The 80s were filled with more than Cold War paranoia. Thanks to Hollywood, they were turned into a playground for over-the-top, American action heroes fighting terrorists and the forces of communism everywhere doing to countries what Michael Bay does to downtown Chicago on a daily basis with giant robots.
One of the biggest heroes to come out of that creative cauldron was John Rambo adapted to the big screen via Sylvester Stallone. He’d not only battle small town bigots, but go back to Vietnam to rescue POWs while laying waste to Soviet ‘advisors’ at the same time.
Another mega-hero was Chuck Norris who would also wage jungle warfare in the Missing in Action movie series which kicked off in 1984 and defend the US from attack in Invasion U.S.A. from sneaky communists in 1985. In ’86, he’d also battle terrorists with extreme prejudice in the Delta Force at a time when it seemed international terrorism was running wild around the world with high-profile hijackings and bombings.
So when a game like Tokushu Butai Jakkaru — or “Special Forces Jackal” — showed up in arcades (also in 1986) with its heroic quartet of jeep-riding badasses freeing prisoners and blasting bad guys in an unnamed, desert-like nation, it’s hard not to wonder where Konami drew inspiration from.
Though it’s arguably better known as “Jackal” today, it was renamed “Top Gunner” back then with a few cosmetic and mechanical changes when it came over to the West.
Jackal was built atop the same hardware that ran Konami’s popular Double Dribble — hardware that would only be useful for a small number of titles before Konami decided to build something new. Unlike a few of its arcade peers such as Capcom and SNK, they never really chose to standardize the internals of their cabs on a specific hardware setup later on. They adopted, as System 16 put it, “what some people are calling a ‘what CPU have we got a lot of today’ kind of setup.”
One or two players in co-op could rescue prisoners of war in Jackal and both controlled their own jeeps across a vertically scrolling, overhead-viewed battlefield filled with anti-armor guns, soldiers running around with bazookas, tanks, and of course, buildings to bust open and free the good guys. Players ferried them over to the helicopter waiting nearby for points before moving on to break through more small bases, make their way past traps like stone columns falling in their way, and even fast moving enemy jeeps that eventually show up.
Though there was technically no continue option, if two players were cooperating, one could still jump in as long as the other was still alive. In single player, however, once all your lives were lost, that was it. Time for put in your initials if you managed to get a high score. Dying also dumped all of the prisoners you had been carrying so when players respawn, it was time to pick them back up before they wandered off and disappeared off the edge of the screen.
The good guys rescued also came in two flavors — there were the ones that were in enemy bases and were feed en masse after blowing up their barracks, and then there were the solo ones in huts along the way. These solo guys were treated as power-ups for your secondary weapon.
The jeep players controlled had a machine gun and an explosive secondary weapon. The secondary started out as a grenade fired at whatever the jeep was aiming at and could be upgraded to a faster moving missile and eventually become a long range missile exploding in four directions on impact. Dying set it back a power level and once the max level was reached, only additional points were awarded.
In the Japanese version of the game, the machine gun also fired in the direction that the jeep was pointed at. When it came over to United States, it got a little American flag attached to the back and was adjusted so that the machine gun only fired north (up).
While it might seem strange to make the gun do this, it also gave the player a bit more leeway allowing them to focus on two vectors at the same time. After all, if the jeep was pointing in one direction, it already had an explosive toy it could use while allowing the machine gun to focus on threats to the north. The jeep also didn’t turn instantaneously — it turned around to aim itself at whatever you pointed it at with the joystick. It wasn’t super slow in turning, but having at least one direction covered 24/7 with a machine gun was a bit of a relief.
Jackal’s arcade action made it a great idea for a port and it arrived on a number of platforms over the years ranging from the Commodore 64 (in 1989) and the ZX Spectrum (in 1987) to the Nintendo Entertainment System (in 1988) all of which kept the Jackal name burying the Top Gunner one from the arcade. The manual, in typical Konami style, also fleshed the action out with a storied backdrop and gave names to each of the four in the jeep even though they never really got out to do anything else.
The manual was also a lot more explicit about where these guys were going — the story had the header “Return to ‘Nam” and that everyone was being landed on the “fringes of the Cambodian border” making the game as something of an unofficial homage to Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action film and Sly Stallone’s Rambo II.
While it didn’t look as good as the arcade version, the NES version quickly became a fan favorite with the smaller improvements it brought to the game as well as retaining the two-player co-op. It had even come out as a title for the relatively short-lived Famicom Disk System back in Japan titled Final Command: Akai Yosai.
Today, Jackal continues to be one of Konami’s arcade classics that has seen life decades after its arcade debut. The mobile phone version of the NES version showed up in Japan in 2009 and later came to China in 2010. It was also a title made available for Microsoft’s Game Room initiative on Windows and the Xbox 360. It had even come out in 2002 as part of the Konami Collector’s Series, albeit as an unplayable bonus that has to be extracted and then run through an emulator.
Jackal’s one of those fun action classics that still feels relatively timeless even now and which a few games can trace at least part of the ancestry to such as EA’s Desert Strike in ’92 and, perhaps a lot more directly, Avalanche Studios’ Renegade Ops in 2011. It tapped the pulse of world events, at least as far as Hollywood saw them, along with other Konami classics such as Rush ‘n Attack in bringing Chuck Norris sized action with Rambo-fueled brosplosions home in time for cornflakes.