Rambo for NES (Activision, 1987)

First impression and assembly of low-value thoughts

Rambo NES cartridge, the cartridge itself obscured partly by leaves. Rambo is hyper-masculine, wielding a gun.

Here on the label an angry man muscular shooting a gun, killing.

The Rambo of my youth was somehow beyond the pale: a hyperviolent paean to death and murder. I was not allowed to watch it. The thousands or tens of thousands of other T.V. and movie murders that played out in front of me as a child were fine, however. This was the 1980s normal. I remember a lot of these violent details. In what ways were they formative?

The fact this was creating some blurred impressions was made obvious when I once asked my parents why hockey (NHL) players did not simply kill the opposing team's players. Logic to a child who had seen how hand-to-hand was resolved elsewhere on the same T.V.-- and this is damning of hockey, not just T.V. violence. This memory sticks with me because my parents were so horrified. (I'm not sure how old I was then.)

But Rambo had a moral panic surrounding it; somehow the term "body count" became associated with it and it was too high.

In adulthood I learned Rambo was actually antiwar (I don't know if this is actually true.) In this sense is it like Starship Troopers, just over the heads of the masses? Or was the moral panic created to deflect Rambo's true message? When Starship Troopers came out, it was certainly not seen by most with any irony, or at least, it was "a terrible, stupid movie." (I have also not seen Starship Troopers, but I'm familiar with it enough to understand.)

The takeaway from Robocop for me was certainly just more hyper-violence. As a filmmaker, what does it mean when you are skewering a hyper-violent culture, but that same culture misses the point and even feeds it to their children (who have no chance but to miss the point?) It proves your point. But I imagine it feels awful. (I'm talking of Paul Verhoeven, who directed both Robocop and Starship Troopers.)

What then of Rambo 6? I prefer not to search, but I remember sequels. Where there truly more than one antiwar Rambo movies?

The inside circuit board of Rambo, the pins cleaned, mostly, by running an eraser over them. It's green. Two large black rectangular microchips, three small black rectangular microchips, two resistors, and a capacitor are visible. Several of the microchips have SHARP written on them. All the lettering on the horizontally-oriented microchips is upside down. The one veritcally oriented (small) microchip could be read if you turned the cartridge 90 degrees to the right. In gold on the circuit board is printed (C) 1986 Nintendo CHRRAM, NES-UN-ROM-07 LS 32 LS 161 N, PRGROM, and CIC. There are more details including printed numbers.

What then to expect of the videogame? Contra, probably.

I remember a parody movie. At the time I thought it was a Rambo parody. An American man kills a village full of innocent people (or maybe soldiers) and a body count appears on the screen, like an arcade score. I don't think this was an effective skewering of a hyper-violent culture. I don't know the movie, I don't care enough to look it up, but I think it may be a film by the name given by google to the question "who made Spaceballs?" (take this whole claim with a grain of salt, it's foggy.)

I turn it on. It doesn't work. It's late and I don't feel like cleaning it. I clean it anyways because I am persistent to my own detriment (by far) and I know the eraser technique will work (it always works.)

The pins are very dirty; this means it was played a lot. In my experience that usually means the game is good. But in this case does it mean just that the movie was popular, or just that the family of the child who first owned it had not much money and therefore only a few games?

I start it. It works.

Rambo title screen.
Biographic sheet comes up after pressing start. NAME: John Rambo. AGE: Born 1947. RACE: Indian and German. Various missions. Was a P.O.W., is a pilot. And so on.

The title sequence and music is astonishingly good, maybe an adaptation of the film music? An impressive masked-fire effect fades in the text RAMBO.

Then there is a short intro conversational scene with a commanding officer offering me some kind of rescue mission to let me out of army jail free. Very first thing I am given is a surprisingly good choice. They are trying to get me back in the game but I don't have to play. I can simply decline.

Alas, this is a sad trombone moment as the choice to stay in jail does not lead anywhere.

After choosing to go to war and "sneak" into the "enemy" (unspecified nationality but they are living in Vietnam) base there is the first game graphics, not very impressive, with a helicopter dropping me off behind enemy lines. The game crashes while I reach for my camera.

Option A: I'm not afraid of death. Option B: I feel better in prison.
The game has glitched out. Some black and white block graphics fill the screen, signifying nothing but appealing nonetheless.

Further cleaning will probably fix this. Once (and only once) before, I had to do the eraser trick twice, on Lunar Pool.

I don't feel like cleaning it again, and given where my notes are at, I'm satisfied if this is as far as I go. I do try a few more times, it fails repeatedly, but then I manage to get back to the title screen.

Wait. It turns out I was not put into the enemy's territory as originally thought. I am on my own army base which is basically a Zelda II-esque town, even the music is a vague callback. (Or I am imagining this because all NES percussion sounds similar.) I can speak to NPCs, who are other soldiers and my commanding officer. What.

Ericson is glad to work with me.

Commander Beefnuts who is coercing me to kill says to forget about hand-to-hand and just use military technology (guns, I think he means.)

"Go to the hangar." I cannot find the hangar. Moving off the right side of the map brings me to the left and vice versa. Up does not enter any buildings or doors. I am stuck here for minutes. I do not know if this is a glitch; I expect the hangar would simply be to the right. Again, based on my experience and notes, I am satisfied to end it here.

Pausing allows walking animations to continue in-place which is frankly glorious.

I can press B to stab my machete. A to jump on buildings-- you remember Zelda II. I have LIFE 100, EXP 0000. Several other icons.

I cannot stab Ericson. I will try to stab Commander Beefnuts. Maybe that's the film plot?

I cannot stab Commander Beefnuts.

I finally notice an arrow [S] square block icon on the ground near where I first landed. Pressing up here, I move in a third planar dimension as in Goonies II. ! What.

So I reach the hangar.

Commander Murdock (new guy) says take pics of the P.O.W.s and do not engage the enemy. Yes. I personally agree. Rambo would like to rescue them. Rambo's biography stated he was a P.O.W. So his desire to rescue is understandable even if Rambo himself eschews violence. Murdock reiterates that this is recon not rescue.

On the friendly army base. The graphics are not impressive but very reminiscent in scale, detail, and function of Zelda II, whose graphics were also at times not impressive.
Commander Murdock: You're not to engage the enemy. Rambo: Photos? Not rescue them?

"Go to the weapons center." I find a door I can enter. This isn't very well-signaled, but the graphics are comparatively sparse and it's an expected convention (because, well, Zelda II) so this part works, game-design-wise.

Guy in there says he has already picked my weapons. (A film SLR with 100-400mm lens I guess?)

"Go to Trautman." Who is Trautman. Exiting the weapons center, the sky outside has darkened. An atmospheric weather effect on the home army base? What.

"There is no time. Go to Trautman now." Ericson urges me on.

Beefnuts is Trautman. He sends me away. My mission involves getting out alive. A guide named Co will help me find my way through the jungle. There is a space missing after the period after Co's name when it appears in the game text here, confusing me a bit.

I parachute out of the plane into the jungle. The music is O.K.

I am pretty sure I will have to stab a guy soon.

I am surprised yet again. I stab only at snakes and mosquitoes. I am happy at this. Elated in fact. I stab them and gain EXP.

Rambo is in the jungle. He runs to the right. The ground is speckled blue, hard to tell what but it doesn't matter. There are some cut off logs sticking up, like the stumps of trees. There are some blue bushes. This is all against a black background. A snake approaches a few steps ahead of Rambo. Past the snake, and over Rambo's head, is a large mosquito. LIFE, EXP, and some icons including weapons and health potions are shown along the top of the screen. There are 5 health potions.

This game is heavily drawn from Zelda II. The orientation of the background graphics, the starting attacks, the character scale, they are all just like it. The control is not as tight, by far. (For that, play Battle of Olympus, which I am pretty sure literally copied code and overdrew sprite frames from Zelda II, legally or not. I haven't tried to prove this but I believe it is provable.)

Through the forest (including another planar-3D transition) I make it to another friendly military base (Zelda II town.) Incredible. This is certainly not Contra at all. I talk to a man.

Back in reality, It's late. I snap a pic and turn it off.

"You must be an outsider." I am an American serviceman in Vietnam, as is the man I am talking to.

At this moment I have only good things to say about Rambo.

I am intruigued and think it must go somewhere genuinely interesting. Details such as the weather affects and unnecessarily1 elaborate gameplay systems show that the creators cared about making it.

I put it back in the crate. I may play it again or I may let it continue on only in my imagination and, so, have my choice not to play it any further guarantee Rambo's untarnished state to me.

I will try and see the movie someday.

1 Commercially speaking, I mean, speaking as if I understand the history of the commerce of NES games well enough to weigh in, which I do not.


  1. This is the third NES movie adaptation I have played as an adult and all have been surprisingly good (the other two are Willow, which I even completed, and Robin Hood: Prince of Theives, whose lack of a save battery is a sin.)
  2. Taking notes and snapping pics in the moment is time-consuming and I dont intend to do it for more than the first handful of minutes of any game, which is another way of saying I'd like to do this again. Fortunately, I have crates of unplayed games to run this same experiment on.

Military Officer in Blue Beret, older, with a small moustache and beefy chin: You're outsiders, aren't you.

August 6, 2022

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