Sunday 17 May 2020

Operation Wolf for the Sinclair Spectrum

Call it a moment of pre-teen triumph. The scene was the tiny amusement arcade at Grenada Studios in Manchester. Among the push penny machines, Double Dragons I and II, and the huge cabinet for Afterburner sat Taito's Operation Wolf. For those not au fait with arcade machines, it stood out because it mounted a great strapping Uzi 9mm. It looked cool af. At this point we didn't have a home computer or console of any kind - the hand-me-down of my cousin's rubber keyed 48K Spectrum was still about four or five months away. As a consequence, my gaming skills were not as sharp and came across mob-handed when I got to play with my mates' top end machines. Anyway, we duly gathered around Op Wolf and a self-described good gamer from among our coterie slipped in his 50p. He grasped the Uzi and within a couple of minutes it was all over. Another so-called gaming addict had a go and his arse was duly handed him. With nothing else to spend my 50p on I gave it a go and much to my amazement I blazed my way through to the second level, a rare moment of triumph for a penniless gaming novice versus my spoiled compadres. And for this reason, I've always had a soft spot for Op Wolf, which made its addition to my eventual Speccie gaming library a necessity.

For those not in the know, Operation Wolf was a light gun game released to arcades in 1987 and converted to practically every home machine going shortly thereafter. The premise is you're a commando dropped into the jungle to do over the bad guys and rescue the hostages. A set up not unlike Predator, but minus the hulking alien nemesis. Indeed, you could describe the game as a first-person Arnold Schwarzenegger simulator. The screen force scrolls to the left or right, depending on the level, and an array of enemy soldiers, helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, and gunboats assail you with bullets, knives and grenades. And your simple aim is to kill them all. Literally - there's a counter on the left side of the screen displaying how many ne'er do wells are left. And when they're offed, it's to the next level with you which encompass jungle settings, a concentration camp, and an airport. However, as tempting as it is just to keep your finger on the trigger pressed you have to conserve ammunition and your own grenades, as well as top up on your energy levels. Thankfully potions, bombs, and magazines of bullets fall from the sky and can be picked up by shooting them. Also stilling the itchy finger are hostages and medical staff who decide wandering around a battlefield is a good idea - mow them down and the energy bar takes a hit.

Like a number of Ocean's arcade conversions to the humble Spectrum, they pulled off a technical marvel. You could play Op Wolf by light gun if you had the 128K Action Pack version which, in all honesty, wasn't much cop thanks to the decidedly inaccurate technology on offer. But the standard version supporting joystick and keyboard controls was a sharp delight. With a paltry seven colours to play with the developers wisely ditched any attempt at colourising the graphics and ended up with a crisply detailed monochromatic affair that closely resembled the arcade. And the numbers of sprites packed onto the screen are a sight to behold. Yes, at times it slows down when there's a dozen or so enemies blazing away at you but there is such a satisfying pay off if you can line them up and and hose them down - and with the added benefit of the Z80 breathing a sigh of relief. The fact you don't have the arcade's Uzi to hand doesn't matter, the gameplay and the speed is faithfully replicated. And, amazingly, it was entirely playable with keyboard controls too. I know, that's how I managed to complete it.

Like so many of the most beloved action titles of the 1980s, to say Operation Wolf was ideologically suspect is a matter of stating the obvious. In line with so many hypermasculine flicks of the time, it was the digital sublimation of violent and entirely asocial desires. A celebration of over the top martial prowess against some explicitly anti-American other. Here, it seems you're cast into the Latin American jungle against some awful narco-dictatorship. But as the lead-in tune the Speccie plays before the action begins, there is a certain oriental cast to it. The South East Asian jungle beloved of Rambo II then? It was no coincidence then its sequel, Operation Thunderbolt (whose USP was strapping two Uzis onto the cabinet for two-player co-op) had obviously Arab terrorists as your enemy. But what it also conferred was the super human sense of invulnerability you find in all contemporary first person shooters. The enemies fold as soon as a bullet hits them, including the occasional Arnie look a like who tries getting up close and personal with you. Yet providing you keep shooting those turkeys and potions, can rise above the hail of bullets. Naturally, the individuation of the player, the positioning of them as different to and superior to in-game baddies has been a staple of video games since, well, video games, and embraces all action genres and RPGs from the most primitive systems to today's behemoths. It's only a hop, skip, and a jump from this to the neoliberal commonplaces that even more explicitly crop up in contemporary games.

Is Operation Wolf on the Spectrum worth firing up an emulator for? Or, even better, if you still have an old machine knocking about? Other readers might prefer the versions on alternate machines, particularly if they grew up with the C64 or Master System offering, but for in-your-face frenetic action for the rubber keyed wonder it doesn't come any better than this.

Image Credit


Tasker Dunham said...

Oh the Spectrum. I spent hours trying to get further and further along Bomb Alley.

Anonymous said...

I remember this game! Memory lane throwback. Don't think I ever really got to really play it properly though - didn't you have to load a second tape? I always got an error when I had to do that.

Feel inspired to load up an emulator and play this now. Thanks!

Phil said...

I only played the 128k version which loaded in one go. Though it meant an eternity of speccie screeching. Multiloads, eh? What a pain they were.