Spurred by the success of Ikari Warriors and other military-themed games, SNK developed NAM-1975 as the 4th and last game to launch with the Neo Geo MVS arcade system on the 26th of April, 1990. Rather than sticking to the top-down commando-style formula, SNK went with a Cabal-style game where the viewpoint is much lower to the ground and set behind the player character. The conceit is that you have to aim with the reticle & shoot at the enemy yet at the same time maneuver the player character safely between enemy bullets, explosions, and other hazards. In a way, this style is sort of a hybrid between first person light-gun shooters such as Operation Wolf and scrolling run ‘n gun games with visible avatars that you control directly such as Contra or Commando.
Upon starting the game, you’ll watch the rather intense intro scene, which echoes the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. The protagonist, US Special Forces codename SILVER, is actually dreading his return to “THE HELL”, and then appropriately has a NAM flashback where he looks like Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket. This sets a darker, more morose tone that runs throughout the game. Unlike other games that glorifies war, in NAM-1975, war is hell and there are no heroes, only those who survive and those who die, just like any good Vietnam movie. And yes indeed, that is the voice of Michael Beard.
The plot particulars revolves around Dr. R. Muckly, a genius scientist in the field of making super weapons of mass destruction, who looks quite a lot like Dr. Robotnik (Dr. Robotnik Muckly?). He has been kidnapped by “enemy forces” in Vietnam probably to work on creating a super weapon for them. Naturally, the only ones capable of saving the Doctor is you and maybe a player 2 buddy might join in to help, US Special Forces codename BROWN.
As in cabal, the joystick controls both the reticule and the player character. The ‘A’ button shoots, ‘B’ is grenades, and ‘C’ is run (but if you tilt the joystick at a downward angle, you do a cartwheel, a very very important move). When you press the ‘A’ button, your character stops moving and shoots while you continue aiming the reticule with the joystick. This creates an interesting strategic dichotomy between offense and defense. You can either shoot/throw grenades but remain immobile like a sitting duck, or move/run/cartwheel to avoid getting hit, but never both simultaneously. And your decision to choose when to shoot and when to avoid bullets is the fundamental skill that NAM-1975 is based on. Additionally, the cartwheel move makes you momentarily invulnerable to any attack whatsoever, which makes it extremely useful. Learn these skills and NAM-1975 should not be that hard of a game (sans the final boss).
So you go about fighting through each stage. And in-between stages there are “mid bosses” that you seemingly fight or skip based on certain parameters (or it could be random). You soon learn that Dr. Robotnik’s daughter has also been kidnapped. And at the end of 5th and penultimate stage, you find her hanging on a noose. Just as she’s about to inform you on who’s behind all of this, someone shoots & kills her. Then after the ensuing boss fight you forcibly interrogate an enemy commander, who yet again just as he’s about to spill the beans, gets shot & killed by a “Sniper” who was 6 feet away and clearly wielding a small submachine gun. Not what I’d call a “Sniper” at all.
Then you reach the 6th and final stage, where at the end you discover that IT WAS DR. MUCKLY WHO PLANNED THIS ALL ALONG. That bastard would even go as far as kill his own daughter if it meant protecting his “world domination” scheme. And what’s sad is he really didn’t have to kill her since you do manage to find Dr. Muckly and his “laser weapon” on your own. Her death was in vain. After fighting him (he’s apparently paraplegic and uses a wheelchair), his guards, and his two blue female guards who at first pretend to be hostages, you meet his ultimate creation, the “laser weapon”. At this moment, the game blocks any additional continues and you only have one credit chance to beat this final boss. And oh man is he hard.
He only uses two weapons, a super fast almost instantaneous but pretty small energy orb projectile, and a larger slower continuous stream of cannons. The problem lies in that, if you carelessly cartwheel away from the energy shots (as you’ve been taught throughout the game to just cartwheel 24/7 from anything), you will probably end up in at the cannon stream and die. Instead, you need to quickly run for a split second away from the energy orbs and cartwheel through the cannons. Doing this constantly, you barely have any time to aim let alone shoot.
If you die (as I have time and time again), you get to witness the bad ending [skip to 32:44 if autoskip doesn’t work] where Dr. Muckly excitedly says “The world is mine” and ushers in the apocalypse by blowing up the earth with his laser weapon. It’s a very morbid, tragic ending and is very reminiscent of the bad “Lavos Day” ending in Chrono Trigger.
And really, that is what makes NAM-1975 special. Coming off the decade where super masculine action movies glamorizing war & violence were king and thus influenced everything from games to comics to even cartoons, NAM-1975 goes against the stream. The hero is fearful and regretful about his involvement in war. The damsel-in-distress is killed by her own father’s hand. And losing the battle, leading to the end of the world, is an actual eventuality that is as legitimate as the good ending, which I think is considerably less interesting (despite the “Now we are called heroes…but the hell continues” line). Or maybe I just like to think that cause I gave up on beating the final boss no matter how hard I try.