You would not think that a tie-in arcade game based on an action movie starring Sylvester Stallone would have quite a strange history to it, but this is the case with Rambo III. There's essentially three versions of the game- the apparent prototype version (which, for several years, was considered the parent set in MAME), the final version with controls set to an 8-way joystick, and the final version with controls set to trackball. This review is primarily based on the joystick version, as this is apparently the version intended to be played judging from the official material on the game, but we will discuss the trackball version in the review too. The proto version, on the other hand, gets its own separate section as it's quite a different beast.
Oh, and also, despite the title screen, the US flyer confirms the game was released in 1990, not 1989. So there.

Something a little unusual about Taito- in the arcade sphere at least, is that they never really went for games based on licensed properties. Other big companies of the time- Capcom and Konami especially- had portfolios with a fair number of licensed games, and even smaller ones like Irem and Data East would go for a movie or cartoon-based game. On the one hand, this means that Taito's arcade output can be more comprehensively rereleased, as there's no massively-important games that can't really show up again or do only for a short time, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Aliens Vs. Predator (the exception, apparently, being Chase H.Q. due to that unlicensed Porsche design). Really, Taito did far more licensed games for the home console and portable markets, primarily Hanna-Barbera-based games such as the 16-bit era Flintstones and Jetsons games, and I suppose that odd period where bam! Entertainment rebranded some of their Game Boy Color games with properites such as Sgt. Rock and Yogi Bear. In any case, you can still find license-based games in their arcade back-catalogue, you just have to look a bit harder. You have to go to 1980 for Lupin III, to 2002 with the MOSS-developed Azumanga Daioh Puzzle Bobble... And to where we're going today, to 1990, where Taito took on a license that you wouldn't think was within their wheelhouse, Rambo III.

Based on the 1988 film of the same name which is basically as far away from the movie that started that series, First Blood, as you can possibly get, Taito's Rambo III arcade game has roughly the same bodycount as the film (give or take a few hundred) but really isn't based on it at all. Some scenes are very loosely based on ones in the film, like a cave battle similar to the part where Rambo and Trautmen battle with the Spetsnaz unit, the helicopter that gets trashed after they escape the camp, and something vaguely resembling the last stand of the film, but for the most part you could put any action movie license here and it'd work just as well. Or you could release it as an Operation Wolf spin-off and no-one would notice. Anyway, the game takes the form of a Cabal-style crosshair shooter albeit with the action constantly moving forward or sideways, with John Rambo (P1) and Colonel Trautman (P2) fighting their way out of Afghanistan, with a few key differences from genre norms.

The biggest one is that your crosshair is tied directly to your character- unlike other games like this where the crosshair moves faster than your character, here it's one-to-one movement. Additionally, the game has no rolling (as standard- we'll find out more later) so while there's two buttons, none of them are to roll- one's for your standard pea-shooter, the other's for your explosive-tipped arrows (yes, Trautman gets them too). For the most part, these controls do the job just fine, even if it takes a little adjusting to get used to the one-to-one character/crosshair thing. The movement control is surprisingly tight, allowing you to fit between bullets pretty effectively, and generally it feels that manoeuvring between obstacles and bullets is pretty natural. Honestly, the game seems to be designed around the lack of rolling, with most enemy encounters being manageable without it- bullets only actually hit you with the spark they leave on the ground by your feet, most projectiles beyond small bullets can be shot before they get near you, and so on. However, there is barely any mercy invincibility, so it's very possible to get hit multiple times in quick succession and die swiftly as a result (especially against multiple enemy helicopters who bombard the ground with missiles), something that rolling would help alleviate... Or not, as we'll see in a moment.

On the one hand, the game does feel fairly simple as a result, and especially compared to games like Cabal and Blood Bros., there's a distinct lack of interactivity with the environment. There's very few non-enemy elements to begin with, as the vast majority of them are seen in the first stage, and while there's barrels and boulders dotted about here and there, as well as very flimsy walls you can hide behind during certain boss encounters, the levels do feel a little sparse compared to Cabal, It fills that void with lots of enemies and explosions, and decent scaling on player and enemy sprites, but mechanically it does feel a bit of a step backwards. However, there is something about the game that makes it quite playable and enjoyable. Not a classic of the genre or anything particularly special, but pleasant. It may not have much in the way of environment and obstacle variety, but it tries its best with what it has, with only two of the game's five stages feeling overly-similar, the two desert stages. The first stage scrolls from left to right rather than into the screen, the third stage is a motorbike chase with dirt mounds to hop over, and the fourth stage is a cave area with boulders falling from the roof and poor visibility (grab a gun upgrade to light the area up). The addition of frequent arrow refills, power-ups (including huge shots, rapid-fire and a wider crosshair), the ultra-tight controls and a fair variety in enemy types also do their best to alleviate monotony, and the stages are quite brisk and short. It's just a shame there's not more in these levels!

In particular- to me at least- it compares favourably to a similar licensed game, Konami's G.I. Joe, released a few years later on clearly better hardware. The games have a few similarities- G.I. Joe locks the crosshair to the character and has no rolling either- but G.I. Joe lacks the variety in levels, goes on for a lot longer and drags as a result, and while it's a lot more faithful to its license and has more going on with its environments (and explosions), I don't find it as fun to play (admittedly, most of the fun of G.I. Joe is playing with four players, but still, I'd sooner play Konami's other crosshair-alike, Devastators). Rambo III, on the other hand, lacks spectacle and colour compared to G. I. Joe, but makes do with what it has, creating a fairly enjoyable crosshair shooter very loosely based on its source material, and considering the other Rambo game of the time, I guess that's better than you'd expect. The one area where the game does fall on its ass in a spectacular way is the final section, the last stand from the movie- you have to fight a gigantic wave of enemy soldiers, tanks and helicopters before fighting (presumably) Colonel Zaysen in his helicopter... But if you die at any point, you must restart the entire encounter. Not quite as dick a move as straight-up not letting you continue at the last hurdle as several other Taito games from this era do (see also: S.C.I., Rastan, Operathion Thunderbolt) but that final battle is clearly a little too long, even by Taito's admission- throughout the battle, med-kits drop which are essentially extra lives. They must've known this part was kinda bullshit!

... Oh, but it's not quite over yet. This is where it gets weird! The game's European flyer shows the game's controls as an eight-way joystick and two buttons, but the European operator's manual details a second control method, the trackball. Mysteriously, the American operator's manual distributed by Romstar not only omits this control scheme, but outright tells you not to mess with the input method dip-switch! The trackball controls are emulated in MAME so you can try them yourself, but the critical thing here is playing the game with a trackball, for some reason, allows you to roll! You do this the exact way you do it in Cabal, by rolling the trackball down-left or down-right, and it performs the same function, offering temporary invincibility. That sounds like it'd make the game a lot easier, and for the most part is does. It makes avoiding helicopter rockets in particular less of a hassle... And yet, I prefer the game with joystick controls because of one little quirk. In Cabal, when you roll, you maintain complete control of your crosshair, but in Rambo III, when rolling your crosshair moves horizontally with you but can't be altered. This is probably owing to the fact that the crosshair is tied to your character, but it does mean you can't roll and prepare your next shot, leaving you far more vulnerable as you try to adjust (and probably roll again by accident). Admittedly, we've had to kludge it a bit owing to the fact we don't have a trackball to properly test it (a trackpad's the best we can do) but generally the game seems to have been made with a joystick in mind, evidenced by the prototype not supporting the trackball and the official material edging operators towards the joystick. An oddity, then, but not an essential one.

Oh, and yes, it doesn't help as much as you'd hope in the final battle, again owing to that little control quirk.

That's Rambo III by Taito, then. Doomed to never get a home port, of course (while there was an MS-DOS game which actually had Taito's logo on it, it's a completely different game) and while that's no massive loss, it's... OK. It does what it sets out to do, and delivers a brief, fairly enjoyable bit of explosiony nonsense. I suppose it helps that there's a few little flourishes here and there that give it a certain charm- things like stage transitions (the favourite being the helicopter you get for five seconds that blows up, allowing Rambo and Trautman to do cool 80s action hero poses before the stage starts) and the soundtrack that I was tempted to call surprisingly good, but then again members of ZUNTATA were on it so of course it's good. A very middle-of-the-road game that's outclassed by others in its genre, especially in environment variety (seriously, if you haven't played Cabal or Blood Bros. or Wild Guns, stop what you're doing and go) but that last stand aside, it's fairly inoffensive, and achieves its purpose: to fill your screen with explosions for about 30 minutes.

For being from the company that distributed Cabal in Japan, Rambo III is awarded...

In a sentence, Rambo III is...
Not Cabal, but I guess that's OK.

And now, it's that time, folks!

There's another version of Rambo III in MAME, listed as Rambo III (World, proto?) which is quite different from the final version.

This particular version was, at one point, considered the 'parent' or main version of the ROM in MAME, meaning that the other versions were set as 'clones' of it, which would have lead one to assume the final World version was vastly different from the US final. At some point, this changed as the 'proto?' designation was assigned to this version- this proto status is corroborated by both the final World dump and the European flyer which lists the stages as they appear in the final version. In any case, this is an interesting variation of the game, as while most of the important parts are in place, it's missing two stages (albeit with one level that doesn't appear in the final version) and several little features that help the game in the long run. To start, this proto only has four stages instead of five, and they're in a different order:

Prototype Final
Shooting-Battle (Desert) Escape (Prison Camp)
Fire in the Dark (Cave) Shooting-Battle (Desert)
Unnamed Stage (Field) Chase (Motorcycle)
All-Out Assault (Desert) Fire in the Dark (Cave)
The game is over now. All-Out Assault (Desert)

There's changes in those stages too- some of them use different palettes, All-Out Assault has two boss waves and will stop you from continuing entirely if you die during the final battle, and there's probably enemy placement differences too- but of the ones present in the final game, Fire in the Dark (Stage 2 here, Stage 4 in the final) is the most different. Half the in-stage hazards like rocks and blockades are gone which makes the stage feel a lot less unique, and the boss encounter includes some flying jetpack enemies that were removed from the final. Perhaps they realised it was too silly for a game based on Rambo III. Ahem.

As for other things changed or missing, all the between-stage transitions are replaced with Rambo and Trautman getting into a motorcycle and sidecar waiting for them (unused in the final), the stage titles and relevant digitised pics are missing, and the ending now has digitised pics from the film without text instead of the staff roll. The one big change that would fit into the final game perfectly is a little counter for how many soldiers, helicopters, tanks, armoured vehicles and bosses you need to destroy before a boss encounter ends. It's like the counters in Operation Wolf, just one of a few reasons I'm half-convinced this was at some point an Operation Wolf game of some kind (the others are it uses the same health bottle power-up, and that you could probably edit the Trautman sprite to be Roy Adams. Purely me thinking out-loud there, so don't read too much into that!).

Is this the bit where I say this is probably better than the PS3/360 Rambo game? I think it is.

Next time, maybe we'll get to play Sega's Rambo arcade game, the one with the RAGE GAUGE.