I want you to use your imagination here.
You’re the executive of a video game company. There’s this movie, it’s a sequel to a popular movie. The original movie was an action movie, sure, but the action wasn’t at the forefront–it’s more about a guy trying to return to a country that doesn’t want him, through no fault of his own. The sequel, yeah, that’s an action movie. Same guy, but much more death–exploding arrows, helicopters, machine guns, the works. You, young video game executive, have been blessed with the license to this movie franchise. Given your good fortune, what type of game do you make to best take advantage of this license? To get the maximum number of the franchise’s fans to buy it and enjoy it?
What’s that? You said the correct answer was “A Zelda II clone”? Congratulations! You had the same thought process as the executives at Pack-In-Video and Acclaim Entertainment!
There is a reason neither company exists anymore.
Released in 1988–due to the extreme delay in bringing Zelda II stateside, Rambo came out in the US before its primary gameplay inspiration–Rambo is, ostensibly, based on the second of the Rambo movies, Rambo: First Blood Part II. The game begins with Rambo chillin’ in prison after the events of First Blood. Rambo’s mentor, Colonel Trautman, approaches Rambo with a proposal–go back to Vietnam and photograph any Prisoners of War (But do not rescue them), in exchange for his freedom upon completion of the mission. After agreeing (In a fun bit of fourth wall breaking, you can inform Trautman that you feel safer in prison…to which he replies that “The game doesn’t start until you say YES”), you parachute into Vietnam, and you’ll swear you’re in the movie!
For instance, remember in First Blood Part II when Rambo fights giant mosquitoes, birds, and fish?
Or how about the part where he fights a giant spider in a cave, using only a knife?
Or the part where he throws about 50 grenades at a helicopter to blow it up?
These true-to-the-movie experiences, and more, can be yours, if you play Rambo on NES.
Despite this, I have a weird relationship with this game. Like Strider, I love this game much more than I rationally should. Unlike Strider, though, I’m not sure why. It popped up in Nintendo Power (In a Counselor’s Corner as “How do I beat [The helicopter I mentioned earlier]?”, and in a Classified Info tip explaining how you can jump through a wall and skip that encounter entirely), but I’m pretty sure it never got “proper” coverage in an article. It did appear on this VHS tape, but I don’t think that by itself would have influenced my opinion on it. I have a distinct memory of renting this game with my father from a long-defunct store called Applause Video, but I don’t think that’s it either, nor do I know why this particular rental sticks out in my mind. And yet, similar to Final Fight for the SNES (Which I call “A bad port of the arcade game, but a good game on its own”), I will defend Rambo (The game; if John Rambo were a real person, he would certainly not need my help defending him) to the death, while acknowledging that this is one of the worst applications of a license I’ve ever seen. Why is this?
As I’ve mentioned a couple times, the game plays a lot like Zelda II. And I love Zelda II (My first “real” submission to SDA way back when was a Zelda II New Game + run), so it stands to reason I would like anything resembling it. And Rambo adds its own twists to the formula, starting with the navigation. You move left-to-right, of course, but there are also N and S (North and South) tiles that will warp you to other locations. The confusing part is that the maps aren’t always logical. When you exit point A and re-emerge at point B, going back the other way isn’t guaranteed to take you to point A. Honestly, I kind of like this. While I’ve never been lost and had to find my way out of a jam, and I’ve certainly never seen front-line combat of any kind, I imagine that navigating this game is, in some crude way, a simulation of what battle in Vietnam was like. Given the license, I can appreciate this design choice from that perspective, even if it’s immensely frustrating from a gameplay one before you get a handle on what’s happening (And still pretty annoying when you do figure it out).
Despite my earlier snark about some of the finer details being less-than-accurate, I also give the game credit for following the broad-strokes plot of First Blood Part II. Where it loses points is in the translation. The game follows the movie’s plot closely enough that you would think the translation job would be easy–they could’ve gotten away with quoting the movie for most/all of the dialogue and been fine. Yet they can’t even get that right. According to IMDB, the last two lines in the movie are:
Trautman: “How will you live, John?”
Rambo: “Day by day.”
Somehow, in the game, “How will you live, John?” became “What are you going to do?”, rendering Rambo’s response nonsensical. There’s other stuff like this throughout the game, and while shoddy translations were common in the 8-bit era, this one is grating because, again, there was a movie for them to quote. And they got it wrong.
I haven’t mentioned the music yet. There isn’t a whole lot in terms of quantity, but what’s there is great. In particular, what could be called the main theme of the game–it’s the one you’ll be hearing most often at any rate–is legitimately one of the best songs on the NES. And if I had to pinpoint one reason why I love this game so much, as silly as it sounds, the music, especially this track, would be the closest I could give to a rational answer. Seriously, listen to this and try to tell me you’re not pumped up to fight wildlife or chuck some grenades at a helicopter. You can’t do it.
Rambo has a password system. The thing is that the game sometimes gives out passwords that are just wrong, even without taking into account the classic password confusion of “1 or I or l”, “O or 0”, “6 or G”, and so on. If you decide to go all the way in one long play, you’ll want to be aware of some mechanical things about the game, namely how to farm items, and in particular where medicine can be easily obtained. Because the game shuttles you from location to location with no way to go back after you complete an objective, it’s not as long as the anti-logical maps would have you believe. While I came into the game far from blind, I believe I got through it in about 3 hours from start to finish.
While Zelda II seems like a bizarre choice to rip off nowadays, its reputation wasn’t nearly as bad in 1988–it was a big seller, and it topped Nintendo Power reader polls for a couple months. And if you like Zelda II, I’ll go out on a limb and say you’ll enjoy Rambo as well. Given the translation, and given the misapplication of the license, I say you’ll enjoy it the most if you try to ignore the fact that you’re allegedly playing a Rambo game. As you might expect, it was never re-released outside of the NES, so go EBay it up if you want to experience it for yourself.