A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Bionic Commando

August 17, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Bionic Commando

(JP July 24, 1992; NA September, 1992)

Essentially a remake of the NES game, Bionic Commando for the Game Boy is one of Capcom’s best titles available for the handheld. Only, well, Capcom didn’t actually make it. Commissioned by Capcom, Bionic Commando was actually developed by a much smaller company known as Minakuchi Engineering. Outsourcing help or entire projects to other companies has always been popular in the games industry, and along with that, so has been giving as little credit as possible in favor of maintaining brand image.

What was likely intended to have originally been just a port of the popular NES game, Bionic Commando seemed to have well outgrown that idea sometime within development. Taking a much more “anime” approach to its aesthetic, the visuals for the game have received a complete overhaul, with it sometimes only vaguely imitating the NES original and its somewhat basic style. Characters now frequently sport exaggerated spiky hair, and everything has been given a much more futuristic look, highly reminiscent of late 80’s sci-fi anime.

The level of detail on both character sprites and stage art has also been noticeably increased to help compliment this shift in style, and the game now features art much more detailed than its higher resolution NES counterpart. Characters now feel much more animate and lively despite typically being smaller by pixel count, and display much more distinct art. Levels are also surprisingly diverse in their appearance with little space on the screen is spared in showing just how far the artists were willing to go.

Many Game Boy games – even many of my favorites – often tepidly approach background art by using massive amounts of negative space with very sparse illustration, but Bionic Commando takes it a step further and frequently fills in backgrounds with heavy detail. To keep this from detracting from the game’s fast paced action and causing confusion in comprehension, the darkest of the Game Boy’s 4 shades is very rarely used in the background, giving it clear visual readability as distinctly separate from the foreground.

The overall composition of the visual work within the game is incredibly cohesive, giving it a distinct look and feel for a Game Boy title even many years after the console’s being put to rest. It also has what is inarguably a much greater deal of personality, with some pretty memorable enemy designs being far more interesting than the the predecessor’s many bland-looking soldiers. Which you like better is certainly up to preference, but which has more thought and effort put into it is clearly the Game Boy game. The music happens to be pretty great, as well, featuring both returning and original compositions.

Bionic Commando also borrows the mechanics of the NES game, but it attempts to arrange its elements in a much more thoughtful way, as to forego player frustration with unnecessarily crude ideas. For instance, the level map returns, but the way that it is numbered now suggests a level path rather than leaving the numbering deliberately obtuse as to confuse the player.

Bullets are still collected from fallen enemies to replenish your health, but you now start with a couple of free hits rather than being met with immediate death upon your first time stumbling into an enemy. The game still features bonus stages when you encounter enemy transports on the map, but rather than homaging Commando and featuring overhead stages, we’re met with side scrolling stages that parachute in hordes of enemies. The only way to obtain continues is still from these bonus stages, but the game is now generous enough to start you off with a few, for free.

Other subtle changes are made to make things less frustrating for the player, such as the ability to change weapons or communicators from within a level and NPC’s making it much more clear what they’re attempting to indicate with their dialogue. Communications rooms are also now much more friendly in their placement, a password system has been implemented, so on and so forth… What you’re left with is a game that is much less rough around the edges for the player to interact with. This leaves the game easier to recommend than its predecessor, as there’s now much less to distract the player from the meat – the swinging.

Controlling nearly identically to its previous installment, things are still all about the “bionic” part of being a commando. Steadfast in deciding the game had nothing to gain by adding a jump, your only methods of aerial movement are via your wire, and this is where the real beauty of the game begins to shine. Swinging around is just as skill-intensive as it was before, and a decrease to your falling speed greatly increases your options via getting around in a level. Falling from a platform or detaching your wire while stationary met with an abrupt plunge back on the NES, but the speed is now reduced just enough to reattach and reposition yourself.

This opens up a lot of new possibilities, and the levels highly accentuate this. While some levels are mostly identical in layout to their NES counterparts, there are several new stage layouts that demand significantly more of your swinging ability and really put your skills with the game to the test. Blind jumps are much more of a rarity, too, immediately indicating a better grasp of how to design the game. Not content to slowly break you into the mechanic over filler levels, Bionic Commando unleashes itself with a volley of difficult challenges that are going to make absolute sure you’ve explored how to play to the fullest extent before allowing you to proceed.

As opposed to most games, enemies are hardly your greatest hurdle – here, it’s the environment. The subtlety of your movement can mean life or death, and the game presents itself as a starkly different landscape than games like the Game Boy’s installment of Donkey Kong, where your diverse moveset is always present, but never required to get through the level. Not understanding that pressing down on the d-pad can detach you from a jump early, granting you the lowered momentum to precisely land on a smaller platform can mean repeated, frustrating deaths.

That’s not to say the game’s design isn’t excellent, but rather that it’s not going to reduce itself to deny players seeking challenge what they desire. It was slowly becoming rare, even as early as 1992, to see games that were willing to go further than to just tease the player with superb control over the character, only to never make them actually showcase it. On the one hand, this reduces the overall scope of players who will ultimately be able to get into the game and appreciate it. On the other hand, those who love it will find so much more to get out of it.

I don’t feel like this kind of design exists in contradiction to a game like Kirby’s Dream Land, but rather that it exists parallel to it. Not all games have to be for all people, and I feel like that’s an important thing to take away from this, that you can appreciate both what reaches out and what appeals to just you. While I listed many attempts to make the game more accessible, I don’t think the difficulty necessary takes away from that. The refinements exist to make the game’s unpleasant parts less abrasive, and to focus more on where the application of difficulty can be meaningful. Not unlike a game of pinball, grasping the basics is simple, but applying the sum of your skill is much more engaging and demanding.

Death will be often be frequent, but each one is a learning opportunity. “If only I had detached sooner, if only I had been a little bit more precise…” – these thoughts will flood your mind at your repeated failures, but they are there to embolden a determination to finish the game, not to make you feel as if you’re throwing yourself at a wall until it collapses. Like riding a bike, you slowly become intimately familiar with the use of the wire in a way that is as natural as it is to jump over a Koopa in a Mario game. The game is much better programmed this time around, as well, with your player character spending a lot less time clipping through the ceiling while performing short swings, and also having much fewer enemies simply disappear from the screen due to how scrolling was implemented.

Considering how unexplored mechanics like the swinging in Bionic Commando are, it’s pretty amazing that they managed to hit the nail so squarely on the head, here. While there are moments that feel that they could have been arranged a little bit better (something we’d see with Bionic Commando: Rearmed, many years later), the degree to which these designers grasped the mechanics of what they were dealing with is astonishing, and that they actually asked the player to perform as well as they did is something I heartily appreciate.

Frequently forgotten as some sort of cute footnote between the NES game and its eventual remake, it deserves far more than that. Bionic Commando for the Game Boy is an excellent title deserving of some of the finest praise of its time, and is one superb handheld game. For those out there looking to get something more out of platformers, there’s hardly anywhere better to look.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Kirby’s Dream Land

August 5, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Kirby’s Dream Land

(JP April 27, 1992; NA August 1, 1992)

HAL’s adorable and enduring mascot, Kirby, made their (Kirby is, canonically, gender-neutral, and that means they/them pronouns) debut on the Game Boy via this timeless classic. Released early enough in the Game Boy’s lifespan to catch some serious attention, but late enough to see HAL’s craft reach excellent refinement, this title helped ensure a long lifespan for its eponymous character and cement it into a long-lasting, much adored series.

While Kirby’s Adventure for the NES/Famicom is often remembered as the birth of the series and the better game, Kirby’s Dream Land came first and started building things from the ground up. Without the success of Dream Land, we wouldn’t have seen them push things even further with Adventure, and it hardly ends up making the original obsolete despite its many advancements.

Unlike many platformers at the time that sought to capitalize in success on following in the more skill-intensive footsteps set by Super Mario Brothers, Kirby’s Dream Land instead went for a far more accessible approach. Mario games of the time could have their levels described as being akin to marathons – meant to be challenging affairs that rewarded those with the determination to see them through. Kirby’s Dream Land, on the other hand, was designed more like a playground, requiring far less endurance and focusing more on the simple joys of play than the challenges that could be derived from them.

This shift in design ethos is something that could easily go wrong, as platformers up until now had largely been built around rewarding the player for overcoming challenge. Without that, the care put into designing the game had to be shifted elsewhere. HAL took to this with gusto, looking to create a game so bursting with a variety of enemies and environments that one might stop to think about what it was that they so loved about games beyond just the satisfaction of beating them.

What they created has since been remembered as one of the most delightful Game Boy games of all time, and one that sought to expand the horizons of who video games were trying to appeal to far beyond those only craving difficulty. While the game is rather easy to clear in under a nearly stress-free half of an hour, what makes it a success is no stroke of luck, but rather clever design and hard work.

Featuring some of the most intensely pleasant visuals to grace the platform, Kirby’s Dream Land is a relentlessly gorgeous looking game that is something to behold on each and every screen. The use of contrast is expertly considered and each of the 4 shades available on the Game Boy were used in clever ways as to fully accentuate the variety of environments Kirby will be exploring.

Dream Land is a place that is hard to not want to visit with how inviting and detailed every location appears. Despite featuring a surprisingly limited 5 levels, there is no punch pulled in trying to make your adventure as illustrated as possible, and the variety in visual design is without question among the highest tier of quality available on the Game Boy. It’s games like these that we consider “too easy,” today, that were what originally lured many of us into a lifelong appreciation of this genre. I strongly believe we undercut the sheer importance of how beautiful and inviting the worlds we visited were in planting those seeds.

Beyond just the levels being gorgeous, the quality put into the enemy designs and their animation is easily just as apparent. Many of the Kirby series most memorable enemies saw their debut here, such as Waddle Dee, the Poppy Bros., Scarfy, and many more. Many of them feature intensely memorable, yet simple designs, all executed with the experience of a developer who already had some great Game Boy titles like Trax under their belt.

Each world also featured a unique boss character, with three of those five having returned in some capacity in almost every Kirby title, since. Who could forget Whispy Woods, the animate apple tree who seemed almost reluctant to fight you, or King DeDeDe, the greedy, rotund ruler of Dream Land? If you’ve played and forgotten any of the specifics of Kirby’s Dream Land, chances are you’ve been reminded of them whether or not you realized it, as HAL’s pride in their heritage often shows with many Kirby sequels borrowing this or that from the original.

Visual work is not all that we’ve seen repeated in Kirby games, even up to modern day – the compositions for the original music in Dream Land are frequently covered or tributed by its successors. Tunes that have since proven themselves to be timelessly pleasant fill your ears as you play. With a varied assortment of tracks, any Kirby fan who picked the series up in later years (of which there are many) will hear the birth of many of their favorite tunes and begin to understand just how important this title was to kickstarting one of their favorite series. It’s hard to overstate exactly how important the music was, as the cheerfully upbeat soundtrack is a big part of what attracted such a wide audience.

Wrapping the aesthetically delightful package together, of course, are the game’s mechanics. Kirby controls nearly identically to how they do today, and the simple, intuitive nature of their movement is just as appealing now as it was then. While certain abilities like the dash and slide had yet to be implemented, and the signature “copy” mechanic wasn’t thought up, yet, it’s a delight to navigate them through the game’s obstacles and experience their unique ability to combat enemies through inhaling and exhaling.

The game’s difficulty is very low, but it does offer a hidden challenge mode for those who were looking for something a little bit meatier out of the game. Rather than just pump the damage output of enemies up, they also included a very wide variety (well over a dozen) of new enemies with behaviors similar to those you’d see in the regular game. While this doesn’t exactly make it play like a new game, the added difficulty isn’t anything to scoff at.

All-in-all, even as someone who is a seasoned veteran of a variety of action games, I still prefer to play Kirby’s Dream Land on its original settings. Why? That’s where its design sensibilites were balanced. Kirby doesn’t benefit well from being thrown into challenging situations because they’re just not really meant for it. It’s not to say the game can’t benefit from a degree of challenge when it’s carefully placed in certain segments, but Kirby’s exaggerated movements are much more delightful to experience when they’re not demanding reflex-intensive timing out of the player.

This doesn’t mean I think that every platformer should be more like Kirby – I love variety, and that would just stifle it – but I do think that there’s much to learn from it in making your game appeal to a broader spectrum. Kirby nails simple appeal in a way that many modern games fail to. We often think of extensive, hand-holding tutorials or patronizingly simple mechanics when it comes to modern games attempting accessibility, but there’s something to behold in how Kirby does “accessible” so succinctly.

Beneath its incredible simplicity is something the designers carefully toiled over to not waste your time or insult your intelligence with. This is the true markings of excellent game design, where what’s done is something subtle enough to not draw attention to itself, but powerful enough to have an influential effect. This allows experienced players to not feel the game is beneath them, and for newer players to not feel as if they have to be talked down to like simpletons to jump in and enjoy themselves. The joy of this game is nearly effortless for the player to experience, but it’s worth realizing that the designers’ precise execution and careful restraint were anything but accidental.

Kirby’s Dream Land really is, when all is said and done, a fantastic game that is well worth revisiting. I genuinely believe it to be as delightful today as it was when it came out, and it’s so nice to have a game I can get a complete experience out of in the time it takes me to wait for a meal at a restaurant.

A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Metroid II

July 17, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Metroid II: The Return of Samus

(NA November 1991; JP January 21, 1992)

Despite Nintendo having had a mostly good track record with its Game Boy output, it still felt as if they had some weird sort of reluctance to take the console as seriously as they did the NES. Most of their releases were either quirky spin-offs or one-off titles that they seemed less confident in, and characters like Wario, who saw his birth on the console, almost felt allegorical for how the Game Boy was being treated – as this weird, goofy cousin of the NES there to scoop up money.

Gunpei Yokoi – the designer of the Game Boy, the man who once tutored Shigeru Miyamoto, and co-creator and producer of the Metroid series – saw using his console as a way to hopefully bring Metroid into being as successful as Zelda and Mario had been. Confidence in his idea brought to life one of Nintendo’s most impressive exclusives to the console, Metroid II: The Return of Samus.

One of few outlying titles in Nintendo history revealing a genuine effort on their part to take their handhelds as seriously as they did their home consoles, Metroid II was one of Nintendo’s only stabs at a direct sequel to a popular NES game on the Game Boy. Taking place shortly after the events of the first game, Metroid II saw Samus leaving the planet of the space pirates and focusing her efforts on SR388 – the mysterious homeworld of the eponymous Metroid.

Her mission? Genocide. The threat of the Metroid creature was considered so great that they were deemed a threat to all life, and the only person talented enough to handle this was none other than the baddest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Take a minute, here, to reflect on the climate of games at the time, and how they were largely considered something meant for boys and young men. Take another minute to consider that the most influential gaming company in the entire world was releasing a game where you were the lone woman capable of saving all life from a terrible threat.

It’s a little bit empowering, isn’t it? As a transgender woman under thirty who came across Metroid II at a young age, long before I was “out” and when my feelings on gender were something still maturing in my head, it’s important to mention just how much this meant. Girls could be just as cool as all my other heroes, like the blue guy from Contra or Mario on his adventures to save the princess. Seeing a woman being sold to someone my age as something other than a helpless damsel or incompetent third wheel was extremely meaningful.

The fact that Samus’ characterization was so minimal and her dialogue completely nonexistent only furthered my ability to project who I wanted to be onto her. I didn’t want to be a handsome boy hero who got all the love and accolades, I wanted to be the badass woman in a suit of armor, alone on an isolated planet and surrounded by nothing familiar. When you explore the strange alien world in the game, you are not alone with Samus, you are alone as Samus.

Metroid II often stands in stark contrast to most games available on the console, both literally and figuratively. Gone are the bright white backgrounds filled with the occasional detail, now exists only the black void of the cavernous interior of an alien world. Forgotten are the upbeat tunes of joyful adventure, instead they have been replaced with brooding, ambient sounds. Bright cartoonish enemies are nowhere to be seen, and their counterparts are frightening life indigenous to a strange and violent world.

Most Game Boy games are meant to be played in a very wide variety of conditions, but Metroid II is almost custom engineered to be that game you play past when you know you should be awake, alone and wrapped in a blanket on your bed. It was a vastly different – albeit entirely legitimate – way of tackling the Game Boy than most developers has tried.

Much like the original before it, Metroid II places its focus on atmosphere and exploration above all else. Rather than be divided into linear stages, the game is a sprawling, interconnected map. However, differing from its previous installment, your progress is gated by whether or not you’ve eliminated all Metroids within a given area, instead of if you’ve got the right power-up to get past a particular roadblock. This paces the game a bit more linearly than either its predecessor or immediate sequel, and gives the game a slightly more guided – yet still relatively open – vibe.

The sense of isolation in the game is palpable, and the atmosphere is heavy. The world around you is filled with things out to get you, and every move you make is guided by your ultimate goal of eliminating a species from existence. Pausing reminds you how many Metroids are in the area, and the counter for how many remain in total is something present every moment of play, never to leave your mind. As your mind wanders during the games many atmospherically empty corridors, it’s always brought back to your ultimate and ghastly intent.

A disappointment I have with the game is that perhaps everything is a little too violent. Very few enemies lack the capability or intent of harming you. Most enemies are placed in such a way that you could argue they’re minding their own business, but the game knows exactly what it’s doing by using them as obstacles and rewarding you with health and missile pick-ups for killing them. This makes SR388 seem almost nonsensically hostile. While this could be argued as the intent, it seems slightly more like it’s a byproduct of being a video game in a day and age where having non-hostile entities was seen as a neat aside rather than something the game could focus on in a meaningful way.

I feel as if violence certainly has its place in games, but exploring an alien world would be kind of nice if you could simply exist peacefully among its environments for a few moments, rather than struggle to survive. The joy of discovery is often hampered by the constant sense of dread and anxiety, with the oppressiveness of the environment rarely leaving time to soak it in without an entire absence of life accompanying that. The game also tries to rush you to the end on replays, having made you aware of its time counter that grades your progress with a jarringly sexist and out-of-place use of its protagonist undressing herself. How finishing a game this atmospheric with a time limit seeks to add anything to is outside of my understanding.

Beyond that, much of Metroid II’s combat is left far less to skill or cleverness and more to checks of attrition. Your missile count and health bar are usually more important to whether you’ll survive an encounter than your tenacity to persist, which I feel contradicts both the game’s atmosphere and the character of Samus. The game also decides to yank you around at a few points, taking you on long detours to kill just one or two Metroids in what feels less like of an expansion of the game’s lurid atmosphere and more like obvious padding.

All of these complaints, however, are things that become more and more apparent when looking at the game from a modern point of view, and its design was still stupendously progressive for its time. I just wish to make a point that it does bear mentioning that Metroid II’s design wasn’t perfect, and that many of its worst elements are what have been capitalized upon in modern day. Rather than immortalizing its carefully crafted atmosphere, what’s worshipped are things like that feeling you get when you pick up a new item expansion. That’s something that should have quickly been considered ancillary or irrelevant to the progress of designing a better experience.

For every step that Metroid II made forward, its legacy has been pointedly disappointing and since lost all of that steam. I still love the game, but returning to it after having played game after game that cite it as inspiration but completely fail to understand what it did right has left it with its flaws absurdly apparent and difficult to see past. I can hardly enjoy it on replays, but its not for lack of strength that it demonstrated, but rather that seeing this with a fresh pair of eyes is nearly impossible after years of point-missing knock-offs and imitations.

Let’s not forget what it did right, however, and press forward. What’s important to consider here is not that Metroid II wasn’t capitalized upon, but that it’s still there to be learned from. So, let’s knock off the remake culture and move on in the way we were meant to – taking the pieces that mattered and letting them scatter and blossom.