Dev: TNN et al. | Publisher: TNN/Xing/Marvelous | System: SFC/PS1/PSP | Date: 1994
When I’ve talked about games that keep the spirit of Bionic Commando, what I’ve really meant by spirit is that very specific, technical element of grappling and swinging. Lots of games have swing mechanics, but very few put any amount of thought into it. Look at Super Metroid — the grappling beam is essential once or twice in the course of the game, but outside of those specific instances you’ll rarely use it. In fact, it’s better as a cheat for killing a boss than as a means of getting about Zebeth’s labyrinthine corridors. Samus doesn’t even have any special animations to indicate momentum or gravity, which makes her look stiff and awkward next to Radd Spencer (who crooks one leg forward as he arcs forward and back).
And nothing, nothing comes close to the technical swinging mechanics of Umihara Kawase.
Originally designed as a Super Famicom game, Umihara looks unassuming enough; a little schoolgirl carrying a fishhook is the protagonist, and she wanders through surreal stages with digitized clip art backgrounds and bizarre man-fish roaming the pathways. But beneath that lighthearted surface lurks a beast of a game, an exercise in precision physics that can break a man’s soul. The original version of the game was described on the box as a “rubbering action game,” which isn’t as naughty as it sounds; basically it means that Umi’s fishing line is incredibly elastic. Mastering the game is a matter of learning to manipulate the behavior of the line. Where Bionic Commando has very tightly-defined swinging, Umihara’s is much more varied and difficult to master.
Frankly, I kinda suck at it. And you need to not suck by about ten stages into the game if you want a chance of finishing the adventure. In the PlayStation version, the better you are the more interesting routes you can take through the adventure: Secret doors are hidden out of the way in nearly every level, and only true experts of the game can even begin to hope to reach those. It’s pretty humbling!
Umihara’s never made its way out of Japan, but despite the title it hasn’t gotten away entirely: Natsume will be bringing over the PSP port this fall as Yumi’s Odd Odyssey. That’s good! But the PSP port notoriously suffered from major physics issues, which completely spoils the point of the game. That’s bad! Hopefully they’ll fix it up before releasing it, because the core game is an interesting, challenge-driven alternate take on the concept of grappling — and the only game to really give Bionic Commando’s swing gimmick a run for its money.
(Images courtesy of HG101)