This review is based on the parent ROM of the game in MAME, which is titled Combat School and uses joystick controls. Don't worry, we will be talking about the trackball version, which exists as both Combat School and Boot Camp, but the joystick version was our main version here because can you hear that? Can you hear that shrill noise, that awful, faintly-audible sound that sounds like the world is ending? That's me, laughing, laughing at the notion of us finding an acceptable solution for trackball games in MAME. We did our best for the trackball version, and we do talk about it, but... Y'know, we don't have the proper set-up for it. Do forgive us.
Another multi-event sports game?
Well, not quite. This time our task is to survive recruit training and upgrade ourselves from pukes to weapons, at Konami's Combat School.
Also released as Boot Camp in the U.S., what we have here is Konami trying a further iteration on the formula they created with Track & Field and Hyper Sports. This was in '87 though, before Konami would properly return to the genre with '88 Games, and so they decided to experiment a little here, most obviously with the theming (as a new recruit in a a boot camp somewhere in America, you must get through all the training exercises and graduate) but also the controls, as the traditional three-button setup is gone, replaced with two buttons and a... Trackball? Oh, blimey. This is actually an evolution of an idea seen in later revisions of the original Track & Field, surprisingly enough- due to the sheer abuse players would put those poor buttons through, a trackball control layout was made for the game to replace the Run buttons, although it appears to have only released for the American version of the game. Evidently, Konami's Japanese branch must've seen this and decided to make a multi-event title using a trackball from the start. You can tell how well that turned out, because either late in '87 or early in '88, the game was reissued with a new copyright year of 1988 and replacing the trackball with a normal joystick. Judging from the fact it uses the Combat School title but uses English voice clips, this was most likely a European or nebulous World version of some kind, unless the game was reissued under this title in the US to distance itself from the Boot Camp title. In any case, this version is by far the most convenient way to play it nowadays, so that's what we'll stick with. To be fair, while it may seem a little odd, the joystick and two buttons setup works out pretty well for some events! Less so for others though, as we shall see.
That's enough for our pre-amble, so let's start playing the damn thing. There's not too much to Combat School really, so a run-down of the events will suffice, and allow us to insert commentary as and when we like, starting with the non-firearms events to keep them together. The starting point is, of course, the traditional button-mashing foot race with a twist- the Obstacle Course has you jumping or climbing over walls, then using a set of monkey bars to reach the finish. This first event establishes quite a lot about Combat School from the off- for a start, until after the seventh event, the non-firearms events always have an opponent, whether they're computer-controlled or another player. In this event and the Iron-Man Race, this does have a direct effect on gameplay, as players (and the computer) can knock the other player off the monkey bars and generally push them about in the Iron-Man Race. A slight annoyance in one-player mode, but it's only a small wrinkle.
Generally though, what this event sets you up for is the notion that this is going to be a little easier on you than Track & Field. Maxing out the power meter is a lot more manageable here, and while there is a time limit, it's pretty generous. Unlike Track & Field, all the events are on timers that count down, and your performance in each course gives you extra time for the next one. This is actually pretty clever- if you can master the early events, you'll have an advantage in the later ones that'll either help you pass it or increase your score even more.
Speaking of, the Iron-Man Race is probably my favourite event, a top-down running (and swimming, and boating) area where the track is littered with grassland that slows you down, and puddles of water, logs in the river and active land mines (!) that will trip you over. Unlike the Obstacle Course, this one uses the joystick for direction in addition to buttons for speed-building and jumping, and it works surprisingly well- again, building power isn't a huge problem and it's easy to maintain while also directing your movement, and the jumping works really well, letting you fling yourself across the course which is quite satisfying. There's even a little boat for you to ride around in (and you can crash it). There's a lot of nice little touches in this event like puddles of different sizes, being able to knock into the other player, actually getting stuck in the marsh if you jump into it too fast, and it's also one that doesn't really have many parallels in other multi-event games of this type, so it's a strong contender for the best event in here. A real highlight of the game.
The other two events before the end-game are more like bonus games, and one of them you may never even see, so we can whizz by 'em. The Arm Wrestling event is just a button-mashing contest between you and a computer / player opponent with no penalty for losing, just a time bonus for the winner. This is probably the most intense workout the game gives you in terms of sheer button-mashing, almost as bad as the bonus game from Warriors of Fate! It's a lot of mashing, is what I'm saying. More interesting is the 'penalty' game, Chin-Ups, which you may never even see! If you just barely fail to pass an event- say, you're within one target of passing a firing range- then you're given one final chance to move onto the next stage with Chin-Ups. It's just mashing again, but it's nice that the game gives you a final chance. Even better, if you're in a two-player game and this happens, the other player just gets to take a rest. Ha. Later in the game though, you don't get this opportunity, and the game will be instantly over should you fail.
... Oh, yeah, there's also the firing ranges. After each of the events above except for Chin-Ups, there's a firing range event for a total of three, and surprisingly each of them uses a different control scheme! The first gives you a crosshair with free movement across the board, tasking you with shooting down targets that pop up in rows of three, four or five (with two rows for each player in two-player mode); the second lets you move Nick / Joe across the bottom of the screen as mobile targets appear in Galaga-style formations; and the third one snaps your crosshair to a single target at a time, with rows of five targets that include drill instructor ones that stop you from firing briefly if shot. Complete with a 'DARN IT' voice sample.
These events are generally OK, but get worse controls-wise as the game goes on. The first firing range assists you with aiming by snapping vertically to target rows, but while the second one's tougher and has no assistance like that, it's pretty engaging as you have to clear out the target formations quickly to get the next set to appear faster. The third one, though, has very awkward controls (even compared to Skeet Shooting in Hyper Sports) where you have to hold the joystick to move the crosshair, but what it does is snap from one target to the next with no inbetween... But there's a delay. As such there's little visual feedback, so you have to get used to the timing which is very awkward at first. It may have worked better if there was no delay or you didn't control it at all, it just scrolled by itself and focused purely on the timing, giving you a few seconds to acclimate to the movement. It just doesn't work particularly well. Can't all be winners!
Speaking of, there's the final two events, and that's when things go completely off-the-rails.
Fight with Instructor is a one-on-one battle between you and your drill instructor that determines whether you graduate or not, and this goes about as well as you can expect for a fighting mini-game from the eighties. If you did not come from the era of Yie-Ar Kung Fu, this is going to feel weird, and it'll definitely be frustrating the first time you try it, as the instructor can sometimes take two blocks of health off you instead of just one. Additionally, while you have only one attack button (to go with a jump), it can change depending on where you are in relation to your opponent but does so unpredictably. Fortunately, thanks to the high-power skills of LordBBH who has repeatedly beaten this game, there is a relatively easy pattern to this fight that involves jumping over the instructor at just the right distance so you can kick him in the back of the head and escape to repeat until he's down. No second-chances this time, so make sure there's no regrets.
Pass the Fight with Instructor, and you get to see the graduation ceremony. There it is, it's that flag.
(If you're in two-player mode, there's one more Arm Wrestling event, as only one can advance to the next stage.)
... Then things get even wilder, you're not even ready for this.
That's right, terrorists have seized the White House and kidnapped the President! Are you a bad enough dude...
... To rescue him on your own with absolutely no weapons or backup at all?
Yeah, remember all that time you spent on the firing range? Totally worthless. The terrorists have knives, chains and molotov cocktails, but you'll be fine with just your kicks, right? I mean, there's a lot wrong already here, but this is by far the worst part of the game, at least in part because it comes completely out of nowhere, but it's mostly because you get one shot at it and it's not something that works the way you think it does. If you're familiar with Konami at all, you'll know about Green Beret / Rush'n Attack, a cracking platformer and predecessor to the run and gun genre that they'd further iterate upon with Contra, and this looks for all the world like that game turned into a mini game. Just lacking the tight controls, manageable enemies, special weapons, just anything good about it. Putting what was at one point a full game in as a minigame, as what's kind-of happening here, can be used as a sign of progress in video gaming (like the Breakout minigame in Major Havoc) but, well, it doesn't work if it's far, far worse than the original game. We're regressing!
One of the more obvious problems here is that until you reach the end boss, everything kills you in one hit (except a thrown knife, which takes half your lifebar) and that includes just being touched lightly by enemies. That was true in Green Beret, sure, but you had other options too, like climbing ladders and using special weapons, and you had multiple lives. Here, you have almost nothing to work with, and wonky collision detection to boot. It's real rough! There are several tricks you need to learn to stand even half a chance of clearing this stage, including exploiting the dodgy collision detection in your favour (the knife enemies that try to stab you can be hit from further away than you think), the specific timing needed to avoid the molotov cocktails (including an exploit that makes you invincible against the final one), and the patterns for the chain guy and the terrorist leader, and thank goodness 1CC runs are available on the internet, like LordBBH's run and Janet's run on real hardware, so you can learn what the hell to do here!
Yet after all that belly-aching- it's what this website does best, probably- I have a weird soft spot for Combat School. For a start, it doesn't go in super-hard on mashing. Previous button-mashing multi-event titles covered for this site have absolutely decimated my poor, poor hands, as much as I love some of the stronger entries in the genre (Numan Athletics, you are a treasure but I can only play you maybe a couple times a year) and yet this didn't happen to the same extent with Combat School. There is mashing, but it's pretty lenient (except for the Arm-Wrestling event) so you don't need to destroy yourself in the process, and the firing range events are more dexterity and timing-based than anything. It helps that the game is even shorter than other games in the genre, so a run can be done in under ten minutes. As such, Combat School fills an interesting little niche, for when you want to mash some buttons but you don't want to turn your hands into dust. The other endearing factor is the charm of the thing, mostly with its presentation- the theming is novel for a game like this, but it's the voices that sell it. From the drill instructor asking "YOU LOOKIN' FOR A FIGHT?" in the attract mode, to "YOU MADE IT! ... NICK!" upon successfully completing a stage, with a heavily-delayed "... YEAH!" response, to "DON'T BE A CHICKEN" before the final stage, they're goofy and silly and wonderful.
In the end, Combat School is pretty uneven. Clearly Konami wanted to try different things with the formula they helped create with the multi-event genre, and there's a few successes here- the Iron-Man Race, some of the Firing Range events- and the pace, button-mashing leniency and length of it means it's well-suited for just having a quick shot at. However, many of the other events, especially the later Firing Ranges and the two endgame ones, are clearly not as good or polished, with the final event in particular being incredibly frustrating and an out-of-nowhere change of genre (a genre that Konami themselves did better, several years earlier). Combat School's legacy, such as it is, is probably best displayed in what Konami did in the genre next- they never used a trackball for multi-event games again, and their next shot was '88 Games which was a far more traditional approach, as would their future attempts at the genre. For what it is though, it certainly has charm on its side, which does only take the game so far, but hey, at least they tried!
For not necessarily having a major malfunction but not having much promise otherwise, Combat School is awarded...
In a sentence, Combat School is... A short and flawed button-mashing affair.
And now, it's that time, folks!
So, how about those trackball versions of the game?
At the same time, we can wrap up regional differences, small as they are.
So the versions we have up here are the original Japanese version, with a copyright date of 1987 as opposed to the second World version with the 1988 date, and the US version retitled Boot Camp. There's also another European / World version with the 1987 date which is basically the same as these. We'll get to the specifics of what's different with the Japanese version in just a second, but for now, it suffices to say that all these versions dated 1987 use a trackball instead of a joystick, and the controls are... Whoof. As we explained at the start, we're not particularly well-equipped to test trackball arcade games, but through a little observation and some extremely frustrating sessions with MAME, we have a rough idea of how it worked. The answer is, 'not very well'. At the very least, the Obstacle Course and Iron-Man Race work reasonably well- roll from left to right and back again repeatedly for the Obstacle Course, roll in the direction you want to go for the Iron-Man Race- but the big problem for the other events is that it doesn't appear to have actual analogue inpit, meaning it controls like it would with a digital joystick... But with a trackball. So moving your cursor in the Firing Range events or your player character in the Fight with Instructor event has no acceleration to it based on the trackball, it's either moving or not moving, and add in the forced eight-way directions in the Firing Range and... Yeah, that sounds like it's pretty rough to actually play. You can get a basic idea of how this works with this brief clip of it being played on cabinet. Just be thankful the joystick version exists!
As for the Japanese release, under the Combat School title, it's the same as the others but!
All the voices are Japanese. Shouldn't be surprising but the game is very explicitly set in America!
It's just kinda weird seeing Most American Cadets Ever Nick and Joe exclaim "Yatta-ze!" after passing an event, is all.
Home computer ports? Oh no, oh no, do we have to?
Taking a stand this time and saying no, please no, not this time.