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The original Bionic Commando was an arcade game developed by Capcom that released in 1987. It’s an action platformer and the gimmick is the protagonist’s bionic arm which featurs a grappling gun, allowing him to swing around the environments. An NES version was released in 1988 and contains significant differences from the arcade release. Furthermore, the Nazi symbolism seen in the Japanese version was stripped out of the North American version which is the version I played for this review. The basic premise in both versions is the same but instead of engaging Nazis, the enemies are referred to as the Badds. I’ve wanted to play this for a while and I found a copy on eBay for pretty cheap so I bought it.
The story is set some time in the 1980’s. The Federation Forces discover a documents about a project called “Albatros” being developed by the Empire. They send in Super Joe, apparently the same character from the 1985 game, Commando, to stop them but he’s captured. They then send in Ladd Spencer, a commando with a bionic arm, to rescue him. I think the story was pretty good for the time it released and the game sends you on quite an adventure.
The basic idea is to move from area to area and acquire the items you need to progress. You start on an overworld map where your helicopter can transfer you to new areas. You descend on an area which is basically a side scrolling level to complete. The overworld map also consists of enemies and flying over them will force you to complete top-down levels which are usually not very difficult. Most of the areas are hostile but some are neutral. You can acquire items, enter buildings, and interact with NPC’s in neutral areas but if you attack anyone, you’ll become a target.
The side scrolling areas are the real meat of the game and you’ll need to master your bionic arm to progress. Ladd can run, duck or crouch, and shoot left and right. He can’t jump or shoot up and down. He has to use his arm to swing and grapple onto things. The areas do get more challenging the further you progress and they are more or less puzzles you need to figure out. Knowing how to grapple effectively and timing are the keys to succeeding. Making a mistake can result in having to trek back to where you were, taking damage, or death and the gameplay is very trial and error. Why Ladd can’t jump is never explained in-game. The controls will take some getting used to and the stiff movement can be a bit of a bitch sometimes but once you get the hang of things, swinging around the environments becomes a lot of fun.
Before you descend onto an area, you get to choose what gear or equipment you can bring with you. You start with a standard gun and a commincator but there are other items you can acquire which can be equipped before descending, some of which are required to progress. There’s different types of weapons, protective gear, and communicators, among other items. Areas will contain contact rooms where you can communicate with your own men and wire-tap your enemies, both of which provide you tips and information on what’s up ahead or what you need to do to proceed. But in order to do these things, you’ll need the appropriate communicators. These rooms also act as checkpoints. If you die, you’ll respawn at the beginning of the area or the door to the last room you exited. If you lose all your lives, it’s game over but if you have any continues, you can continue where you left off. Every now and then an item box will come parachuting down and you can break it to reveal an item that will aid you.
Bionic Commando is a challenging game and you should get used to the idea of dying repeatedly. You’ll start out against basic soldiers that patrol around and shoot at you but soon enough you’ll be up against shield soldiers, giant bugs, attack robots, helicopters, and laser cannons, among other foes. Trying to navigate and dodge enemy projectiles will require mastery of the grappling mechanic and timing. You’ll have to duck under projectiles and hang from platforms to avoid certain dangers, and know when and where to swing. Fumbling around with the controls can result in death especially in the later areas which can be very frustrating. This is not a forgiving game. Enemies don’t stop coming. They’ll come parachuting down, they respawn, and they will always keep you moving when they’re around. There are some enemies that are just annoying like the man eating plants that can kill you instantly. Many of the flying types can make navigation a real nuisance since they just get in your way. I also don’t like how quickly more enemies appear after wiping some out. For example, you kill one, and another shows up almost immediately. There’s little to no breathing room for thinking. Memorization is basically required. Regardless, the enemy variety is quite impressive and the game is always throwing new types at you and because of that, it’s always pushing you to try new things. You just need to be careful.
The goal of most areas is to get to the end and destroy the computer system. And you’re rewarded with an item for doing so. You’ll progress through different rooms and have to navigate around numerous obstacles. Many areas are very vertical, requiring you to navigate upward. At the end of most areas is a room which is where the computer system is. These rooms will normally contain a bunch of enemies and/or a tough enemy type that can be considered a boss and you’ll encounter several of these boss types often. I kind of wish there was more boss variety. Most of them have specific weak points and some of the computer systems will have a gun that fires at you, making destroying them even more difficult.
There’s many ways to die in Bionic Commando. Whether it be from enemies or environmental hazards, the game is always trying to kill you. Some weapons are better for certain situations and some are actually required for getting passed certain obstacles. Taking down enemies and moving through an area without taking damage is all about timing. It can be very easy to swing into enemies, pull yourself up onto platforms and get attacked by enemies, fall to your death, or land on spikes. Sometimes it’s not always clear how to progress. Spring boards launch you upward, slime things will carry you, you can ride certain platforms, and you can only grapple onto things like platforms, ceilings, and specific objects. You can usually see what’s around you so you want to time your grapples and attacks or chances are you’ll take damage and/or get knocked back. You’ll often have to grapple and swing from one section to another and many of the later areas can feel cheap since you can’t always see what’s up ahead or because there’s little room for error. Analyzing your surroundings is important but sometimes you have to move quickly and won’t have a lot of time to think. Bionic Commando is the kind of game that requires practice.
Bionic Commando looked pretty good for its time. There’s a decent amount of color and detail in the environments. It doesn’t look as good as the arcade game but this is on the NES. The neutral areas all look and feel the same but the hostile ones vary in appearance making each one feel different. The sound effects are pretty basic but the soundtrack is composed of catchy tunes that fit the action well. From a technical standpoint, I didn’t encounter any issues.
When it comes to run and gun side-scrolling action games, I’m a Contra guy. That’s my go-to series. Fast-paced action, aliens, and awesome firepower. But I did enjoy Bionic Commando. It’s different and I really wanted to play it before playing the others in the series like Rearmed which is an enhanced remake. Being an NES game, I knew this would probably be difficult and feel stiff. I was right. However, I was impressed with the plot and variety in terms of environments and enemies. Furthermore, Bionic Commando is pretty involved for a run and gun action game. For it’s time that is. At least I think so. Picking and choosing areas, selecting gear, you might have to backtrack, there’s side scrolling and top down levels, and there’s a unique gimmick to master. The bionic arm or in other words, the grappling mechanic, is what really makes Bionic Commando stand out and requires you to basically unlearn everything you know about 2D platforming. I won’t lie, not being able to jump or move down platforms easily can make navigating around even the most basic obstacles feel tedious at times but once you get used to the mechanics, it’s not so bad.
I would absolutely recommend Bionic Commando to fans of run and gun action games. This was a unique game for its time. There’s definitely a learning curve here and a lot to take in compared to other games of its kind. If you get frustrated easily, this might not be the game for you. Some aspects certainly feel dated and some of the encounters and areas feel more cheap than fair. It’s just a matter of trial and error. If you like side scrolling action games, there’s really no reason not to check this out and you can find it for pretty cheap as of this review.