BIONIC COMMANDO (2009) – Review

BIONIC COMMANDO is a videogame developed by GRIN, published by Capcom for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by ULF ANDERSSON.

I really don’t get the logic behind remakes. Usually, when a remake is made, it is for a game that was already a success and almost hasn’t aged. In other words, remakes are made for games that simply do not need to be remade! Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we only remake games that could use a second chance? Games with a cool concept and a terrible execution, like Geist, or games that were good back then but aged badly, like Metroid II: Return of Samus and Final Fantasy VII? These are the types of games that deserved to be remade.

Bionic Commando (2009) is one of such games. Between remakes and adaptations, the original Bionic Commando, published in 1987 for the Arcades and 1988 for the NES, was already released at least 3 times, the latest one being Bionic Commando Rearmed, which is, incidentally, not only very good but also the prequel to the 2009 game. Therefore, it is with some irony that I ask for the remake of the only direct sequel this game ever got in 21 years.

This is because if there is a game that deserves a second chance, this is it. Bionic Commando is schlock, and shouldn’t be. Beyond all its layers of mediocrity and straight up stupidity, there is a solid, fun and engaging concept of swinging-slash-combat. It’s like a muffin with a huge stump and a tiny, tiny top.

The chocolate chip of this muffin top is the swinging. You play as Nathan RAD Spencer who is never actually referred as RAD and uses his bionic arm to swing around the town, which is enjoyable for two reasons: one that Spencer actually feels heavy, so free falling from the top of a building, latching your arm on a light post (which, like the abundant Pepsi vending machines for the game, are indestructible in face of nuclear Armageddon) and swinging for a new jump is as exhilarating as it comes, and two, that you actually need to see the surfaces you want to latch your arm at (and sometimes the game requires an annoyingly high amount of precision from you, even if the object you want to catch is right at your feet!), so the very act of being able to swing feels rewarding by itself, specially when compared to the loose mechanics of the 3D Spider-man games. Add to that the thankfully imprecise shooting mechanics that will prevent you from relying on your guns alone and the unforgiving enemy fire (you got to play this game at high difficulty settings in order to fully enjoy it) and then you got something that, if better polished, could be truly great. This is because the game will require you to employ different strategies in order to tackle a group of enemies, since using your guns in a straight up shoot-off is guaranteed to kill you. By playing the game on easier modes, Spencer becomes a bullet-sponge, thus diminishing your incentive to strategize.

This emphasis on coming up with different fight strategies is supported by a clever little system involving completing small challenges (which are also the achievements of the game) in order to acquire power-ups, making you try all possible maneuvers at least once. For instance, the game will ask you to kill 4 grunts with the same grenade. If you pull it off, the number of grenades you can carry will be increased by one.

However, now that we have eaten the best part of this muffin, we get closer to its stump made up by either plain mediocrity and maddening idiocy. One of such unsavory ingredients is how Bionic Commando teaches you 95% of all the abilities you have available right at the get-go, and then mystify us by not allowing you to use them until we reach some arbitrary point of the game – and without any explanation whatsoever. So, until Spencer finally remembers (again) the first of such abilities, you will be wondering whether or not there is a bug in the game or if you are making something wrong. I mean, come on, GRIN! Haven’t you learned anything with Super Mario 64? A game courageous enough to give players the permission to do ALL of Mario’s ability without a single tutorial? And what have the players done? They had fun, that’s what they had! They spent hours just running, and jumping, and climbing, and punching air, and swimming and doing various somersaults before even entering Peach’s castle to start their adventure! When your game is able to marry the character’s motion with the player’s control in such a way that the result is pure nectar, like what happens with Mario and Spencer after he gets all his abilities again, you don’t shoot the game’s feet with idiotic decisions such as these.

Another well documented piece of cretinism is the now famous selective radiation that keeps this game linear by making Spencer simply die when he goes out of bounds. But the worst part isn’t the fact the game is dishonestly linear or the fact that radiation kills come with little or no warning and then you have to restart from an always distant save point. The worst part is the lack of trying. There were so many and better ways to keep the game linear – and the game itself shows some of these, like the presence of water (if Spencer falls in it, his body will drag him down and drown him). A much more elegant solution would be simply toying around with the city layout and adding fewer buildings!

But hey, we are talking about a game that simply refuses you access to previous areas to find collectibles, forcing you to restart a new quest all over again if you missed some (and you will since there is never a warning of when you are about to clear an area), so I suppose utter stupidity comes with the territory, right?

Pay attention now: from this point forward I plan on spoiling the game’s entire plot for you. The entire plot. By doing so, I’ll save you from a nasty surprise if you ever try to give Bionic Commando a spin, even if it’s just to see for yourself what in this game deserves a second chance. You’re most welcome.

We start Bionic Commando with a very lukewarm first impression. The game’s cover is simplistic and unimaginative, this impression is reinforced by the game’s mediocre menus and loading screen: an aquamarine-colored (I actually googled it to make sure I got the color’s name right) and mostly empty background with, for the loading screen, a controller with all the game’s controls (even the ones you still cannot do) mapped to it, which is something completely inconsequential for all players. The music, however, rose above this dullness several times during my experience, be it at the game’s start menu, where the theme is played softly by a piano, be it when its triumphal crescendo tries to match the excitement of a hard battle.

Anyways, the story begins exactly like Gears of Wars: Spencer, who was imprisoned by the government, is released so he can help them out of a jam. Super Joe (another great voice by Steven Blum (who actually tells the player to fuck a metal worm-like boss (so awesome!))) narrates this intro while adding a terribly cheap and rather comical description of the enemies of the first game: A military group of fascists who respected nothing… not even the laws of life and death (aw… these silly laws). There is a whole background about Spencer’s past that is always referred by never explained. Well, not that it matters anyways: Spencer is so unsympathetic I never once cared about what made him so bitter and annoyingly generic among his action game protagonist peers. In fact, I was revolted to see RAD Spencer, who exulted this kind of coolness in Bionic Commando Rearmed that only someone who lampoons the Schwarzenegger-like 80’s action hero (with sunglasses!) could pull off to be reduced into an angry, pissed-off-at-everything-and-everyone Marcus Fenix imposter with dreadlocks who always misses his opportunity to keep his mouth shut.

The game carries on with no idea of what pacing is. For most of your time your sole objective is to keep moving from A to B while getting tired of the scenery. Then the game throws a MacGuffin at you that is so poorly conceived we barely get to see it. The plot for Bionic Commando was a mere afterthought and it shows: nothing of relevance will happen outside cutscenes. In fact, in two instances we are given the impression some kind of relevant gameplay should be taken place and instead these potential moments are stolen by irrelevant cinematics. The first involves you climbing at the top of the highest skyscraper around for some arbitrary reason where you battle a helicopter. Well, to be more precise: you don’t do any climbing; the game does, via a cutscene. Then, after the battle, Spencer jumps down again with the sunset on his back. Cut to the next scene of his landing and it is day again. Wait a sec! Did I miss anything? What happened to the night? And why wasn’t I allowed to make such a jump myself – especially considering making such leaps is perhaps the biggest joy this game has to offer? After that, a few areas later, you come to a huge arena with giant statues, which just screams for a boss fight. Alas, it was not to be. There was a battle, sure, against another bionic commando called Magdalene, but it all takes place in a cinematic. It’s like the game stood you up and went masturbating.

This Magdalene character is severely underdeveloped. Even more than all other equally atrocious characters Bionic Commando has to offer (although, just like Super Joe, the villain Groeder is also superbly voiced by an affected Scott MacDonald), the game’s insultingly random and meaningless plot twist (Super Joe, for no reason whatsoever, decides to reveal his identity as terrorist leader (Was he the leader? The plot is too lazy to even make that clear)) and its anemic Big Reveal (Spencer’s whole motivation (you know, the missing wife we never care about) is (get this) part of his bionic arm and allows it to ‘sync’ with Spencer, whatever that may mean). But while most other characters have the story of the previous game to offer some degree of development, Magdalene has none of that. We never know her motivation, who she was, what was her connection with Spencer or her alliances. She just pops randomly up in some inconsequential cutscenes with lousy lines and then, puff, she dies at the end just as gratuitously as she entered the game. Well, at least she goes with a bang: her head is crushed by a mechanical arm. Jax style. After all Bionic Commando‘s attempts to stomp the my own head with such a vapid plot, Magdalene’s demise put a smirk on my face.

After that we get a final boss. Finally! And while that boss also had a lot of potential that, had it been better developed, could deliver a truly memorable moment, the reality is that it is not much of an actual boss fight, but merely a glorified quick-time event.

And that’s it for a game that managed to obtain a 70 Metacritic score, which is something my mind still wasn’t able to understand. Sure, the highest score it got (95) was given by Play Magazine, which is was Bizarro World’s favorite game magazine and once gave Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) a 9.5, later dropped to the incredibly more demeaning 8.5 score. But then comes Jeff Haynes, who states in his review at IGN that the story keeps moving at a reasonable pace and that it has some interesting twists. If you haven’t skipped any paragraph of this review, you understand why this leaves me perplexed, right? I mean, how can anyone think the pace of this game is reasonable? Is there even such a thing as a game with an unreasonable pace? But worry not, folks! Haynes latter praises the fact Spencer’s abilities come back slowly as it reduces any confusion as to what you can do. One can only imagine the trauma Haynes suffered, caused by the mad, mad confusion of games like Super Mario 64. But hey, if I were traumatized like that I would also ask for my games to be reasonably paced, wouldn’t you? At least the guy’s praises are consistent.

As for this game’s multiplayer mode, I never really played it as there is no way to play it offline – and to play online you need a Gold Xbox Live Account.

A 3D Bionic Commando is an idea that shouldn’t be forgotten. I suppose this is a tough endeavour from Capcom, a publisher that’s more than eager to go back to doing its thing of milking out its established franchises whenever a more risky product of theirs is met with a harsh reception, but it’s important to point out that they already got the most difficult part done: their game’s core mechanics is already very good. Fall seven times, stand up eight. It is as simple as that.

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  1. Retro Gamer did a piece on Bionic Commando and mentioned only the NES conversion which struck me as odd as I played this on the C64 and loved it!

    I went searching, and found it was ported to the C64, Speccy and Amstrad too! Here’s a neat comparison of each platform.

    I was actually thinking of buying this game, if only for nostalgic reasons but probably won’t now unless I find it in a bargain bin somewhere!

  2. I second this: great idea, ultimately poor execution. I guess with the collection thing it was like this to feel like sn old game, which is more frustrating than anything.

    As for the whole “why’s Spencer always so angry, or why’s he banged up to begin with” argument, GRIN released a webcomic in the run up to release explaining what happened between then and now.

    That bit with the snipers so early on though’s just frustrating as hell.

    • Yeah, I’ve read that comic… but still, I shouldn’t have to read it. After all, the game should work on its own. I mean, I didn’t have to read Orson Scott Card’s Empire novel in order to understand Shadow Complex. I Capcom released a comic to fill the game’s holes, that doesn’t stop the game from having holes in it, does it?

      The thing that annoys me the most about BC is how all its problems were so obvious. I had the impression this baby was rushed.

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