General William T. Sherman is popularly credited with coining the phrase "War is Hell", but we don't think he ever got the chance to play Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando. If he had, he surely would have said, "War is kind of dull, and a little crappy."
Originally released to arcades in 1985, Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando (herein referred to as "Commando") accomplished the extraordinary feat of making a visit to the arcade less exciting than a solid night of homework.
Actually, that assessment might be somewhat unfair, as it was probably pretty impressive for its time. Today, however, it does not hold a candle to its classic-era arcade brethren. Like Pac-Man, Galaga or Donkey Kong, Commando might retain all of the mindless simplicity of its time, but it has none of their charm.
Players take control of "Super Joe," a character only slightly more creatively named than "Army Person" would have been, and which is certainly less creative than, say, "Rusty McShrapnel." Across endless, vertically scrolling battlefields, you must manoeuvre Super Joe – who often looks like he's crawling thanks to the perspective – past enemies and obstacles on his way to... something. Victory, we guess. Against... erm... the bad guys, maybe? Who knows? The game doesn't seem to care, so why should we?
Super Joe can move and shoot in eight directions. He can also lob grenades, which clears out a larger area than bullets do, but not by much, and they also move slowly enough that they aren't particularly reliable. Along the way you can earn points by gunning down enemy soldiers, picking up gold bricks (as any good soldier is wont to do) and freeing prisoners of war. This latter option, however, is performed just by gunning down more solders, so don't expect it to spice up the gameplay much.
The experience of playing Commando is not a particularly bad one, but it sure feels unrewarding and kind of wasteful. We'd like to believe this was some kind of postmodern critique of warfare in general, but then we remembered that the game kind of stinks and we stopped caring. Super Joe controls like he's wading with iron boots through a sea of maple syrup, and it's something of a relief when he clumsily fails to meander out of the path of a stream of marshmallow-sized bullets.
At the end of each level, Super Joe will have to defeat a wave of enemy soldiers that pour forth out of a gate. Theoretically these take the place of boss battles, but aside from the fact that the screen stops scrolling, these sequences don't feel any different from the rest of the game. If anything, the lack of movement makes them even more tedious.
The visual presentation of in Commando is quite good, however. Everything important is clearly defined, and it's easy to recognise each object as what it's meant to represent. This would come in handy if the game were a little more exciting, but as it stands it seems that this graphical competency is going to waste on a game that doesn't quite deserve it. There are a few problems with clipping, which result in Super Joe getting stuck on invisible parts of trees and archways, but once you get in the habit of cutting your turns a little less tight, it's not much of a problem.
The audio is likewise quite good, though not particularly memorable. It's all perfectly serviceable, meaning that the game must either succeed or fail on the strength of its own core gameplay. That's as it should be, but with core gameplay this weak it won't leave many people satisfied.
Commando might be one of the few examples of the stripped-down ports actually being stronger than the original game. These later ports added powerups, better music and depth to the gameplay that are all sadly lacking in the arcade original.
As an artifact of a bygone era of gaming, Commando might well be interesting to a certain subset of gamers. Interesting, however, isn't the same thing as enjoyable, which is something this game never quite manages to be.
Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando is an example of a strong framework in search of a better game, and it's less bad than it is consistently unimpressive. The thrill of battle is dulled by sluggish movement and general gracelessness, and no real sense of urgency or addictiveness ever sets in. It's an exercise in passable mediocrity, and while that might have been worth a quarter or two in the mid 1980s, it's much easier today to find far better receptacles for your Nintendo Points.