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.