Sirens blare, confetti flutters through the air and party poppers are popped. A banner slowly descends. “CONGRATULATIONS,” it reads, “1,000,000th Piece of Computer Game Artwork Based on an Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie Poster!!!”
So, like I said: military muscle men, although they’re nothing to do with the toy line of the same name whose advert I’ve had stuck in my head for well over twenty years now. Someone appears to have shot the game’s logo. How rude.
There’s more Schwarzenegger on the screen that introduces out heroes: Striker, over on the left, has clearly has his portrait copied from the Terminator poster, the shoelace-thin headband hastily added in order to throw off the lawyers. As for Cobra, there’s a decent chance he’s Conan. Not based on Conan, he’s actually Conan, who has awakened in the modern age with his lust for battle completely intact. He’s so keen on military conflict that he somehow managed to fight in both Vietnam and the Falklands.
You’re also shown the weapons that you’ll get to use during your mission. They’re all fairly standard stuff for a military-themed videogame from the eighties. You can tell it’s from the eighties because one of the weapons is an Uzi. Had videogames been the pre-eminent form of popular culture at the time, we’d all consider the Uzi to be as much a symbol of the eighties as we do with shoulder pads, big hair and cocaine.
There’s actually a little scene here where the weapons are introduced one-by-one, and each time one appears a brief sound effect of it firing plays. It’s kinda neat, and it shows a certain amount of, if not ambition, then at least flair.
Here’s your mission briefing, not that you need one. “Shoot everything that isn’t you” would have done the trick much more concisely. It might have been nice to know who I’m fighting against and where all this takes place, but I’m hardly surprised that information isn’t included. Ours is not to reason why, and all that. It’s particularly amusing that you’re advised to “use strategy.” Unless “strategy” is the code-name for a new super-gun that fires a million bullets per second and can only be fired by a man without a shirt on, strategy is unlikely to enter into this game.
And we’re off, charging around and shooting our gun at the many brown-shirted soldiers that are intent on protecting this small hut. So, Purple Heart is a top-down shooter in the manner of Capcom’s Commando (not to be mistaken for Capcom’s Captain Commando) or SNK's Ikari Warriors. There’s nothing so fancy as a rotary joystick in this one, though: you use the stick to move, and you fire in whatever direction you’re facing. You can’t even hold the fire button down to fix your aim in one direction while you move about, which can make some sections rather awkward.
Unusually for the genre, Purple Heart’s first stage takes place in the enemy base. That’s just good tactics, really. If you can take out the enemy’s base right away, you could be home by tea time! Maybe I was too quick to scoff at the uselessness of strategy in this situation.
I’m only a couple of screens in, but I’ve already managed to pick up most of the game’s weapons. They’re just laying around on the floor, you don’t even need to shoot them out of enemies or find them in crates, and that’s good because they all have limited ammo (represented by the green bar in the HUD) and they run out quite quickly. This is not the kind of game where conserving your ammunition is really an option, either.
Of the weapons I’ve used so far, this flamethrower definitely feels like the most useful. Its projectiles can pass through multiple enemies, which is handy, plus they leave a small patch of fire wherever they land that the villains can walk into. The shotgun’s not bad, either, although unlike the wide spread of projectiles you might have been expecting from a videogame shotgun, it actually fires two “rows” of projectiles in a straight line. Some on the design team took the phrase “double-barrelled” a little too literally, I suspect.
And so it goes, the action unfolding in a manner typical of the genre and with little to set it apart from the crowd. You die in one hit, which is to be expected. The opposing troops run around like kids from a nursery that swapped the fruit juice for espresso, firing their guns and throwing grenades with wild abandon, which is also to be expected. Computer game soldiers of the time rarely exhibited much in the way of military tactics. At least they’ve all got guns in this one, half the time in games like this there are a bunch of soldiers attacking you with nothing more technologically advanced than knives. The collision detection has the capricious nature of a romantic poet, often flitting about and offering vague notions when all you want it to do is settle down and give you a solid answer about whether an incoming explosion is going to kill you or not. It’s not good, but in fairness the hit detection in Purple Heart isn’t much worse than in many, many other home computer action games.
It didn’t take long to make it to the first boss: a trio of chaps with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers who are jealously guarding these oil drums, determined that no side-scrolling beat-em-ups will be able to steal them away and hide roast dinners under them. At least, I think there are supposed to be people holding those rocket launchers. Looking at the rest of the game’s bosses suggests this might not be the case, but I can’t help but see the things holding up the rocket launchers as little dudes with teddy boy-style quiffs.
Whatever they are, they shoot rockets at you. Well, cannonballs, really. I think I might have accidentally attacked a Civil War re-enactment society. They fire a lot of cannonballs, too, and the guy in the middle having dual cannons means he can put out so many projectiles that you can’t get past the relentless barrage without losing a life. “Okay,” you think to yourself, “I’ll just take out the two cannoneers I can reach and then deal with the last bloke,” but that’s easier said than done because the cannonballs move so fast that it’s very difficult (and dull, and time-consuming) to dodge between the shots and fire back when you get the chance. Instead, you have to fire diagonally towards the boss. You might think you’re not damaging the boss by doing this, especially because your bullets aren’t actually hitting them but exploding into little firework shapes when they hit the barrel, but you are hitting the boss. Well, you might be. See, the problem is the game doesn’t tell you whether you’re damaging the boss. There’s no health bar, they don’t flash or make a sound effect, nothing, so you end up firing bullets near them until they either “die” or you move to an ever-so-slightly different firing position and repeat the process. As if that tactic wasn’t thrilling enough, it didn’t seem to work at all with the central cannon. To blow that one up, all I could do was stand right in front of it and hammer the fire button, hoping that I’d only lose one or two lives before it exploded. It worked, just about, and that’s how I cleared Purple Heart’s first stage. Spoilers: every boss in the game is like this.
Now Cobra’s in the jungle. He’s just destroyed the enemy base, so I have to assume that he’s actually suffering a Vietnam flashback.
The jungle’s a lot like the first stage, only with more green and brown. Other new inclusions are spikes that rhythmically poke in and out of the ground and small bridges that perform the twin functions of letting you traverse small puddle and giving your character something to get stuck to when the screen scrolling is feeling uncooperative.
Whoever this evil army is, they’ve embraced drone warfare. I’m not sure they had to make the drone look that much like a real helicopter, though. That seems like a wasted effort, unless they’re hoping their foes will think they’re being attack by many distant helicopters instead of teeny-tiny, nearby helicopters.
The problem with these helicopters is the bombs that they drop. If any part of the bomb touches you, you lose a life, even when the bombs are clearly passing over Cobra’s head. This is particularly galling when the grenades the regular troops throw can be walked underneath. No, the only way to avoid this helicopter is to outrun it. Good old Cobra, what a hero. He can destroy whole armies on his tod, he’s faster than an attack helicopter, he rescues puppies from unscrupulous dog breeders and so on and so forth.
He also fights walls. These walls also have large guns attached to them, despite clearly not being big enough to hold artillery, thousands of rounds of ammunition and the crew required to operate them. Yes, the bosses in Purple Heart aren’t exactly thrilling duels of wits or swelling crescendos of martial combat. They’re walls that shoot at you. This one, at least, is far easier than the first boss. Its projectiles are slow enough that you can dodge them and fire back. It’s still boring, but it’s doable without losing all your lives. Don’t lose all your lives, because there’s no continue option and you’ll have to start the game all over again. The game does give you an extra life every time you finish a stage, though, so that’s something.
August, 1944, and the liberation of Paris is almost complete. Cobra has given the Free French the day off. He’ll mop up the remaining Nazis, so don’t worry. I think that’s what’s happening here, anyway. Or rather, I think Cobra thinks that’s what’s happening. I’ve become completely convinced that every stage is this game is actually a delusional fantasy that Cobra is having, imaging himself as the hero of every war of the modern age. That explains why all the enemy soldiers have the well-drilled efficiency of the Chuckle Brothers, and why none of the bosses look like quite like a genuine weapon of war.
Mostly, though, I’d say Purple Heart looks rather good. The graphics are detailed without being overly fussy and the animations are decent. There are a few issues with perspective, but on the whole I like the way it looks. That’s as well-drawn a motorcycle-riding SS officer as I’ve ever seen on the Commodore 64 – it’s just a shame I can’t shoot him. There are some vehicles that drive across the screen at various points, but unfortunately you can’t destroy them. No, vehicles must be avoided at all costs, even when you’re carrying around a rocket launcher. Even if Purple Heart was otherwise a game at the very pinnacle of its genre, it could never be considered a true great because it teases the player with the opportunity to blow up a motorbiking Nazi and then denies them that pleasure.
The boss is a wall with guns on it. Okay, technically being a house it’s four walls with guns on it, but you know what I mean. The goal, as always is to shoot the guns, but apparently the end of this stage is where the game’s creators decided the cut-off point for having fun should be. Cobra’s trapped in that clearing in the trees, right? And there are four guns in front of him. They all fire at once, filling that whole clearing with projectiles, and I am convinced that there is no way to finish this boss fight without losing at least one life and probably more. Once you’ve knocked out a gun or two there’s a safe zone you can stand in, but until then you will be losing a life and that is just incredibly infuriating. I’m totally fine with losing a life if I’m just shit at the game – and it’s bloody good job I am, too – but when there’s no avoiding it it feels like a proper slap in the face. I even tried to look it up afterwards, and as far as I can see no-one else has ever managed to beat this boss without getting hit either, and I suppose it is nice to know it’s not just down to me being rubbish.
Next is the swamp stage, which consists mostly of narrow, rickety wooden bridges and the creeping sense that Purple Heart doesn’t want you to be playing it. A C64 action game being difficult is hardly a huge surprise, but Purple Heart is so obnoxiously difficult – crowded walkways with no room to manoeuvre, unavoidable deaths in boss fights, ropey collision detection – that it becomes impossible to recommend even despite its good points. It does have good points, too: nice graphics, smooth controls and better-than-average screen-scrolling effects amongst them. Like an accidental Viagra overdose, it simply reaches a point where it’s so hard it stops being fun, and if you’re after an arcade style-shooter whose difficulty level forces you into a gameplay style of cautious tiptoeing and rote memorisation, there are better examples to spend your time with.
When I briefly discussed the collectable weapons Cobra can use, I neglected to mention the rocket launcher. That’s because it works differently than the other weapons: rather than firing a series of projectiles, it fires one big rocket that explodes. The explosion creates a spinning bar of fire, like a top-down version of the ones in Bowser’s castle, wherever it lands, and it spins around immolating any enemy soldiers it touches. It sounds neat, and it does have its uses… but you can only have one explosion on screen at a time and you can’t fire another rocket until it’s dissipated, so if you miss, you’re screwed. The other interesting thing about the rocket launcher’s explosions is that their position is relative to Cobra’s position. If your rocket lands, for example, thirty pixels to Cobra’s left, it will always be thirty pixels to Cobra’s left even if Cobra moves. This means that you can fire a rocket and then run away, “dragging” the explosion along with you, which is a much more interesting concept for a weapon than the same tired old rocket launcher.
There’s also a section in this stage based on the queuing system at Primark, except less grim. I kid, I kid. Primark is a perfectly fine store, and especially useful for us slovenly types who are looking for a shopping experience where the clothes are cheap enough that we don’t have to bother trying them on.
This stage’s boss is a tank, as drawn by someone who’s never seen a tank and had only heard them described by an excited child. “That’s not a wall with guns,” you might say, but you’d be wrong. That’s exactly what it is. It certainly doesn’t move around or anything, and despite being a tank it can still be destroyed by shotgun fire. It’s mechanically identical to the second boss, in fact. Man, what a dumb-looking tank.
This stage is called the Icelands. That’s pretty accurate, I suppose. It’s got ice, it’s got land. Against, I’d sticking to my statement that Purple Heart looks pretty darn nice, and this simple yet effective scene of Arctic tundra is probably my favourite-looking bit of the game.
The Icelands, however, do not make it easy. There are too many extremely well-guarded cottages for that to be the case. That said, I think it’s a bit easier than the last stage even if having the enemies fire their white bullets over a pale grey background is the kind of decision that should have had someone shouting “what? No, don’t be stupid” during the planning stages. There’s also no word on whether mums go to the Icelands. Thank you, thank you, this has been the paragraph where I make references to the advertising slogans of a budget frozen food store. I apologise if you came here looking for actual jokes.
If nothing else, I can give Purple Heart credit for being the only game ever in which I’ve been killed by a hostile skiing chalet.
This is the sixth and final stage: Pierworld. Okay, so the game simply calls it “The Final Conflict” but it is definitely pier-heavy. Lots of piers, in various stages of disrepair. Some are wide and spacious, others have rotted away and crumbled despite still being able to withstand multiple grenades being throw at them. This means there are some parts of the pier where Cobra can come into contact with the water. Naturally, doing so immediately costs him a life, which makes negotiating the twisty-turny ruins of the piers even slower and more plodding than the rest of the game.
On the plus side, all the bad guys seem to have shoulderpads, sunglasses, quiffs and mohawks, so Cobra’s military fantasies must have evolved beyond the real world and now he’s imagining himself as a fighter for justice in a lawless post-apocalyptic future where evil men will do whatever it takes to control the world’s jetties and wharfs.
The final boss, ladies and gentlemen. The hat of some gargantuan underwater priest, rising up through the waves to shoot at Cobra with the four cannons attached to its brim. What else can I say about a boss I’ve already fought five times? Apart from that this is shittiest-looking one of them all, I mean? Obviously by this point Purple Heart’s difficulty level has forced me to cheat my way to infinite lives, so it’s not like I spent a lot of time figuring out a valid battle plan here. I suspect there isn’t one. You’ll just have to hope you’ve got enough lives left to outlive the boss.
Purple Heart draws to a close with this image of Cobra being awarded some medals. It’s not much of an ending, but it’s more of an ending than most C64 games have, so I’ll take it. The best thing about it is that Cobra’s clearly pissed off at being forced to wear a shirt. The only reason he put it one is so they’d have somewhere to pin his medals. He wouldn’t have minded having them thrust directly into his flesh, but no-one was strong enough to force the pin into the steel boulders that are Cobra’s pectoral muscles.
Purple Heart is a game that tries to be good, and for that it should be applauded. Many of its technical aspects are impressive, it has a co-operative two-player mode and sometimes-dodgy hit detection aside it plays as well or better than most other C64 games in the genre. It is a shame, then, that the bosses are about as interesting as a boiled rice sandwich and the game’s difficulty level is frustrating enough to make you want to stop playing. It’s a case of close but no cigar, then, but at least I managed to get into a fight with a chalet. That was a new one.