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Grab Bag: 1980s War Games!

Since the very dawn of video gaming, ever since the first of countless alien invasions and nameless ninja clan insurgencies, gamers and developers have all agreed on one thing: peace is nice, but it's incredibly boring. A common theme has emerged throughout electronic

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Since the very dawn of video gaming, ever since the first of countless alien invasions and nameless ninja clan insurgencies, gamers and developers have all agreed on one thing: peace is nice, but it’s incredibly boring. A common theme has emerged throughout electronic gaming, one of conflict and mayhem, where the stakes are never low and neither is the adrenaline level. We crave games of war, and damn it all, the developers and publishers have always been right there with us on the front lines.

This trend, when examined, waxes and wanes; an observer of the timeline can see it ebb and flow from simple sword-fighting between two nameless knights to full-scale nuclear war (and the theoretical after-effects). The mid to late 1980s seemed to hit a particular stride, when Cold War phantoms mixed with constantly more badass-looking real life military hardware to spawn a long list of not only films but video games (sometimes directly inspired by said films). War, we knew, was hell… and as this era burned bright red in celluloid and pixel-screen, we strode happily forward to swim in hellish waters. The devil himself was happy to take our hand, and to point out the price… 25 cents for a dip, $40 per cartridge to buy our own backyard pool.

This trio of games is not meant to be a best- or worst-of list, nor a definitive one. These three titles simply stick out most readily in my mind as examples of the over-the-top gloss we often give military strife through the lens of entertainment. And yeah… they’re pretty awesome.


Jackal/Top Gunner

Konami, 1986

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I said this wasn’t a best-of list, but this definitely has to be one of my favorites. Jackal is called Tokushu Butai Jakkaru (“Special Forces Jackal”) in Japan, and was marketed in some regions as Top Gunner. In Jackal you play the role of a Special Forces unit tasked with the noble mission of rescuing POWs behind enemy lines. This kind of work is extremely hazardous, so it’s a good thing the brass gave you jeeps that maneuver like gazelles and are as bloodthirsty as you are.

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Red beret, devastatingly precise mustache… Easy to tell who drives the jeep… who’s in charge. There’s a cooler in the back. Help yourself to a martini or some Dom Perignon. This will all be over soon, soldier.

Up to 2 players can play, and that’s the better way to go about it since you WILL be mobbed constantly by both infantry and enemy vehicles. The cool thing about most soldiers on foot is that you can just run them over in cold blood, mangling them under your jeep’s blood-soaked wheels as you laugh. The bad news is that they are rarely alone; not only do soldiers pack weapons that can destroy your jeep in one hit, so do the tanks, gun emplacements, bombers, and jeeps similar to yours that tend to accompany them. That’s why you also have a machine gun and a seemingly limitless supply of explosives.

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Your POWs are in little buildings, and you open those buildings safely by blasting the shit out of them. Most of them just file out and climb into your seemingly bottomless jeep, but the guys kept alone in their own little sheds upgrade your blammo-factor from grenades to rockets that upgrade each time you rescue another such prisoner.

The arcade original, not unlike that of Contra, is non-stop, with very little in the way of transitions between areas of strife. Not so for the NES port and some other versions; in those, you even get cool little cutscenes illustrating what a rad time you’re having cutting a swathe of carnage through the enemy. Every version has bosses, though, and they’re no joke… from mammoth war machines to walls of launchers and even hostile rows of statues, each set will turn your life into an exercise in move-or-die.


Guerilla War

SNK, 1987

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A big part of what makes this one stand out is its original choice of subject matter, which was hastily and clumsily scrubbed for Western release: in Guerilla War, the two players are supposed to be Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, overthrowing the Batista regime. In fact, the game was called Guevara in Japan. Both the titling and dialogue were quickly altered for release in the USA, in hopes of rendering the entire thing generic… I’d say they did nine tenths of a job.

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But whatever. This isn’t an opinion piece or a history lesson. Anyone can agree it’s a ballsy move to make a game about that kind of heated subject, and anyone who’s played Guerilla War can agree it’s a pretty balls-to-the-wall run and gun game that is at least worthy of having such a past attached to it.

The only tactical concern of yours besides not dying when you dismount a quick boat to singlehandedly topple the entire enemy force is not to kill hostages accidentally. This is hard, not only because your enemies are all over the place and it’s hard to tell what’s going on, but because it’s tempting to just fire wantonly into cross-traffic and hurl grenades in front of you to clear a path through the chaos of battle. While this is a viable tactic about 2/3 of the time, it gets risky when there are bound and gagged men from your side nearby. Let’s be realistic: some will die. Rescue the ones that don’t.

In the grand tradition of war-themed video games, this one has no shortage of over-the-top enemy shit. You want to fight a train? Well, get ready to fight a fucking train, Che. All by yourself.


Strider Hiryu

Capcom, 1989

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Many of us have played the NES title Strider, and most of us know it’s a far cry from the source material. Strider Hiryu, released originally as an arcade title and gradually ported to tons of systems besides the NES, is based off a 1988 Kadokawa Shoten manga of the same name. Hiryu (which means Flying Dragon) is also the protagonist’s name. Here’s what makes it a war game: Hiryu is an assassin sent to kill the overlord of a Communist dystopia in the year 2048. This game was a taste of sci-fi blended into the familiar orgy of violence, and while the overtones may have been lost on a lot of casual players, they still set an interesting example of theoretical futurism carried across different media. While the Red Menace of Soviet Russia ended up reaching a far different fate in real life, the 2048 of this timeline is still a hell of a place to be a super-assassin.

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Yep *hitches thumbs through belt-loops* that there looks purdy Soviet to me, soldier. You know what to do.

As Hiryu, you get not only a plasma-generating sword and the acrobatic skills of a jacked-up gibbon, but you can also call upon three different “option” robots to help you unleash a whirlwind of murder on the Motherland. You also get a grappling hook, which seems superfluous after mentioning the other shit, but it comes in handy. All this gear is good, because your target, the Grandmaster, has spared nothing in defending himself. Be ready for robot gorillas (far larger, of course, than organic ones), elaborate laser traps, and more troops than you can shake a plasma sword at.

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Robo-Ivan just got knocked the fuck apart by a sword made out of what’s inside the Sun. Robo-Sergei back there is having one of those moments where you wonder what your robo-life would have been if you’d just stayed in robo-art college and studied robo-cubism instead of joining the People’s Droid Army.

I’m kidding. Shake it at all of them. Leave none alive.



Jackal – 7/10

Guerilla War – 7/10

Strider Hiryu – 8/10


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One of Jackal’s aforementioned cinematics. See you mid-April for more red-blooded gunpowder action!


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