There was no Rambo or Rambo II Amiga game, we skipped straight to the third instalment without passing ‘nam or collecting Agent Orange; a movie license conversion from Ocean loosely based on the third person on rails style shooter, Taito coin-op game of the same name. Likely the explanation was a result of timing more than anything. First Blood was released in 1982, First Blood Part II in 1985 and Rambo III in 1988. The Amiga was really hitting its stride in the late eighties, though not so much in 2008 by the time Rambo IV emerged. By then I think it’s safe to say we were all suffering from Rambo-fatigue in any case.
So then, Ocean’s one and only Amiga game based on the hit franchise revolving around a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier specialised in guerrilla warfare hit the shelves in 1989, round about the same time the third movie would have been first released on VHS for ye old video cassette players.
We get off to a promising start with a nicely drawn title screen depicting a ‘fun time arcade’ featuring Taito classic coin-op titles such as Rastan, Operation Wolf, Double Dragon, Mat Mania, and Gladiator.
Will it all be downhill from here? Put it this way, it’s not a promising start when even the developers who created the game would rather not have their real names associated with it. Nevertheless, we’ve since learnt who these pseudonyms represent:
Coding: Elmer Fudd (John Brandwood)
Graphics: Ivan (Ivan Horn) and Rob (Robert Hemphill)
Music and FX: The Dunn (Jonathan Dunn)
Also involved were graphicians Mark K. Jones (Mark Jones Snr.), and Mark R. Jones (Mark Jones Jnr.) who didn’t receive an in-game credit at all. Mark Jones Junior was specifically responsible for the level 3 graphics. Speaking of whom, I took the opportunity to catch up with Mark to quiz him on the shroud of mystery surrounding the developer’s ties (or lack thereof) to the game. Were they ashamed of the title in some way? I wondered. Setting the record straight, Mark told me, “No, they just were put in for a laugh. No-one did it because they wanted to disown the game.” That’s that one put to bed then. Nothing more than a simple case of my overly CV/portfolio focused mind working overtime.
What made the first movie intriguing is that it isn’t an all-out, gungho action flick with Sylvester Stallone cast as the brainless war hero – in fact he’s a reluctant soldier from the outset who returns from Vietnam as a pilloried anti-hero who only wants to slink away into obscurity and be left alone in peace. It’s the influence of an arrogant, abusive sheriff that instigates his step over the line into becoming an outlaw.
Rambo III – this time set in Afghanistan – follows a similar pacifist-ish vibe, though without the political and social commentary or nuance of the inaugural entry in the series. We pick up the story in Thailand where John Rambo is eking out a meagre existence as a low-rent pit-stick fighter (hence the ish), donating the proceeds to a Buddhist missionary.
Unexpectedly he’s approached by his estranged former military commander and best friend, Colonel Sam Trautman, who has a not-so-enticing proposition for John; the very missable opportunity to join him on a CIA-backed mission of mercy in Afghanistan to quell the Soviet invaders who are presently terrorising the civilian population.
Weary of fighting (despite continuing to do so for a living, except, you know, for a noble cause), Rambo wants no part in his mercenary – albeit humanitarian – operation and bids him adieu. Of course without survival sleuth superman Sly on his team they’re as much use as a chocolate teapot and so naturally the troop is ambushed and slaughtered. Meanwhile Sam is taken prisoner and interrogated by Soviet Colonel Zaysen and his puppet stooge, Sergeant Kourov with a view to coercing him into revealing the finer details concerning the delivery of the stinger missiles intended to be used against him.
Although not specifically mentioned in the movie we’re still three years shy of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a year away from tearing down the Berlin Wall. In the midst of this unnamed Cold War, as a country the US refuses to officially stage a rescue attempt for fear of inciting the genuine article, yet the embassy is content for you to do the dirty work on your lonesome and wash their hands of you whatever the outcome, setting the scene for a one-man-army, brawn over brains, popcorn blockbuster typical of the ’80s. Driven by integrity and loyalty, John doesn’t have to think twice, government scumbaggery aside.
“Mousa: Why must you do this?
Rambo: Cause he’d do it for me.”
Rambo attempts to ally with Pakistani arms dealer Mousa Ghani and his Mujahideen followers to get close to Khost in the vicinity of the Soviet base where Colonel Trautman is being held against his will. Mousa is amenable to his plight, however, his ragtag band of brothers are reticent to become embroiled in his affairs because they’ve suffered a lifetime of subjugation and their spirits are already resigned to failure. Note that in 1988 pre-9/11 Hollywoodland, the Afghans are the good guys… a message hammered home with the closing credits track, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. How times have changed in the intervening years!
In a rare moment of pre-chaos downtime whilst Rambo brushes up on his Afghan sporting culture with a competitive game of ‘ride around on horseback, take the dead sheep and throw it in the painted circle’, the duo’s best laid plans go awry when they are attacked by a couple of Russian choppers.
“Mousa: [as Rambo prepares to play Afghan game ‘buzkashi’] God must love crazy people.
Rambo: [getting on horse] Why?
Mousa: He make so many of them!
Hardly a fair fight, yet fear not for Rambo also has precocious child warrior, Hamid, onboard so it’s not quite game over. Maybe he could team up with Indy’s mate, Short Round, and then they really would be a force to be reckoned with. If not there’s always military grade munitions, Rambo’s Bowie knife and Buddha amulet good luck charm to fall back on. One or the other ought to get the job done.
“Zaysen: Are you insane? One man against trained commandos… Who do you think this man is? God?
Colonel Trautman: No. God would have mercy. He won’t.”
Anyway, long story short, Rambo saves Sam from becoming a flame-grilled whopper and they evacuate in a hijacked Mi-24 Hind helicopter. Except before the ice in their champagne has had chance to melt, the hamstrung getaway vehicle crash-lands and explodes, forcing the party of escapees to vamoose across the desert on those non-powered devices… what-d’ya-call-’em? Feet, that’s it! Slow, but no petrol required.
Cutting straight to the chase, it was this element of the movie Ocean decided to hone in on when designing the accompanying game.
With your war paint in place, glow sticks at the ready, and stealth mode set to enabled, push fire to begin.
“Hamid: What’s that?
Rambo: It’s blue light.
Hamid: What does it do?
Rambo: It turns blue.”
In mission 1 we’re tasked with breaching the Soviet mountain fortress where Trautman is being held captive and no doubt poked with Nerf feudal plungers and called rude names. Once you’ve tracked him down inside the confines of the labyrinthine prison you’ll have to break him out without blowing your cover. If you’ve played Mindscape’s ‘Into The Eagle’s Nest…’ you’ll know exactly the style of top-down genre and mechanics to expect.
A menagerie of useful collectables litter the floor to aid you in achieving your objective. These can be stored in your inventory and activated using the spacebar at will. Batteries are obligatory for operating certain equipment, and mine detectors, well I’m not going to spell out what they’re for. The same can be said of gun silencers, while donning rubber gloves at key moments will prevent you from being electrocuted by booby-trapped doors. 25,000 volts through your delicate pinkies can really tingle if you’re not expecting it! Finally, infrared goggles can be used to identify alarm-triggering beams.
You set out armed with only your trusty, stabby Bowie knife, though can upgrade to a pistol, machine gun, bow and arrows, bombs and explosive arrows.
Mission 2 revolves around navigating through the opposition’s military vehicle compound, rigging the facility with explosives – as in the movie – and making your getaway in a stolen chopper… and not deactivating bombs as CU Amiga seemed to think in their review of the budget re-release. If there were bombs inside the enemy quarters, wouldn’t you have planted them in the first place? In which case, why would you want to disable them? “A strange scenario” they did point out.
If you remember nothing else about playing Rambo III once you’ve ejected the disk and formatted it for archiving your tax returns it’ll be for the quirky enemy death animations. Shoot a cold blooded savage soldier to death and they twirl on the spot like a bored, fidgety school girly in the playground (whose parents couldn’t afford the iPad she wanted for Christmas) before expiring and vanishing into the ether.
Pre-spinny-rotatey death jive the guards are largely oblivious to your existence; they traipse back and forth in a trance as though on rails. You get the impression you could walk right up to them, whisper sweet nothings into their lug holes, nibble on their noses and still fail to rouse them from their slumber. AI clearly wasn’t a top priority.
Turning the tables, as you sustain damage the avatar in the GUI representing the state of your health gradually metamorphoses from Rambo’s pretty face to that of Skeletor. See Batman for another example of the same energy depleting mechanic in action. Neither this or Batman represent the inception of the concept, yet each are especially well executed examples that perhaps popularised it.
Meanwhile back on the silver screen, a secluded cavern appears to offer sanctuary until more pursuing enemy choppers loaded with explosives are spotted on the horizon with a hoard of Zaysen’s ruthless abseiling warmongers in tow led by Sergeant Kourov. These are dispatched under supreme duress, only to be swiftly supplanted with another much larger battalion teeming with yet more helicopters, and now tanks. There must be more choppers in 1988 Afghanistan than a ’70s Raleigh warehouse!
Just when all hope seems lost, out of the blue, Masoud, chieftain of the Mujahideen rebel army, sends in the cavalry – literally on horseback – to join forces with Rambo to repel the mutual Soviet threat.
Zaysen plucks yet another chopper out of thin air, matched only by Rambo who bolstered by the extra muscle of his new comrades commandeers an adversary’s tank. Rather like a showdown between a final act nemesis and chiseled-from-stone leading man action hero they close in for the spectacular cinema-emptying battle royale, culminating in a cataclysmic collision. Take a wild stab at which one of them survives?
The game’s third and final mission also sees Rambo hijacking a Soviet tank armed with rotating gun turrets except he has Sam onboard and is tearing up the desert in a bid for freedom as he takes on the entire Soviet army including helicopter gunships and marauding tanks.
It’s an Operation Wolf style rolling escapade where reaching the border alive requires careful monitoring of your weapon’s temperature gauge and precision mouse control of your cross-hair. Continue to dispense ammunition at full pelt without a cool-down period and it will lock up at the critical moment, leaving you vulnerable to attack.
In a departure from most action movies, in the game we’re not really concerned with bumping off the big bad evildoer, only to get out alive ASAP… if not sooner. I share the sentiment, I think we’d all suffered quite enough by this stage. Analogously the critics wasted little time dissecting or playing Ocean’s coin-op conversion. They already had their targets locked on the (hopefully) far better sequel… which never landed, at least not for the Amiga.
“The graphical bit where Rambo loses energy to gradually become a skull is quite funny, but it’s not worth eight quid.”
14% – Amiga Power issue 4 (August 1991)
“The graphics and music in Rambo III are fairly pleasing, although the bird’s eye view of the action is annoying and does nothing to make the player become immersed in the action. Rambo III is first and foremost a shoot ’em up, and that is where its appeal lies: bloodthirsty entertainment for the bloodthirsty masses.”
75% – CU Amiga (September 1991)
“Rambo III provided some surprisingly absorbing computer entertainment, though it lacks the great Martin Galway theme that accompanied the original. For the most part the graphics are neat and to the point. All in all a good though not stunningly original little games package from an apparently weak film licence.”
81% – Commodore User (December 1988)
“The graphics are fine and the game play bearable but there’s nothing really interesting here. There are much better games of similar ilk.”
57% – Commodore Format (May 1991)
“A shallow shoot ’em up cum maze game that relies too heavily on its nametag.”
47% – Zzap! (February 1989)
“A tough game, with trigger happy fast-moving Russians rushing around and rapidly diminishing levels. The original Rambo wasn’t too good to look at, but the sequel features some detailed graphics, effective use of colour, and it plays well – if slightly frustrating through its difficulty.”
72% (Spectrum version) – The Games Machine (February 1989)
“Not much difference in the gameplay, although the enemy guards behaviour has changed a little. Exactly the same problems to solve and area to explore. Looks reasonably good too, but lacking in the sound effects department.”
65% (Spectrum version) – ACE (April 1989)
“The layout of the game, and its reliance on cunning as much as killing may come as a surprise. There isn’t so much of the ‘Ramboesque’ machismo one is led to expect from the films. Neat touches are in evidence even if the suspense is lacking in parts. The injury level indicator, if slightly grotesque, is a refreshing change from simple bar graph indicators, while in part the ease with which the guards can be dispatched does leave a little to be desired. Tell you one thing, though: Rambo on the CPC is a better actor than he is in the films!”
“A solid, playable licence that will keep you excited for a long time.”
67% – Amstrad Action issue 47 (March 1989)
Incidentally, four weeks before the release of the movie Russia pulled out of Afghanistan making the movie’s raison d’etre appear a bit of a damp squib, and the Russian villains drastically less villainous. While this would have taken the wind out of its sails for anyone aware of the geopolitical turmoil at the time and watching the boomy-bangy-crashy-smashy action flick as a lesson in current affairs, it wasn’t really reflected in the box office performance; $189m from a budget of $63m. It didn’t appear to matter in the least that Sly was nominator for a ‘worst actor’ Razzie Award for his performance in Rambo III, or that he claimed the prize! Still, it won’t have come as too much of a shock to him having taken home the same ‘accolade’ in 1985 in relation to ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’. What can I say? Every mantelpiece needs symmetry!
Like the movie, the 8-bit game didn’t fare too badly in the popularity stakes. In August 1989 it reached number 14 in the top 20 Gallup charts for the Spectrum platform, and number 20 in the C64 line-up (C&VG issue 94, August 1989).
Unbelievably in May 1991 – as the 16-bit revisions emerged – the Spectrum incarnation was riding high at number 3, while the C64 game wasn’t trailing far behind, occupying the respectable 6th slot (C&VG issue 114). In June 1991 the Amstrad version clocked in at number 15, while the C64 edition enjoyed a short resurgence at number 18 before dropping out of the running entirely (C&VG issue 115).
We Amigos weren’t such willing conscripts; the 16-bit audience apparently more discerning, later Atari ST and Amiga releases failed to make a dent in the charts at all.
Normally with a dodgy movie license game we can at least console ourselves by delving into the superior source material and airbrushing out the spin-offs we’d rather hadn’t happened. Within the confines of our own hackable headspace at least.
Hello brick wall. Have you met my nose? Hmmf, so now what? Well the trailer isn’t half bad. All the best one-liners, stunts and pyrotechnics have been condensed into the perfect bite sized YouTube micro-movie, making it far more palatable than the cut you would have endured at the cinema… a cut that even Rambo himself would have struggled to cauterise!