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.