Metroidvania Chronicles VI: Rambo

(Aka Samus Stallone)

Only three good things ever came from the entire Rambo series. The first was the original movie, which despite its excessive violence and slightly over-the-top one-man-takes-on-the world plot was actually pretty good. Most of that stems from the fact that beneath the explosive veneer of Sly Stallone blowin' stuff up real good was a story with substance -- and a critique of how poorly America treated Vietnam veterans, among other things. It was also eerily prescient, since John Rambo's one-man war bears a lot of similarities to things that came later to American headlines: freaky militia types, postal rampages, disgruntled snipers.

The second was that brief daydream snippet in UHF which involved Weird Al Yankovic in an oiled-up body suit destroying a HIND by spitting bullets at it. Which was pretty much the second and third Rambo flicks condensed to thirty seconds -- a Thumbnail Theatre?, if you will, but made even better by the presence of oversized eyeglasses and a horrible white-boy fro.

The third was, shockingly enough, the NES game based on First Blood Part II. Even more surprising? It was a Metroidvania-style adventure.

Yes, I used the Sega Master System art as the basis for this image. There's a very important reason for that: SMS box art was awesome.

Rambo
[ NES | Pack-In Video/Acclaim | 1989 ]

Make no mistake here: Rambo for NES is in no way a four-star game. In fact, it's tough to argue it above two-star. But compared to the rest of the Rambo milieu, well, it's downright brilliant.

It's a wonder I even played Rambo back in the day. The movie struck me as being incredibly brain-dead and violent, and the visuals were nothing to brag about. But that was back when my friends and I used to trade games back and forth, and Rambo was all that was on offer at the time. "It's kind of terrible," my friend admitted. "I don't like it at all, and it's impossible to beat." I shrugged and borrowed it anyway, since I'd learned that my friends' idea of what was bad didn't necessarily mean anything (see: Rygar), and I was stubborn enough to beat pretty much any "impossible" game they set in front of me (see: Karnov).

So the fact that Rambo was utterly decent, not to mention fairly huge, was a pleasant if not entirely surprising revelation.

The best way to describe Rambo's gameplay, I guess, would be to ask you to close your eyes and envision the following bizarre mash-up: Rush 'N' Attack's gameplay; Castlevania II's structure.

Weird? Yes. But somehow, perfectly suited for the license. After all, the movie mostly took place in a massive confusing jungle, and Rambo himself was a highly-trained knife-fightin' maniac. The action is a little faster-paced than in either of its apparent inspirations, but the connection seems pretty undeniable.

Rambo's Vietnam, like Simon's Transylvania, is a long series of side-scrolling areas filled with a variety of hazards. (There are plenty of VC, which is to be expected, but Rambo also has to duke it out with pretty much every bit of wildlife that crawls, leaps or flutters through the underbrush.) The jungle is one big interconnected world, sometimes confusingly so; passing through the left or right end of some segments will take you to the next one, while in other cases you loop back to the opposite end of the current area.

Progress mostly comes by finding passages north or south (handily marked N and S), which will take you to other areas. Sometimes they're one-way passages for no good reason whatsoever and force you to retrace your footsteps. The upshot is that the game features a huge world with far too few landmarks and a resultantly confusing layout. It's pretty great! (In a not-so-great sense of the word.)

The environments do a pretty good job of mimicking the movie's storyline; you move from U.S. base to jungle to POW camp to jungle to VC base to jungle and then to some more jungle, at which point you have to blow up a helicopter with what seems like a few million hand grenades.

Surprisingly, Rambo features an experience system, patterned fairly obviously after Zelda II's. In fact, killing enemies causes a little number to float upward in what appears to be the same font that Zelda II uses. Unfortunately the level system is a bit... uh, well, you get your first level at 20 EXP. And your second at about 1100. "Inexpertly crafted" would be the proper term, I suppose. Much like the rest of the game.

Fortunately, you keep all your experience (and weapons) when you continue, and whichever bit of dialogue you last encountered serves as a sort of continue point. This is handy sometimes and hair-pullingly inconvenient at other times. Convenient: continue point near tough stretch of jungle. Inconvenient: reaching the continue point alerts the VC to your presence and they promptly swarm the already difficult jungle areas in perpetuity.

Oh well. Symphony of the Night this ain't. Enough of that.

This screenshot of the Japanese version is interesting -- apparently Rambo's "experience" points were actually "anger" points. The madder Rambo gets, the harder Rambo hits. And nothing pisses him off like killing Charlie! And bees! And snakes! And FLYING SKULL MONSTERS WTF

Rambo deserves a small mention for its alternate ending; if you play through proper-like, Vietnamese cutie Co dies, just like in the movie. But if you break the rules a little, she'll be back at your base at the end of the game, ready to start a new life as Mrs. John Rambo. Co's fortunes are determined near the end of the game when you meet her, dying, beneath a waterfall. Talk to her and she shares a final tender moment with her favorite white man -- but if you completely ignore her and walk on past, she somehow gets better. The lesson, obviously, is that compassion causes weakness and death. Truly, the developers captured the Republican zeitgeist of the films.

So yes, Rambo was as messy as most other NES games. But it's always rare to come across a licensed game with such ambitions, so it's a notable work. Even if it does kind of suck.

Now that I think about it, I might have to revise my opening statement. Was there ever a Rambo Cereal? Maybe with little M-60 shaped marshmallows? Because that would make four good things to come from Rambo.

Anyway, the NES game is pretty janky, but it's still the best Rambo-thing ever.

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