Barely Bionic

The craptastic box art for Bionic Commando.

Even as a kid, I should have known better. I stared at the box cover in the local video store, after prowling the isles like a shark hungry for Roy Scheider, and tried to parse the image with my sugar-addled mind. It said, "Bionic Commando," but he didn’t look bionic. His arm wasn’t a hook, just a friggin' arm with a fancypants bracelet on it. Maybe he could fly? Fire lasers out of his kneecaps? My young imagination dreamed of this supposed hero leaping from building to building with robotic leg muscles, crushing evil military grunts with each landing. If I'd had any sense, I would have put that plastic placeholder case back and rented River City Ransom again. But I'd probably just shotgunned a Big Gulp of Mt. Dew and adolescent bladders are not forgiving.

After an impatient bike ride home, I tried my best to get into the game. It was so much easier to be forgiving back then, to put up with silly concepts and plot points that required a leap of faith. I only remember one thing about the game that is now suddenly receiving overly-nostalgic praise for its brilliant gameplay: The crushing disappointment I felt when I realized that goofy bastard swinging across the box wasn't really bionic.

I'm convinced that I try to build up my childhood fascinations because I’m ashamed of how much time I lost to them, how many things I overlooked in the name of entertainment. I can't cope with the fact that I was so bored, so starved for stimulation, that I somehow overlooked the fact that, for example, almost all of the main characters in my favorite games couldn't even swim. Actually, the water thing has always bugged me: Simon Belmont, legendary vampire killer, shrank like a violet whenever his toes dipped into a river. The Battletoads would die if they fell into a puddle, and they were Goddamn frogs. Even Mario was deathly afraid of water, though he proved to be an excellent swimmer (something Italian plumbers are not well known for).

Somewhere along the line, between overloading of sugar-filled soda and massive bags of Doritos that will inevitably give me inoperable cancer, I justified in my head that my heroes couldn't swim. But to put a grappling hook on a guy's arm and call him bionic anything was unforgivable to my fragile pre-teen psyche. It's about the only thing my current self and that snotty brat of a child would agree on today.

As if the lack of Steve Majors-level technology wasn’t bad enough, Bionic Commando’s story is riddled with fuzzy plot points and brain-numbing stupidity. A group of Nazi analogues want to create a super-solder, and The Federation, the good guys of this particular soap opera, send a commando named Super Joe to stop them. Super Joe fails, which means he wasn't so super in the first place, and they send a guy with a bionic uber-arm to retrieve him and stop the Neo-Nazi menace. Did it occur to anyone that sending more than one operative might be a better plan? And if you're going to send one guy, why give him a grappling arm? If The Federation's tax payers found out their money was going towards developing new grappling technologies instead of giant death-dealing tanks, I'd hope they'd revolt.

Part of what makes the new XBLA remake so fun is the way Capcom and developer Grin address these inconsistencies, with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. Federation soldiers in the friendly areas of the game allude to how poorly outfitted they are, with many of them scoffing at how "special" the protagonist is. But the remake also serves as a reminder of what we used to concede as children in the name of having fun.

The Otaku Hivemind thinks it's so cool to look back on 8-bit games from their childhood and sing the praises of some long-forgotten relic of 80s programming. It's easy to go googly eyed over the things we loved as children -- I'm looking at you, Transformers: The Movie -- and apply some critical conceit to elevate what we wasted time with back then to legendary status. Sometimes it’s okay to heap the praise on top of an aging game, but most of the time it’s delusional. I have an acquaintance* who looks back fondly on Bad Dudes, the side-scrolling beat-em-up whose protagonists, wearing sunglasses and fresh from auditions as Duke Nukem tradeshow models, have to rescue President Reagan from ninjas. He loves to glorify the game for mixing our childhood love of martial arts with American personality and humor. Even laying aside the fact that Bad Dudes was the video game equivalent of Bubonic Plague, giving its premise that much importance is the sign that one has got to end their crack-smoking habit before someone innocent gets hurt.

And yet, I played Bad Dudes. I even bought it on the NES. Because, as a child, I was very stupid. And maybe that's the point.

I'm playing Bionic Commando: Rearmed and having a grand time with it. I'm a sucker for platformers like New Super Mario Bros. and Duke Nukem: Manhatten Project that embrace new graphics technology while sticking to two dimensions. I like how hard it is, even while I'm cursing at the screen and throwing my controller across the room. But I refuse to forget the kid who bought what the box art was selling way back in the day, a kid who let himself dream of a war-torn future world that could only be saved by a guy with a grappling hook on his wrist, in spite of knowing that he'd be let down. It's important as an adult to keep realistic expectations. When a company promises anything bionic, don't settle for a grappling hook. Keep reaching for the brass ring of laser-firing kneecaps.

*I would never call a fan of Bad Dudes "friend." That’s about standards.

Comments

How could you not like the dual fist-pumps at the end of a level and a scratchy, digitized "I'm bad!" comment? Okay, maybe you're on to something with this one... It's a good thing we humans excel at both forgetting and nostalgia.

Mr. Banks... I'd like to let you know that I am a devout fan of Bad Dudes. I used to play it all the time in the crappy latino Swapmeet by my home in L.A. Roid-ragers rescuing Reagan? That's perfect 80s action right there, sir.

It was so much easier to be forgiving back then, to put up with silly concepts and plot points that required a leap of faith.

It's a fun game, to plop in a random NES cart and figure out what the hell the plot was supposed to be. Prime candidate: Section Z. You press start and you're fighting off baddies in space and traversing corridors because...? Who knows. Maybe they stole your space cookies.

Sure, it's a little unfair to bash those tiny, tiny games. They had not the staff nor the budget to really focus on narrative (or, in many cases, proper localization efforts). But at the same time, those whackass setups were oh-so-pure. Here, shoot some ducks! This car has jump jets, go win a race! Go find your pet toad using this convenient assault tank!

Because, as a child, I was very stupid. And maybe that's the point. . . But I refuse to forget the kid who bought what the box art was selling way back in the day, a kid who let himself dream of a war-torn future world that could only be saved by a guy with a grappling hook on his wrist

This is very poignant. Not because you were a weak-minded prototeen that was swayed by bad boxart [join the club. I once made my parents buy me a game called DYNOWARZ], but because it shows how very coddled we are in this day and age.

What were our sources for game reviews back in the day? The cool kids all had Nintendo Power to bank on, a propaganda source if ever there was one. If you were lucky, you also had access to stuff like EGM, or GamePRO. That was good for upcomings, otherwise you were pretty much out of luck, or at the mercy of the playground group mind.

One of the (1up or GFW) dudes mentioned once that he had this unholy tome of games that cataloged their ratings. Aside from crappy box art, that was where you went for recommendations. God help you if you picked up a bad game, because your parents would make you play it. It was $60 dollars! What's so bad about it?

Currently, we have so much information floating around about games that the idea of blind buys is kind of, well, unbelievable. People still do it, of course (parents and grannies, or casual enthusiasts), but there's this presence of information we didn't have back in the day.

This is going to sound pathetic, but I can remember some cold winter nights as a teen when we'd gather as a group -boys and girls- to play "Drunk Commando", at the freshmen apartment of my best friend. Those weren't power pellets he was grabbing, by God they were beer cans. We played it so much, we could fly through most of it without dying. Watching the head burst was like a ritual.

As I said, it sounds pathetic but it makes a great memory now.

Let it be known that I beat Bad Dudes in the arcade.

All shall love me and despair!

Excellent piece Mr. B.

Blasphemy! The president has been kidnapped by ninjas, FTW.

Was that your first "nerd-moment" where you pushed up the glasses on the bridge of your nose to corrected your entertainment of choice.

That’s about standards.

The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.

So quickly love has turned to hatred, Mr. Banks. Your opinions on comics aside, you are NOT a bad enough dude to save the President, nor shall you ever be.

In addition, Transformers, The Movie was the greatest movie ever made, infidel.

I played an awful lot of Dig Dug as a kid. I don't remember much plot, just a lot of things blowing up.

Perhaps as a child you just didn't need a "quality narrative", because you weren't subconsciously looking for some reason to justify why you were playing games instead of doing something productive?

I don't know what an Otaku Hivemind would look like, but I shall see it in my nightmares tonight.

I just want to say that grappling hooks have been the rage since 1977 when Luke saved himself and Leia in the original Star Wars. While I agree they are not bionic, they are cool equipment. Deep down don't you wish you had your own Cory. They could be very useful for grabbing the "Globetrotting Russians" that I know you like. They have even found there way into the Lego Star Wars games that my 6 year old loves. Everybody needs to go get one for themselves and we can be a nation of Grapplers.

I think back when we were kids things were simpler, games, life. We didn't need that much of a plot, just look at the cartoons we watched. As we grew up so did our taste in games and what we wanted from them and playing a game like that is like watching an old episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it may be simple and silly, but still worth bringing up the memories.

Hey Cory, remember when we played Double Dragon? That was awesome.

IMAGE(http://img367.imageshack.us/img367/6296/bffgs9.jpg)

Hey Certis, I heard the sarcasm in your voice.

Don't tell me you're still mad about the time I played it with you and didn't tell you what happened at the end, and then I started beating on you with the baseball bat and, after you died, laughed and told you "The better man won after all, ha ha ha!"

ps. What problem can't be solved with an elbow smash? Tell me, what?

docbadwrench wrote:

How could you not like the dual fist-pumps at the end of a level and a scratchy, digitized "I'm bad!" comment? Okay, maybe you're on to something with this one... It's a good thing we humans excel at both forgetting and nostalgia.

It's a symbiotic relationship.

KingMob wrote:

In addition, Transformers, The Movie was the greatest movie ever made, infidel.

Hear hear. Orson Welles was magnificent in his final role as Unicron.

Deep down don't you wish you had your own Cory.

And here we see the intrinsic value of the comma, or the lack thereof.

I don't think the point is that we were dumb kids and didn't know any better, I think the point is we are grown up and we now take everything too damn serious. Who cares if the game's setting is unrealistic? Who cares if the story is inconsistent? Who even cares if there is a story at all? It's a game. It's a collection of rules and mechanics, presenting a challenge for your little brain to conquer. Bionic Commando's real identity was that it was a platformer in which you can't jump, which I'm sure made some heads explode in the game design department.

Nobody complains that the back story of chess or checkers is lame and unrealistic.

A solid list of accurate insights, my favorite being that Italian plumbers really are quite awful at swimming. Too many pizza pizzas...

Elysium wrote:
Deep down don't you wish you had your own Cory.

And here we see the intrinsic value of the comma, or the lack thereof.

I've considered adopting a Demiurge, but I'm not sure my apartment is big enough.

rabbit wrote:

Excellent piece Mr. B.

Does this not count as a Bioshock reference?

Excellent article sir! *hic*

wordsmythe wrote:
Elysium wrote:
Deep down don't you wish you had your own Cory.

And here we see the intrinsic value of the comma, or the lack thereof.

I've considered adopting a Demiurge, but I'm not sure my apartment is big enough.

I hear they ruin all the carpet.

Kojiro wrote:

Nobody complains that the back story of chess or checkers is lame and unrealistic.

I remember reading somewhere that Chess actually has a bit of satire - how the pieces move - how the queen has freedom of movement while the king has very little. How bishops sidle sideways, and all that.

I agree with this sentiment. Any time I find myself getting all meta about this or that particular game, I try to remember to keep it in perspective. It's a game. Story's cool but right now I have to get a few gold coins.

Bionic Commando was the first game I ever finished on my first Nintendo so it holds a special place in my heart. The same heart that it beat the crap out of day after day with the damn difficulty and the just one more level, one more try to beat this or that boss. So it really feels good to know that well over 20 years later my nine year old son can stand behind me and yell how cool he thinks Bionic Commando: Rearmed is (although he doesn't understand why a Bionic Commando can't jump or shot his guns at different angles) while this version stomps my heart yet again. Over and over again. I'm really too old for games this hard. Just one more level, one more boss...

First time post. Be gentle.

I liked Bionic Commando. There was something compelling about swinging from your arm, then having to release from the attach point and hit another attach point while flying through the air. The lack of a coherent story never really bothered me. Maybe because I realize that video games are a horrible medium for storytelling. If I wanted a good story, I'd read a book. A video game is an interactive experience, and AI is really far from the point where interactive stories are more compelling than their static counterparts.

If you want a good story in a game, get some friends and play some D&D.

As for Bad Dudes:
The gameplay wasn't groundbreaking, but maybe you don't like it because deep down inside you know you're not a bad enough dude to save the president.

moegamer wrote:

he doesn't understand why a Bionic Commando can't jump or shot his guns at different angles

Obviously he can't raise his arms above his shoulders, due to an old war injury.

moegamer wrote:

First time post. Be gentle.

Demi brought in a new grinder! Way to go, Hobo Baggins!

Spaz wrote:

Sure, it's a little unfair to bash those tiny, tiny games. They had not the staff nor the budget to really focus on narrative (or, in many cases, proper localization efforts). But at the same time, those whackass setups were oh-so-pure. Here, shoot some ducks! This car has jump jets, go win a race! Go find your pet toad using this convenient assault tank!

Yep, and back then, since the technology was so new, story wasn't necessary. We just grabbed a joystick, and ran down that corridor because the game told us to, and that was enough of a reason. Gamers and the technology has evolved, and in most cases, that's a good thing. Hey, I used to think the Colecovision was the height of gaming technology, so what did I know back then?

wordsmythe wrote:
moegamer wrote:

he doesn't understand why a Bionic Commando can't jump or shot his guns at different angles

Obviously he can't raise his arms above his shoulders, due to an old war injury.

That's right, his hollow shoulder replacements are where all of the cable coils up when its retracted into the bracelet. And he can't jump because he lost both of his legs in the Battle of Bats, Robots, and Guys-Wearing-Overly-Colorful-Outfits. It was right after that cover image was taken actually, when he plummeted to the ground after realizing that his bracelet grappler hadn't actually connected to anything before he jumped. It was a tragic day, indeed.

That's right, his hollow shoulder replacements are where all of the cable coils up when its retracted into the bracelet. And he can't jump because he lost both of his legs in the Battle of Bats, Robots, and Guys-Wearing-Overly-Colorful-Outfits. It was right after that cover image was taken actually, when he plummeted to the ground after realizing that his bracelet grappler hadn't actually connected to anything before he jumped. It was a tragic day, indeed.

That story must have been told during the SNES days.

LilCodger wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Elysium wrote:
Deep down don't you wish you had your own Cory.

And here we see the intrinsic value of the comma, or the lack thereof.

I've considered adopting a Demiurge, but I'm not sure my apartment is big enough.

I hear they ruin all the carpet.

They eat all your food, too.

Good article. It is funny how obvious things like dying in water seem now, even though some newer games have that, as well. I think it's about suspension of disbelief...you accept things like that because you know it's a game. It doesn't make it any less silly. I do tend to notice when a game has more freedom and realism when it comes to that sort of thing.