Medal of Honor: Underground (GBA)

“Bonne Chance, Et Vive La Resistance!”

“Join the resistance and battle the Reich from Paris to North Africa.”
(North American box art)

Remember when World War II first-person shooter fatigue was in full effect? For those of you who don’t, there was this nearly decade-long stretch of time that saw hundreds of largely interchangeable games released, all centered around the bonā fidē classic premise of killing Nazis. What finally brought this trend to an end wasn’t publishers kowtowing to upset alt-right assholes, or anything else similarly pathetic: All it took was the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to completely change the tides, and usher in a new era of largely interchangeable modern-day military shooters. Sure enough, it’s been nearly another decade since then, and now this new setting has seemingly run its course as well. Just recently (as of the time of this writing), Call of Duty: WWII has seen that series returning to its roots, as well as Battlefield travelling back to the 1940s for its upcoming fifth installment. You’ve gotta love how cyclical this goofy little industry is.

But to what title do we owe that initial wave of World War II shooters, anyhow? Well, while it certainly wasn’t the first title of its kind, the credit for the fad is most certainly owed to the original Medal of Honor, released in 1999 for Sony’s PlayStation. With the involvement of one Steven Spielberg bringing with him a production value previously unseen in the genre, it was a game released to immediate critical and financial success; sure to inspire a slew of sequels, and soon at that. Sure enough, the next year would see Medal of Honor: Underground released for the same console, with a conversion slated to arrive two years later for… Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance? Well, surely, this would have to serve as a very different take on the source material. Maybe a top-down shooter, or some sort of action platformer? Hey, maybe even make it an RPG if you’re feeling — wait, what’s that? You’re telling me it’s still a first-person shooter, then? Huh.

So, here we go folks: Our first foray into the fascinating world of Game Boy Advance first-person shooters. Yes, there’s more than just this one, and truth be told, most of them are actually pretty alright! But among this select group, Medal of Honor: Underground has the reputation of being the very worst. How can that be, though? For starters, any game about destroying Nazis can’t be all bad. And you know, that “Medal of Honor” branding used to be a real mark of quality — a title you could truly trust. Reputation be damned, I’m gonna give this game the benefit of the doubt going in. I mean, I reckon we’re gonna have to go ahead and ultimately compare the game against its source material, as well as to some of the other GBA FPS titles that preceded it; but I’ve still got a good feeling that the handheld Medal of Honor: Underground will stand the trials ahead of it! Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

“The Fight Against Tyranny… Is in YOUR Hands.”

Medal of Honor: Undeground – in its original PlayStation format – did not stray too far from its predecessor in terms of gameplay and mechanics. And in fairness to it, it did not need to: The standards set by the original Medal of Honor were the sort that the rest of the industry were still gonna need some time to catch up to, and DreamWorks Interactive could still afford to iterate only slightly on this established groundwork. That said, Underground does make at least a few changes to the core formula, including one which has somehow come back around to being “controversial” in modern-day shooters based on this particular period in history — if the backlash against the “historical inaccuracies” of the upcoming Battlefield V are to be taken at all seriously.**

You see, Underground puts you in the shoes of a female member of the French Resistance turned American OSS operator, Manon Batiste. And just in case it still needs to be said at this point, yes; female soldiers operating in espionage capacities were, in fact, a real occurrence during the Second World War, and Manon is [loosely] based on real-life operative Hélène Deschamps Adams. The two go so far as to share a similar career trajectory, as Hélène too “graduated” from La Résistance to the OSS as part of her personal mission to help rid the world of Nazis. That being said, it’s probably safe to say that the video game Manon probably ends up seeing more combat action than her real-life counterpart — which, you know, you could also say of the protagonists of pretty much any historical military shooter ever made.

So, does playing as a lady change the core gameplay any? Yes, actually, in at least one mechanical sense: Manon is able to go fully undercover in a selection of levels, adopting the identity of a photographer for Germany’s Propaganda Ministry. These missions see you able to bypass combat encounters almost entirely, by presenting your credentials and holding a camera so as to alleviate enemy suspicions. Undercover missions of this sort did exist in the previous game, but they seemed to almost immediately devolve into shooting with no way to prevent it. Beyond this, Manon is treated no differently in terms of strengths or weaknesses than the first game’s Jimmy Patterson (to whom Manon herself is cast as the superior officer of in that game). She is an absolute force to be reckoned with, capable of eating hundreds of bullets and spitting back hot death of her own.

Underground is an all-around improvement on its predecessor, even if the extent of those changes made are rather slight. I reckon there’s more variety in terms of mission objectives, types of enemies, available weapons, and locales to visit. With that in mind, I firmly believe that it “holds up” pretty well for an FPS of its era; even if subsequent sequels Allied Assault and Frontline are, admittedly, way more polished and feature-abundant affairs.*** So, when it came time to try and translate one of these titles to the GBA, Underground was the most reasonable choice — the most suitable for the downgrade to 2.5D, while still maintaining at least some passing resemblance to its source. Why this was the goalpost that they insisted on setting in the first place, we may never know.

Medal of Honor: Underground for PS1 (Electronic Arts / DreamWorks Interactive, 2000)

Perhaps one of the suits in charge had seen a previous GBA FPS in action, and reckoned that it couldn’t be that much of a technical challenge. Or maybe Rebellion Developments – in their attempts to secure the contract – boasted that they could accomplish such a task with ease. The previous year had seen them bring a pseudo-3D conversion of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf to the same platform, and perhaps they figured they could apply some of that experience to the development process. In any event, they would ultimately be the ones to get the gig to convert Underground to handheld, bringing them back into their familiar fold of FPS development. Surely, a welcome reprieve from the likes of bringing titles like Snood to the portable.

To be clear here, Rebellion were not the first to try and squeeze a first-person shooter into Nintendo’s then-current handheld, and they would not be the last either. And if they wanted an example of how to do it right, they had at least a couple they could reference by 2002. For example; conversions of Doom and Doom II scale decently well to the hardware, with minimal compromise in terms of level redesign or mechanical alteration. See, the handheld version of the original Doom still bases its levels off the oft-sourced / slightly simplified Atari Jaguar map data, as well as having to “dumb down” the Nightmare difficulty level as a matter of concession; while Doom II evidently required further map alterations and omissions in order to function. All that being said, these are still entirely serviceable little conversions, and a fair point of technical reference that Rebellion could have aspired to.

In terms of original titles for the hardware, there are a couple other picks: Duke Nukem Advance contains a wholly unique story and set of levels designed specifically with the portable in mind, and as such, plays and performs better than a more straightforward porting attempt likely would have. It also makes some strides in offering multiple different control schemes, in the event that the intended “standard” setting might not be to every player’s tastes. Dark Arena is another competent sci-fi shooter, running at a decent framerate and providing some impressive texture that works well within the means of the system’s scaling and compression. As a bit of bonus trivia, it also just so happens to star another female protagonist, beating Underground to the punch by a few months.

But if I’m going to highlight one title in particular here, I reckon it’s gonna have to be Ecks vs. Sever — not to be confused with it’s sequel released a year later, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. While that sequel is actually pretty solid as well, it’s the first installment that I find most fascinating: Based on an alternate screenplay for what would become a notorious flop film, it offers you a choice of two protagonists (the titular Ecks and Sever) whose campaigns intersect with one another, visiting many of the same levels and locations as approached from significantly different perspectives. It plays at a fast pace, offers a fun variety of weapons and objectives, and can toss tons of enemies at you without completely tanking performance. I really do quite like this little game, and I’d go so far as to argue that it would have fit in well if it came out on PC / DOS during the wave of mid-90s shooters.

Ecks vs. Sever for GBA (BAM! Entertainment / Crawfish Interactive, 2001)

Of course, we should also probably cite a lacklustre release here as well — an example for Rebellion as to “what not to do.” Sadly, this means having to touch on a rather poor port of yet another classic title from id Software’s archives: Wolfenstein 3D. Between Doom, Doom II and this release for the GBA, each of them were tasked to entirely different development teams, with the two man team Stalker Entertainment holding Wolfenstein 3D’s conversion as their sole development credit. The game does serve as something like a 1:1 port of the original DOS release, containing all the content of the original with seemingly no compromises to the level and layout integrity. However, the price paid is the omission of the game’s soundtrack, as well as a major tax on the game’s overall performance. Simply put, it’s an incredibly choppy, borderline-unacceptable gameplay experience — especially considering how much more complex the likes of Doom is, and yet compare the two conversions against one another.

But even without the benefit of being able to scope out and sample their competition, you’d want to assume Rebellion would make for some competent hands: Their catalogue at this point included the original Alien Vs Predator on Atari Jaguar (plus it’s initial sequel on PC), which folk seem to still fondly remember [for some reason]. They were also responsible for bringing Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six to the PlayStation, as well as an entry in the Delta Force franchise for the same console. Honestly though, none of these varying takes on the first-person shooter appeal to me quite as much as their Wild West-inspired rail shooter, Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James. If you ask me, that’s the franchise Rebellion should’ve really stuck with. Forget about all these Sniper Elite sequels that are probably making them millions at this point: Get back to saloon shootouts and escaping the hangman’s noose!

Look, I reckon we’ve talked before about Rebellion on this website — particularly their involvement in 2009’s notorious Rogue Warrior. And as I’ve said before and will inevitably have to say again at least a few more times: This here isn’t the last time we’ll be talking about them on the Bad Game Hall of Fame. But this early in their company history, with only… nine years of development experience? Well, they still had some work to do in establishing a real reputation for themselves, be it either good or bad. They were clearly hungry for it at this point though; taking on as many licenses as they could manage and generally turning in competent work. But what they needed was a project that could help them stand out — to really demonstrate their technical chops and adaptability. The challenge of bringing a console FPS to handheld might’ve been just the ticket.

** To be clear: The backlash against the “historical inaccuracies” of the upcoming Battlefield V should not be taken at all seriously. As it turns out, the folk who get up in arms about this sort of stuff in the context of video games don’t usually care much about actual history at all, and are simply using inclusion as an excuse for outrage. Who’d’ve thunk it?
*** When I mention Frontline as being “feature-abundant,” I guess I have to specify that I’m referring to the Gamecube and Xbox releases of the game which featured four-player multiplayer modes, versus the PlayStation 2 version of the game which… well, it didn’t feature any sort of multiplayer, I reckon. And in a truly curious move, neither does the 2010 HD remaster of the game for the PlayStation 3!

“We’re Not Sure What You’re Going to Encounter, Except That It’s Most Likely Going to Be Bad.”

“When this is all over, we may have a new member of our little resistance team.”
(French magazine advert)

In the first mission of the original PlayStation release of Medal of Honor: Underground, Manon and her brother Jacques participate in a mission to secure a German munitions truck for their Resistance cell. In this console version of the game, the intelligence they’re operating on doesn’t account for a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers to be positioned outside the garage where the truck is being held, which results in Jacques sacrificing himself by crashing and blowing up the truck in order to secure his sister’s escape from the scene. This set piece immediately sets the tone for the game: 1942 Paris is in dire straits under Nazi control, The French Resistance is a struggling movement, and Manon will make the bastards pay.

In the Game Boy Advance version of this same mission, you may be surprised to find that the general layout of the level is actually pretty close to the original. You find Jacques in the same location in a rough approximation of the same courtyard, watch his back while he tinkers with s similar pair of locked doors, and ultimately find yourself in the same garage… where the truck is now conspicuously missing. You open the garage door to find a similar ambush waiting for you, where you will undoubtedly proceed to wipe the floor with the three enemies stationed there, all while your brother sort of helplessly stands in place, already having finished his scripted path for the level. At this point, you have to just walk away from him and finish the level, where I guess you’re meant to just assume he dies off-screen at some point between this and the next stage?

In this sense, the first mission in both versions of Underground serve as an almost perfect point of comparison between the two games: The portable edition clearly has ambitions of following its source material as accurately as it can, but is obviously and severely hampered by the hardware at hand. The end result is a release which puts up a valiant effort, but ultimately ends up missing the mark — and not just by a matter of a few inches or something. This is more like, if you fired a gun by trying to aim the buttstock at your mark, firing in the complete opposite direction of said mark, probably hitting a buddy of yours in the leg, and getting dishonorably discharged in the process. In all of Rebellion’s efforts to see if they could approximate the console release, they apparently never stopped to ask if they should.

Let’s just address the elephant in the room straight away here: Underground is a hideous game to actually try and look at, and runs absolutely awful. We’re talking single-digit framerates here, mixed with literally headache-inducing scaling and distortion across every surface and sprite in the entire game. Compared to the likes of other first-person shooters on the handheld, Underground stands out as particularly difficult to visually parse, and performs so poorly as to be outmatched by the aforementioned take on Wolfenstein 3D. As a title effectively built from the ground up for the platform, these seem like pitfalls that an effort should have been made to avoid — that the game should’ve been designed to avoid running into in the first place. So, what exactly went wrong here, and how does the game manage to present itself so poorly?

First off, we have to establish a bit of technical nitty-gritty here as to how “3D” on the GBA works in the first place. In a sentence: Very similarly to how the original 2.5D first-person shooters operated back in the DOS days, as it turns out. Classic titles in the range of Wolfenstein and Catacombs 3D render their graphics on what is effectively a flat grid, wherein every visual element you can see on-screen is calculated by your perceived distance from it and rendered on something approaching a pixel-by-pixel basis. To try and put it in other words; picture it as less about moving through a 3D space, and more like images of walls and objects being pulled and stretched out as they move around your eye-line to provide the illusions of depth and movement. Different types of pseudo-3D renderers operating on this sort of level include “line-rasterization,” “scanline-rendering,” and “raycasting” — just to name a few implementations.

To this end, these early titles made compromises to facilitate these processes running fast and efficiently on inefficient hardware: Tricks like not texturing floors and ceilings to avoid having to calculate any sort of visual scaling on their end, or map design lacking elevation levels so that calculations only need to be made across the X-axis while ignoring the Y-axis. Without the benefits of hardware acceleration, so-called “shortcuts” like these were necessary in order to ensure smooth performance, at the admitted expense of visual fidelity and potential design variety. Developers may have had the option to implement more complex elements into their engines if they so chose, but the trade-off for each potential improvement would be increasingly more severe impacts on performance. And so, as the GBA hardware lacks the options for hardware acceleration that consoles and PCs had become accustomed to over the course of years, the techniques for developing 3D games on the hardware had to be effectively rolled back to these older sorts of methods.

All of that is a very long and complicated (and probably not even entirely accurate) way of saying that if you were looking to develop a 3D FPS on the GBA, you were gonna have to pick and choose from a list of compromises while building it. Do you wanna have stairs and differing levels of elevation in your game? Be prepared to trade in those textures on the tops and bottoms of surfaces for solid colors; unless you’re also willing to shave maybe 10 frames off your average framerate while the software struggles to calculate what those additional textures need to look like on a frame-by-frame basis. Most developers were unwilling to make this particular bargain, concerned for the huge detriment it would have on performance. Rebellion were not one such developer.

I think many of the game’s performance issues can be attributed to decisions related to texture work and the presentation of the game’s environments. For what it’s worth, these surface textures are often decently detailed, boasting large color palettes and higher resolutions than many of the game’s handheld contemporaries. Of course, this also means that the amount of pixels that the game needs to redraw on a frame-by-frame basis rises exponentially, as the constant shifting and scaling of these surfaces results in more distinct frames. For every degree you may turn or unit of distance you might travel, you’re directly affecting nearly every pixel made to be accounted for on the GBA’s 240×160 pixel screen. This is likely why the HUD overlay is so large and obtrusive, as it at least saves on several hundred pixels that can remain largely static from frame to frame, and probably prevents the performance from sinking even further.

Given that rather limited resolution, whatever rendering process the game implements struggles to stretch and fit these probably over-large, over-detailed textures within the screen real estate. Combine this with a first-person perspective where the points of origin and geometry for these textures are constantly moving on and off-screen, and you begin to encounter the issue of texture warping: The effect where graphics seem to swim and distort as they get closer to the edges of the screen, or where scaling will fail to render certain portions of textures at specific distances. Of course, like so much of what I’ve said in the previous paragraphs, I’m oversimplifying some incredibly complex calculations here, to a point where I might well be unintentionally misinforming on certain aspects of it. I should hope that the key takeaway here though not be misconstrued: Rebellion pushed the Game Boy Advance too far, and at a certain point, the hardware pushes back.

Of course, there’s more to the presentation here than just the environments. Characters in the game are presented as pre-rendered sprites, out of something of technical necessity: There’s no way that even Rebellion were going to attempt to animate and render characters in polygonal form. Unfortunately, the detail that went into drawing these frames of animation for the baddies is far lacking when compared to the world around them. You’ll largely encounter the same three or four enemy variations over the course of the game; all of whom are dressed in absolutely garish colors, and who are drawn too small as to have any real discernible features. The closer you get to enemies, the worse they end up looking, to a point where you can’t help but recognize that their faces are effectively just pixel barf.

Simply put, you aren’t meant to look at enemies up close. These bright colors and seemingly haphazard pixel art are all designed to ensure that enemies are at least discernable from a distance, so that you can vaguely make them out from the other side of a room and recognize their heads from their torsos or what have you. What looks like a splotchy, dithered mess face-to-face serves the purpose of allowing you to distinguish the shape of enemies from further away. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough, and some baddies will still manage to blend their way into the busier background textures as an effective – perhaps unintentional – form of camouflage. The most notorious enemy type relying on this trick are the soldiers dressed in grey, who can blend into any manner of dull brown or otherwise undersaturated surfaces.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the visuals and technical details already sabotage any chance this game has at being playable. I could just end the review portion of this article here and save myself a fair bit of work! However, seeing as I did push myself to play through the entirety of the game, I do feel compelled to bellyache about it. The whole experience lasted me roughly three hours, and I’m serious when I say that it felt like six. I chose to play on the “Medium” difficulty, as the apparent difference between each of the three tiers comes down solely to how much health you begin each successive level with; with “Hard” starting you off with however much you had at the end of the previous mission, “Easy” restoring it completely, and Medium bringing you back up to 50% if you happen to be below that threshold. Each difficulty level also comes with its own unique set of corresponding passwords for the seventeen levels contained within.

As alluded to, the game does seriously attempt to approximate a share of the stages from the original PlayStation release, often matching the scale and layouts of these levels. For reference, the source material boasts a total of twenty-four levels (twenty-seven, if you count the comical bonus levels), with the bulk of the omitted material originating in that game’s fifth and sixth “Missions” — the effective arcs that contain each set of stages. This results in a rather comical oversight; where the GBA version skips the fifth mission entirely, but also forgets to retitle “Mission Six” to “Five,” resulting in the game just suddenly jumping from set four to six if you’re going by the titlecards. The obvious guesses as to why these particular stages are missing are size / time constraints, or difficulty re-conceptualizing these particular levels for the hardware at hand.

That’s not to say that the levels that did make the cut aren’t unaltered: Many components and objectives are stripped down or outright removed due to what must’ve been their technical complexities. In example; despite some mission briefings still referring to the enemy tanks and trucks you’re originally meant to encounter and destroy in some stages, you’ll find no such moving vehicles over the course of the game. The closest you’ll find are completely stationary trucks, which you’ll most likely have to destroy as one of your objectives, but which obviously don’t pose any threat to you. Again – if I’m putting my best guesses forward here – they probably attempted to include moving vehicles at a certain point, but realized that attempting to render these as sprites would make for a particularly hideous visual effect. As a further guess, I reckon that their game engine likely isn’t capable of moving polygonal objects across a level as if they were driving — only able to handle the simpler logistic of changing their elevation while remaining stationary.

There are a number of other functions that don’t make the cut as well. Rescuing POWs and interacting with other NPCs probably all got scrapped in an effort to save on having to draw unique sprites for them, or having to worry about programming proper pathfinding for them. Shooting locks off doors isn’t really feasible given the lack of vertical aiming and the fine accuracy that would require. Turret sections where you take hold of mounted machine guns are now gone, as there’s no real purpose for them given the lesser enemy population in levels. Stealth checks while posing as a photographer are dumbed down to the point where you no longer have to show your credentials, and where nobody will be suspicious of you so long as you don’t switch to one of your guns in anyone’s immediate vicinity. Basically, any element of the game that couldn’t be boiled down to simply “moving and shooting” got scrapped.

Now, what does that leave us with in terms of level objectives? It all amounts to some combination of collecting objects hidden around the map (the bulk of which re-use the same indiscernible sprite of what looks like some sort of red-colored dossier), destroying a number of enemy emplacements (anti-air turrets and trucks, mostly), killing specifically-designated enemies, and possibly having to photograph an object; all mandatory before progressing to the level exit, lest you fail the mission by leaving with your job unfinished. Simple enough to be sure, save for one slight problem: If you happen to pass by or miss a given objective point, backtracking to try and find it can become an absolute nightmare. This is thanks to a concomitant effort of multiple design decisions, all working together to make basic navigation as unpleasant as technically possible.

For one, levels are largely devoid of props, distinct architecture, or anything else that a player can use as potential landmarks. This is to say that most rooms and hallways or what have you all tend to look the same as one another, lacking any signifying features that would help you to remember where you are in a level. Hell, there are times where I completely lost my sense of direction after having to turn and shoot an enemy — completely baffling myself as to which direction I was initially headed, and unable to make a determination thanks to the fact that one end of a given sector looks the same as the other. For as much detail may have gone into wall textures and the like, what the game really should’ve called for are more variations on textures; stuff like paintings and maps hanging from walls, or even painted-on lamps and candles. Really, anything to break up the monotony of seeing the entire interior of a two-story building painted wall-to-wall with the same basic wallpaper.

There’s also the matter of movement itself in the game, which you may be surprised at this point to hear isn’t particularly smooth. The control scheme itself is acceptable; A to fire, L and R to strafe, B to change weapon and Select to reload. Personally, I reckon they should’ve swapped those last two, but this is beside the point. So, as if the game’s framerate weren’t bad enough to frustrate your pace, your base movement speed itself is so slow and plodding as to make the very action of running feel tedious. I swear, there were times where I would be walking down particularly long corridors, and having to seriously wonder if I was walking on some sort of perpetual treadmill like the “endless stairs” from Super Mario 64. As an added bonus, for those of you who can get potentially motion-sick from video games, remember that those swimming textures are a factor as well. Enjoy your headache!

Now, imagine slogging your way through to the end of a stage, only to realize that the path you took didn’t take you past one of the mandatory objectives you needed to check off your list. You are faced with the frustrating prospect of having to walk back through the same series of visually identical, now completely empty hallways you likely spent the last six or seven minutes trekking through, and mentally trying to map out where you may have steered wrong. Oh, and of course, there’s no in-game automap to help orient you or remind you where you’ve already been. Honestly, you might as well just restart the stage at this point, rather than effectively having to run another full lap and a half.

The only credit I’ll give to the game in regards to objectives is that when you’re within a certain range of one, you’ll get notified by the in-game message log area that you’re near them. This at least gives you a clue as to if you’re walking right past an objective, and stops you in your tracks so that you can look around and figure out where it might be. Of course, these notifications can also pop up when you’re in rooms that are merely adjacent to where you’re meant to be, resulting in hapless searching for an objective that you’re not actually meant to be dealing with yet. Honestly, for as much as some folk may loathe them, I am personally grateful that modern games provide those handy little objective markers that point you in the direction of where you need to go.**

“The life that I have Is all that I have. And the life that I have Is yours.”
(Promotional art)

As if the complete distortion of space and your place in it isn’t enough, there are also spots in the game where the level geometry is straight-up broken, resulting in gaps between walls and strangely impassable openings. In at least one instance, I found myself walking down an opening between a stack of boxes, only to try turning around discover I couldn’t walk back out the way I came in just a few seconds ago. Maybe it had something to do with the way the perspective was rendering the horizontal space I would need to travel through, where the game no longer believed there was enough room for me to fit between it given my point of view from within the boxes? It was honestly such a baffling moment for me, I had to stop my progress and try approaching the corridor from every conceivable angle — even attempting to sidestep through it to no avail. It remains a mystery.

There’s also a particularly noticeable graphical issue where you’ll often be able to see enemies in adjacent rooms through walls. At first, I thought this may have had something to do with elevation levels, where enemies that are positioned on a different vertical plane than you were the culprits in confusing the game’s rendering into displaying them in front of walls they’re meant to be behind. But, I figured out that’s not always the case, since there were definitely instances where I would see enemies on the same flat plane through walls as I approached certain corners. No matter how you slice it, this is one of those bugs that end up making the game feel particularly low-rent; like we’re playing an unfinished product at best, or dealing with amateur programming at worst. Either way, it’s still rough as guts to play.

And again, I feel compelled to stress that none of this is in service of a particularly visually-impressive game — even among its portable peers. At a certain point, the novelty of playing an FPS on the GBA became well-worn territory, and the games that came before it all do a better job of working within their means. With these games boasting smoother framerates and more stylized assets that scale and move more fluidly across the screen, Medal of Honor: Underground ends up looking and performing far more chunky. And for as much as I’ve given most of the texture work credit, there are a few that honestly look like they’re corrupted or otherwise rendered improperly. A particular texture used for some stone walls is discolored by specks of red, blue and green that don’t match the base grey at all, and don’t even dither together to try and create some other shade or pattern.

You know what might be most impressive about how confounding the game’s visual elements are? How about the fact that in a game review for a first-person shooter, I’ve somehow gotten so sidetracked that I haven’t even mentioned the shooting aspect of the gameplay up until this point? And, in fairness to me, that’s largely because there’s almost nothing to it: Enemies are largely content to stand in place while shooting at you, the variations on them all seem to be strictly cosmetic, and you’re given the most bare-bones arsenal with which to deal with them. All of this stands in stark contrast to the original PlayStation release obviously; where enemies are at least smart enough to take cover, react to damage, and appear with a variety of different weapons and armaments — even including baddies dressed up in full medieval knight regalia who charge at you with swords and shields! Yes, this is also based an actual historical thing wherein in the Nazis fetishized medieval Europe and the concept of Christian knights, though I’ll grant that they probably weren’t deploying soldiers in full plate mail to the battlefield.

As for the arsenal, the source material offers a number of historical weapons hailing from American, German, French and British manufacture — the primary emphasis being on procuring enemy weapons, as a consequence of your role as an infiltrator. This means that there are several different types of both semi and fully automatic rifles at your disposal, in addition to a small variety of handguns, explosives, and other miscellaneous firearms and gadgets. In total – and counting a pair of multiplayer-only weapons – you have sixteen weapons with which to rid the world of Nazi scum. By comparison, the GBA version of the game has… five. And two of those are just a cosmetic variation on grenades which function entirely identically to one another, so really, let’s call it four. The back of the box tries to claim that you’ll fill your hands with revolvers and pistols, plus silenced variations thereof; all of which is demonstrably untrue, as there’s only the one pistol in the game, and it alerts enemies the moment you fire it.

But for the largest bulk of the game, you’ll really only be using one gun: The Sten Mark II submachine gun. You receive one in the second level of the game, at which point it never leaves your side and really does serve as the only practical weapon choice you’ll have. It fires off in bursts, works well at range, and typically takes two volleys to kill any given enemy. Ammo for it is also abundant and can be carried in spades, to where you’ll rarely find yourself running low let alone running out of it entirely. It’s also blessed with some of the most generous auto-aim you’ll ever find in a first-person shooter, as your crosshair will swing wildly across the entire horizontal range of the screen to lock onto any enemy who dares enter your field of vision, thereby eliminating any need for precision aiming. The same also goes for your pitiful pistol, though it feels like it takes an entire magazine to take out a single enemy with it, so it’s practically useless. But “practically useless” is still a cut above “functionally useless,” however.

Meet the Trench Gun: The game’s sorry excuse for a shotgun. Appearing in a grand total of two stages, I originally believed it didn’t even exist as a third firearm in the game, until I accidentally switched to it during the course of the game’s absolute worst level (Mission 6, Level 13: “Plans for Destruction”); at which point I discovered it is almost completely broken in its implementation in the game, and that likely being the reason it appears so rarely. For one, it lacks the auto-aim you’ll undoubtedly become accustomed to when primarily using the Sten, which immediately makes it a more difficult weapon to use. You’d assume this is because the shotgun is meant to have a large spread, where anything even adjacent to the crosshair will be pelted with buckshot. But nope: It appears to fire slugs — which is to say that you actually have to be precise with your aiming. And the nails in the coffin? Abysmal fire rate mixed with one shot not being enough to down any given enemy, meaning that you are literally guaranteed to take damage between the minimum two shots it takes to kill a baddy.

What’s particularly amusing about these weapons is that the sprites attempt to convey pseudo-3D models for your viewmodel; the obvious result of creating their own 3D animations initially before converting the frames into pre-rendered 2D sprites. And while these do have the consequence of making them stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the visuals, the really funny part about them is that the larger two guns (the shotgun and Sten) are noticeably cropped across their right-most edges. In other words, all the sprites they captured ended up being a smidge too big, resulting in them having to cut off what I reckon to be about seven or eight pixel columns from the right side of their graphics. So, that Sten you’re made to stare at for roughly 95% of the game? It looks like it’s either got a huge chunk of it’s back end missing, or as if it’s recoiling into some invisible void with every shot you fire. Whichever illusion your eyes prefer.

Oh, I guess there’s also the matter of the grenades, huh? You’ve got your improvised molotov cocktails and the ol’ “potato masher” style grenades of the German military, and as mentioned before, they both function identically in this game. They have a pretty generous blast radius, and are an effective way of clearing a whole room’s worth of baddies if you happen to have a grenade on-hand, so they’re certainly useful enough in a combat role. Where they are less useful, however, is in destroying some of the larger objective objects such as the anti-air gun emplacements — a role you think they’d be well suited for. Finding the “sweet spot” for the distance and angle you need to toss these explosives from when trying to lodge them in an enemy contraption is clearly some very precise science, and you’re liable to waste an entire supply of grenades trying to use them to blow up one of those large targets. You’re better off just pulling out your SMG and riddling them with enough bullets to blow them up, rather than waste precious bombs.

Funnily enough, the most effective weapon in the game is the one that isn’t a firearm at all. Equipping that photo camera of yours is practically an invisibility cloak that allows you to wander through entire levels without raising the ire of a single enemy along the way. In one particular level, I literally did not have to fire a single shot, as none of the objectives specified that I had to destroy anything or kill anyone, and I was able to freely walk from one end to the other [while collecting a small handful of necessary documents] as soldiers posed for photographs destined for the bottom of a garbage bin. Conceptually, a mission where you can pass through peacefully undercover is a fun idea. In execution, without any potential hurdles or tests you need to pass, a mission like this just amounts to a miniaturized one of those “walking simulators” the kids seem to hate on these days.

When you put it all together, you’re left with an FPS where the first-person shooting just isn’t fun. This is something like a cardinal sin within the genre, as far as I’m concerned. And just to top it all off, the game is also brutally difficult; with most combat encounters amounting to a gamble as you charge forward towards enemy squads firing your SMG and hoping to kill your enemies before they kill you. Peeking out from around corners and taking cover doesn’t work, as the baddies are liable to just land a shot on you the moment you make yourself visible to them, making the idea of taking cover feel unfeasible. I also don’t think that strafing and ducking have any effect on the accuracy of the German’s hitscan weapons, which means every combat encounter basically boils down to luck of the draw. At the very least, it certainly makes every battle feel that much more tense, I guess?

And is there any reward for suffering through the game’s campaign? Any tangible satisfaction? Not really. In the PlayStation game’s final level, you’re treated to an action set piece where you collide two trains carrying enemy soldiers and supplies together, causing a cool explosion as the game’s orchestral score swells. You’re then given a unique load screen with a quote from Hélène Deschamps Adams, before transitioning to an rousing FMV epilogue, and then to a further series of sit-down interviews with some surviving female operatives of the war as the credits roll. All in all, a fittingly inspirational ending to a truly satisfying game; and that’s not even the end of it! From there, you’re treated to a three-level bonus mission where you play as Jimmy from the first game as you infiltrate a secret Nazi workshop developing an army of robotic nutcracker-soldiers. And that’s not even mentioning the various cheat codes and multiplayer skins you’ve been unlocking as you progressed through the game, all of which adds up to a large chunk of bonus content and replay value.

So, with that precedent in mind, what do you get in the GBA version? In the final level, you flip a the final switch, and are immediately presented a message indicating that the “TRAINS COLLIDED !!!” The level then closes out immediately afterward, and you’re taken to the screen with the quote from Hélène, and then back to the main menu. And that’s it. The end. Entirely unceremonious, and lacking any of the context that adds any sense of weight or accomplishment to Manon’s actions over the course of the game. There are none of the goofy cheat codes to unlock for replays like the “Wacky Taxi” or “Civil War” modes, and no extra content to unlock in the game’s multiplayer mode. The conclusion here just ends up ringing so hollow — feeling so empty. It just leaves me wonder– wait, hold up. Am I insinuating here that the GBA version of the game still has a multiplayer component?

Yes indeed, folks: If you have a friend unfortunate enough to also own a copy of the game, and a link cable with which to connect your two Game Boy Advance systems, you two can partake in some of the most basic multiplayer to ever feature in the FPS genre. With no options for changing the game settings or so much as a character selection (both players are simply rendered as grey-clad Gestapo officers), you’re simply given a pick of four particularly dull maps and tasked with being the first player to reach ten kills. There are no weapon or item pick-ups: Just the pistol and SMG that you spawn with, and the ammo that comes with them. It all rates as just slightly more advanced than the likes of MIDI Maze… except, come to think of it, MIDI Maze at least gave you a small handful of settings to tweak before a match, and supported more than two players. So, actually, Medal of Honor: Underground on the GBA rates below that for complexity.

As with so many of the games I play for this website, I find myself pondering the million dollar question: “What could they have done to fix this game?” One has to wonder if it could’ve spent a little more time in the development oven, and if that’d have given Rebellion a chance to improve things some. I’m also morbidly curious to see if something like getting rid of the floor and ceiling textures would even have the effect on performance I’m theorizing it would. I try to imagine a version of the game with more weapons to wield, more variety of baddies to blast, and more from the original game to see and do. But at the end of the day, I can only come to the one conclusion: This was never a game that should have been made. Even if a handful more of the wrinkles could’ve been ironed out, there was no way the GBA conversion could’ve ever truly have hoped to capture the full context — the sheer weight of the source material.

At some point, there’s just something that feels inherently wrong about stripping down Underground to its most basic, straightforward, purely mechanical core. After tearing out the set pieces, story beats, and sense of purpose, you might’ve still been left with a competent little shooter; but that’s not what made Medal of Honor special. The original game works because the campaign is treated with seriousness and respect for the very real war that transpired, and because it truly seeks to honor the heroes who gave their lives for that most worthy cause of stopping a wretched regime. Yes, you can argue that the comedy cheat codes and silly bonus missions might muddy this message a bit, but I prefer to chalk it up to levity; a reminder that a video game can only do so well a job of conveying such a serious subject matter. In any case, there’s no denying that the Medal of Honor franchise, from its inception, was treated as a true passion project by its developers.

Medal of Honor: Underground on the GBA lacks this sense of sincerity. At best, it feels like a misunderstanding of what made the original game work; failing to recreate the heart of the game in all the effort spent simply trying to replicate the content. At worst, it feels like completely shameless cash grab — a development project coldly assigned by department, looking to take advantage of a license and legacy while targeting some calculated market. And so, I can admit that I do believe that Rebellion might well have been able to clean up their technical mess if given the resources to do so. But I must also confess that I don’t think it wouldn’t have much mattered: They already missed the point completely. I can picture a more functional, more entertaining handheld version of Underground in my head; but I can’t picture myself having any more respect for it.

** Of course, I also fully understand exactly why people hate having them around, and how they can remove the sense of exploration and discovery from a game entirely — not to mention, drawing your attention towards the top of the screen rather than the world directly in front of you. Naturally, I believe that these sorts of indicators should always come with the option to enable or disable them as players see fit.

“Ultimate Sacrifice. Ultimate Victory.”

The Game Boy Advance’s version of Medal of Honor: Underground is estimated by VGChartz to have sold a rough sum of 80 thousand copies worldwide. For comparison, it’s source material is guesstimated to have landed somewhere in the range of 970 thousand units sold, while that aforementioned portable conversion of Doom evidently managed something like 140 thousand transactions. I’d hazard the guess that whatever sales expectations were set for the game by the parties involved likely went unmet, to say nothing of the critical ridicule it was subject to. Naturally, the pain point for most reviewers would be highlighted as the game’s visuals; the sense conveyed by several being that they prevent the game from reaching any of its potential. In GameSpot contributor Frank Provo’s review of the title, he sums up his thoughts succinctly with a single sentence: “It’s a shame that the topsy-turvy graphics make Medal of Honor: Underground so difficult to play, because it otherwise has so much going for it.”[1]

EA and DreamWorks would learn their lesson from this debacle, seeing to it that a subsequent GBA entry to the series would not bite off more than it could chew. Relieving Rebellion of their duties, the torch would be passed to an unknown developer Netherock, who would turn in 2003’s Medal of Honor: Infiltrator as a more manageable top-down shooter. By all accounts, it’s a fine little title: Nothing particularly revolutionary for the hardware, but a solid release nonetheless. It even manages to cram in some brief video clips of actual war footage, giving it something like an extra sense of belonging with the original entries in the series. Though it did appear to be a small success – managing to move an estimated 150 thousand copies – it was apparently not quite successful enough to guarantee continued working relations between the publisher and developer. Infiltrator would serve as Netherock’s sole contribution to the industry.

It would be another three years before Medal of Honor would once again attempt to invade the handheld market, bringing Medal of Honor: Heroes to Sony’s PSP. By this point, portable hardware was more or less comparable to fifth-generation home consoles, allowing the level of presentation for these titles to stack up against the likes of the PlayStation installments. The future for the series would remain promising for at least several years longer, until that “modern-day military” fad really started kicking in and forced the franchise’s hand. Now, there’s certainly a lot that can be said about the attempt at “rebooting” the franchise in 2010, and probably even moreso about 2012 installment Medal of Honor: Warfighter. But alas, that’s a subject for another day, and possibly another pair of articles.

Medal of Honor: Infiltrator for GBA (Electronic Arts / Netherock, 2003)

As for the futures of the parties involved with Underground on the GBA? I don’t reckon Eletronic Arts requires an epilogue here, and there’s perhaps too much to be said about DreamWorks Interactive to even begin begin addressing it here. Now then, Publisher Destination Software – later to rename themselves as Zoo Publishing – continued to support Nintendo hardware almost exclusively throughout their company history. Which, of course, is a nice way of saying that the bulk of their output from 2004 forward would amount to shovelware of the most exhausting degree. Between bringing the “classic” Chicken Shoot franchise to Wii and GBA, publishing esteemed racing title M&M’s Kart Racing, and peaking with the licensed masterpiece that is Balls of Fury, they cemented their legacy as a completely forgettable publishing house. The company published their final titles in 2011, before ultimately shuttering in 2013.

Honestly, I’m almost reticent to get too deep into Rebellion Development’s futures here either, since we’ll be visiting them again in the future — perhaps sooner rather than later, even. What should be said of them is that after being dropped from Medal of Honor, they would eventually lend their talents to perhaps the franchise’s most notable competitor: Call of Duty. They would once again be put on “demake” duty as they attempted to bring a version of Call of Duty: World at War to the PlayStation 2, subtitled Final Fronts. Demake is probably the wrong word here, as it is does feature an entirely new campaign. It all makes for an apparently passable entry: Obviously unable to match the genuine article for tech or presentation, and lacking in the online multiplayer that had practically come to define the series by this stage, but not being so lacklustre as to disgrace the brand or anything. Oh, and Activision evidently knew well enough not to trust Rebellion with attempting a portable entry either, as duties for bringing a version of World at War to the DS were handled instead by one n-Space Inc.

As of the time of this writing, Rebellion is currently content to milk their Sniper Elite series for seemingly all it’s worth, seeming to finally find their foothold in the World War II-themed shooter subgenre. As for Medal of Honor, it currently lies dormant, thanks in part to the glut of imitator franchises it itself inspired rising up to claim it’s throne. In all this history, Underground on the GBA is honestly a relative non-factor — a largely forgotten release that is remembered only in the context of belonging to an rather exclusive club of GBA first-person shooters. But I do find it a fascinating case study all on its own; for its ambitious concept and absolutely botched execution. I said early that I gave the game the benefit of the doubt, and believed that it “couldn’t be all bad.” And while the game is – in fact – almost practically unplayable, I still can’t help but get a kick out of the very fact that it actually exists. Do you reckon that’s worth anything?

[1] Provo, Frank. “Medal of Honor: Underground Review.” GameSpot. February 3, 2003. Web.

Cassidy is the curator of a bad video game hall of fame. Whether you interpret that as "a hall of fame dedicated to bad video games" or as "a sub-par hall of fame for video games" is entirely up to you. Prefers "She / They" pronouns. Genuine cowpoke.

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