War, as Ron Perlman may have informed you, never changes. Fortunately, videogames about war do change, otherwise we'd still be playing games as bad as Taito's 1985 shooter Front Line.
Originally released in arcades in 1982, Front Line was ported to the NES in 1985, and that's the version I'll be looking at today. The title screen is a stern affair, and, unusually, it displays the year in Roman numerals. I assume this was intended to give Front Line that much-needed touch of class, perhaps to make people think they were about to experience something powerfully cinematic and deeply moving. Of course, Front Line is neither cinematic or moving, unless you count being moved to tears through sheer, unrelenting boredom.
So, there's a war on, and you play as the standard One Man Army that must destroy the enemy all by his lonesome. That's you in the picture above, the one in the blue suit. Not particularly menacing, I must say. So, what firepower do you have at you disposal, ready to blow away the other troops that you are trying to kill for some undisclosed reason? Well, you have a piddly peashooter of a gun and grenades that you seem to throw in a very unconvincing sideways arc. Not particularly fearsome, but at least they have unlimited ammo.
The controls are simple enough: the D-pad walks you around, one button fires your peashooter and the other throws grenades. You have to make your way up the screen, walking alone into enemy territory, along an unobscured road, completely in the open, shooting the occasional little bloke in green who pops up. It's like an induction video they'd show you on your first day in the Army called something like War Fighting: The Wrong Way or Private Johnny Won't Be Home For Christmas.
I do worry about our hero. Let's call him Johnny, shall we? You see, Private Johnny has a problem: he's terribly deformed. Here is his honest-to-god walking animation:
Poor Johnny. He's got some real problems. His most obvious flaw is the fact that his legs contain no bones, only wet noodles and pain. They even bend the wrong way. This must be one hard-fought war if conscripts of Johnny's calibre are being drafted in. His walk is almost hypnotic to watch, really, an elegant ballet of crippled legs flapping across a war-torn nation. It's not just his legs though; he's missing his right arm entirely, probably having had it shot off after waving at an enemy sniper or getting it blown up while juggling grenades or something equally stupid. Johnny's luck gets even worse, because whatever nation he fights for decided that camoflague was old hat, a cynical trick to hinder your opponent in a most unsporting manner, so they gave Johnny a nice, vibrant blue uniform and a bright red helmet. Poor, poor Johnny. At least, I think that's a helmet: it could equally be bright red hair with pigtails or a Devo Energy Dome. Whatever it is, it offers zero protection because you die in one hit, or even after brushing against an enemy. Johnny truly is the runt of the litter.
You'll soon realise that, as you move forwards, it's usually far easier to run past the enemies than it is to kill them. I strongly suggest you ignore them as much as possible. In fact, try and ignore Front Line altogether, if you can. Once you've covered enough ground, the game takes a sudden and dramatic turn! Okay, so it doesn't really. What happens is that you get to ride around in a tank. There are two kinds, a little tank that is slightly faster and a big tank that isn't. The gameplay doesn't change at all, except that you lose the ability to throw grenades. All the tanks do is change your sprite, and the gameplay remains the same. Move forward, rotate, kill, move forward. You don't even get any sensation of being more powerful in the tank, because the moment you climb aboard, all the regular troops are replaced with tanks, and they can still kill you with one shot.
For some reason, all the tanks look like cut gemstones. Perhaps Front Line is actually the story of the bitter war between the Emerald and Sapphire races, but I fear that truth is simply that the graphics are crap.
You spend the majority of the tank section avoiding enemies on a flat, grey plane. Occasionally, a rock is placed in your path in an attempt to cause such overpowering excitement that your eyes explode like a frog in a microwave. There's no music at all, just an irritating sound effect meant to simulate the tank's engine noises. Just that blipping sound and endless grey floors. I'm beginning to think that maybe I judged Front Line on the wrong criteria, and rather than a rubbish game that was meant to be played for amusement, it is in fact a serious work of digital art highlighting the horrifyingly mundane way in which wars destroy everything they touch. It's haunting stuff, with Private Johnny's mangled body serving as a grim testament to the human race's bloodthirsty nature. I'd enter it for the Turner Prize if I didn't think the Daily Mail would hunt me down for crimes against art.
Finally, you cross a bridge and reach the end of the stage, which consists of a tank sitting behind a wall. You have to get out of your tank and lob a grenade over the wall, destroying the tank and forcing a little soldier to appear with a white flag. Insert your own joke about the French here! And that's the end of the stage; on to the next stage! Except, and here's where Front Line really falls down, there is no next stage. You are simply taken back to the start of the stage and told to do it again, with the only difference being that the enemies are slightly more intelligent. The whole game is a loop of this one stage, which only further complements my idea that it is an artistic statement on the futility of war.
Does Front Line have an ending? How the hell would I know? I managed to suffer through about five loops and then stopped playing because I could feel my brain rusting. I presume it just goes on forever. perhaps I'm being a little harsh on Front Line: it was, after all, originally released in 1982, when videogames were still very much in their infancy. The NES version also doesn't have the arcade version's control system, which featured a dial that you turned to aim your gun and then pushed in to fire it, which I imagine is a lot better that the NES' eight-way aiming. But then I look at Johnny's splay-footed "walking" animation and I think no, Front Line is just shit. Don't play it, and if you see it in the street, glare at it disapprovingly. It'll soon get the message.
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