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.