We’re done with Bionic Commando now, and I’m very disappointed in you all for not reading it by the thousands, because this is a truly great game. I’ve always liked it, but after breaking it down stage-by-stage I see that it truly was masterfully crafted. Capcom created a platformer that broke the rules of platforming, and they did a remarkable job of nudging players in the proper direction. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not. But there’s a reason I was able to master the game my second time to play it, and it’s not because I’m some gaming savant; Bionic Commando is simply that thoughtfully designed.
While NES Bionic Commando stands at the pinnacle of the series in terms of raw design and inspiration, the entire series provides interesting perspective on this classic.
The series began in arcades, where it clearly came into being as a follow-up to Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Same art style (definitely a Tokuro Fujiwara special), same stiff controls, same insane difficulty level. I’m almost positive they finished up development on GnG and said, “Alright, how can we make this even harder? Ah… let’s take away jumping.”
The arcade game had that sort of “ha ha, screw you” approach Capcom took to their arcade platformers, spamming you with all kinds of cheap deaths and overwhelming odds that often didn’t make for a very fun game experience. It’s not that it’s difficult so much as unbalanced, requiring considerable memorization and even then crammed with enough randomness that you’re still at the whims of the A.I.
The bionic arm in the arcade game really does feel like an evolution of Arthur’s jump: It’s a fussy, unfriendly way to get about, and once you initiate the action you’re committed to it. It doesn’t help that extending your arm at a 45-degree angle requires moving your controller in the same direction. The NES game would change the speed of grappling, the bionic arm’s ease of use, and the overall accessibility and balance of the action to properly realize the germ of brilliance hidden beneath so much awkwardness.
The NES game was, as often happened with NES “versions” of arcade games, the only one of its kind for years. Bionic Commando came to a ton of other platforms, but it was always adaptations of the coin-op. Only the NES had what amounted to the sequel. That it, until 1992, when Capcom released Bionic Commando for Game Boy. Interestingly, this was the first time the Top Secret title didn’t appear on the Japanese version; Capcom was making a clear break from the series’ arcade origins, and it shows. Bionic Commando on Game Boy is a wonderfully faithful adaptation of the NES game.
The biggest change the Game Boy port makes is to completely reimagine the game’s setting; rather than being set in 1989, the story now transpires in a far-future century. As a result, the Hitler/Fourth Reich connection disappears completely as well. Despite the futurism and revisionism, though, this hews amazingly close to the NES game, scaled down and made monochrome but every bit as solid and playable as its source material.
The Game Boy Bionic Commando makes one other change that would be repeated in subsequent games: The Albatross weapon is no longer the size of a Metal Gear. It’s more like the Balrog fortress from Strider. Rather that existing as a single-screen battle, the Albatross comprises the entire final stage of the game. The spirit is much the same — there’s a deviously difficult sequence where you have to grapple along the bottom of the airship, suspended over nothingness, to reach the hangar where not-Hitler/not-Master-D is about to jet away. Not only is it the most nerve-wracking sequence in the entire game, it also calls back to the NES Albatros with its intermittently firing thrusters. A really fantastic rendition all around, that expands the finale to become something even better.
And then there was Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, which I endorsed heartily upon launch, because 2000 was a lonely time for fans of 2D games. In hindsight, it’s OK, but it makes a lot of dumb design mistakes that were fairly common back then. Too much animation, too-large sprites. A weird sniper mode that popped up from time to time for no reason other than someone on the team MDK and was like, “Yes!”
That being said, it’s not bad. Less than a wholly new game, more than a remake, it walked a weird line between new and old without total success — but with some success, nevertheless. And it used the standalone Alabatross level, which was nice. Also: Female protagonist option! A first and only for the series. She wore leg warmers and dyed her hair pink. She was cool.
Almost a decade later came Bionic Commando ’09, which… well, it did some interesting things. But it also used a lot of design shortcuts (invisible walls in the form of dangerous radiation zones if you dared stray from the intended path), and it suffered really badly from being a product of its times. The angry dreadlocked white dude protagonist was inexplicably supposed to be Captain Spencer, and doddering old Super Joe was now the bad guy. And then there was the whole Evangelion thing about the arm…. ugh.
I wouldn’t mind seeing the same team take another crack at the idea now that we’ve moved beyond the age of trying too hard. I’m pretty sure that without the grimdark patina and the cheap barriers, this could be a heck of a game. It almost was!
And finally, there were the Rearmed games, the first of which was an almost perfect update of the NES game, absolutely bursting with love for the source material. Great music, lovely graphics, great new additions (I loved the little details, like your chopper pilot being a lady named Haley… who at the end took the role of Hal), improved bosses, a ton of optional challenge rooms. Just great stuff all around.
I guess that just leaves Rearmed 2, which I never played because it required an always-on Internet connection, and my PS3 and Xbox 360 were situated in a place that made that impossible. That’s not the case anymore, though, so I suppose it’s finally time to explore this untamed frontier. Even if they did give you the ability to jump. Ugh.
But that’s not next. No, next up is a game I’ve been dying to analyze since the start of this site. See you Monday. And thanks for the few of you who cared enough to read about Bionic Commando from start to finish! You’re the good ones.
16 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 15 | Bionic alternatives”
I liked ReArmed 2 a lot, because it finally attempted to add something new to the series without abandoning what we like about the series. Maybe it’s not the best game, but it’s certainly more in-line with BC than ’09 was.
Yeah, I’ve heard it’s good. I just couldn’t play it because of Capcom’s copy protection setup. But now that’s every game, so…
I thought the “protection” was only on PS3, not 360, and other than that and a couple of other games, they said they weren’t using it again?
Did they change their minds and I missed it?
I need to double-check my ReArned 2… I never got to play much of it, anyway.
I never finished ReArmed 2. I should really go back to it. I did like how they made it possible to beat every level without jumping but I wish they had an option to just straight-up disable the jump button to remove the temptation.
As seemingly the only person who truly enjoyed Bionic Commando ’09 all the way through, thanks for covering the original NES game in such great detail. It really is a masterfully designed game.
I enjoyed this series a bunch, Jeremy. I love Bionic Commando, and reading through your articles reminded me of why. I look forward to what’s coming next!
This has been my favorite anatomy you’ve done yet. Any chance you’ll tackle the Ninja Gaiden games for NES? Would really like to see you do those games.
There’s a mobile version of Bionic Commando that uses the NES graphical style, but with the Rearmed story and changes. It’s pretty cool.
Is it Japan only? Or is it available in the west?
But sorry, when I said mobile I didn’t mean smartphones. I meant the old mobiles that played games in Java.
But there’s a mobile emulator, which is what I used to play it. Let me know if you want to try it.
This Anatomy was great– Bionic Commando is one of my favorites of all time, so I’ll gladly look into anything involving it.
Can’t wait to see what comes next!
I was not impressed by ReArmed 2, and the jump button was the least of my issues with the game. But I hope you play it Jeremy and let us know what you think. It’s on Steam as well as PS3/360 (don’t know if the DRM is the same on all platforms)
Just wanted to pop in and say I love this site in general and appreciated the Bionic Commando analysis. I’ve never really been able to master the bionic arm, though.
Yeah, I’m one of the guys who didn’t make it all the way through the series. I tried, but I’ve never played the game so I just kept thinking “You know, I should really come back and read this after I’ve played it.”
I own Rearmed and I’ve tried to fire it up on my PC a couple of times but it crashes at startup. Bleah.
I’ve been reading the Bionic Commando articles, and I thought it’d be fun to play along on 3DS. Unfortunately, the NES version is unavailable on 3DS, but the Game Boy version is there. Is the Game Boy version close enough to appreciate what you’re writing about in the articles?
Yes, it’s a very faithful adaptation (though different in places).
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