Hero Worship

Capcom might have an army of powerful brand name mascots and endless regiments of game franchises standing in tight formation on game store shelves the world over, but it wasn’t always so. Twenty years ago, the closest approximation to any kind of recognizable character was a weak pun on the company name called Captain Commando.

CAPtain COMmando – do you get it? Some advertising intern must have been promoted to tea boy for that one.

The Captain may have been a shallow attempt to compete with Mario, but he was fortunate enough to be cast as the main character in a trilogy of games that have had a massive impact on Capcom for over 20 years. Now, unlike many a defining moment in a developer’s history, this one has gone somewhat unmarked, and didn’t really influence so much as inspire, but even today Capcom’s early experiments with the Jet Pack Hero trilogy is very noticeable – if you know where to look.

Capcom clearly knows what it achieved during those embryonic years, as it’s shaped the company’s personality in a very particular way. Maybe developers at Capcom today don’t worship before a Jet Pack Heroes altar, or light three joss sticks and stand them in a bowl of rice in front of an effigy of Captain Commando on their way into work, but the subtle intricacies first seen in Section-Z, Side Arms: Hyper Dyne and Forgotten Worlds are so ingrained in the company’s creative process that the old trilogy has become a natural jumping off point every time the market demands something new and adventurous.

In 1985, the arcades were graced with an unusual space-based shooter called Section-Z. Colorful, boisterous, sci-fi inspired coin-ops were in high demand, and although Section-Z was, to some degree, camouflaged by the incessant white-noise of game development gone mad, it united a cult of followers who still remain disturbingly loyal. Other games would come along very soon afterward and do everything Section-Z did – and do it better – but Capcom, at least, can lean back in its chair and, with hands behind an indifferent head, say, “We did that first.”

By the mid ’80s, game developers were well aware that each title needed a recognizable identity just as much as the company did, and with powerful brands like Mario and Pac-Man becoming household names, Capcom can be forgiven (to a degree) for rushing into the mascot race and creating something of an action-man clich

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When Side Arms: Hyper Dyne – the second title of the Jet Pack Hero trilogy – appeared on the sticky arcade floors in 1986, it was something of a surprise that the blonde haired Captain was nowhere to be seen. He was replaced by two fully armored, transforming mechs; and the gun-toting, thrill-a-minute, roller coaster ride of destruction such machines deliver was an immediate hit with increasingly hungry mid-’80s gamers.

Side Arms borrowed heavily from Japanese pop culture (the Mobile Suit Gundam anime and manga series in particular), while retaining the unusual, bi-directional shooting gameplay of its predecessor, Section-Z. Unfortunately, unlike Captain Commando or the Unnamed Warriors who would follow in the third and final part of the trilogy, the Hyper Dyne mechs were less suitable for revival in future starring roles.

Even so, the Hyper Dynes have made many cameo appearances in Capcom’s impressive catalogue, sometimes as background color and other times as collectable bonus items. In much the same vein as Captain Commando was reinvented, Side Arms provided inspiration for another short series of mechanized fighting games, beginning in 1994 with Armored Warriors.

This scrolling beat-’em-up didn’t take directly from its ancestor in terms of character revival, though the gameplay and designs were thoroughly saturated with Hyper Dyne chic. The broad range of mechs, on both sides, was a superb technical evolution of the Side Arms style, while the ability for players to briefly join their characters together into a “mega mech” was also retained to great effect.

Armored Warriors itself then spawned a sequel in 1995 in Cyberbots: Full Metal Madness; a one-on-one fighter that lifted characters directly from the first game to engage in tournament style battle. A spiritual successor to Cyberbots was then released in 1998, which brought the concept into glorious 3-D. Tech Romancer also took a step back from contemporary Japanese pop culture (increasingly complex, character-based mech) and went unexpectedly old school with its tank designs – far closer to its ancestor, Side Arms, than either Cyberbots or Armored Warriors had achieved. This organic development of the original side-scrolling shooter into a 3-D tournament fighter was a superb, and very well received, homage to what has become a classic arcade franchise in its own right, every bit as much as the rest of the Jet Pack Heroes.

Out of the trilogy, the third and final installment released in 1988, Forgotten Worlds, has had the most impact on Capcom as a game developer. While this title was the refined culmination of the more adventurous aspects from the previous Jet Pack Hero games, it was also an incubator for many experimental gaming systems and techniques attempted by Capcom down through the years.

The courageous cheeseball, Captain Commando, was once again absent (although Player 1’s blonde-haired, blue-armored character strikes a remarkable resemblance), but the well-established “divergent shooter” gameplay was built upon once again, this time incorporating a hybrid paddle controller and fire button alongside the standard joystick. Rather than the bi-directional shooting capabilities seen in Section-Z and Side Arms, Forgotten Worlds allowed players to fully rotate their character to shoot in 16 different directions.

It worked quite nicely on an arcade cabinet, where dedicated hardware isn’t really an issue, but the home systems struggled with conversions due to the lack of available controls to fully replicate Forgotten Worlds‘ unusual controller. This resonates rather profoundly with another famous attempt made by Capcom to add extra dimension to an otherwise ordinary game by way of unique hardware, in Steel Battalion. Many people will remember the enormous, complicated, dual joystick cockpit controller for the Xbox mech game

Forgotten Worlds‘ theme isn’t a particularly original one (post-apocalyptic frontier justice has never been hard to find), but it is notable for its most recent reimagining in Capcom’s chart topping Xbox 360 exclusive, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition.

While technically very different (the games are separated by almost 20 years), the premises are uncannily similar. Both games are based on remote, alien-besieged planets previously occupied by humans, now on the losing side of a war with the unknown invaders. Their only salvation lies in the intervention of lone warriors, armed with an array of diverse weaponry and mechanized war machines.

The decimated, dystopian environments in both games are replete with savage, larval life forms that leave behind collectable elements to be used by the player to extend his abilities and overall game time. This might not be unexplored territory for videogames – and Capcom itself has made plentiful use of many individual aspects gleaned from the Jet Pack Trilogy – but a side-by-side comparison of Forgotten Worlds and Lost Planet reveals distinct and identifiable parallels: the crumbling concrete pillars jutting from the ground, burned out vehicles, long abandoned civilizations, menacing alien creatures and rogue humans gone bad (even the names are practically interchangeable).

Alongside the trilogy’s well of inspiration for future games, their own resale value has proven to be a genuine commodity for Capcom, especially in today’s summery “revival hungry” climate. In 2005, Monolith Soft made excellent use of the Jet Pack Heroes in the star-studded and surreal RPG, Namco X Capcom. Characters from the extended universes of both companies came together in cross-corporate harmony, bringing with them a wealth of wonderfully familiar moves, music and nuances from their respective games.

Most recently, the Heroes have lent their popularity to the multi-format Classics Collection. Side Arms, Section-Z and Captain Commando were all present in the lineup, even if the strong family heritage of these titles went unmentioned. Even now, reviewers of the compilation (and its several “remixes,” updates and sequels) sing the praise of the trilogy when labeling the collection’s finer points.

This latest re-re-re-rerelease highlights the anomaly that has dogged the Jet Pack Hero trilogy since its inception. Despite providing untold inspiration and being a continual source of familiarity throughout Capcom’s videogaming history, a collective acknowledgment is rarely spoken, let alone actively celebrated. Without the Captain, the Hyper Dyne units or the Unnamed Warriors, Capcom’s character catalogue would be severely depleted, and the company’s personality far less distinguished.

Perhaps the simple fact Capcom and its creative heads have repeatedly drawn upon the trilogy as a valuable resource is homage enough, though it doesn’t hurt to openly rejoice, every so often, in a brand which has proven as consistently popular with Capcom’s own workers as it has with gamers. Of all the unsung heroes that have been passed over by videogame history, few have yielded such rich and diverse benefits for their creators, and we can only hope they continue to do so for another 20 years.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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