Everything old is new again.
As game technology advances at an exponential rate, it’s easy to get sucked in to what’s coming, what’s next, what’s new. An unfortunate side-effect of this, however, as technology becomes outdated and no longer supported, is that more and more games are getting lost to history. I know people with enormous libraries of old NES games that will never be played again. It’s a shame, though, since it’s becoming harder and harder for young gamers to experience older, classic (and sometimes better) games.
Now that I’ve made myself sound like an old man, Enter The Remake. Some people may chafe at the idea that developers are just selling them the same games over again, albeit running on upgraded tech, but straight remakes of old games are a great way to experience a game if you missed it the first time around (especially if it's good).
And now there’s an easy (read: legal) way for the classic platformer Bionic Commando to be enjoyed by people who never experienced the original game on the NES. People who were still in preschool when it got ported over. People like me. (See, I’m not really old.)
Rearmed is actually a remake of the home-console port rather than the arcade version, following the bionic-arm-equipped Nathan “Rad” Spencer as he swings his way through 12 levels to rescue fellow agent Super Joe, thwart the Imperialist Forces (a.k.a Nazis in the arcade version), and their secret evil Project Albatross. Short of being set in the 22nd century instead of the 1980s, the plot has stayed the same.
Plenty has changed, however. The biggest and most obvious update is to the game’s graphics. Although the action still all takes place on a 2D plane, level environments are now rendered in three glorious dimensions and enemies are 3D models instead of sprites. The new graphics have their ups and downs: The beautiful outdoor areas make the basic interior levels look dull by comparison, and playing on a non-HD television, I found it hard at first to tell different Imperialist soldiers apart. Regular human enemies tend to be muddy and indistinct, in direct contrast to the bright, sharp design of robotic enemies and bosses.
Speaking of which, the bosses have been completely redesigned from the ground up, and there are some pretty ingenious tactics required to defeat some of them, with a highlight being the enormous siege tank that you’ll fight a couple times throughout the game. And for fans of the original game, yes, the final boss has remained the same, along with his oh-so-memorable death once you’ve sent enough rocket-propelled pain his way. Now, however, he appears only at the end of an all-new final level, which takes some serious work to traverse.
But even with all the redesign, the look and feel of the original game shines through. From the synth-heavy, 8-bit-style remastering of the original’s soundtrack to the cheesy 80’s action-movie dialogue, the whole game is calculated to take you back to the halcyon days of the NES.
Along with the retro style comes a retro level of difficulty. While completing the whole game is less difficult than its predecessor thanks to a new save system and unlimited continues - losing all your lives on any level will just dump you back out on the level-select map - individual stages can be head-bangingly hard. Making your way through some of the game’s later stages requires excellent accuracy and timing with the bionic arm, and the game can be extraordinarily unforgiving. Latching on to just the wrong section of ceiling will make you more George of the Jungle than Tarzan.
Where difficulty gives way to outright frustration is when you take the somewhat finicky analog controller into account. The bionic arm can be extended in any of five directions, and limping in to the end of a difficult level only to slam into a wall of spikes when your arm goes this way instead of that way may lead to a few thrown controllers. (Fortunately, mine had a nice, soft couch to slow its momentum.)
Although controlling the arm takes some getting used to, once you do master it, you can start pulling off some awe-inspiring stunts. Perfectly executing a complicated series of swings to finally pass an area that has been causing you grief will give you one hell of a rush. Replaying the game a second time, I found myself swinging with carefree abandon through the early levels that had seemed so tricky in the face of the game’s precipitous learning curve.
And as you master the regular levels, you can try to take on the challenge rooms, another new feature of the remade Bionic Commando. Gradually unlocked as you play the game, these rooms are far, far more difficult than the regular levels, requiring pinpoint precision and an instinctive feel for the game’s controls. While only the hardest-core Rearmed players will pass them all, let alone get a five-star time on each one, more casual players will still find simpler rooms that they enjoy and complete.
At just $10, there’s plenty of gaming value for your dollar. My first time through the game took me well over 10 hours, not including time spent in challenge rooms, and I found only a small fraction of the game’s secret areas. Multiplayer is included as well and, with its “Don’t Touch the Floor” mode, plays a bit like Super Smash Bros. if Bowser was a Nazi and Link’s hookshot was cybernetically welded to his arm.
Deathmatches are overshadowed, however, by the fantastic new co-op mode. Playing with a friend in tow provides a whole new experience, as enemy A.I. will adapt to multiple threats, and boss battle strategies will change to require cooperation. Not that it makes the game any easier; players share the same number of lives as in the single-player game, and now you have to get two people through the toughest obstacles simultaneously. Unfortunately, there’s no online multiplayer, so you’ll actually have to find some real people to play with.
Fans of the original will feel immediately at home with Bionic Commando Rearmed, and if you’re one of them, you probably already bought the game anyway. For people who never got to experience the game the first time around, it’s a great opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. More than just a straight remake, Rearmed feels like a game that really has been refined twice.