Rambo: First Blood Part II by Microprose/Angelsoft (1985)

Twitter Review:

You have a better chance of surviving behind enemy lines in real life while blindfolded than you have of beating this game.

Full Review:

Since the dawn of video games, developers have attempted to reproduce the excitement and emotions experienced in movie theaters on video game cartridges and computer monitors. When converting action heroes, explosions and gunfire to small sprites made of smaller pixels, the thrills and chills that occur on the silver screen sometimes get lost in translation.

Even more challenging must have been taking one of the year’s highest grossing action films and attempting to reproduce those same levels of adrenaline through text. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Angelsoft from trying.

After releasing a series of children’s educational games based on the characters Tink and Tonk, Angelsoft decided the market they really wanted to conquer was text adventures based on books and movies. Between 1985 and 1987, Angelsoft developed eight text adventures, most of which (like Indiana Jones in Revenge of the Ancients and James Bond 007: Goldfinger) were based on others’ intellectual properties. The first of these games was Rambo: First Blood Part II, published in 1985 by Mindscape for the Apple II, IBM PC, and Macintosh.

The box cover of Rambo: First Blood Part II has a painting of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, holding a machine gun with as many bullets as Rambo has muscles. The picture is superimposed over a red sunset that matches both Rambo’s headband and the blood he is ready to spill. Against the clouds, nearly a dozen helicopters stretch back toward the horizon. I’m sure many an adolescent begged his or her parents to purchase this game based on the artwork alone, ready to help Rambo put a bullet into every wrongdoer standing between him and Freedom.

Unfortunately for those bloodthirsty adolescents, the game doesn’t resemble the cover. The closest you’ll get to graphics in this game is a black and white digitized picture of Rambo that appears on the Macintosh and PC’s title screens (the Apple II version contains no graphics at all). Instead, the game throws you directly into the action with paragraphs of text as Rambo has just leaped from an aircraft and is falling toward the earth. Your mission according to the game is to “confirm the presence of Americans still held in a Vietnamese POW camp without revealing your presence to the enemy.” Rambo has eighteen game hours to complete his mission, and a timer in the upper right-hand corner is a constant reminder that every move counts.

The game begins with Rambo standing in the jungle. Players are informed that the first rendezvous point lies three miles to the north. In perhaps one of the most brutal text adventure beginnings of all time, if the player doesn’t remove Rambo’s parachute and hide it immediately, he will be mowed down by enemy fire within two moves. Even worse is that if Rambo leaves the drop site on his first move, there aren’t enough moves remaining to both remove the parachute and stash it somewhere before deadly bullets rain down from above. The game plays coy, only stating that “you get the feeling [the Vietnamese gunship] must have been tipped off.” If the game mentioned something like “your progress is slowed due to the fact you’re dragging a parachute,” players would at least have an idea where to begin. Instead, players will get killed over and over again, forced to discover what is tipping off the enemy and how to prevent it from happening.

For players hoping the game gets easier (or even slightly less lethal) after the first puzzle is solved, bad news lies ahead. On the next move, unless players immediately perform another specific (and in terms of interactive fiction, somewhat uncommon) action, Rambo will once again meet his fate. Often, the only hint that death is waiting around the next corner is found hidden in one or two words buried deep within a description. Sometimes, the hint comes after Rambo meets his maker.

It is fortunate that Rambo: First Blood Part II provides nine slots for saving games, because players will want (need) to save their game after every single move. Move east without looking first and Rambo will be shot by a sniper. Walk north without carefully checking the bushes and Rambo will be blown to bits by a landmine. In some cases, an equivalent (but incorrect) verb will also lead to instant death. (“Examine” bushes will get you killed; “Survey” bushes will reveal important information.)

As if the game weren’t difficult enough, Angelsoft added random events to the game’s engine just to keep players on their toes. Enemies both on the ground and up above are constantly spawning in random locations throughout the game. Miss one of the cues and Rambo will end up with more lead in him than a pencil. Occasionally, enemy choppers randomly appear in locations where there is no place to take cover. In those instances, death is unavoidable. Nine saved game slots may not be enough to make it through the game. Ninety-nine slots may not be enough.

Let’s talk about those bloodthirsty adolescents for a moment who purchased Rambo: First Blood Part II based on the box cover’s artwork, assuming they were getting an arcade-style shooter a’la Commando instead of the world’s most difficult text adventure. I was one of those kids. I spent most of a summer playing this game on our family’s PC Jr, desperately trying over and over to make it more than two moves into the game without getting blown to bits. After weeks of struggling, it was my father who helped me solve the game’s first puzzle, only to discover that much more death awaited Rambo in the jungle. This game is like a sadistic Choose Your Own Adventure book where Rambo gets killed on every single page.

While it shouldn’t be particularly surprising given the source material, Rambo: First Blood Part II is surprisingly violent. Through much of the game, Rambo, as in the movie, is constantly rat-a-tat-tatting enemy soldiers hiding in bushes and behind trees. Later in the game, Rambo switches to his trusty survival knife. While we may be desensitized to bullets blazing and blood splattering from hoards of anonymous bad guys in movies or video games, there is something slightly unnerving about being forced to slice people’s throats in a first-person narrative.

Speaking of the film, watching Rambo: First Blood Part II should be considered a prerequisite to playing this game, as some of the game’s puzzles require knowledge of the movie to navigate. As a stand-alone property, this should be considered a crime as punishable as physically torturing captured soldiers. Requiring a gamer to recite a word or find an object based on something that happened in the film and isn’t mentioned in the game simply isn’t fair.

Even with the use of a walk-through, players may not be able to complete the game due to random deadly events. If it was Angelsoft’s intention to develop a game that was as difficult as one of Rambo’s missions, they not only succeeded but exceeded their goal. On the other hand, if their intention was to create a fair but challenging game that made people want to play it, I’m afraid they failed. By the time this game hit shelves, gamers were moving away from text adventures and toward arcade-style and role playing games in droves. It’s too bad Angelsoft and Micrprose didn’t spent a little more time trying to hang on to them with better design instead of releasing games like this which only helped push them further away.

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