Bionic Commando (NES)

How rude!

In 1985, Capcom released the original Commando into arcades. Known as Senjō no Ōkami (“Wolf of the Battlefield”) in Japan, this military-themed overhead run-and-gun title inspired a host of imitators over the years, such as SNK’s Ikari Warriors and Konami’s Jackal. Commando cast the player as “Super Joe” Gibson, a tough-as-nails soldier tasked with taking down an entire enemy army all by himself. Why? Because video games.

Later, in 1987, Capcom released another arcade title called Top Secret. With its side-view perspective and focus on using the nameless main character’s bionic grapple arm to swing and climb around the game’s levels, Top Secret seemingly had little in common with Commando apart from a general military action theme. When Top Secret made it to North America later that year, however, it had been retitled Bionic Commando and the lead character was rechristened as the latest incarnation of Super Joe.

These changes must have struck a chord with someone at the Capcom home office, because Top Secret’s own 1988 sequel for the Famicom would keep with the Commando continuity. Called Hittorā no Fukkatsu: Toppu Shīkuretto (“Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret”) in Japan, we here in the West also know it as Bionic Commando, despite being a sequel to the arcade game and not a direct conversion.

Whoa, wait. Hitler? In a Nintendo game? They didn’t even allow drinking or bare-breasted statuary in NES games, but Der Fuhrer gets a pass? Well, not quite. By the time Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret made it through the localization process, the Nazis had become Badds and their leader Master-D. Swastikas and other Nazi symbols were removed, but nobody was fooled once they got a good look at “Master-D’s” mug. You’d know that moustache anywhere. So if you want an NES game where you get to blow up Hitler, and you know you do, Bionic Commando is your ticket.

According to the manual, our story takes place in the year 198X. An evil group called the Empire and their leader Generalissimo Killt are attempting to complete an unfinished Badd superweapon, codenamed “Albatros.” Only one man, Master-D, knew the full details of Albatros, so the Empire is working frantically to bring him back from the dead. The good guys, identified as the Federation, send good old Super Joe in to find out the details on the Albatros protect and shut it down. Unfortunately, Super Joe is captured by the enemy. Now it’s all up to Captain Nathan “Rad” Spencer to save Super Joe, put a stop to Albatros, and defeat the Empire once and for all.

Rad (also called Ladd due to inconsistent Japanese-English translation) is this game’s titular Bionic Commando. In addition to his cool shades and spikey ginger anime hair, our boy Rad relies on his extendable grapple arm to get around levels, just like in the arcade game. In fact, he can’t jump at all! The novelty of a platforming game with no jumping was, and still is, Bionic Commando’s main claim to fame. It could have easily been clunky and frustrating, but the finely-tuned, responsive controls and smart level design make swinging around the game’s stages some of the most fun you can have with any title in the genre. The sense of momentum and sheer badass factor of connecting a perfect series of grapples across a large portion of a stage is downright intoxicating. That the developers pulled something this different off so well in 1988, just three years after Super Mario Bros. set the standard for regular jumping-based platformers, is a real testament to how much great talent Capcom had on deck at the time.

The first impression that a new player might have of Bionic Commando is that it’s really, really hard. Not being able to jump takes getting used to, you die in one hit, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to continue once you’ve lost all your lives. The game is really quite forgiving, but it’s not immediately apparent how. First off, picking up the bullets that defeated enemies drop will eventually increase your character’s level and allow you to take up to eight additional hits before dying. Continues can be acquired by playing the short Commando style overhead combat sequences that start whenever you intercept an enemy convoy on the map screen. Some enemies in these sections will drop medals that award one continue each when defeated. Since these sections are very short, very easy, and endlessly repeatable, you can very quickly gather all the continues you need. The first order of business in Bionic Commando, then, is to get yourself a least a few extra health points and some continues. After that, you’re golden. It will still take you time to master all the tricky platforming with your bionic arm, but at least you’ll have all the tries you need to do it and won’t have to worry about having to start the whole adventure over.

The game is divided into twelve main levels that you can navigate between on a map screen, not unlike the one in Super Mario Bros. 3. In addition to these and to the roving enemy convoys mentioned above, there are also a number of “neutral zone” areas that you can visit to make contact with allies and acquire new items. Just be sure not to fire your gun in a neutral zone or you’ll be mobbed by respawning enemies non-stop until you leave the area. There’s a bit of non-linearity in how you can approach the main stages, though some require a specific item from another stage to complete. One example is the cavern level, which is pitch black unless you use the flares to illuminate the area. You can still play and finish this stage before you acquire the flares, but you’ll have a pretty rough time of it. When in doubt, just tackle the stages in numeric order and you’ll be fine.

The twelve main levels themselves are all wonderful. Each one is visually unique and ups the ante in terms of platforming, constantly requiring you to expand and refine your technique with the bionic arm until you’ve completely mastered it. Midway through each level is a communications room where you can call up your allies for help and information and even use wiretapping to eavesdrop on the enemy. These rooms also serve as checkpoints in case you die. The only lacking elements in most stages are the boss encounters. Each level except the last ends with you having to destroy a stationary machine core guarded by a boss enemy, but none of these guys are very threatening. In fact, you don’t even need to kill them at all and it’s often much quicker and easier to ignore the boss entirely and just unload your gun into the core, since once it goes boom, you’re on to the next stage. Weak.

Beating a level will usually net you a new piece of equipment and you can collect even more gear in the neutral zones. There are four special guns to find in addition to your starting one, defensive gear to stop bullets and restore health, miscellaneous items like the flares and iron boots, and more. You can only carry one item from each category into a given stage, but you’re given the opportunity to tweak your loadout at the start of each one. This ability to customize your equipment is pretty cool, although the guns are rather poorly balanced. Once you get access to the rocket launcher early on, you’ll never want to use anything else, since it can kill almost anything in the game (including bosses!) in one or two shots. A bit of a missed opportunity there.

Bionic Commando looks fairly good. It’s not the prettiest game around, but the character portraits in the dialog scenes and Rad’s silky smooth swinging animation are highlights. The music is by Junko Tamiya, who also scored Street Fighter 2010 and Little Nemo: The Dream Master. She may well be the NES’ most underrated composer and doesn’t disappoint one bit here. The songs are brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the gravity of being on a life or death mission deep behind enemy lines.

Bionic Commando might have a gleefully butchered translation/localization, some underwhelming bosses, and weapon balance issues, but it remains one of the all-time great action-platformers on the NES and a legitimate “must play” title. Gradually getting better and better at maneuvering around these brilliantly designed levels with your bionic arm really does feel that good. It’s a triumph of pure play control when just moving your character around the screen is this rich and satisfying. That you’re also on your way to blow up Hitler’s head the whole time is just the icing on the cake. Like, really gross icing. With bone fragments and stuff.

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Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

Dang. I will never, ever be that perky first thing in the morning.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master, also known as Pajama Hīrō Nīmō (“Pajama Hero Nemo”) in Japan, is a 1990 NES platformer by Capcom with a most unusual origin. It’s based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by American cartoonist Windsor McCay. While largely forgotten by the public today, McCay’s comic was groundbreaking when it first hit newspapers all the way back in 1905. The strip chronicled the nocturnal adventures of a young boy named Nemo (modeled on McCay’s own son Robert) who traversed a bewildering array of surreal and colorful dreamscapes each night, all from the comfort of his bed. Each story invariably ended with Nemo waking up and often he would tumble out of bed and make a ruckus in the process, much to the frustration of his parents. The original Nemo comics ended in 1926, but McCay’s wildly imaginative artistic stylings would prove to be a major source of inspiration for future generations of cartoonists.

Why was a newspaper comic strip that had then been defunct for over sixty years chosen as the subject of an NES game? And by such a major player as Capcom, no less? As it turns out, Japan had just seen the long-delayed release of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an animated film adaptation of the comic strip. The movie was a U.S.-Japan co-production with an extremely long and troubled history. Work on the film started all the way back in the early 1980s and numerous scripts were commissioned and thrown out as the years passed. At some point or another, George Lucas, Chris Columbus, Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, Ray Bradbury, and Hayao Miyazaki were all attached to the project. Miyazaki later described the ordeal as the worst experience of his career. Ouch.

The film finally did come out and met with highly mixed reviews. The animation was considered quite lovely, but critics savaged the plot and characters. Audiences simply stayed away and the Nemo movie was considered to be a box office bomb, both on its initial 1989 release in Japan and its eventual U.S. release in 1992.

What did all this mean for the average kid playing this game back in 1990? In my case, not much! I’d never heard of the comic or the film (which wouldn’t even be out here for two years yet) and had no idea that this was a licensed game at all. I doubt I was alone.

It’s really a pity that this game’s subject matter is so obscure, because I consider Little Nemo: The Dream Master to be not only a great game, but also the very best of Capcom’s licensed platformers. Yes, that includes the Disney ones. Sorry, DuckTales.

The story of Little Nemo the game roughly follows that of the movie. One night in New York, circa 1905, Nemo is approached in his bedroom by emissaries of the kingdom of Slumberland and invited to come be the new playmate (insert your own filthy innuendo here) of its princess, Camille. At first reluctant to play with an icky girl, Nemo finally agrees after being bribed with candy and takes off on an enchanted airship bound for Slumberland, where he eventually discovers that not everything is as peaceful and idyllic as he’d been led to believe and only he can save the land from the fearsome Nightmare King.

Once you start playing, Little Nemo seems like a typical post-Mario platformer. Nemo can run, jump, crouch, and throw candy at enemies. The one thing he can’t do, though, is kill anything. Trying to jump on foes will result in damage and hitting them with candy will only stun them for a brief time. Quickly, though, you’ll discover the game’s central hook: Some enemies, when fed candy, can be tamed. This will allow Nemo to utilize that enemy’s special abilities, either by riding on their backs or by transforming himself into a new form resembling the enemy in question. Each tamable enemy has its own special movement abilities and attacks. For example, Nemo can climb up walls while riding on the lizard, climb trees and punch enemies while riding the gorilla, and fly and shoot stingers in hornet form. Many of the animals are also tougher than Nemo and can withstand more than the three hits that he can before dying. Finding the right enemy to commandeer at the right time is vital to acquiring all the hidden keys scattered throughout each level. These are needed to open the locked door at the end and progress in the game. This “hijacking enemy abilities” mechanic marks Little Nemo as a clear precursor to Kirby’s Adventure and also seems like it might have influenced the ghost possession ability that Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit would feature in 1991.

A few of the game’s eight stages give you something to do other than collect keys. The House of Toys is a hectic auto-scrolling stage where Nemo must dodge bombs, spikes, and dive-bombing miniature planes while riding on the top of a giant toy train. The final stage, Nightmare Land, changes up the core gameplay drastically by getting rid of the keys altogether and giving a Nemo a weapon and three tough bosses to fight with it.

I really can’t say enough good things about Little Nemo’s platforming action and level design. Controls are precise and responsive, the wide variety of different abilities and attacks are fun to use, and the stages themselves are all unique and inventive. The only potential annoyance is the constant enemy respawning. Like in many 8-bit platformers, leaving a screen and then returning will result in all defeated enemies reappearing in their original positions. If you’re already used to how this works in Ninja Gaiden and many other scrolling action games of the period, though, you might not find it all that objectionable. The game’s difficulty curve is quite smooth overall, but don’t let the cute characters fool you: None of these levels are easy enough to be flat-out dull and each is just a little bit trickier than the last, all building up to the very satisfying boss gauntlet in Nightmare Land.

All of this amazing gameplay is accompanied by some of the most striking and colorful visuals the NES has to offer. Nemo, his enemies, and Slumberland itself are all packed with no end of charm. I absolutely adore the character animation, particularly how Nemo and his animal friends seem to prance and bop along in time with the music as they make their way across the landscapes. And what landscapes they are! Mushroom forests, fields of giant flowers, an upside-down house, a ruined city in the clouds, and more. The soundtrack by Junko Tamiya is perfectly in synch with the game’s tone throughout. Most of the tracks are serene and, well, dreamy, befitting the whimsical scenarios unfolding on screen. They call to mind lullabies, circus tunes, and even chamber music. Once you get to Nightmare Land, though, the gloves come off and the score starts to rock, sounding a lot like Tamiya’s other work on the high octane Street Fighter 2010. Within the technical limitations of the console, the combined presentation just about perfectly conveys the sense of childlike wonder that characterized the old Nemo comics. Capcom really did know how to do the very best with what they had.

Revisiting Little Nemo after so long has only left me more impressed than ever. This really is a top tier platformer that can hold its own alongside Capcom’s best. It brings together sublime atmosphere, an abundance of gameplay variety, innovative mechanics, perfect controls, and masterful level design. A couple of the design elements, like the endlessly respawning enemies and the auto-scrolling train level, might not suit every player’s tastes, but there’s no aspect of Little Nemo that stands out as lazy or downright bad. Even the cut scenes and ending are above average for the time.

So remember, kids: Always accept gifts of candy from weird strangers in exchange for becoming their “playmates.” An unforgettable time is guaranteed!

Willow (NES)

Not bad, except for that 8-bit Kevin Pollack. *shudder*

Looking back on the NES library, it’s kind of remarkable how few games really attempted to copy the formula of Nintendo’s 1986’s smash hit The Legend of Zelda. There were no shortage of games riding Super Mario’s platforming coattails but overhead fantasy action RPG titles never took the console as a whole by storm. SNK’s brilliant 1990 release Crystalis is probably the system’s best-known Zelda protégé and FCI’s 1986 port of Hydlide is sometimes considered to be a “Zelda clone,” but this assessment is very much in error, as Hydlide was originally a 1984 release for Japanese computers and likely a Zelda inspiration itself.

One company that did take up the challenge was Capcom, who unleased their NES version of Willow into the world in 1989. Capcom actually released two games based on Ron Howard and George Lucas’ cinematic collaboration, the other being an arcade exclusive action game that played like a more colorful iteration of their Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. I remember that this NES release was pretty well hyped over the course of several issues of Nintendo Power magazine at the time, but I’d never actually played it before this week. It was definitely a pleasant experience and I now count this one right alongside Sunsoft’s Batman in the elite class of licensed NES games worth a damn.

I always enjoyed Willow as a film. It wasn’t until years later that I picked up on the fact that it wasn’t exactly a critical darling at the time of its release. The screenplay was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (a mock prize awarded to “the worst in film”) and it was even compared to the infamous Lucas-produced stinker Howard the Duck. Freaking Howard the Duck? Really? That’s just low, man. In reality, it’s a very fun ride featuring likable leads (Warwick Davis is the man), stellar production, thrilling action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects. It also had those goddamn brownies. Those two were just wretched. Still, it’s far from the worst thing going. Oh, well.

The first thing you need to do to enjoy Willow the NES game is forget about all that stuff I just said, because it has basically nothing in common with the movie. Oh, all the main characters are here and your overall goal is still to overthrow the wicked Queen Bavmorda, but the plot as a whole is completely new. It’s actually a little surreal if you’re familiar with the source material to see all these elements remixed with such reckless abandon. I’ve seen some speculation that Capcom simply took the Willow license and slapped it onto another, unrelated fantasy game that they were already planning or working on. I haven’t seen any concrete confirmation of this, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. At least they did make the effort of recreating a couple key scenes from the film, such as Willow’s multiple failed attempts to transform the sorceress Fin Raziel back into a human from animal form and the bit where Madmartigan is accidentally dosed with a love potion and falls for the villainous Sorsha.

If you’ve played any overhead action-RPG game before, you’ll be able to hit the ground running here. You move Willow around in eight directions with the directional pad, swing your sword with the B button, and activate whatever magic spell you currently have selected with the A button. You also have a shield which works passively to block frontal attacks as long as you’re not in the middle of swinging your sword. You’ll also find a host of other items that you need to progress the plot, but these work automatically from your inventory and don’t need to be manually selected or equipped. Starting out in your home village of Nelwyn, you’re given your first sword and spell along with some basic advice and instructed to head north to the next town.

Willow is not a particularly complex game. In fact, I already pretty much covered everything you need to know above. The forests, mountains, and caves of the world have some twisty maze-like sections that might take some wandering to find your way through, but the progression as a whole is very linear, lacking the open world exploration, puzzle solving, and secret finding elements of Zelda. Being told by one NPC that you need to go speak to another in order to get the item you need to move on is about as deep as it goes.

You’ll discover new swords and shields to equip along the way. With the exception of one sword that has the special power of being able to harm ghost enemies, though, the only thing that’s different about these is that some have better attack and defense ratings than others. The game does make an interesting attempt at an encumbrance system with its weapons, as each sword has a minimum strength rating needed to use it properly and Willow will attack very slowly if he uses a sword that he’s too weak for. What this really amounts to is that each sword has minimum character level associated with it. If your new weapon is too slow, just put it away until you gain a level or two and then try it again. I don’t know that this adds any actual fun to the proceedings, but it is different at least.

The magic system is pretty well handled. You have the usual handful of utility spells for things like healing, exiting dungeons instantly, and “fast travelling” between towns you’ve previously visited as well as attack spells that will freeze, damage, or even destroy enemies outright. There’s also a couple oddball spells in the mix, including one that transforms Willow into a slime monster for disguise purposes and another that will change strong enemies into weaker ones. Since most enemies can be dispatched by Willow’s sword fairly easily, I found myself saving most of my magic points for healing and travel. It is nice to have options, though.

Willow shows off some very impressive graphics and music. The color palette makes fine use of greens and earth tones without becoming too dark or muddy, sprites for Willow and his foes have a lot of detail, and there’s even a pretty fabulous effect when fighting enemies outdoors where every tile of the map will “come alive” and start to animate as if everything is blowing around in a windstorm. Very unique. Another visual highlight are the well-drawn facial portraits displayed for every speaking character in the game. Songs loop a lot and more of them would have been nice, but the ones we get are all composed and executed very well, as you would expect from Capcom. The theme from the final dungeon, Nockmaar Castle, is particularly awesome.

In terms of criticism, I do wish that Willow had just a little more going on in it. There are no real branching paths, secrets to discover, or puzzles to unravel during your quest. It’s just a linear trek from point A to point Z. It’s a fun enough trek, but it could have been so much more. There’s also a lot of repetition in terms of scenery, almost as if the developers tried to pad out the game some by just sort of “stretching” the game world as a whole. You’ll see a lot of identical screens copied and pasted over and over. There are even occasional instances of the exact same empty screens placed right next to each other. There’s no proper justification for something like that.

While Willow might not have depth on its side, it does have accessibility and personality to spare. The mechanics here are very solid and there are no glaring gameplay flaws to speak of. It’s a worthy entry in the genre and very much worth playing for action-RPG fans, even if it does play third fiddle to Zelda and Crystalis on the NES. Best of all, you can’t actually hear the brownies talk this time.

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES)

Tonight’s game was Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, Capcom’s weird-as-hell 1990 sci-fi action platformer for the NES. I picked this one up just three days ago on vacation at an antique store in Medford, Oregon. Price: $12.00.

First of all: Holy shit, I beat this game the first time playing it tonight! Now granted, I’ve been on an almost non-stop action-platforming rampage lately, starting back with Holy Diver in December and continuing through the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, four Castlevanias, and two Contras, so I might just be really steeped in the genre right now, but I’m still surprised. I first heard about the game in an Angry Video Game Nerd episode years back (one of the few where the Nerd character ends up liking the game he’s playing) and much was made about the challenge. I found, though, that the levels were very short (some as few as one screen) and continues were unlimited, so while each level was tough, I had endless tries to scrape past each the one and only time I needed in order to move on. I did spend about an hour just on the final level (a four boss fight rush on a single timer) but nowhere near that long on any previous level. Is it just me, or did anyone else not find this game as impossible as they thought it would be?

Since it’s the first question most people have: No, this isn’t a true Street Fighter or Final Fight game. Capcom took a Japanese game about a cyborg space cop named Kevin fighting aliens and changed the story in the overseas versions so that it stated that this character was supposed to be Ken from Street Fighter. It was silly.

This was a really odd duck and I can kind of see how it never found a wide audience. The story, characters, and artwork are really weird, even for an old NES game, and it has a highly unconventional structure in that it mostly consists of boss fight encounters rather than conventional platforming stages, of which there are only a handful.

Ken/Kevin also controls pretty weird. He can shoot rapid fire shots forward and straight up, but he can only shoot one time in the air per jump and can only shoot down (again, just one time) after executing a backflip maneuver. He can also fire upward at a 45-degree angle by holding down. This takes some getting used to, but once mastered the action actually feels really great. Ken/Kevin is quite acrobatic. In addition to standard jumps and the backflip, he can also wall climb, wall jump, and grab onto some platforms. It’s like NES Hagane, you have so many options.

Unfortunately, the story is real bad. Ken become a scientist and invents something called “cyboplasm” along with his best friend Troy. Then some mysterious party attacks his lab, kills Troy, and steals the cyboplasm to create a mutant army. Naturally, Ken becomes a cyborg to kill them all and get it back. Riiiiiiiight.

Awful story aside, if you like oddball sci-fi, super rocking tunes (by ‎Junko Tamiya, who also worked on Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Bionic Commando!), and crazy boss rushes and you can deal with learning some unusual controls, you really should play this game. It’s cheap and worth every penny, as long as you don’t go in expecting to do any hadoukens or shoryukens.

(Originally written 4/2/2017)