Games | NES | G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The Atlantis Factor

Article by Jeremy Parish? | December 19, 2010

G.I. Joe:
A Real American Hero

Developer: KID
Publisher: Taxan
U.S. Release: 1991
Format: NES

G.I. Joe:
The Atlantis Factor

Developer: KID
Publisher: Capcom
U.S. Release: 1992
Format: NES

For much of the NES’s lifespan, The Goonies was the system’s definitive example of a Japanese-developed game based on a distincly American property. Four years later, however, it was finally eclipsed by an even more intrinsically American brand: G.I. Joe. Despite being created by the code ninjas at a Japanese stealth developer, G.I. Joe for NES (and to a lesser extent, its sequel The Atlantis Factor) did the best job of capturing the essence of the western franchise upon which it was based.*

Even 20 years later, the NES G.I. Joe games stand apart as fairly unique works. They’re aesthetically distinctive, boasting a visual style that could only be described as “rippling,” along with compact yet clearly defined sprites. Unlike most NES run-and-gun “guy games,” G.I. Joe didn’t push for huge character sprites -- a sure sign that its creators actually understood what the entire property was about. After all, the big deal about the G.I. Joe line on which the games were based was that the toys weren’t big. They were tiny, yet highly posable and solidly constructed, and their diminutive scale meant they were compatible with a wide range of vehicles... some of which were very big. The games recreated this spirit perfectly, frequently pitting the heroes against all sorts of enemy mechs and even giving them control of some of the toyline’s smaller vehicles from time to time.

The creators also took advantage of the on-screen characters’ compact design in other ways as well. The toy-like sprites let them push the action to something beyond a mere run-and-gun platformer. Despite initial appearances -- the first stage of each game is a single linear run against a steady stream of bad guys -- the Joe games quickly revealed themselves to be closer in design to the sort of thing you’d see in, say, a Spectrum or C64 title. The main portion of each stage was a non-linear Cobra base that players had to explore and sabotage; the goal of these base portions was to place explosives in key points within a certain time limit.

The bases were flanked on either side by infiltration and escape sequences capped with boss battles, but the real challenge was in navigating the huge levels and completing the sapping objectives. Each base was enormous, and the layouts were fairly complex, with lots of secret passages to contend with. Thorough exploration yielded ample rewards, though. Players who poked around in the correct corners would stumble across more than simple health and gun power-ups, as there were also vehicles to be acquired (and abandoned once they took enough damage) -- a favorite being the Buzz Boar, an impractical but effective saw-bladed personnel pod that could traverse any surface, be it vertical or horizontal.

Of course, this being a game based on an extensive action figure line, G.I. Joe emphasized the team aspect of the franchise: Players were given a pool of roughly half a dozen different characters to choose from, and three could be taken on a given mission at a time. The downside is that the game hit well after the toyline’s heyday, and Hasbro no doubt insisted that the lineup be drawn from the contemporary in-store offerings. This left players stuck with Capt. Grid Iron (a guy who shot football grenades) rather than old favorites like Shipwreck, although luckily classic characters Snake Eyes and Rock ’N Roll had been refreshed recently enough to warrant an inclusion.

Another downside is that each mission had a designated team leader, a character whose inclusion was mandatory for that stage. This was fine for, say, the sewer infiltration stage which required the use of Snake Eyes (who you were probably using anyway), but less appealing in the arctic level which forced the inclusion of the weak and useless Blizzard. Character selections were more than mere cosmetic tweaks, you see; each hero had different specialties, including firepower, health, dexterity, and melee strength. For example, Rock ’N Roll couldn’t jump for crap, but his dual chainguns were incredibly powerful. Snake Eyes, on the other hand, was physically strong and a nimble leaper, although not so great with the ranged attacks. (He fired a “jitsu of power,” because he was a ninja, you see... even though he was also a commando whose original toy came with a frickin’ Uzi.) Similar to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? or Contra Force, players could swap between their team of real American heroes at any time... with the added perk that, unlike those other two games, G.I. Joe didn’t suck.

The sequel, Atlantis Factor, worked along similar lines, yet it was inexplicably worse than the first game. Although the visual style was the same, the graphics were less attractive; the characters were less balanced; the level designs were more unfair and less fun to explore. The best thing I can say about the sequel is that it opened my eyes to the fact that developers and publishers aren’t the same thing; Atlantis Factor was picked up for U.S. release by Capcom, yet it looked the same as Taxan’s first game. Clearly, I realized, it was made by the same people despite the difference in labels.

As it turns out, the real developer -- an outsource code house named KID -- is probably best known for the softcore visual novels they produced before shutting down in 2007. Given the quality (and surprising fidelity) of these unabashed action platformers, their shift to romance-driven digital picture books seems like something of a fall from grace, like learning the dude who created Ghost in Shell makes his living drawing freakishly shiny pictures of naked cowgirls lactating while having sex with horses, or something. But whatever their ultimate fate, KID gave NES owners a damn fine G.I. Joe game (or two) that felt pleasantly authentic without being slavishly limited by the comics or cartoons that had come before it.** For G.I. Joe fans who lamented the series’ sad slide into mediocrity as the ’90s began, KID’s games were a welcome final hurrah for the greatest toy line of the ’80s—a perfect fit for the NES audience.

*Capcom’s Disney games don’t count, because Disney has long been thoroughly internationalized. Who in the world doesn’t love Scrooge McDuck? Monsters, that’s who.

** Konami did an amazing job of distilling the Sunbow cartoon into arcade form a year later, but then, no one could translate American cartoons into crazy Japanese arcade action like Konami’s early ’90s crew.

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