Bionic Commando on the NES holds a special place in my gaming heart if only because it features an exploding head and flying eyeball of who had originally been Hitler in the Japanese version. When the sequel was announced and that it would take its hero from 2D into 3D, I was curious to see just how Swedish developer, GRIN, would make it happen and if I would need a mop at the end.
The story behind the revival plays off of the localized storyline found in the original NES release for the States which replaced the original enemies with “Imperial” forces called Nazz in the manual (although they were referred to as the Badds in the game) because at the time, Nintendo’s family friendly image had no room for Nazis. Spencer, the Bionic Commando, didn’t get to live as a hero after finishing his demolitions work against the Badds, though. Some time after he had saved the world, the Government signed off on a decree that made bionics illegal and a purge followed as a thank you.
Unfortunately for Spencer, he was also framed for a crime that he didn’t commit and was subsequently imprisoned awaiting execution, sans his bionic arm but now will a full head of dreadlocks. Ten years later, a terrorist force named BioReign made up of rebel bionics, their allies, and the remnants of the Badds now referred to as Imperials, detonate a bomb in Ascension City that levels much of it as well as rain radiation into what is left. Because Spencer is the only one that has had experience in dealing with the Imperials, he’s called to take on the mission as part of a deal that will clear his name and stop BioReign at the same time.
As the story develops, it appears that GRIN took most of its influence from the original with enough campiness to give it the flavor of an action packed film of the popcorn crunching variety; tongue-in-cheek with lots of macho dialogue complete with an evil German-accented villain. The game also has a real manual, one that consists of more than five pages of flimsy text wrapped around a customer registration card. A surprising amount of background data covering the characters, foes such as the bosses, and a little personal correspondence are scattered throughout the game at special, hackable, transmitters for anyone wanting to read up on more of the world that GRIN and Capcom have engineered, but thankfully, the action is the real focus here.
Swinging through the ruined streets and skyscrapers of Ascension City is nearly effortless thanks to GRIN’s polished swing controls allowing Spencer to easily adapt to life in 3D. Leaping from lampost to ruined wall and then back again almost begs for the world of Bionic Commando to be open world, but the radioactive clouds that stand in for invisible walls keep players penned inside each area with ruthless efficiency.
Climbing too high or swinging in the wrong direction around a corner can easily kill you in seconds without too much warning, sending a mixed message of whether you should explore and then die so as to experience long reloads, or keep to what you can get to and forget about being too curious. Considering that the NES version allowed you to revisit areas and was reasonably open world with only the inherent dangers present in each one providing the only danger, it’s strange that it would be ignored here.
And for as long as it can take to load up each detailed area, many make it feel as if you were moving quickly through the ruins by hopping through one ruined neighborhood after another since some transitions occur only a few minutes into the action, but that feeling quickly evaporates later in the game when larger zones start making the rounds. Exploring these limited environs can yield rewards, though, with hidden icons that can be collected like arcade bonus points if they feel daring enough to travel through a little irradiated airspace. These dangers have an old school charm to them, but in this case, it feels that would be a lot like saying that we haven’t learned anything about movies since “Commando” came out and that “The Dark Knight” is too fancy for its own good.
Spencer won’t have all of his special abilities since he has been separated from his arm for several years, but they unlock over the course of the story while other bonuses are awarded in play. Killing a certain number of bad guys with a specific weapon could unlock a larger magazine for it, or give Spencer upgraded armor, for example, rewarding the player’s skill with tangible benefits for simply playing around with the enemy.
Most of the places that Spencer will be swinging through as an armed urban explorer will also take him between giant buildings, shattered overpasses, or massive factory towers, each acting as a giant jungle gym filled with opportunities to explore or to use as convenient, vertical cover. Some of the more spectacular visuals are also underground with sunlight breaking through from above illuminating cavernous tunnels, rocky outcroppings, and miniature Grand Canyons winding their way throughout the bowels of Ascension City’s broken foundations.
Starting out with a pistol, new toys will be delivered to Spencer via rocket pod as they are dropped into the city. Spencer can only carry a limited number of weapons, though, leaving it up to you to decide whether he can afford to trade up his pistol for a rocket launcher, but every bit helps as the enemies will be every bit as relentless. Ammunition is scarce and can quickly evaporate with the sheer number of enemies forcing the player to often use Spencer’s arm and whatever random junk is lying around to handle some of the more determined enemies in his way.
Spencer can also use his bionic arm to reach out and juggle his enemies, throw them like ragdolls, or pull down obstacles to crush whoever is below. It can also be used to throw objects at enemies which, thanks to the automatic aiming, makes it feel heroic enough in being able to land a flying barrel on top of a sniper a hundred yards away without even trying. Anyone can pitch like a Bionic All Star in this game by simply pointing Spencer at an enemy. He can also use his arm to pull himself toward foes and deliver a powerful, damaging kick useful for crippling fliers overhead or in kicking at a jealously protected weak point.
With as much aerial freedom as being bionic can afford the player in this game, the enemies that get in the way spice up each area in making you think of what can be done to avoid getting killed by making the best use of your environment. Snipers and flying robots can easily turn leisurely jumps and swinging hops into adrenaline charged marathon runs through cramped piping or over deadly water with only the reaching arms of dangling steel the only safety net making it only natural that many battles take place high above these dangerous environments creating a crazy sense of twisting one-armed acrobatic combat.
But this high flying act has a few missteps that can make fighting the good fight as the world’s mightiest bionic warrior challenging in less exciting ways. The haphazard checkpoint system can sometimes force you to repeat large sections of gravity defying combat, often in situations that can easily result in instant death with one misstep especially over water since bionic Spencer can sink like a rock.
This, along with the occasionally seesawing difficulty of the game, can easily crush whatever patience players might have to finish it when they rinse and repeat their way back to where they had died. Unlike Ninja Gaiden’s safety blanket of killer moves and devastating speed buoyed by a decent checkpoint system encapsulating each portion of humble pie, Bionic Commando’s can sometimes feel as if the designers wanted to inject an additional level of difficulty by simply moving those same points even farther from each other. It feels cheap.
Dangling from Spencer’s bionic grappler is also a lot more fun than the combat which can begin feeling bland after so long even when confronted with giant, power suited, bad guys with convenient weaknesses hidden in their backs that seem to simply extend the pain. The bosses dramatically mix things up with challenging scenarios whether it is as a giant mechanical worm tunneling underneath a parking lot or a flying gunship that you must duel at the top of the highest, still standing, building in the city. There’s also a fun sequence involving a swarm of flying robots, but most of the rest simply fill in what is left.
Multiplayer extends the experience online between players gunning for each other as they swing through obstacles in a chase for supremacy creating a different experience for third-person action fans looking forward to a little action after the relatively short single player is completed. Outside of the Achievements, there isn’t much else to look forward to once the game is done other than some art and the ability to replay previous stages. Anyone hoping that the original Bionic Commando would have been included on the same disc will have to look to a Capcom collection of favorites to relive those days or opt for the downloadable remake of the NES original, Bionic Commando: Rearmed.
Bionic Commando is something of a short title and can be finished, with enough patience, over a weekend which may not appeal to players hoping for a little more than a cheese laden story and some fancy bionic moves. Its more than twenty year hiatus also presents something of a problem as nostalgic fans may get more mileage out of this revival than those that have never had an NES or know what Bionic Commando used to be, but the game’s fun but flawed arcade act might not be enough to convince even these veterans to part with their arm and strap on an armored grapple for nostalgia’s sake.