If there’s one medium well-equipped to handle the ethical and socio-political ramifications of armed conflict in the middle east, it’s unlicensed NES games, right? So, get ready for a serious and balanced examination of the Gulf War with Color Dreams’ 1992 desert-storm-em-up Operation Secret Storm!
Or, you know, a cartoony action game about a lone American soldier fighting his way through Iraq on a mission to defeat a caricature of Saddam Hussein. If you’re assuming that the Saddam-a-like is given a jokey name, like Sodamn Insane or something, then you’re almost right: a look at Operation Secret Storm’s instruction manual reveals that he’s called “Saddam Insane.” I guarantee there was a designer at Color Dreams who woke up one morning after the game had shipped and shouted “oh crap, ‘Saddam’ sounds a bit like ‘so damn,’ we’ve really missed a trick there!”
Also in the manual is the revelation that you’ll be playing as George, a top CIA agent. George is presumably a spoof of George Bush, (the first one,) who was president at the time of the Gulf War (the first one). George Bush was the head of the CIA for a year in the seventies, so his credentials check out. Just keep the inspiration for the player character in mind when you see him in action.
Here’s the between-stage map screen. You start off on the Kuwaiti border and make your way into Iraq, destroying military installations, liberating oil refineries and fighting camels in what I’m sure will be a perfectly respectful and non-stereotypical manner.
The game begins. George finds himself surrounded by… tubes? It’s either the mid-point of a factory line that makes all those oil drums for beate-m-ups, or it's an avant-garde sculpture park. Atop one of the pillars is what appears to be a set of screwdriver bits in a protective rubber holder, but is actually ammunition for George’s gun. I’d recommend jumping up there and collecting it before taking on your first opponent – the generically “Arabian” chap on the right.
Hey, get back here! Clearly the raw power of George is enough to scare Saddam’s forces into submission, but I’m not going to let this guy get away. I need a chance to get the hang of the controls, for starters. Said controls are mostly as you’d expect them to be: one button to jump, one button to attack. If you’ve got some bullets, pressing attack will fire your gun. If you don’t have bullets then George will throw a punch. As far as I could see throwing a punch is the only way to tell if you have any bullets, because there doesn’t appear to be any kind of ammo counter on the screen. Nice to see Operation Secret Storm is going for the hardcore realism eschewed by most modern shooters, what with it forcing the player to rmember how many bullets they've fired.
Once you’ve beaten the first guy, a new opponent appears. It’s a naked man with two sticks! Far more menacing than a naked man with one stick, slightly less menacing than a fully clothed man with three sticks. Here I realised that you can do a jumping kick, and in true videogame fashion this is the most effective move in George’s arsenal. You can move while jump-kicking, it has more range than your punches and it seems to have a bigger hit-box than all your other attacks, making it even more effective than shooting someone with your gun. The fact that sometimes your bullets will pass straight through an enemy without harming them definitely detracts from the gun’s effectiveness, but there are no such issues with the jumping kick. You can also hold down on the d-pad and press attack to make George perform a strange, short hop / kick combo that lacks the advantages of the jumping kick and simultaneously offers no benefits. Look, just stick to the jumping kick, okay?
Then a boss of sorts wings its way over the horizon, a giant bird that will defend Iraq from the imperialist American invader by kinda flapping back and forth aimlessly. I don’t know what kind of bird this is supposed to be. Halfway between a buzzard and an eagle, perhaps. A beagle. No, wait.
All you have to do to win is to chase the bird down and kick it in the beak whenever you get a chance. However, you get that chance less often than you should thanks to OSS’s leaden controls. George is a leisurely sort who will not be rushed, and when you press a button he’ll get around to preforming the associated action in his own time, thank you very much. This makes climbing up to the bird’s perch more laborious than it should be, but at least it doesn’t take much of a kicking to defeat.
After that it’s straight onto the next stage, where the same pattern of clearing a screen of enemies before moving onto the next screen of enemies repeats. That’s really all there is to Operation Secret Storm: drop-kicking Arabian stereotypes across a selection of vaguely middle-eastern backdrops. At least the enemies are different in this stage. You’ve got barely-threatening barefoot kickboxers and blokes in keffiyehs who pose more of a challenge because they’re carrying bloody missile launchers and if you’re not careful they can trap you in the corner with a barrage of rockets that knock you over repeatedly.
Time to fight an attack camel now. The camel seems to posses the power of flight. It also launches a constant stream of projectiles at you, which I must conclude represent the camel’s infamous ability to gob on people it doesn’t like (which is everyone). These saliva salvoes are almost impossible to avoid when you’re trying to get into camel-kicking distance – the camel can spray spit like a garden sprinkler – so this fight boils down to little more than a race to the bottom of your respective health bars. Pay no mind to the man on the back of the camel. He might as well not be there, unless he’s acting purely as ballast to keep the camel from floating away.
And so it goes on. The same turgid, lumpen gameplay with new locations and slightly different enemy sprites. The naked man from earlier returns, and the reason for his nudity is revealed: we interrupted him before he could finish putting on his medieval executioner’s costume. Then it’s off down the local nature park for a spot of LARPing, followed by a glass of warm shandy and a rant about the optimum axe-grip position for lopping off a treasonous cur’s head.
This stage introduces holes that George can fall down, because if there’s one thing this game needed it was more jumping. In the screenshot above you can see that I figured out a new jumping technique: holding attack lets you run, and jumping while you’re running makes George somersault across the screen in a low, barely-controllable arc that serves no practical purpose but makes George look like he’s animorphing into a pretzel.
It was while I was fighting against this levitating genie, growing ever more frustrated that the stiff, unresponsive controls and George's sluggish movements made dodging the genie’s homing magic an irredeemable chore, that I realised something. Operation Secret Storm is basically the same game as Color Dreams’ earlier NES shitshow Menace Beach, aka Sunday Funday. They both have the same “fight a couple of guys, move on” gameplay, the same unappealing graphical style, the same controls that make you feel like you’re controlling your character by sending them hand-written instructions about their next move via second-class post. The two games must surely share a game engine, because writing two separate game engines that both feel like wading through hot asphalt seems very unlikely.
The next stage features Satan himself, the lord of evil having popped in to see what tips on casting misery upon the human race he can find in Color Dreams’ games. It's gonna be a real goldmine for him, let me tell you. Naturally, Satan is a bit grumpy and reacts to George’s presence by throwing boulders at him, but I responded by throwing grenades. I had been saving the grenades, which hit all enemies on screen, for a tricky section. I think fighting the devil counts as tricky.
Also, I presume that sign saying “accidental petroleum” is a pun on Occidental Petroleum and not a teaser for Color Dreams’ upcoming Beverly Hillbillies game.
George finds himself in Saddam’s missile facility now, pursued by chaps who might be distant relatives of Chelnov, the Atomic Runner. Or perhaps they’re simply big fans of oven mitts. The different enemy designs are really the only thing worth mentioning about OSS at this point, because it’s a game that commits the cardinal sin of the art-form by being boring. Dull combat on flat planes or dull combat on screens that have a couple of awkward-to-navigate platforms, that’s all you’re getting out of this one. The overwhelming superiority of the jumping kick to all your other attacks (barring possibly the hand grenades) means that’s the only move worth using, further simplifying the fighting.
Bear in mind that this is a videogame where you have to destroy a helicopter by ramming your foot Bruce Lee-style into its cockpit and it’s still boring.
The best stage is definitely this one, and again that’s entirely down to the enemies it features. In this case it’s ghostly skeleton warriors who have wandered away from a different, more interesting game and accidentally become trapped in OSS, the poor bastards. I didn’t really notice this while I was playing the game, but they appear to have pincers coming out of their backsides, so not only are they ghosts and skeletons, they're also earwigs. Radical.
While iconic movie slasherman Michael Myers does a cartwheel at the edge of the screen, let’s take a moment to enjoy these background objects that my brain keeps trying to tell me are trucks despite the evidence of my eyes. I think this is akin to countries building fake airfields and such to fool reconnaissance planes during the Second World War, although an eagle-eyed observer might be suspicious of the trucks having square wheels.
For the final stage of the game, Color Dreams did at least attempt something different. Sadly, that thing was constant missile attacks, with rockets flying in from the right-hand side of the screen that force you to keep moving forward (and thus underneath the arcing projectiles) or you’ll die. Just for a bit of extra fun, there are wasps sitting on the desert sands. It is exactly as tedious as it sounds, and even playing as a character who didn’t control like all their synapses have been replaced by wet spaghetti would do little to make it more enjoyable.
The final boss is, of course, Saddam. He’s got a gun that fire explosion, explosions that are just big enough to make jumping over them a right pain in the arse. As if that wasn’t enough, Saddam can also transform himself into a bomb-dropping helicopter, complete with a puff of smoke. You’ll have to take my word for it, because I didn’t manage to get a screenshot of that. You see, the first time I did this stage, I managed to beat Saddam but accidentally moved too far to the left, causing him to respawn a la the enemies in the Megaman games. This seemed to confuse the game, as well it might. So I went through it again, this time with a Game Genie code enabled that let me kill enemies in one hit. As something that made Operation Secret Storm not only easier but far, far shorter, this Game Genie code deserves some kind of special recognition, maybe a fifty-foot solid gold statue in honour of the time and frustrated muttering that it saved me.
I did manage to get a screenshot of the ending. You’re looking at it. The barely legible phrase “game over” printed atop the same map you’ve been seeing for the whole game, that’s the entirety of your reward for slogging through Operation Secret Storm. There could be no ending more appropriate.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I didn’t think much of OSS. The NES library is full of side-scrolling action-platformers, and this is definitely one of the very least of the bunch. Its only redeeming feature is the occasional strangeness of the enemies, and every aspect of its gameplay is slow, ponderous, the 8-bit equivalent of stirring up a muddy pond with a stick. For a moment – a brief, fleeting moment – a wondered if maybe I was being a little harsh on a game that does admittedly “work” on a technical level, but then I remembered the bit where the rocket-launching “Arabians” kept stun-locking me until I fell down the bottomless pits. That really sharpened my focus, you know?
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