Late Atari Activision was one of the most ambitious yet misguided… things that ever happened for the system. After petering out in 1984 Activision decided to release a string of games for the system, and don’t forget, the NES had been out for three years at this point and the Genesis was right around the corner, as was the Game Boy. Games Activision released were ports of popular arcade games that had popular NES ports, games like Rampage, Kung Fu Master, and Double Dragon. There was even a sequel to River Raid thrown in about four years too late. I suppose these releases were meant to coincide with the release of the 7800, as well as their re-releases of classics under the Blue Label series, just to give adopters of the 7800, and folks who stuck with the 2600, something to play. All of these late releases are worthy of their own review but I don’t have any of them, well apart from one that is. You may recall a long, long, time ago I reviewed Ikari Warriors and Front Line and I’m pretty sure I blew off Commando as just another mediocre top-down shooter. But is it? I don’t think I actually played it enough to know for sure so let’s remedy that oversight today.
Well, one thing’s for certain, this is the best looking top-down shooter on the 2600. Everything is large, everything is colorful, and most importantly everything is well defined. I know what I’m shooting at, I know what I’m running through and I know what I’m dodging, which is more than can be said for most 2600 games. The enemy soldiers, despite being almost completely blue, cast shadows on the ground, and there is even a shine on the tops of their helmets, and even thought the player is just a pallet swap he’s different enough to not get confused. While the environment lacks the simple texturing of Ikari Warriors it takes the Front Line approach of having many obstacles that are full of color and gradients which is really a treat for the eyes. Another thing that Commando has over both Front Line and Ikari Warriors is that the game is in Hi-Res mode, which keeps the game from feeling cramped. So the graphics are stellar all around, how do the sounds fare though? Usually with games that focus more on one of the three categories of Graphics, Sounds, and Gameplay, Graphics in this case, the other two tend to suffer.
Sounds aren’t all that bad to be honest. This game is one of the few to actually have background music alongside the other sound effects, and unlike the one in Ikari Warriors it isn’t trash. It’s played using softer instrumentation and intersperses the melody with percussion to keep things from getting repetitive. The rest of the sound effects are also fairly easy on the ears, the shooting noise is one of the most realistic I’ve heard for the system and the explosions are fantastic, though the sound for picking up grenades is a bit awful but its infrequent so I can’t really complain. The only sound I don’t particularly care for that I can talk about is the engine noise for the trucks that appear in later levels, it’s low pitched and gravely and really interrupts the whole feel of the game. Okay so this is getting a bit weird, the graphics are excellent and the sounds are good, naturally this means that the gameplay will be god awful.
Ehh, it’s decent at best and tolerable at worst. Overall the controls aren’t too bad, you move fairly slowly but this doesn’t impact the difficulty all too much since everything moves as slowly as you, bullets and enemies alike, but don’t think this makes the game easy or boring. This is probably the closest the 2600 is going to get to a bullet hell shooter, when you have 3 enemies on screen each shooting two bullets at you each things can get incredibly hectic. This are made even crazier with the fact that enemies have 16 directional shooting while you’re stuck only shooting up, down, left, and right, which leads to games of bullet chicken. Bullet chicken has you try to get as close to the enemies as possible to shoot them before they shoot you, sometimes you will even have to run towards enemy bullets just to get a lucky shot. You have two weapons, a machine gun with unlimited ammo and grenades which are fairly useless. To throw grenades you have to hold down the fire button which means you have to stand still to keep your aim, and as you know standing still is suicide in these types of games, so they’re fairly useless. The overall objective to the game is to get to the end of the stage, shoot a bunch of guys, and destroy the Mega Fortress while trying not to get shot. Along the way you’ll be dodging foot soldiers, machine gun nests, and runaway cargo vehicles, you also have to deal with environmental hazards, mainly obstructive barricades and palm trees, the latter of which can be used as cover, and fox holes which will kill you if you touch them. Once you destroy eight Mega Fortresses you’re taken back to the beginning of the game to go through all over again but with the difficulty ramped up.
Well this is surprising, a good-looking game with a decent sound track that is actually playable and even enjoyable? I never would have thought it possible, but Activision delivered… 5 years too late, yeah when reviewed on it’s own merits it’s quite good, maybe even a gem for the system, but when compared to the standards of the time and given the fact that there was a version released on NES it’s completely obsolete. So for people who find Front Line to be too basic and blocky, and Ikari Warriors to be just about the same, then Commando just might be the right fit for you. Unfortunately since this is a late release Atari game it is a bit difficult to find. The cheapest you’re going to get it loose on Ebay is around 11 dollars and the cheapest boxed copies are hovering around 30. If you really want this game then I’d advise for you to get it loose, and if you can find a copy in the wild then you can probably get an even better deal there.