A Real Man’s Toy Story.
As a kid I grew up watching the same few films over and over again, to the point where I could recite every line from them. I wasn’t trying to set a world record or anything; I just really enjoyed watching these movies. Disney films aside, there was the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Dumb & Dumber’, ‘Airplane’ – the list goes on. These were films that either made me laugh my ass off or filled me with an amazing sense of child-like wonder. ‘Small Soldiers’ is a movie that fell into the latter; toys coming alive – what’s more amazing than that for a 5-year-old kid? Sure you had ‘Toy Story’ before that, but Soldiers was different, it was live action, these were real toys and what’s more – they were boys’ toys. The film is basically monsters vs. marines engaged in all out war; it was exactly the sort of thing I’d act out with my toys at home. So when my parents bought me a copy of Small Soldiers: Squad Commander – I was understandably ecstatic.
Small Soldiers: Squad Commander is a top down RTS game that was released in 1998 by Hasbro Interactive. It was actually the PC counterpart to the self-titled Small Soldiers game on the PlayStation (which I also own), although it is an entirely different game altogether. The PSX version is a third person shooter in which you control ‘Archer’ (leader of the Gorgonites) in a bid to stop the Commando Elite from destroying your home. It was okay, but it’s no way near as fun as Squad Commander.
The cinematic ends mid-brawl and poses the question: who do you, want to fight for?
Choose A Side
When Squad Commander starts, you are met with an opening cinematic in which a heated argument between two toys erupts into a fistfight. The cinematic ends mid-brawl and poses the question: who do you, want to fight for? From here on out you can no longer be a spectator, you must choose a side and join the fight; either you ally with the peaceful Gorgonites or the destructive Commando Elite. Depending on whom you choose, that toy comes out on top, beating the other into the ground and here begins your adventure. Also, just making it clear that although they are the same models, these characters aren’t the same set of toys from the film, they are owned by a completely different kid. So it’s seen as a stand-alone story rather than a sequel (so no Kirsten Dunst, sadly).
Each faction has a 10 level campaign that basically plays out the same. You start with 3 characters and must escape the ambush from the hostile force, once you do you will need to rescue the 3 remaining members of your squad and from their you will embark on a quest to destroy production of the opposing line of toys. While not the most engrossing story in the world, it does have its moments and is choc-full of subtle jokes.
Like Toy Soldiers
Squad Commander plays a lot like the Commandos series, albeit a heavily simplified version. You control a squad of 6 toys, each with their unique strengths and weaknesses. ‘Ocula’ has great vision for instance but very little health, whereas ‘Slam Fist’ packs a powerful punch but is incredibly slow; this is where the strategic elements comes into play, as you must pick the right toy for the right job.
Along with their standard weapon, each squad member can also carry one extra item, be it a grenade or a piece of equipment; like a pair of boots to make a slower toy move faster. It could also be a mission specific item such as a Swiss army knife to cut through something that’s obstructing their path.
A Walk In The Park
The gameplay is centred around toy boxes; these act like base camps from which allied and enemy units can spawn. While there is an ultimate objective to every mission, the general goal is always to destroy the enemy toy boxes so they cannot respawn and then wipe out the remaining toys – all of this must be done without running out of reinforcements yourself.
They are constantly being shot at, electrified, set on fire and blown to bits; being so small, they are also vulnerable to a lot of dangers that we humans are not.
Although it is extremely fun, the gameplay is incredibly simple, it never goes beyond clicking the mouse buttons. I don’t think you ever need to use the keyboard, unless you are trying to access the menu. This simplified system means that, whenever I go back and play it, I have to choose the expert difficulty setting to keep me entertained; but, even then, it still doesn’t pose much of a challenge (this is a game aimed at children after all).
You’ve Got A Lot Of Guts. Let’s See What They Look Like
While technically yes, it is aimed children, an unholy amount of toys die in this game. You’ll go through about 20 different squad members without batting an eyelid and some of these toys get destroyed in some really unpleasant ways too. They are constantly being shot at, electrified, set on fire and blown to bits; being so small, they are also vulnerable to a lot of dangers that we humans are not – being brutally decapitated by the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock for example.
It is these traps that make for some ingenious level designs, whether you’re in a supermarket, under the floorboards of an abandoned house or in what is essentially a Toys ‘R’ Us, it is these inventive obstacles that bring some much needed variety to the game.
I Am Archer, Emissary Of The Gorgonites
If there was one area of Squad Commander that surpassed my expectations it was its sound design. The score for this game came out of nowhere with these immensely catching tunes that are all still stuck in my head to this day.
Each toy has around 5 different phrases they can say when you use them, these vary depending on the situation you put them in. Now, some of these are really well thought out and are genuinely hilarious; when ‘Chip Hazard’ dies, he just shouts “MOTHER!” in the stupidest voice imaginable and it manages to make me laugh every time. On the other hand, some of these voices begin to grate on you really quickly as you are constantly clicking to make your character move, therefore, hearing the same line of dialogue over and over again. Thankfully, no one in this game has a voice as annoying as ‘Lupin’ from Commandos 2: Men of Courage… That god-awful French accent… Man that guy’s voice was terrible.
We Are The Commando Elite. Everything Else Is Just A Toy!
I must say I preferred playing as the Commando Elite – the bad guys are always so much cooler. They have a guy named ‘Kip Killigan’… Need I say more?
Every commando also had a speciality; ‘Butch Meathook’ could snipe from long distances and ‘Nick Nitro’ had an atomic bomb on his back that did some serious damage. On the opposing team you had ‘Insaniac’ and ‘Freakenstein’, both absolutely useless characters whose only contribution was having the two most annoying voices in the game. Gorgonite scum.
What’re You Packing, Tiny?
It’s short, simple, and repetitive and has mediocre graphics – but it’s the one game I have replayed more than any other (probably close to 30 times now). I can’t really put into words why I find this game so fascinating; it is one of those games that shouldn’t really work. It has no stand out features (aside from the amazingly catchy score) but the ideas at play all come together to create a glorious mix of fun and comedic gameplay and is full of nods to the film that started it all – I just absolutely love it!