Some of the biggest arcade machines of the 80s – both in terms of popularity and physical bulk – were about bringing cinematic fantasies to life. Did you have childhood dreams of taking the controls of an X-Wing like Luke Skywalker? Atari’s Star Wars let you do just that. Did you want to be Tom Cruise in Top Gun? Then Sega’s nausea-inducing After Burner had you covered.
But what if you wanted to be a tough military, gun-toting hero, like Sly in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Arnold in Commando, or to a lesser extent, Chuck in Missing in Action? Lots of 80s games had military themes, like Capcom’s Commando (which had nothing to do with the film), SNK’s Ikari Warriors, or Konami’s Green Beret.
The definitive military hard-man game, however, was Operation Wolf.
A brief anecdote: I first encountered Operation Wolf at a travelling fun fair at the tail end of the 80s, and even among the flashing lights and din of a faded waltzer, rusting ferris wheel and a clattering ghost train, the game seemed to attract attention like a magnet. There was that huge, realistic-looking machine gun mounted on the front. There were the loud, garish graphics plastered all over the cabinet – a bit tatty on this machine, but still evocative: a lone commando, hostage slung over one shoulder and a gun blazing in his hand.
The noise coming from Operation Wolf was absolutely cacophonous: an endless churn of gunfire, explosions, and screams of varying sorts – oofs, gasps, and high-pitched shrieks. Actually playing the game was more visceral still. The gun felt cold and heavy. When you pulled the trigger, it bucked and writhed in your hands.
Operation Wolf was a full-on visual, aural, and physical assault. From its opening seconds, an entire army of soldiers, tanks, and helicopters assaulted the screen, shooting unnervingly in the direction of your face. Nintendo’s Duck Hunt made gun games seem positively cozy, as genteel a pastime as pottery or basket weaving. Operation Wolf was different. Clearly, this was war.
The screen scrolls across a series of battlefields familiar from a legion of war films: military strongholds fringed by barbed wire and studded with metal huts. Leafy jungles. The sheer amount of movement and action in each made them feel weirdly claustrophobic – soldiers appeared in the background as tiny little figures, but they could also leap out right in front of you, too.
The claustrophobia was increased by the constant sense of crisis. In Operation Wolf, you were always running out of something – bullets, grenades, energy. Even though you could top these back up by shooting odd things like energy-giving pigs or potion bottles, extra explosives or ammo, Operation Wolf always gave you the sense that you were on the cusp of being overwhelmed. Warnings constantly flashed up on the screen. Sometimes, a soldier would throw a knife and it would stick out of the screen in front of you, grotesquely, as though it was actually jutting out of your own chest.
It was touches like these which made Operation Wolf more than just another digital shooting gallery. The game was designed by Taito, who’d transformed the arcade industry less than a decade earlier with Space Invaders. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Both Space Invaders and Operation Wolf have certain similarities, despite their difference in perspective and theme. They’re both about an advancing enemy which you’re trying to keep at bay. They both feature a scarce resource – ammo and energy in Op Wolf, lives, protective shields, and plain old breathing room in Space Invaders – and both thrive on testing the player’s ability to remain calm under pressure.
Like Space Invaders, Operation Wolf became ever faster and more intense as the game progressed. Soldiers would keep flooding onto the screen, then would come helicopters or boats, or tanks, or more soldiers on motorbikes. Meanwhile, you’d have to avoid hitting hostages, keep a close eye on your energy reserves, and pray that more supplies would soon scroll into view. Then you’d hear the dreadful warning sound as your damage meter headed towards its maximum. Distracted by the noise, you’d probably end up doing something stupid like accidentally shoot a nurse, and then the sound would reach a crescendo, the screen would burn to dazzling white, and… “Sorry, but you are finished here.”
There was a modicum of strategy in here, as well as all that violence. The overall aim was to rescue a group of hostages, so when you got to the fifth stage, the success of the mission depended on how many you could liberate (that is, allow to walk across the screen) without accidentally shooting them. On the sixth and final stage, you’d have to do the same thing again. As you were assaulted on all sides, you had to defend yourself while letting the hostages walk along a runway and into the belly of a plane, which would whisk them away to safety. If you were clumsy enough to shoot all the hostage on either stage, it was an immediate game over.
Every pixel, concept, and sound seemed ripped straight from the gung-ho action films of the Reagan era, from its jungle setting – which could easily be Val Verde, the fictional country screenwriter Steven E de Souza cooked up for the 1985 film Commando – to the hostage rescue scenario, which appears to have been inspired by the 1986 film, Delta Force. Operation Wolf‘s final level even echoes the events in Delta Force, since it too takes place on a runway, with a moving plane full of hostages and soldiers in hot pursuit.
This possible inspiration appears to be backed up by Taito’s sequel, 1988’s Operation Thunderbolt. That game was about rescuing hostages from a hijacked airliner somewhere in Africa. Interestingly, both the scenario and the name were taken from a 1977 film of the same name.
Operation Thunderbolt, directed by Israeli filmmaker and producer Menahem Golan, was in turn based on a true story. In June 1976, hijackers took 248 passengers hostage on an airliner at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Israeli commandos stormed the building one week later, and the resulting skirmish captured headlines all over the world. The incident was still fresh in cinemagoers’ minds when Operation Thunderbolt was released a year later, which is probably why it was such a hit – the film was even nominated for an Oscar.
Menahem Golan later remade Operation Thunderbolt as Delta Force, a larger-than-life action vehicle for Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. The film once again sees terrorists hijack a plane, but this time it’s just old Chuck and Marvin wading into battle rather than about 100 Israeli commandos.
There seems to exist a weird triangle, therefore, between Operation Wolf and its sequel, real-world events and the decade’s action cinema. Certainly, Operation Wolf seemed to chime perfectly with an era in which president Ronald Reagan famously said, in the wake of a 1985 hostage situation, “I saw Rambo last night, and I know what to do the next time this happens.”
In Operation Wolf, you appeared to play a mercenary hand-picked by Ronald Reagan to violently end a hostage crisis. If you were a sharp enough shooter to get to the end without either being shot to death or accidentally slaughtering all the people you were supposed to rescue, you were treated to a slightly ghoulish caricature of a grinning Reagan. Extending a hand of gratitude, he said, “Splended! You are a real pro.” (Yes, the misspelling is in the original videogame.)
Operation Wolf seemed like a distillation of America’s political posturing during the Cold War era, and the movies that climate produced. With the game so keyed into the time’s culture, it’s hardly surprising that it was a huge hit for Taito. Conversions appeared on computers and consoles of all kinds, and while none replicated the weight and kick of the coin-op’s cabinet-mounted Uzi, some at least allowed you to play with a light gun for an added hint of authenticity.
(There was even a light gun-compatible version for the ZX Spectrum, but the screen would flicker with every squeeze of the trigger. This didn’t so much make me feel like a rock-hard soldier as a guinea pig in a secret CIA mind-control experiment.)
Moreover, the success of Operation Wolf ushered in a wave of on-rails gun games. By the late 80s and into the following decade, rival companies had brought out their own games with heavy ordnance attached to the front – examples included Line of Fire, Mechanized Attack, Beast Busters, Lethal Enforcers, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and so on.
In the latter part of the 90s, the rail shooter, a genre genetically engineered for the quick-fix thrills of the arcade, dwindled as first-person shooters brought more variety, depth and sophistication to the art of blasting things. As a result, Operation Wolf is probably remembered – if it’s remembered at all – as a curio from the decade that taste forgot.
Those old cabinets, which were always difficult to maintain due to the number of moving parts and unreliable springs, are fewer in number now. But for those of us old and lucky enough to have played Operation Wolf when it was still relatively new, its sights, sounds and sensations are impossible to forget.
“Sorry. But you are finished here…”