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Commando (NES) artwork

Commando (NES) review

"What sets Commando apart from its contemporaries is the sheer intensity of the action"

First things first: Commando is not based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the same name. Now that your initial disappointment has sunk in, the good news is that this is still about as close to an official adaptation as we’ll ever get. Steroid-addled, one man killing machine? Check. Mandate to murder any foreigner that wanders into your iron sights for no apparent reason? Check. All the proceedings really lack are a couple of memorable post-mortem catchphrases. With the amount of death on display here, though, there isn’t a pause in which to utter any.

If possible, Commando has even less of a story than the action movies that inspired it. You step into the well-polished army boots of Super Joe, who for unclear reasons (Rescue mission? Holiday?) is deposited in an enemy-occupied jungle. Your job from that point is to un-occupy the area, and peace talks are very much not an option.

So… that’s all par for the course, at least as far as ‘80s era vertical-scrolling run-and-gun shooters go. What sets Commando apart from its contemporaries, though, is the sheer intensity of the action. Gameplay is furiously short and a great deal of fun while it lasts. The breakneck pacing does a good job of disguising your limited arsenal. Joe wields a sub-machine gun with unlimited ammunition and a slightly more limited stock of grenades. That’s it. There are no different weapons to collect throughout the levels, and your sub-machine gun can’t be upgraded. The NES version of the game contains an upgrade to the SMG that supposedly ups its power compared to the arcade original, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice.

The SMG is reasonably versatile, at least, with the ability to be fired in any direction that Joe can face (a heady total of eight). Grenades, however, can only be thrown vertically, even if you’re facing in the opposite direction. They’re still incredibly useful for clearing out enemies behind cover and scoring multiple kills, but getting yourself into the right position to use them can prove frustrating. This is the only niggle in a tight control system, which feels responsive and satisfying. It’s more than capable of matching the onscreen action.

Repetition begins to set in once you realise that every level plays out pretty much identically, however. You move up the screen committing wanton genocide of the available enemy soldiers. At the end of the level, you reach a fixed screen that contains a gate or fortress. This promptly churns out hoards of foes that must be eradicated to finish the level. They’re accompanied by a general, who you’d expect to act as a tougher boss character, but instead he dies just as easily as his men.

There is some variety in enemy methods of attack, at least; while some foes rush head-on with a firearm or bayonet, others remain behind cover to pepper you with fire or blast you with bazooka shots. The diversity is hardly pronounced, but with the general intensity of the action on display, it’s just about enough. Hidden grottos with special collectables and the option to save prisoners offer a welcome (though limited) distraction. The real problem is that levels repeat themselves, which reveals soon enough that the game only actually contains four different stages. This might be passable if the challenge ever increased, but enemies never grow more numerous or tougher to kill. With the lack of additional weaponry, the time you spend with the game really will depend on how much you like murdering aggressive, human-shaped clumps of pixels.

The lack of variety isn’t helped by Commando’s distinctively unimaginative colour palette, which deals exclusively in brown, grey, green, and yellow. It’s not an ugly game by any means, nor is it particularly pretty. The music and sound effects are also disappointingly lacklustre, although mercifully forgettable rather than grating.

Commando is hardly a bastion of ‘80s shooters. This is an era of the genre already shown up by later entries such as Contra and Cannon Fodder. The simplicity offered here, both in terms of mechanics and challenge, does little to adjust that reputation. Still, Commando offers fun in short, sharp bursts, delivering exactly what you’d expect and not a penny more. If you’ve ever dreamed of being Arnold Schwarzenegger (and who hasn’t?), this isn’t a bad way to pretend.


space_dust's avatar
Freelance review by David Owen (May 11, 2013)

David Owen is a freelance writer who also contributes to VG247, Eurogamer, IGN, and others. He likes Gitaroo Man more than is healthy.

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