Bionic Commando

   Back in the '80s, there was a wide gulf between the sprite-pushing power of arcade machines and home consoles. From the very start, home systems were feeble also-rans compared to their pizza-parlor counterparts; and though the expanse has narrowed greatly in recent years, during the peak of the NES era the difference had a huge impact on the nature of arcade-to-console ports. Many 8-bit home conversions were terrible - look at the Atari 2600 travesty called Pac-Man, for instance. But other games improved immensely during the transition; Ninja Gaiden, for instance, went from being a weak Double Dragon clone to a fast-paced, skill-oriented platformer with revolutionary inter-level cinemas. And among the countless games to be ported from the arcade to the NES, it was perhaps Capcom's Bionic Commando whose facelift displayed the greatest improvement.

Light blue - for the softer side of your furher.
Killing Nazis: OK in Japan, but unfit for Americans

   Originally titled Top Secret in Japan, the arcade version of Bionic Commando was a side-scroller in the mold of other Capcom arcade titles like Black Tiger and Ghosts 'N' Goblins: fast, simple and brain-smashingly difficult. Bionic Commando's primary claim to fame was the fact the it represented a sort of diverging evolution in game development. All platform-action games can be traced back to David Crane's seminal Pitfall!, where the hero ran, jumped and swung on hanging vines. Subsequent games took the "running" and "jumping" bits to heart, but Bionic Commando eschewed the "jumping" and brought back the "swinging." The game's eponymous commando got about with the aid of a bionic wire which worked along the same lines as Spider-Man's web-shooters. While some gamers balked at the loss of the ability to jump, the wire arm is so tightly integrated into the mechanics of the game that its use quickly becomes second nature - not only for mobility, but for grabbing out-of-reach items, stunning enemy soliders, and knocking paratroopers out of the sky. Grappling through five linear levels of increasingly difficult combat, the Bionic Commando was a quarter-crunching warrior without a specified purpose beyond "beat the baddies."

   But when Capcom ported the game to the NES, they added a surprising amount of depth which transformed the title from "quirky action platformer" to "unique and innovative adventure." The graphics became worse - they're quite functional, but lack the color depth and resolution of the original, and the protagonist looks oddly like Spider-Man's nemesis Dr. Octopus - but every other aspect of the game came out ahead on Nintendo's little grey box. Bionic Commando for NES is a mission-based adventure that takes the basic grapple-and-swing gameplay of the arcade game and transforms it into a huge, sprawling quest to rescue a hero and put an end to the greatest villain of the twentieth century.

Pink helmets - for the feminine side of your inner Stalin.
He's not Russian - really

   From the minute the game is turned on, Bionic Commando on the NES differs wildly from its original incarnation. For one thing, the new opening screens retrofit BC as a semi-sequel to Capcom's top-down shooter Commando: Super Joe, the hero of Commando, has been captured on a mission into "the Empire" while attempting to uncover the secrets of the "Albatros." The Albatros was a superweapon which was developed but never completed by an army called the Badds (who were not coincidentally a Nazi-like military faction intent on dominating the world). Now, Imperial leader Generalissimo Killt hopes to crush the world under his heel, and he has the plans for Albatros and an army of midgets to make good his threat. With the legendary hero Super Joe missing in action, the freedom-loving Federation turns to its last hope: the Bionic Commando, Capt. Ladd Spencer.

   Upon starting a new game, players are presented with an overhead map of the Badds' territory, which is navigated freely by Ladd's crew via helicopter (similar to the world maps which would later be seen in Super Mario Bros. 3). Certain areas are impassible without specific equipment, and extra danger lurks in the form of enemy convoys, depicted by trucks which patrol the map and draw Ladd into ground combat upon contact. These enemy contact scenes serve a dual purpose: first, they tie the game back to Commando by presenting combat in the short, linear, top-down battlegrounds which comprise the older game; and secondly, they let Ladd collect tokens which allow the game to be continued after Game Over. In these scenes, the Bionic Commando's special grappling wire is limited to deflecting bullets and stunning enemies.

There's a reason those trucks never made it anywhere.
How not to number your base

   The meat of the game, however, lies in the 12 levels of side-scrolling platform exploration which Ladd must navigate in order to rescue Super Joe. Beginning with a descent into a remote outpost in the fringes of Badd territory and progessing all the way to the very heart of the evil empire's capital city and central stronghold, the Bionic Commando must swing through a dozen stages of enemy drones and some surprisingly nasty traps, all set up to make sure his grappling wire gets a serious workout. Though the Badds' logic in creating bases which could be traversed only by their bionically-enhanced enemy is questionable at best, the lapse in real-world common sense makes for clever and challenging level design. Several points in the game require players to learn perfect wire-arm timing to make the most of tiny graspable surfaces while avoiding dumb but persistent (and plentiful) foes.

It was the 80s, so we'll forgive the whole sunglasses indoors thing.
Because every hero needs a pose… that should end in ...

   What elevates this game beyond its arcade incarnation, however, is not simply its canny level design. Rather, a simple but effective inventory system turns Bionic Commando into a game requiring a great deal of exploration and interaction; and the story, which is extremely simple by contemporary standards, was comparitively detailed and engaging a decade ago. Ladd begins the game with a gun and a communication device which can interface with Imperial terminals; in each level, he has to track down communication consoles with which to contact his comrades. If he's feeling especially bold, he may also wiretap into enemy communiques. Of course, intercepting an enemy transmission may reveal Ladd's location to the Badds, leading to an ambush, but the risk is worthwhile as a wiretap can often reveal details on the mysterious Albatros, the whereabouts of Joe, or even stranger enigmas.

   As Ladd progresses into enemy territory, his inventory becomes a vital asset; certain terminals require special decoders, and various obstacles can only be destroyed with special weapons. There are also numerous "Neutral Areas," where firefight is prohibited; here Ladd can speak to allies, acquire special equipment, interrogate enemies and even exchange pleasantries with the Killt himself. While it might be tempting to take out the enemy leader (or fight back against the enemy soldiers who try to knife you) here, opening fire in a Neutral Area will cause guards to swarm over you like ants on a sucker in the sand.

Even if the enemy troops survived, they all ended up with back problems.
Under a blood red sky

   But while the game's translation from arcade to NES was superlative, its translation from Japanese to English was wretched - doubly bad, in fact. With a script seemingly written by a failing ESL student, Bionic Commando has some of the most laughable dialogue ever to (dis)grace a game, with text ranging from the goofy ("Get the heck out of here, you nerd!") to the awkward ("Maybe we can find good weapon we can use") to the nonsensical ("Oh, we've got a little boy now?"). To compound the problem, much of the narrative strength of Bionic Commando's story was lost when the enemy nation - a restored Nazi empire - became the "Badds." Bionic Commando's full title on the Famicom was "Top Secret: The Revival of Hitler," and Nazi imagery saturated the game. Presumably the editing was intended to prevent protests of racism (despite the fact that the point of the game was to STOP the Nazis from returning to power), but the result - swastikas being transformed into eagles and a resurrected Hilter being renamed "Master-D" - makes the overall storyline a bit disjointed and far less compelling. (Oddly, even with this heavy censorship, Bionic Commando still stands as perhaps the only NES game to use the word "damn," and featured "Master-D's" head exploding in gruesome detail. And the game's manual, apparently written before the game was completely translated, uses the word "Nazz" in pace of "Badd.")

   Nevertheless, despite the shortcomings of the final American game, Bionic Commando was an excellent title in its time and even today is unique and enjoyable. Despite being remade (twice on GameBoy, including an excellent US-programmed version earlier this year) and mimicked (many games such as Super Metroid have borrowed the grappling concept), the charm and excellence of the NES version have never been matched. With Capcom revisiting their old properties in recent years, bringing long-forgotten heroes like Strider Hiryu and Arthur back to the limelight, there's hope that Captain Ladd may swing back into action at some date in the future. Until then, Bionic Commando will remain a stellar example of what a single clever twist can do to add a touch of freshness to an often-stale genre.

Retrospective by J. Parish, GIA.
Bionic Commando
Developer Capcom
Publisher Capcom
Genre Adventure
Medium Cartridge
Platform NES
Released  07.20.88
132 screenshots
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