TAD Corporation was an arcade developer founded by former Data East employees and although the company was rather short-lived, they struck gold right out of the gate with a great shooter known as Cabal. Released to arcades in 1988, TAD Corporation's first game plays like a cross between a run-and-gun a shooting gallery, Contra meets Carnival in a sense. Although Cabal was a new property it shared some basic similarities with an earlier Data East game, Shoot Out, released in 1985. Cabal allows up to two commandos to infiltrate enemy bases and installations. Their objective: to destroy everything in sight, literally. Each stage is presented as a series of static scenes viewed from behind the commando. Enemy soldiers and vehicles come out of hiding or travel across the screen, taking shots at the commando, requiring the player to take cover and dodge shots while firing back. In addition to a gun with unlimited ammo, the player also has a limited supply of grenades at their disposal. Tossing a few grenades to clear out a concentrated area of enemy troops before diving out and using your regular gun is a basic strategy to stay alive in Cabal. It's not just the troops and vehicles that must be destroyed however as buildings, bushes, trees, and anything else that your enemy may hide behind can and often must be destroyed as well. In addition to the unique perspective and gameplay requirements Cabal also introduced a unique control scheme. Instead of controlling your commando directly, you instead control a crosshair that represents where the commando is aiming. As the crosshair moves around the screen the commando will follow suit. Temporary gun upgrades can also be picked up that increase the firing speed and size of the target reticle. After eliminating enough enemy forces on a screen the commando will dance off onto the horizon, completing the stage. Cabal was a successful introduction into the market and TAD Corporation licensed the rights for a home conversion on the NES. Milton Bradley would publish the game while Rare would handle development.
Things start off pretty great on the NES with a title screen that is almost a perfect recreation of the arcade original. In fact, other than slight color and resolution discrepancies the two title screens are nearly identical, very impressive for an arcade to NES conversion. Once the game starts up things continue to look as they did in the arcade, with the stage preview screen looking nearly identical as well. Even once the game begins proper, things look very similar to the original. Sure the color depth isn't as good and nothing is as detailed as it was in the arcade version but the environments and perspectives are all extremely close. Buildings and objects are in the same locations and can be destroyed in the same manner. It's almost as if Rare had the arcade game running in the same room while they designed the NES version and the staff were very astute observers concerning the operations of the game they were recreating. Enemies react as they did in the arcade, including the command officers who are taken away on stretchers once they are defeated. If there is one minor gripe I have when it comes to the graphics it's that your commando tends to look like he's facing the "camera" in certain positions due to how he is drawn. Again, it's an extremely minor gripe and over all the visual design and presentation are outstanding. Audio is equally as good with a gun firing sound that doesn't become grating or repetitive along with solid effect chimes for picking up items. The music is also very accurate to the arcade original however the music in Cabal wasn't anything special to begin with. This is understandable considering you're almost always shooting. The victory tune at the end of each round is nicely recreated and considering it's a staple of the game it's nice it was done right.
Movement in Cabal was controlled with a trackball in the arcade version although joystick implemented versions are also out there. In addition to the trackball for movement, a button was provided to fire your commando's gun and another button would throw grenades. The trackball moves the crosshair around the playfield, moving your commando in the same direction unless the fire button is held down. If the fire button is held down then your commando will hold his position while the crosshair remains mobile. Rapidly spinning the trackball in a direction while not firing will cause your commando to go into a roll, leaving him unable to fire but also invulnerable to damage. The key to playing well in Cabal is mastering these unique controls. While there are barricades to hide behind at the start of a level they will fall to enemy fire, eventually leaving you out in the open. Knowing when to attack, where to shoot, when to use your grenades, and most importantly when to roll are all necessary to stay alive. I've always considered playing Cabal in the arcade a bit like playing Defender in that once you understand and get a natural feel for the unique controls, doing what you want in the game world becomes almost effortless and second nature. That doesn't mean the game isn't challenging once you become accustomed to the controls but it's a big step to becoming a good player.
Now obviously a trackball controlled game will have to be reworked for the standard NES control pad. However, the way that Rare went about it will leave most people scratching their heads and most others turning the game off. The control pad moves the crosshair with your commando following along much in the same way as in the arcade original. One would assume moving a target reticle with the control pad would be a relatively simple thing to implement but this is where we hit our first snag. The crosshair moves around fine but it has an odd momentum about it and it tends to slide around when you want it to stop and lag behind when you want it to move. I can only assume the intention here was to simulate the movement and momentum of a trackball but it just feels strange. Simulating trackball momentum is always the completely wrong way to go when converting this type of input to conventional controls. With Rare opting to simulate trackball control instead of design the NES version with the control pad in mind, it means we get an acceleration button, similar to how they did things with the NES port of Marble Madness.
This brings us to the second snag in the controls, as pressing the B button not only accelerates the crosshair, it also accelerates the strange momentum and lag in crosshair movement. Pressing Up or Down and a direction while holding the B button will allow your commando to roll, making him invulnerable just as in the arcade. However, this maneuver tends to make the crosshair fly off into one of the corners of the screen. With a trackball it would be a matter of moments to get it centered again but due to the clunky control pad reimplementation, the roll move usually means then having to work the crosshair back to an actual target, negating most of the advantage of the roll in the first place. I'll call that the third control snag.
With one of the NES controller buttons being taken up to facilitate control acceleration, that leaves us with a single button to fire two different weapons. That's right, this is one of "those" NES games. The A button is used for both firing your commando's gun as well as throwing grenades. Of course Cabal utilizes the fire button to halt your commando's movement so the fire button was already performing double duty. To throw a grenade you must tap the A button. That means you must release the A button if you are firing, then tap it for each grenade you want to throw, then hold it down again to resume firing. Make sure you aren't pressing any directions on the control pad when performing a grenade throw or else your commando will move since you have to release the fire button to do so. Gone are the fast horizontal grenade launches to clear an area before running out like in the arcade. That's been replaced with a series of presses, releases, and movement halts all on top of fighting the unnatural momentum of the crosshair. Control snag number four, NES Cabal. Say what you will about games that use Up as the jump button but tapping a button for dual functionality is something that should have been left on the Atari VCS. When you toss that into a game that requires fast action and precise control you're simply asking for trouble. I almost would have preferred the roll button be relegated to the Select button or at the very least a double tap Left or Right, similar to running in a Technos beat 'em up.
Cabal is a strange one and it's hard for me to decide if I can recommend it or not. On one hand the game looks a lot like the arcade original, sounds a lot like the arcade original, and is designed to play a lot like the arcade original. On the other hand the whole game is hampered by a poor simulation of trackball controls and questionable use of the NES control pad functionality, a decision that hurts the game from the ground up. I usually dismiss games with poor play control but with Cabal you can tell there was an honest attempt to bring the arcade game to the NES. Perhaps if the controls had been redesigned to take advantage of the directional pad, rather than attempt to use it like a trackball, I would find it easier to come to a conclusion about this game. I really want to like the NES version of this game but I simply don't find it all that entertaining to play so I'll say to pass on this one. It really is a shame since Rare got so very close with this conversion. Interestingly enough, a year after the NES release of Cabal, TAD Corporation followed up the original in arcades with a spiritual sequel called Blood Bros. Blood Bros. was designed for play with a joystick from the beginning, moving the "roll" command to a dedicated button due to lack of a trackball as an input device. Aside from the roll command being initiated via a button, the game played exactly the same with "fire" and "dynamite" (replacing grenades) each having a dedicated button just as before. Blood Bros. proved that this type of game could be expertly controlled with a standard interface, in fact Blood Bros. is one of my all-time favorite arcade games. Unfortunately Blood Bros. never made it out of the arcade, a disappointment nearly on par with the odd control decisions of Cabal on the NES.
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