Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bionic Commando - An Eventual Connection
How Rad Spencer painstakingly located the correct receiver and successfully hacked into my system.

Maybe it's because I didn't yet possess the emotional maturity to realize that you could appreciate something even if you didn't particularly care for it, but there was a time when I came to the decisive conclusion that Bionic Commando was an exceedingly unintuitive video game and not one I could be bothered to explore past its opening segments. It's too bad it went down that way, because Bionic Commando was a game that originally blew away me and did as much long before I ever got a chance to take control of the action. 

It started early in December of 1988, when we were visiting our relatives in New Jersey for a pre-holiday get-together. My cousins, as they were apt to do, escorted me upstairs to their bedroom and introduced me to some new titles--a few recent releases whose crop included the intriguingly titled Bionic Commando, about which I'd never heard or read about; that they were displaying for me one of their newly purchased games wasn't something out of the ordinary, but the particulars of how Bionic Commando was showcased to me held my interest in a big way.

It was usually the case with new or unfamiliar video games that I had to be eased into accepting them, but something about Bionic Commando's game-opening sequences were instantly alluring to me and tickled every fiber of my senses as I watched my cousins play through them that day. 

From the very start, the observably unconventional Bionic Commando had an inexplicably epic feel to it, which I sensed despite having little time to fully process what I was seeing. I was, for instance, intimidated by the general appearance and activity of its map screen, whose grid-based backdrop and oddly numbered squares looked like something out of one of those complicated strategy games (an element of which I assumed was present), yet the very function of it--including the player's ability to command the helicopter's pilot and how everything transitioned from that point--made me feel as though I was witnessing something rather huge in scope.

The palpable sense of spirit that so captured me continued its hold into Area 1, where I watched the goggled hero coolly parachute down to the outskirts of what looked to be a fortified complex comprised of stone walls, steel walkways, oil drums, and towers whose frames looked like the criss-crossed metallic supports I'd see elevating those large water tanks seen in the distance whenever we'd drive across the state. I didn't understand how the bionic arm worked, what was going on with the hacking system (which I also perceived as being more complicated than it actually was), or how stage-advancement was handled, but such thoughts were quickly brushed aside as I continued to be preoccupied more with the look and sound of Bionic Commando.

Mainly, I was enamored with the idea of its setting (or how I imagined it): There's a lone hero caught in the middle of a war, stealthy engineering the conflict's outcome while deftly circumventing the surrounding chaos of it all. There are neutral areas (which my cousins told me were "UN bases") occupied by combatants from both sides, the militant parties having to adhere to the organization's rules and cease any engagement lest the ground troops would signal for soldiers on standby to descend from the skies and attack whichever is the aggressor (I was always fascinated with the idea of a real-life entities--in this case, the alleged UN, which I'd last heard mentioned in the movie Clue--being represented in games featuring fantastical worlds). The vast conflict zone is encircled by majestic mountains, which occupy the landscape's distant borders and create a glorious open-space atmosphere with their combination turquoise-sea green hue and snowy tips that seem to scrape the oppressive, sparsely crowded sky. What a world.

Though, I thought it was strange how the hero lacked the ability to jump, which defied the norm in a way that bordered on heresy. I mean, that's how games were supposed to be: You run, you shoot, and you jump. Had it been a game whose immediate impression wasn't quite as indelible, the unadventurous side of me might have soured on it in a hurry, but this one was making a strong case for divergence; that is, seeing Bionic Commando's inceasingly versatile grappling system in motion wiped away my doubts and left me in awe--particularly when my cousin Steve grappled onto that one spotlight and breathtakingly swung across the gap that separated the first area's two halves. It was just one of many moments from a rather short play-session (I saw maybe two battle areas and that one neutral zone) that convinced me that Bionic Commando was definitely among those I was going to have to add to that year's Christmas list, which included my request for an NES.

As was the case with my first visual samplings of titles like Simon's Quest and the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando's strongly imprinted imagery was in my mind's forefront for days in following. My imagination went into overdrive as I tried to fill in the gaps and wonder about what lay beyond that opening segments of the map; I could envision the inner and outer regions of vast enemy fortresses and sprawling compounds, all adorned with grapple-able balconies, spires, and hooks that would extend from every worn surface and create a dangerously plotted path to the goal. "It'll be grand," I thought.

Then something went horribly wrong: Maybe a week or so later, I actually played it. I don't remember where I was at the time (I'd guess Dominick's house, since he might have rented it from the corner video store), but my first personal session with Bionic Commando was a complete bust. To start, I couldn't get any kind of handle of the controls, my first few minutes spent spastically latching onto every platform in sight and limply disconnecting for reasons I couldn't understand; sometimes I'd repeatedly swing back and forth without interrupting, other times I'd detach after one swoop. The ability to control the hero's momentum post-grapple felt totally out of my power, similar to how I felt anytime I was launched into the air by that springboard in the school gymnasium. 

If I was advancing forward in any way, it was purely by accident, since I couldn't grasp the subtleties of the mechanic. Even if I'd manage to grapple over the first obstacle, that lone oil drum, the soldiers on the other side would kill me in one hit. Game Over. I had to take a step back and wonder: "If the controls don't make any sense to me, and the hero is so fragile as to die in one hit (as far as I knew), then what chance do I stand in future battle areas that have to be far more complex?"

The localization, if I could call it that, was head-shakingly bad ("We rely on you!"), and I had no idea what anyone was talking about ("Now we have you!" a rough-looking grunt would announce. Who? Me or the guy who was babbling about the elevator?). I wasn't likely to find out, since I couldn't make it past the first stage, and I had no intention of attempting to do so. No--I was done with Bionic Commando, a game that just days earlier helped spark my fervor for wanting to own NES. It was a heartbreaking sentiment, since I had become so enraptured by its aesthetics, and I was so in love with the ideas it presented. I mean, there was so much to like: The sound effects, like the robotic clenching of the bionic arm, had so much personality, and the two or three music tracks I'd heard were brilliant; the battle-area music--with its intense opening drum beat and inspiring, heroic-sounding progression--and the welcoming neutral-zone theme were invigorating, but the bright spots were mere fragments of light on a gem that had lost most of its shine.

Save for one or two aborted attempts to get back into it, I avoided any and all contact with Bionic Commando for about 16 years. Though, truthfully, I never stopped being enamored with the idea of its setting and that unforgettable vibe that colored my mind's render of it; combine this still-present affinity for its world with my distaste for leaving things unfinished, and manifested was the regret that I never gave Bionic Commando a fair shot. I wanted to try again, but the problem was that I had no outlet; I had shied away from emulation in favor of official releases, and Bionic Commando seemed lost to time.

As luck would have it, Nintendo launched the Virtual Console around the time I got the itch to rediscover Bionic Commando, and the service's library was building rapidly enough (remember those days?) to where I was sure it would soon appear. But it wasn't happening, and there were rumors that Nintendo was refusing to put Bionic Commando on Virtual Console in response to Capcom's snubbing the Wii in regard to the 2008 release of Bionic Commando Rearmed. "I guess I'll have to wait a bit," I thought to myself, not realizing that I was anticipating something that would never happen.

Newfound opportunity arose when a 3DS Virtual Console release for the Game Boy version of Bionic Commando was announced in 2011. I knew from watching the trailer that it wasn't exactly the same game, but it was my only choice if PC emulation was still out of the question. I was still a little hesitant to take the plunge, since I still wasn't confident in my ability to grasp the controls, but I could no longer deny my urge to consume the full Bionic Commando experience after all those years.

I wasn't sure what this version of Bionic Commando was doing or if my memories were betraying me, but I was really digging it. I wasn't fond of the switch to an anime look, nor did I approve of some of the musical changes (I rather liked the NES version's stage-clearing theme, which reminded me of the intro to the "Mickey Mouse March." As I'd lyricize from there: ♪ Who's the leader of the group who swings from to to fro? B-I-O. N-I-C. C-O-M-M--ay-errrr-duuhhrrrr. ♪ Ah, screw it), but everything else was surprisingly realized, which I didn't expect from a Game Boy game; the grappling mechanic was faster in execution and much more intuitive, there was a better flow to the action, and there was a great degree of polish present throughout (mainly, the localization was solid, the objectives were clear, and the communications-room menu was better presented and even had a much-desired weapon-switch option). 

Matching the company's other high-quality efforts on the Game Boy, Bionic Commando looked and sounded spectacular in the face of hardware limitations that for Capcom were no real obstacle, and it didn't feel like a port despite using the NES version as the framework (I didn't remember much about the NES version's stage design despite seeing it featured in a few Let's Plays, but I knew that much of its content was being replicated here, even if rearranged somewhat). It had some new tunes and a couple of familiar ones, and both sets got equal attention; the composer was quite successful in replicating the NES soundtrack's sense of energetic stimulus and heroic flair, which pervades all 17 of the game's areas. It's some of the company's best work on the Game Boy and definitely something you should listen to via Youtube and the like.

It speaks to how good a job Capcom did when I have a very positive impression of a game that featured more than one segment that came close to infuriating me, including (a) a cavernous stage where I had to grapple across a ridiculously long stretch of open space that entailed no ground and only a deviously designed, uneven ceiling; and (b) an equally floorless end-game segment where I had to grapple beneath the underside of a spaceship whose fire-spewing engines ceased discharging for such a small window of time that getting by just four of them seemed impossible without a helping of good fortune--not to mention the inconsistent framerate, which sometimes made it seem like flames weren't present when they actually were. Not that I necessarily abused it, but thank goodness for the Virtual Console's "Restore" function.

The team behind its development deserves a lot of credit, too, for breaking the mold and adding in unique, defining touches that don't betray the original's subject-matter. I like in particular Area 10's detailed city backdrop--a dominating visual that lends the stage a sense of scale and the type of flanking, menacing presence that never fails to stir my imagination (as you know, I've always loved the way old video games render mountains, citycapes and building-filled backgrounds); this same stage also provides a Game Boy-exclusive segment where the hero, Rad Spencer, is captured and has to negotiate his way around the enemy stronghold without his firearms. The overhead areas have been replaced by side-scrolling scenes that more fit the game's personality. And there's even a cute little touch in Area 6, whose platforms are comprised of horizontally laid Game Boys! It's a nice tribute, at least.

It's these little changes and alterations that make Bionic Commando for Game Boy a strong standalone product and, I say, the superior version of the game. It has an addictively fun quality to it, and I find myself randomly loading it up whenever my 3DS is switched on and I have some time to kill. All told, I've played through it at least seven times since downloading it last year, and that number is likely to balloon in time. In fact, I think I'm going to take a break and play it again right now.

When I wrote up the piece detailing my history with Commando, I spoke of a long bout of silliness where I thought that the game was an adaptation of the Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. Furthermore, I revealed that even after I learned of its correct designation, I was still unaware that it had any relation to Bionic Commando, whose technologically advanced setting seemed incompatible with its predecessor's 80s-era presentation (you'd think the existence of Bionic Commando's referential overhead sections would have been my first clue, but I was probably still hung up on wondering about which of Commando's blue solders was Bennett and when I'd get to throw a pipe through his torso).

It's for that reason Bionic Commando remains an object of fascination to me; that is, I've never been able to reconcile how a game where you traverse a conceivable warzone and lob grenades at the 100 or so soldiers who are engaging in a kindergarten fire drill is related to an experimental arcade conversion in which a part-cyborg uses a bionic arm to infiltrate strongholds that seem ripped out of Star Wars. It's even stranger when I consider that my not being able to process it is actually the part that fascinates me. What could it all mean?

Also on the list of Bionic Commando facts to which I was long oblivious: Since the year-2000 version of me had yet to see the latter part of the game, I never picked up on the its "Hitler revival" angle. I'd be fine with the idea of, say, actual UN involvement, but I feel that Capcom went perhaps a bit too far in including a specific person and one widely regarded as the most murderous tyrant of our time (well, at least according to what my largely revisionist grade-school history books were telling me). His inclusion serves more as a dose of tainted reality that doesn't really jive with Bionic Commando's goofy-fun subject-matter. What really puzzles me is Nintendo of American's selective censorship, which raises objection to the man's name being used but apparently has no problem with his entirely recognizable mugshot being used and the choppy-but-detailed animation of his head exploding. What a pack of idiots. 

Wadsworth: "So nothing has changed."

I returned to NES version very recently for the purpose of covering it here. After become quite adept at finishing the Game Boy Version with little in the way of struggle, I was falsely convinced that I'd cleanly transition back to the NES original with both an established level of skill and firm grasp on its controls even though I suspected they weren't as polished. Yeah--it didn't quite work out that way; it was difficult going back to what was essentially the beta phase of Bionic Commando controls, and I desperately missed the ability to discharge the grappling hook quickly after breaking a connection. It wasn't as structurally similar as I'd thought (not like the Game Boy port of DuckTales compared to its NES counterpart), and I was surprised by its rather stark differences, like the swampland of Area 5 with its sinking mud pits, wall-crawling spiders, flying insects, and concealed piranha plants. 

The latter half of Area 6 is brutal in how it suddenly removes the training wheels without warning, which bumps up the difficulty-level several notches and expects you to showcase great understanding of the grappling mechanic without any in the way of fail-safe; like the well in Zorro, it's a true rough rough spot, and I jumped to my death so many times you'd think Bionic Commando was a metaphor for Wall Street investment bankers following the 2008 crash. Had I not abused the game's system of earning continues, I might have quit out of anger right then.

I'm glad to have finally finished the NES version after spurning it for so many years, and I've played through it again since. I now consider myself well-versed in its grappling mechanics and have a new appreciation for its divergent approach to platforming action. It's a shame that my club membership is two decades removed from the period when my entry might have created a slew of shared, cherished memories, but my experiences have taught me that it's never too late to rediscover the classics and make up for lost time. I still greatly prefer the Game Boy version, which took into account all of the original's shortcomings and remedied them rather brilliantly, but I won't be neglected the NES version any time soon.

All that's left for me now is to give proper attention to the arcade game, from which the series spawned. Really, I hadn't the slightest idea until the mid-2000s that there was an arcade game called "Bionic Commando" or that it was the series' true genesis. When I discovered its existence and read that it was the storyline predecessor to the NES game, I quickly filed these findings under the category of "mind-blowing video-game facts," since I assumed the NES game was some wholly original console special and associated only with that format. "Not so," says Bionic Commando, which I've since learned is full of surprises. It's to me another example of how rich the medium's history truly is--how its history remains a near-endless trove filled with unexpected treasures whose mining, I'm sure, will continue to deliver shockwaves.

I've only briefly sampled the arcade game, but I can tell you that it's ambitious-looking, creative, has wonderfully conceived stage settings, and boasts an empowering soundtrack. I'll tell you, also, that it's so enormously, unreasonably difficult that knowledge of the aforementioned is basically useless. If I've termed the NES game's grappling controls as the "beta phase," then the arcade's are best labeled "Nick Nolte DUI phase." Good luck making progress without crashing into an electrified gate or even surviving for more than ten seconds. I don't even want to think about how crazy-tough the multiple home-computer ports are (though, I am aware that the Commodore 64 version has amazing music). I'd like to save any further thoughts for a future piece dedicated to them, but I'll reiterate how thankful I am for Nintendo's old policy of demanding that arcade ports have unique content; without it, there'd be but one forgotten work of sadism, and a great video-game series might never have been.

However challenging things may have been, my recent experiences with Bionic Commando have put me in the spirit. I'm now fully onboard the Bionic Commando train and can't wait to get a crack at the likes of Bionic Commando: Elite Forces (which I'm hoping makes a 3DS Virtual Console appearance) and the modern console titles. Sure--I'm late to the party, but I won't let that stop me from getting into the swing of things!

See--'cause he swings around with the arm and stuff. 

This stuff is free, you know.

It took you a while, Rad Spencer, and even an alternate incarnation, but you were eventually able to extend your bionic arm, latch on to the bridge of my turned-up nose, and grapple your way into my heart.  

Long live Bionic Commando.

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