Sunday 22 October 2023

Combat School (Konami, 1987)

Developed and published by Konami to the arcades in 1987.

Commodore 64 version:
Programming by David Collier and Allan Shortt
Graphics by Simon Butler and Shaun Ridings
Music by Martin Galway

Sinclair ZX Spectrum version:
Programming by Andrew Deakin and Michael Lamb
Graphics by Ivan Horn
48k Music and sound effects by David Whittaker
128k Music and sound effects by Jason C. Brooke

Amstrad CPC version:
Programming by James Higgins and Michael Lamb
Graphics by Ronnie Fowles
Music and sound effects by David Whittaker

Published in Europe by Ocean Software in 1987.

Arcade and Commodore 64 versions published in North America as "Boot Camp" by Konami in 1987 and 1989.

Converted for the IBM-PC compatibles by James R. Sletzer, with artwork by Brenda Johnson, and
published by Konami in 1989.



Since the early days of FRGCB, I have been wanting to do more comparisons of sports games that I have always enjoyed to some degree, but found them impossible to make reliable observations of, thanks to peculiarities of emulation. With my purchase of an Amstrad CPC 464 last year, these games are gradually opening up for comparisons, but there are still some aspects that cannot be taken into consideration. For example, the original Combat School arcade game had a trackball and two buttons, instead of a joystick, so I cannot actually do any reliable observations on that version. Happily, the global version, which was manufactured and released in 1988, had a joystick instead of a trackball, so I can use that in this comparison. It's been a long time coming, and now it has the honour of ending this year's Ocean October.

There are no properly reliable ratings for the arcade original around the web, with no reviews at the Arcade Museum website, and only one rating at MobyGames, with 3.5 stars out of five, so that's what we shall have to make do with. At Lemon64, the C64 score is 7.5 from a total of 130 votes, which is fairly respectable. At CPC-Power, the Amstrad version has been given 12.20 out of 20.00, while the review at CPC Game Reviews only has a 3 out of 10. Most interestingly, the Spectrum version has a 7.7 from 18 votes at Spectrum Computing, while the archived World of Spectrum rating was as high as 8.02 from 56 votes. For the DOS version, MobyGames offers three ratings, landing it at three stars out of five, and MyAbandonware has a score of 4.17 ouf of 5.00 from 6 votes.



I have always loved a good joystick-killing sports game, ever since playing Daley Thompson's Super-Test on the ZX Spectrum and Activision's Decathlon on the Commodore 64. Mind you, they do have to be really properly well made to be enjoyable. Combat School was a game that I got first introduced to on the C64, but have enjoyed it on other platforms as well, even if my experiences elsewhere have been more limited. If my memory serves me, the game was never really completely optimal on any platform, but ever since finding out the game was originally designed to be played with a trackball controller, the optimizing problems made a little more sense.

Combat School, or Boot Camp, as it was released in North America, is for the most part a heavy duty athletic sports game with plenty of joystick waggling or button mashing, depending on your controller. You take part in a series of seven military events, all of which are played in a predefined order, and have to be beaten in order to make progress. Considering the subject matter, it is only natural, that half of the main events are shooting events, but all three shooting events are different enough from each other to earn their spots. After completing the six main events, your final challenge is to have a close contact fight against your instructor. If you manage to beat him, you are given a mission that doesn't really make use of any of the sports events, apart from the last one. More about all the different parts of the game later on in the actual comparison.

For all it's worth, Combat School cannot be precisely called a classic sports game, for it has too much going for it to be merely a sports game. In fact, barely half of it can be counted as sports-related. But when it is, it's relentlessly tough, and you need to have your technique honed to perfection to even get to fight the instructor. When you do have your skills honed, you will be thinking it's a piece of cake. For me, that's a mark of a good multi-event game. Combat School is an excellent game, up to a point. Whether it's enjoyable or not is entirely up to you. I only wonder at why, as a Konami classic, it never got made for the usual Konami platforms, like NES and MSX.



Cassette enthusiasts, rejoice! - for we have yet another tape loading times comparison. This time, there are a few variables that you might want to consider, particularly if you're looking to buy a version of the game.

10 minutes 42 seconds
AMSTRAD CPC - Original: 15 minutes 36 seconds
COMMODORE 64: 14 minutes 32 seconds
SPECTRUM - 48k Erbe: 11 minutes 32 seconds
SPECTRUM - 48k Original: 9 minutes 7 seconds
SPECTRUM - 128k Erbe: 12 minutes 17 seconds
SPECTRUM - 128k Original: 8 minutes 37 seconds

The original Imagine/Ocean releases have a playable demo of GryZor (Contra) punched in at the end of the second side of the tape, which seems to be missing from the Erbe Software re-releases. Otherwise, only the AMSTRAD version seems to profit from the Erbe version's muchly reduced loading time. The 128k SPECTRUM version has the advantage, that it loads in all data at once. The 48k SPECTRUM, AMSTRAD and C64 versions suffer from annoying multi-loads, although the C64 version has the advantage of having only two sections to load; the CPC version first loads the multi-loader-loader, after which you are prompted to reset the counter; and the 48k SPECTRUM needs to load twice during the proceedings of the game. And then, of course, we have the DOS version, which is delivered with two floppy disks, so you need to either swap them every now and then, or copy all the contents on your hard drive and hope that it works okay.

Loading screens. Top row: Commodore 64 (EU/US). Bottom row: IBM-PC compatibles.
Middle row, left to right: Amstrad CPC cassette + disk, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
All three European loading screens are basically derived from the original cover/poster art, with varying results. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM loading screens by Ivan Horn have as much of graphical content jammed into the picture as humanly possible, while still making room for a surprisingly large area of border colours and logos; and it all looks fantastic! Particularly the SPECTRUM version, which is just as detailed as the other screen, but you get as many as nine colours on display instead of just four. The C64 loading screen actually doesn't offer any more colours than that, and the only items taken from the original artwork are the game logo (without the saluting man in the first 'O'-letter in "School") and the man with the green beret. The Americanized loading screen has some minor changes made to the colouring details, but the biggest change is the title itself with better pixelation and shading, albeit with strangely rounded letters. It's stylish enough in its own right, but there is no going around it - the SPECTRUM loader is just pure epicness. The DOS version features three loading screens, the middle one of them being the one with the Americanized game logo.

However, there are more loading screens to look at in all three European versions. The C64 version features a rarely seen pre-loading screen credits screen for the game, and the mid-game loading has nothing but raster bars, so it's not shown here. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions use a portion of the title screen, where the game logo is displayed, to act as the loading screen for consecutive sections.



Due to the structure of Combat School (or Boot Camp), the entire game will be dealt with each event separately. It needs to be made clear, though, that the game's home computer versions are all designed to be played primarily with a joystick, apart from the DOS version, so I need to deal with the controls for each event separately, due to the vastly differing ways each version controls - including the joystick-operated ARCADE version, which, by the way, is perfectly playable with a keyboard when using MAME. Being a directionally controllable game, in which you need absolutely all the directions as well as a fire button in more than one of the levels, any hope for the use of a joypad is futile, which is probably why Konami never bothered to port this game to MSX or Nintendo.

A fair warning might be in order, though: a game like Combat School requires a specific kind of a joystick for maximum comfort and efficiency. Generally, you should avoid wide-ranged joysticks like the old Atari CX40 or QuickShot in these kinds of games, but I found out that the AMSTRAD version requires a joystick with a looser stick base for a higher precision and responsiveness. After extensive testing, I found out that from my joystick collection, the Powerplay Cruiser gave the most optimal performance on the Amstrad. For the C64 version, you need a joystick with low movement range and digital switches like TAC-2, Competition Pro 5000, Wico's Ergostick or Zipstik. The SPECTRUM version plays largely similar to the AMSTRAD version, but my very limited access to different joystick ports includes Kempston-compatibles, in which case TAC-2 and its like are the better option, and if I choose to use Sinclair port, then my only available option is Powerplay Cruiser, since it has a dual format cable to fit both the Atari/Kempston standard and the Sinclair standard. Also worth mentioning is, that Combat School, like most other joystick-waggling sport games, works better on real hardware than on emulators, due to the response time of your joystick controller when plugged into a USB port.

The DOS version, rather oddly, does not feature a joystick option, but instead gives you keyboard and mouse as the two options, of which even more oddly, mouse is the preferable choice, although the other player will have to settle for keyboard by necessity. The keyboard controls for the other player seem to be Left Alt for running, Left Shift for jumping, and a completely bonkers directional keyboard setup with QWEADZXC in use for all possible directions. As I said, mouse is preferred, and it's better for your friends to participate on their own turns.

In most cases, you can start the game in a single-player mode or a two-player mode, with no other options. Only the DOS version gives you three optional difficulty levels, of which I shall be using the Easy mode for this comparison, in the hopes of at least getting to the final stage, if not complete it. In fact, I will not be even expecting to complete the final stage in any version. Some events are played simultaneously, while some are not. These things will also be told separately for each event. As a general rule, the better you do, the more bonus time you will get for the next event, thus giving you the chance to gain extra score.

EVENT #1: Obstacle Course.

The game starts with a variation on the classic running event, which makes you jump over a series of walls of varying heights, and finally pass through a stretch of horizontal bars before you reach the end. The quicker you complete the obstacle course, the more extra time you will have for the next level.

ARCADE: Here, you need to use the two given fire buttons, one for running and one for jumping. Your opponent can drop you from the horizontal bars, if you happen upon the same space simultaneously, so watch out.
C64: Waggle left and right vigorously to gain speed. Fire to jump and eventually to latch onto the bars later on. Split screen with no collision between the two players.
SPECTRUM & AMSTRAD: Circular motion of the joystick to gain speed. Fire to jump and eventually to latch onto the bars later on. No CPU opponent. CPC version's two player mode is turn-based.
DOS: Circular motion of the mouse to gain speed, left mouse button to jump. Opponent cannot drop you from the horizontal bars.

EVENT #2: Firing Range #1.

From a fixed place, you need to shoot targets that appear in groups of three, four and five around the field. Different versions require a varying number of hits to pass the level, but you need to shoot more than the required amount of targets to gain extra time for the next level.

ARCADE: Target groups appear in a random order, all over the field. 44 hits required to pass the level.
C64: Target groups appear in a set order, all over the field. 35 hits required.
SPECTRUM: Target groups appear in a random order, but they all appear around the same horizontal space. 38 hits required.
AMSTRAD: Target groups appear in a differently set order, all over the field, and you barely have the time to shoot all the given targets, when there's more than three targets in a row. 48 hits required.
DOS: Target groups appear in a set order, all over the field. 36 hits required.

EVENT #3: Iron-Man Race.

A combined running/swimming event taking place in difficult terrain, with a top-down view. You need to run and jump over boulders, water hazards and landmines, and later swim over a river, or use a boat to get over it quicker, if available.

ARCADE: Both players (including CPU) are present simultaneously, and two boats are in the water. Running button is used for running, the other button for jumping, and keeping the direction pulled with the joystick makes you move in the wanted direction.
C64: Up-down waggling for adjusting speed; left-right movement for moving sideways. Fire button to jump. Boat included. Logs in water only break your boat, but don't freeze you.
SPECTRUM: Circular motion for adjusting speed; keeping the joystick left or right for a slightly longer time makes you move sideways in predefined, notable gaps, which is cumbersome. No boat in the water.
AMSTRAD: Similar controls to the SPECTRUM version, but moving left and right is more delicate and requires less joystick movement. Boat included. Time limit is super harsh, even if you did well in the previous events, and bumping into a log in the water freezes you for a second.
DOS: Player follows your mouse movements with surprising precision, but all inertia of movement is out; left mouse button jumps.

EVENT #4: Firing Range #2.

Unlike the first target shooting event, you are given some freedom of movement, as you can run left and right at the bottom of the screen. Groups of miniature tank target vessels move across the field in varying patterns, and you need to shoot a varying amount of them to pass the level.

ARCADE: Target groups appear in a set order, and you have a constant shooting speed. 50 hits required.
C64: Target groups appear in a set order, and you have a constant shooting speed. 50 hits required.
SPECTRUM: Target groups appear in a different but set order, the targets move much quicker than in other versions, and an auto-fire function is preferred. 95 hits required.
Target groups appear in a set order, and your shooting speed is more sporadical than constant. 72 hits required. Almost impossible to beat if you didn't finish event #3 with at least one second left over, and you still need to memorize the correct order to have a chance of beating the event.
DOS: Target groups appear in a set order, and there are only three formations, all coming from the left side of the screen. Shooting speed is relatively slow. 36 hits required.

EVENT #5: Arm Wrestling.

Self-explanatorily, this is an arm wrestling event, played against a CPU opponent. The idea is to overwhelm your opponent's power output as soon as possible, to get the most extra points and extra time for the next event.

ARCADE: Tap on the running button as fast and long as you can. Moderately easy, can be beaten in about 10 seconds.
C64: Waggle the joystick left and right. Can be beaten in less than a second.
SPECTRUM: Arm wresting needs circling the joystick. Usually ends when there's 10 seconds left, if you do well.
AMSTRAD: Arm wresting needs circling the joystick. Really difficult to get the power meter going, unless you are playing on real hardware, but you don't actually even need to win this event to make progress.
DOS: Circular motion for mouse to increase power. Can be beaten in less than a second (on the Easy level).

EVENT #6: Firing Range #3.

The third and final target shooting event is played from a fixed standing point again. You control the crosshair over the restricted area of five targets that have alternating patterns of shootable targets and those you are supposed to miss. Shoot one of the penalty targets, and you need to wait for the next set of targets to appear.

ARCADE: One row of targets with alternating sets of targets. The number of shootable targets alternates between 2 and 4. 32 hits required. Controls are a bit unresponsive when you try to tap the joystick left and right, but keeping the direction pulled will make the cursor move faster.
C64: One row of targets with alternating sets of targets. The number of shootable targets is a constant three. 30 hits required. Joystick controls perfectly when tapping, but is slower when keeping the direction constant.
SPECTRUM: Two rows of targets appear regardless of how many players are in the game. Each player can only shoot their own rows. 30 hits required.
AMSTRAD: Pretty much same feel as the arcade, with 30 hits required. Without a time cheat, it's impossible to beat, if you didn't beat event #5.
DOS: Pretty much same feel as the arcade, with 32 hits required.

PENALTY: Chin-ups.

If at any point in the game (except the arm wrestling event), you fail to beat an event within an inch or two from the goal, you are given another chance by doing a series of chin-ups. The further away from the current main event's goal you finish, the more chin-ups you need to do, with a maximum of ten. If you finish the main event too far from the goal, the penalty event is not activated, and it's Game Over.

ARCADE: Vigorously tap the running button.
C64: Waggle left and right.
SPECTRUM: You can either waggle left and right or do a circular motion to generate power to do chin-ups, but circular motion is more effective.
AMSTRAD: Same as Spectrum.
DOS: Circular motion of the mouse to generate power.

EVENT #7: Fight with Instructor.

This is a cheap approximation of games like Yie Ar Kung-Fu, with your only possible moves being walking, jumping and kicking. Beating the instructor will graduate you from the school, and take you to the final extra hurdle.

ARCADE: The only way to beat the instructor is to jump around, try to land as close as possible to the instructor, then deliver a kick. You can only kick here. If you approach him by walking, he will punch you before you can reach the range where you would be able to hit him.
C64: Instructor gives you a fair fight, and you don't freeze up too much when taking a hit, and not at all after delivering a hit. No jumping necessary.
SPECTRUM: You freeze up for almost two seconds every time you take a hit or try to deliver one. Delivering any sort of a hit successfully is next to impossible, because the instructor can hit you from a mile away, while you can't even reach him from the same apparent distance - he can sometimes even hit you when you're dodging his punches. The collision detection is also very difficult to decipher. The instructor also recovers from delivering his own punches and kicks twice as quickly as you. Every other hit you try to perform is chosen randomly by the game; whether you move backwards or forwards and push the button, you will get a random punch or kick which your man will try to deliver - usually requiring a few attempts for anything to happen at all. I have never managed to deliver more than two hits in any single fight. Practically impossible to beat without some sort of a cheat mode, although I have seen some longplays on YouTube, where the player has beaten this fight fair and square. Can't imagine how.
AMSTRAD: With emulation, I have only ever gotten to this event, and then it always glitches after playing it one second, and your emulated Amstrad CPC is resetted. Using the exact same disk image in a virtual disk drive on a real Amstrad CPC doesn't necessarily glitch out when you get to this event, although it is reportedly possible. Unfortunately, the two times I have managed to get this far on real hardware have only proven, that this version of this event is just about as impossible as the ZX Spectrum version.
DOS: Difficult to make sense of what's happening at any given time, but the instructor seems to be easy enough to beat just by jumping around and kicking as much as you can.

EVENT #8: The Mission.

Terrorists have infiltrated the White House and kidnapped the president, and it's your mission to beat all the terrorists to pulp and free the president. Whichever version you happen to be playing, it's stupidly difficult. Basically, you just need to walk from right to left while kicking all the bad guys that can appear from either side of you, and dodging knives and Molotov cocktails that some of them throw at you. What makes this mission stupidly difficult is, that all of the terrorists that you meet up on the way to the final battle can kill you with one hit, but the final battle with the terrorist leader is more similar to the fight with your instructor, even though you are given a health meter from the start.

Because I cannot even get to this mission in the AMSTRAD version, due to some game-killing bugs and otherwise impossible events, it should be rather clear, why the AMSTRAD version deserves the last place on the Playability scores. The ARCADE original starts off relatively easy, as the first knife-throwing enemy does not appear until you reach the first doorway to the next room. Also, it always goes with the same pattern of enemies, so you can easily memorize the whole map by using the savestate feature in MAME. However, timing is absolutely pivotal in this level, and one minor mistake will end the game. But we only need to look at the first section of the mission to see how playable all the versions that we can get to are.

Compared to the original, the C64 version's terrorist mission puts you slightly off-center of the screen, just a little bit closer to the right edge, which makes it more difficult to deflect enemies that come from behind you. Also, the mission starts straight off by bringing an enemy from behind you before you make any move forwards, as well as another enemy throwing a knife at you from ahead of you, and there are more of those on the way before you reach the second room. It doesn't help, either, that most of the time you are made to deflect both knives and enemies almost simultaneously. In other words, it's a bit of a mess.

So yes, I admit, I had to resort to using POKE cheats in order to reach the mission stage in the SPECTRUM version. Thankfully, the SPECTRUM version actually starts off rather similarly to the original, and is slightly less harsh in its timing issues than the original. However, the first knife-thrower appears before you reach the second room, and with the monochrome graphics and the sudden appearance of the knife flying before you even see the terrorist who threw the knife at you, it's a bit unnecessarily harsh of an introduction of the element in this level. If you were persistent enough, of course you might learn when to anticipate the knife flying at you, but it's still a bit difficult to see with the graphics being what they are. I know my monochrome graphics disability will throw some Spectrum fans off, but the problem is really more about the unexpectedness of the knife flying at you than the graphics. Still, if you manage to jump over the first knife, you get attacked by another terrorist from behind, while getting another knife thrown at you from the front, which isn't particularly fun. Still, it's more manageable than the C64 version so far. The real problem with the SPECTRUM version is, that your soldier walks in chunks of a certain length, before the game locates a place on the map where he is allowed to jump, which you cannot really see before it happens.

Since the DOS version has been so far better to play with a mouse, the mission will be unnecessarily tricky, because a mouse is practically impossible to control in exactly the direction you would want to, and changing controls mid-game is not an option. So, you will jump and kick around like an idiot for the duration of this level, because there's nothing you can do about it. At least the mission starts off similarly enough to the ARCADE and SPECTRUM versions, but with slightly less enemies coming at you, although that might have something to do with the Easy difficulty level. As it is, I cannot be bothered to go through the entire game using the other two difficulty levels, because the mouse control feels so unnatural.


For me, Combat School has always been more about the actual school part of the game, and the final mission has been nothing more than a nuisance that was added as a surprise bonus at the end of the game. Granted, it brings yet another different segment to an already hugely varying game of events that are otherwise suspiciously close to an actual sports game. Who knows, perhaps someone out there might think the mission is actually the real reason for the game's existence - a way to prove the imminent worth of all the drills you had to go through. Which, to be brutally frank, just bloody well is not. I mean, they could have at least put some shooting into the mission, when almost half of your training period was spent at the firing range. But no, your mission was made out to be a bad Jackie Chan clone, when you can only just about perform a couple of kicks.


Anyway, what I'm going to have to do to put these five versions in any order is an approximation, since the game is too difficult for me to properly decipher from the 7th event onwards. Besides, the  AMSTRAD version is buggy, and can be literally unplayable from that point on, so I can only guess there. Of course, since it is literally broken, it can only take the last spot on the list. But as with all arcade games, every version needs to be compared against the arcade original.

I cannot say with any certainty, whether the DOS version with its mouse control is anywhere near the original trackball-controlled ARCADE game, but it is surprisingly playable, all in all, if ultimately entirely lacking in fun. Playing with a mouse doesn't give you even nearly the same sense of a sports game as a joystick does, and the keyboard control method is plainly impossible to use. On the other hand, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions both require such usage of the joystick to make it more physically straining on both the player and the joystick. Luckily, the SPECTRUM version works all the way - at least to my knowledge - but the fight against instructor still feels impossible to me; I just haven't been able to find the correct way to deliver hits. If someone more knowledged would be so kind as to enlighten me how to play this event on the Amstrad and Spectrum - in minute detail - I would be much obliged. So, the only conversion to do an overall good enough job at translating the arcade game to a home computer is the COMMODORE 64, which still manages to botch up the gameplay in the last minute.




What I have always enjoyed very much about Combat School, is the amount of variety in styles they managed to incorporate into the game. The real question is, I guess, how well each version deals with the variety. When the original is an arcade game from an age just before the 16-bits started hitting big, the graphical differences between the arcade original and the home ports were bound to be immense. The level of details and colours really is very high in the original - much better than any 16-bit computer was seen to be doing for a few years still.

Title screens/menus, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum (top right), DOS (bottom right).
With three out of five, the most common design for the title screen uses a basic black background with a bit of text for options and copyrights underneath a large game title logo. The original Combat School ARCADE version uses shades of yellow in the title, while the American version's Boot Camp text goes with a bluer motif, even so far as to have the golden stars on the sides have a darker shade of blue in the background than the Combat School logo. Both the C64 versions have a very clunky look to the game logo, particularly the American version, in which the cheap PETSCII character modification becomes even more apparent than in the European version. The AMSTRAD version's logo feels a bit too snug, but the colouring and details are very nice, apart from having dropped the saluting man from inside one of the O's.

The two wildly differing title screens, or options screens, to be more precise here, have a light grey background in the SPECTRUM version and an unnecessarily ornamented sunburst-style blue in the DOS version. Although there is quite a lot to be seen in the DOS menu screen, it looks rather horrendous with no less than five fonts used on the screen; the options slots are humongous compared to all the others, and it doesn't even have the game logo on it. The SPECTRUM version has the neatest title logo of all versions on its title screen, although it is also the smallest, and uses only yellow and black in the text part. At least the saluting man is featured in one of the O's in "School". The credits and options texts all use the same classic hollow font, and have a fairly restrained use of colour.

Opening cutscene, only available in the arcade (left) and ZX Spectrum (right) versions.

When you decide to start the game, the ARCADE original has a "Get Ready" screen, which shows portraits of our two contestants, Nick and Joe. The portraits first appear horizontally side by side, and then Nick's portrait is dragged above Joe's, and the two cadets also appear in side-viewed poses, similar to how they appear on the starting line of the first stage. This screen appears in a similar manner on the SPECTRUM, except the texts are not typed in one letter at a time, and of course, it's not quite as "high-fidelity" as the original, but still, it's the only conversion where this screen appears.

Event #1: Obstacle Course, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, DOS (EGA).
As we go mostly in the order of appearance again, the Obstacle Course is the first event we take a look at, and immediately we see, that aside from the AMSTRAD version, all versions use a split-screen view of the two potential players. In the AMSTRAD version, the two human players take turns. In the order of screen width, the DOS version has the most, the C64 version second-most, the SPECTRUM and ARCADE versions share the third place, and the AMSTRAD has the least width. The width is really the only considerable issue in terms of screen size, since all versions look to have just about the same sort of height to each player's screen portion. Concerning the info parts, the DOS version is the only one not to feature the scores line.

Concerning the scrolling speed, the C64 version is the only one to match the speed and fluidity of the ARCADE original; in fact, the C64 version surpasses the original in speed. The DOS version has no scrolling fluency or inertia, the AMSTRAD version scrolls reasonably fast but choppily with three notable speed switches, and the SPECTRUM version scrolls smoothly, but has two notable speed  switches and is just about as slow as the DOS version at best.

The SPECTRUM version attempts to minimize the attribute clash from happening too much by using mostly monochrome graphics. There is a line of cyan in the background, where your player cannot reach, and some of the texts are red, but that's about it. Otherwise, though, the graphics look excellently detailed, all the way to the large digital timer. The AMSTRAD version has some very striking colours, along with some nice details, neither of which you can really focus on due to how the choppy but fast scrolling affects your vision. Unlike the original, though, the obstacles on the track are very red logs instead of sandy brown brick walls and even brighter red horizontal bars instead of green. The DOS version goes with a varied shades of grey brick walls and yellow bars, and the backgrounds are a bit bland; however, it is the player sprites that feel the most awkward with full green-and-black or red-and-black outfits, leaving all the players' skin colours pitch-black. The C64 version is the only one of the conversions that gets most of the details and colours right, although the ground looks more like cement than dirt, and the two players look almost exactly the same. Since the players use double-layered sprites with many colours, they are easily the most easy on the eye.

Post-event bonus counting screens, where available; left to right:
Arcade, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, DOS (EGA).

In all but the C64 version, completing an event lets you see a bonus counting screen right after finishing each event. From the four versions that feature this screen, the AMSTRAD version is the only one not to feature Nick and Joe's faces, but instead uses the game logo in their stead. The DOS version not only looks the most horrendous with the yellow bonus background, but it also seems to have the faces backwards. However, if you play the game in CGA or Hercules mode, the faces are assembled in their correct order, as you will see later on.

Progress screens. Top row, left to right: Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row: Amstrad CPC (left), DOS (right).
The progress screen shows up before every new level, showing you which events you have cleared so far with blinking lights next to the shown list item. What always struck me as funny, is the small pictures depicting part of the action in each event, but looking at the level of detail put into the miniatures in some of these versions is quite staggering. The DOS version has the least detail in the pictures, even though it has the largest, and the AMSTRAD version has no pictures at all. Interestingly, the first and third firing range events have the same pictures in the ARCADE, C64 and DOS versions, but the SPECTRUM version has all the firing range icons different. It's an iconic Combat School element, and should have been taken seriously when making a conversion.

Event #2: Firing Range 1, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, DOS (EGA).
Here we see screenshots from both single player and two-player modes from the first shooting range event. Unfortunately, I was unable to get both players finish well enough in the Obstacle Course to get both players simultaneously, but I suppose the pictures are good enough. That said, the AMSTRAD version's setup looks similar, but you actually need to play the two players on their own turns.

The other three versions at least manage to show, that this event is played by two players simultaneously, if you are playing against a human opponent. The ARCADE version has two differently coloured crosshairs, as does the DOS version, and the SPECTRUM version uses a round crosshair for player 2 instead of a rectangular one. The AMSTRAD and C64 crosshairs are impossible to tell apart, but at least in the AMSTRAD version, you cannot really mix the two up.

In the ARCADE version, you have your drill instructor shouting "Fire!" at each new set of targets, so you also see him standing in the middle of the two player bunkers. Out of all the home conversions, only the SPECTRUM version has the drill instructor featured as an animated element.

As for the colours and details, I suppose it's difficult to get this sort of a thing completely wrong. This particular firing range is placed at a large green field, with some mountains showing far in the background, and your greyish bunkers are located at the bottom. Most of the versions have at least some kind of terrain detailing, but the AMSTRAD version is missing the green details altogether, and only shows some mountains in the distance. The C64 version's backdrop shows a bit of forest instead of mountains, which perhaps works a bit better with the machine's given colours. The DOS version doesn't really use white, so the targets are a bit harder to see at first, but not as hard as your green/red crosshair, which moves around as if its movement was based on an ASCII character map or something. The DOS version is also the only one that doesn't show, when you have crossed the qualifying limit, until the event is over.

Event #3: Iron-Man Race, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, DOS (EGA).
Another split-screen event, the Iron-Man Race is a top-down viewed rough terrain running-and-swimming sort of a deal, with plenty of variety in graphics. For starters, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions are only played one player at a time, and from this point on, I have no two-player pictures to show, so the SPECTRUM and DOS versions have no active second player screens. The way the two versions differ in this, is that the second player screen is completely blank in the DOS version, while the SPECTRUM screen shows the starting line.

The ARCADE original features a CPU opponent, so the second screen is always there, and the screen for each player scrolls in all directions. The C64 version doesn't scroll left and right, but is otherwise very smooth and fast, and has the largest action screen from all home conversions of this event. The DOS version scrolls by the block, and is superbly uncomfortable to look at in action, even though it has the most details and rather nice colours overall. The action screen in the AMSTRAD version is just barely wider than one of the screens in the SPECTRUM version, and although it runs a bit faster than the SPECTRUM version, it also moves by chunks of three pixels in any direction, while the SPECTRUM version uses smoother scrolling. Concerning colours and details, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions get a 50/50 deal here when compared to the original, and the SPECTRUM version is missing some important details, such as the boat.

Events #4 and #6: Firing Range 2 & 3, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, DOS (EGA).
I decided to stick the two latter firing range events together here, to save some time and space. The most obvious reason is, because the third shooting event doesn't really give us anything that is actually new, other than the penalty targets - otherwise, the graphics are exactly the same as in the first shooting event. Secondly, I couldn't get the second player to get this far on my own, so the single player screenshots from the second shooting level should suffice.

In the ARCADE version, the second firing range is at a decidedly more dirt-based area, since you wouldn't really want some hundreds of mini-tanks crawling around on some nice green grass, would you? Well, this is where your targets are constantly moving, and so you have to be moving, as well. Your moving area is again at the bottom of the screen, under a line of sandbags, which doesn't really look too different at all from the rest of the area, unless you're playing the SPECTRUM version, where your area is of a clearly different colour. The colour of dirt seems to have only translated into the DOS version, while the C64 version uses the colour of concrete, the AMSTRAD version's area looks like a field of barley, and the SPECTRUM version continues with the green grass theme. At least the backgrounds have been given a little more thought in the AMSTRAD and DOS versions, while the C64 version focuses simply on getting the tank action as correct as possible.

Event #5: Arm Wrestling. Left: Arcade. Top middle: Commodore 64. Bottom middle: Amstrad CPC.
Top right: Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Bottom right: DOS (EGA).
Not that many games can boast of having arm wrestling as a part of the package, so I can imagine, trying to make it look like serious business can be a bit difficult. The ARCADE original starts off the event with a side-view of the two combatants getting ready, looking very determined indeed, before the view switches to an overhead one. As an inconsequential, yet interesting detail, Nick and Joe are not sitting on any chairs, but rather slightly squatting at the table. The graphics in the ARCADE version are large and life-like, although the table has no real distinguishing elements about it, other than its rounded corners.

The C64 version is the only one to use the side-view shown in the getting ready part of the original, only these graphics are super blocky, and Nick and Joe are actually sitting on chairs here. All the other versions use the proper point of view, with the SPECTRUM version perhaps getting the closest to the original in its overall colouring. The AMSTRAD version's graphician made a point of rounding up the table's corners, but the colours are a bit wrong. At least it's not as bad as the DOS version's grey skin and completely bonkers clothing colours.

Penalty event: Chin-ups. Top row, left to right: Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom row: Amstrad CPC x2, DOS (EGA).

If you ever have the misfortune as to miss a few fractions of a second from properly qualifying, you are given a penalty event of doing chin-ups, which take place on a field in front of your combat school. There are two chin-up racks, one for each player, which can be used simultaneously if the need hits. Unless you're playing the C64 or AMSTRAD version, the drill instructor is taunting you to push on somewhere behind you. Uniquely, I found the AMSTRAD version to actually have two different places for you to do the chin-ups, although I haven't figured out how to trigger the second place to appear. The first one is somewhat similar to the original, only near a mountain, rather than a forest, and the second one is by a river. Nice bonus, if a bit unorthodox.

Event #7: Fight with Instructor. Top row, left to right: Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Amstrad CPC. Bottom right: DOS (EGA).
The final hurdle before you are graduated is a hand-to-hand combat against your drill instructor, although to be exact, you seem to only know how to use your feet. The fight is set to happen inside some sort of a storage room, which has a conveniently placed stage, where these sorts of fights can take place, in the middle of metal trusses, which hold the lighting. In the ARCADE version, we can see some non-descript barrels on the right side of the stage, which only appear in the DOS version from the home conversions, which also has the only metallic grey stage that is similar to the original. The C64, SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have a blue stage, and the C64 version differs further by having a large brick wall behind the stage. Furthermore, the C64 version also has a structural info panel lodged on top the lighting trusses, so the actual storage room looking area looks much less like an empty storage room, and more like a deliberately arranged fighting stage.

Unfortunately, the character animation is clumsy at best, even in the original, but that has more to do with how little room there was in the game to be given for this particular type of an event than the dev team's ability to make it work properly. Sure, the movements are more smooth on the ARCADE version than in the home conversions, but there is still an uncomfortable stiffness to every move the fighters are able to make. The good thing about the C64 version is, that it doesn't try to emulate the original's animations to the letter, but rather give the fighters a better chance at actually delivering the fighting moves. The DOS version can be considered similarly clumsy in animation, but actually, it barely gives any time to show the kicks you perform, so it looks even clumsier than the C64 version. The SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have the animations pretty well copied from the original.

Mid-game cutscenes from Arcade (top row) and DOS (bottom row) versions.
Between certain events, you are treated to some brief cutscenes, just to give you a brief respite from all the frantic stick-waggling and button-smashing. Obviously, the ARCADE version has the most cutscenes, although the DOS version gets pretty close in quantity, though certainly not in quality. Basically, the lack of quality in the DOS version is seen in the number of animation frames and the general colouring. None of the 8-bit home computers have these cutscenes featured.

After the Iron-Man Race, we see a bunch of cadets jogging after the drill instructor through the school's front yard, with Nick (or Joe?) barely keeping up with the rest, and panting so heavily, you would think he is about to have a heart attack any second now. One cutscene that we see only in the ARCADE version is a close-up of your drill instructor saying "This is your last chance", before you are taken to do the chin-ups. Before the final shooting event, we see Nick and Joe relaxing against a wall, with one of them smoking a cigarette. You don't see that too often happening in a video game, so enjoy it while it lasts. Then you have the graduation sequence after winning the fight with the instructor, in which a group of graduates are standing on a wooden platform in front of the school building, next to a flagpole. After a few words from the instructor, the graduates throw their hats high up in the air, and the camera follows the hats to show the United States flag against a clear blue sky.

Mission briefing screens, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum (3rd top), Amstrad CPC (3rd bottom), DOS (EGA).
After the graduation sequence, we are given a "surprise" mission, which is launched with a scene, where your commander gives you an order to save the hostages from the overtaken building, which in the next screen looks suspiciously like White House or something very similar to it. In this screen, you see two police cars and one other car parked in front of the building, with three police officers in positions next to their cars, backing you up as you walk up to the building after a few explosions are seen around the building.

In the DOS version, you see the explosions, but no people doing anything on the screen, and in the C64 version, you only see your character walk up to the building, but no explosions. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have no screens of the building at all, and none of the versions apart from the DOS one have the two men dressed in green featured in the screen that says "Attention!"

Screenshots from the terrorist mission level, left to right:
Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, DOS (EGA).
As I mentioned earlier, I was not able to get screenshots of the AMSTRAD version of the mission level - at least, not by playing. The only way I could get screenshots of it was to grab screens from a YouTube video that wasn't quite in as good quality as I would have hoped, but at least it's something. Also, I was unable to get past the first area in the DOS version thanks to its supremely awful mouse control, so what you see in the above picture is how far I was able to get in all my circa three dozen attempts.

Anyway, the two given screenshots from the mission in each version are supposed to represent the first two areas in the stage. The first one is a long hallway with some sedate wallpaper, couches, candles, paintings and such, and you will only encounter two kinds of enemies here. The second part makes you go through a basement-like area, with thugs throwing Molotov cocktails added into the mix, pipes you need to grab onto and boxes you need to jump over. There are two or three more areas in the mission, and a couple of more different types of enemies to deal with, but I just couldn't be bothered with it that far.

The five versions continue to look almost exactly as each machine has been represented so far, but there are a couple of odd details that I might as well point out here. The SPECTRUM version looks even more monochrome than it has looked in any other stage so far, although I have to say, it doesn't really take away any of the level's enjoyment. The AMSTRAD version doesn't have an energy bar showing, before you actually fight the main villain, and the DOS version doesn't have the scores showing here. Not that either really matter too much at this point. The biggest deviation from the rest of any selected version's graphics is in the C64 version, where your controlled protagonist is not made of two overlapping sprites, but one blocky one instead.

High scores and rankings. Top row, left to right: Arcade, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Bottom left: Amstrad CPC. Bottom right: DOS (EGA).

When the game eventually ends, you are given a ranking based on your score. Naturally, the ARCADE version also gives you a chance to type in your initials into the high score table, which is not actually shown above, but that is not why I compiled the picture above - it's the rankings. The C64 version shows only your title based on the accumulated score, but there is no high score table - merely the highest score of your session, unless you have managed to somehow obtain a version with a high score saver. The SPECTRUM version shows you your title in the high score table, once you have jotted down your four chosen letters. Oddly, the title-based ranking list is missing from both the AMSTRAD and DOS versions, although I'm more baffled by its omission from the DOS version, since the high scores actually do get saved there.

Graphics modes comparison from the IBM-PC compatibles version.
Top to bottom: Hercules, CGA, EGA/Tandy.
Finally, I had to somehow compile a comparison of the DOS version's graphic modes, of which there are four. The EGA and Tandy modes look almost exactly the same, with the only real notable difference being the hits meter's visibility. Unfortunately, screenshots of the Hercules mode are a bit of a mess, since it's impossible to get realistic screenshots of it, as they would appear on an actual CRT monitor - the pixel ratio is a bit wonky. You will see it all a bit clearer in the video accompaniment further below. Perhaps the most striking difference between the Hercules/CGA and EGA/Tandy modes is the bonus counting screen, in which Nick and Joe look very different and are backwards. Other than that, I'm not completely certain, in which mode the game looks the least uncomfortable.

I have to be honest here, I find myself quite torn over the fact that the DOS version has such nicely detailed graphics to a certain extent, but then the animations and colours can be often supremely awkward. See, most of the background details look better than on any other home conversion, but unfortunately, that merit is just not able to carry the entire game. The C64 version is what gives us the most detailed, mostly correct in colouring, the best animated, and smoothest and fastest scrolling graphical representation of Combat School from all home conversions. The AMSTRAD version might occasionally have better colours, but the screen sizes are not big enough, the screen's scrolling is mostly choppy and awkward (particularly when it's quick), and there's not nearly enough details in it to be considered a properly faithful conversion. Happily, the SPECTRUM version does a relatively impressive job despite its tendency towards monochromacity - the scrolling is often smooth, if not exactly fast; the animations are neat and the graphics are generally very detailed.




As I stated in the previous comparison (Yie Ar Kung-Fu), arcade games tend not to have any music or sound effects going on in the title screen and the inevitable attract mode, in order to keep the idling noises to a minimum in an 80's arcade hall already full of other noises. Then again, you do get all the sound effects played from each event in the attract mode, but at least the amount of music has been kept to a fair minimum.

The sound effects are a widely varied bunch. For dropping a coin into the machine, you get to hear a basic late 80's "thunk" noise with a bit of delay in it. Most of the game's soundscape is made by the tapping noises made by you and your opponent's running feet, the machine gun shooting noises, whistle bleering at the end of each event, and the large amount of voice samples. Each event has its own specific samples, such as the "whoop" and "ouch" utterings in the Obstacle Course, the watery noises in the Iron-Man Race, and the drill instructor's taunts in the event where you fight against him. More commonly heard voice samples include "You made it", "Fire!", "Yeah!" when you end the event successfully and the players' names (Nick and Joe) when being talked to directly by the drill instructor. Additionally, there are some random "uurrrggghh" and panting noises, and some explosion noises where they occur. For me, the most hilarious speech bits are "Go home to your mother!" and "Darn it!", both played upon failure.

Musically, Combat School gives an incredibly rich and memorable soundtrack by Shinji Tasaka. All the events have their own recognizable tunes, the level completion screen has its own short ditty that has a longer version at the very beginning of the game, and even the Game Over and high score entry screens have some very memorable music. Most of the soundtrack is fairly up-tempo, with only the penalty chin-ups event and the high score entry having more sedate tunes. The sound quality in the arcade game could be better, since the sound is generated by a YM-2203 and uPD7759, which makes the game's music sound like anything on Sega Megadrive (or Genesis) - very tinny and plastic, but in mono.

Although the C64 version dropped most of the interlude screens, along with their specific music, Martin Galway was clever enough to make a cover/re-arrangement of a completely different tune for the title screen, which didn't have any music originally. The new title track is loosely based on the US marines drill cadences, also taking some inspiration from the hit single promoting the Kubrick movie "Full Metal Jacket" in 1987, and uses the 6581 SID chip's known bugs to the track's advantage to make it sound fuller, using percussive samples for a funky rhythm track, and lots of great effects. The rest of the soundtrack is taken straight from the ARCADE game, with some slight changes to certain rhythms, but more importantly, the overall feel of the soundtrack is now more in-your-face and has a lot less plastic tinniness about it. The only interlude music kept from the original soundtrack is Star Spangled Banner, played before you get to the mission.

The C64 version's sound effects are less notable, though, mostly because there are no voice samples. You do get the mild foot tapping noises in the running events, a squeaky movement sound in the Obstacle Course's final hurdle, gunshot blips and explosions in shooting events, a long beep for penalty in the final target shooting event, and an approximated "Nnnngggghhhh!" effect done by synth programming in the chin-ups. Considering that all of the sound effects are played alongside of all the carefully programmed music is a pretty good achievement, when the SID chip has only three channels to utilise. Still, could be better.

Jas Brooke's AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM 128k soundtracks are largely similar between themselves. He decided to use the mission theme as the title screen tune as well, as leaving it empty was probably not an option. Were it not for the helpful people on YouTube making some helpful videos, I wouldn't be able to tell, whether or not the title screen tune was still used for its proper place as well, but I can confirm, that it is. The soundtrack is not quite complete, when comparing to the original: all the target shooting sections use the same tune, which is a half re-written version of the first target shooting tune. Also, the Obstacle Course tune isn't quite correct, since it goes in a major key instead of minor, and there is no modulation for the second part of the tune, but at least it's recognizable. Music for the bonus counting screen and the progress report screen switch between the CPC and SPECTRUM versions, and the SPECTRUM version uses the correct music for bonus counting screen. The only other featured track is a rendition of Star Spangled Banner for graduating the actual school part of the game. The High Score music is the same as the one you hear in the Obstacle Course.

Naturally, the rest of the 8-bits are missing voice samples, as well, and the amount of sound effects is relatively low overall. The AMSTRAD version seems to be fairing a bit better than the 128k SPECTRUM version, because there is more focus on the percussive side of music in the SPECTRUM version, therefore leaving a little less space for sound effects. For one, there is no actual shooting sound effect in the shooting events, but only the targets' explosions and a practically inaudible "thump" sound when you hit the wrong targets in event #6 - the AMSTRAD version has both the shooting noises and a properly audible fault noise. The Obstacle Course doesn't even have any sound effects on the 128k SPECTRUM, while the AMSTRAD version can boast of having some feet tapping and a couple of different bumping sounds. The Arm Wrestling event features no sound effects in either case, but then such is the case on the C64, too. Fighting your instructor only features an effect for delivering a hit, which sounds much like shooting in both versions. All in all, the AMSTRAD version has the most spectacular 8-bit sound effects, which is balanced out by a somewhat faulty soundtrack.

As odd as it might sound, the 48k SPECTRUM isn't the worst of the lot. Sure, it is purely beeper stuff, and while the amount of music and sound effects is unfavourable to say the least, at least it's all sort of recognizable. The title screen uses a surprisingly complex beeper rendition of the Obstacle Course tune; the Get Ready tune is very close to the original Stage Result tune; the Stage Result tune is a barely recognizable rendition of the original Mission Intro tune; the Fight the Instructor intro tune is originally the End of Stage tune; and there is probably something after that as well, but I haven't the faintest clue how to get to hear the rest of it. There isn't a whole lot of sound effects - the only ones I have heard are the weird noises the game makes when your drill instructor is punching you in the fight event.

So how bad is must the DOS version be, if the meagre 48k SPECTRUM version can be considered better? To put things into perspective, the DOS version supports the Adlib music board, and compatibles, and the relative tedium of a loud single-channel PC speaker can also be "enhanced" by having a Tandy PC. The problem is, all of the music has been programmed seemingly at the last minute, as if it were nothing but an afterthought. If lucky, some of them might resemble the original compositions rhythmically and in the general sense of melodic structure, but frankly, it's all an ungodly mess, particularly if you listen to the music with more than one channel. The only recognizable tune in the entire DOS soundtrack is Star Spangled Banner in the graduation sequence, but even that has wrong note timings and it has been lodged awkwardly between another tune, which ends abruptly after having elongated the American flag picture for far too long. Happily, there are no sound effects to turn this into something even more disastrous, but having a completely unharmonious soundtrack blasting through your speakers all throughout the game will put you into therapy.




A long and uncomfortable month later, we have finally come to the Overall results of Combat School, and I'm glad I don't have to go through that again. As usual, taken the loading times and screens out of consideration, here are the stupidly mathematical results in traditional FRGCB style:

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 5, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 15
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 12
3. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 9
4. SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 7
5. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
6. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 =

So, I suppose we can all agree, Ocean did a better job at bringing Combat School to home computers than Konami's own chosen team was able to for the IBM-PC compatibles. Perhaps it was simply a hardware-related problem, but to be brutally honest, I have never in my life heard such a messed up soundtrack in any game - not just a DOS game, but any game - in my entire life, and I have heard some messed up stuff; and the graphics and the controls are not much less than a disaster. It's not a broken game, though, which the AMSTRAD version is, but for the majority of time, the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are much more fun to play than the DOS version. As it turns out, the C64 once again turns out the conversions' victor here, although the harsh truth is, the ARCADE version is your only choice, if you want to have an authentic and well-balanced Combat School experience.

If you're not entirely convinced of the above scores, here's an accompaniment video to this comparison, compiled by yours truly, which contains as much of gameplay from each version as I could manage to gather - mostly unemulated - including three graphic/sound modes from the PC version.

And if that doesn't convince you, I urge you to try the game out on all platforms. Just make sure you pay attention to what controllers should be used - more about them in the beginning of the Playability section, if you decided to skip that.

That's that, then - I hope that was worth the bother. Next month will be another relatively quiet one, thanks to my real life work load, but there should be at least one comparison coming up at some point. Thanks for reading and/or watching, see you next month with something a bit lighter-weight!


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  2. A brilliant exposition! Your post is insightful, well-crafted, and a pleasure to read. Thanks for sharing your valuable perspective.