Bionic Commando review
Nathan “Radd” Spencer - Does whatever a Raddster does
Usually when you think of arcade ports, you tend to think of games that are basically just optimized to play on consoles. From less detailed graphics and soundtracks to reworked controls and a limited amount of continues, the idea was to bring the arcade experience home without the need to buy an arcade machine. But Capcom were a bit crafty with this. At first, they simply added a couple of enhancements – sort of like an enhanced port of a game to compensate for weaker technical fidelity. Eventually, they just went “*bleep* it” and created games that were simply based on their arcade games. Bionic Commando was one of the latter kinds of games, but unlike Strider, it wasn't just because they felt like it; the arcade original was a pretty mediocre game that's known more for its concept of a bionic arm replacing your jump button than for the actual game itself. This time, Capcom manages to create a great game based on this mechanic and as a result, it becomes a sublime experience.
It starts off with you, Nathan “Radd” Spencer, on a mission to save Super Joe from the Badds. Super Joe was sent to the fortress on the Badds' mainlands so that he could infiltrate it and stop the Empire's plans. Turns out that there's a doomsday weapon known as The Albatross that Master-D will use to take over the world. Now, that's what you'd get if you were playing the American, European or Australian versions, but if you were playing the Japanese version, you're basically up against the Nazis. Yeah, when it comes to Nintendo of America, there's no way that a kid friendly system would play host to a game about killing a bunch of very real historical figures that committed an especially heinous act... so let's just change the logo from a Swastika to an albatross logo, call them Badds and rename Hitler Master-D... and then keep him looking like Hitler, have him say a big boy word and then have the famous frame-by-frame shots of his head blowing in graphic detail. Was that them getting tired and going “bugger it” or was this them going “you know, I think the player deserves a reward for getting this far – here, let's give them some PG/M rated content”?
What surprised me is that there are scenes that are relevant to the sequence of events. Well, they're not scenes, per se; more like text boxes, but whatever, the point is that it all usually relates to the Badds moving forward with their plan, keeping things like objects, weapons and Super Joe in different fortresses. You usually learn via each level's set of communication rooms. One thing to keep in mind is that these are peppered with helpful hints, like where you ought to get next after destroying the core of that fortress and which communicator works with what fortress. That is especially important because bringing in the wrong communicator to a fortress will result in it not working. Thankfully, the first communication room in any given level is near the start, so it's no real big deal if you bugger up. Just a tad annoying when you get through some tricky jumps and you just so happen to have brought the wrong communicator, meaning you have to do that all over again... you select your communicator, weapon, accessory and some armor before entering a level, by the way.
But yeah, the thing is that Radd cannot jump... at all. It's like he's wearing concrete boots or something. Instead, he uses his bionic arm to swing around, and once he lets go, gravity will do the rest. That, or he can shimmy his way up a platform if it's small enough heightwise. At first, this will feel weird, but as you play through the game, you'll get the swing of things. To help you, each level is designed around this mechanic, meaning that if there's a will, there's most certainly a way. In other words, there's always a ledge or a pole to swing off of that'll land you on a platform if you let go at just the right time. As you progress through the game, things get more complicated as poles and platforms are placed in ways that force you to If there's anything to pick on, it's the fact that you can only swing if you aim diagonally. What, don't trust me with using my lower body strength to get some swinging action started? Am I really wearing concrete boots? But again, Capcom designs the levels in ways that make it easy for you to hit surfaces diagonally to swing – either the ledges above you are long enough or there's something down below for you to swing on.
If only he ended his swings with multiple backflips.
This game starts off easy enough, but then it starts throwing the kitchen sink at you as each level demands more precise placements of not only your bionic arm, but each subsequent swing and even your landing. Add in some enemies trying to impede your progress, and you'll find yourself not only having to be precise with your arm, but also making sure to time it right so that you don't hit enemies. Granted, you can defend yourself with your weapon, but while you're swinging, you can't shoot – only when you've propelled yourself up, across or dropped from a hanging point. The best part of it all is that each level feels different. Most of the formations aren't the same. Each level ends about the same with you blasting away the core of the fortress, but getting there requires a bit of trial and error.
I say a bit because if you're even remotely observant of your surroundings and prone to messing around with your toys, you'll find yourself getting through the level or at least figuring out a way to get there. That bit comes from getting the timing down, but the point is that it never feels unfair. The early levels give you the general gist of how things work and the later levels test you on how much you've paid attention, to see if it becomes second nature to you. After some time, you won't even miss the inability to jump as it develops a fast paced platforming experience Sonic The Hedgehog wishes he could provide, and as I've stated before, the levels just feel natural in their design. It's not like games today that tend to make levels feel like a series of events to utilize some gimmick; it's a cohesive whole that utilizes a different mechanic in a way that feels just right, and as such, it's genius! God, I wish more games could be like this!
That's not to say that it's totally flawless – a minor issue I have is that the start button activates the accessory while the select button pauses. It's a bit lame when you accidentally use your potion instead of pausing because that has a one time use and you'll likely need it during a sticky situation. You'll get used to it with time, but it's still pretty silly to reverse the buttons like that. The big issue I have, however, is that each level ends with you destroying the generator. Alone, that's not bad, but it's what else you have to do that doesn't quite work out as well as it could've. What it boils down to is either destroying an onslaught of infinitely respawning soldiers who try to distract you, or destroying a machine that happens to be in your way. Bionic Commando works at its best when you're using your arm to swing around well designed levels from well placed swinging points, not when it comes to straight up combat and certainly not when your arm is just for dodging. There's this one machine type that, I swear, actually makes me pine for the ability to jump in order to dodge its three way shots. While the bionic arm works splendidly with the levels and even the other boss machine type, here, it's like “well, jumping would actually be a bit faster”. That's lame for a game like this. Oh, and those onslaught of soldiers I mentioned? There's a potential cheap death once you destroy the generator. Once it's blown up, you'll be staying in one spot while the soldiers move around and inexplicably run into you and kill you, forcing you to destroy it again. The best boss fight is the final one, not necessarily because of the fight itself, but the ever so famous aftermath.
You can't hit me because I'm right above you!
The ride could've ended there, but there are other elements to talk about. For one thing, there's a map screen. You'll be using it to get from level to level and even to Neutral Zones. I'll talk about those later, but for now, let's make mention of the fact that it gives the game a sense of non-linearity. I say a sense because you obviously can't just charge to the final level; you'll need to find the right communicators, which are located in the Neutral Zones, in order to even be allowed access into the final level. Getting the communicators require a rocket launcher (best weapon in the game due to its high power) and a permit (an accessory that's only for a certain Neutral Zone), but ultimately, finishing the game requires destroying all of the cores, so for a while, I never quite understood the reason for this map screen. I guess it's cool that you can move to different areas and see what you can do. I suppose there's appeal in having Neutral Zones as well; these areas host goodies like free lives, bullets (which, if you collect certain amounts of them, will give you extra hit points) and, of course, communicators, but if you open fire even once, all hell breaks loose as everyone attacks you. To put it simply, these zones are where all sides aren't allowed to shoot each other and can have doctors and nurses tend to their wounds, strategize, have a beer or something.
But then you notice all of the trucks on screen, and it begins to click; in war, you have to go to certain points in order to accomplish your mission(s), and sometimes, you're likely to get ambushed. In this case, it plays out like Commando (which this is sort of a sequel to) – it's an overhead shooter where the goal is to get to the end, shooting down whoever gets in your way. At first, it gets a bit tricky as you have to shoot foot soldiers a few times and the soldiers with shields a fair few times, but then once you get the rocket launcher, you've pretty much got this in the bag. Killing the shielded soldiers or destroying the jeeps will net you a continue or two, and this is the only way to get continues. Given how hard this game can get, it's not rare to find yourself chasing down trucks to get yourself some insurance. On its own terms, it's nothing amazing – the enemies don't actually offer that much resistance and the levels are often a wee bit too short. But it works in the context of it being a bonus level for those very reasons.
You can't hit me with your rockets because I'm not right in front of you! Let the other two hit me instead of wasting your rockets.
The presentation doesn't skip a beat either. Graphically speaking, Bionic Commando looks fantastic. While the levels' skies have nary a detail (not even a cloud), everything else makes up for that. There's plenty of shading and painstakingly detailed linework in every object, foreground and most of the backgrounds to make it look exciting. Most games that do this... unfortunately make things look too busy and wind up distracting the player, but Bionic Commando doesn't make these mistakes. The background colors are never too bright, meaning that they can have Radd and the Badds stand out with simple yet effective designs and brighter color palettes. You're also able to easily differentiate between the foreground and the background, which isn't the easiest thing to do when one strives for a high amount of detail for NES game graphics. The background is also a bit more subdued than the foreground in terms of detail. So not only does Bionic Commando look fantastic, but it doesn't sacrifice player/enemy visibility for sheer detail.
The soundtrack is one that many people fondly remember. Granted, when dealing with NES games made by Capcom, it's easy to assume that the soundtrack will be awesome or at least pretty good, but Bionic Commando goes above and beyond. The minute you hear music, you'll be subjected to a song that feels like something out of an army movie. The beats and the way each note is played makes it feel like you're on a mission to rescue a POW and then stop the big, evil dictator. The first level's music is catchier than herpes, starting off with a small drum beat before the other instruments come into play. Actually, that's how most of the music is, but of particular note is the one that first appears in Area 5. It's brooding, which is fitting with the fact that the levels it's played in either take place at dusk or at night. It's also really memorable due to its musical arrangements – it's simple, yet it knows exactly how to make you remember it. It's just a fantastic soundtrack – easily one of the best NES soundtracks of all time. Oh hey, that's also quite fitting for one of the best NES games of all time!
Bionic Commando receives a 9/10. It's a wonderful game that takes its concept and runs with it. It's designed with the bionic arm in mind and yet, it's so natural in its execution that it creates the perfect game feel. Yes, there is a bit of a learning curve with the bionic arm and Radd's inability to jump, but it doesn't take long to get the feel for the bionic arm and the challenge from there is making sure to swing on the right objects with the right trajectory. From that point, the game's majesty unfolds as you find yourself swinging around like Spiderman in order to infiltrate a series of army bases. Sure, it has a couple of flaws, but the good that this game does more than makes up for those. Really, if you haven't played this game yet, I urge you to play through it.
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- Bionic Commando2009