Back in the 1980s, Capcom’s Bionic Commando was a big fish in a small pond. The second dimension—all that space above a side-scrolling character’s head—was the purview of the infrequent winged turtle or leaping plumber. A nice place to visit, but until Nathan “RAD” Spencer (I love the character names that you could get away with back then) nobody really made it a point to live there.
The 8-bit era was too often a cruel mistress, though, and much like the popular use of his totally tubular nickname, Nathan Spencer was mothballed shortly after his defeat of Fake Hitler in the NES Bionic Commando.
In the intervening decades, developers conquered not two but three dimensions, employing ever-increasing hardware capabilities to immerse players in ever more detailed settings and give them ever-increasing options of how to move around within and interact with them.
Now comes a new Bionic Commando for this era, seeking to reclaim the mantle it wore so long ago. A few dozen Spider-Man titles had taken it away, showing modern audiences what a game with an open world and a swinging mechanic is capable of being.
Well, Bionic Commando, I know Spider-Man. I’ve played Spider-Man games, watched Spider-Man movies. You, Bionic Commando, are no Spider-Man.
By way of explanation as to why nobody has bothered with the franchise since the Game Boy Color’s Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, new-school BC introduces us to a world in which public opinion on enhancements has gone the “Harrison Bergeron” route: bionics have been outlawed, and Spencer himself is on death row, presumably for replacing his classic spiked hair and sunglasses with a scowl and a set of dreadlocks.
In an unintentionally allegorical reference to the influx of “re-imaginings” in the modern games market, Spencer, the last surviving initiate of the School of One Soldier Doing What an Entire Army Cannot, is released from death row after a group of pro-bionic terrorists nukes the fictional Ascension City all the way back to the ’90s.
Strapped to a pair of missiles and shot into the heart of Ascension City’s ruins (in a sequence that undoubtedly had ad execs at Mountain Dew kicking themselves for not thinking of it first), Spencer and his trusty appendage traverse a series of thinly disguised corridor levels. All the while, he seethes with the kind of Gen-X angst his prison guards really should have told him stopped being cool on the outside a long time ago.
Did I say trusty appendage? Sorry, I meant treacherous. Bionic Commando lives or dies on the Bionic half of the equation. It’s a system that’s hamstrung at every turn by its own unnecessary insistence on turning what in other games is a natural, free-flowing experience into a constant set of life-or-death challenges.
From cars to planes to skateboards to spaceships to wrist-mounted grappling hooks, modern games have shown that transportation can be challenging without being a pain in the ass. Bionic Commando takes a different approach, one that requires painstaking on-the-fly distance calculations and game-pad gymnastics that must match the intricacy of the maneuvers they create in order to get the results that players want to see.
One twitch in the wrong direction and Spencer finds himself choking on a lungful of the radioactive fallout which in BC acts as a replacement for the classic in-game invisible wall. Like my creepy uncle says, if swinging is nerve-wracking, you aren’t doing it right.
The Commando half fares little better, relying mostly on Spencer’s arm and a poor physics model to fling random bits of detritus at passersby. Ranged weapons run the standard gamut from ineffective pea-shooter (and its cousins, ineffective rapid-fire pea-shooter and ineffective rapid-dispersal pea-shooter) to heat-seeking multi-target rocket launcher with barely enough ammo for one use. This leaves a lot of empty space combat-wise for Spencer’s better half to fill.
It’s occasionally fun, but mostly unimaginative. Tossing improvised projectile X at target Y ramps downward on the novelty scale pretty quickly, and once you get the timing down on that, it’s just a matter of clumsily swinging your way to the end credits.
A better developmental vision would have referenced any number of modern melee-heavy games, each of which use hundreds of combinations of man, scenery, and gimmicky weapons to great effect. Give it an Inspector Gadget paint job and kick it in the head—you’re done!
The Bionic Commando of yesteryear was a game about finding fun in transcending the limitations imposed by the era’s technology. With those limitations lifted, this new Bionic Commando finds itself in a world that has grown apace. It struggles to keep up. But with minimal upgrades and a limited developmental vision, it’s ultimately a victim of its own obsolescence.