8-Bit Infantry Wars, Part I: Commando
We’re looking back at 8-bit infantry games, chronologically. First up is the Capcom classic run-and-gun game, Commando.
The run-and-gun, man, what happened?! Run-and-gun games were “the cool” back in the 1980s. Any neighbor with at least one of these games was totally badass in spite of any failings in real life. It’s simple – you run, you shoot, stuff dies, things explode, you feel empowered/ overwhelmed. The player typically controls a soldier, either attacking an unnamed, though suspiciously communist enemy, or aliens. This was an important time in the history of video games, because some of our cultural icons are tied to this genre (think Contra or Rambo). Before that, no combat games involved war, other than a few, forgotten arcade titles.
The change came when Taito released Front Line, which was essentially the first infantry-focused game of its kind. By today’s standards, though, it’s impossible to take seriously. Its long-obsolete graphics and gameplay, combined with its lack of challenge make it hardly worth playing other than to say you played a piece of gaming history. The Atari 2600 port of Front Line is actually better than the arcade original. Still, it set the standard for what was to come, and the next step was taken by Capcom’s legendary Commando.
Commando was simple. It took the idea of Front Line and beefed it up, using the same vertical scrolling and single-infantry approach. In Commando, you’re a one-man murder machine who takes on an entire army by himself. But Commando was serious, without the comical overtones of Front Line. It upped the number of on-screen enemies significantly, adding more obstacles and enemy vehicles as well as variety in enemy combatants. When it was released in the arcades in 1985, it quickly became one of the most popular cabinets, followed soon by a number of clones. And, of course, after its popularity in the arcades it was ported to a variety of systems. Its NES incarnation launched Capcom’s movement into the home video game market. And man, does it blow your head off.
Commando is one of the most fast-paced run-and-guns of its time, and on the NES it throws in a number of new features. You play as the super-generic Super Joe, an obvious play on G.I. Joe, but with ‘super’ attached since he’s taking on an entire military complex with one gun and limited grenades. (Editor’s note: He was only named Super Joe in the U.S. because Capcom wanted to tie Commando and Bionic Commando together) Enemies come in several different types, and they’re everywhere. They come out of the walls, they come out of pits, out of houses like a clown car of death. They drive jeeps, they drive motorcycles, they’re everywhere. In order to survive, you need to move and fire all over the screen. Since button B fires only a single shot, you need to continuously blister your thumb as you move. Lobbing grenades is useful for nailing enemies otherwise impossible to hit and/or kill with your gun (most of the time), as well as for discovering the secret passages exclusive to the NES version of Commando, which are usually hidden behind bunkers. Super Joe has a slight delay as he lobs, but you can move as you toss, so it’s not a death sentence.
This game has some secrets, a lot of them. The first thing I mentioned were the hidden passages, which lead to a different secret location each time. Some of them contain POWs you receive points for saving, others traps or enemies you need to kill. A few cannot be exited, and the game kills you should you be unfortunate enough to enter them. Others contain ultra power-ups, like infinite grenades, and if you locate them you’ll have an easier time destroying the enemy army, described as “aliens” in the manual so parents wouldn’t be troubled by their children slaughtering an entire civilization. They clearly look like human beings, so children were probably the wiser. That age-old “does it affect one’s mind” argument comes to the surface, but is easily refuted by the person writing this article. Super Joe will also come across hidden items throughout the playing field, such as binoculars that reveal the aforementioned secret passages, and a radio that kills every enemy on the screen. Commando has a lot going for it to differentiate itself from the original, and it gives the player something to look for during each playthrough.
Commando’s gameplay is simple; you run up the screen and kill everything in sight while collecting as many points as possible. As an extra incentive, if you beat the game with three lives remaining and 24 grenades in reserve, you get a special message from the programmers. It’s not easy, trust me. The playing field consists of four stages per level, which differs from the 8-stage approach of the arcade, and they repeat four times, for a total of 16 stages in all. There is no difference to the design after your first completion of Commando, but secret passages do change. Though I’m not entirely sure, it also seems that in every quest after your first enemy bullets get a little faster and more numerous, so that by the third run they’re surrounding you like swarms of bees. The amount of twitch in this game is numbing, but if you have the skill to make it, Commando is an awesome game overall and has much more replay value than Front Line. Commando still possesses the critical thing that makes real gamers come back to the classics, and that’s challenge. Next up, we’ll be delving further into the 8-bit world of infantry games, chronologically – continuing with Ikari Warriors.