In 1985, Capcom released the seminal arcade run-'n'-gun game Commando, known in Japan as Senjou no Ookami or Wolf of the Battlefield. Its American re-titling was probably an attempt to cash in on that year's Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Commando, which has a similar "one man against a whole army" theme. Commando has had a defining influence on overhead run-'n'-guns, and most games made since have had similar gameplay, controls, mechanics, themes, and level designs. Although vaguely inspired by the old Taito arcade game Front Line, Commando set the stage for several other popular shooters, including SNK's Ikari Warriors, Data East's Heavy Barrel, Saurus' Shock Troopers, and many, many others.
As a series, Senjou no Ookami consists of two games that each originated in the arcades. The first is Commando, and it would receive a sequel five years later in 1990 called Mercs (Senjou no Ookami II in Japan.) Nearly twenty years later, a third installment was released for HD consoles. Besides being extremely influential to overhead run-'n'-guns, Commando and Mercs are both also really fantastic games that still stand out in the genre to this day, while Commando 3 is just merely okay. Commando's high level of quality comes from one of the greatest video game designers ever, Tokuro Fujiwara, who also designed Pirate Ship Higemaru, the Ghosts 'n Goblins series, and the NES and SNES Mega Man games.
Run-'n'-guns have come a long way since Commando, and even though other overhead variants like Pocky & Rocky and Shock Troopers, or horizontal variants like Contra and Metal Slug have arguably exceeded both it and Mercs, the series is still among the best the genre has to offer. Even if you have played the crap out of the original versions, their ports to NES and Genesis, respectively, both have enough original content to merit going back and playing those versions again.
Commando / Senjou no Ookami (戦場の狼) / Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando - Arcade, NES, PC-88, X1, FM-7, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Intellivision, MSX, Apple II, IBM PC, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, PlayStation, Saturn, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PlayStation Portable, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS (1985)
Commando is to overhead run-'n-guns what Contra is to sidescrolling ones. It not only vastly exceeded what came before it, but it also standardized everything that would come to be cliqued in the genre in the years that followed. The controls are also far better than any previous effort entry - in the progenitor Front Line, it was kind of difficult to aim properly due to the fact that enemies couldn't be hit off-center. In Commando, maneuvers such as aiming, moving, and dodging enemy fire are cake to pull off.
In fact, you could look at Front Line as being kind of like the beta version of Commando, as the latter plays very much like an evolved version of the former. Both games exclusively move vertically, both have bullet proof terrain to use as cover, both have one-hit kills, and both have grenades that move in an arc and only destroy things within the radius of their explosion. However, Front Line moves along at a sluggish pace and only has about two or three enemies on screen at once, as any more would be too much to deal with given its pacing, speed, and controls. Commando pretty much just takes that, removes the tanks, fixes the controls, speeds everything way up, and makes the game way busier and much better paced by putting significantly more foes on screen.
Commando's bare-bones plot involves a lone commando named Super Joe being sent in to rescue a few really, really well guarded hostages from an entire army. (You might recognize the name Super Joe as the guy who has to be saved in Bionic Commando - the overhead bonus segments in the NES game are definitely a homage of the original Commando game.) Like most other arcade games of its time, Commando's controls and mechanics are very simple. Your character is moved with the joystick and there are two buttons for your attacks. The first button fires a semi automatic weapon with infinite ammo and the second button throws a grenade from a limited stock. Luckily, you can replenish your grenades along the way by collecting these things that look like building blocks.
What really makes Commando so much better than its predecessors, and what makes it so great today, is its fantastic pacing. The small groups of enemies and horribly slow speed that kept Front Line from greatness are never a problem in Commando. Your character moves along at a perfectly intuitive pace - it's never slow enough to notice even slight speed problems and never too fast to deal with. Enemies steadily pour onto the screen throughout the game, only to be immediately replaced after they are shot. The screen is extremely busy at all times and the action is very chaotic and totally relentless.
In lieu of boss fights, each level ends with a section where a large crowd of enemies is fought in an area without any protective terrain. These sections will invariably have a crapload of bullets and grenades on screen and will put your dodging skills to test. It's best to save as many of your grenades as possible for these sections, because grenades are automatically thrown upward, so you will still be able to fire into the horde without having to pause from shot dodging long enough to aim.
Throughout each level are various obstacles that you can hide behind to avoid enemy fire. These can take the forms of trees, small brick structures, or bunkers, among other things. Nothing will protect you from grenades, but these obstacles are all bullet proof. Making any progress is less of a hassle if you learn to instinctively exploit these objects for protection at appropriate moments. It's also much easier to get through levels if you learn to properly judge enemy positioning and weave through terrain as needed so as to keep obstacles between yourself and enemy bullets as often as possible.
Where Commando might not be for everybody is its difficulty. Getting past the first level is a legitimate challenge and getting any farther than that will take major league twitch gaming skills on a Robotron level. You are going to have to pay absolute attention to where every enemy, bullet and grenade on-screen is at all times and learn to weave between bullets flawlessly. Otherwise, you will be completely obliterated. Making matters even more obscenely difficult is the tendency of even the basic enemies to move in very erratic patterns, so there is never an easy way to predict bullet patterns and never any easy path through this chaos. Enemies often follow a pattern of high-tailing it away from you and briefly pausing to fire bullets and throw grenades at your direction.
Commando is quite minimalistic from a visual standpoint, but its graphics and music actually work quite well, given the theme. Most importantly, every bit of sprite art is easily distinguishable and immediately identifiable as whatever it's supposed to be, and that's really all that matters anyway.
Like virtually any popular Capcom arcade game, Commando has its fair share of ports. The Atari 2600 port is crap in every respect, and the Atari 7800 port is not particularly great, but at least it looks better than you would expect given the hardware. The Amiga port looks almost as good as the original, but it plays horribly. The Commodore 64 saw a port that looks like crap, has tons of bugs, and only has three levels. The music for the C64 port is a "remix" of sorts of the arcade game's theme. It was composed by Rob Hubbard and is among the more popular pieces of music for the platform. The European publisher Elite even produced a version for the low-end computer C16 (Plus/4 in Europe), but this is a rather different game: You only fight a set amount of enemies (which all respawn when you get hit) on each screen, and move on to the next as soon as they are all taken out. There is also a "proper" port for the machine modeled after the C64 version, but it seems to be an unofficial conversion.
The MSX version is also rather disappointing, because it both looks and plays poorly. The Intellivision port might be the worst of them all - its graphics are an absolutely indecipherable mess and it plays disastrously. There are also versions for other 8-bit computers, but they all just straight up suck. Years later, Commando saw an accurate port to the PlayStation and Saturn on the Capcom Generation Volume 4, a disc released only in Japan, which collects Commando along with its sequel Mercs, as well as Gun.Smoke, another Capcom overhead shooter. It features some useless artwork, a small enemy gallery, and two arranged music tracks. This was also released in Europe along with the rest of the Capcom Generation discs in one package. This version was then later ported to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox as part of the compilation Capcom Classics Collection and PlayStation Portable as part of the Capcom Classics Reloaded package. The Capcom Arcade for iPhones and iPad and Capcom Arcade Cabinet for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 contain an emulated version of the arcade game. The Wii Virtual Console contains the original arcade game as well, relabeled Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando, presumably to tie the whole series closer together.
There is also a NES port that has extra hidden areas not found in the original arcade release, which are revealed by bombing certain areas. These might contain hostages, enemies or items, but they can be avoided entirely if you prefer to stick to the carnage. Also not in the arcade version are several hidden items scattered throughout the game that are found by bombing certain areas. These items range from a flashlight that grants your character stealth capabilities, to a bullet-proof vest, to extra lives, and several other items. There are mild graphical and musical modifications made for the console as well, but the gameplay is accurate enough that it is easily among the best run-'n'-guns for the console. Lastly, you are also given the option of continuing from the beginning of the stage after each Game Over, making it easier, but not changing the fact that the game is virtually impossible. Also, the game has sixteen levels instead of the original eight, but the second half is pretty much just an even more difficult version of the first.
Mercs / Senjou no Ookami II (戦場の狼II) / Wolf of the Battlefield: Mercs - Arcade, Genesis, Master System, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, PlayStation, Saturn, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PlayStation Portable, Wii Virtual Console (1990)
Commando's basic concept has been left intact in the sequel, but several changes have been made beyond that. Rather than having multiple lives and getting killed after a lone hit, you have a health bar and it's "Game Over" after it's depleted. You also get vehicles to ride in on occasion, like in Front Line before it and Metal Slug years later. There is a jeep with which you can mow down enemies, a pivoting gun turret, a boat, and a tank. You're invulnerable while riding a vehicle, but the vehicle itself can only take so many hits before it's destroyed. Best of all, this time you can play the game with up to three people at the same time. Pretty much every game is better with multiple players, and Mercs is no different - it's great when played by yourself, and even better with two players, but the game gets really chaotic with three players, and the fun factor improves greatly. Run-'n'-guns are a genre that is often identified with two player co-operative play, but three player co-operative play is virtually nonexistent in the genre. So the sheer novelty of this alone should be reason enough to play it.
You can still move and fire in eight directions, but your weapon fires a wider stream than in Commando, so mowing down groups of enemies is easier, as it doesn't require you to be as precise in your aim. You can also power up your default weapon by finding power up items that make its shot even wider. Besides your default weapon, there is a flamethrower, a spread shot, and a rocket launcher that each are found along the way - each of which has infinite ammo. You still have a limited amount of explosives as a secondary weapon, but Commando's grenades have been replaced with nukes that do almost full screen damage. So hitting your target is cake, and you do not really even have to aim. Perhaps as a result, you get less of these than you had grenades in Commando, and extra bombs are not as easy to come by. It looks awesome though - whenever you hit the "bomb" button, it looks like your soldier is rocking out on an air guitar while causing a huge explosion, decimating all around it.
Mercs offers significantly less terrain to hide behind than Commando, but luckily it's still easy to avoid shots by just walking out of their way. Despite the fact that protecting yourself with the game's terrain is now less important than it used to be, it can become extremely beneficial in certain sections, and the second level has a section where this is absolutely essential. Different terrain might have different properties as well, such as the bullet-proof bunkers that lack any protection from grenades, or the indestructible segments of walls that block rockets but will still let bullets through.
Despite its Japanese title showing it to be a direct sequel to Commando, Mercs was marketed in America as if it were a completely separate game. But like in most video games, Commando's plot is obviously just an excuse to explain why your character needs to blast their way through all that chaos, and Capcom did not deviate from this time-tested simplicity for its sequel. Mercs is about an elite group of mercenaries who are called in to rescue the president after he is kidnapped by revolutionaries while on a tour of Africa. It's explained that the military can't do anything about it because of peace treaties. It's simply amazing that they even felt they needed to explain that logic, given the absurdity of the rest of the plot. Needless to say, this is a plot of astronomically awesome proportions. What it boils down to is this: the president has been kidnapped by revolutionaries! Are you bad enough a dude to rescue the president?
Mercs was made for Capcom's CPS-1 arcade hardware and, as would be expected, its presentation has been given an overhaul from Commando. The graphics run at a much higher resolution, and are easily among the best designed for the hardware - bosses and other larger sprites especially. The animations are sparse, but things like the cliff collapsing at the beginning of the first level and the explosion animations look fantastic. Mercs' music is pretty good for what it is and perfect for the theme of the game.
The only major irritation in Mercs has to do with the utter frustration of the final boss - a giant plane that shoots huge missiles, which are usually fatal with just a single hit. What really makes this fight a pain is that it is timed, and if you do not destroy the plane quickly enough, you have to start the fight all over again. This really wouldn't be a problem, except that you probably aren't going to beat this boss within your first few tries and it really does get more repetitive than is ideal in a game like this. Capcom probably believed this was a novel idea at the time, but it just doesn't work in practice.
Mercs was moderately popular in the arcades and was once again ported to a number of platforms. The Sega Master System version isn't bad, but it's most certainly inferior to the arcade game. The gameplay is reasonably close to accurate, but it looks pretty poor and has no multiplayer. Of the various home computer ports, Amiga and Atari ST prots are the closest to the arcade version, and even support 2-button joypads, but can only be played with up to two players. The Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum ports are each horrible and best avoided. They look like crap and play even worse. Near arcade perfect ports can be found for the PlayStation and Saturn (as part of the Capcom Generations Vol. 4 pack), which also includes an enemy gallery and two arranged tracks. And like Commando, this version was used for the base for the ports to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox (on Capcom Classics Collection) and PSP (on Capcom Classics Reloaded). Strangely enough, the ability to rotate your TV vertically to get the correct aspect ratio is present in the Capcom Generation Vol 4 collection, but removed from the Capcom Classics Collection. In normal play, the screen is letterboxed. On the Wii Virtual console, the game can be found as Wolf of the Battlefield: Mercs.
Genesis owners were much luckier and got an enhanced port of Mercs with a few very cool modifications. It disappointingly lacks multi-player, but it has the option to be played in "Arcade Mode" or "Original Mode," the latter of which is exclusive to this port. There is also an options mode, where you can activate auto-fire and set the difficulty higher or lower. Arcade Mode is based on the arcade version, which it recreates very well. Everything is pretty much identical except for a few bizarre changes like slightly different placement of enemies at a few points, but nothing that most people are likely to notice. The action is put in a window about 3/4 the size the screen, which is annoying, but necessary to maintain a similar aspect ratio to the arcade version. You can also continue five times.
What really stands out about this port is Original Mode. Original Mode has the same basic gameplay, enemies, and weapons as the arcade game, except with completely redesigned levels. Furthermore, Original Mode also has multiple characters (each with their own unique weapon) that are found in tents throughout the course of the game. After meeting them, just pause the game to choose from whoever has joined your party at that point. Each character has his own life bar, but there is no continuing whatsoever in Original Mode, making the difficulty much higher than that of Arcade Mode. Each tent also offers items to purchase with medals that are scattered throughout each level. Needless to say, the Genesis port is pretty great, and would probably be even better than the arcade version if not for the lack of a multiplayer option.
It took them nearly twenty years, but in 2008, Capcom dug up the Commando license and published a new entry in the series, as a downloadable title for the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. It was released around the same time as a resurrection of Capcom's 19XX franchise. Both were developed by Backbone Entertainment, in an increasing trend for Japanese companies to farm retro properties to Western developers.
Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3, in a pseudo-clever melding of the Japanese and English titles, is about shooting lots of bad guys. Up to three players can play cooperatively at once, including online. Its most major modernization is that it uses the dual analog sticks to move and shoot independently from one another, removing one of the major obstacles from so many old overhead arcade shoot-em-ups.
And this is unfortunately where the problems begin. Commando 3 tries to modernize itself injecting a bit of cartoony flavor into the proceedings. While the original was based off Vietnam-era war flicks, and Mercs was '80s Schwarzenegger / Stallone / Norris schlock, the kind that took itself way too seriously but were tremendously fun anyway. On the other hand, Commando 3 seems to channel something closer to a goofier version of G.I. Joe. The characters, as shown in the intro and in a few cutscenes, are drawn in comic book style. In game, the male characters are impossibly top heavy, with tiny little legs that carry their muscle figures, wielding huge weapons of destruction. When they get hit, they burst out in Q*Bert style expletives. The final level takes place in a city that is Totally Not Communist Russia, where you fight an evil dictator who is piloting a gigantic mechanical statue. The music is cheesy and catchy, but distinctly un-Japanese like, distancing itself from its predecessor. However, it's also easy to argue that it doesn't change nearly enough. There are so many dual-stick shooters around - especially on the Xbox 360 - that one really needs to stand out to separate itself from the pack. Commando 3 already falls due to to its dull visual design, because outside of the cartoony characters, the environments are exceedingly plain.
There are three characters - including Wolf, who greatly resembles the hero from Mercs, even though he has a different name - each with their own skillsets. Coyote, the sunglasses-wearing Norris tribute, can take more hits but lacks grenades. Fox, a not-so-subtle allusion to Foxy Brown and other blaxploitation heroines, has low health and can't carry many grenades either, but can move fast. In practice, this is a bad idea, because Wolf and Coyote move too slowly - all of them should have been able to run as quickly as Fox. This echoes the feel of Mercs, where your heroes seemed to be almost running in place by barely moving (the treadmill effect) but it's frustrating when you're trying to dodge enemy bullets. The screen clearing mega crashes are still here - and still accompanied by what appears to be the character doing a rocking guitar strum on thin air - and there are now a limited number of grenades, which can be aimed and tossed by the R Trigger.
The game also features familiar looking power-ups - the POW and Mega Crash pickups are now spinning renditions of their 2D sprites - which also channels the old games. Familiar weapons include the machine gun - which still fires out two streams of bullets at once, three if you grab a POW icon - but there are also three-way guns, missile launchers, and flame throwers.
There's an endless supply of enemies - you can destroy the enemy generators, but more always pop out - and a few vehicles segments, where you hop into jeeps or tanks. But the boss fights are lacking. At the end of the first level, you fight a giant tank, where the camera angle changes to an overhead view and the claustrophobic shot patterns seem vaguely like a bullet hell shooter. At the end of the third level, you fight the same giant tank, except now it has a few more weapons. And outside of the final conflict, that's pretty much it. There are only five levels in Commando 3, but each of them is sizably long, and it takes roughly a half an hour to complete. That's fine, especially compared to the brevity of the older games, but it really could have used more setpieces to break up the action. It could have at least featured one instance where you attack a helicopter from the top of a cliff. There are multiple difficulty levels, each which dole out a different number of lives, but there are no continues - once you run out, you start from scratch. Once you beat it once, however, you'll unlock a stage select, allowing you to play any level at any difficulty.
Commando 3 is stuck somewhere in limbo. It's technically a fun enough game, but it lacks focus compared to its contemporaries, and it's not retro enough to evoke nostalgia from the Mercs. Capcom and Backbone should have looked at Sierra's Assault Heroes series, which manages to create a modernized arcade style game that betters Commando 3 on pretty much every level.