The 2008 review revue, part seven

Bionic Commando Rearmed | Grin/Capcom | PSN/XBLA/PC | Retro platformer
I gave it: A | In retrospect, this was: Perfectly fair

Maybe I wasn’t the best choice to tackle a remake of Bionic Commando, because the NES game is one of my top five favorite games ever. I’ve never actually set out to make a top-five-ever list, and in fact I really hate coming up with stupid lists like that. But nevertheless, Bionic Commando is one of my top five favorite games ever. It just is.

So: I didn’t really have an unbiased perspective. If Rearmed had been a lousy remake of the game, I’d have hated it with excessive venom; if it had lived up to its legacy, I’d have no choice but to love it. Obviously, given the score I handed out, it turned out to be a worthwhile successor, and I loved it. In fact, my review text was glowing enough that the reviews team was convinced the accompanying score should have been an A+, but I’m old-fashioned and only hand out the top score when a game really, really impresses me. Like, really impresses.

Really, in order to understand why Rearmed is so gosh-darned good, one needs to quantify precisely what made the original version so great. First, it was vigorously innovative for its time. The arcade game that birthed the NES version was an interesting but flawed and ultimately fairly standard action game; for the home version Capcom thoroughly rethought the entire thing. The most obvious connection between the two titles boils down a few pieces of music and the grappling wire that serves as the fulcrum of the gameplay. Beyond that, the home version might as well have been from a completely different franchise: a story-driven, non-linear action game with an open (but structured) level selection format. Secondly, it used its innovations to maximum effect. Each level was progressively more challenging than the last, creating a perfect learning curve that forced gamers to hone their grappling skills in order to succeed. Third, exploding Hitler head.

It’s a sign of how good Bionic Commando was that the game has seen several follow-ups over the years, and each has carefully recreated the perfect levels designs of the NES games. (When the more recent games have diverged from Bionic Commando’s stage layouts, the results have been kinda lousy.) With Rearmed, developer Grin didn’t even bother to try venturing into new territory. Instead, they carefully transported the NES game into polygons. That’s not to say it’s a slavish remake, though; as much as the emphasis is on fidelity, Grin did a great job of recognizing the parts of the original that hadn’t aged with sufficient grace and reworking those elements to be friendlier to modern audiences. The limited array of bosses were expanded into new and interesting forms; the frustrating weapon and communicator system was reworked to allow players to take their full arsenal into each stage, thus doing away with the need to cancel out of a stage for making a poor equipment choice; the bullet-collecting level-up system was thrown out to make the earlier stages easier and the later stages harder.

And harder they are: the original NES game was pretty tough in spots, but Rearmed can be downright brutal. The new bosses can be tricky to sort out at first, but several remain difficult even after you figure out their patterns. The final level’s gauntlet of challenges and bosses is especially insane. (But, on the plus side, exploding Hitler head!) This is not a game for novices — or at least not for novices who don’t have the stomach to learn the game’s unique mechanics and continue working at the challenges laid down through each level until they triumph. For those who do have the necessary intestinal fortitude, though, Rearmed offers the satisfaction of a seemingly insurmountable challenge conquered — and advanced difficulty levels to really put their guts to the test.

Rearmed does have a pretty steep learning curve for newcomers, though. The game revolves around the use of a grappling hook to get about; no jumping allowed. This forces players to relearn a genre whose basic rules they’ve known for decades: in platformers you’re supposed to run, jump, and shoot. But that’s not how it works here, and the inability to hop over even the tiniest obstacle can be fairly infuriating at first. But once you learn to use the bionic arm, you’ll find swinging can be far more liberating than simple jumps. Even with in games with a double-jump mechanic, you’re always doing the same predictable thing every time. By grappling and swinging, though, you’re opening up a huge range of possibilities — a simple upward climb, a modest forward arc, or a wild leap of faith into the unknown, saving yourself from certain death with a perfectly-timed grab on a well-placed grapple point. The grappling wire also doubles for other functions, including lifting objects and (most satisfyingly) flinging foes to their doom.

Rearmed plays with its own history, too, with amusing little nods to Capcom’s retro heritage and some tongue-in-cheek references to the goofiest bits of the 8-bit game’s design and localization quirks. The midget warriors who were so pervasive on NES are lampshaded here with a couple of amusing dialogue exchanges; the dumbest lines from the horrible NES script are laughed at by heroes and villains alike. Combined with the thoughtfully recreated levels and carefully rebalanced weapons, the whole package reeks of fond affection for a classic combined with the skill and determination to do it justice by modern standards. And that’s precisely what Grin accomplished: Rearmed is a better-than-perfect recreation of one of the true gems of the NES, and its utter excellence is why I’m confident that the upcoming next-gen Bionic Commando — the NES game’s first true sequel ever, really — will be a successful leap into 3D.

13 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part seven

  1. Rearmed is incredible, and I was pretty impressed with what I played of the proper new BC at Comic Con this year. Those Grin guys are pretty swell fellows, too.

  2. I played the game on the “easy” setting. And while you might say doing that turns it into an entirely different game, it at least lets me understand why you love it so much.

  3. I played Bionic Commando by myself on Normal but I played through co-op on Easy as my friend was intimidated by the mechanics. One of the surprising aspects of Easy mode was, besides the usual tactics of weaker enemies, was the placement of magical translucent blocks to offset some of the harder platforming challenges. It works in two ways: it lets players get through parts they might not normally complete without dying a ton while simultaneously reminding them that they’re getting a huge helping hand, hopefully encouraging them to try again on Normal.

    As far as next year’s BC3D game, I wish I had your optimism. I played the demo at TGS and found the entire thing frustrating beyond belief. Swinging and jumping in 3D is just so different than 2D, and trying to judge the angles and release points from a over-the-shoulder perspective proved too steep of a learning curve for me to handle. Just finishing the training room was harder than any of the boss battles in BC:R.

  4. As someone who could never get into the original, not during the NES days, not during a retro phase and not during the current resurgent gaming interest phase, the remake is very good. Its greatest improvement on the original are the controls.

    However, the upcoming 3D sequel looks horrible.

  5. I loathed the finicky controls (there is no reason the “shoot right” and “detach and plummet to your death” commands should be the same combination, and I had a serious problem with the hook’s latency), but lord help me now I know Easy changes the stage designs to be more forgiving, I hear its siren call again. It does not help that Brickroad keeps rebuffing my criticisms with variants on “you just need to try to love it move”.

  6. “(…) the game has seen several follow-ups over the years, and each has carefully recreated the perfect levels designs of the NES games. (When the more recent games have diverged from Bionic Commando’s stage layouts, the results have been kinda lousy.)”

    Buh? I´m going from memory here, but weren´t the only follow-ups one sorta remake on the GB, developed by Capcom in Japan, and one sorta sequel on the GBC, by an american team and published by Nintendo?

  7. Man, the NES level designs aren’t perfect. They’re just kind of good. Sometimes they make me sad because I love swinging around so much and the level designs want to bring me down.

    The challenge levels in Rearmed are exponentially better than any of the NES levels.

  8. It’s my gaming shame of the year that I’ve only put in the time to beat the first few levels of this. Gotta get back to it.

  9. I always hear about how hard Rearmed is, from Bionic Commando vets even. Yet here I am, a person who’s never played the original NES version and usually gives up on hard games, and I loved the crap out of Rearmed. It was challenging, sure, ESPECIALLY the last level, but I never had to force myself to finish it (on Normal). I guess either something about the game just clicked with me, or it speaks to how great it is in general.

    I still wish they had put a way to jump to the boss in the last level, though. Come on, that big, open first screen would’ve been PERFECT to throw in a weapon switch you could only hit with the guided rocket!

  10. I traditionally suck at video games, but I’ve gotten through most of Rearmed on normal difficulty (still haven’t played the last 2 levels) without any major moments of frustration. It never really occurred to me that people considered this to be an excessively hard game. Also, I think MM9 is far easier than MM1, 3, or 4. Maybe I’m just a retro-refreshes-of-Capcom-franchises savant.

  11. Listening to the recent 1up Yours with talk of Game of the Year got me thinking back on this year too. I have to say that BC:R might very well be my personal game of the year. I was immensely disappointed in most of the big game releases this year, but BC:R had me playing it for weeks, loving every second.

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