The Essential Games: Commando (1985)

The Essential Games highlights selections from throughout gaming history that I would recommend almost anyone play. For more entries, Check out the Index!

Ah Commando.

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One of Capcom’s finest classic arcade games, and one of the best examples of the top down arcade shooter ever made. No, it doesn’t have the flash and glitz of more modern titles like Igaruka, nor the long legacy of something like Raiden.

But it nails these mechanics, with a brutal, immensely rewarding difficulty that will have you constantly smiling at the screen.

Here’s a little music to set the mood, if you’d like, from the NES version.

The Arcade version has better audio quality, and the C64 version has some legendary funky beats you should look up (or see linked at the bottom of this article). But I’ve always loved the NES version.

In Commando, you play as Super Joe. He’s a soldier. He has to “defeat the enemy army.” The game plays from a top-down perspective. You can run in all eight directions, but the screen will scroll permanently as you go up. You run upwards. You shoot the bad guys. They try to shoot you. A whole bunch. Sometimes, you throw a grenade…but those aren’t always effective.

It’s manic, intense, satisfying, and super-fun. If you want to experience one of the finest executions of the arcade shooter, this is the best place to start. Or at the very least, my personal favorite.

I first encountered Commando as a young kiddo inside Circus Circus Hotel/Casino in Reno, Nevada. It was across the walkway from the buffet. (This is the same place I would first see Mad Dog McCree a few years later). My dad had to hold me up to the machine so I could play it. I was immediately transfixed. I loved the sound. I loved the way the little bad guys blinked out of existence. I loved how intense it was, and how quickly the whole thing went. You could lose in three seconds, or you could manage to ride the wave and feel brilliant.

Later my dad found the NES cart in an electronics shop and surprised me with it. It was one of my most-played NES games. The port had the music and the weird blinking-out guys, and all the hilariously intense challenge. And it added stuff! There were secret rooms to find, and prisoners to save! Sure, the graphics and audio aren’t as good, but it still had the same feel.

Capcom arcade ports were so cool back then. They’d often add more content, making a new, bigger game.

Commando is just as thrilling to play now as it was back in 1985. It was ported to a ton of home systems in the 80's. The easiest version to get is the arcade original, which is available inside the Capcom Arcade Cabinet downloadable collection on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Although those systems are a little old now, this collection is available on PS4 through the PSNow streaming service. If you’ve got a Wii or a Wii U, the arcade version is available on Virtual Console.

This game still provides me with the same sense of thrilling fun that it did when I was a kid. It’s a fun, crazy, well-made shooter, and it has everything that makes Capcom games great.

Commando has a number of sequels. It’s loosely connected to Capcom’s Bionic Commando franchise. Its direct sequel in the arcade was called Mercs, and there’s a pretty good version of that for the Genesis/Mega Drive. In 2008, Capcom released Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3…which wasn’t great. It was bad, even. It’s much more like Mercs than the original Commando, and it’s bland and forgettable compared to the previous games. It was one of my most disappointing games of 2008, even though I tried really hard to like it.

I’m not sure if we’ll ever get another new Commando game. But I’d love one in the style of Mega Man 9/10. Here’s 100 new levels of Commando, done in the style of 8-bit games with a bunch of chip tunes. That’d really be something.

Until then, I can just play the original game. And Gun.Smoke. That was also pretty good! But that’s a tale for another time!

Here’s that funky Commodore 64 version of the main tune, famously written by Rob Hubbard in under a day.

This is some solid funky business right here.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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