Commando is the original run and gun shooter. It took traditional vertical scrolling shooters and took you out of a vehicle to put you on the ground with a guns and grenades. You play as Super Joe, one man against an army in four challenging levels. I say challenging, because you can beat them before you get bored, unlike Ikari Warriors that just goes on forever.
Like most games of the era, its one shot and your dead, just like in real life. When you die, you’re taken back to the last checkpoint and Commando has generous hit detection when it comes to bullets. A few times projectiles fly through you, but other times, you’ll get stuck in a palm tree. You have plenty of lives and if you can make it through the second level, you’ve got what it takes to make it through to the end. There are free lives to find and earn through points.
Each level is punctuated by a giant wall that feeds troops into the screen. You’ll need to keep fighting until someone waves the white flag and then the troops stop and once you kill them you can pass on through. I was under the impression that a white flag meant surrender rather than keep fighting.
Since you play as a soldier on the ground, it gives you more control over the way you shoot instead of only firing in one direction to the north. Instead your machine gun will fire in whichever way you’re pointing and its your grenades that you throw north to the top of the screen. This is a nice balance, because as you run by soldiers in foxholes or protected by sandbags, you can grenade them as you run by. The foes under cover are more dangerous, because they fire a lot more, so running and throwing is your best bet rather than approaching them. If you get too close, they just run away.
Your grenades are limited and that’s because you can use them to expose bunkers where you can usually find prisoners or war to rescue for points. Of course some bunkers are full of poison gas that kills you and other hazards or enemies. Its a real toss up. You can replenish your grenades with grenade boxes that are lying around in white sugar cube form.
The controls feel a little stiff and there’s a lot of sprite flickering, but nothing that hinders my enjoyment when playing. You need to keep tapping your gun button in order to shoot. It can turn into a workout, but things like this are meant to wear you out by the end where only the strong survive.
You’ll come across a few different enemies. Typical soldiers will run around shooting at you. Knife wielders will dash east and west hoping you’ll be dumb enough to fall into their trap. Bazooka soldiers will rapid fire south, but you should be able to dodge their rockets. Other than that there are commanders with shields that require grenades to take out. Soldiers behind rocks will rapid fire at you and others will launch several grenades from mortars. It ends up feeling like a battle zone out there.
Soldiers spawn from edges of the screen, but the further you get, they’ll start coming out of buildings at the sides or center. It makes things more interesting to avoid when they come out at random. Some often come out three at a time, so consider it a quick way to score points. Other troops will dive off cliffs into the action.
Commando makes good use of overlays, you can walk under a bridge, beneath a motorcyclist throwing grenades. The second level takes the vehicles to a whole new level. There are personnel carriers, jeeps and motorcycles driving by. The jeeps will try to run you over. It adds to the cool factor of the game. As you continue on there are pillboxes that you can destroy with grenades. The final level has guard towers that will sound alarms if you get too close without destroying them.
Between levels, you’re rewarded with an image of Joe’s night and your next mission plan. Its all just a brief cut scene that is gone before you know it. Its a nice breather, but never breaks the flow of a quick game.
Another thing that is understated in Commando is its use of color. The ground is brown, the enemies are gray to make them stand out from the green plants in the early level. Your commando is blue, the commanders are green and bullets are always white to ensure that you can see them. White is a very eye catching. Even if bullets flicker, you can still find them when they pop out of thin air. Its never a problem though, you see them coming.
Because this is an arcade game, once you complete it in ten minutes or so, you just start all over again from a higher difficulty. A helicopter comes at the end of the final mission, swoops you up and then drops you off at the beginning. Super Joe can go and go. Well that is until he gets captured and needs to be rescued in Bionic Commando. Even for the era, ten minutes is a short game.
As for the music, it has its own style and sounds very militaristic. Quick chip tune drum beats, glorious, sublime war music. The level music is one loop and the end of the level has some frantic music. At least the final level changes the tone a little with a pallet swap and different song.
As a child I grew up with the game and back then it felt a lot longer than it does now. Commando is a quick game to get a fill of challenging entertainment. The only real staying power that it has is that challenge. If the game were simpler, there would be too shallow to be enjoyable for ten mere minutes.