Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bionic Commando: Re-hashed

Bionic Commando: Rearmed was finally released this week on Xbox Live marketplace. I wish I could say that I was excited about that, but my exuberance for this game wore off after its third pointless delay. You see, the game was originally supposed to be out in May of this year but Capcom kept pushing it back for no other perceivable reason than drumming up press during this year's E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo, for the uninitiated. Held every year to get gamers' hopes up astronomically high before the game companies screw them out of their money and their patience). Now that I've played it almost all of the way through though, my reaction is a resounding, "meh."

The game is functionally a remake of the classic 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System Bionic Commando, which in itself was a remake of the dreadful arcade game Bionic Commando, so a little history is in order:

The original arcade game Commando was released in 1985 to arcades around the world. Its top-down vertically scrolling view of the battlefield was at that time a new theme to the arcade world. Players commanded Super Joe, whose mission was to storm the countryside and take on the enemy army by himself, using only his machine gun and grenades. Commando is inexplicitly popular among these types of games despite its lack of power-ups or simultaneous 2-player play. Truly a bland game among bland games.

Commando was followed up in 1987 with the release of Bionic Commando, where players once again took control of Super Joe, this time outfitted with a bionic grappling hook arm. This game was a horizontally scrolling platform shooter, and the goal was to get Joe to the end of the stage and defeat the core computer systems in each level. Its originality lay in the fact that the player's character could not jump onto the platforms, but had to negotiate them with the use of the grappling hook. Again there were no power ups, and Bionic Commando's frustrating controls, plentiful bad guys with poor artificial intelligence, and one-hit kills resulted in the player being caught in a constant cluster-f**k of bad design – it basically relegated the game to obscurity in the arcades at the time. In spite of this, the game was ported to numerous home computer systems the same year, with variations in game-play themes.

In 1988, Bionic Commando received a major overhaul for the Nintendo Entertainment System. As the 8-bit NES was somewhat less capable of delivering the arcade experience, Capcom re-constructed the game from top to bottom, using the arcade game as a sketch before filling in the gaps in game-play. It wasn't pretty even by the standards of the day and the game could be cruel and unforgiving at times (especially to new players), but Bionic Commando had enough originality and quirkiness at the time to garner a following of cult-gamers. This time, players took the role of Rad (or Lad, depending on who you ask) Spencer, a commando for FF Battalion who has had a bionic grappling hook attached to his left arm.

A note about the character's name: No where in the game is he referred to as "Rad," "Lad," or even "Spencer." He is only ever called "Captain" in the game. Given the character's outrageous hairstyle, bionic limb, and penchant for sunglasses, I do believe the character was originally supposed to be a younger version of Capcom's own superhero, "Captain Commando," who later appeared in his own side-scrolling beat-em-up and later still in Marvel vs. Capcom and its sequel. The game's end credits seem to verify this, and it is only through fan stupidity and Capcom's subsequent re-writes of the game that the infinitely retarded name "Rad Spencer" was added. This is one of the reasons I play Captain Commando so much in the Marvel vs. Capcom series – it takes me back.

Anyway… Players were now given an over-world map with which to access the different areas of the game in any order they preferred, given that they had the necessary equipment to get there… Oh yeah, they also had equipment they could collect by beating stages this time out, adding some much-needed depth to the game. Enemies were pretty stupid, but fairly formidable, and they had more than a few variations throughout the game. Stages were fairly large for an NES game, and getting around them using the bionic arm was something that one had to learn to get through the game. When the player's transport helicopter would connect with an enemy's truck, the game would switch to the traditional top-down style of game-play from the original Commando, adding a surprise amount of variety to the game.

Throughout the game the player uncovers a foreign conspiracy to resurrect a doomsday weapon from the past, as well as its creator, Master D. The game's fan following was cemented when Master D turned out to be none other than Adolph Hitler, and one of the ending sequences had the player shooting him with a rocket launcher causing his face to explode in an uncharacteristically graphic, gore-filled sequence on the NES. My guess is that the game was so hard towards the end that the censors didn't get that far into it.

The game was remade again on the black and white (or dark green and light green) Game Boy in 1991. This version was mostly the same as the NES version, with cleaner graphics, improved swing mechanics, and new characters and plot elements. The design was much more futuristic (as opposed to the 1940's aesthetic of the original), and the vertically-scrolling Commando-like stages were replaced with more side-scrolling. The game introduced a convoluted but still functional password system, a first for the series.

In 1999 another version of the game was released for the Game Boy Color, making use of its higher color palette and bigger memory to provide the player with a new take on the game. While not a bad game by anyone's standards, the characters are just nameless soldiers (the player can choose either a male of female commando this time), the grappling mechanics are much slower and harder to use, and the game performs the most heinous of all glitches – it crashes frequently while you are attempting to save the game, making the battery backup feature completely useless. This is the only version of the game I have never had the patience to play until the end, because it is simply not as fun as the other versions even though it has many new features.

In case I haven't made it clear, I'm something of a Bionic Commando fanatic, though that phase seems to be at an end. The recent remake has polygonal graphics, which are gorgeous even without HD video. The character (now referred to as Captain Spencer) looks like a current-generation version of the original sprite right down to the funky haircut and sunglasses. The bionic arm mechanics seem pretty faithful to the NES original, and probably a bit more like the Game Boy version (which has the best claw mechanics of them all), but some of the improvements that they've made seem sort of off. Swinging to platforms above is a little too easy, and I often find myself landing in places I didn't want to go because the character goes through platforms. You still can't grapple the top of a platform to one below – the only feature I liked in the Game Boy Color version – without walking off of the edge first. All of the art is made to look like real-life versions of the NES's talking heads, which is fantastic, but there is much less variety in the enemies in this game. The enemies have better A.I., but they seem to be less plentiful and the stages lack the variety of hazards that the NES game provided. The bosses are a lot more varied, which balances it out and even long-time fans of the original will have to learn new tricks to beat them. Although I made it through 90% of the game in less than one day, it should be said that I can beat the original without using a single continue, and I find this game far more challenging. The Albatross (the giant laser cannon doomsday weapon) is really pissing me off with its insane level of difficulty, though if I play it enough I think that I might be able to get through it. Rather than add more stages to the game, GRIN (the game's developer) decided to put in "Challenge Stages," which are a virtual reality-like copout to putting new content in. This gimmick didn't impress me with Metal Gear Solid and it doesn't impress me now.

My friend Nick, who is usually able to clobber me in most of the games we play is having trouble making it through the first stage, but then he never really played the original, so that sort of makes me feel elitist. I'm sure he'll figure it out.

Overall, I'm glad that I purchased the game as it has the polish and Xbox live is finally starting to get some complex side-scrolling platform games, but the incongruities in some of the mechanics of play make it at best a mediocre experience and at worst a frustrating one.

We'll see how I feel when I beat it… and I WILL beat it!

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