Everyone loves war games, right? Not the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie WarGames, I mean videogames about war. I should hope people like war games, because there are plenty of them out there, which lead to Konami spotting a gap in the market. “What if, instead of letting players fight in a war,” thought Konami, “we let them do all the boring army training instead?” What a masterstroke that was, and as a result we have today’s game: Konami’s 1988 killbot-factory-em-up Combat School, also known as Boot Camp!
I’m old enough to remember when certain sections of the media were telling me that videogames were a combat school, twisting my tender young mind and turning me into a remorseless killer with superior firearms handling skills and a complete desensitization to violence. That, of course, was not the case. Maybe if I could run at two hundred miles an hour and never need to reload like the marine from Doom I’d be the greatest soldier in history, but as it stands I’m halfway between a pacifist and a coward with the marksmanship skills of a one-eyed lemur.
No combat school would be complete without a stern drill sergeant, and here’s the one who’ll be putting you through your paces in this game. “Are you looking for a fight?!” his digitised voice bellows at me during the attract mode, to which I answer no, no I am not. Did you not read the bit about being a pacifist? Also, your tiny hands would make you punches more painful as they’d focus your power into a smaller area. Nice moustache, though. You’ve got sort of a “Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind” meets Full Metal Jacket look about you, pal.
I’ll be playing as Nick, a fresh-faced recruit with absolutely zero remarkable features. Also here is Joe, who acts as either a computer-controlled rival or the second player’s character. I reckon Joe is only participating in basic training so he can become a GI for pun purposes.
The first step to mastering the art of combat is to hone your body to physical perfection, so what better way to start than with a gruelling obstacle course? It’s Nick versus Joe in a race to the finish – although you don’t have to beat Joe, you just have to reach the end without running out of time. The first part of the course is hurdles, so you hammer the run button as fast as you can to build up some speed, tapping the jump button when you reach a wall, hopefully timing your button-press in such a way that Nick leaps over / scrambles across the hurdle. I say hopefully, pressing the jump button at the wrong time so Nick leaps face-first into the wall and bounces off is probably the most entertaining moment in Combat School, so I’d recommend trying it at least a couple of times.
I suspect the army’s “Be the Best” slogan may not have been aimed specifically at you, Nick.
There’s also a section where you swing across some monkey bars. Again, this is accomplished by hammering the buttons. In case you haven’t realised it yet, Combat School is essentially one of Konami’s multi-event sports games – like Track and Field or Hyper Sports – given a military coat of paint. It’s quite a clever way to recycle the gameplay formula, I suppose.
The second event is the firing range, and there’s not much to say about this one: a row of targets appears, and when they do you move your crosshair over to them, pressing the fire button and sweeping your cursor horizontally across them. If you manage to destroy all the targets in a row you get some bonus points, but the real goal is to shoot enough targets to qualify, as per the target (hah!) number at the bottom-left of the screen. It’s not much of a challenge, but after the button-mashing of the first stage it’s a welcome break for your thumbs. On the original Combat School arcade cabinets, your movements were controlled with a trackball rather than a joystick. I’m very glad that there was also a joystick-controlled version, though. This game’s hard enough on your thumbs as it is, I wouldn’t want to ruin my wrist by spinning the trackball too.
Anyway, that’s the shooting range. The first shooting range, I should say. It’s easy to clear and feels appropriately militaristic. The only notable thing about it is that the drill sergeant shouts “fire!” every time the targets pop up, and by the end of the round the targets are appearing so quickly that he starts to sound like Beavis.
Next up is the Iron Man Race, a dash to the finish while wearing heavy boots of lead and filling your victims full of dread. No, not really. I kinda wish you were wearing lead boots, though – they might prevent Nick from falling on his arse if he so much as dips his tippy-toes in one of these puddles. Again, I suspect you might not be cut out for the life of an enlisted man, Nick.
It’s more understandable that these live land mines would knock you over, though. That’s right, this army training course is littered with live land mines. The graduating class of Combat School might only have five legs between them, but by god they’re tough. Princess Diana is looking down from heaven and weeping, I’m sure.
The Iron Man Race is also a biathlon, with a swimming section in the second half. It’s only a swimming section because Joe stole my boat, the absolute dick. Too late did I realise that there’s another boat that I could have taken, but I didn’t spot it until I’d swum past it and the game wouldn’t let me go back and climb aboard, so I had no choice but to swim to the finish.
But the hammer of karma swiftly came crashing down on Joe, the nefarious dinghy-grabber. The hammer of karma took the form of a log, because these things work in mysterious ways, and the floating tree-trunk knocked Joe out of his boat and delayed him long enough for me to overtake him. It’s a moral victory and, you know, an actual victory for Nick.
More firearms training with the next exercise, and the army has upgraded from paper targets to tiny tanks with glowing lights on the top in what is clearly an egregious case of taxpayer’s money being wasted. Just tie targets to a bunch of chickens and set them loose, that’d accomplish the same effect for a fraction of the price, plus that way you’ve got something to put in the soldier’s rations afterwards. Even better, give the chickens beak-mounted machine guns so they can fight back. That’d really give these recruits some combat training they won’t forget.
Anyway, the second shooting gallery is a little different than the first, because you can and must move horizontally along the bottom of the screen while firing upwards. It’s very reminiscent of the vertical-shooting sections from Contra, except not as much fun.
For the next challenge, Nick and Joe are taking a break from actual military training to get a bit of macho arm-wrestling done. With no logs of divine retribution coming to Nick’s aid in this one, I had to rely on the tried-and-true method of mashing the button as fast as possible. I went with the “rubbing” technique, where you rub your finger back-and-forth over the button, and that seemed to work extremely well. It’s far more likely to give you a blister the size of a small cantaloupe than simply pressing the button, but it was always our preferred method of button-mashing back in the day, usually combined with something like a pen lid. It was more than enough to easily beat Joe, although I reckon Joe would have done better if he’d taken a stance that a regular human person might have employed instead of whatever bizarre, squatting, crab-like posture he’s adopted here. Maybe you should have done your arm-wrestling at a slightly taller table, chaps.
I think this image nicely sums up just how thoroughly I beat Joe.
Now it’s time for yet more shooting practise. I suppose it makes sense, you’d want your soldiers to be good at shooting things. Unfortunately, this is where Combat School’s difficultly takes a wild upswing, as though it suddenly remembered it was an arcade game and it should trying to kick you off the machine already. It’s a three-pronged assault of increased challenge, starting with the addition of targets depicting the drill instructor. You’ll be penalised if you shoot one of those targets, which were presumably included to weed out candidates with a tendency towards insubordination. Then there’s the much stricter time limit / number of targets needed to qualify, too. Finally, there’s the fact that controls are way worse in this event than in the others. Your crosshair snaps to each target, but it’s horribly “sticky” and often simply won’t move fast enough, wasting yet more time that you don’t have. I don’t know whether this problem is specific to the joystick (rather than the trackball) version of Combat School, but it’s definitely a pain in the arse and the first few times I tried this event I failed miserably. “Go home to your mother!” barked the drill sergeant and buddy, I’d like to. There’s nothing in Combat School’s fairly rudimentary gameplay that’s got me hooked, you know. It looks okay and it sounds okay – I’m always pleased to hear digitised speech in eighties arcade games – but there’s just not enough to it. Speaking of speech, when Nick fails a task, he says “darn it!” and if Napoleon Dynamite wasn’t released sixteen years after Combat School I’d swear that’s who he’s supposed to sound like.
Here, Nick and Joe put aside their rivalry to enjoy a crafty cigarette behind the bike sheds. That’s the kind of camaraderie that can only be forged by joint military service.
Now comes the final test of your martial skills: a one-on-one bout against the drill instructor. I said the last event was where Combat School started getting tough, but this is where it becomes hatefully difficult and completely unfair. The problem is that the sergeant is equivalent to the final boss from an SNK fighting game, the Rugal Bernstein of the US military. You can punch and kick – although I never did figure out what determines whether you punch or kick – and so can the sarge, but despite his sprite implying that he has the same reach as Nick the sergeant’s kicks will always hit you while you do no damage. Simply hitting the instructor is very, very difficult, and ninety percent of the time he’ll wait for you to attack, ignore your attack and kick you in the face. There’s no sense of flow to the combat, either. It’s very stodgy and not engaging in the slightest. After repeatedly taking a battering, I thought to myself “man, this is just not fun at all, I’m going to turn the difficulty down” so I went into the dip-switch settings only to find the game was already on the easiest difficulty setting. That didn’t do my self-confidence much good, let me tell you.
Eventually I managed to overcome the odds and knock my commanding officer unconscious through raw determination and expert-level gameplay. Also, I cheated. And you know what? It felt good.
Thus, Nick’s training comes to an end. He’s a soldier now, a warrior, a man. A man who jumps face-first into walls and slips over if we walks near a puddle, sure, but for now he can be proud as he and the rest of his graduating class celebrate their accomplishments by throwing their caps roughly four hundred feet into the air while the stars and stripes flutters behind them and the Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background. Actually, that makes this the second game in a row here at VGJunk to include the Star-Spangled Banner: it also played during the loader for Bruce Lee.
But suddenly, danger strikes! That’s right, Combat School went with the ol’ fake-out ending, but there’s more to be done before you truly finish the game. Terrorists have taken over! Taken over what? That’s a bit vague. Taken over the entire country? The Eastern Seaboard? This specific military academy? The nearest branch of Nandos, because even those who will stoop to the most barbaric methods to achieve their goals can’t resist the taste of peri-peri chicken?
Oh, I see, it’s the White House that’s been taken over. I think. That means the President’s in danger, and there’s only one man who can save him: a recently-graduated private with no actual combat experience! Yes, surely Nick is the best choice for this perilous mission. “Don’t be a chicken,” says your drill instructor. I kinda wish I could go back to the fighting section so I can kick him in the head a few more times.
This final stage takes the form of a short single-plane beat-em-up. Notice I said “beat-em-up,” not “shoot-em-up” because despite half of the events in Combat School being firearms training the army neglected to give Nick a gun. I’m beginning to think that the top brass don’t want the President to be rescued. What the hell was their excuse for sending Nick in unarmed? “Sorry, private, but all our guns are currently in use by the recruits going through all that firearms training, you’ll have to make do with high kicks.”
And so kick I shall, as ineffective as it is. Konami were seemingly dead set against any players reaching the end of Combat School, and this final stage bundles together many of the issues you might have with other extremely difficult arcade games into one distinctly un-thrilling package. Nick is slow and cumbersome to control, terrorists spawn without end and although you do have a health bar most of the terrorist’s attack will kill you in one hit anyway. Oh, and you can’t continue during this stage. If you take a knife to the gut at this point it’s game over, friendo.
The action reaches a nadir with this section, a digital microcosm of hell itself where you must shimmy Nick across these pipes while terrorists throw molotovs at him, dropping down at just the right time to avoid the incendiary devices, the fire that’s already there and the other terrorists that are dashing around screen. It is my considered opinion that anyone wanting to make a retro-styled action game should be forced to play through this section and then create its exact opposite. It really is bad, and the only redeeming feature of this whole stage is that some terrorist throw knives at you and you can kick them out of the air. I would still have preferred a gun.
At the end of the stage is a boss, of sorts. I’m not sure why former WWE wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan has rejected the world of sports entertainment and become the leader of a terrorist cell, but I’m sure he has his reasons. Thankfully, after the bullshit of the previous stages the boss himself is a piece of cake, and I managed to rescue the president by simply walking forward and pressing kick. If the terrorist leader had a 2x4 to defend himself with it might have been a different story, but as things stand Nick has triumphed over all the odds and Combat School is complete.
Your reward is a shot of Nick leading the President to safety while the cops point their guns at him. C’mon, lads, that’s just taking the piss.
I went into Combat School AKA Boot Camp hoping for a bit of that Konami arcade magic, but unfortunately it was in short supply. There’s some charm to the graphics and the digitised speech is nice, but in my opinion that’s really all it has going for it. It suffers from being, to use a tired old football cliché, a game of two halves. The first half is okay but not really interesting enough to hold my attention, while the second half is too difficult to be any fun. All in all, the only thing I learned from my time with Combat School is that I'm glad “sports” games with button-mashing controls are an almost extinct genre.
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