There no question that Capcom’s Commando in ’85 took on the idea of a lone wolf destroying entire armies by himself to another level inspiring countless virtual soldiers to do the same in the following years. It probably helped that Schwarzenegger’s Commando also came out in the same year as the Austrian Oak laid waste to a dictator’s army and an ex-buddy in order to rescue his daughter.
Data East, another icon in the arcades, also followed suit with a dramatic effort in 1988’s Bloody Wolf. It was also called Battle Rangers in Europe, but beyond a simple name change, the text in the North American and European versions of the game varied wildly in quality reaching Pu Li Ru La levels depending on the region.
The mission, if you were playing the European version, was to rescue the President. But North American audiences were told something else, that they were to go in and rescue MIA soldiers and destroy their base instead. The President’s rescue was the same goal with both games despite what was said at the beginning, through. And it got weirder from there. My guess is that Europe received a direct (and very rough) translation of the Japanese release while North America, as Bloody Wolf, received a cleaned up version since there are some sections that simply omit text altogether.
Gameplay was pretty much the same across both games which asked would-be commandos to mow down everything in their path on their way to the end. Soldiers, tanks, a sub, divers, madmen with knives, it didn’t matter. Everyone gets a lead injection except for the occasional prisoner conveniently tied up nearby — or up in a tree — awarding points, a special weapon, item, or a simple word of thanks.
It was mainly a side scrolling game, but Data East also inserted vertically scrolling sections (as in Heavy Barrel) along with a few neat surprises such as a ride down the river on a wooden raft while fending off enemy soldiers hopping aboard using just a knife. There was also the odd doorway that could lead to rooms with enemy soldiers and crates of goodies like food to restore you health bar. Or they could have hostages to rescue, or both. It was like a surprise every time and a clever addition to the action formula, a concept a few other arcade games would also use to expand their gameplay like Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara.
Players had a gun with unlimited ammo, a limited number of grenades, and there were special weapons they could occasionally get from hostages. Why hostages have flamethrowers and bazookas stashed away is a question that I asked myself while playing, but there they were.
There was also a generous health bar split into three sections of three blocks each. Completely dying just asked players if they wanted to continue right where they left off without a score reset, though finishing the game didn’t throw you into another, more tougher, level at the end.
Cannon fodder consisted of green uniformed grunts, aggressive red uniformed bayonet-armed troopers, and beige uniformed dudes. There were also special enemies like machine-gun toting mini-bosses and a crazy knife guy in the back of a truck. Areas consisted of a town, jungle, a military base, and ultimately, a prison camp where the President was held inside a palatial building by a huge general guy who threw boomerangs and wielded a miniature Heavy Barrel gun (even the grenades you threw made the same sound effects from Heavy Barrel).
In a neat twist, you had to fight the general with just your knife since he ruined your gun with a boomerang at the start. After stabbing him down, you rescued the President and he’d follow you out to a waiting chopper once you fought your way back through the prison camp with just your knife. Surviving that macho moment, the ending plays out and if your co-op partner was nowhere to be found, their character would apologize to you as a part of the ending.
It was a clever ending sequence to a run ‘n gun game (fortunately, dying didn’t mean that the President was recaptured) that was a nice twist to an otherwise rough edged experience.
The game wasn’t easy on the eyes, especially after seeing Data East’s previous work with Heavy Barrel in ’87. The smaller sprites and lackluster effects weren’t quite as awe inspiring as the flyer above made the game appear, but the soundtrack was actually not too bad.
Bloody Wolf also tried doing a few things to shake up the formula such as the river raft fight and the “cinematic” duel with the main bad guy and the escape from the prison camp with the President in tow along with the side rooms with extras. There was even an “inventory” system of sorts showing special items discovered during the course of the game such as a pair of fins that could help you move better in waist-deep water or body armor that could help mitigate some of the damage. The nice thing was that even if you died, you didn’t lose those special toys. On that count, it won points in trying to add something different to the formula.
The PC Engine in ’89 and later, the TurboGrafx-16 (this was what the PC Engine in Japan was known as when it entered the West) in ’90 would get the game (with some differences between them) and it would also appear on the Wii thanks to its Virtual Console in 2007. Bloody Wolf might not have been the greatest run ‘n gun though it’s a fascinating piece of Data East’s action history where they tried stretching and twisting the formula up and out to make it a more involved experience. It was a mission accomplished in some ways and you didn’t really need a better translation to get at least that much from this covert release.