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(yes, that is the full title as seen on package and title screen; presumably, CT stands for Counter Terrorist)

Developer: L.S.P.
Publisher: Swing (UK), Hip Games (USA)
Format: GBA cartridge
Release Date: July 2002 (Europe), January 2004 (USA) (!!!)

By virtue of its resolution and processing power, it seems that the GBA is perfectly suited to side scrolling action. Titles like Castlevania and Metroid have shown that to be true, yet some studios keep pumping out 3D titles that, to put it bluntly, don't look very good on the limited GBA hardware. Fortunately, there are still a few devs out there that know 3D isn't always the thing to do, and courtesy of one such group, L.S.P. Games, we have the CT Special Forces series¹.

The Game

The game itself has four game modes. The primary mode is slightly reminiscent of Metal Slug's side-scrolling action but more methodical. For one thing, you easily run out of full auto ammo and are reduced to a slow, semi-auto rifle for parts of your progress. For another, you see less of the action around you as everything is rendered slightly larger than Metal Slug. This means that by the time an enemy becomes visible, you're being shot at a lot. This prompts a strange hybrid of frantic rushing towards the enemy (to make him stop shooting or to find a hole to duck into) with slow advance that will hopefully disclose the next group of enemies before you get shot (since there is no AI to speak of, progress consists of memorizing and dodging shot patterns). This makes the game feel a little rough, as if the designers couldn't decide: methodical or shoot 'em up? Splinter Cell or Metal Slug? So we have a bit of both, with jarring transitions.

The secondary mode, occurring only a handful of times on CTSF's 12 stages (4 missions, 3 stages each) is an overhead helicopter shooter, in the vein of 1942 or Raiden, albeit vastly simplified (cannon + bombs, that's it). The pacing is likewise awkward, with the glacial speed of your own bullets contrasting with the fast incoming enemies. I have consistently gotten past these stages by focusing on bombing (your secondary weapon) the ground resistance and dodging the air; copious health boost packs seem to support my theory that this gameplay mode was not optimized for fun.

There are also two minigames which kick in at certain times during the side-scrolling missions. One is a parachuting minigame, where you must open your parachute at a certain height and at a certain X-axis position - the challenge lies in the fact that as you fall you easily overdrift. The second minigame is a Duck Hunt-like sniping challenge², where you must dispatch terrorists before they cap their hostages - the difficulty lies in that you are looking through a scope (so can only view a portion of the stage), and you do not know where they are shooting from. No aid is given, and the result is more frustrating than fun, as there is no way to improve your chances except by memorizing the locations of the bad guys through subsequent replays, or pure luck.

Fancy Sprites

Even though gaming is supposed to be all about the gameplay, I cannot help but note that CTSF's graphics are simply stellar. From idle animations to muzzle flashes, ejected casings or simply the backgrounds, it is evident a lot of care was taken in creating the game world, both dynamic and static. CTSF takes you through jungle, arctic, desert and urban settings (each culminating with that old standby, the boss battle), and all of them are colourifically splendiferous and well-animated.

Sound effects are capable, with nothing jarring the listener; all weaponry sounds are easily identifiable, slightly ameliorating the aforementioned issue with off-screen incoming bullets. You can always hear them first. The music is, as most GBA games, present and adequate, but ultimately forgettable.

Worth it?

This is a tough call. Even though the game sells for only 20 USD (you'd have to order it online though, it's still hardly visible on the market), it does have some of those gameplay flaws that make it infuriating at times. Couple that with only 12 missions - although the lack of a save system and the use of Old Skool password codes makes it longer, if even more frustrating - and you end up with not a lot of play value on your hands. However, if you don't go out and buy it right now, we might never get to see its two (2) successors, and that would be a damn shame. If you like side scrollers, squint a bit when it comes to the slightly iffy parts and you should be fine.
¹ Series, as CT Special Forces II: Back Into Hell has already been released in Europe, with #3 due out in March 2004 - again in Europe. It is a sad fact that games from smaller publishers have a hard time winging it over the Atlantic, no matter how good they are, and CTSF is no exception, arriving in the US 1.5 years after its initial release. What does that mean for the game? It means that many of the complaints from the first game have quite possibly already been addressed. Twice.

² Some reviews claim it's more of an Operation Wolf type of game, but they are incorrect. In Operation Wolf you could see the whole screen, and you fired a fully automatic weapon, swinging it frantically as enemies popped up. CTSF uses semi-auto (so there's a delay between shots) and you only see a tiny portion of the screen at a time, which means that you must sweep the entire screen before you find your target. The order of acqusition -> maneuver is reversed.

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