G.I. Joe (1992 Arcade Review)

As I said in my review of the recent NES Garbage Pail Kids game, I suspect I would have made a much better child of the 80s/90s than a child of the 90s/2000s. Sure, I had my beloved Power Rangers, a franchise I love so much that I’ve secretly linked to an episode of it in every single 2023 post at Indie Gamer Chick so far and have no plans to stop doing that from here out. But, if you asked me to name my second favorite kids show of my childhood, well gosh, that’s a real stumper there. I suppose, maybe, the Fox Kids animated Carmen Sandiego show, which had me on the edge of my seat. Actually, my #1 show, even more than Power Rangers, was Lizzie McGuire, and even though I’m not entirely sure I even liked it, I never missed Big Bad Beetleborgs either. Kim Possible too (try Kim Possible 2 on the GBA! It’s great!), but I was getting too old for that kind of stuff by that point, (says the girl who still DVRs Power Rangers at 33 years of age). There was a lot more. I was a couch potato (“yes, WAS” says my sister with dripping sarcasm), but nothing stands out. UNLESS you count reruns or VHSs of 80s stuff. As a really young kid, I watched My Little Pony: The Movie and Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer so much the damn tapes broke. Transformers and Voltron were my favorites, and since I don’t really sleep.. like.. ever, it was no problem watching them at around four-in-the-morning on Sci-Fi Channel (that’s SyFy now, because TV execs are f’n stupid anymore). I also LOVED the animated Transformers movie. I squealed with delight when Optimus said “arise, Rodimus Prime!” Yea, I’m Team Rodimus. Eat me.

Someone restored Orson Welles’ original voice to Transformers: The Movie. This is AWESOME! It’s so sad that this was his final performance, and that he was ashamed of it. Apparently the recordings were so bad that they had to use a heavy synthesizer to cover it up. When you watch this clip, try to think about how George Lucas wrote Darth Vader by imaging his lines were being spoken by Orson Welles, and the only reason they didn’t ask him was because it was felt his voice was too famous. This feels like the closest we’ll get to knowing what Citizen Darth would have been like.

Then, there was G.I. Joe, and it was, you know, fine. It was like a children’s Star Wars without the “Star” part, and the Empire replaced by snake people. Like Transformers, I really liked the animated movie as well, even though I later found out they lost their balls to Optimus Primeitze Duke and dubbed “he’s slipped into a coma” into the final cut. Yes, comas being the typical result of being stabbed in the heart and bleeding out. Hey look, someone fixed that too! Yo YouTubers, while you’re fixing everything, will someone please murder Han Solo in Return of the Jedi? Anyway, G.I. Joe wasn’t among my favorites, but I’d watch it whenever it aired. The 80s and early 90s versions by Sunbow and DiC, I mean. I didn’t like G.I. Joe Extreme. There’s a handful of games based on the version I watched, known as A Real American Hero, including one for the Atari 2600 that I’ll be playing in Part Three of Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include. I didn’t care for the two NES games led by Ken Lobb, the namesake of the Klobb in Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. But, I really enjoyed this arcade release from Konami. It’s the strangest game, because while it feels like a lot of other third-person games (Space Harrier is probably the closest comparison), I’ve also never played anything quite like it. The best way to describe G.I. Joe: The Arcade Game is an on-the-rails third-person shooter that’s structured and paced like Konami’s side-scrolling brawlers, and it plays like a light gun game that forgot to include the light guns. I really, really enjoyed it, but I can also totally understand how this completely vanished from gaming’s collective consciousness.

One big reason G.I. Joe didn’t become a legend is that it never got a home release.

Actually, about halfway through, I figured out G.I. Joe was basically an extended version of the third-person stages from Contra. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if this had, at some point in its development, been put on the drawing board as a Contra spin-off. Which, hey, those third-person levels in Contra are fun while they last, and so is G.I. Joe. While it lasts. That isn’t very long. Maybe third minutes, all-in, even if you’re playing solo. How come nobody talks about this game? Because it’s short and released about a decade after the height of the franchise’s popularity? Maybe. I have a few other theories. I don’t think it’s necessarily the gameplay. In G.I. Joe, you run at the screen shooting wave after wave of enemy. As an on-the-rails game, all the progress is handled automatically, and so you only have to worry about moving left or right. You’re controlling one of four Joes that play identically, but you’re also controlling the crosshairs that you aim with. The game spams the screen with endless cannon fodder, mostly foot soldiers and their vehicles. There’s no jumping, no special movements, no ducking, and any obstacle you have to dodge can just as easily be blown-up. Maybe G.I. Joe was forgotten because the gameplay is too limited. There’s only one power-up: rapid fire, which simply removes having to mash the button. If you get hit once, you lose it, and boy is that annoying. G.I. goes bonkers with enemies and their projectiles, and we’d often have the rapid fire for less than a second. It’s too stiff a penalty.

Although Konami paced and structured the game like their arcade brawlers, it’s sort of like the opposite of them. The endless generic enemies are the best part, and the bosses are the weak link. It’s so damn strange, you know? You would never expect that from a Konami game from this era.

The only weapon besides your basic gun are rockets. The game is too generous with them. You get three per life, and they’re constantly dropped when you take out various scenery and debris. You can carry up to nine of them, but you’ll be using them to clear out the screen every few seconds and will usually have one or less. They contribute to the kaboom-bang-bam nature of the game, but they’re also as good as it gets. I think that might be why G.I. Joe has vanished historically. While it’s short enough to not wear out its welcome, and a damn good time while it lasts, there’s nothing at all memorable about G.I. Joe. No jaw-dropping weapons. No stand-out set pieces. I just played the game twice in the last twenty four hours and I can barely remember anything about the bosses except that they’re not that interesting. The only one that stood out was Cobra Commander, the last boss, and even then, it felt like it was memorable just because I was like “wait, that’s it? That’s the whole game?” The rest are just not satisfying to battle. There’s no OOMPH to them, since they lack even that Contra-like chiming ping when you score a hit, so really, it just sort of feels like they’re absorbing your bullets until they start to blink and die. You don’t expect the weakest link in an early 90s Konami arcade game to be the bosses, but alas, that’s the case here.

You get three rockets every time you die. Since you presumably will have unlimited credits, and since you’ll die a lot, you’ll be spamming them right back at the spammerific enemies. G.I. Joe is Spamalot, only without the musical numbers.

I don’t think I’ve played an arcade game that I enjoyed this much that has so little going for it. When I say G.I. Joe is non-stop fun, I genuinely mean it, but at the same time, it only has to keep that going for thirty minutes. After that thirty minutes is up, shocking as it is that the game is already over, it also feels like they squeezed every bit of potential out of G.I. Joe. What more could they have done with the engine they used? I honestly can’t think of anything. I almost wish they had ignored the crosshairs and just made this exactly like an extended version of those third-person Contra levels that G.I. Joe kind of reminded me of. Free the player to jump and to duck, which might add a little finesse and urgency to the action. This is almost less a game than it is a theme park dark ride type of experience. The screen is too busy to dodge anything. The enemies are too large to miss anything. There’s too many rockets to let you linger on any area too long. And, whatever basic enemies you don’t shoot, you sometimes run right past them without consequence, which pretty much breaks the immersion. It makes you wonder if they’re like “that person I was supposed to kill just ran past me. Do I turn around and shoot them in the back? I am a bad guy, and I do still have a gun whether they see me or not! Eh, screw it, I’m going for a beer. COOOOBRALALALALA!”

Cobra Commander’s fight has one of the most ineffective fake-outs in any game. Even worse: he’s not voiced by Chris Latta. It sounds NOTHING like the raspy, hissy, perfectly-cast cartoon voice. Seriously, it’s weird that Cobra Commander and Starscream have the same voice, but that voice just makes more sense for Cobra Commander to me. HOW THE HELL DO YOU MAKE A G.I. JOE GAME IN 1992 WITHOUT THAT VOICE?! AHHHH!

The most strange thing of all about G.I. Joe is that it’s not memorable, not deep, barely lasts longer than an episode of the cartoon that inspired it, has mediocre-at-best bosses.. and yet, it doesn’t feel at all like a guilty pleasure. And it should, right? Here I am, saying that no aspect of G.I. Joe stands out, and yet, I’m recommending it to thousands of people, because it’s really fun. This is yet another licensed game I’ve done in 2023 that seems unlikely to ever see the light of day again, and that’s disappointing because I really want indie developers to give this one a play. I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned in G.I. Joe. That sometimes, the middle of the road is okay, as long as you walk away knowing that players will enjoy the experience. To make a game that will rarely, if ever, come up in casual conversation. But, when it does, people will say “oh yea, I remember that one! It was pretty good!” There’s a place in gaming for veg-out, enjoy the show type of action games, and it’s okay for your work to be short, stupid, mindless fun-and-done experiences. Thirty minutes of pitch-perfect escapism. I can’t imagine how this wasn’t a mega-hit in arcades in 1992, because this really is sort of the perfect 90s arcade game. Something that never came home, because, at the time, it didn’t belong there. It belonged in the place the generation before me would go to get away from the real world. A game that requires no commitment or emotional investment. I really wish there were more games that aspired to that today. I know that it sounds weird to hear someone like me tell devs “it’s okay to not aim TOO high.” But, sometimes it’s okay to remind yourselves that the middle is where the bullseye is at.

G.I. Joe is Chick-Approved

G.I. Joe was developed by Konami

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