NAM-1975 (NeoGeo) review
"The Deer Hunter "
The Deer Hunter
Full Metal Jacket
Why does the Vietnam War haunt and fascinate us all so much in a manner entirely different to the bigger World Wars? Maybe because it was so recent. Maybe because it was a complete mess, because soldiers often didn’t know what they were fighting for or even who the enemy was at times, because it was the first televised war and because it reeked of grisly ambivalent dread. Thanks to the media and films and novels - and games! - the trauma clinic experience of this war keeps raging in the imagination of all us civvies.
NAM 1975 was a Neo-Geo launch title, a fact which floors me in so many ways. Above all, the game deals with edgy Vietnam material and it does so with BALLS. Here’s a quasi first-person shooter in which you play a disturbed US soldier sent back into the maelstrom to rescue a kidnapped ex-army scientist - albeit a scientist with the unfortunately stupid name of Dr. Muckly. But this is no ‘RAH! RAH! RAH!’ flag-waving Rambo or Chuck Norris style waltz back into Vietnam. This is the psycho Full Metal Jacket experience. Very angry ‘heroes’ face spies in their midst, betrayals, chain-of-command blunders and grueling assaults by land, sea and air. They interrogate and execute bad guys and they shoot women if necessary. ‘Nuff said?
It’s a damn good game but a damn hard one too. Difficulty is often head-smashing and coin-devouring, especially in the boss fights and even with two players working together. But I can’t think of any other war action game which has such a convincingly dark and grueling atmosphere. The trauma is drilled into you from the word go by the magnificent title sequence, which vies for best ever status in my books.
There’s an opening scroll over images of the hero lying in the dark, and you hear a brooding voiceover...
A nightmare awaits me. I am being recalled to Natorm Headquarters.
Do I have to go back to this hell again?’
There’s a tense synth build-up, and then... a guttural ROAR fills the soundtrack atop the image of a screaming soldier who is going berserk with his machine gun. The scream ‘explodes’ and the soldier is scaled out as the title NAM 1975 flies in and smashes into the foreground. And finally you’re left in stunned silence with the sun setting over a field of barbed wire and a silhouette of a deathly weary figure leaning on his rifle.
The total effect is akin to being smashed in the skull with a titanium hammer, which is exactly the right feeling for this game.
The Deer Hunter
In play, your mentally disintegrating soldier has the horizontal run of the bottom edge of the screen. Even when ‘standing still’ he’s always treading stealthily through the ravaged battlefields of Vietnam, which scroll continuously to the left.
The trickiest factor of gameplay is that both your man and the crosshairs are controlled by the one joystick, though the crosshairs move slightly faster so that you can respond to targets. You have a regular shoot button (which mercifully can be held down), a special weapons button (usually grenades) and a Run button. And if you tap downwards whilst running you can perform an evasive roll. You can dodge anything from a lone bullet to a storm of bomb shrapnel with this move, but don’t feel too cocky. The moment you come out of it you’re vulnerable again, and if you felt the need to pull this stunt in the first place, odds are that the screen was already saturated with bullets, explosions and napalm, which you are going to rise back into from your roll.
‘Haha, you missed meEEARRRRRRGHHHH!!!’
Remember the film Sniper? Remember the tagline? ‘1 shot - 1 kill’... Yep, if you touch anything in NAM 1975, you die immediately. Savage.
Those enemy forces hellbent on killing you pour onto the screen in dozens of innovative ways, and the level design finds just as many ways to mix up the presentation and your objectives. In the first mission you’re floating down a river on a barge. In the third mission you’ll be gunning down airborne targets from the deck of a plane. In the sixth and final you’ll be sneaking amongst conveyer belts in a factory surrounded by flammable barrels. And in the others you’ll be creeping on foot through gloomy jungles and ruins.
Enemy soldiers come running into view from both sides, singularly and in groups. Some will ride in on vehicles then leap off. Others parachute in or dive into the river and then open fire once they’re secure atop some piece of flotsam. And they don’t just fire bullets, they lob grenades at you almost from the start of the game! Tanks and gunner boats also cruise by hoping to give you an unwanted lift, helicopters hover overhead before strafing the area with napalm or missiles, and planes will zoom over the dark horizon and then bomb the whole damn screen.
In short, it’s bloody chaos, and the relentless onslaught spurs you to go crazy. Your compulsion to gun down targets can never be satiated because THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE TARGETS. Nor is this like Operation Wolf where you could clear the whole playfield with a few trigger squeezes. You have to select targets here in a smart order because it takes time to send the crosshairs about, and you lose ground with them whenever you have to dodge back the other way (remembering that the stick guides both your man and the crosshairs). Plus only the most basic soldiers die in one shot. You are never truly on top of the situation: At best you’re keeping it manageable, and generally you’re creeping or snowballing towards being overwhelmed and losing that next life.
The ‘relentless targets’ factor is fundamental to this genre, but the sensation gets totally out of control in NAM 1975 and any player could just feel like EXPLODING.
Between missions, you won’t find any reprieve from these crazed feelings in the cut-scenes. Yeah, I said ‘you won’t’. These scenes aren’t just striking because they contain many of the game’s most punishing moments (seeing a prisoner cough up the goods when a gun is jammed against his skull, seeing a planeful of soldiers blown up), but because there is also a really strong feel about the development of a story. There are revelations about what’s going on with Dr. Muckly (don’t snigger), ambushes, a spy to be weeded out of the unit... The combination of the tri-panel graphics which mix expressionistic colour and black and white, and the narration from our angst-ridden soldier whose voice acting is bloody good, is sublime.
Prepare yourself for a bullet dodging festival; or maybe that should be ‘bullet taking’. With shots soaring in from multiple angles and your movement restricted to one dimension, your skills get a hell of a workout. Frankly, it’s often impossible to deal with, which will annoy you a lot, and yet... that’s why this game feels like the real deal. It’s just plain brutal.
Your deaths are exceptionally cool and grisly. Grenades throw you ‘out’ of the screen towards onlookers. Regular shots see you slump tragically to your knees and then face-first into the dirt. Napalm just vaporises you, and you’ll watch stupefied as the orange inferno cremates your limbs. Toss in your agonised yell on the soundtrack and nobody can say that this game doesn’t show the consequences of violence, hehe.
You won’t get your hands on the really beefy extra weapons too often, but at least the game is generous with your grenade supply. And so it should be. NAM 1975 can be such a slaughterfest at times that even if you do nothing but continuously lob grenades as soon as your new man appears onscreen, you still won’t get out all 10 before being bodybagged again! This is a fact I’ve repeatedly verified.
Point bonuses and weapon pick-ups soar down to the front of the screen when obtained from enemies, in a fashion which was no doubt intended to exploit and show off the then-new Neo-Geo’s whiz-bang scaling effects. Of these pick-ups, Bazookas are fun but way too short-lived, as are the heavier rifles. With the flamethrower you can get some vaporising revenge, which is depicted in all its gory splendour. But the most powerful and innovative pick-up is definitely the ‘twin’ machine gun. This gives you alternating crosshairs, a godsend which allows you to temporarily throw concerns about accuracy to the wind.
Your grenades and more hardcore weaponry are needed for torching vehicles and the meatier enemy soldiers, both of which can absorb mucho punishment. The most numerous variety of the latter are stocky creeps who fire multiple shots at a time and often drag hostages around with them. But here’s a cool turn-up: If you free the hostages (Just what are these blond women in red dresses doing running around in Vietnam? Probably best not to answer that question.) they’ll join you at the bottom of the screen, grab a weapon and add their machine gun fire to yours!
On top of the stocky hostage-wielding creeps, other tough enemies include strange-but-true soldiers who can cartwheel out of the way of your hail of bullets. Well, I guess if we can do it... And the flamethrower guys in gasmasks will drive you insane near the end of the game, creating vertical incendiary walls that herd you into crossfire.
Mid-bosses such as armoured trucks or commando squads are diabolical, and the big end-of-level bosses are DIABOLICAL. Yeah, you can try all you like to fire, dodge, fire, dodge, but eventually your crosshairs will slip too far away. The skill of managing the positions of your soldier and the crosshairs relative to each other is deeply engaging in regular play, but just becomes unmanageable for the later bosses.
The evil psychotic twins with flamethrowers were fine, the big-ass helicopter was fine, but the WHOPPING GREAT TANK WITH CONSTANTLY FIRING QUAD GRENADE LAUNCHERS WAS NOT FINE!!! Bosses like this create a wall of death which fills the base of the screen and cannot be avoided. Like most early Neo-Geo games, this one plays at being a black hole and sucking in your coins if you’re in an arcade, though playing it with a friend can lessen the effect.
Oh man, and don’t remind me about the last boss. In one of the cruellest strokes in gaming history, your ability to continue is removed for the final nigh-on-impossible battle against a mechanised juggernaut. I could start trying to mount an argument that this element is also trying to simulate the alienating experience of war but... naaah, this just sucks. I can stomach the overall savagery of NAM 1975 because it’s Vietnam! But this final touch was just too dumb, so that’s where the game loses points with me.
Full Metal Jacket - Parris Island
Graphics are rarely spectacular when you look at individual elements of NAM 1975, but they’re always good, and their total effect is far greater than the sum of the parts. Designers went for clarity over detail here, which enhances the player’s ability to spot and identify so many targets at once.
Scenic colours are dark and bleak, as your own colours might be if you were a country out of which the crap had been shot and bombed. Dingy greens, oranges, greys and blood-soaked sunsets evoke the blasted countryside so strongly that you’ll be having false flashbacks. There are also ruined temples and buildings which you can destroy, not to mention those ridiculous exploding barrels in the mission 6 factory which can waste both you and the enemy (mostly you).
Even though I prefer the feel of fighting in the jungle and on the ground, mission 3 (the airborne level) is definitely the standout in graphics and design. You’re on the open deck of a large chopper or a bomber (I’m not sure which?) and racing through the sky. As clouds whip past, paratroopers and choppers begin to descend. If you survive this assault, an enormous bomber starts to move up alongside you. It’s several screens long so you can only ever see ominous sections of it at a time. You now have to fend off gun turrets and grenade-lobbing crazies whilst continuing to nail vital elements of the plane. You can riddle the structure with bullet holes, all of which are maintained onscreen, and use these as a visual map to guide you to shoot further intact areas which may release pickups!
As for the animation of the characters generally, there are still lots of good touches. Hit paratroopers and their chutes wither as they plummet through the cloud layer. You can shoot guys who are climbing down ladders and they’ll also take a dive. The stocky creeps have really scary expressions and alternately dart about and plant their feet stonily to open fire. And there are some cool semi-3D effects throughout, such as commandos leaping over your head and into the screen on the river level.
Full Metal Jacket - Vietnam
Sound effects! I have just one problem with them in NAM 1975.
The problem is that the yelp made by the enemy soldiers when they’re shot is a girl’s yelp. I mean that literally, not in a defamatory to women kind of way. If you shoot a man it should sound like a man, but in this game it doesn’t. That’s not great for one of the most common sound effects, but it’s more than made up for in every other section of the sound department.
Gunfire is solid, napalm and bombs roar in a way that anticipates how they’ll reduce your body to ash, grenades soar with hyperbolic whistling sounds, and your own agonised death cry will make your heart give a painful ‘squirt’. To top it all off, the music does a terrific job of melding the atmosphere together in this game. The subtle synth themes can slip from dismal to hopeful to tragic to heroic, and then back to dismal again, all within moments.
I’ve already talked about how cool the voice acting is for the hero, how it’s really weary and smacks of shellshock and is a major factor in this game’s authentic feeling. Compare this to the howlingly bad performances in some other early Neo-Geo games like Magician Lord and you’re twice as grateful for it. Still, at one point you’ll detect a Japanese accent on an apple-pie American woman...
Well you can’t win ‘em all. And you can NEVER win Vietnam!
COMIN’ HOME IN A BODYBAG
I’m not sure how big the ‘Vietnam War’ genre is in videogame history (the only other one I’ve played myself is Platoon on the C64 - I’m flashing back to cool music and rotten tripwires), but I’m going to say with the confidence of a now-insane marine who has a machine gun pointed at you, that NAM 1975 is the best damn Vietnam game there is.
The atmosphere just reeks of the dread, the darkness, the physical pain and the insanity of the war. Challenge is excellent %70 of the time, veering into decidedly ridiculous or cheap territory for the other %30. I’d be less forgiving about that if I didn’t feel that the game’s brutality had some kind of secret higher purpose - which is to devolve you for the duration of your game session into a SCREAMING SILVER DEATH MACHINE, with the comforting boundaries of sense or morality dissolving right away! Just like real war has been known to do to people.
But don’t get too freaked out. This is a fun non-stop shooter with great gameplay and killer atmosphere. The crosshairs/ soldier link is both a strength and a weakness, but it’s memorable whatever you think of it. 2-player mode is also well-considered and highly replayable. It’s a real pity that you can’t take the end of the game seriously, what with that last stupid boss removing your ability to continue against him. But shoving the difficulty under the carpet, this is a true king-hit for a launch game. My mental association between NAM 1975 and the Neo-Geo as a whole is much stronger than for almost any other debut console and game pairing I can think of.
Gotta go. I’m being recalled to Natorm Headquarters again...
-- NAM 1975 -- 8/10 --
-- This review is dedicated to the late great Douglas Adams, news of whose passing reached me while I was writing it
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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