Cabal (NES, 1989)

Back in those days gone by, it was very rare that a video game offered a simultaneous experience for a friend and myself that felt at all gratifying. I found, at that age, that I didn’t especially enjoy video games played for competition — I was perfectly satisfied with the level of competition I already encountered during 4th grade-level athletics. But there wasn’t a great alternative if two people wanted to play at the same time, as cooperative play was fairly limited. 

Released in 1989, Cabal is an especially charming exception to that rule. The game’s two-player mode is explicitly cooperative, with each taking command of an altogether too-competent foot soldier. Whether the duo are themselves members of a cabal, or whether the cabal in question is that of their enemies, is not abundantly clear. What is, however, is the indelible charm of the game’s peculiar, largely plotless progression of levels.

The location and stakes of your mission are unknown, beyond an environment that looks conspicuously foreign, and at times impoverished, not unlike a peasant town beset by war. Your soldiers must battle through wave upon wave of enemy gunfire, artillery and grenades, with your only possible movement being to dash horizontally, one side of the screen to the other, or to duck, sometimes behind flimsy barriers that may protect you for the briefest of moments before collapsing to rubble.

It is in its horizontal movement mechanics that Cabal’s primary deficiency is laid bare — on an NES controller, the directional pad to run left and right also controls the horizontal/vertical swiveling of your machine gun sights. As such, it can be difficult, at times indeed impossible, to halt and fire to defend yourself while strafing. Firing and moving at the same time, sadly, is not an option.

This is not a negligible inconvenience, by any means, even with cover to duck behind. I’d venture that the bulk of the damage and deaths I incurred were in large part due to the controller mapping, though there also isn’t any fair room to criticize on that point. The technology was what it was, and despite less-than-ideal circumstances, the game is eminently playable. It manages to make the difficulty imposed by the limited controls feel less like a design burden than a source of the game’s core challenge, and it’s surprisingly satisfying once you’re comfortable at it.

If it had been released years later for the Super Nintendo, of course, the L and R buttons would have easily separated the two functions, making the gameplay much calmer and smoother. By that time, however, the rest of Cabal would have gone stale, no longer providing that same rare thrill of truly cooperative, simultaneous play. With newer games at your disposal, what Cabal offers wouldn’t seem as grand, even though it richly was for its time.

It also boasts, so far as I know of, one of the earliest examples of destructible environments in a shooter (a relevant distinction, as obviously even Super Mario Bros. featured levels that were to varying degrees destructible). As you advance through the game’s levels (five of them, featuring four screens apiece), many environments — towns, military installments, control towers, and so forth — can be downed if enough gunfire is rained upon them. This is mostly purely aesthetic as it pertains to your efforts, but your enemies wield the same power with far greater consequence, as what safety some cover might afford you can be shot to rubble in short order.

The difficulty curve on this one is pretty substantial for anybody unused to being unable to move and shoot at the same time. By the final stages, the sheer volume of enemy projectiles on the screen is stifling, and dodging your way through the raindrops becomes the name of the game.  It’s considerably simpler with two players, as boss fights that would normally restart when a lone player dies will continue as long as one of the two sticks it out.

It’s also, perhaps most critically, simply not as enjoyable or worthwhile a game played alone. I did so for the purposes of writing this review, though I didn’t back when it was in my temporal wheelhouse, so to speak, and for that I feel quite fortunate. Played on one’s own, it feels much more akin to a ritualistic chore than the light-hearted frolic it be for a pair. To be fair, this is surely by design — Cabal was an arcade cabinet before being released for the NES, which explains the premium placed on partnership.

For plot, I’m afraid there isn’t much on offer here. There is something that I personally find very appealing about the unremarked upon strangeness that colors many of the landscapes and locations throughout, especially the above lakeside, secluded villa, swarming with gunners and a submarine hidden in waiting.

By the game’s end, however, this modest appeal falls flat against the conspicuous lack of splendor (or basic effort) put into the final boss. Best described, I think, as a nondescript gun platform flanked by several pill boxes, it utterly fails to live up to the joyful chaos and general insanity of many of the preceding levels. That said, grandeur of presentation isn’t what Cabal hangs its hat on, and the challenge and thrills are sufficient to prevail.

If you’re looking for a heady play on a solitary day, something to dip into that will be personally fulfilling and worthwhile, well, I’ve already reviewed at least one old flame that might fill that need. The overly thoughtful and slow-thumbed need not apply for this one. If you’ve got a cohort at the ready and about half-an-hour to kill on some killing (never more clumsily represented, and as such never less objectionable than seen here in the NES era), however, this is a cartridge with a big gold star sticker on the back. Time to hit the trail — there’s high scores ahead.