Bionic Commando Rearmed takes the venerable Capcom arcade classic Bionic Commando, grafts some shiny new graphics and extra options on top and shoves it out the door to into the hyperactive, strobe-lit world of modern video gaming. It sounds like a recipe for the kind of slap-dash, exploitative shovelware that clogs up bargain bins around the planet but the developers, GRIN, have a magnificent advantage: respect.
From the moment the game fires up, it's obvious that Bionic Commando Rearmed has been made by people who love the original, who know it inside and out and are fully aware that the best thing they could do is to spruce up the pictures and leave the gameplay well and truly alone. It's worth noting that capturing the feel of a game is no small thing in itself, and that's probably the greatest achievement here. If it didn't play like Bionic Commando, no amount of next-gen prettiness would make it worth a download.
While we ploughed countless hours into the original arcade version back in 1987, the intervening 21 years have left us a little dim on the details. It's remarkable, though, how our first few hours with BCR revealed that we still, in a vague and cloudy way, knew where to go, what to do and what was coming next. It's an experience very much like re-discovering a favourite film after twenty years, only with all the dodgy effects lovingly replaced with the best that modern technology can offer. And not in a George Lucas, 'can't stop fiddling with Star Wars' way, either. This is more on par with an HD Director's Cut of Bladerunner.
If you strip away all the nostalgia, though, how does Bionic Commando Rearmed stand up? What does it offer to anyone who wasn't born when the original beeped and blipped its way into the arcades in 1987?
Bionic Commando Rearmed is a 2D platformer without a jump button. Any sideways or upward movement is facilitated by your character's extendable bionic arm. If you want to go to platform right above your head, you shoot your arm straight up so it connects to the underside of the platform, and then you can haul yourself up and on to the platform. If you want to go to a platform directly to the left or right, you shoot your arm out at a 45 degree angle so that it attaches to a surface above your desired destination. Another button press will start you swinging, at which point you can either travel onwards with a catch-and-release, Tarzan-style sequence of swings, or you can release your grip and drop down to whatever surface is beneath you. In your other hand is a gun which will take care of any bad guys in your way. It's a bit of a pea-shooter at the start, but you'll pick up some much meatier firepower as the game progresses.
It does take a little while to fully accept that there is no jump button. It's such an ingrained concept in 2D platformers that it's possible to feel a little peeved that an action that would normal take a single button press now takes two or three. After an maybe an hour, though, once you've got basics of movement under control, the versatility and downright coolness of the bionic arm makes the simple hoppy-jumpy mechanics of a most other 2D platformers seem positively pre-school in comparison. There are few things as exhilarating as swinging gracefully from ledge to ledge before landing deftly behind an enemy tank and blowing it into hot pixels.
'Gracefully' and 'deftly' takes practice, however. Expect to spend plenty of time thudding into walls, mis-timing your swings and generally making a dreadful mess of things while the enemy take potshots, lob grenades and generally do everything they can to bring your game to an early end. The difficulty curve can seem a little steep and unless you've managed to collect a few 1-ups along the way, this is a strictly three-deaths-and-you're-out proposition. Yes, it's frustrating and uncompromising, but it's never unfair. An untimely end is always your own fault, due to fumbled button presses or simply not being able to read a situation quickly enough. Some of the end of level boss battles require that you be as nimble with your brain as with your fingertips, as you avoid incoming fire while figuring out how the heck to bring a four storey, bomb lobbing machine to its knees.
The levels aren't monstrously huge, though they can still be big enough to get lost in. There's at least one checkpoint in each level, so when you die, you won't have to start right from the beginning. Also, once you complete a level, you won't have to play it again, unless you're aiming for high scores and faster times.
A checkpoint also gives you the opportunity to hack the enemy's computer system. This is done with a simple puzzle game in which you have to move an orb around within a cube without leaving the cube's boundaries, before reaching a designated destination. Various obstructions block the path to the destination, so you have to pick a path where something will catch your orb before it shoots out of the cube. This can be occasionally tricky, but is mostly a simple process that doesn't threaten too many brain cells. Successfully hacking the system provides you with a shower of health power ups and access to snippets of enemy dialogue that give hints on how to beat the level's boss.
The different levels are reached via a top down map that you traverse in a helicopter. Not all the levels are available from the beginning, usually requiring you to have a particular access chip or weapon before you can head on in. New weapons or chips can be collected from friendly bases that are scattered around the map. Enemy anti-aircraft trucks are constantly trundling around the map, and if your helicopter intersects with any of them, you're dropped into a top-down, vertically scrolling minigame. If you can make your way to the top of the map and destroy the AA truck, you can continue on to the level you were aiming for. These minigames are one of the few low points in the game. They were in the original game, but simply don't hold up as well as everything else.
Outside of the main single player game, BCR offers a co-op mode in which two players can battle forth on the same computer. Deathmatch style games are available for up to four player, but again, only on the same computer. There's no online multiplay of any kind. There are also a large number of Challenge Rooms accessible from the main menu which provide the ultimate test of your swinging skills. These are puzzle rooms that generally require you to traverse a number of difficult obstacles in the shortest possible time.
You don't need a gamepad to play the game, but you'll definitely want one. The keyboard controls are fine, but there's something clunky about trying to play this kind of game on the QWERTY controller. The game plays equally well with analogue thumb sticks or d-pad.
There have been few updates to old games as accomplished as Bionic Commando Rearmed. The gameplay is as fresh and enjoyable as ever, and the sparkly new graphics and animation only add to the experience. The fact that the 250MB digital download is widely available for only US$14.95 should make it damn near irresistible for anyone with the slightest of platform itches. It's also kind of heartwarming to think that someone born in the 90s who's played through BCR will have something in common with a mullet-wearing, teenage Wham! fan skulking around an arcade in 1987. Who needs a generation gap when you've got games as good as Bionic Commando Rearmed?