It was Christmas of either 1990 or 1991. My family had three sets of cousins that were comprised of two boys, and the same aunt got this game for all three households. I’d never heard of it before, and outside of my cousins, I wouldn’t hear of it again until YEARS later, when I got on the Internet.
Codename: Viper. Well, in my experience, vipers were snakes. Snakes were dangerous. Snake-themed people were the bad guys from G.I. Joe. But here was a hero called “Viper.” And it wasn’t just a name he gave himself — It was a code name. That means it was a name that had been bestowed upon him because of how dangerous he was! Or at least, that’s what I thought as a kid.
Turn the game on, and the title screen has no music, has the logo etched in to a brick wall, and two choices: Start and Password. Well, if you haven’t played the game before, there was no reason to choose password, so Start it is. And then you get to select your diffculty: Easy, Normal, or Hard. Back on that fateful Christmas over 30 years ago, it was the first time I was playing, so I picked Easy.
A jazzy theme reminiscent of spy movies starts up, and the hero — Agent Smith, presumably Codename: Viper, himself — walks up to his commanding officer, who he greets as Commander Jones. Jones explain that Smith is being sent to South America to fight a drug syndicate. They have 7 known outposts. Each outpost has a kidnapped commando who will need to be rescued. Smith agrees, and away we go. Off to South America to fight drugs!
As the first level starts up, deep in the jungles, you’ll find that Agent Smith walks REALLY fast! Maybe too fast. It’s the NES, so there’s just two buttons — A jumps, and B shoots. Holding Up on the D-Pad while jumping means Smith can jump higher, but only straight up, to reach higher platforms. He can crouch by holding down, and then there’s a door — We hold up on the door, and it spins around. Suddenly, a woman in a purple dress appears and says “Thank you!” complete with a bleep-bloop 8-bit sound effect that’s supposed to simulate her voice. The effect is primitive by today’s standards, but was really immersive for the early 1990s! Okay, so going into doors gets you stuff. After shooting some enemy agents, entering another door refills my ammo. And yet another door replaces my pistol with an assault rifle, complete with rapid-firing when I hold down the B button. Cool!
As gameplay continues, it becomes apparent that the enemies are color-coded. The enemy agents in grey take one shot to kill, but the ones in blue take two. The agents in lavender take one shot, but they can shoot you back. The agents in red move fast. The agents in white take two shots AND can shoot you back! They’re all the same sprite, but the color-coding of their outfits and skintones makes it easy to tell which type of enemy is trying to take down our hero.
If Agent Smith reaches the end of the stage without searching all the doors, he can’t progress. He’s gotta find the commando in each stage, who equips him with a bomb to use on the final wall. The commando then gives Agent Smith piece of a letter, a secret communique between the bases of the drug syndicate. What could their secret plans be?
Codename: Viper has stages that take you all over the seven syndicate bases in South America, including the jungle, a warehouse, a broken down village, a temple, a cavern/prison, an underground science lab, and a factory. And then there’s a “secret” eighth level, taking you back to the United States. Each stage contains a variety of traps such as flamethrowers, moving statues, conveyer belts, and the classic retro video game standard, spikes. Enemies include the aforementioned color-coded enemy agents, plus some other types of gunmen, pyromaniacs, wild birds, and disfigured maniacs who have been stuck in prison. There’s no bosses in the stages — Each level is based around exploration and being a little maze-like, particularly with the elevators of the underground lab stage. And since the locations of the commandos and the hostages in each level are random, you can’t just go to the same door each time; You actually need to explore each outpost, meaning you may not have the same experience twice! And you’ll definitely want to rescue hostages — Rescue enough of them, and you’ll get an extra continue.
And you’ll need those continues! Even on the “Easy” difficulty, this game is HARD! Remember how I said earlier that Agent Smith moves fast? You’ll find yourself tapping the d-pad to slow yourself down, rather than holding it for a full sprint, so you don’t run into hazards. Smith starts with two life units, which are depleted by bumping into enemies. Getting hit with a bullet depletes two life units, killing Agent Smith instantly. There’s three lives to start with, and 1ups can be found behind some doors. Also, there are a few heart power-ups throughout the game that give an extra life unit, so by the last stage, a couple of extra hits can be taken. But I think there’s only three hearts in the entire game, and they DON’T get saved if you use the password feature.
One thing that keeps getting mentioned in most other online articles about this game that I’ve seen (including its wikipedia page) is its similarties to Namco’s Rolling Thunder games. Many even claim that it was either publisher Capcom or developer Arc System Works knocking off the Namco title. But here’s the thing — While that certainly may be true, as the games are incredibly similar, I didn’t play Rolling Thunder until over 20 years AFTER I got Codename: Viper. So whatever! It just means that if you like one game, you’ve got another, similar game to look forward to! Another similar game is the original Shinobi by Sega, which replaces the secret agents with a white-clad ninja. Plenty of espionage action to be had!
The graphics in this game are impressively big for the NES, and full of bright, bold color choices. I feel like everything is pretty easily distinguishable from each other, and I appreciate that Agent Smith is outlined in a shade of brown and wears a green jacket, two colors that never get re-used in that combination for any of the background elements. It means you can always spot your player character, no matter which environment you’re in. Sometimes enemy bullets can get a little lost against some backgrounds, and while it’s frustraing to get killed by something you can’t see, I kinda feel that actually just adds to the realism and the danger. Besides, nobody ever shoots you from off-screen, so you should be able to see the enemy aiming his gun at Agent Smith, anyways.
The music was composed by Yoko Shimomura, who has also composed music for games such as Street Fighter II, Super Mario RPG, some of the Kingdom Hearts spin-offs, and literally dozens of other games. Viper‘s soundtrack is a great blend of jazz and rock, really leaning into the secret agent vibe. The music only changes up every other level (i.e., levels 1 and 2 have the same music, as do 3 and 4), but the few tracks that there are worth listening to a couple of times. And the music on the password screen is pretty dope.
Most of the sound effects are pretty generic NES fare. “Pew” effects for the pistol. “Budda budda” shots for the machine gun. The “Blee-bloo” effect for rescuing hostages, and the similar, “Blah-bleh-bleh-bloo!” for the commando saying “Bomb Obtained” when you rescue him. There aren’t many sound effects, but all the ones that are there matter.
The game was also released in Japan for the Famicom under the name 人間兵器デッドフォックス, or “Ningen Heiki Deddo Fokkusu,” or “Human Weapon: Dead Fox.” Your mileage may vary, but I think that name is equally as cool as Codename: Viper.
I’m a big fan of this game, and I think that anybody with enough patience to get good at it could have some real fun with it, too. It’s not particularly well known, and, to my knowledge, has never been re-released. But it’s pretty easy to find the NES cartridge itself for $10-20 USD on eBay, so if you’re looking for a new challenge — Or you already like either Rolling Thunder or Shinobi — definitely check it out.