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In the mid-eighties, the 8-bit NES market was overcrowded with cutesy hop-n-bop platformers, poor arcade conversions, and brainless shoot 'em ups. One was hard-pressed to find an action game that required nothing more than fast reflexes and a twitchy thumb. Fortunately, Capcom heeded the cry of many a bored gamer and released Bionic Commando in 1988.
Heralded as a pseudo-sequel to Commando, the player took control of Ladd, a rookie soldier. His mission: to rescue the original game's protagonist, Super Joe, from the evil (and susupiciously Nazi-esque) Federation.
At first look, the game seems fairly generic: you start off by watching a transmission from a fellow soldier, you learn that Super Joe has been captured, and you proceed to fly your helicopter (via an overhead map) into enemy territory. After watching Ladd parachute into the first area, the real fun begins. As usual, a press of the B button causes you to fire upon whichever unsuspecting soldier may happen to cross your path. A press of the A button, however, leads to a disconcerting surprise.
"What's this? A bionic arm?"
It seems Ladd cannot jump. Perhaps the recipient of a crippling birth defect, Ladd's feet never voluntarily leave the ground without aid. It may sound like the recipe for a terrible game, but after running around swinging from platform to platform for a few minutes, you'll wonder why Mario and Sonic hadn't had cybernetic limbs grafted onto them as well. Ladd can pull himself up to platforms directly over his head, swing back and forth like a monkey to knock enemies out of your way, or he can hurtle over gaps by letting go in mid-swing. The play control is so tight, it becomes very natural quite quickly.
Another high point of the game is the non-linear stage pregression. Ladd can pilot his helicopter around the map screen, descending upon any battlefield within range. Most areas are enemy-infested encampments, while a few are considered "neutral zones." These zones allow Ladd to talk to the various townsfolk (both friend and foe) and gather items for his journey. Picking up the flares in level 13, for instance, will enable Ladd to brighten up the dark caves of area 4. The blue communicator, found early on in the game, will let you talk to your commanding officers near the end.
At the end of each stage is a unique boss, be it a platoon of endlessly-generating soldiers or a gigantic (yet stupid) flying robot. The object of the boss room is not to beat the boss, however. You must destroy the power generator behind them. Only then will you move on to your next destination. As an added bonus, the completion of each stage will also garner you new weapons and armor.
18 stages, 13 bosses, and 11 blown power generators later, you're treated to one of the most dramatic endings ever seen, as Ladd runs back into the flaming enemy base to make sure Joe is safe. What one is left with is a sense of awe and accomplishment, and the want to do it all over again. I was blown away the first time I ever played this game way back in 1988, and I'm amazed that it still holds it's own against the 128-bit action titles of today. If you've never tried Bionic Commando before, do yourself a favor: hunt it down, pick it up, and give it a try. You'll thank me later.
My score: 9.5\10.