As far as military shooters went in the 1980s, Operation Wolf was the last word. It was loud, brash, and the cabinet had a colossal Uzi 9mm strapped to the front of it. The game was a distillation of the decade’s cheerfully excessive action movies: traces of Rambo, Commando, and Delta Force could all be found in its DNA.
It could even be argued that none-more-80s movie studio Cannon Films were indirectly responsible for Operation Wolf‘s visual style and “rescue the hostages” plotline.
The only problem with Operation Wolf is this: it isn’t exactly what you’d call strategic. Take away the Uzi, the incredible sound effects, and the phalanxes of hapless soldiers, and you’re essentially left with Duck Hunt. You can’t move around, you can’t take cover, and you can’t avoid bullets (though you can shoot throwing knives and grenades away with a satisfying ‘ping’). Your involvement in the game is essentially reduced to a pair of eyes and an itchy trigger finger.
So how do you inject a bit of freedom and variety into what is essentially an electronic shooting gallery? In 1988, a young upstart of a Japanese studio called the TAD Corporation had the answer: Cabal.
In it, you control a buff soldier in decidedly un-camouflaged blue combat fatigues, and if you have a friend, he can take control of a similarly hench mercenary dressed all in red. Like Operation Wolf, the aim is to gun down all the soldiers and military hardware on each level, which is achieved by moving around a little roving crosshair. But Cabal changes things up by getting rid of the Uzi, reverting back to a traditional joystick control (or trackball in some versions of the cabinet), and letting you move your soldier left and right along the bottom of the screen while moving the crosshair around at the same time. It’s a simple yet ingenious system which provides the panic-inducing immediacy of Operation Wolf, but with the bullet-dodging challenge of a run-and-gun game like Commando or Ikari Warriors.
Interestingly, these clever mechanics didn’t begin with Cabal, but with an even more obscure game called Shoot Out, released in 1985. Here, you play a Dick Tracy-like cop in a cream-colored suit, whose job is to gun down hoodlums on the streets of Chicago (and, weirdly, at an amusement park). It lacks Cabal‘s all-important crosshairs, however, which makes it more of an up-the-screen shooter with a faux-3D perspective.
Shootout was developed by Data East, which was where some of the staff who formed the TAD Corporation originally worked. Cabal could therefore be seen as a successor to that earlier game, since it not only borrows some of its ideas, but improves on the formula by adding some clever new ideas of its own.
Chief among these is the ability to hide behind cover. As enemies rush in from the middle-distance, firing flashing bullets on their journey, you can duck behind chest-high walls and piles of rocks for protection. Like Space Invaders, these bits of cover don’t last forever – having been pounded by bullets and grenades, they’ll eventually crumble and leave you exposed to enemy fire.
It’s just possible, then, that Cabal provides the missing, half-forgotten link between Space Invaders, which introduced the idea of disintegrating shields back in the 1970s, and the third-person cover shooters of the 21st century. Squint, and you can just about see the family resemblance between Cabal and Gears of War.
Cabal is also noteworthy for its destructible scenery, which was unusually extensive for a game of its era. In fact, destroying bits of the landscape is a key part of the game, since each blown up building helps to fill up the little meter sitting at the bottom of the screen. It’s only by filling up that meter that each level can be completed. (It has to be said that shooting a lighthouse or old bridge until it cracks up and finally crumbles is also strangely satisfying.)
It’s these ideas and flourishes that make Cabal such an addictive game, even when played today. Its range of weapons, which include grenades, shotguns, and high-powered machine guns as well as your stock automatic rifle, lend variety, while some of the area bosses – submarines, planes, and the like – pose a stern challenge. Most of all, Cabal has that hard-to-define x-factor that separates an exciting shooter from a tedious one. There’s something about the rat-a-tat rhythm of gunfire, the simple yet pleasing animations of the tiny soldiers as they flail and crumple, and the intuitive flow of the controls that makes Cabal so timelessly absorbing.
Companies outside Japan clearly had a similar view of Cabal, since it was soon ported to several home systems, including the Amiga, ZX Spectrum, and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Considering the NES’ 8-bit limitations, its port isn’t too bad, though the soldiers are only a handful of pixels high and picked out entirely in monochrome for the most part. The Amiga version is far more faithful to the arcade original, though it still doesn’t quite get the sound of the gunfire quite right.
For what it is, the ZX Spectrum version is perhaps my favorite. Graphic artist Charles Davies overhauled the sprite designs to fit the machine’s limited color palette and resolution, resulting in a cartoony look that gives the game real character: there’s something quite adorable about the way the portly little enemy soldiers plod along the screen, seemingly hoping you won’t notice them. The destructible environments have also been squeezed in, and the shooting effects sound fantastic. Regrettably, something had to give, so the two-player co-op is pared back to an alternating option, and your soldier hero no longer bounds happily up the screen once a level is completed.
For a game from a relatively small start-up in Japan, Cabal‘s influence was admirably far-reaching. Such titles as NAM-1975, Wild Guns, Dynamite Duke, and Sin and Punishment all take elements from Cabal. While TAD never developed a direct sequel to Cabal, 1990’s Blood Bros. offers a remarkably similar experience, albeit with a wild west rather than military theme. Your cowboy hero even does the same little jig up the screen at the end of each level, which is made doubly hypnotic thanks to his skin-tight (possibly Lycra) trousers. (Homer’s famous line, “Stupid sexy Flanders often springs to mind here.)
Sadly, the TAD Corporation didn’t last long. Having produced six games over the course of five years, none of which received the attention of Cabal or the 1989 platformer JuJu Densetsu (also known as Toki Goes Ape Spit), the company closed in 1993. According to Wikipedia, several members of TAD subsequently went over to Mitchell Corporation, a company best known, perhaps, for the Pang series.
This personnel exchange might explain why the spirit of Cabal was briefly revived with Gamshara, released by Mitchell in 2002. Once again, it’s a 2D shooter with the same mechanics as Cabal, right down to the disintegrating cover and army of enemies unwisely marching across the screen. But Gamshara remains painfully obscure, and didn’t even make it out of Japanese arcades – a pity, because the little we’ve seen of it suggests that it’s very much of the quality of the original Cabal, albeit with a slightly incongruous samurai theme.
There remains a gap in the modern video game market, then, for a new shooter in the vein of Cabal. Until that happens, we’ll always have the 1988 original. Operation Wolf may have had a more visceral impact on our memories, but it’s Cabal we still consistently return to almost 30 years later.