Bionic Commando Rearmed
How an extendable arm pulled us towards a new age of downloadable gaming
The first hurdle to overcome in Bionic Commando is your instinct. You arrive at the edge of a platform, merely a short hop from the next, or find your path blocked by an unassuming crate. What you do next should be obvious, but Nathan ‘Rad’ Spencer is the rare platform game star who can’t jump, can’t even lift both feet off the ground without assistance from his extend-andretract bionic arm. When there’s no girder or spotlight above for him to latch on to and swing himself over, you have to sheepishly turn and find another way around.
With Bionic Commando Rearmed, Capcom and Swedish developer Grin may have been tempted to relax these artificial limitations, set by a 1987 arcade game and its 1988 NES successor, their two-button controllers fully occupied by multidirectional shooting and grappling. In 2008 the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers certainly had room to afford a cybernetic soldier extra athleticism. Yet the developer held firm, unafraid to bolt new parts onto this update of the NES game but stopping short of rewiring the fundamentals. As the title suggests, it is still a platformer where arms count more than legs.
Along with that backward-looking approach comes a sense of forward thinking. Today we’re used to agile reboots, with Capcom’s own Ghosts ’N Goblins Resurrection
a recent illustration, the developer sticking to its guns with a nod, a wink and some careful expansion. In 2008, Rearmed was an early example of this craft, the essence of its classic core mechanic restored and given a coat of modern varnish – and, more importantly, it was an early example of downloadable gaming. The perhaps unlikely leader of a revolution, it heralded a new 2D age tempered in history, remoulded for the present with cosmetic flourishes, quality-oflife concessions and bolstered play modes.
Yet it’s a leader without a legend, paving the way for others but not often remembered in its own right. A list of XBLA greats would be more likely to begin with Braid, Limbo, Trials, Spelunky, Shadow Complex and Bastion,
all of which have lived on into subsequent generations in some form or another, while Rearmed remains missing in action. Call it a missing link, between the origins of XBLA and PSN and the upright sophisticates we came to associate with these services. Or, to borrow a term from philosophy, a vanishing mediator: something that breaks from the old and ushers in the new yet is superseded itself once the new is fully formed, its role as catalyst fading from memory.
Timing is everything in gaming history – in this case, right down to the season. Rearmed was one of five trumpeted releases in Microsoft’s first Summer Of Arcade promotion. Until then, XBLA had been precisely what its name suggested: a refuge for ‘arcade’ experiences, albeit loosely defined. These ran from repackaged arcade ROMs, retro console collections and digitised board games to HD rebuffs of casual PC games such as Hexic, and originals such as Geometry Wars that easily huddled under the ‘arcade’ umbrella. Meanwhile, more expansive reboots of arcade series, such as Contra: Shattered Soldier or Ultimate Ghosts ’N Goblins, were the preserve of double-A estates, released as traditional boxed games.
Regardless of XBLA’s initial aims, it soon inflated to fill in the gap between the two. Initially, the file size limit on XBLA games was just 50MB, ensuring owners of the Core model 360, with no internal storage, could fit any Arcade game on a 64MB memory card. In March 2007, that increased to 150MB to facilitate the re-release of Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night.
Ahead of Rearmed’s launch, Capcom announced that its game had been granted an exception to the current storage limit so its texture resolution wouldn’t be hobbled next to the PSN version. Before the game actually arrived, the limit had been pushed to 350MB for everyone. By September 2009, it was 2GB. Hard drives were becoming console essentials, and the concept of what a downloadable game looked like and played like was shifting rapidly.
In that context, the 2008 Summer Of Arcade felt portentous. Alongside Rearmed were four other original games – Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Braid, Galaga Legions and Castle Crashers – together implying a new breadth to digital delivery. Galaga and Geometry Wars ensured high-quality continuity. Braid was the flagbearer for experimental indies. Rearmed and Castle
Crashers showed how ‘arcade’ genres might stretch and blossom with bigger ideas.
And what better series than Bionic Commando to assume this role, given its history? It’s fitting that Rearmed was based on the NES game – a loose conversion in which the arcade basics were retained but stages were reconstructed from the ground up, a story added and new weapons, a stage select and top-down skirmishes between infiltration missions introduced. The NES game’s visual quality couldn’t match the coin-op’s, so Capcom pivoted, focusing instead on intricacy and longevity. Two decades on, Rearmed was perfectly poised to remake the arcade in the home once more.
It did so by shirking the mantle of pure run-and-gun in favour of something more methodical, scattering enemy bases with static soldiers that afford you time to plot your grapple points. With Spencer’s burgeoning armoury (a bazooka, a laser and so on, unlocked at the end of each stage), these meticulously layered strongholds turn into mazy puzzles of circuitous navigation. You heave yourself up behind snipers or roll grenades in from above, maximising swings to elevate with speed or vault over spike pits. Many levels end with showdowns against heavy artillery, each uniquely susceptible to Spencer’s enhanced reach. A large siege machine, for example, can be stripped of its armour by grabbing and unscrewing the rivets holding it in place.
It works as much because of what you can’t do as what you can. You can: fire the arm upwards then pull yourself towards it, or diagonally to swing, or horizontally to reel in items, barrels and enemies. You can’t: jump, or shoot the arm downwards, or drop down through a platform, or swing from a static hang, or shoot vertically. Not quite in the way that Liam Neeson means it, but Rad Spencer does have a very particular set of skills; logical not only in their adherence to an older game, but also to a tightness of focus that demands you extract every ounce of potential from them.
It’s in that restraint that Rearmed strikes its retro-modern balance, but equally how it lays some resilient foundations. It keeps much of the NES game’s cautiously open structure (the upgrade path, the interactive map with partially gated level select) and seasons the mix to suit a more adventurous palate. Hacking enemy comms now triggers a brief ball-and-block puzzle, granting access to amusing skits where a commander and his subordinate let slip the secret weak points of forthcoming bosses. The top-down map encounters are beefier, asking you to take out enemy convoys with pure firepower – not so much ‘Bionic’ as simply ‘Commando’ – without detracting from the main events. Extras from local co-op and online versus play to challenge maps and a database of enemies seem to complete the package.
So why did Rearmed get somewhat lost in the history of the download revolution? One
REARMED AND CASTLE CRASHERS SHOWED
HOW ‘ARCADE’ GENRES MIGHT STRETCH
AND BLOSSOM WITH BIGGER IDEAS
factor might be the misjudged 2011 sequel, notable for adding a jump button, rendering it instantly generic. But even taken on its own, Rearmed didn’t endure because it felt more like an advanced prototype for things to come, not a premium XBLA specimen. It’s something that becomes more apparent the farther you progress, as cheap deaths reveal untreated 8bit roots. The specifics of vertical and diagonal grappling demand a precision that’s overly fussy once Spencer’s life depends on it. And because you can’t start swinging from a vertical hang, you often have to detach and reattach in mid-air, increasing the chances of getting your timing or input wrong. Once you’re, say, stumbling through a Donkey Kong-style gauntlet of rolling barrels, you might wish for that jump button after all. Or at least an alternative to Rearmed’s limited lives system, which provides checkpoints within levels until the supply runs out, then banishes you back to the map. It’s arbitrary and demoralising, the last remnants of arcade strictness, already feeling out of time in 2008.
Nor is Rearmed’s eye for retro presentation perfectly tuned. Its lines remain clean and its colours sharp, but the scenery and characters are short of personality, not least spiky blond Spencer himself. The NES music is nicely remixed with industrial beats but doesn’t take the edge off its harshest chiptune notes, leaving the melodies shrill. The trick with nostalgia, we’ve since come to understand, is to blend present and past, to make games look and sound as people want to remember them, not the way they actually were. Rearmed falls between two stools here, either too clearly of its own time or too unrefined in its historical callbacks.
Looking back at the summer of 2008, however, just as Braid opened the door to more cerebral indie console games, Rearmed yanked it off its hinges to redefine the arcade. It was the precursor to a string of 2D action games such as Shadow Complex and
Mark Of The Ninja that established digital releases as the cement in the 360 release schedule, squidging thickly between the Mass Effects and Halos. It also helped to lay the foundations for the smart pseudofidelity of rebirths such as Ghosts ’N Goblins Resurrection and originals such as Shovel Knight that cast into the past for inspiration.
Rearmed helped pull downloadable console gaming forward into an exciting future, even if it couldn’t make the jump itself.