Um, what’s with the centerfold poses, guys?
At first glance, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero might not seem like it has much in common with the last NES title I played through, Fester’s Quest. Consider this, though: Both are run-and-gun action games based on licensed properties, both were the product of an American lead designer heading up a Japanese team, and both never received a Famicom release.
Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Fester’s Quest was an obvious rush job and deeply flawed as a result, G.I. Joe benefits from all the polish one could hope for. Designed by Ken Lobb of Killer Instinct fame and the same Japanese team that would later be known as KID, G.I. Joe was published by Taxan in 1991.
The G.I. Joe toy line itself dates back to 1964. Joes were the original “action figures,” the term coined by their makers at Hasbro in an effort to avoid scaring off particularly insecure little boys with the dreaded “doll” label. The earlier generations of figures leaned heavily on realism as a selling point and featured weapons and uniforms modeled closely the ones used by actual U.S. military forces. This approach seemed quaint at best post-Vietnam, so the toys were relaunched in 1982 as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” with a large helping of comic book and science fiction elements added to the mix. Instead of regular servicemen, G.I. Joe became “America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” The cartoons produced by Sunbow between 1983 through 1986 stood tall alongside Master of the Universe and Transformers as one of the defining Saturday morning action staples of my generation.
Fans of those original cartoons will no doubt notice right away that this NES adaptation is actually based on the much less iconic follow-up series from DIC Entertainment that ran from 1989 through 1992. As a result, some character designs are radically different than the ones you may remember. Most of the Joes remain recognizable, but I wouldn’t have known who poor Cobra Commander was even supposed to be here if the cut scene dialog hadn’t told me first. Lacking his trademark blue hood or mirrored helmet, he looks more like a Power Rangers villain than anything resembling his more familiar self.
The game proper is a side-scrolling action platformer with a simple premise: General Hawk has ordered the G.I. Joe team to take the fight to the enemy by launching a series of seek and destroy missions against six hidden Cobra bases around the world. At the start of the game, there are a total of five playable heroes to choose from: Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘n Roll, Captain Grid-Iron, and Blizzard. Upon reaching the sixth and final mission, Hawk himself also becomes playable. Each mission has a designated team leader that’s automatically along for the ride, but players are otherwise free to choose any two of the remaining Joes from the roster to fill out their three man squad.
The choice of team members to bring along on a given mission isn’t just cosmetic, as every Joe has their own strengths and weaknesses. Duke is the typical all-rounder with average stats across the board. Snake Eyes can jump the highest and his ninja ki projectiles don’t consume any ammo. Rock ‘n Roll is packing the best gun. Captain Grid-Iron has the strongest melee attack. Blizzard can shoot through walls. General Hawk is a bona fide superhero that excels at everything and can even fly thanks to his jet pack.
Each character’s abilities can also be enhanced via the persistent power-up system in place throughout the game. Picking up gun and chevron icons scattered around the stages will upgrade the active Joe’s weapon power and stamina, respectively. These upgrades remain in effect indefinitely, provided the character doesn’t die. As in Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can switch between your three Joes at any time via the pause menu and each one has their own independent health bar, so swapping out a heavily injured teammate before they kick the bucket and lose all their power-ups to is an important technique to master if you hope to keep your party strong.
Every mission, with the exception of the final one, is divided into three distinct stages. The first is a standard run-and-gun affair that sees you infiltrating a Cobra base. The second is set inside the base itself and takes the form of a more free-roaming maze type area where your task is to plant a number of bombs at specific points (designated by large check marks on the walls) and then reach the exit before time runs out. Finally, there’s another run-and-gun stage in which your Joes must escape the base before the bombs detonate. This makes for grand total of sixteen stages in the entire game and each of them has a boss fight at the end. This is quite a lot of content for game of this sort, especially when you consider that none of the boss enemies are recycled. There are even passwords given out between missions in case the player needs to take a break and finish up later.
With six playable characters, the team management element, the strategic power-up system, and the large variety of levels and bosses, it’s clear that G.I. Joe has ambition to spare. It’s execution that puts it over the top, though. The music and graphics are both above average, the control is rock solid, and the cut scenes are even a little funny at times. I loved the boss who greets you with “O.K., so my men were not so hot, but I will blow you away, Joe!” What an optimist!
There are many great touches in the level design, too. Enemies lurking in the foreground of the jungle stage will leap into the screen to engage you, missiles firing from the distant base in the background of the Antarctic stage will eventually reach your character, and the bases themselves house three different types of Cobra vehicle that you can commandeer and wreak havoc in, each with their own unique on-board weapons and ways of maneuvering.
Many of the boss encounters also go above and beyond in terms of creativity. Take the battle against Cobra Commander’s right hand man Destro, for example. After you destroy his flying vehicle, he attempts to turn tail and run. The formerly single screen fight then transitions seamlessly into an auto-scrolling section where you must continuously attack the fleeing Destro while leaping over bottomless pits and dodging his return fire. It’s a real tour de force of an 8-bit showdown.
G.I. Joe even manages to include more in the way of replay value than you might expect. Beating it presents you with a password for a “second quest” where your three Joe team is reduced to two and the locations in the Cobra bases where you need to place your bombs have all been shuffled around. Beating that enables yet another playthrough where not only are you still limited to two Joes, but the enemies are all able to dish out and absorb twice the punishment as before.
As far as downsides go, there are a few. I already mentioned the fact that the game is based on G.I. Joe circa 1991 and not the more beloved 1980s version. Consequently, a lot of most popular heroes and villains from the original cartoon are missing in action. Don’t expect to see the likes of Scarlet, Roadblock, Major Bludd, the Baroness, Sgt. Slaughter, Zartan, Serpentor, or Storm Shadow here.
On the gameplay side, a constant annoyance is the way that item drops are handled. If a defeated enemy leaves behind a health or ammo refill, it immediately begins bouncing all over the screen in an erratic fashion. If the item happens to bounce away from your character, it can easily disappear off the edge of the screen or down a pit before you have a chance to grab it. Why such an obnoxious behavior was programmed into an otherwise excellent game is beyond me.
Then there’s Blizzard. Blizzard is terrible. His ability to fire his gun through walls doesn’t come in handy nearly as much as you might hope. There’s really no reason to add him to your team unless it’s the Antarctic mission and you have no choice due to his leader status.
Make no mistake, however: Any complaints I can muster against this game hardly begin to detract from all it accomplishes. With its slick presentation layered over a near-perfect union of quality, quantity, and variety, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is everything NES enthusiasts could ask for in an action platformer.
A lot of gamers missed the boat on this one back on 1991, but now you know. And knowing is half the battle!