Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Retro Review - Jackal (Arcade / NES)

4 Wheel Shmup Action

Jackal (or Top Gunner as it was known in North America) is a classic Konami arcade shoot-em-up that often gets unfairly overlooked. Not only does it feature the developer's wonderful, and instantly recognisable, style of visuals and sound of the time, but it also offers some great blasting action and some original ideas in a genre usually swamped in predictability. Essentially a vertical scrolling shmup, Jackal has one significant difference that separates it from your standard Fireshark, 1943, or Raiden affairs - the ability to explore the stage at your own pace. After being dropped via parachute onto a beach, your two man team set off in their military jeep and, as you move vertically upwards, the screen scrolls with you. You can stop and move around at your leisure, with the screen following you to the left and right for a short distance should you move off the central path, and even backtrack a little way.

The weapons you are equipped with are also rather novel. Your primary method of dealing death and destruction is the mounted machine gun which will only fire directly upwards, regardless of which way you are facing. Your secondary fire is the ability to lob grenades, which always fire in the direction the jeep is facing. This results in two different styles of combat - you can fire your mounted gun at your targets while keeping mobile, or you can turn to face an opponent, quickly launch a secondary attack, then dart out of harms way. Mastering the use of these weapons takes a little practice, and is the key to success. Bizarrely, the original Japanese release, entitled Tokushu Butai Jackal has a different firing system, with the jeep's mounted gun also firing in the direction the vehicle is facing, resulting in far tougher game due to the inability to fire and retreat at the same time. It is worth trying out both versions in MAME, in order to see which you prefer. All versions come with the added bonus of being able to run over the enemy foot soldiers, a sadistic pleasure that never gets old.

As you make your way through the one large continuous stage on offer, you will traverse through a variety of environments, from the initial beach, through a jungle full of crumbling ruins, all the way to the final enemy stronghold. Along this treacherous route, you will face a wealth of soldiers, tanks, jeeps, gun turrets, choppers, ships and planes, all out to blow you to kingdom come. Unfortunately for our heroes, the military are clearly facing budget cuts as the jeep they have provided you for the mission is a piece of junk, unable to withstand even a single bullet from a soldier's gun. Yep, it's 'one hit kill' time, folks! This, coupled with the rather tricky nature of the weapon systems, results in a brutal difficulty level that will hand you your ass repeatedly and have you reaching for the 'add coin' button every couple of minutes.  

There is some help offered in the form of P.O.W.s, who can be liberated from their prisons with a well placed grenade. Most buildings contain four of your comrades, though some contain just one, a special soldier (signified by flashing) who, upon rescue, grants an upgrade to your secondary fire. Grenades will be upgraded to a faster rocket projectile, while further upgrades increase the distance fired and add splash damage to the resulting explosion - extremely handy against rows of turrets or clusters of tanks. It's not all plain sailing, however, as your jeep can only hold eight P.O.W.s (I assume some are sitting on your lap?), so you should always leave a space for one of the special soldiers. Once you locate one of the LZs, you can drop off all your human cargo in exchange for points, with eight in a row granting a large score bonus. Even this is made difficult by the fact that you have to remain stationary while unloading, and often a bomb dropping plane will fly overhead or a trigger happy grunt will wander towards you. Also, should you get killed the skittish P.O.W.s will scatter off in different directions, meaning you have to scoop them up again when you respawn - with a downgrade to your secondary weapon.

Jackal requires time and patience to get good at it, but thankfully its fun and addictive nature keep you coming back for more, with the high difficulty level only encouraging you to conquer its enemy-laden stages. Once you master the control scheme and the weapons at your disposal, you will be hooked, coming back time and time again to try and get that little bit further, or to beat your last highscore. There's also a fantastic two player mode, allowing you and a buddy to team up in two separate, though irritatingly similar looking, vehicles. With both of you unleashing torrents of machine gun fire and rockets, you have a far, far greater chance of survival against the enemy forces. Just make sure you don't end up squabbling over who gets the fleeing P.O.W.s. These days, you can play Jackal in the usual manner, MAME on PC, or, you can purchase it via Game Room on the Xbox 360. The emulation is sound, and the online leaderboards add further encouragement to master it.

Bringing the action home

Jackal also made it over to Nintendo's NES console in 1988 and is an exceptionally solid port. The visuals have a damn good stab at representing its coin-op older brother, and actually have a more colourful (though, obviously, less detailed) appearance. The catchy 8-bit renditions of the original soundtrack are a treat for the ears and the game features a far more forgiving difficulty level that results in far less frustration.

The game is now split into six distinct areas, rather than the one continuous stage of its arcade parent, with each one ending in a boss encounter that sees you facing off against projectile spitting statue heads, a huge battleship, or a barrage of powerful tanks. It really enhances the experience and adds much needed variety. There are also some amusing static cutscenes between the stages showing our heroes completely lost and consulting a map, or simply jumping over a hill, guns blazing, while yelling "Yeahhhh!", as you do.

Additional changes to the gameplay include a Tardis-like jeep that allows infinite P.O.W.s to clamber on board, special star power-ups that grant either a 1up, trigger a screen-clearing explosion, or power-up your secondary fire to maximum, and the removal of exploding enemy vehicle wreckage. These little tweaks to gameplay make the NES version slightly more fun to play then the Arcade version - something Konami also achieved with their excellent NES ports of Contra and Rush N Attack. Despite the relaxed difficulty level, this home version of Jackal still provides a hefty challenge, with only four continues to complete the game, the use of which restarts you from the beginning of the stage in which you met your end. Victory is a far more realistic proposition than the arcade version, though, and it will keep you hooked until you finally beat it.

Jackal was also ported to the 8-bit home computers of the time, with the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, DOS, and two Commodore 64 (one European and one American) versions all attempting to recreate the thrill and spills of the arcade original. Unfortunately, these home micro versions are best avoided as they look awful and play like dogs. They may have been acceptable to easily impressed kids back when they came out, but these days they simply serve no purpose other than serving to demonstrate how colossal the gap was between arcade and home computer technology in the 1980s. Best stick to the original coin-op verion or, better yet, the outstanding NES port.

Arcade : 

NES : 

Title : Jackal
Developer : Konami
Year : 1986 / 1988
System : Arcade / NES
Also on : C64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, DOS
Genre : Shmup

Also Try : 

T.N.K. III  (Arcade) 1985

MERCS (Mega Drive) 1991

Guerilla War (Arcade / NES) 

Shock Troopers (Neo Geo) 1997

Aurail (Arcade)

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