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.