When people talk about NES games it’s inevitable that you hear them waxing lovingly about games such as The Legend of Zelda, the Castlevania games, Mega Man, Super Mario Bros or a myriad of other classics that the console was home to. Because the NES played host to so many groundbreaking games a lot of other worthy games that aren’t of quite the same pedigree of the aforementioned titles slipped through the cracks. Do a quick eBay search and I can guarantee that all but the most hardcore NES fans will find several games they’ve never even heard of within the first several listings. One of those games that I’m sure a lot of readers have never played is Cobra Command.
Published by Data East in 1988 it sounds like a game based on the GI Joe cartoon. In reality it has nothing to do with it. I’m sure this disappointed more than a few kids back in the 80’s. Maybe they named it that to boost sales by capitalizing on the popularity of GI Joe? I guess only Data East knows the answer and I’m sure that if the company exists today, nobody from 1988 still works there. Even if they did I’m sure no one would have the answer to the question or care for that matter. In fact, there’s a pretty solid chance that nobody on the entire planet is even thinking about this relic of game at this moment except for me as I write this, and you the reader as you skim through this garbage. Kind of neat huh?
So now that we’ve established that the game has absolutely nothing to do with GI Joe I suppose the next step would be to discuss what the concept of the game is. You fly a helicopter through a series of side scrolling levels trying to avoid other helicopters and enemy fire while rescuing hostages. When all of the hostages are rescued and you reach the end of the stage the next level begins. Sounds simple enough right? Well let me tell you right now, this game is freaking hard. Seriously it’s brutal. The only way I’ve ever made it to the end was with our old pal the Game Genie.
Before I go any further I’d like to talk about how I actually ended up with this game. Back in my NES days I had a teenage neighbor that liked to come over and play Nintendo. He had several other friends around the neighborhood so one day he borrowed Cobra Command from one of them and brought it over to play. His friend ended up moving and they completely forgot about Cobra Command so I ended up getting to keep it. Hey I wasn’t complaining. Back then it was pretty rare to get a new game to play unless it was Christmas or your birthday. Stories like this are probably why you see so many NES carts on eBay with “JIMMY” or “BILLY” written on them in sharpie. It’s never a name like “STAN” or “ANTHONY”. People knew not to screw with guys that had names like those.
Cobra Command had some pretty nifty features for a game of it’s time. If you landed in certain locations a screen would tell you that you’ve “secured the enemy depot” (which child you would pronounce as DEE-PAHT) and have upgraded your weapons, shields, or other aspects of your helicopter. How would you know where to find these depots? Pause the game and talk to the hostages you’ve rescued and they would give you information on how to proceed throughout the stage. You start out with a gun, missiles, and a rope to rescue hostages. All of this can be upgraded multiple times. Not only that but you can select between your upgrades. For instance, if you upgrade your missiles to firebombs, and then to homing missiles you can revert back to the firebombs or even your standard missiles at will. It may not seem like much now, but at the time you were generally stuck with whatever upgrade you just received in other games. The ability to go back and forth and choose was really helpful.
Another nice feature was that as your helicopter got hit it would show battle damage. First a small fire would break out. Then a larger fire that would slowly drag your helicopter towards the ground forcing the player to keep tapping the up button. Finally, if you got hit the last time a huge fire would break out and force your chopper spiraling into oblivion. There is no health bar anywhere on the game as a result.
The game definitely had some draw backs. One was the scrolling. As you would move forward the screen would chug along with you scrolling somewhat slowly. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but there were certain parts of the game where you would have to move quickly to avoid dangers such as rockets which are an instant kill. The problem is that the screen scrolling would hamper your ability to outrun these obstacles. The solution would be to turn your helicopter around by pressing select (yes, select) and proceed backwards. For some reason the screen doesn’t scroll if you’re turned around. Once you’ve made it past the danger you would hit select again and proceed. Another issue was the control. You stop to shoot straight, move forward to shoot down, and move backwards to shoot up. It all has to do with how your helicopter is angled. Once you get adjusted to it it’s not so bad but it’s a difficult adjustment.
The game only has 6 stages but believe me, they are some hard freaking stages. I think I only ever made it to stage 2 as a child playing this game straight up. When a friend of mine got the Game Genie this was one of the first games we used it on. If you can beat this game without cheating my hat is off to you; you’re a far better gamer than I am. Or maybe you just sit in your basement and play Cobra Command all day and got really good at it. Loser.
The stages all seem to be based in the orient with a decidedly jungle feel to them. It feels very “Vietnamy”, which Microsoft Office does not recognize as a word but I will keep here anyway. The levels are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, South China Sea (complete with Kamikaze pilots), Siam, and lastly the big enemy base. After all that fighting I’m not sure who the enemy is and of course you get the typical NES crappy ending after all that anguish.
Overall though I certainly have fond memories of this game. A lot of it probably stems from the unorthodox manner in which I procured it. Nevertheless it still is a very solid and entertaining NES title. If you ever find a copy I’d certainly recommend giving it a try. It’s one of those games that are easy to learn but difficult to master which makes you want to keep trying to beat it over and over again.