Remember the klobb from Goldeneye 007? The least effective weapon in the game was named for Ken Lobb, one of the game’s credited staff. Seven years before his involvement in Goldeneye Ken Lobb was a producer for a little-known Taxan NES cart called G.I. Joe: The Real American Hero. The game is a Contra-like platformer where the player runs to the right shooting and punching everything in sight while streaming grenades above at flying enemies, which as you might expect is a whole lot of fun.
Taxan had a run of ten NES games and two Game Boy games from 1989-1991, none of which are particularly well known. Since G.I. Joe’s popularity through the original comics in the sixties there have been a number of iterations, including its own pair of NES games—one produced by Taxan, and the other by Capcom. Surprisingly, the Capcom sequel does not have the same charm as the original.
The game begins with a briefing from General Hawk as he assigns the camouflaged Duke to take two of his companions to the Amazon jungle to hunt down a Cobra base, plant time bombs inside, destroy a Cobra leader, then escape before the base explodes. All six missions follow the same formula, but it works well for this kind of game. Right around when it begins the feel repetitive, the game is over. Because there are seventeen individual levels they are shorter, but that just means more boss battles to mix things up.
For each mission you select two of four possible other Joes to join the leader, each of whom brings something unique to the table. Blizzard, who is in charge of the Antarctica mission has a weapon that passes through walls and obstacles. Snake Eyes, who heads the New York sewers mission, has the best jumping ability on the team. Captain Grid Iron, who looks ridiculous with his football helmet, is a good all-around Joe who leads the team in the black hills. Rock and Roll lacks the ability the do anything particularly well, but he happens to have a super-powerful weapon which if fully upgraded can take bosses down in mere seconds. He leads the team on the desert mission.
Customizing your team makes the gameplay experience different enough to be interesting. It also allows you to increase the challenge level by choosing characters who are not particularly suited for specific environments. The game includes some RPG-elements. You can find hit point and weapon upgrades scattered throughout each level. The characters, given they survive, retain their upgrades for future missions. It takes twelve total weapon upgrades for an individual character to reach maximum firepower, but blasting through enemies will become easy at that point. When weapons are upgraded they gain spread ability, similar to Contra. When Duke begins the jungle mission he shoots only a few projectiles, but once his weapon is fully upgraded it shoots double the amount.
The bomb-planting stages become much larger as the game progresses. If you do not have the patience for full exploration of a 2D side-scrolling environment then you may get frustrated when you reach levels that require more than a half-dozen bombs planted in precise, sometimes-pretty-difficult-to-find locations. Though each level is timed, you never find the clock nearing zero, so it doesn’t affect the experience.
Though the game keeps to its simple formula, there are also temporary upgrades to mix things up. If one of your Joes can find a hidden Cobra Battle Copter they can fly around and blast enemies at a great radius, while still being able to plant bombs. There’s another enemy vehicle called the Cobra Buzz Boar that if found empty you can steal. Though its attack is weak and hard to aim the machine can ride the ceiling and cling to walls. Also, there’s a large R2D2-shaped machine called the Cobra Pogo, which is probably my favorite. It inches along laterally but has jaw-dropping jumping ability and is great for vertical scrolling segments like in the Black Hills. When attacking with the Pogo blasts of energy are sent out left, right, and above you making it easy to eliminate Cobra troops. These upgrades are not powerful enough to break the game, but in the same sense as the stars in Mario they allow for a short-term change in gameplay and the rushing feeling of invincibility. How long you keep them is up to you, since you can leave at any point with the select button. But it’s also up to your skill since each vehicle has its own set of hit points. If you become overzealous enemies will wear you down quickly and you will find yourself without a vehicle. It’s possible to miss many of these vehicles since they are hidden, but if you’re looking around every corner and finding yourself walking through a few hidden paths, they will be at your disposal.
The player is left wondering while completing mission five and saving General Hawk what will happen next, and who will lead mission six. In a charming surprise Hawk himself charges the final mission. His graphic shows him with a jet pack, and fittingly enough his jump ability is rated a 99. Suddenly you have a character who can fly! Instead of breaking the game, however, the sixth mission is designed around Hawk’s ability to get around. In fact, it makes it difficult to use anyone else through both the regular level and the final boss.
It all leads to an anti-climactic end with Cobra Commander. Compared the other boss fights in the game you could argue it’s more challenging. The floor constantly moves to the right with large death traps. To use a character besides Hawk means precise jumping and not a lot of time to deal damage to Cobra Commander. For Hawk with a fully-upgraded weapon, however, it’s a matter of just floating there and unloading for a few seconds until the game’s over.
Unlike many classic games (like Ducktales 2), the value of GI Joe for NES has yet to spike. I missed out on a couple of eBay auctions bidding $7-8, before I got mine for $10. If you’re willing to be patient or cough up ten or so bucks the cart can easily be yours.
It’s no Mega Man 2 or Super Mario Bros. 3, but G.I. Joe: The Real American Hero for NES is worth at least two or three playthroughs. Sometimes you just want to sidescroll an hour away, blast up some baddies, and forget about thinking for a little while.