If there’s one sacred cow in the entire platforming genre, it’s jumping. According to our highly scientific calculations, there are one hojillion sidescrollers that rely on hopping all about to climb, collect and kill. Capcom’s Bionic Commando series has plenty of climbing, collecting and killing but dines on hamburger through its rad mechanical arm, switching the dynamic of jumping to one of grappling, grabbing and swinging. When the original hit the arcade in 1987 and the NES the following year, nothing played quite like it, and that is still the case today.
Game Boy Bionic Commando is a kinda-sorta reimagining of the NES game, following the structure of the old plot while fine-tuning the mechanics a bit. Instead of fighting quasi-Nazis in a military setting, titular hero Rad (no longer Ladd) Spencer finds himself in a futuristic sci-fi world where he has to rescue his ally Super Joe from the clutches of an opposing army bent on carrying out a nefarious secret project codenamed Albatross. The world is a bit chunkier and pleasingly cartoonish, which at the time helped stymie the Game Boy's blurry screen from ruining things and now helps give the game a strong sense of character. This portable version follows the same story beats but expands it through animated sequences and anime character portraits that pop up between stages, making the game seem quite modern for a Game Boy release.
What also feels fairly modern is the semi-linear overworld that lets you fly and land your helicopter between enemy-occupied main stages and "neutral territory" side stages that contain items, power-ups and other bonus stuff. You're not the only helicopter hovering around the map, though, with enemy aircraft fluttering about as well — if you collide with one between landings then you go to a special encounter stage with hordes of baddies. This set up adds refreshing elements of both freedom and suspense, allowing you to choose your next mission while trying to avoid (or attack) enemy helicopters.
The arm has its ups and downs, with hard swings in the feeling of fluidity of movement. You can still get around as you would in a typical jump-'n-run way by grappling to higher ledges or swinging from the ceiling, but with feet planted firmly on the ground and more thought required behind your direction — i.e. instead of pressing a button to jump up to the ledge above you, you hold Up on the D-Pad to aim above you, fire the grapple arm, pull yourself up and then another button press to climb on top of it. This layer of deliberation helps Bionic Commando feel like no other sidescroller and comes at the cost of a steeper learning curve, but once you do get in the swing of things Rad Spencer feels like a more mobile character than most platformers dream. On the flip side, if you break momentum by way of a fat finger or brain fart during particularly active portions then prepare to panic.
Bionic Commando has always been a challenging game, in part because most of the skills the genre at large fosters are thrown out the window, but now that it's on Virtual Console it can be rendered as maddening or manageable as you'd like thanks to the save state feature. Purists can play the game as it originally appeared on Game Boy in 1992 and have a blast with its firm challenge, and newcomers or those averse to gaming frustration can make judicious use of save states to break difficult sections into something more manageable. Another area where the Virtual Console comes to the rescue is by including the instruction manual: where most games don't need much consulting, Bionic Commando's becomes vital as you try to decipher the non-descriptive item menus that show an image and nothing else. Given that before each level you can choose a weapon, support item, antenna receiver and defence item, it really helps to know what you're carrying in to battle. However, the game is still let down by its complete lack of maps of stages — as they get increasingly complicated and reliant on swinging for long distances and elaborate climbing, figuring out where to go can be a headache.
Because of its complete break away from genre convention by emphasising swinging over jumping, Bionic Commando is one of those games that you either love or hate. Nothing else plays quite like it, and this portable adaptation is a surprisingly robust and polished entry in the series. It might take some time getting used to the mechanics, but once your brain has rewired to Bionic Commando's method of madness then you'll find a real Game Boy gem.