Although it’s hard to imagine now, spoilt for choice as we are by the likes of PSN, Virtual Console, Live Arcade and countless compilation packages, there was a time when the games industry didn’t seem so concerned with heritage. The convergent threads of maturity (videogames are now old enough to actually have a proper history, as silly as that may sound) and digital distribution have ensured that this current generation of gamers is arguably the first to experience both the present and the past, the now and then, simultaneously.
Capcom’s Bionic Commando is very much a product of these times. Trading on both nostalgia and as a counterpoint to today’s action/platform staples (be they hyper-stylised examples like Crackdown, or Hollywood-sized affairs such as Gears of War) it’s a game that is resolutely and unapologetically old-school. Last year’s Rearmed, as well as proving to be an ostensible teaser for this next-generation update, was a polished remake of the fondly-remembered, if notoriously difficult, NES game of 1988. Capcom is perhaps unique in that nearly every revisit of their classic gaming brands has been approached with an art museum’s sense of restoration. So we didn’t just get Street Fighter 2 Turbo, as welcome as that would have been, but Ryu and company in fully redrawn high definition. Similarly, Rearmed embraced the original’s unique mechanics whilst treating the visuals to a lovely, crisp makeover. The irony here is that Bionic Commando, 2009 model, appears to have gone the opposite way. Though it’s not necessarily intended as a criticism, developers GRIN don’t seem overly concerned with making their game particularly lovable: instead, it appears that some effort has been expended on a gritty, functional aesthetic that reflects the beating 8-bit arcade heart within.
The story picks up some years after the events in the original. Nathan Spencer (voiced by the excellent Mike Patton, who seems to be making a welcome habit of working for videogames) is on death row, victim of a society that has become scared of such mechanically enhanced soldiers. Until someone devastates Ascension City with a nuclear bomb of course, and Nathan becomes the only person that can SAVE HUMANITY. Such a hollow premise is presented with all the gravitas of Chuck Norris’ finest work, the cut-scenes (and manner in which they are inserted throughout the gameplay) reflecting the unrefined nature of the game as a whole. So Nathan is duly reunited with his trademark appendage, and following a gracelessly presented tutorial Bionic Commando can begin for real.
It’s upon this bionic arm that the game, not to mention the legacy of the series, depends. Thankfully GRIN appear to have got the feel and use of the arm just about right; were they to have failed, then the game would have been almost unplayable. Not only is the arm used for swinging across levels, but it also acts as a lock onto enemies and power-ups, as well as giving Nathan the ability to pick up and throw large objects, like cars, with expectedly cartoonish physics. What helps is that everything in this game has been clearly designed with the arm in mind, built around this core instead of becoming an afterthought – as a colleague so finely summed it up: “If you put Spider-Man in the open, he’s rubbish”.
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