Just trust me here. The first thing you want to do in Bionic Commando is to use “transfer” to move your helicopter into one of those trucks roaming around the world map. Once you do, kill the guys who look different than everyone else and they should drop little medals. Pick those up.
What are they? Continues. Bionic Commando starts you off with none for some reason, and if you die without one, you’re starting the game over again.
Knowing this, you’ll actually be capable of finishing Bionic Commando. I believe in you.
RAD, RAD SPENCER
Bionic Commando is a 1988 NES game by Capcom based on the arcade game of the same name. Weirdly, it’s technically a sequel to Commando, even though the two games share very little in common. Instead, the only link between the two is that Commando’s protagonist, Super Joe, is the damsel in distress here.
You play as Rad Spencer, oddly mistranslated to “Ladd” Spencer in the North American version, the titular bionic commando. You skipped leg day, so you’re vertically challenged. I don’t mean he’s short, either, but rather he can’t jump. Instead, the only way to achieve vertical mobility is to use your bionic arm, which functions as a grappling hook.
The game’s plot revolves around a war between the good guys and Nazis. The Nazis are trying to resurrect Hitler so he can help them complete a super weapon. Or at least, that’s how the Japanese version, Hitler no Fukkatsu: Top Secret (literally Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret), played things out.
In the North American version, Hitler was renamed Master-D and the Nazis were cleverly disguised as the Empire. They didn’t bother changing Hitler’s appearance, though, and man, does he ever look like Hitler. A long time ago I actually played through this entire game just for a chance to kill Hitler, and this may be a bit of a spoiler, but I wasn’t disappointed.
Anyway, yeah, you’re trying to save Super Joe, and you’re a rad guy with a rad bionic arm. It’s pretty rad.
NOW THEY’LL NEVER SAVE YOUR BRAIN, HITLER
So is there anything aside from the aforementioned lack of jumping that differentiates Bionic Commando from other platformers? No, not really, but the swinging mechanic is surprisingly satisfying.
It doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it either. You can swing like Spider-Man, or use it to hoist yourself up to higher platforms. There isn’t much combat usage of it, but it’s otherwise fun to use.
You’re also given an overworld map where you select what level you’ll approach next. This doesn’t make things non-linear in any way, you’re still restricted in where you can go off the hop, but it does give an interesting overview of where you can go. There are also neutral villages that all look the same where you can gather items and intel, but the novelty in them wears off pretty quickly.
After every level, you’re given an item to utilize, and pretty much every weapon you pick up sucks except the basic rifle and the rocket launcher. You’d think the spread gun would be pretty cool, but no.
You collect little bottles of green Gatorade (actually, I looked it up and those are apparently supposed to be bullets), and after getting a certain number of them, you gain an extra point of health. This is pretty key to actually advancing in the game, and, at one point, I found myself grinding for Gatorade.
Actually, my problems with the game go beyond that. I hold Capcom’s platformers in pretty high esteem, in fact, I generally look at them as the gold standard on the console. After all, it’s hard to get by the peak that is the Mega Man series. Bionic Commando, though…
Listen, as I said before, the swinging mechanic is really rad, but everything around it could be better. Nothing is that bad, it’s just not that great either. The levels seem rather cobbled together, instead of being thoughtfully built around the swinging mechanic. There are some areas that test your abilities, but most of the time, you might as well be jumping.
The difficulty curve is anything but. The stage that gave me the most difficulty was somewhere in the middle of the game, and I walked through the final level like I owned the place.
Actually, as long as you know how to get continues and don’t mind grinding a bit to get more health, Bionic Commando isn’t that difficult. The bosses are an absolute joke, featuring awkward designs that take little advantage in the swing mechanic. Each one takes place in the same room layout and they’re repeated throughout the game. If you want to see the game at its jankiest, it’s most easily witnessed during the boss battles.
Bionic Commando just never quite grasps its full potential. The central mechanic is so satisfying, but the game struggles to apply it effectively. With some better thought out boss battles and levels that actually challenge your proficiency in swinging, it could have been something special.
It doesn’t help that the game seems to progressively get worse at it proceeds. Even the translation goes from passable to bad in the later levels.
But let me turn this around; I actually liked Bionic Commando. This isn’t my first time killing Hitler, and it probably won’t be my last. If anything, I’m harsh towards it because I know it can be better. It has all the pieces it just needs a better way to put them together. Now might be a good time for me to check out the Game Boy sequels.
This review was conducted on an original model NES using a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.