Jackal

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Konami for NES, originally released in 1988, and based on the Top Gunner arcade game from 1986.


Title
Console
Publisher
Developer
Players
Year

Jackal
NES
Konami
Konami Industry Co., Ltd.
2P Simultaneous
1988

CONTEXT
Jackal was released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Konami Industry Co., Ltd. This is home console port of an arcade game called Top Gunner (a.k.a. Tokushu Butal Jackal in Japan, or Jackal in the Europe/World version), produced by Konami in 1986. Jackal is a top-down shooter in which the players controls a jeep – with an accompanying gunner – through post-war Cambodia to rescue POWs left behind during the war.





PREMISE
From the instruction manual:

Return to ‘Nam
Infrared satellites soaring miles above Earth have spotted dozens of American prisoners of war still trapped on enemy soil. Missing for years but never forgotten, these men must be brought home. But America is in no position to risk an all-out invasion that could prompt retaliation. Instead, the only possible hope for freedom is a small scale commando raid – code name JACKAL.

Immediately, the President turns to the Green Berets and their combat-ready, tactical infiltrating “Jeep Squad”. The Jeep Squad is comprised of twenty all-terrain four-wheel drive, super-mobile attack jeeps, each equipped with one driver and one gunner. Only forty of the Green Berets’ bravest and most cunning soldiers belong to this elite fighting force, and because of the secrecy of the mission, only a few of them qualify for the rescue attempt.

Needless to say, you’ve been chosen to be one of the few, the proud, the Jackals. So work up your courage and polish up your guns, because it’s time to save the life of each and every brave American POW. And before you go, your country would just like to say, “Good luck, son. Don’t come home alone.”


How to be a hero
Your mission begins when you and your faithful jeep, Trigger, are parachuted along the fringes of the Cambodian border. From there you’ll claw and scratch through six deadly enemy territories, rescuing POWs while encountering heavy fire from tank patrols, cannon bunkers, bomber squadrons and a hostile navy.

Your only means of survival are a trusty machine gun, hand grenades, bazookas (obtained by rescuing POWs and powering-up), and world class driving skills.

You have a total of 3 jeeps to risk at the beginning of Operation Jackal. An extra jeep will be added after you rescue a predetermined number of POWs Jackal can be played simultaneously by 2 players. If only one person plays, use Control (1). Your mission ends when you destroy the enemy’s main fortress (code name Zulu) at the end of level 6.


The Four Wild Jackals
Lt. Bob (Gunner): The finest sharp shooter in the history of the Green Berets
Sgt. Quint (Driver): Indy car driver turned mercenary
Col. Decker (Gunner): The commander of this operation and Medal of Honor recipient in Vientam.
Cpt Grey (Driver): Winner of six European Grand Prix races, and considered the greatest stunt driver since Evil Bo Wievel.


CONTROLS

Fire your machine gun

Launch hand grenades or fire the bazooka



MECHANICS
Straight away, players will notice some major gameplay differences between this game and others of its kind. While the overall presentation is similar to that of other NES military-themed vertically-scrolling action games available at the time (Commando, Ikari Warriors), the way that it controls is vastly different.

First off, rather than controlling a soldier on foot, the player (or players, in 2P co-op) controls a military jeep. According to the game’s manual, each jeep is manned by a driver and a gunner, (although no characters can actually be seen in the sprite art). The D-Pad moves the jeep, and the A and B buttons fire your primary and secondary weapons.

But before we get to the weapons, let’s talk about the one weapon that isn’t assigned to a button: the jeep. The jeep itself is pretty much useless when it comes to taking out artillery-based enemies, but it is a very effective weapon against infantry, which are plentiful. That’s right, you don’t need to shoot at the infantry or toss explosives their way… you can simply run them over. Now, today, it’s pretty commonplace for most vehicle-based games to let you run down your enemies – and innocents – with the vehicle of your choice, complete with the accompanying thuds and physics… but in 1988, on the NES, this was a pretty much unheard of. There is even a satisfying 8-bit splat sound when you kill them, and the sprite changes to a dead soldier, which disappears after a second or two. As you get into levels with several infantry, combined with various tanks, turrets, etc., running down enemies is a solid strategy for dealing with infantry, while leaving your primary and secondary weapons to deal with the greater threats. Speaking of which, let’s move on to the real weapons…



In most games of this sort, the player’s weapons will fire in the direction that the character is facing, allowing the player to dole out equal amounts of destruction in all 8 directions. However, in this game, the machine gun only fires upward, regardless of the player’s direction. Additionally, its range is extremely short. At first, this can seem like a poor design choice that cripples the player’s ability to combat enemies (in fact, in the Japanese arcade version, the gun turns in the same direction as the jeep), but this is not the case.

It can take some time to get accustomed to this way of playing, but there are several things that this design choice does for the game: First off, it emphasizes the player’s secondary weapon, which is more powerful and can fire in any direction (more on that in a minute). Secondly, it adds an additional layer of strategy to the way the player must tackle the levels. Rather than picking off enemies from afar, the player is forced to get a bit more personal with his foes, thus raising the tension and forcing the player into some frantic situations.

The machine gun itself is no slouch when it comes to dispatching enemies. It fires as quickly as the player can press the button, and the bulk of artillery-based enemies can be destroyed in just a few hits. Many of the enemies in the game have long intervals between firing (some of them flashing before firing to give you some warning) and most enemy bullets move pretty slowly. There are only a few instances in the game where you will find yourself dodging a hail of bullets – and enemies that do fire regular streams of bullets do so in a predictable pattern. As such, the machine gun is far from a pea-shooter class weapon and is quite useful in many situations, especially when multiple enemies are closing in on you. Its rapid fire rate and predictable firing trajectory often make it more reliable than the default secondary weapon: grenades.

Grenades are an interesting weapon in this game. First off, they’re infinite and can be tossed in any direction. Additionally, they can be thrown over walls and other obstacles and can be used to break into POW holding areas and destroy obstacles that the machine gun cannot. So, players might wonder why they would even consider using the machine gun when they have an infinite supply of grenades at hand. And this is where the weapon balance comes in.

Grenades are slow moving, and they are limited to one on screen at a time, so the player has to wait until one grenade explodes before tossing another. If an enemy is directly above you – and being a vertically scrolling game, most enemies will be coming from the top of the screen – it is usually faster to use the machine gun than to toss a grenade. The firing distance of the grenade is no greater than that of the machine gun, and at a large enough distance, many enemies will have plenty of time to return fire before the grenade makes contact. With several enemies on the screen at once, especially smaller enemies such as infantry, the player would become quickly overwhelmed if he were attempting to take out all of the enemies using only grenades. Thus, in most cases, players will find it best to use both the machine gun and grenades, as the situation demands.



While the machine gun remains unchanged throughout the game, the grenades have an additional advantage in that they can be upgraded. By picking up officer POWs (denoted by their flashing Technicolor uniforms), players can upgrade the standard grenade to a rocket-firing bazooka, which is also infinite and its rockets travel faster than grenades (although they are still limited to one rocket onscreen at a time). However, this newfound power is also tempered with its own gameplay balance: While grenades are thrown in an arc and can be tossed over walls and other obstacles to take out fortified enemies, rockets are fired in a straight line, and explode on contact with any solid object. So, if you find a line of turrets firing down on you from behind sandbags, and you have the bazooka upgrade, you’ll have to drive around behind the barricade to take them out. Additional upgrades are required for readily dealing with these entrenched enemies.



At the bazooka’s second power level, splash damage is added to the rocket explosions. This is represented by a pair of additional explosions that move in a horizontal line directly to the left and right of the main detonation. The bazooka’s range is not increased or changed in any way, but the player can use the splash damage to take out multiple targets in a single shot. Splash damage does penetrate obstacles, but only to the left or the right, continuing to limit the player’s ability to deal with fortified enemies directly above him.

At the bazooka’s third and highest power level, exploding rockets send splash damage in four directions, up, down, left, and right. And once again, the splash damage does penetrate onscreen obstacles, including walls. Thus, a fully powered-up bazooka can take out a turret behind a line of sandbags, since the rocket will detonate on the sandbags themselves, and the splash damage will continue straight up toward the turret. This feature also makes firing diagonally – which can be somewhat difficult on an NES controller – far more productive. This weapon turns the jeep into a veritable wall of destruction, especially given the player’s ability to take out multiple enemies with a single shot. But this upgrade is not so easy to retain, and all of its power can be taken away as quickly as it was gained.

When the player is killed, his bazooka is reverted back to the standard grenades, regardless of its prior power level when the jeep was destroyed. And, since the player has to rescue 3 officer POW’s (without getting killed) in order to regain a fully-powered bazooka, most players will not find themselves bulldozing their way though the entire game with this powerful weapon, especially after fighting a tough boss or encountering one of the many Bastard Class Enemies (see below).

In addition to weapon upgrades, there are also 3 additional pickups in this game, all of which are stars. These are hidden throughout the levels and are often found by shooting at some random spot in the level. Flashing stars fully upgrade your secondary weapon to the 4-way splash damage menace. Brown stars act as smart bombs and destroy all enemies on the screen. Green stars are 1-ups.



Now, the point of the game isn’t to simply destroy all of the enemies that you see – although you will be doing plenty of that – the real goal is to rescue POWs. Similar to Choplifter before it, your goal in Jackal is to get behind enemy lines and rescue as many POWs as you can You do this by breaking open buildings and stopping long enough for each POW to exit the building one at a time and get onboard (although it’s never explained how a dozen guys are supposedly all riding in the same jeep, so we’ll have to assume that they are all clown-car trained). During pickup, enemies in the area will continue to fire on you – although they fortunately cannot harm the POWs, nor can the player – generally forcing you to take out all of the enemies in the immediate vicinity before beginning rescue proceedings.



Again, like Choplifter, it’s not enough to just get the POWs onboard, you must return them safely to a drop point. The POW encampments are spread throughout the playfield, and there is one safe drop point toward the end of each level (not long before the boss), represented by a helipad. Just before you get to the helipad area, a helicopter will fly up from the bottom of the screen and off the top, signaling that the dropoff area is ahead, and reminding the player to start looking for it. At the dropoff location, enemies can continue to move in on you while the POWs unload from the jeep and move toward the helicopter. Some levels have enemy planes that will continuously fly by and attempt to destroy you as you unload your passengers, forcing you to leave the dropoff point to deal with them, and then return.



The player isn’t required to pick up any POWs to complete the game, but the reward is a potential upgrade to the secondary weapon, and a fair amount of points for successfully delivering them to the helicopter, which translates into extra lives. If the player is destroyed while carrying POWs, some of them will escape (and some will not), and the player can pick them back up again when the jeep respawns.

As with many games of this time, there are only about 30 minutes of actual gameplay to be had. But, with limited lives and continues, and some pretty tough bosses and enemies, completing this game is a war of attrition. Players will find themselves getting further and further on each playthrough, especially as they learn enemy placements and are able to hold onto a fully-upgraded bazooka for just a little while longer. At the beginning of each level, the player is shown their progress on a miniature map of the 6 stage game, to show just how much further they have to go until they reach the end.



One other point of note is the rather minimal HUD in this game, which consists of only your score, and the number of remaining lives. Also, rather than appearing off the playfield, it appears directly in playable territory on the bottom-left of the screen, with a transparent background, making 100% of the screen available for play. It does have a tendency to flicker when bullets pass through it, or when enemies appear on a horizontal level with it. While it does appear above the background, it does not obscure enemies, so the player needn’t be concerned with cheap deaths as a result.

There are a small handful of mechanical issues that rear their heads in this game. First off, your jeep is animated to face all 8 directions. So, if you want to make a 180 degree direction change, the vehicle will go through a turn animation. The movement itself is quite responsive, but you can find yourself in a tight spot if you are trying to turn around while moving against a wall or other environmental obstacle, or if you are attempting to maneuver through the land mines that appear in later levels.



Secondly, when moving toward the top of the screen, the player is given a decent amount of room between their jeep and the edge of the screen. When moving to the left or right, however, this margin is somewhat smaller, making it easier for the player to scroll numerous dangerous enemies into play at once (if the enemy isn’t on the screen, it doesn’t exist for all intents), or inadvertently run into a Bastard Class Enemy. While this is a vertically-scrolling game, the playfield is about 2 screens wide, meaning that the player will often be moving horizontally, especially when looking for POWs or dodging a particularly nasty cluster of dangerous enemies.

And of course, there are a few BCE’s, which we’ll explore presently.



BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)

Popup Turret First seen in level 3, this turret pops straight out of the concrete, with no indication that it exists. The player has a quick second to react as it begins emerging from the ground, but as soon as it does, it fires a 5-way shot. The speed of the bullets is much faster than anything the player would have encountered up to the point of its first appearance, making it a particularly nasty surprise. Prepare to say bye-bye to that upgraded bazooka.

Heat-Seeking Missile Launchers These appear throughout the second half of the game. They are generally a pain to deal with because the missiles they fire have a pretty tight heat-seeking ability. You can destroy the launchers themselves with one hit of your secondary weapon, and the missiles go down with one hit from your machine gun. If your jeep is below or to the side of a launcher, you have the advantage that the fired missile will have to curve around to reach you, giving you the chance to destroy the missile and get to the launcher before it fires another. But if you are directly above one, god help you. Your machine gun is useless against a missile coming up from below, and the missiles are fast, so it can be hard to hit them with your secondary weapon, or even to dodge safely out of the way.



The real fun of this BCE is that the game introduces it at the beginning of level 4, which is in a swamp. Driving through the water slows your jeep down considerably, making it even more difficult to deal with a heat-seeking missile. Also, unlike later levels where the missile launchers are visible on the screen at all times, someone has taken the time to build these launchers beneath the surface of the swamp water (a good reason not to sign a construction contract with the Viet Cong). You can only see the launcher’s location for a second or two before it fires, as indicated by the bubbles that appear on the surface of the water. After that, you’re slogging through the water at half speed with a heat-seeking missile bearing down on you. War is hell (as are post-police action covert rescue operations, apparently).

Bandit Missile Copter This bad boy has its own illustration in the instruction manual, although it doesn’t look particularly more fierce than any of the other enemies in the game. The Bandit Missile Copter doesn’t get introduced until level 6, so an escalation of difficulty is to be expected, but the problem with these things is that they’re just so fast. They are faster than any enemy in the game, with the exception of the final boss. And, unlike some of the planes in earlier levels which fly off the bottom of the screen after trying to kill you, the Bandit Missile Copter will fly all over the place, shooting at you from every direction. Your jeep is barely maneuverable enough to deal with the threat.

What’s worse is that the POW dropoff point in level 6 has a Bandit Missile Copter that continuously spawns while you’re dropping off your POWs, meaning you’ll only be able to drop off 2 or 3 before having to take a break and deal with the Bandit (and make sure he doesn’t keep on truckin’).



POW Tanks Lastly, we have what we shall call the POW Tank. In actuality, this is just your standard-issue Cambodia-imported gray tank, and no more threatening. But what makes these bastards special is that they like to hide inside buildings that look exactly like the ones that hold the POWs. With most of POW buildings, you just blow a hole in the side and drive your jeep up to fill it to the brim with POWs. But try that here, and you’ll be driving your jeep into a tank. Surprise, you’re dead.



BOSSES
For the most part, you won’t be using your machine gun against bosses. The weapon is far too underpowered to deal with most of them, and some of them can’t be harmed by it at all. So, these will be full-on grenade/bazooka fights.



First boss: The first encounter isn’t against what you would typically classify as a “boss”. Rather it’s against 4 tanks with double armor. They enter the screen one at a time, so if you’re quick, you can dispatch each of them before the next becomes a threat. Rather than a single hit with your secondary weapon, these bosses require 2 hits before exploding and disappearing into the 8-bit ether.



Second boss: Here again, this isn’t a case of one huge enemy fighting you, but rather a collection of them. This boss is a line of 4 statue heads at the top of the screen, each capable of firing homing missiles at you. The homing pattern is pretty loose, so the missiles aren’t difficult to avoid. What makes the battle somewhat more difficult is the constant stream of tanks that come up from the bottom of the screen while you’re attempting to destroy the statue heads. The tanks can be avoided or engaged as needed, and any on-screen tanks explode when the final statue head is destroyed.



Third boss: This boss is a destroyer parked in a harbor, which has 6 turrets, each of which can fire a 5-way shot. Fortunately, only 2 of the turrets can fire at a time, making the act of dodging their shots somewhat easier if you’re careful about the order in which you destroy them. Still, you will often find yourself doing a bit of bullet dodging here with 10 bullets coming at once from the 2 firing turrets. Once again, tanks come in from the bottom of the screen, frustrating your attempts to sit still while turret fire flies safely past.



Fourth boss: This boss is an oversized helicopter that drops paratroopers at regular intervals. It can fire a single bullet in any direction – always toward the jeep – but it has a pretty high fire rate, so you still have to stay alert to dodge them properly. It drops paratroopers as it fires, and then leaves the screen, leaving you to deal with them. They offer little to no threat, and can be quickly dispatched by running them over with the jeep, giving the player plenty of opportunity to take a breather and prepare for the next volley.



Fifth boss: Here we have a somewhat perplexing boss, in that it operates in a vastly different manner than those previously encountered. It is made up of a wall with 4 turrets along the top, an electrified gate in the center, and a pair of doors on either side of the gate from which tanks emerge at regular intervals. Now, while the turrets will fire on you throughout the battle, it’s not actually necessary to destroy them. Your goal is to destroy the tank-dispensing doors. The upside to this battle is that the tanks appear from predictable locations, rather than just driving up from the bottom of the screen. You can’t damage the doors while they’re closed, but this doesn’t add greatly to the difficulty given that any tank coming out of an open door is going to be destroyed rather quickly by your grenades/rockets as you attempt to destroy the door. Once all four doors have been destroyed, the electrical field drops from the center gate, and all that remains is to sit in front of it and fire your secondary weapon until it goes away.



Sixth boss: This boss is comprised of a number of elements from previous encounters. Here we have two electricity-emitting turrets sitting on either side of a fortress-like structure, and tanks streaming in from the bottom of the screen. For an added bonus, the encounter also starts you off with a Bandit Missile Copter coming in from the top of the screen. The turrets are the biggest threat; they turn quickly, but always fire in a straight line. Once they have been destroyed, all that remains is destroying the fortress, which has no offensive capabilities. Once it is destroyed, it reveals the final boss.



Final boss: The fortress disappears upon being destroyed, revealing an enormous tank. It moves extremely quickly and has 2 turrets. The main turret shoots a wide fire beam down in a straight line, while the secondary turret fires individual bullets at you at a pretty high rate. Fortunately, there is a safe spot in the lower right-hand corner, where players can take a breather and wait for an opening to strike back. However, the boss takes a lot of hits to destroy, and the player is forced to drive up into the danger zone to get off a destructive shot. Still, the bullet pattern is pretty tolerable when the safe zone is taken into consideration, making the final battle one of patience and perseverance, rather than an insane feat of bullet-dodging.



HERITAGE

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • Unique weapon configuration and upgrade system
  • Running over enemies… on the NES
  • Rescuing POWs, with rewards and upgrades
  • 2-screen wide playfield
  • Minimal HUD, appears on playfield
  • Progress map between stages

The downside:
  • Tough changing directions in very tight spots
  • Smaller scrolling margin when moving to the left or right edge of the screen

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