You would think that a remake of a 20 year old 2D action game may not stand up against all of the big 3D games being released at the same time. Throw into the mix the fact that you can't jump and you might think that this game is downright archaic, the type of product that should remain a relic of the good old 8-bit days. But Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Capcom's inspired remake of the 1987 Nintendo Entertainment System game, is not your typical Xbox Live Arcade title. Instead it's a surprisingly relevant action/platformer that plays great, looks even better and feels just as relevant today as it did all those years ago.
Like many of Capcom's other updated remakes (including Mega Man: Powered Up and the GameCube Resident Evil remake), Bionic Commando: Rearmed works both as a fun nostalgia trip for gamers of a certain age and an exciting action game for those new to the series. This is not one of those games where you'll feel like you're missing something if you're too young (or just unfamiliar) with the original title, but at the same time the game works on another layer that actually makes it even more rewarding for those who remember fighting the evil B.A.D.D organization two decades ago.
In Bionic Commando: Rearmed you play Radd Spencer, a special commander fitted with a custom bionic arm that allows him to deflect bullets and, most importantly, fire out a grappling hook that will allow him to climb and swing out of danger. Radd is tasked with saving Super Joe, a fellow member of the Federation who somehow, despite his name, was able to get kidnapped by Generalissimo Killt and his B.A.D.D. terrorist organization. In order to do this Radd is going to have to kill hundreds of enemies, hack into the enemy's communication towers, find all sorts of weapon upgrades and be incredibly lucky.
True to the original game; Bionic Commando: Rearmed remains a 2D action game, even though every element is now rendered using full 3D polygons. For the most part the gameplay remains exactly the same, which means that you still won't be able to jump. At first your character's inability to jump feels like an impediment, especially when you consider that for two decades every video game character under the sun has had their own jump button. Heck, these days most game characters can do more than jump ten feet into the air ... they can also double jump. Well, don't expect that kind of innovation in this game, because in order to climb up buildings, dodge enemies and do pretty much everything else this game has to offer, you are going to have to use your bionic arm. Thanks to the game's creative level designs and the solid gameplay what seems like a problem actually turns into something pretty cool by the end of the game, but there's no denying that for the first couple of hours things are going to feel a bit awkward.
Radd's bionic arm is about more than just climbing levels and swinging to safety, it's also good at grabbing far away items, deflecting bullets and allowing you to pick up barrels and rocks that you can throw at your enemies. The game's levels are designed specifically for your bionic arm, so you'll have all kinds of fun tooling around the levels looking for new areas to discover and different ways to take out your foes. Sure you can run through the level just shooting the bad guys like it was some sort of Contra knock-off, but the fun of this game is in the discovery and new things you can do with the grappling hook. There are plenty of 2D action games where you're a commando killing enemies with a gun, but how many games give you a cool grappling hook to play around with? Not many, and maybe that's why all these years Bionic Commando still feels fresh.
Oddly enough there's one part of Bionic Commando: Rearmed that doesn't feel very fresh. While most of the levels are of the 2D side scrolling variety, from time to time you'll have to take part in an overhead mission, similar to what we saw in one of Capcom's other recent Xbox Live Arcade titles, Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3. However, unlike Commando 3, these overhead levels aren't controlled with the dual stick. Instead you shoot the direction you're facing, which feels incredibly dated and clucky. Thankfully these missions are short; they end the moment you get to the end and blow up a vehicle with a gunner on the back. I found these levels to be so tedious that more times than not I would run through the level completely ignoring the enemies just so that I could get through it quicker and move on to the rest of the game. It's a shame Capcom wasn't able to upgrade these levels and make them more interesting.
As you fight through the game's twenty or so marked areas you'll uncover a number of new weapons and items. In total there are six different weapons, including a powerful shotgun, a rapid fire machine gun, a laser blast that has bullets that bounce off of walls, a rocket launcher, and more. And these weapons don't just make it easier to take out enemies; they also allow you to access new areas. Knowing the pros and cons of each of these six weapons is one of the most important parts of the game, especially when dealing with some of the harder characters and bosses towards the end of the game.Along with the six weapons are a whole barrage of items, including a bullet proof vest that allows you to take an extra hit (without taking any damage), a flare (so that you can see in the dark), better shoes (so that you can kill people when you swing and hit them) and more. Throw in four different colored access cards and you have a whole lot of weapons and items to locate and earn through the course of the game. Oh, and did I mention that there are also sorts of weapon upgrades you can find by searching for hidden locations in the levels? Well you can, which is yet another reason to use your bionic arm to its fullest.
While the original game was built on a strong foundation, the improvements found in this game take a good game and make it great. It's not just the graphics that they upgraded (we'll get to that shortly), it's the addition of a brand new life bar, the brand new enemies, the crazy new bosses, the way you hack into the enemy's communications, the ability to finally be able to change weapons in the middle of a level and so much more. From start to finish the game has been improved and updated to feel like a modern game ... even if it is still viewed in the 2D perspective.
On top of the minor (albeit important) tweaks, the game also allows gamers to bring a friend in and play the entire story mode as a two-player co-op game. Unfortunately you can't play this multiplayer mode (or any multiplayer mode, for that matter) online, but there's nothing quite like having your friend on the couch next to you helping you battle soldiers, robots and all sorts of other baddies. What's more, the game actually changes in significant (and exciting) ways when you play with a friend. It's not just that the game is harder, but the way you beat end level bosses is different when you're paired up with a second bionic commando.
Seeing as this game is based on a 20 year old NES game, you probably shouldn't expect the story to take you dozens of hours to beat. Then again, I was taken aback by just how long the game actually was. Seasoned pros could probably go through the game in just a matter of hours (I'm sure there's a speed run of the game where somebody beats it in just an hour or so), but most people will find that the game's difficulty will impede their progress, at least until they figure out just how to go around getting around all of the different obstacles. I'm certainly no expert at judging game length; however I wouldn't be surprised if the game takes most people between five to eight hours.
On top of the lengthy story mode, you will also get more than four dozen "challenge" levels. These levels are small VR-like missions that have you swinging all around and avoiding obstacles to get to the end in a fast time. While not every one of them is consistent, they are a great way of offering you some extra things to do once you've battled Killt and defeated the Albatross. My one gripe with these levels is that some of them are tied to various game publications, which blurs that editorial integrity line a little more than I would like. Having said that, these challenge levels are definitely difficult and will take a long, long time to complete.
With the game's lengthy story, the two- and four-player multiplayer modes and all of the challenge levels, you're actually getting quite a bit for your 800 Microsoft Points ($10). In fact, I would argue that this is one of the best video game deals I've seen all year. Assuming that you actually complete everything in this game, you're going to be at it for dozens of hours, which isn't bad for a mere ten bucks.
And then there's the graphics, the beautifully upgraded graphics. Turning your game from 2D sprits to 3D polygons is tricky, but GRIN was able to make it look easy. The graphics are stunning, from the main character's animation to the detailed level graphics to the gigantic bosses. And it's not just that everything looks realistic, it's just the way the game uses colors you rarely see in video games and the lighting is out of this world. This game doesn't look like any other game on the market; it sets itself apart visually ... which isn't very easy to do in this day and age. There are a few graphic imperfections, but by and large this is one of the best looking games on the Xbox Live Arcade.
It's also one of the best sounding games on Microsoft's download service. I'm used to hearing redone remixes and remakes of old retro songs, but rarely are they as good as they are in Bionic Commando: Rearmed. The music is so good that I wouldn't be surprised if people started seeking out the soundtrack and incorporating it into their regular playlist. They have been able to walk that fine line between honoring the twenty year old music and making it sound new and fresh. I'm amazed at what GRIN and Capcom were able to do with this game.
All in all Bionic Commando: Rearmed is the type of game that every fan of action/platformers should pick up. The grappling hook mechanics may seem foreign at first, but within a few levels you'll have mastered the technique and will be swinging with the best of them. Capcom yet again proves that they are the masters when it comes to remaking their classic games, which makes me anxious to see what they have in store for 2009 and beyond. At ten dollars there's no excuse for not picking up this brilliant action game, especially if you're already a fan of this twenty year old game.