I’ll often tell anyone who’ll listen that I’m rubbish at games, but every now and then there’s a glimmer of light! Winning an online tournament in Mario Tennis Aces on Switch; completing every possible route variation on Out Run; beating Mega Man 2 on NES; the Super Mario World 96-star finish on SNES; coming first on the Bay Bridge track on arcade Virtua Racing… I’ve also discovered of late a mid-life mastery of the shoot ‘em up and appreciation of its bullet-hell variant in particular, and who’d have believed that’s just down to a bit of structure and a lot of practice, which nicely brings us back to my original point – the problem isn’t so much being rubbish at games, but not spending the time to get good!

And then along came Combat School again, and after a couple of goes I’d beaten the “school” bit, and a couple of goes later I’d finished the bit after, and then I was back in the earlier stages trying to improve my scores where I knew there were still easy points on the table. And that was the exact point I thought “I’m not bad at these things!” A couple of caveats though – firstly, I played a lot of Combat School in the late eighties, both arcade and ZX Spectrum, so this wasn’t my first rodeo, and second, there’s bits that just weren’t made to be played with modern controls, and with a bit of practice they felt way too easy as a result. All the same though, several more completions were enough for me to wonder if I did actually have a bit of a niche with this genre? Time for a really quick (I promise!) tour of some personal highlights to find out…

I’m not 100% sure what came first for me, but I think it was probably 1983’s Track & Field, in the arcade outside Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach the following year (the same place I also discovered Pac-Land, possibly a year later). I doubt our handful of 10p pieces got us far either visit though, but I do remember it being the absolute standout game for me, as well as my brother and me trying two fingers on one button each with little success! Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on my best friend’s ZX Spectrum, I reckon in the summer of 1984, is where I first properly got hands-on, and before long we’d take turns going through both sides of the cassette over and over, shaving off milliseconds and adding millimetres, and getting very good in the process. Another friend, and Winter Games on the Commodore 64 (and later my own ZX Spectrum) is probably the point I can look back to and say I was proper expert good at one of these games though. And so was he, and my brother, and his sister, and we had some epic multiplayer sessions on that throughout 1986!

This is a good opportunity to have a really quick look back at a game that was completely overshadowed by Epyx’s Winter Games, and that’s Winter Sports on the ZX Spectrum. This was by Electric Dreams, and the two appeared almost in parallel, sometimes even sharing review space, which wasn’t to the benefit of the less polished Winter Sports, especially where the events crossed over. However, what it did have was a range of proper 3D skiing events and ice hockey, even if that was a bit bare-bones! We bought it and played it loads all the same, and you know what? It deserves to be rediscovered here, so I’m going to cover it by itself and in more detail sometime soon!

Hyper Sports would have been the next game we properly got into, after first seeing it on the First Class kid’s TV quiz, where a couple of events featured in the final round of an otherwise tedious watch, and while we did eventually get to play the arcade game for ourselves, it was the ZX Spectrum version on the Konami Coin-Op Collection that I ended up being able to loop over and over; not so much my brother this time, who I don’t think was as into its unorthodox set of events! One of the great Spectrum conversions though, and many, many years later, when I finally got the Arcade Archives release of the original game on Nintendo Switch, I could very quickly still get a perfect in the skeet shooting event with my eyes closed, going by sound alone like I used to do on the Spectrum! I won’t try and make out that some of the other events like the power lifting or second loop swimming aren’t still torture though, and the same goes for the Arcade Archives version of Track & Field too… That triple jump! Aaarrrggghhh!!!

We’re going to finish off this self-indulgent tour of games I’m surprisingly good at with California Games. I associate it most with my brother’s Atari Lynx, where it came in the box with the console, but I later found out that version is a bit dumbed-down, and although I have played loads of Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amiga since, it was only as I started digging around for what you’re reading now that I came to realise I really need to play the Sega Master System for the proper experience, and I might just double-dip for the first time here with that sometime! Another one for the to-write list, but for now, it’s another Epyx game from 1987, with an appropriate mix of more extreme and more laid-back events, which varied depending on the platform you owned, but altogether included surfing, foot-bag, half-pipe skateboarding, BMX, frisbee and roller-skating. It can be a bit hit and miss, with the misses mainly down to things being a bit inaccessible, but that surfing is still a hit to this day, and you once you’ve got a feel for both board and waves you never lose it! You’ve probably noticed my fondness for that event elsewhere around the site already though!

And that more or less leads us to Combat School, originally released in the arcades by Konami in 1987, where it was also known as Boot Camp in North America. The home ports followed quickly after, just in time for Christmas the same year, and my brother and me either received the Spectrum version as a present or bought it for ourselves just after. Can’t remember, and I also can’t remember whether that came first for us, or whether it was the arcade game, but either way I remember each version with equal fondness. Or at least I did until I went back to one of them for the first time in a very long time recently, which we’ll come back to shortly! The arcade game originally came with a trackball controller, which I believe was lifted from some later American versions of the Track & Field cabinet, and I assume was to reduce the beating being taken by the poor old run buttons! It looks like that eventually then evolved into a joystick, which I can’t imagine was any more mechanically reliable than the buttons, although my experience of that is restricted to the home versions! Together with two action buttons, which had different uses depending on the activity, it was practical over optimal for the “button mashing” ones but really came alive for the shooting ones (which weren’t so fussy about how many dirty, sticky hands had been going berserk on it before you)!

I think now’s a good time for a stroll through each of these, known in-game as “steps” numbered 1-7, which represent your training, but before you get too excited about seeing what looks like the end of the game once you graduate, there’s an eighth real-life combat mission. Just don’t think too hard about that one… We’ll come back to that too! First up is probably the most iconic level in Combat School though, the obstacle course! Throughout your training, your character, Nick, is up against either a human second player called Joe, or a computer-controlled one. Also called Joe. However, in this event you’re not so much racing Joe as trying to reach the end of the course against the clock. This one is classic Track & Field, like a glorified hurdles but with more mud and monkey bars – actually, the monkey bars are the only time the other player really matters because you can pile into them from behind and knock them off. Even so, the timer is pretty forgiving, but for serious progress what you want to be doing is racking up as much extra time (or shots) in these early events as possible because you’ll be rewarded for them one way or another in later ones. Apart from that, it’s build up your speed meter and jump at the right moment over increasingly big obstacles to initiate an auto-clamber over the top and down the other side (or a splat straight into it!) all in a horizontally scrolling, side-on viewpoint.

At this point I should mention that I’m not currently playing with a trackball, but an arcade stick on a MAME setup, meaning the classic Track & Field-style button-mashing on proper buttons, with the stick for direction as needed… No way I’m messing around with waggling on that thing! Anyway, while I’m not sure it makes a huge difference on the assault course, I am pretty sure it’s giving you a leg-up on default accuracy for the three firing range levels. The first of these has you behind Nick, who in turn is stationary behind some sandbags, with targets appearing in rows of up to five anywhere on the 3D perspective screen. You just need to hit a certain amount within the time limit. Also a note to say I really can’t remember how two-player worked here, but because Joe is sitting next to you with his own clock running down, it’s possible you were fighting each other over targets. Be great if anyone can tell me one way or the other though! Playing solo, you’ve definitely got the targets to yourself when they pop up, and there’s a kind of snap to help you out moving up and down the screen to attack each row, while horizonal movement is unassisted and down to you. And this is where the arcade stick feels way too precise and the buttons too quick to shoot, making it much easier to way surpass the target number of successful shots.

Next up we’ve got the iron man race, which is now top-down, using the ball or stick for direction, while the buttons are just for your speed and jumping over puddles, rocks, marshy bits and the like that will trip you up or slow you down. You’ll soon get to a swimming section, where you can also commandeer a boat mid-swim for a speed boost, but crash into any of the floating logs or, indeed, Joe, who’s up against you again, and you’ll be tipped out and back to swimming. The timer is pretty forgiving on this one too, so once more you want to use it to try and store up some bonus seconds. The speed meter is easier to fill than in the first event, and the only real challenge is coordinating one finger for speed, one for jump and then direction on your other hand! Back to Firing Range II next, and this time you’re moving around at the bottom of the screen ,shooting at various patterns of mobile targets moving down and across the screen from the top. This one plays like an old space shooter but without the alien peril, and once you’ve worked out where the next pattern is coming from it’s a cinch regardless of control method. I almost forgot, on at least some of these levels, if you don’t quite make the grade you’ll be given a chance to redeem yourself by doing a certain number of chin-ups against the clock, and this is unadulterated button-mashing that doesn’t pull any punches. It really is a punishment! I’m not sure exactly what triggers it and when, but in a shooting level, for example, it seems like if you miss out on a couple of targets you might get a second chance with it.

Speaking of button-mashing, step 5 is arm-wrestling, and it plays the same as the penalty level, meaning if you needed a penalty level to get here than your fingers are not going to be thanking you any time soon! You’re up against human or computer Joe and you need to maintain a higher power level than him for long enough to drive his fist into the table. This is really brutal, but the good news is that there’s no game over or even penalty here if you lose – you’ll just miss out on some bonus time. One more firing range to go now, and we’re back to a stationary position and rows of targets, but this time each row is mixed up between actual targets and dummies with your instructor’s outline on; shoot one of those and you’ve blown any further score on that row. Once again, there’s some snapping assistance here, but this one is tough compared to the others, both in terms of number of successful shots required and also pretty much requiring a rhythmic count in your head as it slightly awkwardly snaps from one target to the next. I think it was arcade stick to the rescue again with this one though because it made a huge difference in accuracy compared to a regular Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, for example.

After that, you’re now just one 2D fighter away from graduating Combat School! I remember this from the Spectrum version but I’m not sure I ever got this far on the arcade game until I returned to it recently. And I remember it because it was soul-destroying getting this far to get battered over and over and having to start all over again for the same again! You’re in a one-on-one fight with your instructor, and you need to land a total of eight hits before he does the same to you. You’ve got a jump and a single attack, which seems to switch between punch and kick depending on where you’re positioned versus the instructor, but I never did work out exactly where. And despite resorting to save states to try and practice this level, it wasn’t until I consulted a bigger boy that I eventually worked out what seems to be the sole successful strategy of jumping around like a loon and pressing attack every time you land somewhere near your opponent then jumping off again before he has a chance to return the favour. And eventually you’ll wear him down! By the way, thanks to my friend and beyond-human gaming machine Ben Cartlidge of One Credit Classics and Video Wizards for that particular advice. Reminds me of how I used to play Yie Ar Kung-Fu too!

While I’m now pretty proficient at beating Combat School, even with that strategy I reckon I’m still only getting a 60-70% success rate in that fight. Stupid level! But get it done and you’re transported to your graduation ceremony, and there’s hats flying through the air and big American flags everywhere, and then lo and behold some terrorists have chosen that precise moment to run riot in the White House and now have the President tied to a chair in its famous sports hall, and you’re just the man for the job. Where to begin… Okay, you turn up to a top-down view of the White House with a load of armed police outside pointing guns at it, so in trots your little guy. What follows is a left to right side-scrolling run and gun level that absolutely stinks! Actually, the main thing that stinks is there’s no gun, so not even that arcade stick magic is going to help you out in here! Yes, unlike the policemen hanging about in relative safety outside, you’re totally unarmed – guess that instructor fight turned you into Oolong (deep cut there!) and you no longer have any need for what almost half of your combat schooling up to that point taught you! So off you go, taking on knife-wielding, Molotov cocktail throwing bad guys in the worst version of Kung-Fu Master since it was converted to the ZX Spectrum!

There’s no finesse to the controls, and while you do still have a health bar, unlike the instructor fight a single hit is going to deplete it here, rather than the eight in that. And by “single hit” I mean it could be a ball of fire exploding in your face or it could just be the merest brush against some denim! There’s a few bits of climbing over flames, giving those monkey bar skills from the first level a workout, but even getting down from them is so sticky and imprecise that if there’s an enemy on the other side of the screen they’ll be on top of you before you’re properly back in control! On the plus side, it’s all pretty learnable, with everything always happening at the same time and in the same place, and it’s not that far to the sports hall either. Waiting for you there is a guy with a chain whose attack pattern you’ll quickly work out, but the final boss (whose attacks are several times weaker than his minion’s trousers, it seems) was a bit like the instructor fight again, with little rhyme nor reason to timing. A bit of help there again soon revealed that going straight in with all-out aggression did do the trick, but again, it’s not a consistent recipe for success for me, probably 50/50 this time. Oh yeah, one more gripe – where’s the rest of your Combat School chums, or even the useless coppers outside while all of this is going down? Actually, the gun thing bothers me more, but anyway, that’s that. Final boss down and no more stupid surprise missions. Game over!

I’ve played this enough now that the last bit doesn’t really bother me as much as I just made out, but it is definitely the low point of an otherwise original, fun and relatively accessible arcade experience, especially when there’s two of you at it! Wonder what happens at the end with two players though? Again, let me know if you do! While a couple of the levels are pretty mindless, whether by design or not, trying to score big on the others to give you the best chance at them is really addictive, and overall the high score mechanics are pretty compelling. Much like Track & Field’s, now I think about it! Anyway, as far as presentation goes, it’s not going to blow you away at any point, even if you’re still in 1987, but there’s nothing wrong with it, although the heavy use of so-bad-it’s-good speech does come close. “Go home to your mother… … …Nick!” It rarely lets up, and don’t get me started on the grunts and groans in the arm-wrestling! And that’s all on top of some campy music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a horse chase from an old Wild West movie, except for instructor fight where it goes a bit Game of Death, or the crappy final level which is more Lethal Weapon or something. It all works in spite of itself though, as do the various occasional simple cut-scenes, even if the one with you sitting smoking doesn’t exactly exude “Combat School” material! To look at it’s like the best-looking Commodore 64 game ever, with all sorts of nicely textured browns and greens and greys, but the character designs and animation in general are pretty primitive. Again, it’s all alright though, and until I just really thought about everything in this critical context, it had always looked way better to play than it just came out on paper!

And that’s a good place to jump to the home ports! Strangely, given the timing, apart from that weird MS-DOS thing it never made it to anything beyond the regular 8-bit suspects, and of those, until this very moment I’d only ever played the Spectrum one. Quick note on the others though… Really impressed with Amstrad CPC! It looks fantastic and is way more colourful than the arcade version, and there’s really nice music, and apart from the crosshairs being a bit slow to manipulate, I reckon it plays pretty close. I’m no expert on the CPC, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is considered one of the great conversions on the system! And if I wasn’t so lazy I’d confirm that, but instead I’m going to jump to Commodore 64! First up, the loading screen looks great, and the music is outstanding – way better than the arcade version, and since I first fired it up I’ve gone back to it regularly just to listen to it. Such depth to the melodies, and they’re delivered with so much care too. And then all that hard work goes to pot with some dreadful clichéd American military thing when you finally get to press fire to start, and let’s do that quickly because it now sounds terrible! There’s a ton of great music to follow though, and while it’s not a bad conversion, that’s the highlight of this port. It looks as C64 as it sounds too, although the characters themselves are surprisingly un-blocky, and it all plays pretty nice too. Good effort!

Two great conversions so far, but last up we’ve got the Spectrum version, which is where my heart lies! And in particular, the 128K version for its really impressive take on the arcade original’s music, which is another case of among the best on the system. Behind the music the rest is pretty faithful too, with the full two-player experience intact here. Of course, all those glorious browns and greens and greys are now a more monochrome affair, but there’s some really effective use of huge blocks of colour, for example yellows and greens in the firing ranges, or black sprites on multi-colour in the iron man race, which is the only place a bit of colour clash rears its increasingly charming head too. Actually, it’s only really that iconic first level, as well as the last, that are devoid of any colour at all, opting for black and white, but that’s resulted in some of my all-time favourite Spectrum graphics so no complaints here! Great animation and a lovely loading screen too. This really is a winner… Depending on where you’re playing it. Okay, no place ever better than original hardware, but for some reason this one doesn’t emulate well and you may well struggle to even get off the first level, especially if you’re unwilling to sacrifice whatever it is you’re controlling it with! You could only ever use keyboard for player two, and for a controller it seems like the left and right waggle have been replaced by a circular motion in the emulation, and as such it takes a huge effort to even build up some momentum to start moving, let alone maintain it for the whole course. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this either, but so far I’m not seeing a cause or a solution. Never seen anything like that before but there we go. Lucky for me my +2 is still to hand!

Combat School is a funny one. In some respects it does itself no favours by going too far off the beaten track with mediocre 2D fighters of one kind or another, while in others, such as three variations on a shooting gallery, it doesn’t go far enough. Maybe a victim of its own attempts to differentiate itself with its combat theming that ultimately limited what it could achieve. I can’t help but look to Hyper Sports though, which absolutely nailed the variety thing, but it also kept that thing simple; with the best will in the world, a 2D fighter is never simple. Just the one shooting event over there too! But for all of that, I can’t be down on Combat School for long. It does nothing special but on the whole it does it well, and even where it doesn’t it’s predictable enough that you will soon ignore it and enjoy the spectacle. Such as it is! And let’s not forget, it’s not often I’m not rubbish at a game, so while it might not quite reach the heights of Hyper Sports or Track & Field or even Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, what it does share with them is that I’m actually alright at it!