Airborne Ranger

THE ELITE UNIT has always captured the imagination of both soldier and

civilian. Units such as the Rangers are the point men of the armed

forces, the cutting edge, and they fascinate us to an extent out of

proportion to their numbers. We envy them their sharp, distinctive

appearance, their high status, their esprit de corps. and most of all

their awesome skill in their chosen profession. They have an aura of

competence that is at once reassuring and intimidating, as if they

will admit no limits to what they can achieve. This unshakeable

confidence would seem preposterous if it had not been borne out time

and again by events on and off the battlefield. The really are as good

as they think they are.

An excerpt from Airborne Ranger Field Manual

My favorite game for the Commodore 64 was a 1987 military simulation called Airborne Ranger. I don’t consider myself an expert in video games of the era, but I believe this is among the first military themed-games that valued stealth and tactical planning, paving the way for venerable successors like Operation Flashpoint, Metal Gear Solid, and Rainbow Six (and all the other Tom Clancy games). Quite frankly, I think I’d rather play more Airborne Ranger than Rainbow Six, which says something about this game. If it weren’t for the poor emulator support and controls, I’d probably still play this game all the time.

Airborne Ranger (initial screen)

The game consisted of several missions in which a lone Airborne Ranger, controlled by yourself, infiltrated enemy territory and carried out various tasks like stealing a code book, destroying a munitions depot, knocking out an enemy radar array, and freeing hostages (amongst other such tasks). As you complete tasks, your ranger is promoted, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. As previously mentioned, some missions require stealth (in one, you have to steal an enemy uniform to infiltrate the target area) and almost all warrant careful planning. While each mission has required objectives, how you carry out your mission is left up to you. You’re given a limited amount of ammunition (some of which can get lost during the air drop if you’re not careful), so even when stealth is not required, you must choose your targets carefully. If you run out of ammo, your ranger is captured, but when that happens, other rangers in the roster have a new rescue mission available to them (and if you’re successful, you can continue playing with your original character). This is a good thing, because once your character dies, he’s dead and you can’t use him anymore. Of course, you can run practice missions to make sure you’ve got the hang of a level, but the maps and objective locations are generated randomly each time you play the mission, so there’s no guarantee (this also requires you to think quickly during a mission, as you won’t know what you’re up against until you actually start the mission).

After choosing a mission, you are briefed and then given control of an aircraft. As it flies over the enemy territory, you have a chance to drop 3 duffel bags filled with supplies (ammo, medical kits, etc…) You need to be careful where you drop these supplies though – if one of the bags hits a tree, barbed wire or other obstacle, those supplies are lost.

Flying Over Enemy Territory

As you get towards the bottom of the map, the drop light comes on and you parachute to the surface. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. At this point, you need to carefully make your way up the map, gathering the supplies you dropped and avoiding enemy forces (or not, depending on the mission), until you reach your objective. Once your mission is complete, you need to high-tail it to the extraction point and hold off the enemy until your ride shows up…

Flying Over Enemy Territory

The game is lots of fun, and it holds up reasonably well even today. Sure, the graphics and sound are horrible by today’s standards, but the concept is well designed and executed. It’s probably comparable to the NES games of the era in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is great (incidentally, there are several other versions of the game for other platforms, including the higher-end Commodore Amiga, which had much better graphics). You play the game frome a pseudo-3D perspective that was somewhat rare at the time and commonplace today (it’s similar to the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto games). The only thing really holding it back is the controls. This game was far ahead of it’s time and because it was limited by the simple joystick and a single button, it made use of lots of keyboard controls, which is far from ideal (this game would probably be a whole lot easier with today’s PS2 style controllers – incidentally, the emulators for the C64 have some strange initial settings which make it difficult to play this game, but that’s a topic for another post.) Still, I had a blast revisiting the game, and it’s something I’d love to see remade with only minor enhancements…

Put simply, it’s a great game. The number of weapons, freedom of movement, varying environments (there are dessert, arctic, and temperate levels), stealth action, variety of missions and randomly generated maps make this game a tough one to beat. Unquestionably my favorite game for the C64, and it would probably end up in my top 10 video games of all time as well.

More screenshots and comments below the fold…

One of the key tactics you use in the game is to crawl around in trenches that conveniently dominate the landscape in all the levels (it’s not that realistic of a game, you know, but still fun). This prevents you from being seen or shot at by fixed emplacements like the bunker shown below, but patrolling enemies often can see you and will pursue you.

Crawling through a trench

The below series of screens shows my plane flying over the mission objective (in this case, an antenna array, shown in the map by those little blue doohickeys at the top of the map that… kinda look like antennas. One thing I should mention here is that these maps are exceptionally well done – all the objects on the map are clear and intuitive). To get there I have to cross a frozen river (the big white area), and deal with some bunkers and machine gun nests (not to mention all the stuff that’s not visible further down on the map)

Flying Over Enemy Territory

Taking out a bunker with a LAW rocket

Bunkers are no match for LAW rockets

Crossing the frozen river is mildly dangerous, as some portions of the ice are unstable. In this screenshot, some of my less-than-bright enemies walked on thin ice and fell in…

Crossing the frozen river

Treading on thin ice…

I had used up all my LAW rockets by the time I got to my objective, so I had to make due with a time bomb.

Blowing up an antenna

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

As previously mentioned, you drop bags of supplies that need to be retrieved.

Get away from my supplies!

Get away from my supplies, weenie!

One of the more difficult missions involves cutting a pipeline. Part of the difficulty is that there are tanks patrolling the pipeline area, and they’re, you know, deadly. Here, you see me getting ready to destroy the pipeline, just before the tank killed me.

Oh noes, a tank!

Oh noes, a tank!

Here’s something you don’t see much in games… well… ever. When you start the game, one of the screens you have to pass through is this one, which gives credit to the game’s creators:


5 thoughts on “Airborne Ranger”

  1. I’ve actually played this on a c64 emulator on a modded xbox- and you’re right, Kaedrin… Mapping all the keyboard commands to the myriad of controller buttons really streamlines the game!

  2. Pete, I was honestly thinking about downloading the PC port and using that, but I figured I should stay true to the C64 retrospective theme:P And I’m positive that I can get VICE to work better by modifying the default control schemes (open source apps are cool like that, though this is a little difficult to figure out).

    Gothmog, I bow to your geekiness and am envious of your ability to play Airborne Ranger with a true controller. I’m pretty sure I could do this on my computer as well, but that would imply buying a controller and actually figuring out how to map it:P

    Alex, I think I was around 10-12 years old when initially playing this, but I loved it!

  3. I got my C64 used, and this game came with it. I only had a few problems with it: my English skills were not good at all, and since this was not exactly as straightforward as, say, Rambo III (which came with the machine too), my ~10-year-old-self found the game particularly confounding.

    But I had fun playing this game with my friends, and we later even figured out how to complete some of the missions successfully. I think the big “ah-ha” moment came when I figured out that in one of the missions you weren’t supposed to fire your gun at all. Okay, I think the *biggest* ah-ha was when we finally figured out how to get the helicopter lift at the end of the missions to work and actually complete the missions to any extent. =)

    Later I became a big fan of MicroProse games in general…

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