Games time forgot: Commando

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No, not Bionic Commando, or Commandos, or Captain Commando or Ninja Commando — just plain old Commando for the arcade and NES, amongst other systems.

While easily classified as a “shooter,” a “top-down shooter,” or an “arcade top-down shooter,” Commando doesn’t really play like most of the games which make up those genres. There are no powerups, no bosses, and no real level variety — and yet despite all this, it’s still one of the more intense and enjoyable shooter/arcade/shmup/whatevers of its time.

What Sunset Riders was to Contra and Metal Slug, Commando is to, let’s say, 1941 and Robotron. Hit the jump to find out what the hell I’m talking about.

Story:

Er, almost. Basically, you’re a military commando who is sent behind enemy lines to kill bad guys and save prisoners of war.

Gameplay:

As the Commando, you’ve got a (potentially magical) semiautomatic gun which can spit bullets in any of eight different directions as fast as you can slam down on the B button. You can also throw grenades with the A button, which are always thrown ten feet directly in front of you. I’m tempted to be irritated that you can’t throw grenades in any of the seven other directions, but you never really need to; grenades are best for taking out machine gunners or mortar teams, and they usually don’t fire directly south of their positions too often.
That’s it, though — no powerups. Just you, a machine gun, and some grenades. This runs counter to most of our expectations regarding shmups and arcade shooters, but it’s a mechanic I really like: the player must focus on making the best of his abilities, rather than just fighting his way to the next godlike powerup.
At the beginning of each four-part level, the Commando is helicoptered behind enemy lines and sent forth to destroy an enemy base. Working your way through the level, the Commando will have to deal with a literal onslaught of soldiers from every direction: at no point does the flood of enemy marines ever stop, and, until the end of the stage, the player is never given even a moment’s pause. Since the Commando can die in one hit and enemies will often have the intelligence to charge you or lead their shots, you’ve always gotta be on your toes, ready to duck back or strafe to avoid enemy fire and progress through the landscape.
Each stage ends with a final confrontation. Not a boss fight, mind you — every enemy takes one hit to die, and one hit only — but a massive confrontation in front of an enemy gateway. A single, unarmed, cowardly general (who, if shot in the back, will net you 2000 bonus points) sends a flurry of roughly two dozen soldiers at you within the span of about thirty seconds. If you survive and kill them all, you get to proceed; if not, you lose a life and have to replay the battle with significantly lowered difficulty. Again, the lack of any true boss fights also flies in the face of what we’d consider genre convention, but, for a game like Commando, the decision totally works.
After four levels, you get to destroy a big-ass enemy base and you move onto the next area, which, save for enemy placement, number, and aggressiveness, is exactly like the first level you played. In fact, the entirety of Commando is really only made up of four separate areas, repeated about four times each: everytime you beat a four-level set, you get to replay the set again but with significantly increased difficulty. There’ll be more enemies, they’ll fire much more frequently, and they’ll behave much more intelligently. I’ll be the first to admit that Commando can be pretty easy initially, but, after you’ve beaten those four shorts levels a couple of times, the game gets downright hairy. The amount of bullets being flung at you becomes reminiscent of something like Ikaruga, and, given the Commando’s slow running speed and kinda-sluggish aiming controls, you’ll feel really outmatched.
But in a good way.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

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As I’ve said a few times already, much about Commando seems to defy the conventions of whatever genre we’d like to shoehorn the game into. For a shmup, it’s got no powerups; for an arcade shooter, it’s got no boss fights; for an enjoyable game, it’s got no level variety.

Still, that doesn’t mean Commando is one hell of a tense, exciting experience. Since you’re literally forced to play through the game with nothing but your original weapons and the knowledge that a single stray bullet will kill you, the entire thing is much more nerve-wracking than it really has any right to be.

So, should you try it out? Undoubtedly. Will you necessarily enjoy it? Maybe, maybe not — depends on how much unconventioniality* you’re willing to accept from an older shooter. Like all NES games, it’s insanely easy to NOT emulate, and it’s on Gametap as well. Give it a shot.

*A real word

Anthony Burch