Conflicts will always influence the creative works of their respective eras, but the Cold War was unique. The all-consuming geopolitical showdown between the US and the Soviet Union turned paranoia into the status quo, fueled by the knowledge that any goofy fuck up from a major global power could lead to some nightmarish annihilation. As a driver of the great creative works of those decades, that mindset is also a factor we've taken for granted in years since.
Not so much for Reagan Gorbachev, a new Ouya exclusive video game that dares to ask: What would happen if these two rivals were here to kick ass and chew jelly beans, and ran all out of jelly beans?
The story sets itself up something like this: While attending a peace conference, ol' Gipper and Gorbie were abducted by mysterious, balaclava assailants and incarcerated in an unknown location. Unbeknownst to their captors, the two aren't defenceless without their secret services. As it turns out, Mikhail is a big fan of computer hacking and a KGB neurotoxin blow dart, while Ronald isn't too shabby with a lock pick or, for that matter, a katana.
It's a stealth-action, buddy cop game and a cooperative prison escape that, play-wise, leans towards Hotline Miami. Each level presents a gauntlet of security cameras, armed patrols, locked doors and tile puzzles. You can bullhorn guns blazing, but noises and extravagant destruction could invite a party of enemies even the leaders of the world can't handle.
The second player can be controlled by a couch-pal or by the computer. Almost every game in the universe is more fun with a second player in the room, but I would actually suggest giving both options a shot. The AI isn't half-bad with going on the defense and being able to position it manually can lead to some interesting strategies.
I got pretty smug after essentially skipping an entire level by blasting a hole in a wall with a bazooka, and placing Gorbachev, armed with an automatic, to the flank proved an effective way to mow down security passing through my smouldering bottleneck. Another personal note, the act of writing about a game where Mikhail Gorbachev is an action hero alone, is kind of charming in itself.
Like Miami, it's wrapped in an odd tone. The aesthetic isn't entirely one of bloodbaths and battery acid. But it's not an entirely sincere aesthetic either, which makes it hard to place a line where the joke begins.
Certainly, seeing a Bill Sienkiewicz style illustration of Ronald Reagan brandishing a sword is its own gag, but like Leslie Nielsen basically replaying his own previous, deadpan roles in Airplane!, there's a suggestion that asking for the punchline could end in an awkward silence when your friend explains they weren't even telling a joke. Which I guess is part of the joke, too.
Reagan Gorbachev is a farce, but executed as stone-faced as its obvious inspirations. The plot siphons in from only the most charming of dated Cold War dramas, like War Games, Red Dawn, Invasion U.S.A., and a handful of the Roger Moore Bonds. The pixilated cinematics are geopolitical discussions told through the lens of Metal Slug's attract mode.
Not being entirely able to set aside their differences even in camaraderie, Gorbachev at one moment compares their situation to how many imprisoned minorities in America must feel.
"We may not have perfected freedom," responds the Gipper, "but at least we have it." Even these pleasantries must be set aside as the two learn that a digital menace is readying to wreak havoc in a world without them.
At the end of each level is a mini-game where you are given trivia, the answer always either being Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev. You may learn which one of the two won the Nobel Peace Prize, which of them is an honorary citizen of Germany, or which one starred in a Pizza Hut commercial. (A really fucking weird Pizza Hut commercial, by the way.)
Reagan Gorbachev could have gone the route of Scary Movie or The Expendables, as god knows many other developers would have. And while the game alone wouldn't be the most memorable adventure, it's a tasty snack if you're starving for Hotline Miami 2. Like Die Hard's Hans Gruber, there's good humour in something presented with such self-importance, while other hostile elements would rather settle things with a little less conversation and a lot more action.
In the end, it's a love letter, nearing a satire on the greatest geopolitical struggle in human history. Instead of an easy joke about all the gun toting action cowboys emerging as the Cold War came to a close, the game re-envisions them as the human cartoons that once ran civilization as we know it.