I don’t think I fully realized it at the time, but Bionic Commando: Rearmed was probably one of the best gaming experiences I had this year. I never played Bionic Commando on the NES, so I have no idea how it stacks up against the original. Honestly, I might not even have bought it in the first place if not for the combination of a low price point and a release date that coincided exactly with my sudden pangs of desire for classic platforming. Although it was an impulse purchase for me, it turned out to be exactly the right game at the right time. The arm mechanic felt new, the challenge was on par with NES games like Mega Man and Castlevania, and, most surprisingly, the visual polish of the remake did not come at the cost of loose controls. All in all, I was incredibly satisfied with the game, but I hadn’t given it much thought since beating it this summer.
[[image:cg_bioniccom.jpg:Bionic for the whole family.:center:0]]
Recently, however, I had the chance to play through Bionic Commando: Rearmed with my boyfriend, and I made an amazing discovery. Not only is this a great game for masochists seeking a pleasant abusive 8-bit style challenge, it’s also a fantastic casual game. I absolutely did not expect this. When he was looking through the files on my Playstation 3 and asked what this Bionic Commando thing was, I must admit that I braced myself for disaster. Now, be fair, he’s not exactly a non-gamer; one early sign I had that this relationship just might be a good idea was when he saw my copy of Dragon Quest VIII and asked me whether or not I had found the typo in the instruction manual. On the other hand, his attempts at 8-bit style action platforming games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, or Castlevania tend to end up as hilarious exercises in frustration for everyone involved. Suffice to say, I had more than a little trepidation when he started up the game.
In the end, though, not only did he not hate it, we ended up beating the game together and had an awesome time doing it, thanks to the joys of Easy Mode and Cooperative Play. Both features were shockingly well designed. I was nervous to try coop in a game that required such precision, since a missed jump could send you far, far away from your partner, but the transition into a splitscreen when players are separated is seamless. Even better are the adjustments made to the boss encounters to emphasize cooperation. I was initially confused when the strategy I explained to him for beating the first boss didn’t work, but that quickly shifted to glee when I realized that the AI was adjusted for two players, requiring us to coordinate an attack from two separate directions to damage it.
Easy Mode also surpassed my expectations. Rather than just offering standard Easy Mode benefits like weaker enemies, this game fundamentally changes the level designs by adding floating cubes to places where beginners are likely to miss jumps. For example, there are cubes forming bridges over bottomless pits, and there are cubes that let you walk right past the game’s most difficult grapping sections if you choose to do so. It’s something like the platforming of equivalent of bumper bowling, and this clever safeguard created a game we both could enjoy. The cubes stand out enough visually to make players realize when they are able to progress thanks to the generosity of Easy Mode rather than their own skill. For me, just landing on one of them felt like a punishment. For him, on the other hand, it kept frustration to a minimum, enabling us to plow through the game.
I hope that well-designed adjustable difficulty modes like this will become more common. I like playing simple, classic games like this cooperatively with friends, but I just don’t know many people who want to take the kind of abuse that they dish out. Even when there is no cooperative play option, I think more games could benefit from an Easy Mode in this style. For example, as much as I loved playing through Mega Man 9 on Superhero Mode, I’d trade that experience in an instant for the option to make the game enjoyable for people who didn’t waste their childhood honing their action platforming skills. The designers of Bionic Commando: Rearmed seem to understand that retro gaming experiences should be accessible even for people who have better things to do with their time than practice swinging over an endless hallways of spikes for hours at a time. I hope this is something that future designers of retro games keep in mind. Extreme difficulty may be a major part of the gaming community’s collective memory of these games, and it makes sense for the default setting of games like Bionic Commando and Mega Man 9 to be challenging. At the same time, there’s no reason difficulty should be a barrier to entry that prevents people with a more casual interest from enjoying new games with a strong retro influence, which often have the kind of simple game mechanics that should appeal to a broad audience.