In 1988, Capcom released Bionic Commando for the NES. It was a side-scrolling action game in which the protagonist, Radd Spencer, used his bionic arm to get him through conflicts behind enemy lines to rescue the imprisoned Super Joe. Bionic Commando was fresh, it was innovative and it’s unique mechanic and well told story made it a memorable game from the NES. The story, not unlike Wolfenstein, capitalized on the overwhelming patriotism and anti-dictator sentiment heavy in the air around the time of it’s release. The Japanese version kept the Nazi symbols and Hitler-like leader, while only Hitler’s likeness in the villain of Master D made their way into the release of the game seen stateside. Suffice to say, it’s obvious that Bionic Commando holds fond memories and a special place in this writer’s heart, so it was with much anticipation that I followed the news of Capcom reviving this franchise in next-gen glory. Did it live up to it’s legacy?
In the 80’s, Radd Spencer was a patriot—the odd man out, sent behind enemy lines to rescue a brave soldier and stop a ‘Nazi’ research project from aiding in their global domination fueled by a resurrected Hitler figurehead. Now, many years later, Nathan ‘Radd’ Spencer has served five years of his death sentence and his number has come up, it’s time to pay the piper. In the years following Spencer’s rescue of Super Joe, T.A.S.C.(Tactical Arms and Security Committee) has labeled Spencer guilty of treason because of the acts of rogue bionic soldiers, and as a result, undergone a Bionic Purge to remove these potentially loose canons from existence. We get the impression that Spencer has been made a scape goat, but I won’t let any spoilers go. Coincidentally, on the day Spencer is to be executed, a nuke is detonated in Ascension City by a terrorist organization known as BioReign. At the hour of Spencer’s death, he stands before Joe ‘Super Joe’ Gibson and is asked to be reunited with his Bionic Arm so he can be reinstated to investigate the threat in Ascension City and bring the terrorists to justice. Once again, the bright shiny hero has been turned into the anti-hero, a theme very common in today’s releases, and we tick off the first finger on the bionic hand that marks the bad choices Capcom made with Bionic Commando. Bad choices that follow straight through to the end credits of the game, but I will save you from the spoilers-and hopefully save you from playing this game with my review.
Dropped into the fallout that is Ascension City, your first task is to find the capsule that contains your Bionic Arm. Once found, the game uses the mechanic that all of Spencer’s powers do not come online immediately, since it has been such a prolonged amount of time that he has been separated from his appendage. Immediately available is Spencer’s ability to use his arm to swing from point to point, like Spider-Man with a Bionic Web. Also immediately, is the clunky feel of the controls–getting Spencer to do what you want should be fluid, but it starts as an exercise in frustration and seems to stay that way as your tasks get harder with the game’s progression. Holding down the left trigger of a 360 pad extends Spencer’s arm, keeping it held down maintains his grip and letting go at the right moment is key to using the momentum of Spencer’s swing to carry him forward to the next platform or grapple point. It sounds like an issue that would easily be worked through by playing through the game and becoming more familiar with the controls, but that in and of itself is a task due to the limitations of the game’s map. Ascension City, as I’ve stated, is ripe with radiation from the recent bombing, stray off the set course into blue shaded radiation, and the radion cripples not only Spencer’s bionics, but Spencer himself. More often than not, the maps feel claustrophobic, and don’t lend well to exploration. Further, Bionic Commando can’t seem to make up it’s mind as to whether it wants to be a third-person shooter or an action game. Over time Spencer gains the ability to throw objects at enemies and throw enemies themselves. He can grab onto them with his bionic arm and perform a zip attack to disable them. All of these melee attacks require close proximity, and getting in close enough to attack is not ideal when under a hail of gunfire. Unfortunately, limited ammo and weak targeting with Spencer’s biological arm don’t make it a very good shooter. In the end, neither tactic feels right, making the slightest of your mistakes painfully obvious. The end result is a game where both the platforming and the combat feel more like you are waging war on the controls and not the terrorist group you have been tasked to snuff out. Lastly, Spencer gains health and ammo boosts by completing challenges and unlocks concept art by obtaining 8-bit collectible items scattered through each level. Like intel items in other games, the collectibles are always placed in the middle of nowhere forcing you to choose between fighting the controls to make the perfect jump over and over to get your items, or just continuing with the story. Make your jumps count, because unlike other games with intel items, Bionic Commando does let you level skip to go back to previous levels, but it won’t let you save any progress you make with challenges or collectibles when you replay missions. So now we’ve broken replayability also, has Capcom missed anything? Oh that’s right! There’s multiplayer! Standard Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes are available, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone online to play with. It’s a shame too, because the multiplay isn’t particularly bad, kind of like a Gears of War with a grappling hook, but it doesn’t do anything to change up standard fare. So with a lack of community support and bland multiplayer modes, Capcom has completed it’s bionic vice grip on any fun to be had in Ascension City.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics in Bionic Commando are nothing less than mesmerizing. The atmosphere’s are absolutely breathtaking, just don’t try to explore them. There are lots of throwbacks to the original game starting with the already mentioned 8-bit collectibles reminiscent of the extra life icon and weapon drop crates from the original game to name a few. Sunrises and sunsets, lighting and water effects all look amazingly detailed and intricate in high definition and are easily the standout feature of the game. Some of the harder bionic foes that Radd fought at a level’s end have been brought back into the next-gen game, with their rear weaknesses intact. You start in the waste of Ascension City, but environments vary from underground subways and tunnels to Ascension Garden and Ascension Park—and if you’ve made it far enough to reach those two levels you will be treated to some of the best looking graphics this game has to offer. Equally impressive is the soundtrack, subtly boasting orchestral remixes of the original theme and game music. The theme snuck up and on me, and it took a minute to realize that the epic score blaring behind my gunfire was actually a remastered version of the original theme, but it sounds fantastic. The scores are brilliant, and will make any fan of the series squeal with delight. It would have been nice to see the grand scale of the graphics and audio spill over into the controls and gameplay, but I guess they will be kept at arm’s length until the sequel.
I apologize, but I seem to have neglected to mention the language present in Bionic Commando. It amazed me that the deeper you progressed in the game, the more vulgar the language became. Apparently, it was not enough for the soldiers pursuing you to drop F-bombs, they also had to string them with every other curse known to hurl insults at you. If you can imagine the combination of four letter words, your attackers will use it, it blew my mind how imaginitive and unecessary the language in this game was. For me, it was just another reason that Capcom did nothing but disappoint fans of the series. Even if I had enjoyed the game, and wanted to usher my kids into a franchise that I have known and loved for the last 20 years, I wouldn’t dare do it with the needless vulgarity included here. I know I’ve said it before, but I will repeat myself—it’s sad that in so many games the only thing keeping parents from playing with the kids is the flurry of vulgarity that does not need to be included in a game. My new statements here did not change the original rating of Two Stars that I had given Bionic Commando, I had already deducted the correct rating points, but I feel it necessary to mention this in my review.
Take it from a fan of the series from the beginning, keep this game on your rent list and spend your hard-earned cash elsewhere. Maybe take your fifty bucks and track down a used Gameboy Color and a copy of Bionic Commando : Elite Forces, or just take ten bucks and take Bionic Commando : Rearmed for a spin, it’s head and shoulders above it’s 3D counterpart, and the visuals are just as stunning. Let’s have a moment of silence for Nathan ‘Rad’ Spencer. It would seem his death sentence was carried out by electrocution as Capcom urinated on him and my childhood memories short-circuiting his bionic appendage. RIP Radd!