G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was one of my most pleasant NES discoveries of recent years. This feature-packed 1991 action-platformer is easily one of the better licensed releases for the system. Since I’ve been watching a ton of the classic Sunbow era G.I. Joe cartoon lately to unwind, I figure there’s no time like the present to check out Real American Hero’s Capcom-published 1992 follow-up, The Atlantis Factor. Is it another home run from developer KID? No, Joe!
Okay, okay. So I couldn’t resist a line like that. Truth is, this is far from the worst NES title I’ve come across. KID was a talented outfit and they seemingly made a good faith effort here to build on the team mechanics and persistent power-ups of Real American Hero while adding a touch of non-linearity to the stage progression. These flourishes don’t amount to much without the first game’s quality level design and general playability, however.
As you may expect, our story involves the ruthless terrorist organization Cobra raising the ruins of Atlantis from the ocean floor and harnessing some of sort of strange Atlantean energy source to threaten world domination. It falls on G.I. Joe, America’s most elite fighting force, to infiltrate the lost continent and foil Cobra’s villainous ambitions. Routine Saturday morning silliness, all told.
The mission is headed up by the Joe head honcho himself, General Hawk, who functions as a baseline character with no special skills. He must have forgot his jet pack back at home base. Completing specific stages will allow you to add new Joes to your team, and each of them does have some sort of unique advantage. Duke can fire his gun upward (previously a universal ability in Real American Hero), Roadblock can crawl through low passages, Wet Suit can operate underwater, and both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have access to ninja sword attacks.
Teamwork is the name of the game, as you’re able to choose up to three Joes to take into a given level. They all have their own separate health bars and weapon skill ratings that can be permanently enhanced by collecting power-up icons. You’ll constantly be swapping characters via the pause menu in order to ensure none of them kick the bucket on you or hog all the precious upgrades. If you’ve played Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game before, you know the drill.
One excellent new addition is the concept of support Joes. Your reward for finishing most stages is a single-use radio. When activated, the radio will put you in touch with your choice of Gung-Ho, Spirit, or Big Bear. Gung-Ho replenishes your ammo supply on the spot. Spirit does the same for your health. Big Bear can instantly revive a “dead” Joe, something that normally involves a long wait and a stat penalty for the returning character. Whatever you do, try not to let these valuable items go to waste. Continues are thankfully unlimited, but unused radios are lost on game over and can’t be recollected.
Atlantis itself is depicted as a Bionic Commando style map screen containing six main Cobra bases (labelled A-F) connected by a series of sixteen numbered outdoor routes. Because there are multiple paths to the final confrontation with Cobra Commander in area F, you don’t need to visit every location to reach the end. Although the game rewards thoroughness with an expanded character roster, new weapons, and extra radios, a good amount of its content is technically optional. In theory, that’s fine. I just wish more of it was interesting. The outdoor levels in particular are defined by their dull layouts and repetitive enemy placement. Every one of Real American Hero’s sixteen stages had its own unique boss, not to mention a lot of cool touches like multiple types of Cobra vehicle you could commandeer and pilot. There are no vehicles to be found this time. Worse, only the six bases have proper bosses, a huge loss when you consider what a highlight these battles were in the last installment.
The character upgrade system has its flaws, too. You can’t revisit areas you’ve already completed, nor can you “farm” stat boosts from enemies. The enemies will respawn, their item drops won’t. This means that any Joes unlucky enough to join your team late in the game will be pathetically underpowered with few good opportunities to catch up. When I recruited my last character, Snake Eyes, he came with a measly two health. Two! Compare that to eleven for my fully upgraded Hawk. Taking Snakes Eyes into a level at that point meant he was more likely to get himself killed trying to snag power-ups than he was to see any real gain. So I didn’t bother. I did the sensible thing and kept using the same team of experienced Joes I had for ages all the way up to the end. What a waste of a fan favorite character. I suppose I could make it a point to seek out Snake Eyes sooner on a repeat playthrough. There would still be somebody who ended up joining last, though, and leveling him up would be still be a waste of time.
Again, G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. Despite being a step down from its older brother in virtually every way that counts, it has its strong points. It makes decent use of the license, with plenty of familiar heroes and villains. The music is catchy. Some of the new weapons, such as the laser rifle, are cool. The radio support mechanic offers utility and flexibility. I especially like how increasing a character’s unarmed combat rating adds new attacks to his repertoire rather than simply increasing damage. Kick Master, anyone? Bottom line: Real American Hero’s blend of strategic team management and furious run-and-gun action is present here, it’s just a muted shadow of its former self. Not unlike the DIC run of the cartoon, now that I think about it.