War was more fun in my day

Dad’s Army failed to spawn a video game of any sort, so if you’re hankering for a ‘sitting around waiting for the fighting to begin’ simulator, your best bet might be something based on Franco Bonvicini’s satirical Italian comic, Sturmtruppen, unveiled in 1968.

It’s the perfect candidate for a Green Beret style platformer what with its minimal action, heavy reliance on witty, biting dialogue and social commentary. What better vehicle for delivering a precis on the absurdity, bureaucracy and senselessness of war? As we M*A*S*H the fire button into dust we can ponder the validity of presenting military service as a microcosm for civilian life, drawing parallels between blindly adhering to arbitrary regimentation under fire and during peacetime.

You can snigger (I’ll wait), but it happened; Idea (who also treated us to pixelated adaptations of the lupine and feline Italian comics, Lupo Alberto, and Cattivik) published the game for the Amiga platform in 1992. Actually you’re supposed to write it as ‘iDEa’, but that just looks silly so I’m not going to draw attention to it in any way whatsoever. Sturmtruppen’s Commodore 64 counterpart never materialised; it’s a Game that Wasn’t and has been covered in detail elsewhere.

 

No-one noticed Sturmtruppen’s existence on the Amiga save for the German magazine, Joker, and they hated it judging by their 44% score. I suppose they might have done regardless of the quality of the game given that Germans are the ones lambasted as buffoons in the comics (and the two Italian language movie adaptations that followed in 1976 and 1982). Perhaps wisely, there hasn’t been another attempt to translate the same anti-war infused source material to the medium of gaming. Now that the comic has been defunct for nearly twenty years that’s not looking likely to change.

All that really ties Idea’s game to the original comics is the still, monochrome cell displayed after ticking off a level. As in Lupo Alberto, these serve to complete each series of three found in the manual. It’s a nice trick as long as the punchline isn’t lost in translation. I’ve not been able to track down the Sturmtruppen manual so wouldn’t know personally. If I did it might not be the multilingual version.

I suspect though if I could speak pseudo-German jokey Italian I might develop an affinity for the comic. Anything that smacks of the chaotic insanity of Joseph Heller’s vision of war as told through his provocatively demented first novel, Catch-22, gets my vote.

Much like Blackadder or Dad’s Army, the story revolves around infantrymen who spend more time dreading, debating, mocking or preparing for war than they do actually fighting in it.

It stars an ensemble cast of regular German characters, featuring numerous references to World War II without specifically committing to a particular event or era of historical unrest. Likely to suggest that war is eternally raging and one is interchangeable with the next. If war never goes out of fashion then Sturmtruppen should remain relevant indefinitely. Only really the technology deployed to annihilate one another evolves. A soldier targeted and terminated by an AI fuelled robot is still a dead soldier.

Meanwhile, it’s the lack of true conflict that poses a bit of a dilemma for developers hoping to devise an action game using the black-humoured franchise as an inspirational springboard. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to have kept Idea awake at night. They forged ahead regardless, seemingly creating a mash-up comprising a primitive prelude to Metal Slug, Moon Patrol and Silkworm. In a generous mood you could argue that it’s an ironic interpretation of the comic, what with all the shooting, maiming, explosions and destruction involved.

Sturmtruppen the comic doesn’t seem to possess a leading protagonist around which the stories revolve. Hence in the game, we play as an anonymous German soldier who initially stomps the desolate planes of a variety of war-ravaged terrains on foot, kicking his way out of trouble. At regular intervals we upgrade to real shooty weapons and clamber aboard a bike, a jeep, plane or tank to up the ante, adding a dash of variety to the proceedings in the process.

Safely nestled inside the cosy, protective bubble of one of our vehicular support systems our firepower is augmented to Rambo-strength levels of death-dealing destruction. Lodged in the jeep, for instance, we can shoot both horizontally to target land-locked threats, and vertically to fend off aerial attacks. You might wish a second soldier could join the melee in a helicopter at this point a la Silkworm. Sadly though it’s just a single-player affair.

The next best thing maybe (ish), amongst the adversaries encountered are helicopters, jeeps, bikes, missile-launching planes, tanks, anti-aircraft artillery gunners, GIs armed with guns and knives, a blimp, and flying chair-choppers. Inspector Gadget would no doubt approve of the latter.

Preoccupied with this marauding assemblage we could easily overlook the befitting scenery. Private No-name battles against the backdrop of a war-torn, dilapidated high-rise cityscape garnished with the usual trimmings; barb wire, sludge puddles, and sandbags. Later we visit an equally desolate desert and arctic tundra wasteland strewn with downed, fragmented planes, cacti, and… erm, igloos. Definitely a world war then.

A medley of weapons are at our disposal, bolstered by regular parachute drops. Once available these are selected using the spacebar, a green border indicating which weapon is currently engaged. On foot we can switch between fists and feet, a pistol, rifle, Uzi, sliding mine thingies (?) and pipe bombs.

Alternatively, once a vehicle is commandeered a new selection of munitions become accessible. These encompass one, two or three-way ballistics, or missiles. Lethal force has its place when dealing with enemy planes and tanks, although something akin to an inflated marigold glove might be more appropriate for tackling the waddling, flipper-footed scuba divers unless they plan to laugh us into submission with their Monty Python-esque antics.

We’ll know soon enough if our avatar in the HUD starts to turn skeletal, this being our energy metre. As we endure hits, our skin erodes away, leaving nothing but bones. Unsurprisingly enough, a skinless soldier is a dead soldier.

If we can survive to the end we’re rewarded with a minimally animated scene depicting our hero poking his head out of the hatch of a tank, surrounded by wooden cross graves with empty helmets perched on top.

We look directly out of the screen, punching the air with one hand, clutching a trophy in the other. Is that how this works then, war is a sport? A bit of relevant, albeit belated, satire? Better late than never I suppose! I’m not sure that soldiers losing their clothes and skulking off-screen when defeated counts as satire. It’s more ‘Carry On’.

Whatever it amounts to, as a bit of a novelty for fans of the comic, Sturmtruppen is an OK diversion to while away ten minutes. Before realising that nothing beats Cannon Fodder when it comes to making some serious points about the brutality of war via the art of casual gaming.

Controls are responsive enough and the gameplay reasonably varied if you can live with the budgety feel of the presentation, and predictable enemy attack patterns. These constantly re-spawn making it pointlessness to hang around in the hope that you’re clearing a path or achieving anything by standing your ground. Keep moving or die, those are your options.

Once the surreal gimmick of condensing decades worth of comic strip anti-war rhetoric into a gung-ho arcade game wears off, there’s sadly not much left here to hold our attention.

Green Beret got there first and did it far better.

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