Alternative Software made a habit of scooping up licenses to older, sometimes forgotten franchises that likely wouldn’t have to be fought over tooth and nail to secure. Fireman Sam, Popeye, and Jaws in 1991, Huckleberry Hound in Hollywood Capers and ‘Allo ‘Allo! Cartoon Fun! in 1993 spring to mind.
Also in 1993 – released two years after the movie’s theatre debut – was Suburban Commando starring the world’s most recognisable wrestler of all time, Terry Gene Bollea aka Hulk Hogan. Had everything gone according to plan Arnold Schwarzenegger and sidekick Danny DeVito would have filled the starring roles, except they were preoccupied with filming Twins at the time. Instead, Hulk stepped into the breach to take the lead, ably assisted by seasoned co-star Christopher Lloyd who was at a loose end after shooting wrapped up on Back to the Future III.
This would be Hulk’s second fictional movie also backed by New Line Cinema, following on from ‘No Holds Barred’ released in 1989 in which – believe it or not – he plays a wrestler. Whilst doubling its $8m budget in ticket sales its considered “tremendously crude, unapologetically manipulative, and aimed directly at easily entertained 13-year-old boys” according to film critic Brian Orndorf.
Likewise, Alternative Software’s belated adoption of Suburban Commando was a strange choice given the movie was such a flagrant flop when it was current, generating just $8m at the box office whilst costing $11m to produce. Maybe they were expecting a ‘so bad it’s good’ resurgence, assuming themselves to be ahead of the cringy, cult status curve.
Despite failing to capture the imagination of the cinema-going public Suburban Commando spawned an official Hasbro Shep Ramsey toy figurine to commemorate Hulk’s off-the-wall portrayal of the saviour of the universe. At the time you could even buy a General Suitor monster-morphing model kit, presumably to scare the kiddies at Halloween parties.
Unsurprisingly the accompanying game didn’t win too many championship belts either. Alternately praised meekly and dismissed by the critics, and shunned by Hulkamaniacs, it failed to make a dent in the sales charts upon self-publication, courtesy of its Yorkshire based developers. I’d imagine far more copies have changed hands on eBay since the days when the Hulkster ran wild in the square circle, Brother, thanks to nostalgic wrestling fans chasing novelty curios.
“Suburban Commando is a solid little game, nothing spectacular or amazingly original, but decent, solid fun. It might be a bit easy for experienced platform fans, but it’s definitely worth having a grapple with for a few rounds. Ding Ding! Seconds out.”
82% – Commodore Format (August 1993)
“Film licenses like this one don’t come around very often. Thank god! If any of you remember the film, this game is a lot worse. It starred ex-WWF wrestler Hulk Hogan, favourite of kids and grannies everywhere, as Shep Ramsey. This intergalactic hero starts the film by destroying the evil General Suitor’s ship. Unfortunately, Shep’s ship is damaged in the battle and he crash lands on Earth. Here he must find parts to repair his ship while fighting off the attentions of the bounty hunters sent to kill him.”
68% – CU Amiga (January 1994)
GamesMaster, I’m stuck on Afterburner’s shooty flying bit. What would you suggest?
“Publishers like Alternative must be absolutely sick of people reviewing their software and saying “Well, it would be alright if it was a budget game”. It is not something your Oceans and Gremlins and MicroProses have to contend with, is it? Then again, your Oceans and Gremlins and MicroProses do not often come up with this kind of thing.”
62% – Amiga Power (January 1994)
“Hulk Hogan swaps Mr Nanny’s slapstick apron for something a bit more macho in this seven-level platformer from Alternative. You play Shep Ramsey, a moustachioed large-headed superhero who keeps his brains well and truly in his drawers while leaping around the themed worlds encouraging bad guys to show respect and sabotaging the evil General Suitor’s mischievous plans.”
21% – Amiga Format (January 1994)
While calling Suburban Commando a comedy is a bit of a stretch, ‘sci-fi’ certainly applies to the kiddie-friendly ‘fish out of water’ space opera co-starring Christopher Lee, Shelly Duvall and Larry Miller.
Opening with a galactic astral battle swiped straight out of Star Wars, Hulk blasts his way aboard a colossal star destroyer, tearing up the decor to root out the chief baddie. Cue the introduction of American Conservatory Theatre founder, despot and Emperor Palpatine wannabe, General Suitor, played by the late William Ball. By the time Suburban Commando was unleashed to the public William had been dead for two months; suicide was the coroner’s verdict. Not that I’m trying to draw any correlations.
Suitor – with his crusty black heart set on universe domination – has shanghaied President Hashina, stowing him away on his mothership until the time is right to snuff out his lights. Well, if you’re going to be authentically menacing you’ve got to explain your motivations first haven’t you. Any Bond villain can confirm that.
Before Hulk can burst in to save the day, Hashina frisbees a deadly (?) Manilla envelope at Suitor severing one of his hands (and setting up a postman phobia joke for later). A reptilian substitute instantly grows in its place as the General’s transformation completes. More of a hindrance than a showstopper, the psychotic alien mutant retaliates by killing Hashina with a Darth Vader style neck crush. Just another day at the office then.
Interstellar warrior Shep Ramsey (no dog jokes please), failing in his efforts to extricate him rigs the place to explode, abandoning ship in an escape pod in the nick of time. Assuming Suitor to be dead Shep steels himself for his next mission. Spoiler: he’s not. Oh, you’d already guessed?
“Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!”
Hulk, clearly stressed and off his game, his superior officer insists he takes a break from super-heroing. As if to confirm his assessment, Shep takes his frustration out on his ship’s dashboard sending it spiralling out of control all the way down to earth, crash-landing on top of an abandoned discotheque. Disco music having lost its appeal by 1991, this will be Shep’s makeshift spaceship rehabilitation centre. Luckily the landlord has left the power connected.
You died seven times in a row? That’s nothing, “Christ… I was FROZEN today!”
Shep is informed that as his ship will need to be recharged extremely slowly to avoid detection by Suitor’s followers he must remain on earth for six weeks. Charlie later points out that the same homing device technique can be exploited to track down his stolen freeze-ray gun using a, wait for it… P.K.E. meter on loan from the Ghostbusters set! When this is fired at Shep by a bank robber he deflects its influence by drinking anti-freeze beforehand. Really. Charlie, on the other hand, didn’t see it coming.
In the meantime, he’s expected to shed his space warrior gear and blend in with the earthlings by learning our customs and avoiding killing anyone – something that doesn’t come naturally to an assassin, of sorts. In effect he’ll be held captive on a planet he finds totally baffling, to comedic effect. Allegedly.
Following a tree-posted ‘apartment for rent’ sign (featuring just an arrow for directions) Shep ends up living with the Wilcox family in Christopher Lloyd’s converted workshop. As he gets acquainted with Charlie, his wife and kids Shep lays low, servicing his damaged spaceship in his spare time.
Curiosity gets the better of Charlie leading him to overturn his room looking for clues. He stumbles across Shep’s laser gun (borrowed from the Masters of the Universe prop department!), and shoots it at the wall, somehow unaware that it might fire something dangerous. His holey lampshade and plaster is the least of his worries, the traceable energy surge inadvertently giving away their whereabouts to Suitor’s henchmen.
Back from the dead and joining the dots Suitor orders two of his intergalactic bounty hunters to pay Shep a visit and haul all six feet seven inches of him back to his celestial playground. Which is why he needs to step up his quest to source the elusive fuel needed to kick-start his ship; ultra-rare crystals that coincidentally Beltz (Charlie’s boss played by Larry Miller) has a sample of in his office. Purely for decoration and bragging rights.
With Mark Calloway (WWF wrestler, The Undertaker) and his partner, Knuckles, on his trail this will be anything but easy. So it’s lucky that former WWF wrestler Ed Leslie (Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake) didn’t join the fray. He was drafted in only as a stuntman. All the intergalactic warrior exterminating roles had been allocated by then apparently.
Seven “action-packed stages” comprise the DOS, C64 and Amiga interpretation of Shep’s dilemma, beginning with an R-Type style shoot ’em up in which we hurtle towards Suitor’s mothership annihilating his star fleet in what we’ll have to assume is a doomed rescue operation. En route, it’s possible to collect power-up bubbles granting our mechanical eagle extra speed and lives, a shield and a variety of “fantastic weaponry” including a three-way shot, outriders, ripple lasers, homing missiles, and rear shots.
We’re helpfully informed by Mr G. Manual that you should…
“Take care – you’ll need all the power you can get to fight your way through to the next stage. Your skill at destroying the General’s bases will affect the difficulty of the next stage!”
That sounds a lot like the adaptive difficulty curve system found in Bitmap Brothers’ Gods. I have no idea if it made a genuine impact there or in Suburban Commando.
Embodying a Chibi style visage of The Super Destroyer, Mr America, the remainder of the levels are traditional platforming affairs focused around acquiring the essential components of our ship, fuel and power orbs. You’ll need a predetermined number before being allowed to progress to the next level, forcing you to explore every last nook and cranny.
Ladders and springs will aid you with this, while the screen scrolls smoothly in all directions. You don’t so much scramble up ladders like a muscly marine might. It’s more a case of bounding up them like a kangaroo jumping on a series of flat surfaces because its arms weren’t designed to grapple with ladders. I imagine this saved quite a few frames of tricky animation, and I suppose it does add to the zany cartoon style aesthetics. You could say the same about the ‘no jump zones’.
Another option is jet-powered boots. These should be regularly refuelled and can be collected to reach higher ground as in the movie where they’re worn by Hulk as well as the bedraggled bounty hunters. Either way, flight augments your ability to track down keys used to open doors to the next stage, all the while avoiding respawning guards and fanged security robot.
If any of this proves too challenging the difficulty level can be throttled back to cater for the full spectrum of platforming prowess, from macho to wimp. With every hit you become temporarily invulnerable and even invisible in some cases, so that certainly helps. Executing each and every jump with a grunt is somewhat less efficacious.
In the final showdown, we tackle our nemesis on earth (at the D-I-S-C-O no less), having already made him homeless in level two by planting seven bombs in specific locales inside his mother ship in order to obliterate it. According to the manual “The locations are random and will depend on how well you did on the previous stage.” Again the suggestion seems to be that the game punishes you for your achievements. You know, this is precisely the reason I chose never to become the supreme ruler of the universe. Damn you society for extinguishing my ambition. “I coulda been a contender!”
With a healthy dollop of imagination, and all seven bombs planted, you must make a desperate dash to the escape hatch before the Death Star – I mean mothership – implodes repainting the vessel’s interior with your guts.
Survive the implied turn of events and your next stop is earth, where we get to meet Wendy ‘heeeere’s Johnny’ – Torrance, Dr Emmett – ‘great Scott!’ – Brown, and their two kiddywinks, who I could probably Christen with middle names if I hadn’t already grown bored with the gimmick.
First though we must take on the “supreme champion of Suitor’s forces” in a scrimmage to the death, for he blocks our departure. I can’t say I remember him from the movie.
In fact, we must dispatch several end-of-level bosses throughout our bewildering little jaunt to the blue and green planet, some of which were invented solely for gaming purposes what with there being so few unique, authentic ones from which to choose. Unless out of the blue I developed narcolepsy during the movie, no ‘leader of the street punks’ put in an appearance at any point.
On each occasion, we switch into a Street Fighter style beat ’em up mode in which flying kicks, punches, acrobatic rolling somersaults, uppercuts and sweeping leg manoeuvres should be engaged to “take out the trash”. That sounds like something Hulk would say so I’m adding quotation marks to make it official.
All these moves, plus a ‘fireman’s carry’ throw, are available throughout the game, yet you don’t realise how beat ’em uppy they truly are until you attempt to execute them in a one-on-one fighting scenario.
A laser gun – as featured in the movie – wouldn’t have gone amiss to put some distance between you and the antagonists. A weedy punch being your primary ‘weapon’ is a real handicap since your reach is so restricted; often you’ll take damage just aligning yourself to ensure a strike connects with the target.
Master the delicate feint and the goons can be temporarily stunned, inviting you to swiftly shunt them off their perches and seemingly out of the screen towards you. I wonder if the developers were Rick Dangerous fans.
Developers going the extra mile to inject a bit of personality into their progeny will always win them Brownie points with me, especially while the majority cut corners and rush to the finish line with diminishing returns.
In the same spirit, Hulk teeters precariously on the edge of platforms if he gets too close, giving you the opportunity to correct his balance before falling. When you do want to drop down a level, pulling downwards on the joystick and pushing fire gets the job done, saving you having to backtrack to find a suitable opening.
Crash-landing on earth you find yourself in Los Angeles, just because that’s where a million and one films are set. Except no-one told Shep he was starring in a cheesy, funny-because-it’s-not-funny kiddy comedy, so he’s none the wiser.
Sorry, I was thinking about the bit where the construction firm’s receptionist tells Shep to take a seat, and he literally picks up a sofa as if it’s a bag of feathers. Where were we?
Nestled in our new home away from home the objective is to source the essential components needed to revive our ship. To accomplish this we’ll need to traverse the uncharacteristically perilous ‘burbs, fending off merciless street punk gangs and underworld hoodlums, as well as General Suitor’s mercenaries. Meandering the earthling’s domain we visit the local fairground, underground car park and the sewers. Clearly the movie was lacking in varied backdrops so some new ones had to be improvised for the game. Pfft, selfish movie producers never thinking of the poor game developers.
With your spaceship jump-starting paraphernalia secured we must now acquire the final piece of the puzzle; the ultra-obscure alien crystals, which can only be found in outer space, and somehow also in the office of construction firm boss, Beltz. You’ll discover there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the degree of fun had watching Suburban Commando, and the number of logic-based questions you ask. So, moving swiftly on.
To swipe Beltz’s crystal ornaments we must attend a party at his partially completed skyscraper project, the one he needs Charlie to pitch to his Japanese investors to seal the deal. Getting in is easy because architect Charlie designed the building and is on the payroll as a bonafide employee.
The manual alludes to our ultimate skirmish taking place in a room set within the skyscraper, yet as we know, in the movie Suitor attacks Shep and Charlie in the dilapidated disco having driven there with the Wilcox family as his hostages. Oh well, it’s not the first or last detail that was lost in translation, that’s just the way licensed games work. What’s odd is that despite the misunderstanding in the manual we wind up at the ‘Landing Pad’ disco in the game too.
Suitor puts up a commendable fight for the finale, even morphing into the Creature from the Black Lagoon (or is it the Predator?) just when you think he’s a goner. If it wasn’t for the absence of Doc Brown trying to crush his crown jewels with Hulk’s Nintendo Powerglove, this would perfectly mirror the General’s contingency plan as seen on the silver screen.
Of course, he’s no match for Hollywood Hogan who is prepared to sacrifice his own life by detonating his getaway vehicle to eliminate Suitor for the greater good. While it doesn’t come to this – Shep electrocuting the phoney emperor with some stray live cables, energising him to ‘pull some shapes’ on the dance floor – it’s the thought that counts.
You’d think Shep might be stranded on earth at this point, until you realise that Suitor had to have arrived in a spaceship too, and that one’s in pristine condition, looking rather like StarBug from Red Dwarf. Shep commandeers it to return home – technically ‘the galaxy’ being a roving intergalactic warrior for hire – taking an unorthodox souvenir with him; Bentz’s secretary, purely for research purposes you understand.
You wouldn’t approach Suburban Commando the game with great expectations given its lowly B movie origins, so the above-average result comes as a welcome surprise. If you bought the budget re-release I think you’d have got value for money.
Level one is competently coded, handling smoothly and responsively. Overall it passes for a solid Gradius clone, albeit an extremely derivative one by 1993 standards. It’s certainly no pushover for the average gamer so you needn’t be concerned with the usual limited longevity issues.
Subsequent platforming sections too, while breaking little new ground, are reasonably well constructed, and illustrated. Hulk controls well – if a little over-sensitively – while his range of attacking and defensive manoeuvres is impressive considering the genre Suburban Commando occupies.
Back then it was quite a rarity for a platformer to transition into a proper beat ’em up mid-flow, so that certainly elevates it above the competition. Blending these three genres in particular into a single game may even make Suburban Commando unique where old school games are concerned. Contemporary retro-styled games, on the contrary, have waded into more adventurous territory since.
What might have helped to make the boss battles more spectacular is to isolate the special moves to just these arenas. You’d be all the more motivated to reach them because it would be like unlocking an entirely new game. For the platforming stages in-between these sub-rewards Shep could be given a limited ammo gun, or some other weapon to delineate the disparate gameplay styles. You’d appreciate the variety far more that way I’d imagine.
Secret areas, some excellent pixel art in places (including a beautifully drawn title screen), Sonic style ramp-rolling, and a plot that closely follows the movie are additional plus points that earn the Hulkster some kudos.
What fundamentally lets him down, however, is his pitiful foremost means of attack, making him far more vulnerable than is ideal. We’re supposed to be a formidable force in alien-bashing Samaritanism, not an amateur have-a-go-hero!
As for the movie, it remains enjoyable because it’s so creaky and some of the jokes fall that flat you have to wonder how they ever made it through the screen-testing process. Charlie’s running traffic light gag for instance. Others are so absurd – refer back to my ‘apartment for rent’ comments – that they’re funny even as an adult.
What carries it as an adult guilty pleasure is the casting. Hulk Hogan playing a bewildered lost out of space giant is inspired. It’s like babysitting a goofy caveman pet for the afternoon – the farcical sight gag alone can’t fail to make you smile. Come on, you’ve at least got to give Hulk some credit for going out on a limb, and not being afraid to face the inevitable jibes.
Nobody should expect an award-winning script or acting from a Hulk Hogan movie – embrace the nonsense and you’ll have a good time. It’s certainly not worth killing yourself over.