Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Platoon" on the NES!

Remember that movie whose tagline was literally "war is hell?" Apparently, somebody thought that was the perfect source material for a Nintendo game. 

'I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days."

--  Chris Taylor, "Platoon" (1986)

"War as a video game ... what better way to raise the ultimate soldier?"

-- Solid Snake, "Metal Gear Solid 2" (2001)

Needless to say, there were a lot of weird licensed games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. There were games based on antiquated TV shows like "Gilligan's Island," fast food mascots like the Domino's Pizza "Noid" and a metric ton of cartridges based on hyper-obscure cartoons and comics like "Widget" and "Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja."

...and that's precisely the kind of hippie-dippie, liberal
nonsense that cost us the war!
While most of the games focused on kid-friendly properties, there were more than a few NES offerings based on more adult fare, such as "Die Hard," "Dirty Harry," and "Friday the 13th." Even with that in mind, however, the mere existence of "Platoon" on the Nintendo Entertainment System remains downright mystifying. 

Sure, sure, "Terminator 2" and "Predator" were both R-rated motion pictures, but at the same time, they were R-rated motion pictures clearly steeped in fantasy. Hell, one could argue that "Contra," one of the most iconic 8-bit games of all-time, is really nothing more than an unauthorized adaptation of "Commando," with a healthy bit of "Aliens" tossed in. That said, "Platoon" was an entirely different kind of movie, with an entirely different kind of message. 

For the uninitiated, "Platoon" was a movie about the Vietnam War directed by Oliver Stone. The winner of the 1986 Best Picture Oscar, the film painted a bleak, critical view of the U.S. occupation -- indeed, one of the film's taglines was the rather cheery banner, "the first casualty of war is innocence."

As such, the mere idea of turning "Platoon" into a video game completely contradicts the film's inherent moral -- that there's nothing heroic, noble and especially FUN about military combat. Granted, it's not as reprehensible as making a micro-management "Schindler's List" sim or a "12 Years a Slave" endless runner, but thematically, it's cutting it quite close, indeed. 

The Nintendo Entertainment System offering is actually a port of a Data East developed game, which was released for every single computer system ever in 1987. Ocean decided to re-release the game (which, based on an eye-test, is fairly similar to the previous iterations) on the NES in 1988, with Sunsoft taking over porting duties. 

Pulse-pounding action, the likes of which you've never
experienced on your NES console before!
The shocking thing is, outside of the questionable usage of the "Platoon" license, it's actually a pretty decent game. Not great, mind you, but certainly passable, and maybe even worthy of a squandered Saturday afternoon if you've never experienced it before. 

Not unlike the aforementioned "Friday the 13th" and "Gilligan's Island" NES games, the first part of "Platoon" has you traversing a huge labyrinth, with a jungle motif background that makes finding your way around very, very tricky. Charlie comes at you from both sides (with some even falling out of the trees on top of you,) so you'll always have to have your finger on the trigger -- be careful, though, because you get points off for gunning down innocent civilians. Oh, and your ammunition is also limited, so you'll have to be selective about which V.C. troops you plug with hot lead. 

Periodically, you will run into some booby traps, namely, landmines and trip wires. These are pretty easy to detect and even easier to avoid ... you just hop over them, Super Mario style. In perhaps the game's only real nod to the '86 movie, instead of a life bar, you have a "morale bar." If it dips too low, you fall into an existential morass and keel over dead, which contextually, means you're playing a super soldier who can absorb endless explosions and bullet wounds, only to ultimately succumb to doubt. Man, that shit is deep, with a capital "D." 

"Platoon" is a very mission-centric game. Your first task is to locate a satchel of explosives -- conveniently enough, located out in the middle of the wilderness -- so you can then blow up a bridge. In a nice touch, your avatar (who I believe is supposed to be a sprite of Charlie Sheen) actually falls down as soon as the bridge implodes. Realism matters, you know. 

The next objective has your army man traveling to a village, complete with thatched roofs. Unlike in the movie, though, you're not ordered to torch everything to the ground while smoking weed, as you have been tasked with rummaging through people's belongings in order to locate an underground tunnel. In this phase, the screen kind of goes infra-red every time you enter a hut, as you scan around for items -- meaning, this game basically was "Metroid Prime" a good 15 years before "Metroid Prime." 

You know, some people would call this lazy game design.
And I am one of them. 
After finding a torch and the secret entryway, the game completely changes mechanics, going from a side-scrolling action game to a first person dungeon crawler. Down in the waterways, the Viet Cong will leap up at you with Russian-made weapons and slinging sickles a'la "Lethal Enforcers," as you endlessly search around nooks for ammo, provisions and "rubbish" -- don't you just love it when the Brits forget to totally localize their games for the North American market? 

After escaping the tunnel system, the game switches up formats yet again, this time turning into an "Operation Wolf" style 2D shooter. Hey, remember that part in the movie where that one guy falls asleep at the post, and Charlie Sheen has to scramble to wake everybody up before the V.C. swarms in on them? Well, the next part of the game is pretty much a recreation of the scene, only this time, you have enough machine gun artillery to blow away half of south Vietnam. Aesthetically, it ain't much -- basically, it's just you running your reticle over blue bushes, waiting for black figures to emerge -- but hey, at least it ties into the movie a little bit. 

Following a "well done" message for gunning down roughly 100 people, the game takes us to its fourth and final section, which is pretty much "Ikari Warriors," only with way more bullets and enemies who move like they are on super-methamphetamine. The final boss battle is against a sniper inside a brick fortress; while admittedly difficult to bring down, he really shouldn't be that much of a challenge if you've kept enough hand grenades in your arsenal. Or you use a Game Genie. Really, either way works, I suppose.

And for your efforts, you are rewarded with a really anticlimactic cutscene -- a dude waves his guns at you while you're airlifted out of the war zone in a helicopter. Then, the credits doth scroll.

As I was saying earlier, "Platoon" really isn't a bad game, it's just that it feels so ... shameless. I'm still trying to figure out how and why Oliver Stone let the thing be licensed as a video game, but since he apparently had a pretty big coke habit back in the day, perhaps that tells us everything we need to know.

Structurally, the game has its pros and its cons. As for the biggest positives, the music -- as was the case with most Sunsoft games -- is great, and I actually liked the constantly changing gameplay mechanics. As for the biggest downsides, the graphics are fairly mediocre and the labyrinthine level design is probably enough to drive most new school gamers bonkers. Ultimately, the biggest problem with "Platoon" is that, despite its overall difficulty, its' just way too short. If you know what you're doing and where the items are located, you can probably finish this thing in half an hour, with a couple of start-over kills factored in. 

Strangely enough, another version of "Platoon" was released on PCs in 2002, this time as a slightly less offensive real-time strategy offering. For the most part, "Platoon" on the NES, however, remains a largely forgotten relic, a game that's recollected as neither good or terrible -- yet another 8-bit cartridge saddled by that most miserable of ailments, being just average. 

Still, if for just the sheer novelty of it, you should probably find an old cartridge and give this one a play sometime. It's not really good, but at least it's somewhat different -- and unless some garage developer decides to give us a two-player "Men at Work" beat-em-up, this is probably our only chance to play as Charlie Sheen on the Nintendo. 

Truthfully, I'm still not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, though. 


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