Bionic Commando is a 1988 NES game by Capcom. It is a sorta-port sorta-sequel to the arcade game of the same name. It differs from the original in many aspects. The arcade Bionic Commando is a straightforward quarter-munching action game, whereas the NES version is quite a bit more substantial with its bits of nonlinearity, exploration, and choices given to the player. But it is the unique controls that set it apart from the pack and make it one of the best games for the console.
The most immediately obvious aspect of the game that strikes the player is the overworld. Bionic Commando predates Super Mario Bros. 3, so it’s a little shaky here. Movement is deliberately slow (slower than the enemy trucks which move about in predetermined patterns) and you’re not given any indication of what all these numbered squares mean or what to do with them. They are the levels you will be going through: white for regular actiony areas, pink for neutral zones. The game doesn’t tell you this but you need to complete the action levels in order to progress to other parts of the map and the eventual end, and the neutral zones (where enemy soldiers will taunt you without bloodshed and where firing a gun brings the wrath of the peacekeepers upon you) often hold necessary information and equipment.
The second most apparent part to the game is the bionic arm and its accompanying control scheme. In the huge majority of action games you run around with a d-pad or joystick and jump and attack with buttons. In Bionic Commando, pressing B fires off your starting peashooter, OK. But there is no jumping in Bionic Commando, at least not from your in-game character. Pressing the A button instead launches a grappling hook that is used to attach to solid surfaces and climb through the levels. (You can also use it in a pinch to stun some of the weaker foes.) Adept use of this is absolutely essential to moving forward through the game.
Don’t underestimate the significance of the bionic arm. Using it is what separates this game from the hordes of other action games. Early on there’s a level where you have to use the arm to dash over thorny pits, shoot at pink-clad soldiers, and quickly judge where to go next, all without pause. If you haven’t mastered the necessary skills by this point, you will face a brick wall that can only be conquered by sharpening your mind and practicing the controls of the grappling arm.
Bionic Commando tests your skill in a variety of areas, but it also gives you a lot of options. Do you shoot it out with enemy tanks where you stand, or do you grapple to other locations that may be safer or might contain spikes, laser shields, man-eating plants, or other traps? Yes, it demands that you swing through dangerous areas, fight piles of enemies, and know what’s safe to grapple and what’s not, but unlike other games with strange controls, Bionic Commando‘s unique method of movement is a blast to experience, and highly rewarding at that.
When entering a level you select your weapons, items, and communicators, though you start with the bare minimum. You can get stuck in a level if you don’t have the right stuff, making an obscure exit code necessary (the game doesn’t tell you this, either, which will result in you becoming permanently stuck if you don’t have the manual or GameFAQs). You might need the right gun to break through barriers, the right item to traverse the terrain, and of course the irritating but necessary communicator packs that look like neon-colored analogues to radio backpacks from World War II. Those first two requirements are at least intuitive–the bazooka to blow up a wall right at the start of a stage or flares to see in a solid-black cave–but the communicators are just luck and memorization. Pick the wrong one and the radio tower you have to use halfway through the level will spout gibberish, necessitating a level exit and a retry. This isn’t a test of skill, it’s just tedious, though significantly more user-friendly than other roadblocks in other NES games of the time, which usually have more obscure and unintuitive solutions.
The health in Bionic Commando is an odd system, reminiscent of Rygar. Initially you die in one hit and there’s nothing to indicate that it will ever be any different. But collect enough bullets from dead enemies and a green dot appears on the screen. You now have a health meter, though pits and spikes are still instant death (and if you play video games at all, you should know this). It’s a simple thing to farm bullets to permanently increase your life bar to absurd proportions and ease your passage through the game, but you still need the skills to fight and navigate through the levels; lots of health is no excuse for a lack of ability.
The plot to the game was originally about Neo-Nazis trying to revive Adolf Hitler so they could use him to run their empire, or something suitably ridiculous. This was all censored in the English version in compliance with Nintendo’s practice at the time of altering or removing any content that would offend anybody ever. Nazis became NAZZ or BADDs, Hitler became MASTER-D (though he still looked the same), SS symbols became suitably Reich-friendly eagle emblems. None of this, however, prevented Capcom from showing this:
If Bionic Commando has any weaknesses at all, it is the imbalanced strength of the weapons (the bazooka is clearly overpowered; it rips through enemies and can kill the computer minibosses in a single hit) and the irritation of having to select the right communicator before each level when there is nothing to inform the player of what is the proper choice. None of these are game-breaking frustrations, though, and the overall experience is one of the most pleasurable ones on the NES.
Bionic Commando gives you special tools and forces you to use them in an often creative fashion to progress through the game. To me, that is one of the marks of good game design. A lesser game might give you a grappling hook (probably in addition to a standard jump) and only require its occasional use. But Bionic Commando handicaps you in a particular way and encourages creative use of the grapple to defeat its challenges. While the skills you hone in this game won’t serve you much use in anything other than Ninja Five-O for the Game Boy Advance or Umihara Kawase for the Super Famicom, it will be time well spent.
Bionic Commando hasn’t gotten much love from Capcom. There was a Game Boy Color sequel in 1999, but the series was mostly ignored until Bionic Commando Rearmed in 2008, a nostalgia-heavy retread of the same ancient ground. The 3D Bionic Commando reboot was tolerable but failed to reignite love for the series. If Capcom has “lost it” like I have claimed in the past, then we will probably never see its like again, and that is a shame. It’s a proto-Metroidvania with exceptional controls, a healthy respect for the player, and a hilarious plot. If you haven’t played it, fire up FCEU and give it a go. It’s well worth the effort.