G.I. Joe NES Games
Yo Joe! He'll fight for freedom wherever there's trouble, G.I. Joe is there. These are familiar lyrics for nearly anyone who grew up in the eighties, but that's only one facet of the megalithic G.I. Joe franchise. The toy manufacturing company Hasbro based the G.I. Joe series on comic strips by Dave Breger made in the forties, where "Private Breger" was renamed into "G.I. Joe" during World War II. Hasbro created the first G.I. Joe "action figures" in 1964, insisting on calling them action figures since they felt that their primary demographic of young boys wouldn't cater to playing with "dolls." The toyline was reasonably successful in the sixties and seventies, but its popularity didn't explode until the early eighties brand known as "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero." It featured dozens of soldiers with codenames and real names depicted in the now-iconic character cards that came with each figure, and the new line introduced the terrorist organization COBRA as a rival to the G.I. Joe forces.
Alongside an ongoing comic series by Marvel, this revival was especially notable for the animated television series by Sunbow, starting out in 1982 before later changing over to DiC in 1989. While many consider it to be no more than a daft action cartoon whose only purpose for existing was to promote the toyline (as masterfully parodied with the Cheat Commandos toons from Homestar Runner), it nonetheless gained a fair fandom and helped to make millions for Hasbro alongside its sister franchise, Transformers.
Naturally, any franchise that hit the big time in the eighties and/or nineties would receive a video game adaptation of variable quality. G.I. Joe saw games released on the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, and the ZX Spectrum among other computers, but arguably the most prolific games were the two action-platformers released on the NES. In contrast to The Transformers: Mystery of Convoy, which was only released in Japan and so awful that nobody bothered to realize there was a typo on the front of the game's box, the G.I. Joe games were only released in North America but were surprisingly good. They were developed by KID, the makers of underrated titles like Low G Man and Kick Master, and they serve as uncommon examples of licensed games being more than mere cash-ins.
As the last-known game made from the union between KID and Taxan on the NES, G.I. Joe feels slightly akin to Low G Man but is a decidedly more refined experience. It plays out like any episode of the animated series where Cobra is wreaking general havoc, and a squad of five Joes led by General Hawk is dispatched to stop Cobra Commander's nefarious schemes. The team includes de facto field leader Duke, arctic soldier Blizzard, ridiculously popular mute ninja Snake Eyes (who's more or less Wolverine in terms of ubiquitous popularity), hand-to-hand specialist Captain Grid-Iron, and machine gunner Rock 'n Roll, all of whom have differing stats in melee strength, weapon power, life meter and jump height. You have five missions ahead of you, each one led by the sequential order of Joes mentioned in the last sentence. You have to bring along the leader, but you get to select two other Joes from the remaining four to assist them. They can all jump high and switch between their fists (or blades) and firearms, each able to fire in four directions and have different properties. Rock 'n Roll has a powerful spread though his stamina is low, and Snake Eyes has a weak energy blast that doesn't consume ammunition. Most other weapons take ammo, so you can’t go firing willy-nilly like Contra.
Whichever Joes you take with you joins the leader for a three-stage mission. The first stage has you infiltrate the Cobra base in a straightforward action scene that has lots of Cobra soldiers and machines trying to take you down. The second stages of each mission are the most interesting, as they require you to search throughout the Cobra base for check marks that denote where to place bombs. Once all the bombs are placed, you find the exit door and go into the third stage, which is also a straight action sequence like the first level, but it is usually a tougher challenge to complete. In contrast to the levels before and after, the bases are entirely nonlinear and encourage you to search and shoot every corner for the necessary placement points, as well as various items hidden in the walls, but each level is timed, so don't dally too much. You can get more ammo and health, chevrons to increase your current Joe's permanent health, and gun icons to help strengthen your Joe's weapon. Collecting four guns boosts a level and has their weapon fire more projectiles for a total of up to three levels. Your Joes' upgrades carry over into later levels, but if all three die on a stage, everybody on that team loses all upgrades on continuing. While that bites, at least each Joe is still pretty powerful even without a fully beefed-up gun, and you start at the beginning of the stage you were on instead of the entire mission in which the stage is set.
The difficulty curve is as you would expect, with each mission featuring tougher Cobra soldiers than the last. Your foes range from standard Cobra infantry to assassins with boomerang blades, propeller troops, dreaded eagles, burly grenade-tossers, and other such goons. However, you can turn the tables against the Cobras by finding an unmanned vehicle, either a helicopter, a wall-clinging buzz boar, or a well-armed pogo jumper. These function quite a bit like the vehicles from Low G Man and give you a nice boost in mobility in power, but they’re surprisingly fragile, so make the most of them when you can. This game is also jam-packed with bosses, a grand total of sixteen with one faced at the end of each level. The first stage of a mission will pit you against a gigantic Cobra war machine, while the second stage mostly faces you off against a humanoid boss, and the third pits you against whoever's leading the operation. Some of the bads are recognizable, like Metal-Head and Voltar of the Iron Grenadiers, and in an amusing acknowledgement of the infamous G.I. Joe animated movie's existence, you also get to fight the villain of that film, Golobulus.
As expected, the boss you fight before Cobra Commander is Destro, who has somehow gained the ability to fly through the air while slashing wind blasts at you with an enchanted sword over a rapidly scrolling succession of pitfalls. This makes for the hardest battle in the game, bar none, perhaps a little bit too painfully so. It's a good thing Destro couldn't actually do this in the show, or the Joes' mission would be moot. If you do somehow manage to foil Destro, you take on one final mission in Cobra headquarters, and General Hawk decides to commandeer the mission personally. His suit and headgear may be dorky, but the big boss of the Joes has certainly earned his position by having excellent stats in all four categories. His jump is actually tallied as "99," due to sporting a jetpack that allows him infinite airtime. It's necessary for the daunting final level, which is only a single base stage but is superhuge and requires eight bombs to be planted before the final showdown with Cobra Commander. The last fight against him is disappointingly easy, especially compared to his steel-faced business partner, but it's a fun ride getting up there at least. Plus, as another nod to the film and DiC run of the show, Cobra Commander starts out as an actual cobra before regaining his human form.
There seems to be a larger number of bad licensed titles on the NES than good, but G.I. Joe thankfully falls into the latter camp. It already has a leg up being built on a property involving constant warfare, instead of being something normally non-action based like Garfield or ALF. While it's not as fast-paced an action title as Contra, Ninja Gaiden, or Shatterhand, it still offers more than enough thrills and challenge for 2D enthusiasts. It's also pretty meaty and may take a while to beat in one sitting, though passwords thankfully provide breaks between missions. There are some faults to be thrown out here and there, like the tedium of finding your way through some of the later base stages, how a few bosses' attacks seem almost unavoidable so fighting them feels like attrition, and the imbalance of some characters compared to others, like how you have almost no reason to use Blizzard after the second mission. On that note, they really should have gone with Snow Job for their arctic expert instead of the generic Blizzard, and Captain Grid-Iron is an odd choice when they could have included a more popular Joe, like Shipwreck or Scarlet. But since Grid-Iron was released just a year before the game, perhaps it was Hasbro using their supplementary merchandise to promote the toyline yet again?
The point is that for all its scruples, G.I. Joe is a fine game released for the NES, doubly curious for being exclusive to North America and hitting stores just a few months before the SNES' western debut. Its well-rounded gameplay is topped off with colorful graphics, as is par for all KID titles. There's also some real detail in the backgrounds, like the swaying palm trees of the very first level and the sewer waterfalls of mission 3-1. It's also got a good soundtrack, where the only tune that may get tired is the base theme. Overall, it's quite an impressive package in spite of the likelihood that it may have potentially just been built with promoting action figures not unlike the cartoon, but even considering that, it's still very much worth playing whether or not you actually care about the franchise.
The Atlantis Factor is a direct sequel to the first game, though Taxan had shut down, so Capcom, rich on Street Fighter II's success and able to afford whatever they could, took care of distribution. The premise is much the same as the first game, where Cobra Commander raises the mythical city of Atlantis and takes over the technology found within. General Hawk takes a more immediately aggressive role to stop this threat and dives into the action right away instead of acting as mission control for most of the game. Hawk is again joined again by Duke and Snake Eyes, while Blizzard, Captain Grid-Iron, and Rock 'n Roll are out in favor of Navy SEAL Wet Suit, the popular heavy gunner Roadblock, and the mysterious Storm Shadow, who usually appears on the Cobra side but has had his moments working with G.I. Joe. Stalker takes over as your mission giver, and you will immediately notice a big change from the first in the form of a map screen. Six Cobra bases are shown on the map interconnected by a series of routes, and each route is a stage. In order to advance, you need to beat the route once before you can cross over it at your leisure. Funny that Capcom was involved with this game, as this map is very reminiscent of the map from Bionic Commando, right down to the two secret tunnels.
Each route presents a fairly short level that shouldn't take much more than a couple of minutes to beat. Cobra troops and vehicles dog your way to the finish line, and the stage ends when you pick up a radio. The bases are much larger and each one has their own objectives, with one level requiring you to rescue some hostages, another harking back to the first game with planting bombs at designated points, and so on. You only start out with General Hawk and have to rescue the other five Joes, though Wet Suit is unlocked after beating the first route. Still, you have to work with only two Joes until you beat base B or C, and all you have are your fists and a machine gun. The weapon leveling system works like it did in the first game (and can also power up your melee abilities this time), but instead of Joes having unique firearms, they share four weapons: A machine gun, pulse wave blaster, laser cannon, and rocket launcher, though the later three need to be unlocked. Most of them also can't fire up and down anymore and are only limited to shooting left and right for no adequate reason.
The Joes are instead distinguished by special abilities instead of their weapons. Hawk doesn't have any special abilities, but since you begin with him and his lifebar starts out high by default, you'll likely be using him as muscle for most missions. Also, while he lost the jetpack from the previous game, at least he's dressed much better. Wet Suit, true to his name and appearance, is the only one who can dive underwater, which is only useful in some stages but helpful to gather up items and avoid heavier fire. Roadblock can crawl underneath certain passages, useful for getting items in a few stages and perhaps to avoid enemy fire. Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes have similar abilities, being able to fire projectiles while unarmed and worth bringing along to conserve ammo. Duke is the only character able to fire up and down, which is especially useful for the final battle against Cobra Commander. Furthermore, three more Joes show up in support roles if you can rescue them: Big Bear revives a downed Joe, Spirit fully heals the lifebar of a character, and Gung-Ho gives you 100 bullets if you're low on ammo. They're summoned with the use of those radios you earn for beating any non-base stage, but they are finite so you'll have to call wisely.
Taking out Cobra troops is still fun, especially now that the Joes get flying kicks and knee drops, abilities reminiscent of KID's underrated Kick Master. You get the same items as before, like rations to restore life and chevrons to permanently boost it. While the action is much the same as its predecessor, the new level structure makes The Atlantis Factor a more ambitious game. However, "ambitious" does not necessarily translate to "better," as some changes bring about mixed results. The freeform approach to level structure allows for more variety over the first game as you can pick what objectives you want to tackle first, but it's also a bit of a double-edged sword as some areas are much harder than others, and you will likely be wiped out if you hit a rough stage too soon. Matter of fact, it's rough all around early on, as most of your characters have small life bars by default and health pickups seem a bit scarcer. The support Joes help to keep your health and ammo up, but things can be vicious until you recruit them. You also face a pretty gross penalty if you have to continue, as while everyone’s weapons stay intact, you lose all of your radios and your ammo drops down to 100. Not even Gung-Ho can help you bounce back right away, so you'll need to rely mostly on physical attacks if this happens.
The Atlantis Factor's main problem is that it feels like a less consistent product than the original, resulting in an imbalanced challenge level. The difficulty spikes are based on whatever levels you encounter first, and you’d have to play several times to determine a route that's most ideal for you. While it's admirable they wanted to change the linear stage format from the first game, the desperate need to find rare chevrons to beef up everyone's puny lifebars makes it feel like there’s a route you SHOULD pick. Going to more vicious stages first seems like a death sentence, and you won't even know what those stages are without trial-and-error (or a walkthrough). Though generally, the game actually starts out much harder when you don't have too many Joes. A miniboss in the very first stage runs quickly towards you and keeps bashing you with his hammer, a very overwhelming obstacle to throw right out at the starting gate. It's pretty rocky for a while even after getting Wet Suit, but if you manage to clear the incredibly evil base D (which features lots of pitfalls and false doors that send you back to the beginning), you're basically golden for the rest of the game.
The warped challenge curve is best exemplified in the boss battles. The bosses were mostly cool battles in the first game, but they’re more of a mixed bag this time around. If you don't count the aforementioned minibosses, there are only six big baddies you need to terminate, ten less than last time. To be fair, they seem to be pretty challenging, with Firefly teleporting around like Dracula and Destro being unable to be hit while he’s surrounded by a shield. However, if you beat what is arguably the easiest boss, Overkill, you get the laser rifle. If you power that up to the maximum level, it completely shreds bosses' life meters away in single-digit seconds. The bosses are almost too tough without a maxed laser rifle, but if you have maximum lasers, then they almost pose no threat. In an almost RPG-like way, everything is overall much harder when starting, but after you build your guys up and have a respectable arsenal, it's perhaps too much of a breeze to the end.
The main problem of the off-kilter challenge, along with other cons like some of the route stages not being very remarkable and the graphics being a little less high-quality (you fight every boss in the same Cobra-headed room, for example) make The Atlantis Factor a disappointing sequel to the first G.I. Joe game. That being said, the new map system may actually be preferable to some gamers who prefer more variation and replay value. It still controls well, and while it's down to opinion, the new weapon system and giving Joes their own specialities may feel like an evolution from the first game. The music is also very cool and is on par with the first game, if not a little better; the themes for base A and base D are especially groovy if you're looking for examples.
It also does better with appeasing the fans, as they booted out those jobbers Blizzard and Captain Grid-Iron in favor of the far more recognizable Roadblock and Storm Shadow, and switching one mid-tier Joe for another (Rock 'n Roll for Wet Suit) is a fair trade. Even if they're not playable, it’s good to see Stalker, Gung-Ho, and Spirit, though Big Bear of the Oktober Guard is still a bit of an odd pick. It still feels like they could have had more nods to bigger Joes like Flint or Lady Jaye, but when a licensed game is actually fairly competent, it's best not to whine about too much over what could have been. It may not be as solid as its predecessor, but it's still reasonably playable and is a decent game in its own right. At least G.I. Joe had a great game and an okay game back in the nineties, whereas Transformers would have to wait until 2010 to see War for Cybertron do its series justice. In summary, The Atlantis Factor isn't fantastic, but it's still several leagues above Convoy no Nazo.