The curious computer games of the Sylvester Stallone-headlined movie Cobra

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The Stallone movie Cobra got a computer game version in the 1980s, available for all ages – but what you got varied on what version you bought.

Cobra must rank as one of Sylvester Stallone’s strangest movies. Inspired by Beverly Hills Cop, turned into an action thriller with plenty of gore and drastically cut to gain a lower age rating, the oddball plot is only matched by the strange home computer adaptations – which feature deadly prams and hamburgers filled with weapons. You can read more about the origins of Cobra as a film here.

For the game? Well, Ocean Software had already scored a hit with its game based on an early Sylvester Stallone action movie, Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1986. Tackling Cobra, then, looked like a chance for a further hit. What’s more, Ocean decided that rather than outsource the development of the game, it was going to use its in-house talent.

This meant, then, that Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith – fresh from his excellent conversion of the arcade game Green Beret to the humble ZX Spectrum – was put in charge of the game design. Musical duties would be handled by Martin Galway. But unusually, what this resulted in was three very different interpretations of Cobra in videogame form. All based on the same basic idea, but the versions for the three top home computers of the time – the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum – would be really quite diverse.

Let’s take a look…

The Spectrum game (pictured above)  remains fondly remembered and it’s easy to see why, with the humour of its designer adding to the traditional  mix of violence and platforms. It is also clear to see its roots in that Green Beret game. After an excellent loading screen that looks  like the film poster, the menu with a choice of control methods stands out, particularly for the redefining the keyboard controls option. Instead of picking a button for ‘Fire’, we are asked to select which key we want to use to MURDER.

The game, then. At first Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti is only armed with a pretty lethal head butt. The distinctive characters have an almost exaggerated cartoon style, appearing as outlines. To arm Cobra, you must pick up one of the four hamburgers (the instructions call them beef burgers for some reason, but then it’s not entirely clear why you need to pick him hamburgers to get a weapon either) left sitting around each of the three levels. These weapons are the knife, pistol, laser-sighted machine gun and invincibility pill.

Just to add an extra unexplained quirk, the duration each weapon lasts for was shown as a disappearing yellow duck in the status panel – and Cobra’s lives are shown by boxing gloves in a sideways reference to the Rocky franchise.

The game’s three levels vaguely follow the plot of the film, with the City, Country and Factory. In each round Cobra must find Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen’s character) and escort her to safety. Accidentally hitting or shooting her will make Ingrid run away from you for a short time meaning you have to chase her down again. Once all four burgers have been picked up and Ingrid retrieved, killing enough enemies and finding the right spot in the looping landscape will end the level and award bonus points.

On the third Factory level there is the added task of killing the Night Slasher before a massive explosion sound signals the game is ‘complete’. Sadly a bug meant holding the invincibility pill and killing the Night Slasher would leave the game in an infinite loop and it could not be completed; this was fixed for later models of Spectrum. with the budget release on Ocean’s Hit Squad label.  Crash gave the original Spectrum release a massive 93% and a coveted Crash Smash, while C&VG gave a more low-key 7/10.

Over on the Amstrad version of the game and online credits point to former Imagine and Denton Designs programmer John Gibson (perhaps best known for the Spectrum strategy game Stonkers) as being responsible. But the man himself has confirmed he had nothing to do with the game, so who actually knows who wrote this version. There is no menu or opening screen with credits, and the awkward default keys cannot be changed. The loading screen is more colourful than the Spectrum version but is dominated by its purple surround – an odd choice when the film poster is mostly red.

What is clear is that the Amstrad game took a different approach. Here the game is split into eight districts, and Cobra must clear up a set amount of crime in each round. There is no meter or target shown on screen, but it does seem to be triggered at certain scores – and you earn an extra life every 10,000 points. As with the Spectrum game these are represented by boxing gloves.

The Amstrad graphics try to be dark and gritty, but are let down by the bright colours of the computer’s available palette. What is dark is the game’s portrayal of prostitutes who can be killed, and something that appears in the windows of the apartment blocks – a man apparently hanging himself, who can be shot for bonus points. As per the above screenshot.

Just for tonal contrast, shooting the birds and flowerpots in some windows reveals a hamburger, and like the Spectrum game these contain extra weapons (or a top-up for an existing weapon’s strength/ammunition). There are just three choices here, along with Cobra’s fists – the knife, pistol, and laser-sighted machine gun (but no fancy laser sight here). The weapons last a long while, so there is less of a tactical need to change between them here. Enemies include men armed with rocket launchers, knives and pistols. Swooping birds – possibly pigeons or ducks – are another major annoyance, but at least Cobra can take a few hits before losing a life.

The levels do scroll smoothly, and much like the Spectrum rounds each district wraps around in one continuous loop. Other interesting details include garage doors that open, enemies hidden in dustbins and neon signs – including one for a nightclub called The Snake Pit.

Reaching the third level sees Ingrid appear for the first time. Now Cobra must protect her as she follows him – but she only ever walks along the lowest level. On level six things become more difficult as the Night Slasher (in his strange green Amstrad clothes) starts to appear. The Night Slasher homes in on Ingrid to attack her, and once she dies Cobra dies. Fortunately he only takes a single hit with a weapon to kill before re-appearing again.

Completing the eighth level reveals a bizarre final message (“Well dang my poons, you did it”) before a brief cut-scene with Ingrid running towards Cobra as he stands near his car. The game then restarts at the first level. Already, then, we had two different versions of what was supposed to be pretty much the same game.

Then came the third.

The Commodore 64 version plays like a mix between the Spectrum and Amstrad games. It has the three distinct levels and Ingrid escorting of the Spectrum game, and the more realistic graphic style of the Amstrad game. However, as an early project from programmer Zach Townsend it cannot be said to be his best work for several reasons. The loading screen is at least red like the film poster, but Stallone appears slightly, well, malformed…

This time then, Cobra is dropped off at the start of each level by a car, before heading on foot into a storm of enemies that can overwhelm at times. Among them are women pushing prams that will explode on contact with our hero, and a man in a dirty mac who will drain Cobra’s energy – indicated by a disappearing hamburger. Picking up a hamburger regains energy, but these are scarce. Perhaps the most dangerous enemy is the axe-wielding maniac who moves a lot faster than Cobra and kills on contact.

Like the other games the player must initially tackle enemies just by punching, but more weapons are found lying around. These include a knife, pistol, grenades and sub-machine gun. The pistol and sub-machine gun require bullets which must be picked up separately and have their own decaying symbol to represent the current amount of ammunition.

Towards the end of the first level Cobra encounters Ingrid, who will follow the player and requires protection. This is made difficult by the level layout and poor computer AI controlling her. There is also a point later in the level where Cobra can hitch a ride on the back of a pick-up truck and can still use his weapons to clear the way. Reaching the right hand end of the level sees Cobra reach his car again and move on to the next level. The second level is set in the countryside and the final level inside the factory sees the Night Slasher appear.

 The high difficulty level of the C64 version is compounded by the poor graphics, with pretty average background graphics and simplistic enemies. One of the strangest things is how the enemies die. When you shoot or hit them with a weapon, the colour of the enemy changes through multiple colours before the enemy finally disappears.

The best part of the C64 Cobra game has to be the soundtrack by Ben Daglish of W.E. Music (We Make Use of Sound In Computers, the composers’ group Ben had set up with fellow Sheffield resident Tony Crowther). It is actually a moody and atmospheric cover of “Skyline” by Sylvester Levay from the original film soundtrack. However, that comes with a proviso – the cuts and changes to the film meant that Skyline is not actually heard in the original theatrical release.

Ocean would go on to have a much better reputation for turning film properties into computer games after Cobra. That started with ambitious plans for the game based on Oliver Stone’s anti-war Platoon, and then the enormously successful RoboCop; a license that the company’s software director Gary Bracey admits he took a punt on. But that’s a story for another time.

Stallone has gone on to star in other computer and console games, including Demolition Man, but few have been as successful as the games based on Rambo.

Cobra as a film meanwhile may have been critically mauled – with a current rating of 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and six nominations at the Golden Razzies – but the computer adaptations were even more divisive, depending on which 8-bit computer you played it on…

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