush with Hollywood, it’s not bad at all. And they have a point. Silius is about half of a great action/shooter, but at least it's one of the best movie-related games never made.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]