Genre: Run-‘N-Gun Developer: Code Monkeys Publisher: Ballistic Players: 1 Released: 1992
If there ever was a game whose sole existence left me profoundly baffled and confused, this would be it. I had always left this one by the wayside, since I wasn’t really interested in a game based off a rather cheap but moderately successful action flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. I always believed this to be just another average licensed effort based on another average movie, and a rather uninteresting one at that. If you still believed that, too, you would be mistaken though. Yes, this game uses the movie’s name and license, but it isn’t an original game in itself. At its core, this game is basically the Genesis-port of the Amiga classic Turrican 2!
It may be best to disregard the movie and the original entirely and just look at the game at hand. What we have is a fluid and smooth run-‘n-gun that sometimes throws masses of different opponents at you. Your marine caries a gun that normally just fires straight forward. By standing still and holding the shoot button though you release a steerable laser beam that can be directed in a 360 degree angle ?? very useful against enemies located on higher or lower ground.
Upgrades for the gun exist aplenty. Apart from a longer reach for the beam you can get multi-shots, a cannon that splits and bounces at an angle from solid ground or a flame shot that when upgraded can have the size of the player sprite. All these enhancements can usually be found either in flying containers or more often, in hidden blocks that when shot constantly release a sheer shower of power ups. You can also roll into a buzz saw-like ball ?? obviously inspired by the Metroid series ?? and release bombs in this form. Rolling around is very hard to control since you can’t hold still unless you exit this mode entirely, but it can come very handy in a jiffy.
The way this game handles the energy bar might need some getting used to. Unlike most games, you are not invincible after an enemy hit. Instead, your life gets drained. If one isn’t careful and doesn’t immediately dispose of an enemy that got too close, the foe may siphon your entire energy in no time. Once you keep that in mind it isn’t too hard to keep an eye on the life meter. The game may be hard, but power ups and life refills are rather plentiful. Whenever you loose a life you respawn exactly where you died, with all enemies removed from the immediate vicinity, which is rather fair.
The graphics are nice but seem washed out at times and lacking in detail. It looks better than the port of the first Turrican, but it’s still worlds away from the colorful worlds of the original. The same can be said of the soundtrack. The tunes are mostly nice, but they seem lackluster and tinny at times. A shame, because some of the tracks sound very good, only weakly executed. It may be just a port, but the lack of detailed graphics and sound is pretty sad. And don’t tell me that’s because the limits of the Genesis hardware, 1992 saw games that boasted immensely colorful graphics and great sound, Sonic 2 being the prime example. It seems more that the programmers responsible weren’t up to the task, which is a pity when you consider the material this game is based on.
If you are familiar with the Amiga original, you might think this game was just somewhat of a hack or a sprite swap. The truth isn’t that far off actually. Accolade, under its Ballistic label, had already published the Genesis conversion of the first game in this series. The same team was responsible for the port of the second one. However, late in development the decision was made to attach the movie license to it, maybe because the first Turrican wasn’t received too well on the console. As a result, most of the original game is still there, but its looks have been heavily altered.
For example, in order to tie in into the movie, some sprites have been replaced: Whereas Turrican 2 stuck the player in a power armored suit, the main character now is a rather generic looking marine meaning to resemble Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose sprite is also used for certain enemy types. Most bosses have been replaced by oversized Dolph Lundgren look-alikes, which comes off as particularly odd when considering the movie this is supposedly spun off from: Why do I fight a cyborg three times the size of Jean-Claude Van Damme when in the movie both characters where just humans of human size turned into cyborgs?
Also, most of the original levels, along with their futuristic sci-fi looks, were left intact, but the side-scrolling shooter levels have been cut and replaced by three more run-‘n-gun levels, which were designed as to tie in into the movie. Some enemy sprites were retained from the originals, while others were redrawn. Needless to say, these different designs clash noticeably, even if you’re neither familiar with the original game nor the movie. All of this just highlights the rushed last minute changes and the lack of dedication towards this conversion.
I have to give the game some extra credit, though: Unlike the original, Universal Soldier grants you two different difficulty settings, a blessing considering the high difficulty of the Amiga incarnation. Granted, the “easy” setting basically just offsets the balance in the players favor by planting lots of 1Ups throughout the stages, but it makes for an easier game. Things are generally simplified by granting passwords for each of the nine levels, making the experience more enjoyable and easier to just pick up and play for shorter periods. Oddly the game uses the same codes for both the easy and hard settings, which again shows how lazy the efforts invested in this game were. Speaking of credits, the in-game credits list neither the name of Turrican creator Manfred Trenz nor of Chris Hülsbeck, composer of the original soundtrack. The latter is particularly strange since some tracks in the game are recognizably versions of his originals!
Overall, what we have here is a pretty decent effort that deserves more love. It may be rather disfigured and suffering from a lack of devotion from the programmers side, but at its core Universal Soldier is still a pretty good game. It is sort of the bastard child of the Turrican series, unloved and outcast, but it still carries the genes. Sadly it’s so easy to see that this port could have easily been done much better if it had only been given proper care. It might even have sufficed if they just had disregarded this whole movie license thing. Just ask yourself the following question. Which boss would you rather fight: A giant mech with a feather headdress – or a huge Dolph Lundgren look-alike?
SCORE: 6 out of 10