Monday, July 4, 2011

Oddities: G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike (Atari 2600, 1983)

"Yo, Joe!"

It's the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the States, and a fine time to celebrate America's history (or at least its high-tech, buzz-cut military reputation) with a quick game of G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike, produced in 1983 by Parker Brothers for the Atari 2600.

The cartridge was based on Hasbro's 1980s revival of the venerable action figure line, replacing the solitary 12" G.I. Joe hero/adventurer with a new, team-based 3 3/4" approach that made for exponentially more toys and marketing opportunities.  Unfortunately, the Atari 2600 wasn't really up to rendering individual G.I. Joe characters, vehicles or costumes, so the conflict is played out from a 50,000-foot view.  A giant snake-shaped C.O.B.R.A. robot fires venom and lasers at terrified military personnel running along the bottom of the screen, while the player, as the heroic but rather remote and uninvolved Joe team, tries to shield them with a sliding barrier.  The manual tells us that the anonymous figures running for their lives are G.I. Joe recruits; I like to imagine them cursing out the glad-handing officer from the high school career fair, as they dodge instantly fatal poison and sizzling laser beams fired by the obviously better-capitalized and highly motivated C.O.B.R.A. forces.

There's also a two-player cooperative mode, in which each player uses a paddle to control one shield and one of the gun turrets at the sides of the screen (which, despite the visual depiction, fire straight up -- at least the missiles are steerable while in flight.)  The Joe-team player(s) can win by destroying the giant snake with 8 direct hits on its eyes, although occasionally it is vulnerable to a single direct hit,

The best thing about this game is that a third player can opt to grab a joystick and control the C.O.B.R.A. forces, trying to zap the helpless infantrymen as they run along the bottom of the screen.  This is also the worst thing about the game, as it's a lot more fun to be the bad guy firing the heavy weaponry instead of the good guys playing defense and limited offense.  The C.O.B.R.A. player wins by killing capturing four of the hapless, disposable recruits.

The Parker Brothers engineering team knew its way around the Atari 2600, and this game is technically impressive, with a lot of visual detail given the system's capabilities.  The running recruits move at slightly different speeds and appear in different shades of green, and up to 4 appear at one time with no visible flickering.  And the C.O.B.R.A. robot has an undulating body that floats up and down as it moves across the screen -- it's one of the largest moving objects ever seen on the 2600, and when destroyed it splits in two, a neat little visual reward for the player's hard work.  The sound is not as spectacular -- we hear a basic single-voice reveille as the game starts up, and the rest of the soundtrack is dominated by bomb-dropping sounds for Cobra's venom, and deep beeps whenever a recruit is taken out.

More intricate G.I. Joe games would surface on the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo Entertainment System later on, but this initial console entry isn't bad.  The gameplay gets old after a while, as there isn't much variety available in a 4K ROM cartridge, and a normal round of play is just one long, repetitive escort mission.  But with a range of difficulty settings available, or a skilled second or third player, the basic concept is solid enough to offer quite a bit of fun.  If only it were more entertaining to be the good guys...

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