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We Can Rebuild Him: Bionic Commando

Mike Schiller

Open-ended gameplay, environmental interactivity, bionic arms, and exploding Nazis... on the Nintendo Entertainment System? Mike Schiller explains why the old-school classic Bionic Commando had it all.

-- The Bionic Commando, Stage 7

We look to video games to escape. Whether it be through the medium of first-person exploration -- assuming the role of the lone hero fighting his way through hordes of enemies -- or through a puzzle that requires our complete and utter attention for hours at a time, video games allow us to put aside the frustrations and banality of everyday life for the sake of a little fun. No matter that "fun" often entails moments of controller-tossing frustration -- it's still fun, in the way that doing just about anything that doesn't entail dealing with the so-called "real world" is fun.

And it's been this way since we were kids, even if, back then, the escape wasn't quite as necessary, and the thought of "reality" wasn't so grave. The best games were the ones that became extensions of us, ones that immersed us so far into their world that the characters on the screen became extensions of our own selves, even as those characters did things that, really, we would never be able to do.

Like, say, grab onto things with a retractable bionic arm.

Such was the thrust of Bionic Commando. Now, I know there was an arcade version of the game -- I know pretty much squat about that. No, as much as I'd like to say I was a coin-op veteran in my younger years, I never quite had the money for that, and as much as I'd like to buck the mainstream and say I lived and died by the Sega Master System (in which case I'd probably be writing this article about Phantasy Star), I was a kid born and raised on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES was the system all my friends had, and so, thanks to peer pressure and a lot of whining at my parents, it was the system I had as well. It did just fine for me for a long time... old classics like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior, Gradius (and particularly its sequel, Life Force), and the first three Super Mario Bros. games ate away a much higher percentage of my young life than I care to admit. But it was the NES adaptation of Bionic Commando that won me over immediately and never let its hold go; Bionic Commando that still beckons me when I dust off the old hardware or succumb to the temptation of emulation.

Bionic Commando
US Release: December 1988
UK Release: 26 October 1990
Japan Release: 20 July 1988

And it's all thanks to that retractable arm. Well, mostly.

Just the fact that a game that subscribed so heavily to the side-scrolling conventions of the time would completely delete the "jump" from the "run 'n jump" equation was itself groundbreaking. Jumping was replaced entirely by the use of the bionic arm -- grabbing ceilings, barrels, ledges, lampposts, and whatever else might be in the range of the arm. It sounds like an awkward mechanic, and at first, it is. It doesn't take long, however, to completely forget that jumping simply isn't an option, as there is always something to grab onto, and it quickly becomes obvious that using the arm effectively gives the player more freedom than jumping, anyway.

In fact, it is that freedom that makes Bionic Commando such a lasting presence. I could beat the game with one metaphorical hand tied behind my back at this point -- "beating" it is no longer the point. The point, now that I've seen every inch of it, is to get through it and look good. When you start playing Bionic Commando, one of the most handy things about having a bionic arm is the fact that you can cheat the certain death that comes with falling down one of the pits that are so pervasive in any game like this simply by launching that arm and praying it finds something to hold onto. Once accidental death is no longer an issue, however, you find yourself falling down those pits anyway, except not flailing randomly, but knowing that when you shoot that arm out, you're going to find something. There are levels in this game where you can pull some positively Tarzan-style moves over areas with no floor, finding yourself getting more and more daring until it A) bites you in the ass when poor timing lands you in the never-ending pit of never-endingness, or B) rewards you with utter self-satisfaction as you ultimately land on good old terra firma.

The levels never changed, but this sort of freedom in the way that you could tackle those levels was damn near unprecedented for that little 8-bit box, particularly for this straightforward-on-the-surface sort of side-scrolling action title.

There were plenty of secondary things that made Bionic Commando a trip -- the oddly complicated and fairly useless communicator system, the strategy (or lack thereof) in using the items that show up throughout the game, the fantastic music in certain levels (level 5 particularly made an impression), and the overhead-view mini-games that provide the game's only link to the original Commando, other than the fact that you're supposed to be rescuing that game's lone hero, Super Joe -- but above all of that? Well, at the end of the game, you finally get to meet the ultimate villain, the painfully-named Master-D.

The kicker here, however, is that Master-D is actually...(wait for it)...Adolf Freaking Hitler.

Now, I'm a little sympathetic to the idea that putting Hitler, of all people, in a video game might be a bit exploitative and insensitive. But really, when I was 10, there was nothing cooler than the fact that, having completed the game, I had just killed Hitler. Not only that, but exploded him into little bitty bloody pieces, in detail far more graphic than most anyone at that point had a right to expect from a mere video game, particularly a video game released under the watchful eyes of the Nintendo Quality Assurance Team (a.k.a. the censors). I'll be honest -- at the time, it scared the bejeezus out of me, in much the same way that Large Marge scared the bejeezus out of me in Pee Wee's Big Adventure. I didn't see it coming, even as I shot a bazooka into the cockpit of the plane in which Hitler sat; I just assumed there would be more silly Nintendo explosions and some triumphant music. No, instead we get three still-frames that show Hitler's face exploding, and I was truly utterly horrified by it.

Of course, that only added to the game's mystique -- I just watched Hitler's head explode, and if mom and dad ever saw it, I'd never play the game again. Of that I was sure.

The time since its release hasn't been particularly kind to Bionic Commando -- it'll never carry the lasting impact of a Super Mario Bros. or a Mega Man, and someone trying the game for the first time today will very likely be frustrated by its non-conventional control scheme and its ham-fisted attempts at a story (which do, happily, include some excellent "All your base"-style grammar miscues). Still, it has actually managed to garner a hardcore cult fanbase (most recently confirmed by a surprising #59 placement on the 2005 edition of IGN's Top 100 Games of All Time), and for this gamer, it was a landmark, an introduction to both open-ended action gameplay and graphic violence in gaming.

And I got to kill Hitler, over and over again if I wanted to. Was it necessarily healthy for my impressionable 10-year-old mind? Maybe not.

Did it leave an impression in a way that's caused me to grow to love it more than perhaps any other game in the seventeen years since?


Bionic Commando NES - Speed Run

* * *

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