Image: Carolco Pictures

Most readers will recognise the name Rambo - it's one of the more confused media franchises, and we absolutely love it because of this. It started with the 1972 novel First Blood by David Morrell, which was a sombre and scathing anti-war indictment of how society mistreated Vietnam veterans. It was adapted into a film with the same name, which kept the theme. There was then a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, which most refer to as Rambo II, which inverted the original theme to become a rousing patriotic show of how glorious the US military is. This was followed by Rambo III and further sequels. All of this is well documented though. What we're really interested in is how utterly deranged everything gets with video games.

The early Rambo games (based on the sequel film, not the original) are a fascinating and confusing mess of multiple international licensees, publishers, and developers. In America, the Apple II and DOS versions were text adventures developed by Angelsoft and published by Mindscape (1985). It is even more awful than you may think: sudden surprise deaths happen constantly, and it's unlikely anyone finished it without a walkthrough. (Time Extension Tip: get the parachute at the start, then put it in the log.)

On 8-bit computers in Europe, Ocean Software handled the publishing (it was buying up a ton of movie licenses at the time). David Collier and Tony Pomfret of Ocean handled C64 development (making a jazzed-up Commando clone), while Platinum Productions handled Spectrum porting, with Choice Software on the Amstrad port. Martin Galway's C64 music is sublime.

Sega also licensed the Rambo name and reskinned Ashura (JP, 1986) / Secret Command (UK) for the North American Master System. It too is a Commando clone, and the reskin was appropriate; in Japan, the original Ashura actually used traced images from the film for both the box art and title screen.

Things start to get really weird (and poorly documented) when we look at the other Japanese licenses, especially on computers. The remaining Japanese licenses were handled by publisher Pack-in-Video, with Anabasis Investment and Carolco International listed on the MSX1 and MSX2 versions respectively (the film production company founded by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna).

The 1985 MSX1 version, titled just Rambo, was developed by CCS – the company didn't make much else. It's a fun (though difficult) top-down adventure resembling Hydlide. You collect weapons and items, avoid poisonous wildlife, and can even use water, land, and air vehicles. The box describes it as a role-playing game, which is a stretch – but for 1985, it's quite inventive.

In early 1986 (the copyright screen claims 1985) there was Super Rambo Special for the MSX2. Allegedly developed by Pack-in-Video itself, this is not true, as we'll soon discover. It plays like a cross between the original Zelda and Metal Gear, though predating Metal Gear by over a year. It's extremely difficult and not as cleverly designed as the earlier MSX game, but there's some fun to be had; the box also claims it's a role-playing game.

Just to confuse things, also in early 1986 (some sources claim April), there was Super Rambo for PC-8801, FM-7, and Sharp X1. There was no "Special" written on its box, while in-game there's no "Super" either. At a glance, it resembles the MSX2 version, with similar weapons and items, but playing it reveals a more complex and richer game. There's more variety, it runs more smoothly, has an in-game save option, and is quite fun.

The differing upgrades from Rambo to Super Rambo are bizarre, and with so little documentation in English online, it would be useful to have a first-hand account. Luckily we have Manabu Yamana; in later years he would be an influential director on the Dragon Quest and Pokémon series, but before that he witnessed the maelstrom of Japan's Rambo-licensing mania. In an interview for The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, he described working part-time, from the age of 16, developing games for Ample Software. But one of his colleagues at Ample, Yuichiro Itakura, wanted to start his own game company. Aged only 19 Itakura established ZAP and asked the young Yamana to work for him.

Manabu Yamana, aged only 19 himself by now, was a programmer on ZAP's PC-88 and FM-7 versions of Super Rambo. We had to know, which Rambo came first and why were they all so different?

"Which was the original Rambo?" he reiterates, looking over the confusing list we've printed. He points to the first Rambo for MSX1, "When I created Super Rambo, this earlier MSX1 Rambo already existed. At ZAP we were asked to make a new wave of Rambo games that would be released on the PC-88, FM-7, X1, and MSX2 simultaneously. The idea was to make a heavily enhanced version of the original Rambo; high-resolution graphics, a bigger map, that sort of thing. Other people at ZAP had made or were making four other versions, and I was handling the PC-88 and FM-7 versions."

Despite it being nearly 40 years ago Yamana's memory is still sharp, and he recalls with clarity how the Rambo programming environment was set up, "I typically programmed PC-88 games on the PC-88. I was running CP/M as the OS, and programmed it in macro-88 assembler. For the FM-7 version, I put a Z80 board into an FM-7, making it into a Z80 machine that could load CP/M so I could run my macro assembler. That allowed me to do the conversion to the FM-7's 6809 by hand. Even though it was still fundamentally an FM-7, with the Z80 processor and macro assembler I could make binary objects from the PC-88 version and convert that code to 6809 assembler. Then when I assembled it, I'd have a binary object for the FM-7 version."

So given that Pack-in-Video was publishing all these different versions, did he know why they upgraded from regular Rambo to Super Rambo? "The producer at the client company, Bothtec, decided they wanted it to be Super Rambo," explains Yamana, "and ultimately, I would consider these versions to be a newly developed game. They don't have all that much to do with the original MSX1 Rambo - they have a few mechanics in common, but on a programming level, they're entirely different titles."

Wait, wasn't this a deal between Pack-in-Video and ZAP, how does Bothtec come into it? "Pack-in-Video was the publisher," clarifies Yamana, adding, "Bothtec did the planning and design, and ZAP did the programming. So we were programming what Bothtec asked us to."

This is a surprising window into how convoluted Japanese licenses of American films could become, and how it's effectively subcontractors all the way down. The PC-88 and FM-7 versions look and play identically; there's also a Sharp X1 version, presumably ported by a colleague, which again is almost pixel-for-pixel identical. Yamana never revealed any names, but he did confirm that ZAP was also working on the MSX2 version. What's peculiar is how similar it is to the other versions (weapons, inventory, perspective) while having a different map and structure, plus some differing mechanics, not to mention bugs. As if the programmer chose to interpret Bothtec's planning and designs differently (perhaps this is why the MSX2 version has the added "Special" moniker). Even more bizarre is how none of these versions have ZAP credited anywhere, only Pack-in-Video! The box and manual for the PC-88, FM-7, and X1 version does mention Bothtec, but only on the back covers in small print.

Finally, there's the Famicom / NES game from late 1987, the last of the Rambo: First Blood Part II adaptations, simply titled Rambo. It's a surreal platform RPG resembling Zelda II or Battle of Olympus (with EXP and levelling!). It gets a lot of criticism for its impenetrable layout, but we've finished it on original hardware, with passwords and hand-drawn maps, and it has an esoteric charm. Although credited to Pack-in-Video and published in America by Acclaim, in all likelihood, it was a sub-contractor(s) which designed and coded it, much like what happened with Super Rambo. The credits don't help - Pack-in-Video published a lot of licensed games where the true developer was hidden.

Of course, there are other Rambo video games which are less confusing to unravel; Sega (following its Ashura reskin for the US) would create Rambo III for the Mega Drive, and in 2008 would release a new arcade game using the Rambo licence. We've also had 2014's Rambo: The Video Game from Teyon. None of these games have the convoluted development history of the Japanese versions, thankfully.

Well, that brief run-through was not confusing at all! When you look at it, a single film was able to spawn a myriad of vastly different games, from text adventure to action to RPG. Do you have a favourite out of these? If so post in the comments.

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