We can't give you any backup or even the latest equipment, but you're no regular Joe, what with your unlimited ammo and uncanny ability to ferret out secret prisons, weapons stashes, and enemy foxholes. You've got three chances for victory, a few grenades, and a pistol. We're all counting on you, Joe."
Commando is the spiritual granddaddy of all those first-person blasters and gorefests that became so popular in the mid- '90s, and you can see the genesis of such games as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D in the now-familiar concept of "kill everything that moves -- and everything that doesn't."
Like Cannon Fodder, which is the direct descendant of Commando, perspective is presented from overhead the playing field. Visibility is, therefore, achieved at the expense of gaming realism, although it's hoped that no one would ever take the cartoony violence of this game as a bona fide recreation of battlefield conditions.
Play begins at the bottom of each level as Joe is dropped off via helicopter (rather jerky here) on target. The screen continually scrolls down as Joe battles his way past irregular enemy forces and topological barriers to the heavily-fortified base where, if you're lucky, you'll emerge victorious after staging a courageous last stand and killing the enemy leader (whom I've fondly dubbed "The Commandante.") The enemy bases, which can be crushed with only a little effort, are a joke; the obstacles en route are not. Commando is not an easy game, even on its easiest setting, and difficulty escalates as every mission is completed. Commando has eight separate missions, and it's a sure bet you won't complete this game in one sitting.
Like all great games, Commando also doesn't show all of its cards at once. New enemies appear as the difficulty increases (watch out for those rocket launchers!), and changing field layouts will require continually-evolving play strategies. In addition, you can upgrade your firepower with spare weapons you find as you rush those levels. Machine guns are always a useful find, but be sure to pick up knives, as well -- enemy soldiers will kill you if you bump into them without these babies. It's a great incentive for the player to fight past tough spots so they can see what's across the next foxhole -- and in the next level.
Commando is also one of the few games for the 8-bits that has a large number of secrets and bonus areas hidden away in the main body of the game. Each mission has at least one secret area that's worth exploring (as in Doom and Wolfenstein 3D), and these are filled either with weapons, treasure, or hostages (to be rescued for points). It's a great idea and one that was used far too infrequently in the pre-Doom gaming era.
Commando isn't the easiest game to play with standard joysticks and joypads (just try playing it with NES pads!), and you'd think that it would be one of those arcade games that would have worked best with dual joysticks controlling, respectively, movement and firing.
Control isn't perfect in any of the Atari ports, and results are decidedly mixed on the 2600, where it's difficult to launch grenades without ripping off the joystick handle, and on the 7800, where those Proline joysticks have probably been responsible for more player deaths than whole platoons of enemy insurgents.
Fortunately, the folks at Sculptured Software fixed many of the control bugs for the XE port, and joystick movement is, for the most part, very fluid and responsive. Players fire in the direction that they're moving (and it wouldn't make any bleeding sense to be firing backwards while you're rushing forward to secure a foxhole, now, would it?), and grenades are launched by pulling back on the joystick while firing its button. This takes only a little practice, and feels surprisingly...satisfying.
Commando features some of the best graphics to be seen on both the 7800 and the 2600, and fans of the game have long marveled at these ports' fidelity to the original classic arcade game. Does the 8-bit computer version hold up to its distinguished predecessors?
Happily, the answer is a largely unqualified "yes". Commando won't make you forget the fantastically exotic sets in Airball, but, like any good soldier, it gets the job done -- and with a little style to spare, as well.
Graphics resolution isn't the highest, and the colour palette is fairly limited on each level, but enemy soldiers are distinct and many topographical features are rendered quite well on all levels.
The "last" areas of each level, which are placed within the context of the enemy base, are particularly well-drawn, and many levels contain interesting and entertaining details. Be sure to look at details on aircraft, motor vehicles, and the watchtower guards; don't linger too long, though, or you'll get your head blown off.
Amusing intermission scenes punctuate levels and provide welcome relief from the non-stop action. The soldier presented here is a rather smeary, faceless counterpart to his brother in the 7800 port, but it's enough to retain and convey the spirit of the game.
In-game music consists of two simple loops (one confined to the "last area") that are punctuated by drum-like tatoos. It's simple enough stuff, but effective, and it's hard to agree with critics who claim that the music is either a distraction or simply noise.
The music is less polished that what is found throughout the 7800 version of the game, which is puzzling given the fact that POKEY drives both ports, but it's simply possible that Sculptured Software hadn't finished coding sound effects in the XE version of Commando.
Sound effects are also adequate, if unspectacular. It won't be easy to confuse the game's electronic squeals with actual gunfire, the roar of engines, or grenade explosions, but at least it doesn't detract too much from gameplay.
Commando is the best blaster for the 8-bits -- period. If you've got an itchy trigger-finger, and like your splatterfests hard and fast, it's hard to think that there'd be a better game for you than this one. This version of Commando isn't the prettiest out there, and it doesn't feature the best sound, but damn -- it sure does play the best of all the released ports for the Atari consoles. So what are you waiting for? Get to it, solider - the Commandante is waiting for you.
(Commando is available from Sunmark for $39.95. 64K and a sturdy joystick required)