Right, favourite movie soundtracks. If I can remember why we’ll come back to that in a minute, but unusually it’s something I don’t have a list of… Yet! No time like the present, and actually numbers one and two are easy. The Crow was like a best-of goth, industrial, grunge, shoegaze and alternative rock, perfectly timed to become a blueprint of sorts for the band I was involved in putting together when it hit the cinemas in 1994. And if that was the blueprint for our sound, the one for our look had been established a few years earlier in 1987 with The Lost Boys, whose soundtrack might be a weird mix of big-name covers and eighties bombast, but it works well enough to to make it my number two!
From there, I reckon we need to head back to the greatest year of them all, 1984, for the unequalled genius of Purple Rain, followed by the undiluted fun of This is Spinal Tap, and then I’m going to say 1993’s Judgement Night, with its high-profile rock and hip-hop crossover collaborations – in fact, the mere presence of Slayer and Ice-T’s Disorder makes it worthy of anyone’s top five! After that I think we’re into some earlier and more classical stuff… The Fog, Jaws and Hammer’s slightly more groovy Dracula A.D. 1972. And I can’t ignore the occult folk strangeness of The Wicker Man, which leaves us one open place to complete our top ten!
I know I could simply say grunge’s greatest hits from 1992’s Singles, but where’s the fun in that? And where’s the Stallone in that? Or the very vintage eighties cheese? In which case we’re left with two options – Rocky IV and Cobra! At the time there was no contest – my brother and me joined forces to pay for the 1985 Rocky IV soundtrack on vinyl, and we played it to death! Hit after hit by Survivor, and James Brown’s Living in America, Robert Topper’s No Easy Way Out, as well as the iconic sounds of Training Montage… What a record, and no wonder if hit number two in the German album charts! But now, in 2022 as I write, there’s possibly no greater eighties time capsule than the Cobra soundtrack from 1986! From the high tension, big-haired emotional rock of Feel the Heat by Jean Beauvoir to the kind of power synth you’d normally only associate with Don Johnson realising he’s lost another neon-lipped lover to another exploding drugs boat in Miami Vice, there’s simply none more eighties than this. And speaking of Miami, it’s even got Miami Sound Machine!
I feel bad for Cobra. It seems to have fallen between the cracks – much like that other underrated Stallone classic from the following year, 1987’s arm-wrestling extravaganza Over The Top. The story goes that when Stallone was initially lined up for Beverly Hills Cop, he wanted something more serious and more spectacular, which led to him being replaced by Eddie Murphy, but he took his revised screenplay ideas with him and, together with some inspiration from a novel called Fair Game by Paula Gosling, they evolved into Cobra. “Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.” Los Angeles is at the forefront of said disease, and that’s where we conveniently also find LAPD’s answer to Rambo, Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti – the cure! He gradually starts to connect the acts of violence going on all about the place with a serial-killer called Night Slasher and a secret cult called The New World, and ends up on the run from them with glamour model and witness to their murders Ingrid, played by Brigitte Nielsen. Which equates to a big-budget, testosterone-fuelled, ultra-violent exploitation pic, and that in turn then equates to pretty much everything I could ever ask for from an action movie!
Cobra did a similar number to Arnie’s not-dissimilar Commando a year previously, making around $50 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million (albeit versus Commando’s $9 million). And while this performance was never going to translate into a mega-seller like Platoon or Robocop for Ocean Software, an early trademark gamble on snapping up a movie license way before it ever had a sniff of a cinema screen (so game and movie could, ideally, be released in parallel) wasn’t a bad one – especially considering its age-rating and, to an extent, its critical failure… Definitely wasn’t a turkey for them like Hudson Hawk or Red Heat, where the movie flopping pretty much guaranteed the game would flop regardless of how good it was. And can you remember how good either of them were? Assuming you can’t, and in case you care, formulaic might be the polite way to describe them both, but they certainly weren’t stinkers like their Highlander was!
At the age of fourteen I was still way too young-looking to even get into a 15-certificate film at the cinema, let alone an 18, but I was the perfect age to be friends with the boy at school who had everything on VHS before it even got to the cinema! And if our man Don Johnson in Miami Vice had made wearing no socks the coolest thing on Earth at the time, then strutting around with Cobra’s matchstick in your mouth came a close second! That movie poster with him chewing on a match in his mirrored sunglasses and uzi was a work of art, and I was as thrilled to have a copy for my wall when the game started being advertised in Computer & Video Games magazine in late 1986 as I was about one day owning a copy! That said, I’m also now mere weeks away from finally getting my hands on a ZX Spectrum, and here was a new game I really wanted that, for the first time in a very long time, I was actually going to have something to play it on!
The game kind of follows the plot of the film, at least until you start playing it! You are vigilante cop Marion Cobretti, and you need to rescue your new squeeze Ingrid from a bunch of psychotic killers led by Night Slasher. This is going to take place through three play areas, starting in the city at night, then in the countryside during the day, and finally in a factory. In each one you’re running around multi-level, platform-filled environments that scroll in both directions as smoothly as you’ll ever see on the Spectrum, looking for Ingrid and then protecting her from attackers, although she’ll run off again if you let her get in harm’s way, leaving her exposed to get another kidnapping! You start with just a head-butt to defend the pair of you, but keep an eye out for hamburgers because they’re loaded with time-limited knives, pistols, laser-sighted machine guns and invincibility pills. And you’ll know when your time is up because the big duck meter that appears when you pick one up will tell you so! Once you’ve found her and all four hamburgers on each level, and killed everything in sight, it’s off to the next, and if you get to the end of the factory (by some miracle) then there’s a final showdown with Night Slasher himself! I think it starts again after that…
Cobra might feature one of the most grating pieces of title music you’ve ever heard! It starts with a kind of shrill electro-whistle for a drumbeat, then it’s joined by what sound like several more, then there’s a sound effect that you haven’t heard since you last played Space Invaders in an arcade in 1982 which introduces multiple marginally less shrill melodies, climaxing in this ear-piercing proto-rave insanity! Top marks for effort on a 48K Spectrum, but it’s no Agent X! We can maybe stay on sound too, because before we do anything else we’re going to hear a far more pleasant Rocky theme introducing “Round 01” and before very long at all you’ll be treated to some nice life lost and then “game under” (oh, how we laughed) music too, but not before you’ve literally exploded into an unnecessary shower of white noise! Despite the title tune, which it turns out becomes strangely hypnotic once it’s been around the block twenty times as is the case as I write these very words, top marks for sound in Cobra because they’ve gone above and beyond with loads of music and some really decent sound effects too.
Round 01 begins (and will undoubtedly end) with you surrounded by a load of brickwork platforms and girders. Give it a couple of seconds and the enemies start hunting you down from above, below and all sides, and the slightest touch from any of these goons wielding knives, goons throwing knives and Victorian-looking women with bazookas means instant death. For some reason there’s also a mass of runaway prams rolling about the place, which will freeze you for a second and that will most likely mean another death. Luckily you can head-butt, stab or shoot these like everything else though! You’ve also got to look out to the knives and rockets that have been pre-launched ready for your arrival and are moving up and down through the air. Everywhere! As well as your head-butt, you’ve got a duck and a jump, and both are thankfully very responsive; the attack from duck works well too, and is essential.
Cobra has always had a reputation for being crazy hard, but with a bit of practice the first level is pretty beatable, meaning we leave behind the mostly monochrome grittiness of the city’s nighttime streets and head out into the most ZX Spectrum countryside you can imagine! There’s now a bright blue sky and the rest is mostly blue too, including the character sprites, which I’m sure contributes to some pretty decent colour clash avoidance, even when there’s a mass of bodies interfering with the local flora! Apart from that, same enemies and same drill, and actually this one even seems a bit easier to complete than the first now you’re over the shock of it all.
It’s also fairly generous with extra lives in return for score (or “Skore”), signified by another nod to Stallone’s Rocky – a series of clenched red boxing gloves. The rest of this bottom quarter of the screen is really well presented too, with large, detailed icons for your current weapon, or just a cobra between two fists with the instruction to use your head if you haven’t got one out of a beef burger yet! There’s another cobra as standard in the middle which is replaced by that duck-meter thing that disappears with time left on your current weapon. Actually, the whole thing is really well presented! While we might be stretching any remaining association with the source material, your character sprite pulls off enough detail to reek cool, muscular and dangerous, and while Ingrid doesn’t look especially fashionable for a fashion model, she’s feminine enough. As are the strange women with bazookas (and just to clarify, I am talking the big gun type of bazookas!), and the goons all move about with menace, and so do the prams… Its a good-looking game!
I’ve got to the last level, the factory, a few times now since picking it up again recently, and it’s outrageous! To the point that after a couple of burgers, there were so many enemies and projectiles on the screen that even constant save states when I reverted to an emulator could barely see me through to the “big” scrap at the end! It’s like an industrial take on the city level, so a few more chains and conveyor belts, and there’s a bit more colour too, but you’re just swamped before you have time to take in any of your surroundings. Eventually the world’s smallest and least intimidating boss, Night Slasher, appears and charges about in a very convincingly-animated angry little man kind of way, chucking knives in all directions, and the trick here seems to be drop down in front of him from a platform just before he throws the next knife and take him out with a single head-butt. And good luck with that!
As I start writing this paragraph, I’ve genuinely never seen any other version of Cobra, but it also came out on Commodore 64 and that Amstrad thing, so let’s go on a quick journey of discovery… I’m going to try out the C64 one first, and first impressions are good, with a really cool loading screen and some lovely haunting title music, and there’s even an attract mode! And then it’s quickly apparent that this is one of the worst games I’ve ever played! It’s now a regular side-scrolling thing in a generic, blocky C64 cityscape, where you seem to be spraying some kind of perfume at enemies, who are women pushing prams, motorbikes and guys in what look like pyjamas that seem to change colour as they take damage, although it’s very hard to tell if anyone is actually taking damage until they’re eventually dead – the collision detection is as baffling as the cast of characters! The movement is floaty, except when you want jump, and the most exciting thing that happened in the minute or so I could stand playing this was my legs separated from my body, which carried on moving as normal while they remained stationary! This really, really stinks!
The CPC version is its own thing again, somewhere between that unplayable horror show and the Spectrum. But while there’s more levels and loads more colour, as well as cars, nightclubs, prostitutes and more of the city to see in general, it controls like crap! Your guy has this floaty jump that would have been ideal for the long jump in Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, but is ridiculous here, and there’s just no heft to anything – even getting stabbed! It’s not as messed up as the C64 version, but at best it’s very, very average at whatever it’s trying to do, so stick with the Spectrum is, as always, good advice!
I still can’t get the taste of that C64 atrocity out of my mouth. Horrendous! But while the Spectrum version can be horrendous in a far more intentional way, I’ll always have a soft spot for that one. It’s not quite the masterpiece that is the Spectrum port of Green Beret, which it definitely reminds me of, and it’s a movie tie-in in the loosest possible sense, maybe even be more closely related to one of its stars’ better known movies than it is to Cobra, but it’s a fun game in its own right for a few minutes every now and then, once you’re past the title music! It’s polished, it feels good play and there’s plenty of challenge to keep you going for the best part of forty years! And now we’ve found a cure for one disease, maybe Cobra can turn his attention to that crime on the Commodore 64 instead!