In retrospect, it’s sort of startling to look back at videogame design evolution throughout the 1980s and compare it to the medium of today. Thirty years after Pac-Man and Space Invaders, games seem practically stagnant by comparison. Where they were constantly changing, experimenting, and growing throughout the ’80s, today they fall into easily defined formats, with the bulk of creative thinking consisting largely of coming up with new ways to shuffle around the details of existing genres from one to the other.
This isn’t a screed against current games, though. The difference is perfectly normal, a simple consequence of nature. Just as Earth’s Precambrian era was a violent soup of evolutionary competition as early life struggled to find forms and features that would give each species its own distinct edge amidst that brutal upheaval, videogames spent their first decade of proper life sending out tentative feelers into new territory or, more often, making reckless attempts to invent new ideas whole cloth. The task of figuring what works within the medium is done. As in modern biology, games today are about playing roles in an ecosystem, affecting slow changes, and letting the crazy unexpected upheavals carry on unseen in the niches.
So while the differences between a 2000-vintage Dreamcast game and a 2010-vintage Xbox 360 title are surprisingly modest and mostly technical in nature, consider where gaming was at the beginning of the ’80s versus what ruled the industry in 1990. At the beginning of the decade, Donkey Kong, Ultima II, and Zork represented the crowning pinnacles of technology and design; at the end, gamers were enthralled by Super Mario Bros. 3, Dragon Quest III, and The Secret of Monkey Island. The former directly parallel the latter, but they were simple, rudimentary creations compared to the sophistication and diversity of design offered by their descendents.
What really made the ’80s such a fascinating time for gaming, though, were all the things that came between these benchmarks. You can draw a clear line of evolution from Donkey Kong to Mario 3, but that line doesn’t show all the odd little offshoots that branched out along the way. Mario merely provided the baseline, the essential reference works for everyone else to build off of, often resulting in wonderfully unconventional works. Not every attempt that made its way to market was a masterpiece, but the danger of stumbling across an unplayable disaster was mitigated by the presence of innovative, sideways-thinking masterpieces. Games like Bionic Commando.
Remember that Super Mario Bros. arrived a mere three years before Bionic Commando. It took practically that long for developers who weren’t Nintendo to figure out how to simply imitate Mario’s exquisite jumping physics and remarkable level design. And yet here was Capcom attempting to reinvent the entire genre not by imitative design but by completely discarding one of its most fundamental underpinnings: jumping.
The notion is practically heresy, which is why Capcom and FatShark are meekly adding a jump button to the game’s long-overdue true sequel, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2. It’s not that the Bionic Commando series needs to offer players the ability to jump in order to work, it’s that players need the psychological crutch of a jump button, even if in functional terms it does nearly nothing. I suppose that’s another difference between games now and then: These days, developers have a direct line of communication with consumers and a petrifying fear of alienating fickle audiences. Creative vision is more easily compromised for a sale; design purity tainted to appease the loudest complaints. Thankfully, the original Bionic Commando was designed in a relative vacuum.
The NES game was actually a sequel to a 1986 arcade title that had attempted to create the jump-free platformer but failed at it pretty badly. In taking the concept to console, Capcom rethought the way those mechanics fit together, refined what hadn’t worked in the arcade, and subtly flipped the original an upraised middle finger by making the premise of the NES adventure a mission to rescue the arcade game’s hero. The message was clear. The old hero, Super Joe, just didn’t cut it -- but Radd Spencer, the new protagonist, did.
What both Joe and Spencer had in common was a single skill that separated them not only from Mario but from every other platforming hero of the era: a grappling hook. The two bionic commandos sacrificed the ability to leap high into the air in favor of an extensible wire arm that allowed them to grasp faraway objects, swing across chasms, and travel across hazardous terrain in an incredibly unconventional manner. While the general purpose of jumping and grappling were largely the same, their execution was different enough that Bionic Commando required players to relearn the genre. The trouble was justified, though; mastery of the bionic arm was a liberating sensation.
On its surface, grappling appears to be a more limited skill than jumping. Your standard video game jump is an upward parabola that derives its momentum from the jumper’s natural contact with the ground. A running jump is the arguably the most natural motion in gaming; the hero runs, jumps, lands, and keeps right on running in a single seamless movement, often gaining extra distance in the air from his forward momentum on the ground. Grappling, however, requires an exterior vector to work, a ceiling or other grappling point for the hero to latch onto. Swinging requires a line of contact to be drawn between the character and his vector, which interrupts the forward motion of the run-and-jump mechanic as the player pauses and creates the connection. It’s a less intuitive action, an interruptive mechanic.
Once (figuratively) grasped, however, the real potential of grappling becomes clear. The grappling wire can be shortened to draw the character to the contact point, or simply used as a tool for swinging from one point to another. You can hang freely or swing in the air indefinitely; given sufficient ceiling, you can even continue moving forward in a series of seamless, unstoppable swings. Grasp, swing, release at the furthest point of your arc of movement, grasp a new point, repeat.
Of course, this is where Rad Spencer and Super Joe differ. Joe’s bionic arm was more limited than Spencer’s, less fluid, unable to extend in mid-air. It also reached directly forward by default. Spencer’s arm reached out at a 45-degree angle and could be fired off repeatedly. These small refinements took a concept that was interestingly novel but deeply infuriating in its arcade incarnation and made it completely viable and genuinely fun on NES. Bionic Commando began as a nice idea, but the improvements it saw in its transition to cartridge form transformed it into something unique and very nearly perfect in its execution.
Bionic Commando wasn’t simply about a great control mechanic. Another thing that Super Mario Bros. proved is that an excellent interface needs an equally excellent world in which to make use of it. Here, too, did Capcom excel. The NES game offered faint echoes of the arcade’s environments and reprised some of the more memorable music, but by and large its dozen stages were built from the ground up to be navigable exclusively by Radd Spencer and his unique skills. Like Konami’s Castlevania, special thought was given the level architecture; there were no magically floating platforms, and interactive foreground objects were connected to sensible background structures. Maybe you were grasping a light fixture on a pole or a ceramic shield on a power line, but every moment felt like you were infiltrating an enemy encampment by sneaking through areas normal people couldn’t possibly navigate.
There was even a small nod to the roots of traditional platforming in Area 6, as players ascended the girders of an industrial port while avoiding rolling objects flung from on high by a huge, ape-like enemy soldier. It wasn’t just a clever reference, though; it simultaneously defined what separated Spencer from Mario. Instead of simply leaping the barrel-like objects, the player had to think one move ahead and evade them with precise grappling. Mario’s jump could be a split-second reactive action, while grappling required more planning and strategy. But master it and eventually you’d make your way to the top... and unlike Mario, you were given the option of firing a bazooka through your antagonist’s face. (Later, you’d do the same thing to Adolf Hitler.)
Bionic Commando’s level design presented a fantastic upward curve. Area 6 had plenty of other challenges in store for players beyond the Donkey Kong reference, including a daunting sequence which required multiple consecutive swings across a yawning chasm. Everything leading up to that point had slowly nudged players to mastery of these techniques, and Area 6 demanded it. Appropriately, this stage divided the game’s first and second halves, a test of skill to determine whether or not players could handle the challenges that lay ahead. Those later tasks included free-form swinging along a ceiling above an open smelting pit, navigating the corridors of the enemy capital, and eventually climbing to a seemingly unreachable outpost where Super Joe was held captive as enemy airships harassed you.
All of these elements came together in a masterfully designed package. Bionic Commando offered some of the best graphics of its time, and some of the best music ever to appear on NES, period. The action was complemented by a modest inventory system whose limitations demanded players heed the advice of allies and enemies in the Neutral Areas, as well as a limited level-up system. There was even a story to the game, a sort of mystery to accompany the quest to liberate Super Joe, which would have been a lot more intriguing if it had been translated less timidly.
Bionic Commando’s mechanics have been imitated widely through the years, but no one has ever quite managed to pull off grappling and swinging with quite the same sense of elegance and accessibility. Fans of the obscure will swear by Super NES import Umihara Kawase, but its highly elastic grappling is extremely technical—the sort of thing Bionic Commando fans graduate to when they want a stiff challenge. Yet even if someone managed to concoct a more perfect grappling wire, they’d still have to outclass the game’s level design, its open map scheme, its exquisite difficulty curve, and that amazing soundtrack. In other words, we’ll never see a game that out-Bionic-Commandos Bionic Commando.... if for no other reason than the fact that the current gaming market simply wouldn’t support it. A platformer that threw out the jump button was well and good in the heady, experimental days of the ’80s, but in these safe and formulaic times, there’s just no room for it.
No, these days, even our digitally distributed niche games have to compromise for mass appeal when the folks watching the bottom line see that a wire arm as a potential noose around their necks.