Saturday, February 10, 2018

Unearthed Treasures: King's Valley (MSX)

When I first discovered the MSX way back in the early months of 1999, I was immediately fascinated by its existence. "Now where did you come from?" I wondered as I attempted to fathom it all. And as I began to conduct research into the matter, I was amazed to learn that this little mystery system held so much unrecognized significance.

Truly there were a variety of reasons I found the MSX to be so utterly fascinating. I couldn't believe, for instance, that history had produced a highly successful Commodore 64-equivalent 8-bit computer system, and somehow a machine of its type had managed to slip under my radar. I was surprised to read that its creation-process entailed the involvement of Microsoft, which I'd assumed to be a purely American company ("There's a Microsoft Japan?!"). I found it astounding that the MSX had proven itself to be so popular that many of the world's most prolific electronics giants--like Sony, Samsung and Sharp--had adopted its architecture in lieu of developing their own competing standard.

And then came the discovery that shocked me the most--the one that factored most heavily into the process of my world suddenly being turned upside-down: It turned out that it was the MSX, and not the NES, on which Konami, one of my all-time favorite game-developers, had begun building its legacy. It was within the MSX ecosystem that the company worked to establish itself as a major player in the home market. It was on this platform where console-associated big-name franchises like Metal Gear and Track & Field were actually born and nurtured (and even though the fact-checkers eventually proved that Castlevania actually predated Vampire Killer, thus destroying the popular notion that the series originated on the MSX, it remained nevertheless surreal to me that there had been a original series entry on this "foreign" computer of all things).

For years in following, I'd often wonder about what Konami had been up to during those years--how it had chosen to operate within an alien space that had been hidden well outside my field of view.

Ever since then, I've had a strong desire to dig deeper into the subject; I've been anticipating a time when I could begin unearthing Konami's MSX game library and trace how, exactly, the company evolved into the powerhouse I came to know. All I needed was for the appropriate moment to arrive.

Well, dear reader, the opportunity has finally presented itself. Here we are in February of 2018, at a stage when I'm eager to delve into computer-gaming's history and fervidly explore its uncharted depths. What better time than now to initiate a quest for knowledge?

And since I always like to start at the very beginning, I've chosen to commence this search for enlightenment by looking at one of Konami's earliest MSX titles. Specifically, I'm going to start with King's Valley, which saw release in 1985.

King's Valley, more than any other, caught my attention because it fit the mold for a type of game I simply adore: an old arcade-style action game whose combination of rudimentary action and a wonderfully simple aesthetic does so well to capture the essence of a bygone era--the essence we recall when we think about a classic gaming system's earliest years, when it played host to games that were rough and experimental, yes, but fun in the most distinctive way. That's an apt description of King's Valley, which I've been enjoying for quite a while now--so much so that I've been raring to write about it and more accurately express why it resonates with me.

So come join me for a bit, won't you?

Say hello to King's Valley, a fun, challenging arcade-style action-platformer that creatively weaves together elements as borrowed from some of the era's most popular games. It's a product of synthesis, sure, yet it does particularly well to avoid feeling like a cheap amalgamation of the games that influenced it; rather, its separate pieces come together in such a way that rendered is a considerably-unique-feeling whole, and furthermore King's Valley manages to make some of its own contributions to the genre.

"So what's going on in this silly game?" you ask, politely indulging me.

Well, friend, I'm glad you asked. Really, the only scans I could find were of the Japanese manual, so I can't speak as to the story's minutiae or name any of the characters. Though, if what I've read on Gamefaq's summary page is correct, then our protagonist is an adventurer (a member of the "Vick" family of archaeologists, as named in the sequel's manual) who has arrived at King's Valley, an ancient Egyptian burial site, with the intent to scour its spacious royal tombs and claim their hidden jewels. To find ultimate success, he'll have to solve the mysteries of 15 separate pyramids and deprive each one of its riches.

King's Valley is a stage-by-stage game wherein our immediate goal is to collect all of a pyramid's glowing jewels and then promptly escape through its suddenly-appearing exit as triggered. Traversing a pyramid is a matter of running and jumping about its interior--of maneuvering your way onto and across its many platforms and climbing staircases to access those that are otherwise out of reach. It's not that easy, of course: Along the way, you'll face resistance in the form of stalking enemies and some tricky level design, about which I'll elaborate as we encounter them. And if you're really a hardcore arcade traditionalist, you can also attempt to earn the highest score possible even if there's no actual reward for doing so. (Personally, I shy away from the practice when a game features a definitive ending; those that don't sequence indefinitely tend to lack the survival factor that drives me to want to accumulate as many points as possible in anticipation of an inevitable death.)

Most troublesome are the specially colored mummies who systematically patrol the pyramids' innards. They function similarly to the ghosts in Pac-Man, which is to say that each has its own routine. Here, in Pyramid-01, we have to keep tabs on two of them: There's the white mummy, our lowest-tier guardian, who walks slowly and wanders about aimlessly; his presence more or less makes for a random element that may or may not factor into your questing depending upon where he chooses to travel. And then there's the more-determined blue mummy, who moves much faster and has a fairly wide sphere of detection; if you get caught in his sight-line or move to anywhere within, say, a ten-block radius of his current position, he'll begin to aggressively chase you down, his pursuit ceasing only when you put some real distance between the two parties. Note that mummies, too, can jump, and they'll most definitely lunge toward you, sometimes in surprising fashion, if you're standing near the edge of an adjacent platform. Also, mummies possess the ability to warp to other parts of the screen, and they'll normally exhibit this skill as a means of moving to within proximity of your current position.

We'll encounter more mummy variants later.

Any contact with a mummy results in instant death and the loss of one of our four precious lives (there are no continues, though you can use Konami's Game Master device to access a hidden password system). If things get tight, you can always leap over a mummy, but since the hero's agility is fairly limited (his jumps measure a mere two blocks in length, both horizontally and vertically), it's a risky move; in most cases, you'll just barely clear the distance. Ideally, we'll want to use the surrounding platforms to cagily maneuver around them or otherwise bait them over to sections to which we no longer need to travel.

Though, the game does provide us an additional resource: swords, which are usually placed all throughout stages in strategic locations. You'll automatically pick up one of these embedded swords when you overlap its gold handle. Here, in what's virtually a tutorial stage, the game provides us a single sword and positions it where it's sure to stand out, its antennae-like handle tempting you to examine it up close. If you choose to do so, you'll discover that the sword is an effective throwing weapon. It can be tossed the length of an entire screen, and any mummy struck by it will explode. But theirs isn't a permanent erasure, no; you have a window of about five seconds before the targeted mummy reappears in the same location in which it was previously purged. Thankfully, swords aren't single-use; after striking a mummy or a wall, a sword will rebound off of the target and simply re-embed itself wherever it lands. However, sword-use comes with an unfortunate handicap: You can't jump while wielding one, so you'll have no choice but to toss it away if you wish to advance and there are no staircases nearby.

It's important to know that swords aren't necessarily locked to the level on which they're placed. If you experiment with a sword, you'll learn that you can tactically maneuver it between a pyramid's separate levels by (a) throwing it in such a way that it rebounds off of a wall and falls through an adjacent gap or (b) chucking it over and across a one-block-high step, which works to propel it onto higher ground. This knowledge will prove useful in stages where swords are positioned outside of isolated, stairless structures, where mummies are sure to lurk.

It's also a certainty that you're going to be forced to contend with the game's most glaring mechanical shortcoming: the way in which staircase interaction is triggered. If any other stairs-heavy game, it would be a simple matter of approaching a step and holding up or down. Here you have to push up or down to initiate the interaction and then quickly shift to holding diagonally. In tense situations, when mummies are hot on your heels, it's easy to screw up the input--or, worse, forget the order of operations--and watch yourself become an idle target, the hero basically locked in place. How big of an issue this turns out to be depends upon how sure-fingered you are and how well you can control your nerves.

I don't have much to say about the game's audio and visual qualities. King's Valley features a very basic aesthetic: black backgrounds and textures comprised of simple brickwork, both of which are staples of these old-school action-platformers. Also, there isn't a whole lot going on in terms of sound design: Save for its introductory and victory ditties, the game's soundtrack is mostly limited to a single Egyptian-style theme whose duration is a mere 15 seconds (it's of the catchy-but-eventually-grating variety, so you might want to keep your volume controls open). And there only a handful of ringy sound effects.

What do you expect, man? It is, after all, a 1985 computer game. For me, that's the draw. I wouldn't change a thing about its presentation!

So once we obtain all four of the flashing jewels, a sliding-door exit will appear at the pyramid's midpoint. Our departure is a simple matter of flipping the connected side lever by jumping into it, waiting for the green doors to slide to open, and promptly escaping up the now-visible curved staircase.

But King's Valley turns out to be a hell of a lot more complex than what was advertised in Pyramid-01, and it wastes no time in making this fact known. Right away Pyramid-02 introduces two key gameplay elements. First we learn that the game's stages aren't strictly single-screen affairs; some of them, like this one, stretch two screens wide, and their full traversal requires transitioning back and forth between them (MSX developers wouldn't figure out how to implement smooth scrolling until years later). And then the game introduces the critical element of mining. Some jewels, you'll observe, are enclosed within solid structures, and there's no way to reach them using normal platforming techniques. Instead, you'll have to mine your way through the brickwork using pickaxes, which are also strategically spread across pyramids. Wielding one allows you to dig a two-tile-deep hole in any non-staircase-landing surface; the catch is that pickaxes are single-use, and you can't climb staircases while in possession of one. They can't be thrown, either, so their use is normally limited to specific stage sections.

The mining mechanic basically becomes the source of some particularly perilous puzzles, the solving of which requires careful planning and a steady hand. You have to think ahead--consider each move and how it will alter a given structure. Recklessly digging about will almost always result in the hero cutting off his own access or becoming trapped in an inescapable recess. If you accidentally screw yourself over in this manner, you'll have only one option: hit the F2 key to self-destruct and restart the stage, thus wasting a precious stock. Same deal if you run out of pickaxes. Instead, you'll have to smartly and precisely carve your way through surfaces, making sure to (a) leave yourself series of two-tile-high steps (anything higher will be out of the hero's jumping range) and (b) refrain from digging holes that render the transportation of pickaxes an impossibility.

This applied understanding will serve you well on Pyramid-02's first screen, where you'll have to procure a jewel by mining down from the top level and executing measured cuts.

You're correct in thinking that this is all very reminiscent of Lode Runner--one of the influences to which I alluded earlier. It really is something: The deeper I dig into the mid-80s gaming scene, the more surprised I grow at just how much Lode Runner's influence rippled. I simply didn't notice it back then. Well, that and about a thousand other things.

Of course, we still have to take into account the presence of the patrolling mummies, of which there are now three. Pyramid-02 introduces a yellow mummy; he's no smarter than the others, but he moves in short bursts, which allows him to cover a lot of ground in a short period. He tends to gravitate toward you, but he seems to have trouble finding a convenient path and generally deciphering the level design (I don't know if it was intentionally programmed this way or if his ineptitude is a product of poorly implemented AI). Of concern is that the mummies are constantly moving between screens, which leads to scenarios where they unexpectedly wander in from offscreen or get right up in your grill the moment you transition over. The expectancy of such works to induce a constant feel of anxiety; really, you never know what's waiting for you at a screen's edge.

And that's your challenge: finding the time to mine jewels while taking care not to get cornered by mummies both observable and unaccounted-for. In this particular stage, I've observed, the mummies tend to gather in the second screen's upper-right portion, so you'll at least have some sense of the direction from which they're likely to come.

Oh, and I should mention that Pyramid-02 also introduces revolving walls, through which you can pass by pushing up against them. Mummies can't travel through revolving walls, so you can utilize them as a means of earning temporary refuge. However, in some later levels, there are revolving walls that only turn one way--a quirk that won't become obvious until after you've passed through one; those of their type are usually intentioned to function as puzzle mechanisms, though you will come across a few that have been installed solely for the purpose of cutting off your access and forcing you to travel a circuitous route back to the previous location. Sometimes level designers just like to be cruel.

Quick tip: Swords can be sent the flying into the adjacent screen. Even if the screen isn't currently observable, its objects are still in motion, so it's possible for a sword to collide with, say, a lurking mummy. An aural cue will confirm that you've made contact. This technique is useful in those moments when you're prepared to transition over but feel hesitant because you suspect that a mummy is prowling about the adjacent screen's edge.

So that's Pryamid-02, which represents a swift jump in difficulty. Its message is that you better make haste to get a clear grasp of the game's mechanics, because things aren't going to get any easier from here.

Collect all five jewels and the exit will appear in in the pyramid's right half. Strangely enough, the entrance point will also reappear, allowing you to return to the previous stage. I'm sure why, though, since the previous space has already been cleared out. I'm thinkin' that it's a case of the level designer being a bit mischievous; he or she knew that you probably weren't paying attention to or forgot about where the hero originally spawned, and the rascal in question was hoping that you'd accidentally backtrack and "hilariously" waste thirty seconds of your life.

You know I'm probably close to the truth on this one.

Pyramid-03's is a single-screen affair. Some mining is required, yes, but ours will mostly be an exercise in evading the blue mummy, who is afforded the benefit of favorable platform- and staircase-construction. Once he's been alerted to your presence, he'll be on your tail the whole time. This might prove troublesome when you attempt to obtain the green crystal as seen in the pyramid's bottom-left corner; the corridor leading to it is particularly cramped, so you'll definitely want to bring a sword.

Be aware that the red, blue and yellow mummies zip up and down stairs at more than twice the hero's speed, so it's smart to refrain from climbing when one of them is hot on your trail; the superior option is to about-face and leap over him and thereafter find a way to put some distance between yourself and your pursuer.

Pyramid-03 introduces the element of trap walls, which suddenly lower from the ceiling and then permanently lock themselves in place. One such wall will appear in the bottom-right corner after you procure the green jewel, the indestructible barrier forever cutting off your access to that portion of the stage.

Pyramid-04 is another two-screener (stages alternate between single- and dual-screened). Its is a tale of two halves: The right half has a strong mining focus. The process of removing the yellow and purple jewels from the enclosed space requires a calculated digging strategy. It's easy to screw yourself here--to create an inescapable gap or accidentally carve away an adjoining tile on which you needed to stand in order to successfully mine. You'll have to employ the use of at least three pickaxes, and you'll probably want to bring a fourth pickax with you into the burrowed aperture--just in case you miscalculated and suddenly need to improvise an escape. Note that you can't dig in from the side unless you're currently sandwiched between two walls and each is at least two tiles high.

The left half has a platforming focus. The action here is all about jumping, climbing, and working around the pesky mummies. However, one of the jewels is placed behind one of those aforementioned one-way revolving walls. You can't pass through wall's right side, so instead you'll have to dig down to the crystal from the level above. First you might want to take the preventive measure of leading any and all mummies away from the vicinity, since alerted mummies will surely gravitate toward the revolving wall and permanently station themselves on the platform to its right.

Pyramid-05 sees the first change in hue, which unsurprisingly signals yet another jump in difficulty. Partially contributing to the boost is the newly debuting red mummy, who is the most versatile of the bunch; he moves at a high speed, he's constantly in motion, and his sphere of detection is basically the entire screen. His relentlessness reminds me of Adventure's red dragon, which was similarly aggressive (the red ones are always the most trouble, I tell you). Also, Pyramid-05 is the first to make greater use of trap walls, all of which have been installed for the purpose of cutting off convenient routes and limiting the amount of space available for pickax-transportation. Each wall has an invisible trigger point, and it's usually located far away from the corresponding contraption. If by way of careful observation you're able to ascertain where they're hidden, you can avoid triggering the trap walls (though, such a tactic may not be viable in stages whose mode of traversal requires passing through these trigger points).

And that about summarizes what King's Valley is all about. Starting with Pyramid-06, the game focuses all of its energy on expanding upon the aforementioned mechanics. Other changes are merely cosmetic: You get two additional palette changes--one every four stages--and, oddly, the mummies will occasionally swap roles, the blue one behaving like the red one and vice-versa. In some stages, you'll even encounter two identically colored mummies (usually two reds, of course)!

It's normal that I start to run into trouble at around Pyramid-06, wherein you're tasked with cutting through several layers of bricks while continually fending off three obnoxiously aggressive mummies.

But I tell you, man: It was a mighty struggle to beat this game without resorting to unsavory tactics (using the Game Master or save-states, that is). They give you nothin': No continues. No mulligans. And absolutely no mercy. That's how it was; back then, they didn't hold back.

Still, I'm able to have a good time with King's Valley even when I fail to complete it. Really, that's the beauty of arcade-style games: You can extract maximum enjoyment from them even if your time together is limited to a few minutes. That's certainly true of King's Valley.

You don't get much of an ending, no--just your typical single-screen "Congratulations!" and final-score tabulation. Then the game restarts from the first stage, which in continuation is dubbed "Pyramid-16," but with an increased difficulty-level.

Again--what do you expect? It was 1985. We were lucky if they gave us a moon and some stars.

Final Thoughts

And there you have a clear rendering of King's Valley, a positively charming little creation upon which I can always depend to scratch my old-school-computer-game itch. It seems highly appropriate when I say that I'm glad to have mined it from history's sadly under-explored tombs. It truly is a hidden treasure.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that it represents the pinnacle of game design, no. Rather, King's Valley a product of uncompromised, unrestrained experimentation, which it's not afraid to advertise; its level design is raw, its enemy AI is often erratic, and it has a few mechanical shortcomings. Yet it's worth every second of my time because it checks off two very important boxes: It's fun to play, and it succeeds in encapsulating everything I adore about gaming during its adolescent years. King's Valley is gaming distilled down to its purest form, and for that my imagination and I thank it.

King's Valley is to the MSX what the Gyromites, Wrecking Crews and Balloon Fights were to the NES: It's a bedrock title that helped to form the foundation upon which the next generation of 8-bit games were built. This is evidenced in Konami's future MSX works, many of which recycle and expand upon King's Valley's core concepts. That I'm eager to play and write about such games is the reason I simply had to hurry up and tell you about King's Valley, which established the template that guided their development. It's a certainty that I'll be referencing it in those future blog entries!

Until then, I'm going to spend a little more time with King's Valley, Konami's delightfully primal arcade-style platformer. May it be a harbinger of things to come.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reflections: "Bionic Commando Rearmed" (PC)

My how things can change: Five years ago an immense gulf separated Capcom's Bionic Commando and I. As things stood, I couldn't grasp its concept; I didn't enjoy playing it; and I had absolutely no desire to further educate myself about a game that I viewed as being too unorthodox for its own good. Truly ours seemed to be irreconcilable differences.

And yet here we are in January of 2018, in a new reality wherein I can come before you and say that I'm proud to call myself on unapologetic booster for the Bionic Commando series! That's how it's been ever since I fell in love with the Game Boy version of Bionic Commando, which did amazingly to open my eyes to the concept's brilliance and inspire me to excitedly swing across that gulf and establish a deeper connection with the series. Since then, I've become a huge fan of the NES original, and I've actively sought out all of the games that are commercially available on the systems I own, starting with the underrated Bionic Commando: Elite Forces (a Game Boy Color-exclusive that I downloaded via the 3DS' Virtual Console). And if you've read my Bionic Commando "Memory Bank" piece, you might recall that I expressed interest in looking into the modern console entries, which at the time I could only admire from afar.

Specifically, I had my eyes on Bionic Commando Rearmed, a 2.5D remake of the NES original, and 2009's Bionic Commando, the series' first fully-3D-rendered entry. The only problem was that I lacked access to these games; I didn't own either a PS3 or an Xbox 360, and my PC was too old and too unstable to capably run anything that wasn't a 1995 DOS-era game. So it was looking as though I wasn't going to get the chance to play either of them anytime in the near future.

Well, that all changed five months ago, when I decided that it was finally time to ditch the old rig and buy myself a modern computer. A huge factor in this decision was my desire to begin delving into PC gaming; mainly, I was eager to activate my Steam account and start mining the platform's rich history! Both of the aforementioned Bionic Commando games were on my mind at the time, of course, but I chose to spend my funds on games on which I currently had a closer eye: Shadowgate (2014), Portal, and the other games I mentioned in the last blog update.

But then came the post-Christmas shopping period, when the time was ripe. It was then that I took advantage of Steam's insanely generous seasonal sales and picked up both games for a mere $4 (I also grabbed Portal 2, Antichamber, Half-Life, Secret Agent and Shadow Complex Remastered, their collective accounting for 14 of the $18 I spent that day)! I tell you, man: Those cats on the forums weren't kidding when they used the word ridiculous to describe these Steam sales. Geez.

But in this particular piece, I'm going to be reflecting specifically upon my experience with Bionic Commando Rearmed, starting with which seemed like the natural thing to do.

Going in, I wasn't really sure what Rearmed was. I mean, I knew that it was a remake of the NES game but not to what extent. "Is it a wholly faithful remake like, say, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap or something along the lines of Metroid: Zero Mission, which makes several revisions?" I wondered. My being ignorant to its true nature was an intentional choice, naturally. That's how it is whenever I'm keen to "discover" a game; I prefer for everything about it to be a total surprise. That's why I never pursued coverage or Rearmed. Really, about all I saw of the game were three or four screenshots and a short preview, and that was almost ten years ago. About all I remembered was that (a) Rearmed appeared to be a 2.5-dimensional, more-luminous version of the NES game, and (b) it featured some "new additions," though there was no mention of what they were.

And, well, after spending a week with Bionic Commando Rearmed, I now know for sure what it is and what it represents.

"So what's your take on it?" you ask. "Does Rearmed proudly honor the name of the NES classic, or does it completely miss the point?"

Well, let me share my thoughts.

 So I'm glad that GRIN, Rearmed's creators, didn't play fast and loose with the game's story. They kept it simple--very faithful: General Killt of the Imperial Army, which in the NES original carried the unimaginative epithet "the Badds," has discovered the long-lost plans for a weapons program called "Project Albatross" and is looking to bring about its revival. The FSA discovers the plot and orders Super Joe (whose full name, we learn, is "Joseph Gibson) to infiltrate the Imperials' stronghold and put a stop to Killt's scheme; he winds up getting captured, which prompts the FSA to send in Nathan "Rad" Spencer, a Bionic Commando, to rescue him.

Killt's plan of course entails the resurrection of Project Albatross' long-dead architect, to whom he refers only as "the Leader." It's clearly Hitler, as it was originally, but the game is reluctant to communicate as much; rather, it disguises his most (*ahem*) distinguishing feature with a permanently affixed oxygen mask.

When the Albatross is rendered fully operational, well ahead of schedule, Killt grows overconfident and decides that he no longer requires the guidance of the Leader, whose resurrection he attempts to abort. However, the Leader, who was conscious enough to hear of Killt's boasting, emerges from his pod and fatally stabs the general, after which he takes control of the operational Albatross and the Imperial Army. And then later on his head is graphically blown to bits by one of Nathan's rocket strikes (you want to keep the important stuff in there, after all).

Aside from some uniquely scripted exchanges between Nathan and the boss characters, the only real difference is that Nathan's assisting pilot has been given physical form and a role in the story. Her name is Haley, and she contributes to Nathan's mission by (a) explaining how recently procured items function, and (b) generally providing advice on what you should do next. Sadly, she doesn't survive her debut, the feisty Haley ultimately becoming the Albatross' first victim. I don't know: Her death might have been more impactful had the writers gone further in building a relationship between her and Nathan, both of whom had only intimated that they were interested in one another.

 Nathan's running motion feels kind of sluggish, as is he's constantly pushing against a strong headwind. At first I thought it was a performance issue (which it was partly), so I lowered the resolution to 1600x900. And while his movement speed did increase a bit, it still felt as though he was being somehow weighed down. That's when it became clear that his ground movement had been intentionally limited as a means to emphasize the considerable difference in speed between his basic movements and his grappling/swinging maneuvers, each of which he executes with far-greater rapidity. I get it, but still--I wish that Nathan had a bit more zip to his step. I remember his NES counterpart moving more swiftly.

 I'm happy to see that its Bionic Arm controls represent an evolution of the those from the refined Game Boy version of Bionic Commando, whose most invaluable addition is the ability to re-grapple immediately after disengaging from a hanging position. Rearmed builds from there, its expanded system granting the Bionic Arm even more versatility. Mainly, Nathan now possesses some new capabilities: He can (a) turn to face the other direction while hanging; (b) extend the Bionic Arm straight ahead while falling (by pressing down plus the grapple button); and (c) block incoming projectiles by extending the Bionic Arm into them. Also, there's now an element of intracacy to how Nathan carries momentum as he disengages from a swing; that is, when and how you finesse the d-pad/analog stick will determine the speed and trajectory of his fall. Effectively employing such maneuvers requires an advanced understanding of the grapple system. It's all very complicated in practice, yeah, but this shouldn't worry you if you're a prospective customer; these types of high-precision movements are only truly useful in the optional Challenge Rooms, which are designed to test the player's grappling skills.

Still, the Bionic Arm doesn't feel quite as reliable as it did in the 8-bit games. When I say this, I'm speaking not of a control issue but rather a problem with the tangibility of objects. Rearmed's 2.5D world has to it a slightly angular viewpoint, so it's sometimes difficult to distinguish the front face of a block or surface from its visible-but-nongrappable side.

Also, I can never trust that the controls will function properly when I'm prepared to execute a maneuver that entails disengaging and then instantly regrappling. If my finger is anywhere near the d-pad (which I prefer over analog sticks for 2D games) when I attempt to regrapple, the game interprets the input as a continuation of the downward press, and Nathan instead extends the Bionic Arm forward, usually leaving me to fall helplessly into a spike pit or to my death. This is more a problem in the Challenge Rooms and the two secret areas, whose platforming challenges often demand tight, super-precise movements. Really, these maneuvers would be elementary for Nathan's 8-bit counterparts, but here they're made tricky by the unfortunate strain of complexity that arises as an unintended byproduct of their introducing advanced grappling mechanics.

 Nathan also has a few new abilities, each doing what it can to add a new dimension to the action. He can now toss grenades, which he carries in endless supply; he can lob them forward, their trajectory somewhat adjustable, or drop them straight down to the level below while crouching. He can pick up barrels with the Bionic Arm and toss/arc them at enemies. And he can use enemy soldiers as human shields by extending the Bionic Arm into them and pulling them forward; when he's done using the corpse to sponge up bullet-fire, he can hurl it into nearby enemies, the force of the collision killing them instantly.

Additionally, the inventory system has been revamped. Whereas before you could only bring a small number of items with you into a given stage, now every item in your inventory is available for use at all times. So you don't have to worry about jumping back and forth between the action and inventory screens: Item effects are automatically applied. Also, you don't need to access the inventory to switch weapons; you can instead cycle through all of Nathan's available weapons using the controller's left and right triggers.

The health system, too, has been reconfigured: The previous upgradable unit-based meter has been replaced with a fixed health gauge. It can be extended, yes, but not via traditional means, as there are no bullets to collect (enemies instead drop Score Tokens and Health Pickups); rather, Nathan's health meter lengthens when he acquires the repurposed Health Recovery Pills.

Certainly I'm going to miss this type of streamlining when I return to the NES game.

 The details-oriented part of me loves that the inventory screen has a specially designated window for providing information about Nathan's current location. Its doing so provides important context for the enemy's activities and how they're attempting to conquer the region. It means so much to me to finally know what these factories, compounds and installations actually are and why they've been constructed.

 I like Rearmed's general aesthetic. Its simple, stylized look has a unique charm to it. Though, I struggle to articulate what I mean by that. I can only explain it by saying that it feels as though two contrasting forces are at work here: Gauging Rearmed's environments doesn't fill me with the sense that it had a large budget, no, yet it doesn't look cheaply made. To the contrary, it's rife with sharply rendered, luminous visuals that really pop; its shading does wonderfully to give objects form and character; and its impressive lighting effects fill the available space with alluring shadows while imbuing the game's world with a considerable sense of depth. Yet at the same time, its texture-work and basic geometry remain tactically rudimentary, as if to convey a sense of austerity--a sense that the designers were determined to craft a world whose very fabric could evoke memories of simpler times. And these two forces collide to give us the images depicted all throughout this piece; they fuse together to produce a game that somehow looks old and new at the same time. Weird, right?

I'm glad that GRIN's was a rejection of ultra-realism, which was what all developers seemed to be chasing at the time. Rearmed's carefully negotiated visuals help it to capture the rawness of the NES game, which was made during a time-period when there were no existing templates and everyone was trying to stand out. Rearmed doesn't look much like the other games that were currently available for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, and that's where it finds its appeal. It doesn't desire to be like all of the rest; all it wants to be is something that projects a classic "video-game" feel. Standing as testament to this ambition are all of the little NES-like touches--all of the woven-in graphical nods to the original game (among them the textures that depict familiar-looking sprite-work, like the ball and chain and the Bionic-armed "Giant Shoulder" boss). You can find them everywhere.

The people at GRIN knew that long-timers like me would appreciate these references.

Though, while it offers plenty of entrancing sights, it can be said that the game tends to be visually noisy. This can be a problem where grappling is concerned: Another unintended consequence of Rearmed's 2.5D, multi-planed presentation is that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between background and foreground elements--to decipher which ledges and surfaces are grappable. This might have been a huge issue for me had I not possessed advanced knowledge of the stages' level-design features, which are pretty much faithful to those I remember from the NES game.

 My eyes are often drawn to the stages' backgrounds, which do much to define Rearmed's atmosphere. Everywhere you look, you see majestic mountain ranges, cityscapes and steel constructions standing silently. Theirs is a calm, placid presence that provide comforting contrast to the hellish innards of the Imperials' bases, which are usually some combination of coldly metallic, oppressive and fiery. The outdoor backgrounds consist of multiple planes whose parallax renders a rich field of depth. Also, there are instances where certain layers are given a stylistic blur, which further helps to create a feeling of distance. It's good stuff; I like to gaze intently at these backgrounds as I climb and swing about.

 Rearmed's writing (and quality localization, which the original lacked) provides it a distinct personality. It helps that we can now fully understand what the characters are talking about and who, exactly, they're addressing. A lot of the dialogue is satirically referential ("This base will explod!") and heavy with overused Internet lingo, which is to be expected from a 2000s-era game. It's silly, yeah, but never offensively bad. Though, I'm not really a fan of this particular version of Nathan Spencer, who looks and acts like a poor man's Duke Nukem; that is, he's always sporting this goofy, wry smile and talking strictly in head-shakingly-bad wisecracks. All it does is make me miss the likable NES incarnation of Nathan, with his wild hair and reverential personality ("Mr. Joe! Mr. Joe!). Bring that guy back, please.

 The game's composer, Simon Viklund, really brought it. Whenever I reflect upon Rearmed's music--play its tunes in my head--the word that immediately comes to mind is "jammin'." While it does feature a few unique pieces, the game's soundtrack is comprised mostly of remixes of the old NES tunes. The style is metal, the compositions rife with synth guitar and heavy percussion. And there even instances when they weave in or overlay strains as ripped directly from the NES tunes! I love it when they do that; 8-bit chiptunes just harmonize so well with electric guitars and metal strains.

Yet for however intense the music is, there are times when its resonance feels understated, whence it starts to function more as a sort of a soft, rhythmic ambiance. That's where it becomes most effective, I feel. This is, after all, an infiltration game; there should be a sense of silent intensity; the music should remind you that yours must be covert, measured movements.

My favorite touch is how muffled, restrained variants of the stage themes can be heard reverberating within the bases' interiors whenever you're gauging them from the surrounding outdoor areas. It's as if there's a jumpin' party inside, and someone's about to crash it. Quietly, of course.

 The map layout, whose uneven topography is now displayed via a 3D graph, remains identical, save for the presence of a new final stage--Area A, which is positioned outside of the map's northeast boundary. Also, the stages' level design, as mentioned, is altogether similar. Though, the designers have made some notable changes. Specifically they've addressed and provided remedy for some of the stages' more ill-conceived elements: You'll no longer encounter an endless stream of those obnoxious Propeller Droids; theirs are now a fixed number. And the barrels in the Donkey Kong-inspired section of Area 6 no longer inflict damage; rather, colliding with them simply knocks you back a bit.

Other changes were made for the purpose of forcing players to engage in platforming rather than doing what most of us did before: ignore all of the obstacles and simply blitz our way through entire stage sections with a series of lightning-quick grapples. We see the best example of this in what was formerly Area 9's minecart section, wherein you could easily avoid impediment by grappling up to the top level and comfortably swinging over all of the tracks, enemies and spike pits. This time around, the entire section is comprised of a series of conveyors whose belts are partly adorned with spikes, which tend to suddenly, unpredictably emerge from the pulleys; so if you insist on trying to quickly, heedlessly negotiate your way up and around this section, you'll find that doing so now carries the risk of suffering heavy chain damage or more likely death. Rather, it makes sense to slow down, read the situation, and maneuver accordingly.

These are all good changes.

And I suppose that the same can be said for Area 12's two core-containment rooms, which now feature unique gimmicks where before their successful clearing was a simple matter of springing up and firing two rockets. Really, I'm hesitant about listing this as a positive change for one particular reason: Navigating these rooms starts to feel like a tedious exercise after you've been forced to repeat them several times. And you likely will because of the one of the changes that the designers failed to make: They didn't alter the distance between the spikes and the ceiling in that narrowly carved tunnel near the area's ending point; no one seemed to take into account that Nathan's height had been scaled upward, so we're left with the problem that there's barely enough available space for him to swing within. Your only hope of getting through this tunnel is to mash the grapple button and hope that Nathan isn't rendered motionless by the ceiling-clipping.

I mean, My God, man: I failed here so many times--had to repeat this stage so often--that I almost had a breakdown. I was almost convinced that there was absolutely no reliable formula on which I could depend to make it through this section. It got to a point where I was so pissed off that I had to stop playing for about an hour.

Eventually I figured out the correct timing, yeah, but even possessing such knowledge didn't guarantee that (a) the controls were prepared to cooperate or (b) I could competently enter the correct input on this wonky Mad Catz controller.

Couldn't you have given me a few more inches there, GRIN?

I'm talking about the game, jackass. Don't make me have to jump through the monitor and beat you.

 It's definitely a plus that the level designers added in an element of exploration. While the stages' structures remain largely faithful, each has been expanded a bit to include secret areas, accessing which requires some skillful grappling and even some puzzle-solving (correctly interacting with specially placed blocks and levels, for instance, or using grenades to destroy certain structures). Their treasures include Challenge Room passes, gear, item upgrades, and, yes, yashichis (collecting 12 of which earns you a special medal)! For those who aren't interested in putting in the legwork, the most invaluable pick-up might be the hint card, which displays an onscreen prompt whenever Nathan is in proximity to a destructible wall or a secret room. Me? I don't need no help! Had I known about what its function was, I would have avoided picking it up (until the end, at least, since I'm a completionist)!

It's also nice that the two hidden routes (found between areas 15 and 18 and 14 and 17, respectively) have been reimagined as uniquely constructed side-scrolling stages, whereas before both shared the same generic overhead scene. These two are the toughest stages in the game, for two reasons: (1) the general perilousness of their cruelly constructed platforming challenges and (2) an irritating grapple mechanic that doesn't allow for the Bionic Arm to firmly grip objects if Nathan is currently standing on a moving platform; rather, latching on becomes a matter of spamming the grapple button, which often causes unexpected hiccups--a lot of unintended actions. Thankfully, navigating your way through these frustrating stages isn't mandatory, so you can simply ignore them--come back later and try again after completing the game.

 I'm a little disappointed that they altered the nature of the "neutral areas," which are formerly so. In Rearmed, these areas are strictly FSA-controlled. I mean, they're functionally similar (friendly soldiers give you advice and point the way forward, and you enter buildings to acquire special weapons and 1ups and gain access to Challenge Rooms), but they now lack that underlying air of danger--the embedded fear that a single unintended input can result in a distressing, potentially deadly military response. There are no obstacles (spiked balls or mini-tanks). There are no tense encounters with General Killt or any other hostile Imperial officers. And you won't be attacked for firing a weapon, since doing so doesn't violate any particular rule. Too bad.

 I'm torn on the boss fights. They're interesting and fun, yes, but they're really drawn out, which really disrupts the established tempo. These encounters alternate between phases, and there's usually a gimmick involved. When, for instance, you take on the lone returning boss, the guardian drone (that "Pi! Pi! Pi!" contraption), your immediate objective will be to toss a barrel into its vulnerable underside; when it flips over thereafter, you'll have to ascend to a higher level and toss a barrel down onto the exposed opening. Other boss battles are sequenced: When you're accosted by, say, a manually controlled Siege Machine, the path to victory will entail dismantling the machine piece by piece (destroy its treads and then use the Bionic Arm to remove the giant screws that hold its plating in place).

Only one of the bosses (Nathan's arch-nemesis, the bionic-armed Groeder) is unique. The other five (or, at least, those that resemble them) reappear in other later areas, each with a craftier, more-complexly-constructed incarnation.

I just wish these battles were faster-paced. It doesn't help that the frame-rate drops considerably whenever the camera pans out to reveal a large chunk of space. Maybe playing with an even lower resolution will alleviate this problem?

 The enemy A.I. is much-improved: If an enemy is nearby when your Bionic Arm latches onto or clangs off of an object, he'll hear it, react with concern, and then assume a fighting position. If any grunt finds himself directly in your sights, he'll retreat and attempt to find cover behind a barrel or some other object. Also, some enemies have specific weaknesses or immunities. Bomb Experts, for instance, wear blast suits that protect them from explosive fire. Droids are weak to plasma shots. Shield Soldiers' electromagnetic shields will deflect anything that's not laser fire.

Small touches like these go such a long way in providing the game character. These are the things you remember when you reflect upon a game and recall what made it unique. Ten years from now, when someone mentions this game to me, among the first images that'll pop into my mind will be one wherein a soldier yelps, freaks out and dives over a barrel.

 I appreciate the effort that GRIN put into making hacking a worthwhile endeavor. In the NES game, the enemy soldiers would exchange nonsensical communications that pretty much informed you of nothing, and intercepting the signal carried the risk of having your location discovered. In Rearmed, hacking is the gateway to desirable rewards: vital bits of information (boss weaknesses, mainly) and the health-restoration items that appear when your hacking attempts are successful. To earn these rewards, all you have to do is complete a specially crafted mini-game--a three-dimensional puzzle that entails guiding a spherical node to a goal point (it's similar to the block-pushing puzzles in Zelda games). You really do have to put some thought into your moves, since the game prevents you from trial-and-erroring your way to goal; those sneaky designers fixed it so that the block patterns change each time you play.

Certainly it's a fun little diversion. Though, I'm disappointed that the puzzles don't grow in complexity and difficulty as the game progresses; instead, theirs is a consistently modest challenge-level. Hell--even late in the game you can encounter some that are disgustingly easy.

Maybe that's for the best, though. I mean, wasn't I just complaining about time-consuming events disrupting the game's tempo?

Still, I would have forgiven them had they whipped up some larger, more-intricately-designed puzzles for the later stages. I do like me some challenging puzzles, after all.

 Another area of improvement: Every weapon is viable; each is valuable in its own way. The game does a great job of encouraging to put all of your guns to use, unlike the NES original, wherein every other weapon was swept aside the moment you earned the highly abusable rocket launcher. Achieving this balance required the nerfing of the rocket launcher, whose newly implemented quirks lower its efficiency and overall usability. That is, you can't fire it while you're airborne or in a swinging motion, and the rockets' blasts will now harm Nathan if he's standing too close to their point of impact; and if you're positioned too close to a wall when you fire, you're opening up the possibility of instant death. So you have to be careful when using it.

Rather, the rocket launcher has situational usage; it's more practical to use it against bosses, some of which fall quickly to its explosive power, and enemies that are good at avoiding normal bullet-spray (like similarly equipped Rocket Soldiers and those annoying cable-backed enemies).

All of the classic Bionic Commando weapons return, and there are also some new gun-types, like the Plasma Rifle, which fires beams in rapid succession, and the Vector Cannon, which fires rebounding lasers. Theirs is a type of unconventionality that allows for a range of tactics and strategies that just weren't possible in the original (being able to attack ceiling-mounted turrets from a standing position, for instance, can have a huge influence on how you choose to route your course forward).

There are also some cool weapon upgrades you can procure via exploration and secret-finding. You can, say, increase your rifle's range. You can fire two rebounding lasers at a time. You can fire off more clips before your machine gun reloads. And, best of all, you can gain the ability to remotely control your rockets! You can send them flying in circles or even take advantage of the accompanying camera pan to gain knowledge of the environments' structures and discover the locations of hidden rooms.

My favorite weapon is turning out to be Super Joe's machine gun, which is a total reversal. In the original game, I never touched it; I found it to be a completely ineffective weapon. Now it can mow 'em all down with great efficiency! Yay!

 I was absolutely delighted when I heard the Rob Hubbard variant of Commando's main theme playing during my first trek through one of the top-down enemy encounters. Hubbard, of course, composed the soundtrack for the Commodore 64 version of Commando, and his specially crafted main-theme remix is regarded as one of the greatest 8-bit tunes in existence. I applaud Simon Viklund for paying respect to both Hubbard and his fantastic creation.

I also appreciate how these top-down areas have been supplied some real context: Our helicopter can't advance because the enemy is in possession of anti-air weapons. As a result, these areas now demand some actual effort from the player, where in the past we could simply blitz through them without firing a shot. Here we have to completely eliminate the threat by blowing up the truck that houses the enemy's anti-air turret.

These areas are also home to 1ups, so it might be worth it to visit them--intentionally engage the enemy trucks--if your stock is low. Though, as Rearmed lacks the lacks the element of survivability, since it saves your progress after the completion of each stage, there's no real reason to stress if your stock is severely depleted. If that's the case, it's faster and more practical to purposely kill yourself and restart the stage with a fresh set of lives. Mind you, I'd never resort to such unscrupulous tactics (well, not often, at last). Oh, no--I take losing lives personally. If I fall into a pit in a Mega Man game, I'm startin' over, Jack.

 But that endgame, man. What a disaster. I get angry thinking about it.

Really, everything was going so well up until that point. I was joyfully grappling about the game's aesthetically pleasing environments. I was having a whole lot of fun experimenting with all of the new weapons. And all the while, I couldn't stop complimenting the game for how well it was doing in addressing the original's shortcomings. I had a few minor quibbles, yeah, but none of it mattered because I was having such a good time. But then I entered that place: the final stage--Area A, which managed to put a damper on my entire experience. It was then that Rearmed completely forget itself. After showing itself to have a good grasp on what made Bionic Commando what it was, it suddenly lost the plot and hit me with one of the worst stages I've ever forced myself to endure. We're talking 15 minutes of pure frustration and tedium.

First you have to slog your way through three specially themed rooms whose "challenges" amount to nothing more than (a) slowly spiraling around their unnecessary large, mostly barren innards; (b) activating series of switches for the purpose of unlocking the way to yet another series of switches; and (c) a whole lot of waiting for pipes and moving platforms to finally shift into position. Successfully clearing them removes the corresponding barriers and opens the way to a nightmarish outdoor section wherein you have to navigate your way up and around the base's outer wall via series of flipping panels, which account for 90% of the section's traversable terrain. Oh, and it's also dark and stormy, so you can barely decipher what it is you're looking at; at first glance, it's almost impossible to distinguish the obscured grapplable surfaces from the foggy background objects. It's a rough and nasty section, and even with solid play it's possible to hemorrhage all of your lives in a matter of seconds.

This is followed by an amateurish, mundanely designed section whose traversal is also based around tedious switch-pulling. Next is the demanding final battle against the Albatross, as commanded by the Leader. And then after all of that, there's the timed escape-sequence, which was slightly stressful in the original but is terrifying here because you're afforded a ridiculously insufficient window. That's not to suggest that its platforming challenges are time-consuming, no; rather, the problem is that you're forced to stop halfway through and engage in an indeterminately long boss fight against the evasive Groeder, who seems intent on wasting precious sections by aimlessly swinging about. Chances are that you're going to run out of time as you frantically chase him down. Failing here isn't a big deal if you have an extra life; you'll simply restart from the final room's entrance with the timer fully reset. But if not, guess what? Your game will end, and you'll have to redo the entire stage from the start; you'll have to re-experience every painful, life-draining moment of running and dropping your way through barren, mile-long passageways and pulling dozens of slowly-lowering switches.

I don't even remember how many attempts it took me. It was too many. Hell--there came a point where I considered dropping the game and watching the rest of it on Youtube. I was that aggravated.

I mean, what the hell were they thinking with this?

Closing Thoughts

 And that was my experience with Bionic Commando Rearmed. I really enjoyed the first 80% of it. I liked it less and less from that point on.

I'm not sure what happened there at the end. I get that they wanted to give greater substance to what's supposed to be an epic final encounter, but that extra content shouldn't have come at the expense of the core tenets that made Bionic Commando what it was--what made it great. My only guess is that the people at GRIN weren't yet experienced enough to work without a leash. Now that I think about it, those hidden routes--with their sloppy, haphazard level design--were making that case. I just didn't see it at the time.

Let me put it like this: When Rearmed follows the blueprint, it does wonderfully. When it deviates, it falls off a cliff; it's misguided in its design, and its difficulty spikes for all of the wrong reasons.

And because such is true, there's really no argument: Rearmed simply isn't a suitable replacement for the original Bionic Commando, which makes its point quicker and is acutely aware of its boundaries. If ever there was a time when I needed a Bionic Commando fix, and these two represented my available choices, I'd pick the original Bionic Commando hands down.

 All things considered, though, Bionic Commando Rearmed is a damn good game. For whatever issues I have with its endgame portion, I still think that its greater part contains some of the best action ever experienced in a Bionic Commando game. It's a whole lot of fun. I'm sure that I'll continue to extract enjoyment from it in the years ahead--just not from that awful final stage, before reaching which I'll be sure to quit out to my desktop.

Its every other aspect, though, is topnotch. Kudos to GRIN for a fine effort.

 Overall, I'm happy with how things turned out. My week-long experience with Bionic Commando Rearmed was a good one. I'm sure that it'll resonate with me. Also, there's a good chance that any nostalgia I hold for it will be intrinsically linked to the memories of my early days with Steam--the portal through which I traveled with the intent of delving deep into the wonderful, fascinating world of PC gaming.

And there's more Bionic Commando to come! The series' first true sequel, Bionic Commando (2009), is next up on my list. And I'm raring to swing back into action!