Bionic Commando is a 2D platforming shooter and rather than jumping from platform to platform, you have a grappling hook. Its because of the hook that makes Bionic Commando so unique and scares a lot of people away. Even a decade after its release and several dozen play throughs, it can still feel like an effort to use. I think that’s what keeps people from realizing what a gem this game is in a sea of other top ten gems like Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, Zelda, Mega Man and CastleVania.
With the hook you can grapple, climb and swing, but you can also use it defensively to stun enemies and knock bullets out of the air. You can still duck beneath projectiles, but when bullets come at you from all angles its a helpful defense. If you accidentally latch your hook onto something you can always pull back or down to release it.
The game is open and non linear, you can tackle most levels from the start with only a few that require weapons or permits to enter. Your mission is to rescue Super Joe, who was the protagonist from the original Commando and then destroy Albatross. Its all typical video game trope, but the game does it with such style, finesse and flair to make it memorable and satisfying.
You start with a gun, unlimited ammunition and a bit of health. For each enemy you defeat, you collect a bullet that I can better describe as a dog tag, because bullets makes me think they go into a gun. Once you get enough bullets your health upgrades and you can take another hit.
At the end of each level, you face a combat squad that is defending a core. Like most games born in the arcade, you need to shoot the core and destroy it to finish the zone. Once each action zone is complete, you’ll earn a weapon or an accessory. You can only take one weapon, one special item and one protective item into a zone with you. If you ever bring the wrong equipment, you can easily start and select your way back to the map.
There are a variety of guns in the game, your standard pistol that fires two bullets forward, a machine gun that sprays bullets at a short range. A three way gun that fires forward, up and down. It goes through shields to make it more useful, but other than that its best only to knock down barriers that prevent you from entering certain levels. There is a rocket launcher that fires one giant projectile at a time and a spread gun that shoots a few bullets in a wide cone for a short range.
In terms of special items there are pills to refill your health, a flare for a single level that lets you brighten the place up. Iron boots that let you stomp enemies from above when you’d normally bounce off them. Rapid fire device that lets you shoot faster I suppose. As for protective items, they let you take extra hits before you start losing health. You have a pendant, a helmet and a bulletproof vest.
While the bulk of the game takes place in action zones, there are safe or neutral zones which I can best describe as towns to gather information and communicators. These are safe zones because any gunfire in them will warrant an attack. Its always fun to throw them into a tizzy to shoot your gun as you’re about to leave, but shooting it will remove everyone you can talk with. The slams keep going even if you enter and exit buildings.
The communicators you find are good for each action zone’s communication room. In these rooms, you can talk with an ally or wire tap the enemy for secret information. One of these is necessary to unlock the next door to progress deeper into the level. Wire taps can sound alarms that will flood a room with foes. You can only have one communicator equipped per level, so chose wisely and listen to information that you hear.
When the game begins, you start on an overhead map with several locations connected by lines. Just aim the helicopter to the next point and slowly fly to it. Safe zones are marked with white icons and action zones are marked in red. There are enemy trucks also going along the lines that if you intersect with them it takes you to an overhead vertical run and gun like the original Commando.
These top down areas change the pace and offer more diversity. There are three to chose from. You run, and you gun in the direction you’re pointing. If enemy gunfire gets to be too much for you, swing out your bionic arm to knock down their bullets and swat away anyone close enough. The levels are short and sweet. You will find a good reason to engage in combat and that’s to earn continues.
One of the biggest challenges to Bionic Commando is the limited continues. You start with none and need to find them. If you lose all of your lives without one, that’s a true game over and you need to start from the beginning of the game. Other than that, you have limited health and a game structured around your accuracy with the bionic arm. Its easy to die and each hit you take will send you backward and potentially into a pit or bed of spikes. The spikes take away a lot of health, but sometimes its worth sacrificing health than sheer death.
There are a diverse cast of enemies. Everything from typical soldiers that pace around or parachute in to robots and super mechanized bosses that have grappling arms of their own. Little soldiers piloting little helicopters, tanks and cranes. The game makes good use of the variety depending on the level. You’ll find that levels that are vertical and horizontal. Part of the game’s fun is the exploration element. Your arm is so versatile that it begs to be used to cross gaps and find new areas.
Each of the action zones feels different and they all have at least two parts. You start on the outside and breach a compound inside. Outside is where the death pits are, but inside is where the spikes are. Some levels are linear, but with your bionic arm you can always make your own path. Even if there are smooth tiles that prevent you from grappling through them, you can always take a hit, knock back through the air over the tile and then fire your grappler beyond and still climb up. Again, that hook is an awesome device even if you were never meant to get through certain paths.
As for the music, it has that energetic feel that keeps the game going and puts it on par with other greats from the platform. The sounds are notable as well It feels good to hear your bullets fire, and swing kick an enemy. The graphics still hold up today as most 8-bit games do. Your character is Rad Spenser, a man with red hair and green fatigues and enemies are a different color than the world around you. Nothing blends in and that’s what makes old video games so good, you can see everything you’re supposed to shoot.
The bosses are few and far between, but the final boss will be the one that’s talked about the most. Well that is the two final bosses. The first final boss is a giant hovercraft death trap designed to set you on fire if you’re careless. Its the madman afterward that becomes the highlight of any memorable ending. Its a treat and a satisfying ending for completing any difficult game such as this.
There are other games that have a faster pace that are still fun, but Bionic Commando is still one of my favorite games for the system. Its challenging, its fun, its rewarding and it has style.