Inside the Arcade: "Operation Wolf" (1987)
A Double Dragon alternative?
One day my 7th-grade friends and I walked into our favorite comic book store and saw that a change had been made. One of the two arcade cabinets they housed in the back looked different. Double Dragon was gone! And in its place stood Operation Wolf.
Double Dragon had certainly run its course. And it probably wasn’t sucking in as many of our quarters as it once did. So I understood. But I freaking loved Double Dragon. So this moment felt like my Mom was introducing me to a new Step-dad.“You better be good” I said to myself while breaking a five-dollar bill at the register upfront.
Operation Wolf and I didn’t hit it off right away. It took some time. I had to get comfortable holding a replica of an Uzi. I wasn’t the biggest fan of guns and it felt weird. But slowly I settled in and started to notice something. This game was really well designed. The optical controls were responsive and fun. The gameplay was challenging, yet fair. And I had a grenade launcher on the upper left-hand side of the Uzi! (I frankly didn’t know that until about four games in.)
You were a Rambo-like soldier on a mission to save hostages from terrorist camps and bases. These enemies struck me as South American. Then again there were a few guys who looked Russian. At one point a bunch of Ninjas jump up and throw knives at the screen. So who knows?
The screen would constantly be scrolling left as you tended to your gun. Enemies would continually pop up and appear from all directions as you went along. It was a bit like whack-a-mole. Except the moles were heavily armed and pretty pissed off at you.
You were constantly shifting focus and prioritizing targets in Operation Wolf. It required multi-tasking inside the box. When you saw a tank or aircraft, you knew you had to take it out quickly or it would be your demise. But you also couldn’t ignore the foot soldiers in the foreground. The result was a never-ending juggling match that asked you to be all over the map but focused at the same time.
You also had to continually rearm yourself. See that little blue box on the ground? That’s a clip of bullets. You’d want to shoot it and collect it. Ammo would appear in all kinds of places so you had to be on the lookout for it at all times. You didn’t have to get all of it. But you had to get some, cause if you didn’t, you’d run out. And when you did, you’d get to watch the enemy army just slowly kill you as you could do nothing but yell at your friends to “get more quarters!”.
If you made it through the first four stages (and that took a lot of skill and/or money) you’d reach the Camp that held the hostages. If you managed to clear that 5th stage you’d take the dangerous road to the airport and try to get everyone onto a plane and escape.
It was so exciting to finally see the hostages I had been working so hard to free. But to be honest, these hostages were the worst.
When I shot the lock off the door the captives would creep out of the bunkhouse with the speed and urgency of an elderly person taking a few laps around the mall for exercise. It was infuriating. I understood the hostages were probably weakened and maybe they had even been beaten, but for fuck’s sake, get a move on! This is your moment. This is our moment.
I had to protect the hostages until they got off-screen. I couldn’t shoot them or they were lost. At first, I shot one of them on purpose to see if it might hurry the others along. It didn’t. I scorned these people for making my job of saving them so hard and annoying. And yet I did cause that was my mission. And once we all got on the plane home, I would shout at everyone to shut up and be grateful I didn’t leave their unhelpful asses behind.
I finished Operation Wolf a few times. It took a fair amount of money to get there, but I did it. And I’m glad I did. I loved shooting and picking up those little green grenades. I loved using them on helicopters and F-14s (yes they sent multiple aircraft after a lone soldier). I loved the fact that a game I initially eyed with uncertainty turned out to be a great Step-dad. I was able to turn to mom and say, “I know you kicked Double Dragon to the curb. But this new guy, he’s okay by me.”
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