Sunday 24 October 2010

Commando (C64)

This game's theme song has been stuck in my head for the best part of a week. An impressive feat for a twenty five year old Commodore 64 title I hadn't played until now.

Commando is regarded as some sort of C64 classic these days. I know very little about the C64 scene so I guess I better find out why.

Commando's theme was something I had on the table for my now poorly-named scrapped project, "Tube Squirrel". I had aimed to start uploading more videos to YouTube like in the days of old, but my patience with Windows Movie Maker and my sound card's insistence that everything should be recorded at half its normal volume meant this never happened. It's got a fairly classy theme tune when an orchestra is brought in, and I felt this might be ideal for it to go along with such a classy blog as this.

But I admit I find it odd that Commando has touched the Commodore 64 fanbase to the point where it's considered a popular mainstream classic. It was clearly an accident that it made waves in the sea of C64, as the original Commando (or Wolf on the Battlefield in Japan) was an arcade game made by Capcom. It's purpose was to fill a genre of non-space wartime shoot-'em-ups which the public apparently wanted thanks to movies such as Rambo (or even the flim, Commando).

And so the hero of this game, "Super Joe" was placed in a jungle and forced to fight an entire army. Unsurprisingly, this is a stupidly difficult task, possibly alluding to similar real-life experiences for Americans in Vietnam. Every enemy on screen makes it their mission in life to make you lose credits, but lest we forget Capcom have always been a big fan of difficult games - look at Ghosts 'n Goblins.

The original arcade game was fairly successful for Capcom, and it was promptly brought to most home platforms of the day. And I do mean promptly - many of the ports were completed in a matter of months. British-based computer fans Elite were tasked with bringing the game to home computers, and because the UK had so many of these systems on the market, Commando turned up on everything from the Acorn Electron to the ZX Spectrum.

The Commodore 64 version was not a huge priority for the team. It was engineered in two months and had vastly inferior graphics to its arcade counterpart. Four minutes of tape loading time and several cut features meant that from a distance, this looked like a pretty poor purchase in comparison to its bretherin, specifically the Amiga or Atari ST copies which are almost arcade perfect.

Somewhere during the Commodore 64 version's development the team must have came to a shocking decision. Due to a lack of processing power, they had to make a very important audio choice - music or sound effects. The logical step would be to go towards music, because Commando's sound effects equate to the same gun and explosion sounds repeated over and over for hours.

But the arcade games's theme was fairly simplistic in design. I think the arguement was that in a busy arcade room filled with kids, the chances of actually being able to hear the game were minimal, so it wasn't high on the agenda. C64 musical legend Ron Hubbard was brought in to spice the tune up a bit, the end result being such an improvement that the Commodore 64 version soon became a highly rated classic.

It's a big score for fans of the "arcade perfect =/= great game" arguement. All the other versions of the game attempted to be as accurate as possible and were therefore mostly forgettable as time moved on. After all, everyone knows the BBC Micro version of the game would be terrible in comparison to the original, so future compilations would merely emulate the arcade version and forget the inferior home ports existed.

Commando's gameplay is extremely simple. Your job is to get to the top of the screen without being killed. You're armed with a weapon and eight directions of movement, and essentially it's a game where you're always avoiding bullets or grenades while killing people.

But I'm sure you're dying to know whether Commando on the Commodore 64 is any good. Well it's a bit hit-and-miss to be honest. As said, several features were cut, and although it's able to render more enemies on screen than some versions, it's held back by your standard C64 traits such as blocky graphics and low colour palettes. It also often likes to spawn more enemies than it can handle, resulting in sprite flickering and other glitches.

However, some ports of Commando are simply dreadful. Though the Commodore 64 version is put up against arguably superior ports to the Amiga and Atari ST, it runs rings around the rest of the competition, whether that be the Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari 8-bit family, Atari 2600, BBC Micro, DOS, Intellivision, MSX or ZX Spectrum. It's up to you wheher you class the NES or Atari 7800 ports superior - I think they struggle, but even so, it's a great result for any Commodore 64 game.

Commando was followed by several "sequels". The true sequel was the 1990 game "Mercs", but initially Capcom tried to link their Bionic Commando series to this game, claiming the protagonist was Super Joe. The fairly recent remake of the NES entry to that series, Bionic Commando re-armed actually contains a remix of the theme from Commando, and guess what? It's inspired by the Commodore 64 version of the tune. You don't often get the Japanese acknowledging British copies of games.

But in my mind, the game hasn't aged all that well. It's reasonably entertaining but aside from the music there's not much reason to purchase the Commodore 64 version. Smash T.V.'s sequel, Total Carnage, tends to play better due to the dual joystick control mechanism (allowing you to shoot in all directions regardless of which way you're facing), and with fairly bland landscapes there's no denying that even the arcade version isn't looking as fresh as it was twenty five years ago. But there's no denying its a nostalgic game for some, so give it a go if this stuff floats your boat.


  1. "You don't often get the Japanese acknowledging British copies of games."

    Bionic Commando Rearmed was developed by a Swedish team, not Japanese.

  2. I have a floppy disk version of Commando for the C64. It was awesome! It may have been extremely hard, but me and my dad had hours of fun playing it. We managed to get to the final level, but the final base proved to be impossible to beat ;-;