(Hi everyone. This is the first guest post by friend of the Pre-Sonic Genesis Institute of Retro Theory Brandon Teel, who kindly volunteered his writing skills to bring us a small novella on Rambo III.)
Hyper-masculine eighties Republican power fantasies are something of a guilty pleasure to me. The kind of adolescent power fantasies of Stallone, Schwarzenneger, and Milius seem to be a perfect fit for the kind of adolescent power fantasies that video games tend to represent. Hence, Rambo III for the Sega Genesis. How many games have been about some kind of Ayn Rand’s Actualized Man single handedly gunning his way through faceless, nameless hordes of vastly inferior enemy? Complete with some Vallejo-alike airbrushing the cover art with a mensch and a large breasted and barely clothed woman at his feet. Rambo III follows in a proud tradition, before and since, of absurd, bowdlerized violence in service of some kind of poorly rationalized goal.
So the kind of bloody, sociopathic, feverish berserker ballet of the film would seem to be custom tailored for a video game, and you get the impression that the developers managed to put two-and-two together and got the basic concept down that Capcom’s Commando would make a great Rambo game, but it falls flat. It isn’t an awful game; in fact, it was a relatively painless experience for your chronicler to run through (due in no small part to mercifully unlimited continues). You’re absolutely not going to see it on some big video game site’s Top Ten Awful Games, because it’s so fangless and unassuming that no one is going to get outraged over its inclusion and send literally dozens more pageviews to their ad farm. No one is ever going to care about Rambo III for the Sega Genesis, at all, and that makes the game possibly even worse than a genuinely bad game.
At best, a truly bad game will have some bizarre appeal to it, that it’s not bad out of a lack of trying to be good, but rather it’s bad due to undeveloped ideas or its ambitions outstripping the current technological state of the art. Games like CJ previously wrote about, like Super Hydlide, Space Harrier II, or Alex Kidd in The Enchanted Castle seem, to me, to be games like that, where it’s hard to hold their deep and integral shortcomings against them because they at least TRY. And, at worst, even if a game really is an unrepentant hunk of human waste unambitiously and halfheartedly squeezed from the spread cheeks of the zeitgeist, at least you feel the failure immediately and can take advantage of liberal returns policies.
But Rambo III’s utter mediocrity and lack of scope is far more sinister than this. See, with games costing around sixty dollars in ’89, and that’s not in 2011 monopoly money either, a game was an investment, much more so than it is today. Most games weren’t actually that long, so you weren’t actually getting an enormous amount of unique content for your dollar, either. That means, especially as a child with limited means, you were stuck playing through that game over and over again, at least until you could loan it to the annoying kid at school, who won’t ever shut up about this stupid Alisia Dragoon game no one has ever heard of, for his copy of Streets of Rage, and then conveniently forget to bring it back until he moves away. Rambo III is that game that got stuck in your collection because it’s not outwardly bad and actually passably enjoyable for brief periods of time, and that is the worst thing about it.
You start playing Rambo III and, y’know, you get a little bit of that visceral rush of mass murdering little guys on the screen with your machine gun while dodging their slow moving bullets. It’s not particularly attractive by any stretch of the imagination, but it can throw a lot of guys at you at once, and the music has an enjoyable enough driving arcade synth-rock feel to it. Its direct antecedents Commando and (its political and ideological antithesis) Guerrilla War were much better at this, to be sure, but this is the only game of its kind thus far on the Sega Genesis and an early adopter will take what they can get and they will eat it the hell up. Then you play a few levels, and you notice that the game is entirely incapable of giving you any kind of unique, interesting experience whatsoever. What you got in the first three phases – A typical run-and-gun game, a pseudo-3D cover shooter against a large piece of military hardware, and a run-and-gun game in a monotonous and poorly-defined maze straight out of a b-grade RPG – is all you’re going to get in this game, at all.
The monotony brings the game’s smaller deficiencies, its quirks, into stark relief; problems that would otherwise be more or less forgivable in a better game. For instance, the weapons: aside from your machine gun, you’re given a knife, a bow, and time bombs. It’s a wealth of options, which should be a good thing except for the fact that the knife and bow are almost entirely useless considering that the knife has no range and the bow requires being charged to be better in any meaningful way than the machine gun; charging, of course, leaving you wide open to being swarmed by the game’s generous dollops of spawned enemies.
This leaves the time bombs, which are useful for getting the enormous numbers of enemies spawning behind you off your tail; the game seeming to prefer to spawn them behind you more than anywhere else for maximum annoyance and maximum “making it apparent that the Genesis is a chopped down arcade machine with an emphasis on the chopped down”. Like a jingoistic Afghan War rendition of A Hard Day’s Night, underwater. The time bomb is also the only thing that can take down the guard towers, and the only weapon that can efficiently take out vehicles. How do we balance this out? By, beyond a few gimmes and the curious decision to make blowing up stationary helicopters increment your bomb count, making knifing the enemy with your puny, ineffectual knife the only way to cause the enemy to drop additional bombs! Furthermore, you manually switch between these alternate weapons with the A button. A game like one of the Thunder Force games or Contra Hard Corps uses this to great effect, by giving you a number of situationally useful weapons to skillfully swap through, but in this case the only purpose having to switch through weapons is to make you accidentally not have the bomb selected, causing you to use one of the not-at-all-useful weapons at a critical moment.
All of this could be avoided by just giving you grenades as your sole sub-weapon like so many games prior and since; a simple, tried-and-true, elegant, and most of all, fun solution. But wherever Rambo III tries to differentiate itself from its peers, it falls flat on its face. The maze stages are an attempt to give an otherwise straightforward arcade game more exotic objectives to give it more value, but with uninteresting layouts that require you to circumnavigate the entire maze in every game since none of the objectives are as easy as just memorizing where they are and cutting the banality mercifully short. Rather, the game will require you to either track down a number of red herrings before the actual objective is unlocked, or for you to scour the entire maze for targets. (For example, in the second maze, the last prisoner you find will always be the secret agent, suggesting the rest are just recreational prisoners of war -CJ) The only spice the maze stages bring are explosive boxes, which are essentially superfluous due to the only enemy being the same infinitely spawning soldier you’ve been shooting all the while, and occasional secret bombable walls which, due to the necessity of searching every nook and cranny, serve little purpose for anyone but speedrunners; I am sure the legions of video gladiators competing for the top spot on Twin Galaxies’ Rambo III high score board are surely grateful, anyway.
Then the boss battles, which involve a behind-the-back perspective on Stallone’s rippling delts and lats (and also the same tank and helicopter, repeated). What you get is something of a primitive version of the modern cover shooter where you’re able to duck behind foreground elements where the enemy can’t hit you, then pop out when you determine that it’s safe and give the enemy some of your own. It’s a change of pace, and also pretty bad. You’re given a power meter to determine the strength of Rambo’s arrows against the enemy, where a full bar will kill in one hit, but the enemies fire in a strict rhythm, and since you’re stuck in one place where charging, this is suicidal. Your other option is to gradually plink them to death as you run back and forth between cover. This is boring. You have to do this four times throughout the game, once against a helicopter, once against a tank, once against two helicopters, and for the climactic final encounter – Wait for it – A tank and a helicopter. None of these battles are challenging at all, nor do they provide a particularly compelling gameplay mechanic, but seem to exist solely to put some decent looking, appropriately sixteen-bit-y screenshots in the ad copy.
Maybe you can see where my disappointment lies in this game; there’s the suspicion that it’s a game built to sell solely on its license and a few attractive shots on the back, with an entire game thrown together merely as a supporting role, to keep you playing just long enough that Sega and Carolco can cash the cheques. It’s a licensed game, through and through. You watch Rambo III as a kid, or perhaps hear about it from a friend because your parents won’t let you watch R-rated movies, and think that it is the coolest thing ever. You hear there is a video game, you mow lawns for a few months, and you buy it, and then you realize that you bought… Rambo III for the Sega Genesis. When I play this game, I can almost feel that sense of dull ennui and buyers regret emanating through time and space, a million Genesis-playing twelve-year-olds that don’t yet understand the concept of sunk costs sighing in unison and trying to convince themselves that they’re having fun.
The best thing I can say about Rambo III for the Sega Genesis is that it doesn’t thank the Mujahideen for killing Soviets for America. Boy, that could have maybe been embarrassing twenty years on.