Dirty Harry Review

Dirty Harry NES box art

Sadistically hard action game featuring the anti-hero Dirty Harry.


Inspector Harry Callahan has through special sources gotten information on the recent murder of the drug lord Jack Bailey, also known as The Dealmaker. Callahan knows that The Anaconda, the biggest drug cartel from Colombia is establishing a shop right here in San Francisco. Unfortunately this information isn’t enough to spark any deeper investigation, and the police chief puts Callahan off of the case, suggesting that he had better take a vacation.

Obviously, Dirty Harry won’t let The Anaconda get away this easily. He sets out to track down the men behind the organization.

The Game

Dirty Harry for the NES is a side scrolling action game. It is based on the Dirty Harry character from the famous movie from 1971, but the story in the game is unique and not directly related to the story of the movie.

In this game you play as Harry Callahan in his quest to stop The Anaconda drug lord. The game allows for some free exploration in that it has support for entering houses and sometimes even exploring city areas by allowing you walk down and up alleys. In your investigation you will fight countless violent gang members and avoid numerous hazards along the way.

The goal of the game is to stop The Anaconda boss, and to do this, you must first pinpoint his whereabouts by going through series of levels in three different areas and then confront him in a battle to the death.


This game is insanely hard, partly due to the troublesome controls but mostly due to the endless and frequent enemies that keep pestering you. Where ever you go, there will be something or someone trying to kill you.

The game does have many features that sets it apart from other similar and more shallow games. For example, you can break open locked doors with crowbars, open safe vaults with explosives and press buttons to open and close doors. You’ll have a health bar that indicates your current status, and there are Chili Dogs to be found that replenishes lost health. The game also has an inventory system which gives a quick overview of carried items and there are a few different items and weapons to pick up in the game. There’s also some NPC characters that can help you in your quest by donating items.

Sure enough the game has variation but it is also filled with annoyances such as enemies popping in on the screen without giving you a chance to react and lots of pitfalls that instantly kill you.

Dirty Harry NES ScreenshotYou are given five lives to beat each level. There are extra lives to be found in the game, but they are rare. Depending on which level you are on, you are given one or a few chances to continue the game if you happen to lose all of your lives. For some reason you’ll have fewer chances to continue your game the further you go regardless of how many continues you have used up.

With all the enemies, traps, chasms and other dangers in this game, the chances for survival is null – at least for the first few times you play it. This is a game that you must play many times in order to figure out where to go and what to do. This is harder than it may sound because there is no text in the game, no hints, no nothing on where you are supposed to go in order to advance in the story. Even with the game manual at hand it is hard to figure this one out. Needless to say, this quickly becomes frustrating and it isn’t very enjoyable at all.

The later levels are more straightforward and neglects the exploration aspect altogether. Perhaps this is to reflect that Dirty Harry’s mission becomes more and more desperate the further he goes.

The game has a basic password system that allows you to start your game from a later level if you reach it and retrieve the password. Starting from a password gives you full lives and full health, but items that you may have had aren’t saved. Instead you start off with an empty inventory, save for some Magnum .44 bullets and two crowbars. While most important items are typically only needed on the level in which you find it, this isn’t such a big problem. But it is a bit discouraging that you aren’t allowed to keep any of the items – not even any extra bullets you may have found.


Obviously the developers have had a hard time figuring out how the controls should be. You can pull off numerous moves, depending on where you’re currently standing. For example you can climb poles, jump back and forth, kick, punch and fire your weapon in different directions, push buttons, travel horizontally on bars, interact with NPCs, and use various items. For the most part the controls are understandable and work great, but there are some serious issues with it. In order to fire your weapon you must first draw it by pressing the A button. Once your weapon is drawn you can fire it by pressing the A Button again, but if you want to do something else, you must holster the weapon first by pressing the B button, which also makes you punch. This becomes a problem when you try to dodge bullets in a firefight, because simply pressing down with your weapon drawn will only make you aim the weapon downward.

Opening boxes and talking to NPCs is done by jumping straight up in the air at their location. This is just strange and does not make much sense.

The game also has a fair share of platforms that doesn’t look like platforms, making it hard to figure out where you can stand and where you can’t. This is only made worse by the clunky collision detection that the whole game is built around.

Other than the control scheme, there are other related issues as well. There are numerous hazards that are very tricky to avoid as well as enemies that can’t be killed. You’ll also notice some abnormal behavior from Harry’s part around ladders and poles – it’s practically impossible to fight around them, because he’ll constantly cling on to the ladder if you happen to press upwards on the D-Pad, only to be knocked down from it by the enemy. What’s more, every time you get hit by something your actions are halted for a brief moment which makes platform jumping difficult.


The graphics in Dirty Harry sure has got some charm. It’s easy to emerge in the Dirty Harry role when playing – at least partially. The streets look dirty, and the rooms in the houses are unwelcoming. The Alcatraz area in which the final stages take place in looks equally forbidding, and the dock area also has a distinct aura of gloom around it. But on the other hand, there are numerous details that are hard to decipher correctly.

The animation is good for the most part – the punches and kicks all look powerful, and you’ll even see thugs and gangsters fly across the screen and hit the ground when shot.


The music and sound effects are poor. Some of it sounds very out of place, and the parts of the music that manages to fit in are mostly annoying and forgettable.

The game does have some sampled Dirty Harry voice acting (as performed by Clint Eastwood), but it is kept at a bare minimum. It’s basically only heard in the intro and in the ending sequence. As such it is a novelty feature, but doesn’t do a lot to uplift the game experience.


Dirty Harry for the NES just isn’t very enjoyable. It is too hard to play without a game guide at hand, and the high difficulty level is just ridiculous. It’s also not very long lasting, and there is no replay value to speak of.

Clumsy controls, farfetched puzzles, frequent deadly traps and unfair enemies is what brings this game down. If you have a high tolerance for this kind of digital maltreatment you may have some fun with the game for a while – at least until you’ve beaten the few levels that are in there.

Developed By: Gray Matter
Published By: Mindscape
Version Reviewed: Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre: Run ‘n Gun / Adventure
Players: 1
Released: 1990

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