Run and shoot. Sometimes jump. That’s what games were like in the 80s and early 90s; running, shooting and sometimes jumping. That’s all they needed to be. There were worlds still left to discover in the universe of running, shooting and sometimes jumping.
In Bionic Commando you could run and shoot, but you could also swing. Yes, swing. You could climb ledges with your bionic arm and use it – gasp – to manipulate the environment. Objects were no longer merely set dressing, they were there to be used. Grapple onto a lamppost to swing across the chasm filled with deadly spikes.
No other game had that. Pitfall, maybe, but there’s really no comparison. Pitfall Harry swung like he was made of lead. In Bionic Commando, you swung like you were born to do it, like you were Tarzan with a gun. Maybe the limitations of the hardware made it all the more exciting that someone figured a way to create movement and physics that felt like really swinging. Maybe, in all truth, it wasn’t very realistic at all, but back then all we had were shadows on the wall, and when they turned on the lights, we could suddenly swing. It didn’t have to be perfect – it was better than anything we’d seen at the time, and that made it awesome.
As part of the run-up to the release of a next-gen Bionic Commando installment for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, Swedish developer Grin and Capcom have released Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a lavish, lovingly-crafted re-make of the NES title. The result, however, is less like running into that long-lost love on the subway, than running into her sister. The one who’s prettier, but somehow, not as sexy.
Like Gus Van Sant’s famous 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho, Rearmed reconstructs the original game level by level, scene by scene, shot by shot. And, just like Van Sant’s Psycho, it completely fails to recapture the spirit of the original.
Rearmed features the same ridiculous plot about a military madman bent on taking over the world, and a lone badass with a bionic arm who seems to be the only person capable of thwarting his evil schemes. And, just like with all Capcom games, there are even big boss badguys that just happen to have been constructed with a single, fatal flaw our hero is uniquely qualified to exploit. The game is, therefore, the quintessence of the original, but with updated art, sound, physics and all the other trappings of modern videogame ephemera. It should be perfection on a stick, but somehow the mojo is lost, painted over after one too many coats of veneer.
Perhaps the joy of running, shooting and swinging belonged to another time. It’s telling, for example, that a complete recreation of a AAA title from the 80s is little more than a budget download today. Times have changed, and even a glossy reproduction of a two-decades old game isn’t exciting enough to be more than a momentary distraction.
I played through most of Rearmed on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon and then rapidly stopped thinking about it. Was it fun for the eight hours or so I played it? Yes. The graphics are as exciting as any on a 2D, scrolling platformer have any right to be. I understand now the claims that this game may reinvent the genre. Do I think that will happen? No, of course not, but if you’re jonesing for some well-made, beautiful-looking retro gaming action, this is your huckleberry.
What Bionic Commando: Rearmed it isn’t, however, is earth-shattering. We’re once again living in a time and place when madmen in Russia control half the bombs (or so) and are rattling their sabers, dreaming of empire. We’re once again in those dark times when the US economy is faltering, enemies are lining up at the gates and the whole mess looks like it’s one disaster away – natural or otherwise- from plunging our safe, suburban world into an apocalyptic darkness from which it may never recover. So a game like Bionic Commando, birthed in a now-distant, but remarkably similar time, is a perfect choice for a remake. But, as with all remakes, the zeitgeist it’s captured is not the original’s.
The 80s arcade mojo is gone, as is the thrill of much of what makes this game this game. Most tragically, the swinging motion, the earth-shattering mechanic that made Bionic Commando so unique, just feels wrong. It may, perhaps, be a perfect re-creation of the original, but what made the original so compelling wasn’t the motion, per se, but how different the motion felt from that of any other game at that time. To make the remake as unique and special, they’d have had to create a unique feel for the mechanic as inspired by innovation and the 20 years of game-making that have passed since its first iteration, but instead it just feels dull. Worse, at times it’s even cumbersome, refusing to cooperate under any circumstances.
One level I played featured a would-be awesome section where you must navigate your character over vast, open pits by swinging from gigantic lamppost to gigantic lamppost like Tarzan through the trees, or else plummet to your death into the icy sea below. This is one of those sections in the original Commando where the game’s innovative physics truly shined, and you could fall into a rhythm of swinging and jumping that felt almost natural.
In the remake, however, the mechanic just feels awkward, and I was routinely unable to fall into any sort of rhythm at all, save that leading ultimately unto death. Over and over and over. That I passed the section at all is due more to luck than my mastery of the mechanics.
Vince Vaughn may be many things, but he will never be as convincing as the mommy’s boy psychotic as Anthony Perkins. He is, at best, a bargain bin version. Same with Bionic Commando Rearmed. I suspect Capcom is saving the big guns for the next act, the upcoming AAA, full-price, no-holds-barred next-gen sequel, and if so, fantastic. I hope the devs can pull that off. But this iteration is little more than a semi-fun way to pass a short amount of time.
Bottom Line: You can’t go home again. If you’re looking to rekindle an old flame with the classic, forget about it. She’s moved on, and so should you. If, however, you’re just looking for a good time, it’s definitely that. Just don’t expect much of a commitment.
Recommendation: You could do worse for $10. Buy it, play it for a weekend and then brag about your worldliness that you’ve experienced one of the greatest, classic 2D platformers of the 8-bit era.
This review is based on a copy of the game downloaded from the Xbox Live Arcade.
Russ Pitts is not now, nor has he ever been, and does not ever plan to be interested in rekindling any old flames. Just putting that out there for the record. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com