American NES Cover
Rareware made a name for themselves as one of the most prominent European developers signed up to Nintendo's development contract, becoming a second-party Nintendo company by the SNES era and producing some of the best games for then and the N64 ages. However, everyone has to start somewhere, and they released a lot of crap under different publishers back in the NES era; paradoxically, they would actually release some good games here and there during this time. Amidst the dreck like WWF Wrestlemania, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and a rather ugly port of Midway's NARC, you have classics like Wizards and Warriors, R.C. Pro-Am, and Solar Jetman. The most (in)famous of their NES contributions is Battletoad, an action game straddling several genres (platformer, beat-em-up, racing) whose main protagonists were blatantly inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Despite its transparent influences, the game proved to offer fast and varied gameplay alongside technical aspects that made good use of the NES' power in its later years. However, there are two prevailing reason for which Battletoads is best known: Challenge and pain. It is still considered one of the most ruthless games of all time and rightfully so, offering limited lives and continues while making it incredibly easy to die in an eye's blink.
That being said, the author of this article begs to differ as to whether Battletoads is Rare's toughest game ever. That honor goes to a lesser-known and earlier game of theirs which is absolute brutality on boats. Hell on the high seas. Obliteration on the ocean. It is Cobra Triangle, a racer/shooter hybrid that takes place on motorboats, a rather unique design choice considering that most other shooting games were on cars or spaceships. This game doesn't really seem to have any semblance of plot and its setting is relatively minimalist. You get no explanation as to why you're shooting stuff on boats, not even in the manual. No one even really knows why it's called Cobra Triangle, except that it's a cool title that sounds like some sort of military operation of black ops strikeforce. All that can be said about CT is that it is what it is... and what it is, is one of the NES games with the highest probability of making you smash your game screen with your controller in unbridled fury.
The game's perspective is isometric, where you control a sleek red-and-white boat with a quick engine and a lot of munitions. The view and control scheme are akin to Rare's earlier racing title, R.C. Pro-Am, where you turn your machine by holding left and right as opposed to having it follow the exact direction where you hold the control pad. Holding down B moves your boat forward, and the A button fires out your boat's gun. Indeed, there are enemies ranging from other boats to turrets and airborne craft, and you get a basic gun to ward them off. It's fairly powerful for a peashooter, but you can do better. To improve both your boat and its armaments, Cobra Triangle features an enhancement system very much inspired by the likes of Gradius with five power-up options listed at the bottom of the screen: Turbo (improves acceleration), Fire (powers up your main gun), Speed (self-explanatory), Missile (shoot out powerful missiles alongside your bullets), and Force (temporary invincibility and maximum power on weapons). There are pods littered throughout several levels that put you either one or two spots ahead on the power-up bar, and pressing Select activates the currently flashing enhancement. You can even boost Fire, Speed, and Missile multiple times before they max out... if you survive long enough for the power-ups to linger.
Not all stages require you to blow things up; some are merely about not dying within a time limit, and invincible obstacles impede your progress to the goal line. There are eight distinctive mission types spread out over more than twenty levels, and each mission is generally more vicious than the last. Some particular varieties are worse than others, but all you need to know is that it already gets nigh-impossible about a third of the way in. That being said, here's what Cobra Triangle has to offer in terms of gameplay:
Race to the Finish: The simplest sort of missions, all you have to do is ride down a river and reach the goal in a set amount of time. You do have to contend with rival boats which will bump you around and random enemy turrets and planes trying to retire you early. Later races get considerably more hazardous when you're forced to hit ramps to pass over land strips with fatal results if you don't meet water after a jump.
Collect the Pods: More of a bonus mission than anything, all you have to do is to collect as many power-up pods as you possibly can before time runs out. It's hard to actually die at these, but the occasional bomb and sea wave can harm you.
Dispose of Mines: One of the more common missions, you must play bomb disposal by driving over mines and dragging them to the designated area where they can safely explode. Enemy boats attempt to steal the mine back from you and turrets attempt to impede your mission. It gets nigh-impossible to shake off the bandit boats in later levels, and the turrets are just gravy.
Guard the People: Yep, it's a "protect the idiot" sort of mission which invariably turns out to be among the most aggravating stages. Eight people are swimming around in the water and you must try to vaporize enemy boats which attempt to abduct them. You lose if all eight get stolen but can win with only one left; however, UFOs often fly in and hit you with homing missiles which completely paralyze you, allowing your human cargo to be ganked.
Reach the Finish: Somewhat akin to "Race to the Finish," but instead of taking place on a twisting course against other boats, you instead drive up a straight river laden with dangerous obstacles such as logs and whirlpools while the current pushes you back. If these hazards don't kill you, the strict time limit more than likely will.Jump the Waterfall: Perhaps the most frustrating missions of Cobra Triangle (if not Guard the People), these missions are a bit like Reach the Finish with very large gaps that instantly cause death if you fall in. The only way to pass these holes is to hit ramps with enough speed, but most of these ramps are either blocked by obstacles, moving from side-to-side, or a combo of the two, making actually hitting the ramp a matter of luck for all but the most patient.
Fry the Monster: The requisite boss levels where you must toast a giant sea monster (like the dragon on the game's title screen) before it wrecks your insignificant little craft. It helps if you're powered up, but these beasts can absolutely crush you in a matter of seconds, partly due to how relatively little room you have to avoid their attacks. And yes, one of them is a giant enemy crab, way before the meme came to prominence.
Shoot the Targets: A more definitive bonus level than Collect the Pods as there is absolutely no way to be harmed here. Furthermore, your boat just floats down the canal automatically without any motor input. All you have to do is shoot various targets by the landside and get bonus points by the end of it. If you hit every target, you get a very precious bonus life!
Now when it comes to playing Cobra Triangle, there's not really much to it. Just accomplish the set goal of the current stage and you're through. But theory has nothing on practice... and all the infinite practice in the world will not be helpful in having you actually beat this damn game. Your boat can take a bit of punishment, but the harder you get hit, the more life points you lose (and for some reason, it takes about a second to register any actual health loss). The control can be a bit tough to get fully used to, particularly as there's no actual way to brake or reverse your boat. This feature could have come in handy to avoid bumping into narrow straightways and errant glaciers. There are just way too many ways to lose, whether it be simply bumping into land too much, being gunned down by flying planes, being sucked up by whirlpools, losing all of the people you're supposed to guard, or simply running out of time. While some games encourage you to learn from your mistakes, Cobra Triangle is just punishment without any iota of redemption.
It just gets harder and harder the farther in you go, with the first Jump the Waterfall level marking a squalid descent into absolute brutality. You have to hit the jumps JUST right at a high enough speed, or you'll instantly lose a life in the abyss below. After that, everything you try to do is nearly met in vain with difficulty curves that warp the space-time continuum. The thief boats in Dispose of Mines become nearly impossible to evade, races force you to jump long ramps or else die on crash-landing, and each boss is much more vicious than the last. You only start out with three lives, but you can get more on levels (represented by a minimalist "1UP" text byte) or acquire them with more points. However, losing them all starts you back at the beginning of a stage, and on top of that... you only get three continues all in all. This is the type of game that really needs more chances for there to be any chance of beating it, but no such luck. At least Battletoads had the courtesy to provide level warps, but no such quarter is offered in Cobra Triangle. It just may be the hardest game of all time, and not in a good way either.
Then again, perhaps Cobra Triangle's difficulty is borne from an old-school mindset that emphasizes high scores over reaching the game's definitive end. In that case, the emphasis of getting points is probably what this game is tailored for, but some gamers care more about reaching the end than being the number one point scorer. Cobra Triangle does have a definitive end to it, though it's not really much of an ending. Still, the conclusion is real, but the only ones who have reached it likely cheated to reach it. Not to belittle anyone's skills, but Cobra Triangle's challenge level is so high that it transcends challenge and becomes something much more grossly evil. It is not a game that can be recommended to everybody but the absolute utmost of die-hards, and even then, they'd likely give up in fury at the two-thirds progress mark. Cobra Triangle is Hell on an 8-bit cartridge.
That being said, is it a bad game? Well, its graphics are okay. Nothing too fancy (and the little humans in Guard the People look pretty amateurish), but what's there gets the job done. Your boat is nicely animated, and the boss sprites are large and impressive. There's also a neat touch where the surrounding land transforms in later levels, starting out as a luscious green before moving into autumn yellow, heading into arctic blue and becoming dead gray for the last levels. It almost seems to be a symbolic representation of how cold and bleak your chances become the further in you go. The musical accompaniment, provided by go-to Rare music man David Wise, is also quite good albeit absent for the Race to the Finish missions. All other missions have their own theme, most of which bring a good sense of urgency to your challenge (and the Dispose of Mines music is catchy too). Thus, it's fine aesthetics and technically competent gameplay matched up with some of the absolute least forgiving level design in the annals of forever. It is not an irredeemably bad game, but its frustration factor really bites down on its ability to be enjoyed by all but the most masochistic of gamers. Cobra Triangle should not be played seriously lest you be driven into madnesses far deeper than anything for which the Old Ones could ever be responsible. There may be other "hardest games ever" that justify their title (C64 platformer Jet Set Willy or the more recent fangame I Wanna Be The Guy), but Cobra Triangl earns its keep in the pantheon of "Most Diabolical Games of Forever."