Bionic Commando Rearmed: the king of the swingers?

It's been over 20 years since we first saw Bionic Commando. Is it good to have it back, fully rearmed, though?

Bionic Commando: welcome back!

I’ve been looking forward to this retro remake with cautious optimism; while the initial screenshots looked promising, the news that a European rather than Japanese production team were behind it (Sweden’s GRIN) made me somewhat anxious. While we westerners are more than capable of creating world-class quality games, our approach to making them is often very different to developers in the east – simply put, the Japanese do platform games better than anyone, and Tokuro Fujiwara’s original Bionic Commando was a classic, innovative take on the genre in both the arcade and on the NES. Could GRIN faithfully capture the spirit of the  1980s original?

Before the jury delivers its verdict, and for the sake of readers who don’t know what the fuss is about, here’s a brief bionic recap:

1987’s Bionic Commando was a semi-sequel to Commando, with the lone soldier from that game (Super Joe) returning with a new secret weapon – a telescopic grappling arm. Essentially a side-scrolling platform game (think of Rolling Thunder, Green Beret or Fujiwara’s own Ghosts ‘n Goblins and you’re somewhere close), Bionic Commando took many players by surprise due to its unusual control system. Instead of the traditional jump button, Super Joe swung from platform to platform with his extending grappling hook – a frustratingly fiddly mechanism that took several coins and a lot of patience to perfect. I still remember my first encounter with it (Blackpool amusement arcade, 1989), and I found it completely bewildering. Gradually though, as the pile of coins depleted and my thumbs went numb, it began to make sense, the bionic arm eventually proving to be surprisingly versatile. Not only could you swing across gaps, you could pull yourself up to platforms above and prod enemies to death with it too.

Like all Fujiwara games (Commando, Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins and its sequel Ghouls ‘n Ghosts), Bionic Commando was very challenging indeed, even after the control system had been mastered. The NES version, released a year after its arcade debut, followed suit. A semi-sequel to the original, the Nintendo outing added extra levels, an area selection screen, and a bizarre new backstory that was seriously watered down for the west: a group of ‘imperialist Nazis’ intent on reviving the corpse of Adolf Hitler were holding Super Joe prisoner, and it’s up to new Bionic hero Radd Spencer to swing in and rescue him.

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Thanks to Nintendo of America’s rather over-zealous rules on content, the US and European versions removed all references to Nazis (cunningly renamed the Nazz in the instruction manual), Hitler was changed to Master-D and any images of him were disguised with a hat and glasses. Thankfully, the spectacular gameplay survived intact, as did a surprisingly grim concluding sequence that showed Hitler’s head exploding.

Fast-forward twenty years, and it’s this NES version that GRIN have updated. So how does it hold up?

Visually, it’s good news: the 2.5D graphics are stunning, with beautifully fluid character animation that accentuates every graceful swing and acrobatic flip. The enemies’ convincing movements are married to some surprising AI; attempt to sneak up behind them and they’ll leap behind crates for cover.

Radd Spencer’s bionic abilities have been updated with the graphics – he can now grab soldiers and use them as shields, and barrels can be picked up and flung at cowering foes. His armoury’s been expanded too – there are grenades, lasers, bazookas and shotguns that are guaranteed to put a smile on even the most jaded player’s face.

Graphical polish and new toys would be useless if they weren’t married to a decent control system – and with a game as balanced as Bionic Commando this is more crucial than usual. In this respect, GRIN have done very well too; there are flaws (it’s sometimes easy to fire your bionic arm in the wrong direction – though this could be more to do with the inaccuracy of the 360’s directional pad), but generally the controls are responsive and every bit as usable as the 80s original.

Overall, Rearmed is a fantastic achievement, and a real joy to play. Whether you’re a fan of the original or not, this is a game well worth downloading, and the fact that it only costs a measly 800 points on XBLA makes it downright essential – it’s better than many games equivalent to four times that amount.

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In fact, Rearmed is so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s merely a dress rehearsal for the fully fledged Bionic Commando sequel that’s still in production. Quite how it will live up to the remake’s dizzyingly high standard remains to be seen – however it turns out, Bionic Commando: Rearmed is stunning, and GRIN deserve a medal.

Bionic Commando: Rearmed is available to download now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.