Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Commando - That You, Arnold?
A mislabeled hero fights the format wars.

One regret I have about my arcade-going days is that I missed out on many great experiences because I was fairly unadventurous and had an aversion to certain genres. I never tried out many racing games, for instance, and particularly any of those that had specially designed cabinets you had to sit in or mount. I'd quickly abandon any fighting game that wasn't Saturday Night Slam Masters or a variation of Street Fighter II. Lightgun games were to be avoided at all costs. Most of all, I had a deeply ingrained disinterest in shooters, whether they were vertically scrolling or horizontal-based. Outside of Space Invaders, Galaga, and the 2600 version of Megamania--three titles that transcend their genre--I could never bring myself to play any shooter for more than a few minutes before boredom set in.

I wasn't sure what to think the first time I encountered Commando, whose arcade machine was loud and intimidating; I was hesitant to even approach it. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a military-based shooter--nothing more, I thought, than Xevious with an army guy in place of Solvalou and the Xevian ships swapped out for enemy soldiers. Nothing I saw compelled me to further examine the unit, and I never even fed the machine a single quarter. I rarely saw Commando in arcades during future visits, and it was just as well, since shooters just weren't for me.

Not too long after, I was on a continued sampling binge of games from my brother's inexplicably growing Commodore 64 collection when I noticed a familiar-looking title

I loaded up Commando and was surprised by what I saw and heard on the title screen: Its logo and environments were colorful, much more so than those in the drab, washed-out arcade version, and it had an immediately striking main theme. I didn't remember the arcade version having any music of note, mostly because arcades are usually so noisy that you can only hear a game's higher-volumed blasts and explosions, and thought that this amazing title-screen theme had to be a unique composition. Many of the C64 games I had played to this point were either light on tunes or had their gameplay supplemented by compositions that were recreations of either Classical music or works as borrowed from the public domain, so Commando's minutes-long, high-energy theme was quite a treat. 

If I hadn't yet recognized the Commodore 64 as a computer system whose sound capability was one of its greatest strengths, Commando's highly inspired introduction opened my eyes (and ears) to this reality. This one tune, alone, defined for me the C64's musical aesthetic and made me rethink my stance that its sound output was inferior to comparable 8-bit consoles'.

It was, in fact, the game's only stage theme, the exuberant, rockin' tune accompanying the hero's rush through all four of the game's areas. This wasn't a bad thing, mind you, since it allowed me to listen to more of the music without having to stay parked on the title screen. There was nothing like mowing down the enemy force's confused, incompetent gray-suited combatants while entranced by one of the best video-game tunes I'd ever heard. I still wasn't a big fan of the game, itself, but the music made it more tolerable; in fact, I'd sometimes boot up the C64 just for the sake of loading up Commando and letting its title theme play in the background while I stomped around my brother's room or generally rocked out.

Commando's penchant for surprising me would continue even still. One summer, two or three years later, I was visiting my cousins in New Jersey and playing some games on their NES when they broke out one of their newest purchases: Commando, which, it seemed, had a way of showing up everywhere. I was disappointed to find that it lacked the C64-version's powerful main theme and that its title screen instead greeted us with conventional-sounding military music. The gameplay that followed did feature the familiar score, but it was subdued and formulaic, its four-note baselines more appropriate for marching than rocking out; it was just "a theme," still catchy but lacking its computer sibling's determined spirit.

We didn't play too much of it, but it looked to be pretty solid. It was a little glitchy, with soldiers sometimes suddenly disappearing for a few moments, but it controlled better than the C64 version, featured better sound effects and more music tracks, and had a much-nicer color-scheme; I was fond of its interpretation of the Commando's setting, which resonated with me more than the C64 version's.

Now, don't you go thinkin' that my playing it elsewhere meant that I would be apt to buy it for myself when I got an NES not long after. Just because my cousins owned it didn't mean that I also had to. I mean, it would be stupid to repurchase a game I already owned in some other form, right?

So I made sure to pick up a copy during the mad-stockpiling phase that occurred during the middle months of 1989, though I don't remember the particulars of the transaction (I'd guess misused birthday money changed hands). I remember that it was a used copy and there was no manual, but Commando didn't really seem to require one. From what I remembered, there really wasn't much to it: You advance upward, avoiding projectiles and mowing down every enemy in your path; rescue hostages before they're led away; and plow through the final wave of soldiers that rush out from stage's ending base. Also, you can pick up what look like stacked cubes to acquire grenades, which have a large blast radius and are effective against gunners, shielded foes, and enemy clusters. Quite simply: You use whatever means you can to finish your mission via the completing of its four crowded stages.

I did feel kind of bad for buying a game to which I already had access, even if they had their differences. But I had a rationale: This one was my version of Commando! Who needed my brother's icky version when mine had more in the way of content? (Well, I did, since it still featured that great theme I loved listening to on occassion, but it was nice to pretend.)

Until my Commando-owning friends showed me as much, I didn't even know that the NES version had additional content that was missing from the other console and computer ports. Aside from the new assortment of power-ups, it had what became my favorite part of any version of the game: Those underground hideouts that you could uncover by merely walking into certain openings or by tossing grenades onto suspected entry points, many of which were obvious. Measuring only one or two rooms in length, these gray- and blue-toned bunkers could be home to anything from simple items to a collection of hostages to a small maze in which in you could face dangers including ambushes, gas traps, knife-tossing contraptions, and even snake attacks. We liked the way the hostages shuffled about as they stand tied to their posts, the action of which my friend Dominick termed as them "pissing on the floor." 

What was it with us?

I very much liked the short, mysterious ditty that accompanied your infiltration through the early bunkers; these slower-paced pieces added a more-cautious, investigative feel to a game that otherwise had a hurried pace and a more-urgent theme. The inclusion of these hidden rooms, I felt, complemented the main game without feeling tacked on. Like those green-toned sewers in Trojan, I always wanted to visit as many of them as I could find during any playthrough, since I loved the idea of their existence ("I'm sneaking around down here, untracked and largely unassailed, while there's a big war going on up there with everyone looking for me") and their every aesthetic; they gave the NES version a personality of its own and made it my favorite version to play.

Here's the silly part about all this: The memory I most associate with Commando is not anything derived from the game, itself, but otherwise my longstanding belief that it was a movie-licensed game--that is, a video-game adaptation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando. I mean, his main rival, Sylvester Stallone, had his own game on the C64--a similarly themed overhead shooter--so Commando had to be Arnold's response. I held on to this belief until even the mid-90s, whence I was shocked to learn that it was the predecessor to Bionic Commando and that its hero was instead the unimaginatively named Super Joe. My error might be understandable when you consider that I never saw the game's manual and that its modern-looking setting (which could even be mistaken for World War II-era) doesn't quite jive with Bionic Commando's technologically advanced world.

From that time forward, Commando has stood as an object of fascination, since it introduced me to the idea of games with disparate themes and play-styles being somehow related (like Bomberman's connection to Lode Runner, or the oft-played Nick Arcade favorite Parasol Stars being a sequel to Bubble Bobble). It's another one of those small things that fuels my passion for the medium.

Like a lot of other games that I've either covered or will be covering, Commando is one that I haven't played in a long, long time. Maybe it's because I'm still not a big fan of shooters or because it just happened that way, but I haven't given it the attention that a classic game deserves. I still load up the C64 version from time to time but only to hear that amazing main theme, which I now know as the work of Rob Hubbard, musical wiz and master of the C64's SID-based sound generator (among others, he also composed the incredibly catchy theme for Monte on the Run); before Youtube became a thing, I would sometimes stop by and listen to the MIDI interpretations for both its main theme and its superb name-entry score, which is very emotive and surprisingly long (I usually sped through this screen when I game-overed). Considering all the positive memories they've conjured, maybe this week is a good time to give all versions of Commando another look. I can't wait to see them again.

Though, even years later, I'm still disappointed that the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando--a cinematic masterpiece and one of the greatest comedies of all time--has never seen a video-game adaptation. Even though he's now in his sixties, I'm sure the brawny action-movie mainstay is just itching to put in the six months of gym time necessary to get his face back on the silver screen for the Commando sequel that will demand a video-game counterpart! How 'bout it--you ready for the next "your all mission," Arnold?

Arnold: "Negative." [looks at flabby arms and the $200-million-dollar production budget] "I'm done."

General Kirby: "Until the next time."

Arnold: "Noooo chance." [We Fight for Love plays]

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