It's been almost twenty-five years since Commando hit the arcades, and yet the original title still holds some allure for gamers of a certain age. This is all the more impressive when you consider that there are few Capcom games that last so long without clocking up a stream of spin-offs. Taking over two decades to produce three games in a successful series is surprisingly out of character for the sequel-happy Japanese developer.
Good timing probably helped cement the series in our shared memory. The original Commando, released way back in 1985, may not have been officially based on the identically titled Schwarzenegger action "classic" which came out the same year, but Capcom was certainly happy to let arcade kids assume otherwise. The same is true for the second Rambo movie, also released in 1985, which made rescuing prisoners of war the heroic endeavour of choice. By accident, or more likely by design, Commando rode a zeitgeisty wave of post-Vietnam violence and military fetishism.
It was never the most innovative shooter of its stripe though, and was soon outclassed by the likes of Taito's Ikari Warriors. Much like Capcom's upcoming update of 1942, very little has changed here. Commando 3 has been tweaked to bring it in line with modern expectations, but the core components are immediately recognisable from the start of the first level, as you advance on fiendish enemies hiding behind sandbags. The "Wolf of the Battlefield" tagline is even a literal translation of the original Japanese title, Senjo no Okami.
The biggest change has been visual, with the game receiving a cartoon-style makeover in the sort of American anime style so popular on channels like Adult Swim. Rather than the solitary hero of the first game, the action now revolves around the Jackals - a trio of battle-hardened mercenaries sent into enemy territory to defeat the fiendish General Ratiev. Wolf is the de facto leader, a blond beefcake with all-round skills. Fox is the feisty female of the troop, faster and able to carry more grenades, but her feeble womanly constitution means she has less health than her male counterparts. Finally, there's Coyote - or Rambo as you know him. Really, there's very little attempt to mask the debt this character owes to Stallone, to the extent that the game could have been released as a tie-in with the recent movie and nobody would've thought it strange.
It's now a twin-stick affair, which puts it in direct competition with the likes of Assault Heroes on XBLA and Capcom's own woeful Rocketmen. Commando 3 easily outclasses Rocketmen, and squeaks ahead of Assault Heroes despite ostensibly having fewer features, purely on the basis that it seems to have benefited from a more innate understanding of what an arcade blaster should offer. Everything is so big and bold that simply standing on the spot and tearing into a crowd of enemy soldiers with a BUDDA-BUDDA-BUDDA onslaught from your machine gun is instantly satisfying. Certainly more so than Assault Heroes, which feels small and tinny by comparison.
Things get more satisfying when you first encounter enemy vehicles and buildings, all of which can be destroyed with a stream of bullets or hurried along to their demise with some grenades. There's a sprinkling of different weapon-types to pick up - rapid fire, three-way shotgun and flamethrower - and each can be increased in strength by picking up the bouncing POW UP icons. An "M-Crash" smart-bomb move is also available. Explosions are large and loud, rattling the speakers and clouding the screen with the sort of zeal that links the game directly back to the '80s action pedigree that inspired it. It's a game that is very much in love with cathartic destruction and as it's important that a shoot-'em-up makes the shooting fun, Commando 3 excels in this area.
Structurally the game is compact, with five stages to slaughter your way through. Starting out as a beachhead invasion, the game then finds you abandoned behind enemy lines by your shady military handler, with stage two picking up as you break out of the enemy jail. Each stage is just the right length, neither too short nor tediously overlong, so advancement always feels like an entertaining accomplishment rather than an obligatory chore. Variety comes in the shape of sporadic vehicle sections, occasional on-rails raft rides and some sadly uninspired boss battles. The vehicles are fun enough that you look forward to their appearance, though their spongy control can be annoying should you attempt anything more sophisticated than simply ramming into enemy forces all-guns-blazing. Inevitably, they become even more amusing in co-op mode, where up to three players can join forces locally or online. Rampaging around in a tank, with your mates popping out of the various turrets, is as pure a gaming buzz as you're likely to find.
The main sticking point is a slightly annoying Continue system which only allows you to select your starting stage once you've beaten the entire game on any difficulty. Not a mammoth task, but it does get pretty frustrating to get all the way to the start of stage five with a sliver of health, only to have to start over right from the start. Such harsh discipline is part and parcel of the arcade experience, of course, but this solution still feels like a rather cruel compromise.
Still, back when I reviewed Rocketmen I expressed surprise that such a slapdash product had come out under the usually slick auspices of the Capcom banner, and also sorrow that nobody seemed to be producing good, solid top-down shooters. With Commando 3, Capcom manages to both wash away the bad taste of Rocketmen and prove that old-fashioned blasters can be made to work today without losing the naïve verve of the 1980s.