Friday, 14 February 2014

Cobra (Ocean Software, 1986/1987)

ZX Spectrum, 1986: Code and graphics by Jonathan Smith - Music by Martin Galway

Commodore 64, 1986: Code by Zach Townsend - Graphics by Karen Davies - Music by Ben Daglish

Amstrad CPC, 1987: Written by John Gibson

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GAME STATUS

While working on another, slightly more time-consuming entry for next week, I got inspired by a recent Lemon64 thread promoting a YouTube review of the C64 Cobra to make a comparison of it. Generally, Cobra as a cultural object is not all too well remembered. As a Stallone movie, it was a badly received action thriller in the style of a music video and unremarkable characters, and as a game, it was mostly regarded as a fitting piece to go with the movie, although the Spectrum game is commonly thought of as a technical masterpiece in Spectrum game developing. I wouldn't know one way or another, but I think that overall, Cobra is an underrated classic in 80's tastelessness that fits the era perfectly in its own peculiar way.

World of Spectrum voters have given their version a very fine 8.24 score with 112 votes so far, and perfectly contrasting it is the C64 version with a score of 4.5 with 93 votes at Lemon64. CPC Game Reviews seem to think as much of the movie as of the Amstrad game, and they gave it a 5 out of 10. Not having played the Amstrad version yet, I have no idea if this is anywhere near indicative of truth or not, but whatever the overall score will be in the end, I will present the winner with the much-coveted Burger award, which will only ever be given to a Stallone-related game. I have a peculiar feeling that this will be one of the shortest entries on my blog, ever.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW

What many people might not realize, nor more likely actually really care about, is that the Spectrum version is the point of origin in these three games. Jonathan "Joffa" Smith was the first one to come up with the basic idea of the game, and the three programmers made their own vision of the same thing. Sort of similar to what happened with Wanted: Monty Mole two years earlier. Also, as with Monty Mole, the C64 version was in the end clearly a different sort of an experience, in good and bad. Whether or not each of the programmers got close enough to either Joffa's original idea, or indeed the movie's, is almost undecipherable with the current amount of information at hand.

On all the platforms, Cobra is an action-platformer with heavy emphasis on shooting. The Commodore 64 game is the only one of the three which doesn't have circular area maps, and instead of just needing to kill a number of baddies per screen along with collecting all the power-ups and Ingrid before you can move on to the next area, like on the other two, you need to get through the three levels from end to end by using every bit of help you can get, be it new weapons or a ride on a pick-up truck. From what I know, in all the games, your mission is to find the main baddie, who calls himself the Night Slasher, and put an end to his reign of horror.

Unfortunately, I can't go much more into detail with any of the games without simultaneously describing in detail, how horrendously bad every one of them is (at least in my opinion), so I will save the rants for the playability and overall sections. All I have to say for a review of sorts, is that all of these three versions have their share of faults and virtues, and all of them have similar reasons to be accepted of their existence, and they should be treated with no more respect than they really deserve.

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LOADING

Once again, even though there have been disk releases around, this comparison will only concentrate on the tape releases. For the first time on the blog, I will also add an unofficial tape release on the Spectrum list, because it fixes some rather annoying bugs, and therefore is recommended.

AMSTRAD CPC releases:
- original: 5 minutes 23 seconds
- HitSquad: 5 minutes 8 seconds
- Spanish: 4 minutes 36 seconds

COMMODORE 64 releases:
- original: 5 minutes 27 seconds
- HitSquad: 5 minutes 4 seconds

ZX SPECTRUM releases:
- original: 3 minutes 38 seconds
- alternate: 3 minutes 48 seconds
- Erbe 1: 3 minutes 17 seconds
- Erbe 2 (medium case): 3 minutes 24 seconds
- Erbe/HitSquad: 3 minutes 14 seconds
- HitSquad: 4 minutes 28 seconds
- WoS bugfix: 4 minutes 25 seconds

So, a win for the Spectrum version this time, with Amstrad coming surprisingly for the second place. Whatever the case with the disk versions, these are the all important loading times that some of us used to fight about, as if they were more important than the games themselves. Some still do.

Loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum

For a familiar bonus, here are the loading screens, all somehow reproductions of the movie poster, like the cover art itself is. Funnily enough, even though the Spectrum version is the furthest from the original picture in terms of colours, it is the most stylish of the three, and I like it the best. The only problem with it is, that the machine-gun and Cobra's hand feel too far apart from the man himself - too close to the viewer. In that sense, the Amstrad version looks the best, but there's just too much purple in the picture, and it ruins it for me. The C64 version looks entirely too wide, and the pixelation is a bit sloppy. Although I will still not give any scores for loading screens, I don't believe it would matter all that much in this case anyhow. The loading times will be given an optional score, as is usual in these cases.

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PLAYABILITY

Oh, where to begin? I think it should be clear enough at this point, that all three games are quite different, but exactly how different are they? For once, I actually may have to refer to the manuals of each version for completeness' sake.

Referring to the manual, the first thing explained about the game is the amount of levels. The SPECTRUM version has three: City Scene (night-time), Rural Area (day-time) and Factory. The COMMODORE version has also three, titled similarly, except that all the levels seem to play in day-time. The AMSTRAD version has as many as eight levels, all of which have a similar look, since the game takes place on the city's East side. As mentioned earlier, the Spectrum and Amstrad levels are circular, and the Commodore version plays from left to right, although it scrolls backwards too, if you feel the need to do so.

Next up, your defensive mechanisms. The SPECTRUM version features a head-butt feature as your initial weapon, and in order to proceed to the next level, you need to have collected all of the four limited weapon upgrades, hidden inside beef burgers, hook up with Ingrid, and kill a bunch of bad guys. The weapon upgrades are: an invincibility pill, throwable knives, a pistol, and a laser sighted machine gun. The COMMODORE version starts off with fists, which are mostly quite useless. You don't necessarily need to collect every weapon upgrade, but they are preferable to the fists. The weapons are: throwable knives, a pistol, a laser sighted machine-gun and a certain amount of grenades. Unlike on the Spectrum, where your weapons last for a certain time, regardless of your using the weapons, on the C64 you have to collect a separate item for your bullets. Also on the AMSTRAD, you start with your fists, and the collectables are knives, a hand gun and a machine pistol. In the latter two versions, you can select your weapon for use, leaving the other weapons in your inventory.

Then, of course, you need to know the controls in order to be able to play any of these games properly. The SPECTRUM version can be played with either the keyboard, which is redefinable, or a joystick. All you need are up and diagonals for jumping, left and right for walking, down and diagonals for ducking and fire button for "murdering" as Joffa has so neatly put it in the game. The COMMODORE version can only be played by using a joystick in Port 2. In addition to jumping, walking and ducking, you are also able to climb ladders in this version. Fire button utilises the current weapon, as usual. On the keyboard, the function keys (F1-F7) change the current weapon, if you happen to be carrying more than one weapon, and space bar throws a grenade. The AMSTRAD version, again, can be played with either a joystick or using the keyboard, only this time, you can only use a preset combination of keys: 8 and U = up and down, H and J = left and right, and space bar acts as the fire button. Up and down cursor keys can be used to select your weapon of choice.

If you have never heard of Cobra the movie, or the game, you were probably wondering about my reference to hamburgers at the beginning of this blog entry. Well, I can only remember Marion Cobretti eating a pizza in his apartment in the movie, and Gonzales's unhealthy addiction to gummi bears, so I'm wondering, where does the reference to hamburgers come from for these games? I might have to see the movie again. Anyway, all three games feature hamburgers. On the SPECTRUM, the hamburgers contain all the weapon upgrades, but there are only four of them for each level. On the AMSTRAD, it's the same thing, but you can make them appear more often and in randomly placed windows. On the COMMODORE, it actually acts like it looks like it's supposed to act like - replenishing energy. The other two versions don't have energy meters as such - one bullet is all it takes to take a life. Speaking of lives, then: on the Amstrad and Spectrum, you start with three lives, while on the C64, you have four to begin with. The C64 and Amstrad versions give you an extra life after every 10,000 points, while the Spectrum version gives only the first extra life after 10,000 points - every other extra life will be given every 20,000 points after that.

Now that the manuals have been exhausted of any useful information, let's move on to compare the actual playing experiences then. The first thing you might notice after having gotten used to the novelty that the graphics present on the SPECTRUM version, is that moving Cobra is a bit awkward. You can only walk sort of one step at a time, which would be okay in real life, but in this case, the total movement of one step is something like 16-17 pixels in the actual playing area, which is quite a lot. Sure, you can shoot or head-butt all you like while you are moving, but jumping on platforms and ducking at the correct times has been made irritatingly difficult, timing-wise. In plain words, the freedom of movement is VERY limited. At least you can jump in a properly good platformey jumping motion, unlike in the other two, where you only jump a bit diagonally forwards and then fall awkwardly straight down. Another good thing is the surprisingly well-programmed collision detection regarding your enemies and stray bullets.

The AMSTRAD version has most of the basic things well under control, such as the collision detection and moving your character (which is more based on pixels instead of natural steps) - even the scrolling is rather agreeable, if not exactly quick. Apart from the silliness brought in by the head-butting ducks, parrots taking a dump on the windowsills and cats freezing you for a couple of seconds, the game is actually pretty decent. Oh, and of course the bad jumping mechanics make the movement slightly more awkward than it should be. What I would change from the game to make it even rather good, would be redefinable keyboard controls, a title screen and a proper jump. As it is, though, I think it's already slightly better than the Spectrum version - if for nothing else, it's easier to adjust to.

Finally, the dreaded COMMODORE version. Most probably, you will start the game by dying at least once before you have managed to move the screen even an inch, if you have never played this version before. Some axe- or machine-gun-wielding enemies will probably kill you before you have taken two steps on your own, but you should know that the level maps are full of trigger spots that activate seemingly random enemy spawning from certain directions. If you learn how to navigate through or around these trigger spots, you are already well ahead of the game. The motorcycle maniacs will kill you even without you touching them, because of bad collision detection, and the same can be basically said of the suicide-bombing baby carriages, but are slightly easier to jump over. Even touching Gonzales will deplete your energy severely, because apparently, you can kill just by touching, even though you will take damage from this action yourself. This problem with the collision detection is further evident while jumping from platform to another, the most difficult ones being boxes and other little things of similar height to your jumping abilities, which are awful. Similar to what the Amstrad has, but a bit worse. As if all that weren't enough, some enemy behaviour code seems to have been left slightly unfinished: some enemies will keep on moving their chosen speed into the direction they were moving, even after dying, although this will only last as long as it takes for their death animations to finish. This doesn't mean that the already dying enemies aren't able to hurt you, so the best thing you can do is to stay as still as possible when killing people, unless you happen to be standing on one of the spawn triggers. There are a few tricks, however, that you can utilise to make this game even half-playable. I wouldn't have known about all of these myself, had not one of the kind people at the Lemon64 forum mentioned these in passing just a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, I did most of the playing thing before Neo-Rio posted the useful reply to a Cobra-related thread, so I have no use for the information anymore. However, if you want to have a look at his tips, take a look at them here.

What makes all these three Cobra games so singularly strange, is that all of them have those "so bad it's good" qualities, and they are irritatingly difficult enough to make you want to either destroy
the media it came in, or complete it by any means possible. Somehow, the more plausible result is
you having beaten the game, and inevitably gotten even more disappointed in the game for having no
ending whatsoever. Oh bother. Anyway, I think you can guess my judgment here...

1. AMSTRAD CPC
2. ZX SPECTRUM
3. COMMODORE 64

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GRAPHICS

Since all the versions are so very different, it seems useless to even compare the graphics in terms of similarity. What can be done, though, is to compare the graphics from a more technical perspective.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Let's start with the C64 version, because it's the most fun to rip apart. We have a title screen, which gives us a high scores table and some arguably useful keyboard commands, along with the inventory thing that has been stuck at the bottom third of the screen as a default feature. So far, so good. By starting the game, you will probably see the coolest thing in the game - the 1950 Mercury custom. If you can make it to level 2, you will see it again there. Otherwise, the graphics are comparable to shooting blanks, in whatever sense you want to think of the phrase. The three somewhat recognizable characters are Ingrid, Gonzales and yourself. I can only guess the motorcycle maniac is the most likely candidate for the Night Slasher, but who knows. Sure, most of the graphics aren't all that bad, since most of the important things are fairly recognizable, but I haven't talked about anything regarding movement yet. The animation on the whole is rather dire - only about 3-4 frames per sprite, max. The way every supposedly living thing behaves, feels a bit too random to make the game feel even remotely finished. Some of the enemies continue moving for the duration of their death animations (just flashing colours, which take a couple of seconds), and sometimes it's plainly impossible to dodge them. The baby carriages are stupidly quick, mostly impossible not to hit them, and the same goes for the motorcyclists. Your own movement is just arrogantly slow - it's as if trying to behave cool and nonchalant in an unhurried manner has been the animator's basic idea here. Well, it doesn't work. Anyway, all the enemy types you will ever encounter in the game, will be featured in the first level. And the same goes for the weapons. Too bad the game is so glitchy in controls as well as graphics, that it feels sometimes a chore to even start the game.

C64 glitching on second playthrough.
Funny thing is, I have managed to complete this game on a real C64, back in the early 90's. Somewhere during the second playthrough, the Cobra sprite glitched for the rest of the game, and only had his legs left. So, having remembered this obscure thing from my past, I tried to recreate this glitch... and lo and behold, here it is again. By using a trainer mode, of course.


Moving on to the less painful versions, let's take a look at the AMSTRAD game next. Well, it doesn't have any sort of title screen or a menu - the game starts the second the tape has loaded it. The graphics are thankfully less glitchy, and there are also thankfully less baby carriages and motorcyclists around. However, all the levels seem a bit samey. I have gotten as far as the fourth level, and all of them have so far looked very similar. The only uncommonity to the three previous levels was bumping into Ingrid at some point. Her appearance took Cobra by such a surprise, he wasn't able to do much for a few seconds, and so I got killed right there. Just then, I decided to keep away from the game. The game over scene is nothing but a nagging text at the top of the playing screen where you died. Otherwise, there are quite a few nice little touches, such as opening garage doors and windows, men coming out from trash cans, deadly humping ducks and other harassing animals, and some interesting background elements missing from the other two games. As an environment to play in, it could be much worse. The only thing missing from it is variation.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version.

Last, but certainly not least, the SPECTRUM version. Again, we get a perfectly nice title screen, with some options for controls and sounds - even an option for slightly different graphics for a monochrome screen and a colour screen. The difference in the mono version is that the play area is completely coloured in one colour (plus black), which is randomly chosen from a few select fitting colours. Otherwise, the game has quite a lot of colour for a Spectrum game, particularly in the later levels. As the most characteristic feature in the Spectrum version's graphics, Smith had decided to go for a more comic style, which nicely suits all the other aspects of this version. Still, the most interesting, and the most technically impressive bit here, is the parallax scrolling effect on ground level, particularly because it's in full colour. According to a 2009 interview with the sadly late "Joffa" Smith, the whole scrolling thing was a programming exercise that was shoe-horned into the game. You might want to read about it here, if this sort of thing interests you. The game also has very glitch-free animations, and everything looks rather brilliant, albeit in a not completely suitable style to go with the movie, but compared to the other two, I would say anything goes this time. For a change, the Spectrum version is clearly the most impressive.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version.

There is one more thing I feel like mentioning after all the above. In the Amstrad and Spectrum versions, your spare lives are indicated with boxing gloves, taking a nod more towards Rocky than Cobra, which is a bit strange. The C64 version, at least, has a cobra icon in their place. But that is a minor complaint, and only goes to show, that even though the C64 version is probably the most respective of the source material, it still fails to make an acceptable delivery.

1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. COMMODORE 64

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SOUNDS

The Spectrum title song is an original tune by the great Martin Galway, but is also known from its evolved from, featured on the Commodore 64 version of Arkanoid with a slightly tweaked drum track along with a bass line, which brings the tune to a completely new level. That's not to say the original isn't good - of course it is. That's why Galway took it a bit further and used it for another game. Another bit of music you might have recognized, is a funny short rendition of the horn section bit from "Gonna Fly Now" by Bill Conti, originally from Stallone's Rocky movies. Also, you can hear some bits of other recognizable tunes, such as "Ring a Ring O'Roses" in certain places. There are other little tunes for losing a life and for game over (or under), but they seem to be originals, unconnected with anything else, which is nice for a change. During the game, you can only hear sound effects, which is also nice, because they are extremely well made, considering the hardware, and some of them are even digitized samples.

On the Commodore 64, the main tune that keeps playing during the title screen and in the game, is an arrangement/cover of Sylvester Levay's "Skyline" from the original motion picture soundtrack. The only other bit of music is the "get ready" ditty at the beginning of each stage. At least, "Skyline" is from the soundtrack, unlike all the other versions' tunes, but I'm not really sure if it should be counted as a plus or a minus, since it sort of gives the already horrible game an extra bit of melancholiness, which could be thought of as depressiveness. At least you can turn the music off, and listen to some nice sound effects, which might be the preferred mode in this case. For high score music, "Skyline" would be okay, but does it have to play all the time? How about another tune from the movie soundtrack: "Suave" by Miami Sound Machine, or perhaps even "Angel of the City" by Robert Tepper? Perhaps Daglish chose (or alternately, Ocean chose it for Daglish) that particular tune, because it wasn't used for the movie itself, curiously enough.

Even more strangely, the main tune for the Amstrad version is a rather generic-sounding rock'n'roll tune in C minor, but since it has only one or two simultaneous instruments, you get fairly good sound effects to go with the music, which is a rare luxury for a Cobra game. You can turn them off, if you like, but you will lose all the sounds at once.

It's a tough decision. When the game is based on a movie, it would better have as much connection to the movie as possible - plotline to follow, music from the soundtrack, atmosphere, you know the drill. Cobra, on the whole, doesn't really have much of anything from the movie in any of the versions, other than some of the movie characters mostly ruining your day, so it is a great idea to have something from the movie soundtrack to go with everything. Unfortunately, even that tune wasn't actually in the movie, so it means very little to anyone who has seen the movie, but doesn't own the soundtrack, so the game might as well have something completely different for its soundtrack. Although "Skyline" is a nice, atmospheric tune, and Ben Daglish has arranged it very nicely for the SID, it doesn't really serve the game well. The Amstrad tune is just too generic for me to care about it at all, but having sound effects play simultaneously is a very nice bonus. So, the results for the sounds comparison are:

1. ZX SPECTRUM
2. AMSTRAD CPC
3. COMMODORE 64

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OVERALL

Although every section has been dealt with now, I'm still of two minds about this game. Because it's a movie licence game, it should have as much incorporated to it from the movie as possible, and the C64 version is the one to go with that in mind. However, it is clearly the worst of the bunch as a game, so I really cannot recommend it with a good conscience. The Amstrad version is surprisingly good, all things considered, but in terms of impressiveness and marketing points, the Spectrum version was ahead by miles, which is more important for a movie licence game in the first place.

1. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3, Loading 3 = TOTAL 8/11
2. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 3, Graphics 2, Sounds 2, Loading 2 = TOTAL 7/8
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 1, Loading 1 = TOTAL 3/4

I have to say, comparing these three games has been a surprising journey all over. Considering all the missing elements from the Amstrad version, it is a surprisingly good game overall. Also, considering the amount of praise the Spectrum version gets, it surprised me how badly it actually plays. Finally, considering how bad I thought the C64 Cobra was before heading into this comparison, it turned out to be surprisingly even worse than I remembered from my childhood. Also surprisingly, it's still the only version to feature a song from the movie soundtrack, and not have anything to do with Rocky, other than having the main character being played by Sylvester Stallone in the movie.

The much coveted Burger award, presented
for the ZX Spectrum version.
So, the much coveted Burger award goes to the ZX Spectrum version - well done! Put some Miami Sound Machine on your turntable (or YouTube) and party on!

Thank you very much for reading, see you next time!
Suggestions, corrections and pictures of your burgers are welcome in the comments section.

5 comments:

  1. I reviewed the game at Gamesark.it pointing out that it is actually a deconstruction of the traditional movie tie-in game, hence the over-the-top atmosphere and little resemblance to the actual movie (which was appallingly bad anyway). To make a long story short, I wrote that the game defies and desecrates traditional '80s tie-in conventions to become as an intended parody. An example (not very common at the time) of the videogame and media industry being mocked at and satirized "from the inside".

    As for playability, it might be rather puzzling at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes quite rewarding to play. My only gripe is that it is really too short - five levels would have been better, but hey, we're still talking about the humble 48K Spectrum ;-)

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  2. Yes, I gathered that parody/satire bit from Joffa's interview I linked somewhere in my text, but although personally I agree it's a good point, I am not entirely sure it matters to people who play the game and have actually liked the movie or the game, not to mention embracing the idea of having a game pay a tribute in some way or other to the source material. Come to think of it, games such as Knight Rider, V and Miami Vice might have easily been similar cases in mocking the industry... =P

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    1. I don't think so; the other games you mention are feeble to say the least (MV being particularly dire) and more like a case of unintended humor, - not unlike the C64 version of Cobra itself :-P

      Cobra instead is to '80s videogames what Quentin Tarantino's Machete is to '80s action movies - it mocks precisely what it would be intended to be. And it's a brilliant game anyway :-D

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    2. Yeah, I know, it was a joke. And isn't Machete Rodriquez's work, not Tarantino's...? =P http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0985694/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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