So today, Activision’s mega-blockbuster sequel, COD: Black Ops II, was released worldwide in what is being boasted by Gamestop’s Tony Bartel as the “biggest game launch of all time”. Regardless of whether you’re eager to snack on Treyarch’s take on asymmetrical warfare in 2025 or have tuned it out, Activision’s likely going to be cashing a fat check when all is said and done at the end of this holiday season.
But before Activision made it fashionable to be a one man army, the arcades in 1985 had a much simpler hero — Super Joe — whose blue uniformed self crushed an entire army of bad guys by his lonesome in Commando.
Data East did the honors in distributing it in North America padding its profile alongside its other licensed classics such as Irem’s facekicking actioner, Kung-Fu Master, in ’84. Capcom’s arcade classic enjoyed plenty of attention in the arcades for its simplicity and its hardcore action. This was a brutal game back then and it still can be even today.
Commando was a vertically scrolling shoot ’em up. Players controlled the Commando who could move around at the bottom of the screen as he pushed “forward” by moving up through the battlefield. The battlefield itself was fixed as a vertical strip – in other words, if you bumped along the right or left edges, you didn’t go anywhere or even back to where you came from, but enemies could come out from ‘beyond’ those peripheral edges to get in your way.
Death came quickly – one hit, and that was it. None of this regenerating or health bar stuff. With only a handful of lives and using checkpoints, players could expect a tough slog against everything the game threw at them.
Eventually, players would run up against challenges ending each of the four areas such as a huge gate for the first one that would open up and spew soldiers and an officer at them. If they survive it, they moved on to the next area and so on until the climactic end at the fortress past the airstrip. And just like at the start, a chopper shows up. But this time, to pick the Commando up and drop him off at the start to fight past palm trees, bridges, trenches, rivers, spawn huts, and an airstrip all over again. Schwarzenegger’s Commando, which also hit theaters in the same year, could have probably learned a few things from Super Joe — though arcade owners probably didn’t mind it if players wondered whether the two were tied to each other some way.
But just who was Super Joe? The arcade game made no mention of the guy’s name. Even the maintenance manual used by arcade owners simply referred to the protagonist as a “crack soldier with special training”. But the NES port’s manual did come out and put a name to the face with “Super Joe” — something that Capcom apparently decided to keep for continuity when Bionic Commando was also ported over.
The game would also enjoy being ported to a massive number of popular platforms in the day from the Commodore 64 to the ZX Spectrum and even the Intellivision. An 8-bit prototype for Atari’s computer line was even created, though never made it out into retail. All of the games would be different in some way, largely depending on the limitations of whatever hardware platform they were being ported to. But a number of clever programmers would flex their skills in making the most out of whatever environment they were working in.
For example, when Rob Hubbard, a musician who is also an early pioneer of gaming music, worked on bringing the soundtrack for Commando over to the C64 port, he didn’t simply replicate the music — he mixed it into an incredible piece of ear candy on the Commodore literally overnight. When I looked it up on Youtube, I couldn’t believe my ears. It’s fantastic work proving that ports can still get away with some fantastic sound straight from the arcade — or in this case, something that can sound very different in a really great way.
Commando would have a spiritual sequel of sorts with Capcom’s Mercs in ’89 and a third sequel, Backbone Entertainment’s Commando 3, as recently as 2008. And like anything popular at the time, arcade clones that would embellish its basic formula such as SNK’s Ikari Warriors which added two simultaneous players (in Commando, players could only alternate) along with joysticks that allowed you to aim by turning them while controlling movement at the same time.
Today, games haven’t really left behind the idea of a one-man-army. It’s as much a staple of gaming now as it was back then, although developers have tried to inject a little drama into their virtual lives with additional story elements or co-op play options which have worked to varying degrees. Though gaming has changed since his arcade career, Super Joe would probably crunch a cigar in a smile at seeing just how far virtual battlefields have come since his glory days.