The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 3 | Terra battle

Not only is the game not over once the mystery creature locked in ice explodes ??????’s Magitek device, we’re not even done with the prologue.

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The girl awakens in a cozy bed with a guy described in the dialogue as “old man” watching over her. He doesn’t look that old, but I realize that most JRPG protagonists are young enough that they’re still waiting for their first tufts of body hair to sprout. By that standard, this guy has a foot and a half in the grave. (?????? herself is a bit of a doddering old-timer, too; according to her official bio, she’s an elderly 18 years old… though, to be fair, FFVI‘s extensive cast of characters has a much higher median age than most games of its ilk.)

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?????? tumbles out of bed, but before she can stumble to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of ambition, she gets dizzy (with a neat technical touch: The Super NES’s Mode 7 mosaic effect renders the world a blur, as if her eyesight were failing) and falls to her knees. But it’s fine. It’s not like this house has a kitchen anyway.

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At this point, the old man reveals he has removed the Slave Crown that rendered ?????? a mindless puppet, and she finds enough clarity of mind to recall her own name. Her default moniker is Terra (full name: Terra Branford), and we’ll go with that for convenience. The first time I ever played through FFVI, I gave everyone Star Wars-related names that worked surprisingly well, but that’s neither here nor there.

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The plot must go on, though, and some very angry Narshe guardsmen bang on the door to the house of the old man who’s taken in Terra, demanding she be turned over them. Understandably, given that she just ripped through the center of the city, either poisoning or banishing to some alternate dimension all who stood in her way. Obviously, the “old” man can’t simply turn her over to be executed or tortured or both — Final Fantasy VI will go dark, but not that dark —so he tells her to sneak out through the back door.

So, finally, you’re given proper control of Terra. Just Terra; no soldiers giving her irresistible orders, no giant clumsy armor suit to steer around town. Just the girl. It’s time to get the heck out of Dodge.

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But not, of course, before poking around the guy’s house looking for treasure. It’s an RPG. Looting is what you do. For some reason every clock in FFVI contains an Elixir, a super-valuable restorative item that restores a character’s entire hit and magic points in one shot. At no point is this fact advertised in the game, but previous Final Fantasy titles have included interactive bits of scenery (wells, fireplaces, etc.) so veterans are conditioned to go poking around unlikely places.

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Still, even for the curious, there’s not much to be done at this point; you can’t go out through the front door, since it’s surrounded by guards and dogs, and the old man’s house is pretty small. So it’s out the back way, where Terra is barely visible behind the house. You can only walk to the left, which leads you across a linear bridge to a cave. Despite having been liberated, Terra is still advancing along a fixed route at this point in the game.

It’s not a very discreet route, either. Exposed on the bridge, she’s spotted by a gaggle of guards, who freak out and disperse to lend a sense of urgency to the scenario.

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There’s nowhere to advance but into the caves behind the city, though you enter them from a different point than during your initial approach into the city. The caves here look familiar, but they’re much more constrictive — this is an area the Magitek armors wouldn’t have been able to explore. Even so, despite the appearance of branching paths here, there’s really only one way through the caves.

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Eventually, Terra will be drawn into more random battles. This time around they work a bit differently. Because there’s only one of her, and she’s not clomping around in a death machine, battles have somewhat higher stakes. You’d still have to make an utter mess of things to lose here. The fights do take longer, though; Terra is the only party member you have on hand, so you can only attack when her turn comes up. She’s not initially strong enough to take out a Wererat with a single hit, so it takes a couple of turns to wipe out an enemy formation.

Alternately, though, you can make use of Terra’s Fire spell, which can easily take out a Wererat in one hit. However, you only have a finite amount of magic points with which to cast spells, and unless you took the Elixir from the clock there’s no way to replenish them. Different games have different ways of handling level-ups; some replenish all your attributes when you ding a new level, others don’t. FFVI is the latter type.

As for the possibility of losing, I suppose if you tried to grind for levels, you’d eventually run out of MP for casting Cure… but even so, Wererats and all the other enemies that appear here have a good chance of dropping Potions when defeated, so it would be a while before Terra ran out of healing items. In short, this is a somewhat more stressful and urgent-seeming scenario than the Magitek-powered fights, but you still aren’t in terrible danger.

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Speaking of leveling up and item drops, it’s worth mentioning the information that flashes at the end of a battle. By this point in the game, Terra has probably leveled up a couple of times; Wedge and Biggs leveled up during the mandatory fights as well, given that they were working from Level 1. The game doesn’t explain this element (at least not yet), but battles end by giving you a brief report on what you’ve earned for your victory. At this point in the game, you receive one perk —EXP — and possibly another — item drops — after vanquishing an enemy formation.

EXP, or experience, is an invisible statistic that characters accumulate as they complete battles. Different enemies are worth different degrees of EXP, and the EXP you earn at the end of a battle is divided by the number of characters conscious at the end of the fight. Terra here, fighting solo, is keeping all the EXP earned from those Wererats all her own. When she fought alongside those two soldiers, though, each character only earned 14 EXP from a battle like this (42 divided by three). After accumulating sufficient EXP, a character jumps up to a new level, which brings with it the possibility of statistical increases. A mechanic introduced about a quarter of a way into the game will add a great deal of nuance to this rule, but for now the important thing is kill enemies, get EXP, become stronger.

The other thing that sometimes happens at the end of a battle is the acquisition of item drops. Here in the caves of Narshe, the only drops you’ll acquire are Potions, which restore 50 HP to a single character. Most enemies carry items and have a random chance of dropping them upon defeat, and those items go into the party’s collective inventory for use by anyone.

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Even if the only loot you can score here is Potions, the variety of enemies you get them from expands in this zone. Whereas I’ve only ever seen Wererats in the Magitek portions, here you can also encounter Bandits and Spritzers. While fairly simple to take down, these enemies have their own odd traits. They don’t absorb Poison like Wererats do, but Bandits inexplicably smack themselves with the wrenches they carry if you damage them (creating the possibility that they’ll commit suicide in the process). If you deal the final blow, they’ll toss a wrench at you instead. It’s a strange enemy, and an introduction to some of the oddball enemy logic in FFVI.

Spritzers, on the other hand, are only annoying if you let them attack for a while. Their first few actions in a battle may be either a light physical attack or the decision to do nothing at all, but on their third ATB turn they’ll use an ability on Terra that inflicts the Slow status effect. This causes her outline to glow white, and, more annoyingly, for her ATB recharge speed to slow way down. In these battles, where Terra is the only party member, that means Slow status causes battles to take much longer (and for enemies to have more opportunities to attack) as you get fewer turns. Fortunately, most status effects clear up after battle; Slow is one of them. As long as you see a fight through to the end, Terra will return to normal for the next fight.

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A treasure chest located very slightly off the main path beckons you. You really can’t miss it; it’s sitting right there. While the bridge to the left is the obvious path forward, this little raised alcove with the chest on it serves to clue you in to the fact that it’s worth diverging from the path ahead to explore.

Of course, a Phoenix Down — which you use in battle to revive a fallen comrade — doesn’t do much good when your party consists entirely of one person (you can’t use Phoenix Downs on yourself, because they only work on the dead, and you can’t use items when you’re dead). But it’s a valuable find, costing far more than a Potion, and at this early portion of the game seems like a legitimate treasure.

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Once over the bridge and into the next room, however, your path forward comes to a dead stop: The four guardsmen who spotted you before hem Terra in, backing her into a corner. The floor conveniently falls away beneath Terra, and she plummets to a lower level of the caves — falling to advance the plot being one of the Final Fantasy team’s favorite narrative tricks in the mid-’90s — before blacking out.

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It’s also a convenient excuse for a flashback; as Terra fades from consciousness, her stolen memories return. In a nice touch, we see the battle Wedge and Biggs referred to before the credit crawl: Terra wiping out an entire regiment of Imperial Soldiers in her Magitek armor. A man in Magitek joins the battle and eggs her on, laughing at the carnage.

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Said man appears in another flashback, along with a man and woman we don’t yet know, as a legion of soldiers salutes the emperor, Gestahl, while Terra stands mutely in the background next to a Magitek suit. The amnesia gag has become all too common in Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, but here it’s a element used only briefly as an excuse to introduce Terra as a point-of-view character for the player while feeding us a bit of the game’s backstory. For each new factor we see elucidated — Terra’s robotic slaughter of the soldiers, the Empire’s plans for world domination through Magitek — new questions arise. Who was the man in the Magitek, and who are the people standing next to him? What’s the deal with Terra? And will she recover from her blunt trauma so soon after having the Slave Crown removed? FFVI does a great job of introducing both its play mechanics and its driving narrative in unison.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 2 | The continuing adventures of ??????

For newcomers to the role-playing genre, Final Fantasy VI‘s opening could be fairly disorienting, I imagine. Your little robot guys start walking, then some tiny people run up to you. The screen freaks out as a crunchy sound effect plays and all of a sudden you’re in a different place with intense music playing and barely animated sprites wobbling while numbers fly up. Square kindly made the fight through Narshe a gentle affair, with few threats and a sense of progression as you make your march up the screen. All battles here are scripted, and they’re not random: Each battle is initiated by a small character sprite that makes contact with your party leader. First, you fight one dog, then two soldiers, then two dogs, then two more soldiers. You can paste these guys in no time.

However, on your fifth fight, you start to see a little more of the combat system’s nuance when a pincer attack begins.

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Your party shifts from its usual spot on the right side of the screen to the center, while enemy sprites surround your characters on either side. If you’ve gotten into the habit of using ??????’s Bio Blast attack, which hits multiple targets, you’ll discover that you’re now only able to target one column of enemies or the other; you can’t multi-target both groups of enemies. Which makes sense. You’d hit your own party there in the middle.

This also confers a few other disadvantages onto you. Enemies get initiative when they pincer your party, meaning their ATB gauges are full at the battle’s outset, giving them the ability to make the first strike. The party’s ATB meters, which usually start out full (or nearly so), begin nearly empty in this fight. Also, the idea of rows — which admittedly you haven’t explored as of yet in FFVI — go out the window in the event of a pincer ambush. Normally, characters in the back row stand further away from the enemy and are less likely to become targets of attacks, and suffer less damage from most physical attacks. When you’re surrounded, the squishy back-row types become every bit as exposed to danger as the front-row warriors. Obviously, this is not an ideal combat scenario.

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Still, the challenge posed Narshe’s sad little provincial soldiers is so negligible as to be a non-factor, and you’ll easily stomp through even the pincer ambush. The fight through town is fairly brief, especially with the threat level here at about nil, and there’s no way to move but forward. With the introductory battles out of the way, your team reaches the caves and the game proper begins.

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While you still can’t deviate from the path inside the caves — the branching route denoted by the mine cart tracks to the right runs through an aperture that once again you Magitek armor proves too bulky to clear — the battles are no longer scripted here. Instead, the game shifts over to random battles. Rather than presenting you with enemy sprites to initiate fights, FFVI simply makes them happen when- and wherever. Every step you take brings with it the probability that it will cause your party to enter battle. Foes are “invisible” compared to the soldiers in the town, though there are still a few scripted encounters in the caves.

The one branch you can explore here appears almost immediately to your left, where an obtrusive glowing spot on the floor of an alcove begs your attention. This is a save point, an opportunity to record your progress in the midst of a combat scenario. The game offers to explain this mechanic here, though there’s very little chance you’ll need to reload your progress here in the caves. The important thing to know is that normally you can only save your data while on the world map. Save points offer the exception to that rule, giving you a chance to record in the midst of exploration. These appear fairly infrequently, but they’re not too hard to miss given the way they shine and pulse in the darkness.

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The caves introduce a new kind of enemy, Wererats. I don’t know if these are men who turn into rats or rats who turn into wolves or what, but in any case they aren’t any more threatening than the guards you’ve already pasted. However, they do have an interested attribute that you may or may not notice, depending on your tactics: They absorb poison. If you’ve been leaning on the crowd-control capabilities of the Bio Blast weapon, this can come as quite a surprise. Rather than vanished abruptly upon being Bio Blasted, the Wererats instead take what would normally be the damage value of the beam and convert it into life-giving healing power.

Elemental absorption will become a more important factor later in the game, and there’s no mention of these creatures’ capability. I suspect they were given their poison-absorption attribute as a way to clue players who decided to spam every encounter with the Bio Blast into the fact that you can’t simply steamroll the game with a single action. (Well, not in theory, anyway.) The one group attack your prologue party possesses is completely useless here. Worse than useless, actually; it helps the enemy. So you need to mix things up, see.

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After a hopeless last-ditch effort by the Narshe watch to halt your advance, they roll out their heavy hitter. It’s… a giant snail. Ymir, the whelk, maintains a Final Fantasy tradition: It has a defensive cycle that the game makes a big deal of, then rarely uses again. In this case, Ymir offers two targets, its head and its shell. So, again, you can’t use the Bio Blast, because it will hit both targets, and if the shell takes damage, Ymir does this:

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…striking one or all the party members with a powerful retaliatory lightning strike that hits for about half the target’s max HP. It’s by far the most deadly attack in this portion of the game, though as the in-combat dialogue warns you, it only happens if you strike the shell.

However, like the Mist Dragon in Final Fantasy IV, Ymir has a tendency to switch to a combat form that leaves you with only the “bad” target. When it withdraws its head, you can’t attack without taking far more relative damage than you deal. You’re given a brief warning that it’s about to transform (the snail grumbles some wordless dialogue first), and once that happens all you can really do is wait. Or, if you get sloppy and attack after the shell has retreated, you can use this lull to heal up.

In other words, the point here is that you can’t simply press the attack at all times. Some enemies, especially bosses, have more complex battle patterns that require some manner of tactics and patience to overcome. This is made something of a lie by the fact that FFVI’s mechanics are so easy to abuse as to render the whole idea of difficulty or tactics moot, but their heart’s in the right place.

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Something else worth noting is that ?????? doesn’t simply have more Magitek commands than her Imperial companions; she has more battle commands, period. If you choose Magic from the combat menu, you can either cast Fire or Cure. These are made almost entirely moot by the Magitek armor, though if you care to experiment you’ll find spells have a level of versatility lacking in the machine-powered abilities: You can switch targeting fields with spells (turning offensive ability against allies or healing foes), and Cure can be multi-targeted if you know the trick.

This may not seem like a big deal now, and it definitely has no value against Ymir, but those Wererats offer a handy test bed for this power. As you might suspect from their affinity for poison and the fact that they slowly shed HP if you let them live long enough, they’re afflicted with the undead status… which means Cure actually inflicts damage against them. Again, this sequence is such a cakewalk there’s no need to stumble across this fact. But it’s there for experienced players to tinker with.

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Eventually, your brainwashed witch and her handlers reach their goal, which appears to be a creature frozen in a chunk of ice.

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Sadly, it’s not Captain America. But it does make short work of the obvious bad guys you’ve been parading around with for the past 20 minutes. It zaps them with electricity, causing Wedge and then Biggs to vanish into thin air (please ask for a copy of my 10,000-word fan theory manifesto on how this interaction caused them to be endlessly reincarnated in search of karma to make up for their actions here).

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It has something different in mind for ??????, however. Rather than causing her to vanish, it begins to resonate in sync with her before causing a massive explosion that causes the screen to fade to white. Game over…?

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 1 | Slave 4 U

Twenty years ago this week I drove across town to the nearest Target one afternoon as soon as my classes were out. My goal: The Super NES game case, where a brand new release was on sale. I’d seen it advertised in late-night MTV commercials, of all things, and the gushing EGM review from a couple of weeks before had me absolutely champing at the bit to play. Final Fantasy III was going to be amazing, I could just tell.

And I was right. I didn’t know about the series’ torrid history, the fact that this was properly Final Fantasy VI and that we’d missed the episode between this and Final FantasyII.” What I did know is that for the first time, a “proper” RPG felt as lively and engrossing and breezily fun as an action RPG, like Zelda, or SoulBlazer, or this game’s spiritual predecessor Secret of Mana, which I had freebased the previous winter. It looked great. The story was phenomenal by the standards of the medium. The music was amazing. And there was so much stuff to do!

The big, heavily hyped game of fall 1994 was Donkey Kong Country, which I dutifully preordered and commenced playing after finishing FFIII. But I only made it about halfway through the comparatively brief platformer before my interest faded and I longed to experience Final Fantasy again. I bought the official guide and made use of Gau’s Rage checklist. I bought the official U.S. release of the three-disc soundtrack at a preposterous premium mail-order price. I beat FFIII again and again, and began making use of that newfangled thing called the “world wide web” to read more about it and other games like it.

How did a game like this manage to take a casual RPG dilettante like myself and turn him into a fanatic for the genre? This was the turning point for me, the moment at which I rounded a corner from “kind of interested in RPGs but not really sure if they were my thing” to “pretty much fixated on them.” In this series, we’ll look at the whys and wherefores… because I’m certainly not the only one on whom Final Fantasy III, or rather VI, had such an effect.

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A note on versioning here: This series will be based on the Final Fantasy VI Advance remake from 2007 for several reasons. One, the actual mechanical changes TOSE applied to this version corrected a lot of unintended glitches and bugs in the Super NES game (such as evasion not working properly). Two, while the localization lacks a certain punchiness that the original offered, it brings the game’s naming conventions — spells, summoned creatures, equipment, items — in line with series standards, which makes it easier for me to explain the relationship FFVI has with its predecessors. Three, the meaningful content changes are all fairly easy to isolate and have no real impact on the design of the original release, and it’s not like you can hear the downgraded music in this blog. And four, my screen grabs of FFVI running via RetroN 5 look much cleaner than my screen grabs of FFIII running on Wii Virtual Console.

Ideally, I would have started from Final Fantasy and worked my way up to this point, but today is FFVI‘s 20th anniversary in the U.S. I thought it merited a bit of birthday indulgence, you know?

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FFVI doesn’t wait around; whether you start a new game or let the attract mode run, you’re treated to a prologue that sets up its backstory. Plot had always been an element of Final Fantasy, much more so than in its contemporary console RPGs, and each chapter of the series (besides V, I suppose) pushed the boundaries of in-game narrative a little further than the last. The exposition here goes beyond the introductions to FFIV and V, which were basically in-engine scripted dialogue sequences. This is something more.

FFVI pushes toward the sort of cut scenes that had done so much to spice up Sega CD and Turbo Duo RPGs, but the lack of high-capacity media actually kind of works in the game’s favor; rather than switching over to anime sequences that bear little resemblance to the game, FFVI instead sets the stage with specially adapted images and animations. A pan over a piece of scenery that only appears in the intro…

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A glimpse ahead at a futuristic city seemingly ripped straight from Blade Runner

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Eventually returning to the cliffside shown at the beginning, where the in-engine content kicks off in earnest. The narration and dialogue here set up the premise of the story: A war a millennium ago left the planet in tatters and seemingly purged all magic from the world. Civilization has rebuilt itself, but this time without magic; instead, humanity relies on technology.

We can see that here with the Magitek Armor the two soldiers and their companion ride. It uses machinery to simulate the effects of magic. We also learn that they use technology to enslave the girl who accompanies them, shackling her with something called a Slave Crown that renders her an obedient puppet and keeps her reputedly tremendous innate powers in check.

So: Magic, gone. Technology, dominant. Empire, not very nice. Girl, mysterious and powerful and effectively a robot. Town below, holds what appears to be a remnant of the war.

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And the trio advances on the town in the snowy valley as the credits roll.

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Once the city scrolls into view via Mode 7 and the staff receives its credits, the playable portion of the game begins at last. Despite the soldiers having both a mission and a purpose, the dialogue contrives to put the player in control of the green-haired girl: The soldiers, not particularly caring to risk their own lives, put their slave in the vanguard to bear the brunt of the city’s resistance. They call the shots, but you — as the girl — take the lead.

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A glance at the menu screen reveals a few items of interest. The soldiers, as you may have noticed in the introductory cut scene, are named “Biggs” and “Wedge,” a reference to Luke Skywalker’s pals in Star Wars. But Biggs and Wedge were the rebels, not soldiers for the Empire! Someone wasn’t paying much attention.

More significantly, they’re low-level grunts — level 1, to be precise — yet they’re more physically durable than the girl. The girl herself doesn’t even get a name, just a string of question marks; she’s a tool for the Empire, not a person. She has more combat experience than the soldiers, though; the 50 soldiers she reputedly fried in three minutes appear to have doled out enough EXP to take her to level 3. And despite magic no longer existing in the world, she somehow has magic points.

If you poke around through the menus, you’ll even find she has two magic spells listed under Abilities: Fire and Cure. This is entirely consistent with the opening dialogue; the soldiers referred to her as a “witch,” and it’s meant in the literal sense. Somehow, this puppet child knows magic.

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Your trio of troops (despite ?????? being put at point in the dialogue, the troop troupe is led and symbolized by Wedge — characters separate out from the lead sprite for conversations, then merge back into it when the action commences) is now free to march through the streets of Narshe. And when I say “free” I mean “limited to walking ahead on a straight path toward the goal at the back of the city.”

The map designers did some clever walling-off of a space that you won’t be able to explore until much later in the game, allowing you to move through a real area of the game but restricting how far afield you can go. The Magitek sprites are twice as large as normal character sprites, and they require twice as much clearance in the environment as well. While it looks like you can roam freely through Narshe, in fact every path branching off from the central street through town funnels you through a single-tile space, which prevents the armor from passing into the back streets of the city. There’s all kinds of cool weaponry on sale (and hidden!) here, but you can’t get to it, because you’re in giant hulking suits of armor.

Instead, you can only stomp straight up the screen. As you march, the trio is accosted by multiple groups of enemies — all predetermined, all easy, all designed to teach you the ropes of the combat system.

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Let’s talk about the combat system, then. The battles here grow progressively more complex, beginning with a pair of weak soldiers (meaning you outnumber and greatly overpower your foes) and adding new permutations with each fight. Fans of Final Fantasy will feel right at home here, but for a newcomer…

The first thing the console gamers in my life always remarked on the first time they played Final Fantasy or other turn-based RPGs is that you don’t do anything. Which is to say, there’s a level of abstraction between yourself and the characters you control. Because you command a party of warriors rather than an individual, the 1-to-1 input-to-output element of an action game disappears as a matter of necessity. Recent Final Fantasy titles bear this out; the series abandoned turn-based combat beginning with Final Fantasy XI, and every numbered entry from that point puts you in command of a party in name only, if that. FFXI and XIV, being MMOs, have an easier time getting away with this — the other party members are other people. Final Fantasy XII (whose combat system was designed by FFVI co-director Hiroyuki Itou) automated the processes, giving you direct control over one character at a time while allowing you to program the behavior of inactive party members. Meanwhile, using the single-character control option in Final Fantasy XIII was missing the point; it was better to work at the tactics level, adjusting your party’s configuration on the fly and allowing them to perform appropriate commands based on their new role and the current situation. And Final Fantasy XV is straight-up an action game, with the promise of a one-button interface.

Not Final Fantasy VI, though. As the first battle begins, your party lines up on the right side of the screen opposite intricate, static renditions of your foes. At the bottom of the screen, a cursor hovers over you command options. Nothing happens at first, which can be confusing if you don’t understand how the system is supposed to work: It’s just a bunch of people staring each other down. Eventually, though, one of the enemy soldiers will flash and shake, causing a slashing effect to appear over one of the character sprites to the right (which results in some numbers popping up over the afflicted party).

The differentiation in art style between your party and the bad guys helps you bridge the connection more quickly; your combat sprites make use of the same character graphics that appear in exploration mode and cutscenes, so you can look at the battle situation and immediately recognize the fact that the little people you were walking around with are the ones at the right side of the screen. They’re “you.” This is actually a pretty big design leap for Final Fantasy VI; previous Final Fantasy titles used different sprites in battle than on the world map. But you’ve already seen these character sprites chatting about the plot several times over the past 10 minutes, so it’s much easier to grasp the nature of these encounters and your role in them at a glance.

Functionally, FFVI’s battles work much like any turn-based RPG, with protagonists and enemies alternating their actions by turns. The player selects all commands from a series of menus and then chooses a target: An enemy for offensive actions, a fellow party member for cures or buffs. There are other variants on these commands — multi-targeting, or even using the “wrong” type of command on the “wrong” side of the battle lines, e.g. healing enemies — but those don’t come into play now; for these early encounters in Narshe, the Magitek armor limits you to a very fixed array of skills without the ability to explore more advanced targeting abilities.

Although the battle system doesn’t offer an overt tutorial of any sorts, everything is presented visually. The active party member steps forward and waits until you issue them their commands with the menu at the bottom of the screen. A simple cursor (a pointing finger that stands out on the semi-realistic battlefield for its slightly comical appearance, which also ties it in with the squat little cartoon sprites of your party as “alien” elements of the tableau) allows you to pick your actions and then select a target for the command you’ve selected. And then the cursor switches to the next party member in line. When you inflict damage, numbers pop out of the target(s). When you take damage, the number that appear atop your character correspond to the numbers that are deducted from their hit points in the menu below. Other factors, like magic points for casting spells, appear conditionally when you need to see them.

The big difference between 16-bit Final Fantasy‘s combat system and traditional turn-based mechanics is that the turns have a real-time element to them. The Active-Time Battle system, as it’s called, came into effect with Final Fantasy IV, and FFVI refines it over and above the improvements made in Final Fantasy V. Rather than turns playing out per side, every character has his or her own individual statistic that determines the frequency with which they can act. On the player’s side, you can see this depicted individually as a small gauge beside each party member’s health tally, which slowly begins to fill after that character performs an action. Once the gauge tops out again, that party member becomes active and steps forward to wait for a command.

You don’t get to see enemy turn gauges, but they operate under the same rules and limitations as the party. Before the ATB came along, a character’s Speed rating determined the number of attacks they could perform per turn, which got kind of ridiculous when you had someone dishing out 32 punches per round. Here, Speed simply determines how quickly a fighter get his or her next turn. Slightly complicating matters is the fact that despite everyone having “turns,” the action doesn’t pause or freeze while you choose your commands (even if you elect to use Wait mode, which only impedes enemy actions while a command menu is active). So you can’t really afford to take a lot of time to pick an action, because the enemy will be happy to dish out punches while you muddle about with menus.

It’s a lot to take in, but FFVI does a good job of rolling these things out slowly in a fairly non-threatening manner. Your party members can take a lot of abuse, and every enemy goes down in a single attack. Because you’re stomping around in suits of magical armor, right? It makes sense. And every character comes equipped with Heal Beam, which does exactly what it sounds like: It heals one of your party members for about five times their current max hit points.

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It’s worth noting the disparity between the Imperial soldiers and ??????. While Biggs and Wedge have four possible commands — besides Heal Beam, there are three attack options that reflect the three main elemental forces of Final Fantasy magic — the girl has access to four additional commands. These are basically overkill, since any attack will take out the bad guys. But besides underlining the idea that ?????? is something special in combat, capable of using twice as many Magitek commands as the standard grunts, these spells also give you a chance to mess around with other combat effects.

Banisher, for example, simply removes an enemy from battle; there’s no HP damage registered, the target simply disappears. Confuser introduces a status effect, causing an afflicted foe to become muddled and attack its own allies. Magitek Missile is the sole physical (that is, non-beam) ability available in these early encounters, a single-hit projectile that is ludicrously powerful compared to the other actions. And then there’s Bio Blast…

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…which hits the entire enemy party with a wave of psychedelic light. Not only is this the one multi-target attack you have access to here, introducing the idea of hitting the entire enemy party in a single action, it also hints at another of Final Fantasy‘s long-running “effective typing” mechanics. Bio Blast has a poison attribute, which makes it tremendously powerful against human foes. If you use this attack in one of the follow-up skirmishes that mixes human and non-human foes, you’ll find Bio Blast hits your human opponents much harder than the beasts. Not that it really matters since it’s a one-hit wipeout for every defender of Narshe, but nevertheless it’s a chance to play around with some of the game’s more advanced mechanics in a scenario where you’d have to make an active attempt to lose.

These first few minutes of the game neatly wrap exposition, exploration, and battle mechanics into a tidy little package that functions as a gameplay tutorial without being didactic about it. The narrative justifies the scenario quite effectively, giving you a reason for conflict, introducing one of the key cast members from an outsider perspective, setting up the history of the world and the combative (but by no means all-powerful) nature of the Empire, and excusing the fact that you completely steamroll the forces of Narshe. Along with the cinematic intro of the armored soldiers marching on Narshe in the snowy night, it adds up to an impressive beginning for a game that grabs both RPG fanatics and newcomers alike.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 15 | Bionic alternatives

We’re done with Bionic Commando now, and I’m very disappointed in you all for not reading it by the thousands, because this is a truly great game. I’ve always liked it, but after breaking it down stage-by-stage I see that it truly was masterfully crafted. Capcom created a platformer that broke the rules of platforming, and they did a remarkable job of nudging players in the proper direction. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not. But there’s a reason I was able to master the game my second time to play it, and it’s not because I’m some gaming savant; Bionic Commando is simply that thoughtfully designed.

While NES Bionic Commando stands at the pinnacle of the series in terms of raw design and inspiration, the entire series provides interesting perspective on this classic.

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The series began in arcades, where it clearly came into being as a follow-up to Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Same art style (definitely a Tokuro Fujiwara special), same stiff controls, same insane difficulty level. I’m almost positive they finished up development on GnG and said, “Alright, how can we make this even harder? Ah… let’s take away jumping.”

The arcade game had that sort of “ha ha, screw you” approach Capcom took to their arcade platformers, spamming you with all kinds of cheap deaths and overwhelming odds that often didn’t make for a very fun game experience. It’s not that it’s difficult so much as unbalanced, requiring considerable memorization and even then crammed with enough randomness that you’re still at the whims of the A.I.

The bionic arm in the arcade game really does feel like an evolution of Arthur’s jump: It’s a fussy, unfriendly way to get about, and once you initiate the action you’re committed to it. It doesn’t help that extending your arm at a 45-degree angle requires moving your controller in the same direction. The NES game would change the speed of grappling, the bionic arm’s ease of use, and the overall accessibility and balance of the action to properly realize the germ of brilliance hidden beneath so much awkwardness.

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The NES game was, as often happened with NES “versions” of arcade games, the only one of its kind for years. Bionic Commando came to a ton of other platforms, but it was always adaptations of the coin-op. Only the NES had what amounted to the sequel. That it, until 1992, when Capcom released Bionic Commando for Game Boy. Interestingly, this was the first time the Top Secret title didn’t appear on the Japanese version; Capcom was making a clear break from the series’ arcade origins, and it shows. Bionic Commando on Game Boy is a wonderfully faithful adaptation of the NES game.

The biggest change the Game Boy port makes is to completely reimagine the game’s setting; rather than being set in 1989, the story now transpires in a far-future century. As a result, the Hitler/Fourth Reich connection disappears completely as well. Despite the futurism and revisionism, though, this hews amazingly close to the NES game, scaled down and made monochrome but every bit as solid and playable as its source material.

The Game Boy Bionic Commando makes one other change that would be repeated in subsequent games: The Albatross weapon is no longer the size of a Metal Gear. It’s more like the Balrog fortress from Strider. Rather that existing as a single-screen battle, the Albatross comprises the entire final stage of the game. The spirit is much the same — there’s a deviously difficult sequence where you have to grapple along the bottom of the airship, suspended over nothingness, to reach the hangar where not-Hitler/not-Master-D is about to jet away. Not only is it the most nerve-wracking sequence in the entire game, it also calls back to the NES Albatros with its intermittently firing thrusters. A really fantastic rendition all around, that expands the finale to become something even better.

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And then there was Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, which I endorsed heartily upon launch, because 2000 was a lonely time for fans of 2D games. In hindsight, it’s OK, but it makes a lot of dumb design mistakes that were fairly common back then. Too much animation, too-large sprites. A weird sniper mode that popped up from time to time for no reason other than someone on the team MDK and was like, “Yes!”

That being said, it’s not bad. Less than a wholly new game, more than a remake, it walked a weird line between new and old without total success — but with some success, nevertheless. And it used the standalone Alabatross level, which was nice. Also: Female protagonist option! A first and only for the series. She wore leg warmers and dyed her hair pink. She was cool.

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Almost a decade later came Bionic Commando ’09, which… well, it did some interesting things. But it also used a lot of design shortcuts (invisible walls in the form of dangerous radiation zones if you dared stray from the intended path), and it suffered really badly from being a product of its times. The angry dreadlocked white dude protagonist was inexplicably supposed to be Captain Spencer, and doddering old Super Joe was now the bad guy. And then there was the whole Evangelion thing about the arm…. ugh.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the same team take another crack at the idea now that we’ve moved beyond the age of trying too hard. I’m pretty sure that without the grimdark patina and the cheap barriers, this could be a heck of a game. It almost was!

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And finally, there were the Rearmed games, the first of which was an almost perfect update of the NES game, absolutely bursting with love for the source material. Great music, lovely graphics, great new additions (I loved the little details, like your chopper pilot being a lady named Haley… who at the end took the role of Hal), improved bosses, a ton of optional challenge rooms. Just great stuff all around.

I guess that just leaves Rearmed 2, which I never played because it required an always-on Internet connection, and my PS3 and Xbox 360 were situated in a place that made that impossible. That’s not the case anymore, though, so I suppose it’s finally time to explore this untamed frontier. Even if they did give you the ability to jump. Ugh.

But that’s not next. No, next up is a game I’ve been dying to analyze since the start of this site. See you Monday. And thanks for the few of you who cared enough to read about Bionic Commando from start to finish! You’re the good ones.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 14 | Heil THIS

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This is the end, beautiful friend. All that swinging around like a loon and collecting bullets from the corpses of defeated foes in order to incorporate the strength of the dead into your own essence leads to this: Area 12, the Empire’s headquarters. A below-ground concrete bunker surrounded by concertina wire and fascist emblems.

Area 12 is not the most difficult stage in the game, but it definitely is the lengthiest and most complex.

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In fact, it’s so complex that your first radio communication consists of Super Joe (who is off blowing up bad guys in another portion of the base) tells you how you’ll need to get through to the end. A tutorial in this day and age!?

Your real goal in Area 12 is to descend to the most heavily protected portion of the Empire’s command post, a dozen floors underground. To get there, you need to travel down three different elevators across two separate zones. Elevators two and three are each protected behind impenetrable electrical barriers, and in order to break down the barriers you need to destroy their shield generators. These are the same generators you’ve been blowing up at the end of other Areas; the Empire’s base has several.

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You’ll find the shield generators located at the bottom of rooms branching off the main elevator shafts. You need to descend to the bottom of each while avoiding the electrical sparks that surge along the floor. Do you recognize this scene? You should, if you’ve been reading all the different Anatomy of Games series I’ve written. This is a definite reference to Donkey Kong Jr.

Just as Area 6 called back to the original Donkey Kong with its hulking soldiers tossing spiked balls that rolled downhill to impede your progress, here at the end Bionic Commando again throws out a winking nod to the series that invented platforming as a way of showing off its own unique variant on the genre by way of contrast. Where Junior simply needed to hop over the sparks that ran along the electrified floors in stage three of his game, Captain Spencer needs to take a more measured and cautious approach. You can’t simply run and jump here, meaning there’s no room for quick reactions; you have to tackle this sequence methodically, planning ahead for each surge and pulling yourself to safety.

The flow of these scenes therefore unfolds differently than it would in a different kind of platformer. It’s less about forward momentum and more about timing — of being willing to make slow forward progress as you play it safe. It’s a great little touch, a small reminder that, yes, Bionic Commando does things its own way, and that makes for a different game experience.

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The mid-stage power generators sit in much smaller rooms than the cores of previous stages. You need to bounce up to grapple the low ceiling in order to draw a bead on the generators, but these fights are pretty mild: One generator fires at you with a triple-spread weapon mounted above it, while the other is guarded by paratroopers. Depending on your weapon choice in Area 12, this can be over quickly or immediately; if you use a short-range gun like Joe’s Machine Gun, you need to move in closer to the generator. But if you’re still using the ol’ reliable Rocket Launcher, you can probably take out the core before its counterattack even makes it to where you’re hanging.

In any case, once you’ve taken out a core, you need to climb back up the Donkey Kong Jr. sequences — though this is a much quicker process than making your way down.

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With the barriers down, you simply need to swing over past these beam emitters that block the path. There are very few soldiers in this stage — these bionic troops are about it. It’s curiously light staffing for the enemy headquarters, but this is explained away by the fact that Joe is creating a murder-diversion while you take out the automated defenses.

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After clearing two elevator screens, two spark rooms, and two generator cores, you descend to the lowest level of the Empire’s inner sanctum. At this point they’re not even being subtle, with a low corridor lined by spikes to keep out unwanted intruders. By now, this is child’s play for a cool bionic commando like you, of course.

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And within the final room of the bunker, you once again encounter Generalissimo Killt, who recognizes you from your early encounter in the Neutral Area. He taunts you and says it’s no longer necessary to revive Master-D, since his engineers managed to get the “Albatros” superweapon functioning without the dead man’s help.

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Master-D, however, has other ideas, somehow electrocuting the general from within his Bacta tank.

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And in case you weren’t really clear on this whole “Master-D” thing, his dialogue portrait should help clear things up. He thanks Killt by murdering him, then sneers at your defiance, making his escape while setting the Albatros into motion.

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And this, then, is it. The focus of the entire game, the Fourth Reich’s scheme to complete Hitler’s ultimate WWII super weapon, the Albatros. The exact nature of the thing is hard to parse, but evidently there’s a large multi-barreled gun on its head. Maybe it fires mobile nuclear warheads from a rail gun or something.

In any case, I suspect what you’re seeing here is a sort of cutaway view, with the viewer-facing armored surfaces of the weapon having been removed in order to expose the interior element you’re meant to shoot at (the orange glowing semi-circle at the upper right). In other words, this is meant to be a threat only Captain Spencer can take care of, because the weapon’s weak core is heavily armored from the outside. Yes, the bad guys didn’t leave a weak point exposed for just anyone to see. They’ve broken the rules of video games.

So you, bionic commando, have to climb up inside the Albatros to where its vulnerable exhaust port is located. This is more easily said than done. The Albatros moves constantly back and forth while the seven rocket thrusters that evidently keep it aloft fire off in sequence. The core you need to target is only on-screen for a few seconds at a time, and the way the thrusters cycle means that the only points you can hang onto to aim at the core are often ignited; the thrusters are the only elements of the Albatros you can grasp, and the area directly ahead of the target consists of two thrusters. So you have to plan your approach to the core carefully to make sure you time your movements to avoid gouts of flame.

Once you manage to swing up to where the core is, it takes several shots with even the Rocket Launcher to destroy the thing, and you only have time for a single shot per cycle. God help you if you picked a less powerful weapon. To add to the trickiness, the Albatros is designed in such a way that you have to begin your approach from the small platform to the lower left very deliberately. If you stand too far forward as you start to ascend, you’ll actually swing upward in an arc that peaks too late to grab onto the thrusters at the top, wasting your effort.

It’s a lot to take in, and even though the Albatros consists entirely of passive danger — it doesn’t shoot at you, and no soldiers appear to take potshots, either — it requires careful timing and placement, not to mention the ability to make your approach with precision.

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Should you manage to persevere against the war machine, it explodes — but that’s not the end of Area 12. There’s still a zombie dictator to deal with, after all. The exit route leads to a hangar where you meet, at long last, Hal.

I haven’t mentioned Hal much in these write-ups, but if you go to the trouble of wire-tapping and communicating with the chopper crew in the latter stages of the game, you’ll hear multiple references to (and even speak directly with) a solider named Hal. Evidently he’s a bit of a rogue element; the chopper commander blurts something about how dangerous he is. And I suppose he is, at that, having stolen an advanced weapon prototype and inexplicably making his way into the heavily guarded hangar beyond Hitler’s oxygen tent.

It seems Der Führer took out Hal on his way to his escape route, but with his dying breath the soldiers hands off his stolen prize and tells you that Hitler’s helicopter is below, and that you can stop him only with a carefully placed shot into the vehicle’s cockpit.

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You get one shot at this as you swing over the edge and plummet past the nose of Hitler’s plane. Time your shot perfectly — it seems this super-gun fires the indestructible barrier element from the POW power-up, hence the wild-eyed descriptions of its force — and it sails into the chopper’s exposed canopy. Miss, and even the best gun in the game can’t dent the vehicle’s forward armor plating.

If you miss, you don’t have to wait long for a second chance. The chin turret on the chopper immediately opens fire, killing you instantly. How anticlimactic! Fortunately, you get another shot for as many lives as you have, respawning immediately before talking to Hal. If you have to continue, you still resume here in the hangar rather than being forced to fight through Area 12 again.

But really, this is a perfect climax for the game, really and truly driving home the unique nature of its mechanics. In other platformers, jumping and shooting is the order of the day; here, you can’t do that. You climb, drop, and then shoot. This is the ultimate example of that style in action.

And if you do make the shot…

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Gross. This was quite a shock back in the squeaky clean NES days, lemme tell ya.

Oh, but even after making Hitler’s brain thoroughly ineligible for preservation in a jar, the game still isn’t over. Bionic Commando takes one last page from another Nintendo platformer and forces you to manage a Metroid-like timed escape up a vertical shaft. You have 60 seconds to climb out of the hangar. No problem, right?

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Right, except for this guy. The enemy pits you against one last Robocop dude (who, for all I know, is meant to be the same guy you’ve faced before, revived over and over as your rival). He blocks the exit route, patrolling a stretch of ground that breaks the upward verticality of your ascent. You’re forced to deal with him… though how you go about that is at your discretion.

You can deal with him directly, taking the time to put a bazooka round or three in his face. You can try to avoid him, zipping up and past before he has a chance to thwart your advance. Or you can actually use his attack pattern to your advantage, allowing him to grab you and draw you in, then using the recoil you take from suffering damage to bring you closer to the upper platform and pulling yourself quickly out of his range. By this point, you’ve dealt with this guy enough to know his patterns and how best to cope with them… provided you don’t let the rolling countdown numbers rattle you.

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Once you reach the end of the escape route, Captain Spencer realizes that Super Joe is still inside and turns back around to retrieve him. Fortunately at this point the game is over and everything plays out automatically… though, coincidentally, the next title we’ll look at in Anatomy of Games uses this idea for an actual play mechanic.

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And we have the obligatory “enemy base EXPLOD” ending so popular among NES games. Contra, Metal Gear, Ninja Gaiden, the Castlevanias… actually, those are mostly Konami games. No wonder people always mix up Capcom and Konami. The big C was biting off the other studio’s style here.

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And we learn the events of Bionic Commando took place in what was, in 1988, the near-future. I believe that the date numeration there is meant to suggest you saved the world on the 4th of July. Patriotic!

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And just to make you feel mortal, it turns out the entirety of the game came from Super Joe’s memoirs now that he is, as he says himself, old. Breaking the classified seal on the time they re-killed Hitler because he’s all wrinkly like Clint Eastwood and to hell with the consequences.

This framing device, though? It was set four years ago. Yep. Joe is probably dead now. And soon, we will be too.

But before we go to the great beyond, let’s reconvene tomorrow to share one final short piece on Bionic Commando.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 13 | Top secret

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Area 11 is as colorful and bright as Area 10 was dim; rather than the Empire’s sewers, this appears to be its furnace. You’ll meet a few human enemies here, but the real challenge comes from the need to perform non-stop advanced grappling in order to proceed. For instance, the level begins with a moving platform, which you might think you need to ride to get to the next area. This is incorrect, however. The real route forward is to grapple up to the ceiling and perform multiple consecutive swings. The added wrinkle of complexity here comes from the fact that the ceiling rises higher and higher in small increments, meaning you need to time your swings perfectly to keep from missing a grab and falling into the flames below.

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And even if you don’t fall into the flames, you need to deal with the Empire’s boxers. I feel like this guy was probably inspired by the boxing Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Screwing up in this portion doesn’t necessarily have to prove fatal; if you hit the flames, Captain Spencer will lose a portion of life and rebound in a short arc, losing more health and bouncing each time he strikes the fire. That small moving platform is placed in a way that you might actually bounce onto it. A weird little touch of saving grace.

Once you move beyond the ascending opening section, the platform layout opens considerably with a scattered array of small footholds dotted with those springs that send you flying into the air. While it may seem you can reach the second half of the area however you like, in truth every possible route leads you upward and funnels you through a set of unique grappling points that only appear in this one area: A quartet of small orange spheres that work like the spotlights you’ve had to deal with in previous stages. They’re all close-set and require you to grapple up to their top side and grab onto the ceiling to resume swinging before you slip off their rounded, unstable edges. Of course, you’ve dealt with this mechanic before, possibly as recently as Area 7, but the new look of the environmental objects gives it a slightly different flavor.

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If you manage to make the ascent to the upper portion of Area 11, beyond the small slippery spheres, you’ll find yourself dealing with… more of the same, it turns out. Like the opening sequence, the back half of the stage consists of a lengthy stretch of open flame, and your only means of traversing it is to snag onto the ceiling at the start and steadily grapple your way forward as the ceiling itself rises.

As an extra little mean-spirited tweak, there are a few open spots in the floor so that if you miss a grab you may end up falling back down to the where those orange spheres were, forcing you to start over again.

The furnace in this section isn’t totally exposed here; there’s a fair amount of flooring built slightly above the flames. However! All the platforms have tiny gaps in them, which Captain Spencer can’t jump. In any other platformer, the challenge here would be practically non-existent, because you could just hop over the openings. Here at the end, the game likes to give you little reminders that its platforming mechanics work a little differently than other games of the format.

The final stretch of the stage requires you to launch yourself over the flames and grab onto a low-hanging structure at the peak of your flight. If you’re very clumsy, but very lucky, you might end up being bounced back onto the platform by damage recoil. But maybe not. It’s your final test before moving along to the endgame.

With this final stage completed, you’re free at last to move along to Area 12 (which is to say, the rather arbitrary warning about not having enough power no longer pops up when you attempt to move across the map). Before we do, though, it’s worth discussing the Japanese Famicom version of Bionic Commando for a moment.

In Japan, Bionic Commando wasn’t called Bionic Commando; in the arcade, it was called Top Secret. The American localization drew the line between this game and Super Joe’s previous adventure, Commando, a connection that didn’t overtly exist in Japan. Over there, Commando is Senjou no Ookami, or “Wolf of the Battlefield.” It’s possible the game’s designers intended it as a connected title, given that Super Joe was the hero of both games, but in that case the weird top-down racer The Speed Rumbler is part of this series as well. I don’t even know.

Anyway, the home version of Bionic Commando is really properly meant as a sequel to the arcade title; despite some similarities in mechanics and level design, it’s really an entirely different game. And of course, Super Joe is a captive rather than the hero. As such, the Japanese version of the game has a subtitle to set it apart from the coin-op original:

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Top Secret: Hittoraa no Fukkatsu. That is, “The Revival of Hitler.” In other words, the game’s big plot twist isn’t even a secret… nor is the fact that you’re fighting the return of the Nazi army, their hopes pinned on bringing their suicidal Führer back to life.

In America, of course, squeamish Nintendo decided it wouldn’t do to have the biggest real-world villain of the 20th century as the villain of a video game, so they renamed him Master-D. I genuinely have no idea why they settled on that name, or if there’s some underlying meaning to it. The Nazis also enjoyed a name change to the “Badds,” because I suppose there’s no such thing as being too on-the-nose in this world of ours. Interestingly, the instruction manual for the NES game appears to have been drafted before the final localization changes took place, as it refers to the “Nazz” army.

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Image source

In-game, the Japanese visuals aren’t terribly shy about the nature of the bad guys, either: Swastikas appear in many places throughout the game, growing more and more prevalent the further you venture into the heart of the Empire. In the U.S. version, these are simply eagles.

This doesn’t present a meaningful change to the game itself; Bionic Commando still plays almost exactly like Top  Secret, minus a few tweaks to the design of stages and hazards here and there. However, the Japanese version is far more straightforward about the nature of its story, which means you’re aware of the stakes from the outset. In the American version, you kind of have to piece it together at the end. I mean, when Hitler himself starts ranting at you, you get the point. But the whitewashing (or whatever you’d call it when you remove white supremacists from the picture) of the American release lends the experience a different feel altogether.

Anyway, it’s moot now, because all that’s left in this series is to blow up Hitler.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 12 | Loose ends

Once you’ve rescued Super Joe, he mentions a guy called Destroyer-3 in Area 18. This answers one of the weirder questions of the game, which is, “What’s with all those ‘Destroyer’ dudes in Area 18?”

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If you happen to enter Area 18 before completing Area 7 and rescuing Joe, you’ll find these three guys — Destroyer-1, Destroyer-2, and Destroyer-3 — who ask if you have any need for a machine gun. But if you say yes, the other two Destroyers will vanish, and the room they stand next to will be empty… unless you skip the first two Destroyers and talk to Destroyer-3, who will cause a machine gun (the final selectable weapon of the game) to appear in the room he guards.

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As it turns out, this is Joe’s person weapon, which for some reason he entrusted to some serially numbered guy in a random Neutral Area. This could help explain why Joe got his sorry butt captured. In any case, Joe’s gun works like an amplified version of the Wide Gun you acquired back at the beginning of the game; instead of simply firing a trio of bullets, it fires a spray of five in a raking arc similar to the spread of the Wide Gun. It has roughly the same range as the Wide Gun, so you’ll probably have to do a coin flip over whether or not it’s actually more effective in combat than the Rocket Launcher, but at short range it’s incredibly powerful. Enemies don’t really have recovery invincibility, so they take the full spray of five bullets and go down fast. It’s especially handy for fighting those giant cyborgs who have to be shot in the face, since it lets you hit them without having to grapple up and time a shot as you drop.

You can actually acquire the machine gun before Super Joe, if you know to talk to Destroyer-3. This makes the rescue of Super Joe in Area 7 much, much easier… but of course your first time through the adventure, you wouldn’t acquire the weapon except through dumb luck.

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The one place in which the Machine Gun rises indubitably above all other weapons is in the top-down zones. Since enemies tend to cluster and approach from oblique angles (as opposed to the platformer levels, where most encounters happen in cardinal directions), its spread of bullets does a brilliant job of crowd control. The other spread weapons are also useful, but they lack the stopping power and sheer offensive presence of Joe’s weapon.

This makes sense, of course. The top-down zones work as a callback to Commando, which was of course Super Joe’s best-known adventure. Obviously he would have a gun that’s particularly effective in that sort of scenario.

There’s one last loose end to be wrapped up before advancing into the Empire’s inner sanctum: One of the hidden tunnels that was revealed by an agent in one of the latter Neutral Areas contains a Helmet at its far end. If you collect this, it works as an upgrade to the cross (please do not ask about the theological ramifications of this), deflecting three bullets instead of just one. It’ll soon be obsolete, but hey.

The hidden tunnels also feature the Empire’s final attempt at replicating the bionic commando program: The enemies carrying the Eagle logo that grants Captain Spencer the ability to continue upon dying take the form of bionic officers. They don’t do much besides swing their bionic arm around, though this can be a huge inconvenience as their arms have significant range and work just like your own arm does in these top-down encounters. Still, like all the Empire’s augmented troopers, these guys fail to fully replicate the full bionic commando package and go down pretty easily.

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With Super Joe rescued, the road to the final trio of stages opens at last. But, once again, one area remains closed to access: Area 12, the final level of the game. In order to open it up, you need to conquer Areas 10 and 11. At this point, though, you’ve forged your skills in the fires of hell. These zones feel like a joke compared to Areas 6 and 7.

Which isn’t to say they can’t still surprise; even at this late stage in the game, there are still new threats to be discovered. Area 10 begins with a small army of roving laser cannons that slide across the ceilings and fire constant blasts of energy at 45-degree angles. You can theoretically squeak past the barrage with good timing, but you’re much better off just zipping up to the ceiling and blasting the things. You don’t even need to go to that much trouble if you bring one of the multi-directional weapons with you; you can just shoot them from the ground.

Beyond these cannons are several slightly tricky sequences in which you have to perform consecutive swings in order to reach safe platforms and advance. Unlike in previous scenarios like this, you’re not given much latitude for failure. If you miss, you’ll land on spikes and die. In other words, here at the end of the game, you’re expected to perform advanced maneuvers on your first attempt. You’ve had almost a dozen stages’ worth of training, and here you have to demonstrate your worthiness.

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Further ahead, the slimes from Area 3 make a return, except they’re in much more confined spaces that make them trickier to deal with. The low platforms here mean you can’t simply zip to safety with the grappling arm, because your feet will still be planted on the ground, and the next slime blob to inch along will pull you loose and drag you along with it.

But actually you want that to happen: The bottom portion of the middle shaft here has a low-hanging spike that you can’t walk through safely. Instead, you need a slime to pull you along beneath it while you duck. Then, as soon as the slime starts to double back, you need to grab the box immediately ahead of Captain Spencer to pull him free from the slime, then grapple immediately up to the overhead platform before the slime returns to carry you back through the spike. And once you’ve cleared that challenge, you’ll have to use a second box to wrench yourself free from a glob of goo before it drags you into a bed of spikes that lines the floor. It’s a great example of a previous game mechanic returning at the end in a far more complex and challenging form.

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With that accomplished, the level still isn’t finished. You have to swing onto a moving platform above a floor of spikes (which is a bit of a “gotcha,” as you don’t immediately see the platform and may think you need to perform multiple consecutive grapples to advance — though do so will inevitably prove fatal). While riding the platform, you need to duck again to avoid another low spike, then dash to the safe ground to the left during the split second that the platform bumps against the far wall. As before, what would be a fairly straightforward challenge in previous stages becomes an unforgiving test thanks to the high penalty for failure.

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The final leg of the journey requires you to simply grapple up a narrow shaft while remote control tanks rain down and attack. These are generally pretty harmless since most of them drop through the walls and will only begin to patrol if they hit the floor. I suppose not every scenario is a guaranteed hit.

Interestingly, none of the hazards here are human enemies. Even the boss is one of those big robots that announces its intentions to attack the intruder (you) before you destroy it. You’d think the enemy would be represented in larger numbers here at the heart of the Empire, but given the deadly flooring, what appears to be a massive reservoir of slime leading to the boss room, and the rough-hewn look of the place… maybe this is meant to be the “back entrance” through the sewers or something. Kind of like the bowels of Skull Castle in Mega Man 2.

Capcom always has had a thing for recycling good ideas.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 11 | No more another castle

Bionic Commando doesn’t want you to rescue a princess or a damsel in distress; instead, the plot revolves around saving some old guy from captivity. This was clearly a game designed when ’80s action movie stars were still in their prime. The glass ceiling of viable heroism hadn’t begun to shift upward to accommodate the entire cast of The Expendables back in 1988.

Here at last in Area 7, you’ll find your mission objective, who’s been shuffled about the Empire’s territory to create a moving target. But Bionic Commando takes a page from Dragon Quest — saving the captive only serves as the introduction to the fight against the true villain of the piece. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The entrance to Area 7 presents you with an obstruction that you can only clear by conquering Area 9. Perhaps because of that mechanical link, the two stages share a common design spirit here at the beginning: You immediately find yourself dealing with multiple parallel tracks roamed by dangerous vehicles. Unlike the tracked devices in Area 9, however, the ones in Area 7 are manned rather than automated. This means, one, they move back and forth; and two, the dudes driving them occasionally fire large shells at you.

These armored vehicles can’t be damaged from the front side, even if you exit the stage and return with the rocket launcher. Instead, you have to hit them from behind… though hitting them from below and above works as well. Conveniently, the 3-Way gun you need in order to shatter the entry barrier is quite good at doing precisely that. It’s a nice little design choice to place vehicles weak to the level’s requisite weapon within that level — though it’s still up to you to make the connection that your tri-directional fire blasts can indeed hit foes on a different level of the stage from you.

As with all the Empire’s vehicles, these mini-tanks are driven by, um, the vertically challenged. This raises the question of where the army managed to recruit so many incredibly short soldiers. Maybe it’s something in the drinking water.

The patrolling tanks create a fairly unbreakable front in the lower portions of the stage. You can choose to advance along any of the tracks, but all except the lowest track is guarded by these machines that can’t be destroyed from the front and can’t easily be swung past, either. You can struggle with a frontal assault if you like, but ultimately your best bet is to advance along the lowest level and double back to blow up the tanks. Or even just ignore them… though it’s really to your advantage to clear them out before advancing.

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That’s because, you see, the area above the tracks is bonkers hard — the most challenging sequence in the game outside of that extended chain of swings in Area 6. In fact, if it were as unforgiving as the sequence in Area 6, this would be the single most difficult part of the game. Thankfully, while you need to make an even lengthier sequence of tricky swings here, failure doesn’t send you plummeting into a bottomless pit of death. Instead, you get sent back to the beginning of the stage to fight your way back up. It’s a little frustrating, but if you clear out the tanks before attempting the swing, at least it’s quick and easy to climb back up for a second attempt.

What makes this portion particularly difficult is the presence of these odd little helicopters, once again piloted by remarkably short enemy soldiers. These behave much like the individual flying soldiers in Area 5, hovering about and infinitely respawning upon defeat, but with a few notable differences. For starters, they don’t use that locked-in pattern where they strafe horizontally; instead, they constantly move about, fairly erratically, which makes their actions much harder to predict. Secondly, the choppers only explode after several shots, and once they do they eject one of the mini-soldiers to walk around and harass you.

And there is some hardcore harassment going on here. You need to climb a tower at the upper right of the stage to reach the overhead wires that will allow you to grapple to your objective to the upper left, and the entire time these jerks are bugging you.

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They don’t go away just because you’re swinging desperately across a wide gulf, swinging vigorously for tiny grapple points with very little chance to rest and reorient. The one saving grace here comes in the form of a platform midway through the stage, which will break your landing if you fall and let you regroup for the second half of the swing sequence. But even that’s a little trick to deal with: To reach the overhead blocks from the platform, you need to climb up on top of one of those slippery search lamps and snag the nearest block in the split-second before you fall off.

If you mess up, you’ll fall a long, long way and have to return to the towers by way of the tank tracks. So the trick is not to fall.

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Once you do make your way across the chasm, you’ll be greeted by another Robocop guy. It’s not simply enough to destroy a reactor here; you have to defeat the enemy’s bionic giant in order to rescue Joe. There’s a definite trade-off to this stage. The 3-Way gun is huge helpful against the tanks and the choppers, but it makes this fight terribly difficult. You have to shoot the giant in the face, and the short range of the 3-Way fire means you have to get in close to do that. And no, you can’t use the tank trick and hit him from above; his bionic gear blocks fire from above, and on top of that any time you pass within the line of fire of his three-directional grappling equipment, he’ll immediately grab you. So that’s pretty much a suicide approach.

The rocket launcher will take him out in just a few shots, but the flip side of that tactic is that you need to survive the stage equipped with the rocket launcher. The mini-choppers make that a tremendous pain.

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So, in short, it’s a powerfully challenging stage, as befits the culmination of your primary objective. But the reward is a bit of exposition as Captain Spencer speaks for the first time — and so politely!

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Joe, in return, lets you know what the game’s real plot is about. Admittedly this twist would have more impact if they had called Master-D by his actual name (Adolf Hitler), but Nintendo was really cagey about dropping direct references to Hitler in the NES days. Between this and Golgo-13, dude had an impressive collection of aliases. The mustache is always a dead giveaway, though.

With Joe rescued, the final leg of the adventure opens up for conquest. And, really, the most difficult sequences in the game are out of the way.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 10 | The waste land

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The newly opened section of the game allows you access to more than just the empire’s computer core; you also have an entrée to a few Neutral Areas as well. The first of these is Area 19, which you’ll find surprisingly hostile for “neutral” territory.

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The first person you meet upon entering the area is this guy, whose lanky portrait doesn’t quite match his sprite (one of those beefy bayonet guys). As soon as he delivers his threat, he immediately begins rushing toward you. Sadly, the Swiss Guard doesn’t call a foul on his actions, since he’s coming after you with melee attacks. But if you retaliate in self-defense, god help you — you’ll be swarmed by guys in white uniforms.

Of course, being a cool bionic commando of the heroic Federation, Captain Spencer doesn’t have to rely on his guns. (Although I suppose if you really want to deal with this guy all Indiana-Jones-versus-the-sword-twirler style, you can lead him back over to the entrance of the area, to the other side of the border guard, and shoot him there; technically, that doesn’t count as being in the Neutral Area.) You can shove him backward with your bionic arm, pushing him further away with each action, until he drops off the edge of the entrance area into the water. Good times.

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The only other element of note to Area 19 is this guy, another hostile enemy, this time hanging out in one of the area’s inner chambers. He taunts you to shoot him and immediately begins tossing bombs at you. Since you’re in an interior space, there’s no harm/no foul for acceding to his request and putting a bullet through his chest. I don’t understand your death wish, fellah! But since you asked so nicely…

On the other hand, the second neutral territory in this section, Area 17, proves to be considerably more fruitful.

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Here you’ll meet yet another abrasive enemy soldier, but this time if you swing over to where he’s standing (rather than shooting him), he’ll reveal the location of two hidden passages on the map screen. These don’t have all that much value, to be honest; they connect the inner empire to the zones prior to Area 6 as a sort of shortcut… but there’s no real need to backtrack if you’ve been thorough, and it actually takes longer to traverse those segments than simply choppering the long divide between Areas 8 and 6. These newly revealed segments aren’t entirely without value, though.

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And finally, a friendly face: An allied soldier who reveals Super Joe’s actual location. Why he couldn’t just radio this in, I have no idea, but it’s valuable intel. Alas, Area 7 is obstructed with a barrier that prevents you from entering with your current weapon. So it’s on to Area 9, the one map zone you can actually reach at this point.

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Area 9 begins with a lengthy drop that Captain Spencer can handle, no problem, because apparently his bionics include his ankles as well. At the bottom, you’ll meet this guy: Yet another example of the empire trying to imitate the Federation’s bionic commando program with varying degrees of incomplete success. We’ve seen the husky mustachioed soldier with the riot shield and a grappling arm that extends only upward, as well as the Robocop-looking giant with the massive three-way bionic arm backpack.

Now there’s this guy, whose bionic wire is affixed to the ceiling and allows him to rise and drop as a sort of counter-motion to Captain Spencer’s movements. If you run along the floor, he’ll pull himself to the ceiling; if you grapple up to the ceiling, he’ll drop to the floor. Basically, his modus operandi is to try and stay out of your direct line of fire while firing away at you with a three-direction spread gun (much like the one you collected a while back). Of course, this tactic will backfire on him if you enter the fray with your own spread rifle equipped. Alternately, you can simply grapple to the ceiling and drop down, firing a shot or two as you fall. He’ll pull himself right into your attack. Look, no one said enemy soldiers were particularly bright.

Still, the empire’s bionic army is a neat little detail that shows just how much of a field advantage Captain Spencer has. The enemy’s grappling devices work as either a weapon or for traversal, but you never see them doing both at once. They’re imitating your technology, but they’re a few steps behind in the (bionic) arms race. This little detail nicely helps to justify their ultimate plan (getting one up on the Federation by completing someone else’s super weapon) once that’s revealed.

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The interior of Area 9 is pretty weird. I think this is the trash-disposal facility where Joe was said to have been taken, as a portion of the floor appears to be an open flame and a series of mine cars runs along parallel tracks. There are also spikes on the floor, for some reason.

The carts will injure you if you let yourself be hit, but you can also catch a ride on them by dropping onto a passing cart from above. As such, this level is very quick to complete if you go for a classic video game mine cart ride; you just have to be sure to hop off before it plunges into the flames.

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Otherwise, yeah.

The main mine cart space is several stories high, with four parallel tracks running atop one another, but the space is largely wasted. Many of the later stages of the game seem to have slightly aimless level design, with lots of screen room given over to nothing in particular. In the first half of the game, this generally amounted to multiple paths for traversal, and while I suppose that’s true here as well it doesn’t feel as much like making a choice. It’s more that going in certain directions will simply waste time rather than lead you to your goal in a more clever fashion; the stage layout ultimately funnels you through a single passage from which you can climb to the door to the boss room.

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So anyway, this guy tells us something we already know if we’ve been to Area 17. You wasted your last breath, dingus!

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Don’t get too excited here; the “3-Way” in question is a new gun, not something saucier. On the plus side, it happens to be the gun that’s capable of blasting through the Area 7 barrier. So… narratively, you were meant to come to this level in search of Joe only to be stymied by his relocation. But mechanically it turns out you needed to come here anyway to get the gun to break down the barrier. That turned out not to be much of a plot twist, I think. On the other hand, it does mean the designers were drawing you toward a requisite acquisition. So maybe it’s not as pointless a story contrivance as it seems?

Whatever the case, what really matters is that it’s time to save a legendary hero. God bless the… whatever country the Federation is meant to be.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 9 | The back nine

Oh, so you managed to survive the gauntlet that is Area 6 of Bionic Commando? The stage that serves the same “do or die” road bump as, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne‘s Matador battle? Nicely done. Welcome to the rest of the game.

The travel pass you acquire from Area 6 has exactly one use in the game: When you equip it before entering Area 14, the Neutral Area adjacent to Area 6, you can get past the guard at the entrance. Inside Area 14 you’ll find a new communicator, which you have to take possession of in order to cross the wide map line between Area 6 and Area 8 and the other eight stages it leads to. This is the back half of the game, the second set of stages… although in truth you only have partial access here. You can’t travel to Area 10, which sits immediately beyond Area 8, until you’ve completed a few tasks in the three stages accessible at this point.

Area 8 basically serves as the central nexus for the second half of the game. It connects the interior of the Badd Empire to the first half of the adventure, and from Area 6 it branches to several different stages: Area 10, the entry to the final sequence of the game; Areas 7 and 9, one of which is the prison where Super Joe is located; and Area 19, an isolated Neutral Area.

While it might make numeric sense at this point to head to Area 7, you’ll immediately find yourself stymied there by another barrier that can be shattered only by a weapon you don’t have. So instead, let’s look at Area 8, where dialogue has suggested Super Joe may be hidden.

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Where previous outposts you’ve faced have been fairly rough-hewn military structures, Area 8 has a higher-tech look. Clearly you’ve reached the heart of the Empire, and this stage reflects that progress. Not only does this appear to be a computer command center with systems and lights and wiring stretching off into the distance, but it’s the most complex layout you’ve yet dealt with (consisting of several different interconnected areas that can be traversed however you like). On top of that, it’s absolutely crawling with enemy soldiers: Paratoopers, grenadiers, drone commanders, and even automated defenses.

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To wit, a modest new threat in the form of these cannons, which serve as barriers in narrow corridors. The twin guns move back and forth vertically along the central pole, firing alternately high and then low, as the pole itself traverses the passage slowly on a horizontal path. You have to hit this device dead center to destroy it, which can be difficult as it moves along its two axes, but you can’t pass through the connective corridor until it’s gone.

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“Connections” is the theme of this stage in general. The level consists of three main areas connected by several different passages, some of which are decidedly intricate. You can easily get lost in this stage, so combing it door-by-door is definitely the way to go. The boss door won’t open until you’ve visited both of the communication rooms scattered through the level, which means there’s potential for considerable backtracking as you try to sort out the layout of the area.

It doesn’t help that the door connections don’t necessarily make sense in contiguous space; for example, the upper-left door in this screenshot takes you to another elevator shaft that resembles a taller, mirrored version of this one. However, the door below it leads back to the opening portion of the stage, and in that area the door all the way on the other side of this one is a door leads to the mirrored elevator shaft as well. Confusing, right? It can be a real chore to keep track of, though fortunately the boss door is fairly obviously located in that mirrored elevator area — it’s the single locked door in the entire level. Once you locate it, you’ll have to go searching for the comm rooms and then remember your way back to the locked door, which can be a little tough to manage in such a confusingly laid-out area.

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The largest single section of the stage has multiple exits, and the path to reach them is guarded by a constant onslaught of paratrooper grenadiers. Unlike the standard soldiers from the opening portion of the stage, the grenadiers behave far more aggressively. They scurry back and forth while unleashing a rapid flurry of bombs that fly up in an arc and roll along the ground before exploding. The bombs run on a timer, so you can pass through them safely before they detonate, but they explode with a fairly wide area of effect. It can be tough to avoid the bomb detonations when you have several grenadiers attacking you on multiple levels.

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A handful of drone pilots occupy key points in the stage to further complicate things. As in Area 6, the level is laid out so that you approach them from different directions; depending on how you traverse the stage, some will be above you (and therefore somewhat easily dealt with) while others will appear below (and therefore much harder to take on safely as their flying devices attack you). Combined with the constant attacks by the grenadiers, the hazards in this stage can be fairly difficult to predict.

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While you won’t find Super Joe in this stage after all, you can wire-tap to get a fix on his direction. He’s “near the ocean,” which sounds helpful until you look at the stage map and realize most of the levels in the game are near the ocean. Oh well.

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You can reach the second comm room (which contains the Super Joe transmission) from either of two directions, and the lower route is definitely the trickier one, requiring you to deal with spring tiles and moving platforms. On the other hand, your helicopter crew somehow manages to air drop a lunch box to you, so that’s nice.

There are a lot of differences between the U.S. and Japanese versions of the game, but this area has one of the more visually significant ones: In the Japanese version of the game, those eagle emblems were swastikas. There’s a little something lot in removing the concept of a resurgent Nazi empire from the story mix, I think.

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At this point, you’ve dealt with all the different kinds of boss rooms available in the game, so once you manage to navigate your way through the required checkpoints and take out the reactor, there are no more surprises. About the only difference in boss rooms from here on out are slightly elevated difficulty levels from time to time.

The reward for Area 8 isn’t essential, but it’s nice: Iron Boots, which allow you to eliminate bad guys by swinging into them. Normally you simply send enemies reeling when you swing into them, but now you can kick high, and hard. On the other hand, this requires you to swap out the Energy Recover Pills, so Iron Boots are more of an expert-level perk for players who are confident in their Bionic Commando skills.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 8 | The wheat from the chaff

If you can survive the towering gauntlet that is Area 5, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be up to the task of taking on Area 6.

You don’t have a choice in the matter. Area 6 sits at one end of a lengthy map corridor leading to the Badd empire’s inner regions, and you can’t traverse the corridor without the advanced communicator located in Area 14. And in order to enter Area 14, you need to special pass acquired once you beat Area 6. Yes, kids, it’s a fetch quest in a 1988-vintage platformer… the one blemish being that the requirements (getting the communicator) and the process of getting the pass (beat Area 6) aren’t immediately evident. You kind of stumble into the answer…

…or never find the answer, because Area 6 is hellacious. This is, without question, the most challenging stage in the game. It’s the real test of skill for Bionic Commando, a lengthy and unforgiving series of unique platforming trials with very little tolerance for failure. You need to grok Bionic Commando‘s rules with the whole of your being. You need to swing with the best of them. You need to become Radd Spencer.

Thankfully, the stage begins by offering you a 1UP to allow for a bit of failure. On the other hand, you have to work even for this little perk, as it appears on a girder above the starting area, and reaching it requires backtracking from further into the stage. There are a few opportunities to slip and die pursuing the 1UP, so it makes an effective winnow: If you can’t even clear that relatively low bar, Area 6 is going to be a rough ride for you. Maybe go back and practice on some previous stages.

You literally can’t even challenge Area 6 until you’ve proven your mastery over the perils of Area 5; the entrance to this stage is barricaded with a low wall that can only be destroyed with the Rocket Launcher awarded for completing Area 5. Otherwise, you’re unable to advance beyond the first screen. (Annoyingly, there’s a special button combo that allows you to exit stages instantly if you arrive without the launcher, but the manual doesn’t actually describe it. D’oh!)

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Once you’re properly armed and ready to take on the stage, it begins with some modest grappling challenges and semi-passive threats. The spiked balls here emerge from the gaps in the platforms and rise to the height of Spencer’s head before falling back into the water; they’re on a timer that allows you just enough of a window between “leaps” to swing past. However, several of the platforms are patrolled by these small remote tanks, which don’t actually shoot… maybe they’re meant to be camera drones. In any case, they roam left and right, and they tend to spawn far enough to the right that you could easily swing into one if you don’t advance with the appropriate level of caution. You need to take your time and see if one rumbles into view.

With this stage, Bionic Commando returns to the more open, multi-path design we’ve seen outside of Area 5. Beyond this opening run, Area 6 largely consists of wide expanses of enemy installation connected by small choke points. You need to traverse the choke points the same way every time, but how you reach them remains fairly open to your discretion. You’ll find enemies along either route, so it ultimately boils down to how you think you can most effectively reach your destination.

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Complicating things in this first portion of the stage, we have a new enemy: The drone pilot. Bionic Commando predicted modern warfare, right here.

The drone controller stands motionless on the battlefield and has no direct attacks, but he can send out several small drones at a time. These fly erratically in slightly elliptical paths and tend to home in on Captain Spencer — not directly, but with just enough random aggression to pose a threat. You can shoot down the drones, but the pilot will simply send out more. Instead, you need to take down the pilot himself, which will cause all active drones to come crashing to the ground.

Naturally, the drone pilots are placed in spots that make it awkward for you to take them head-on. The one above is fairly low on the base structure, so if you travel the most direct route through the stage he’ll be inconveniently tucked away below you; you won’t be able to reach him, and he’ll continue to harass you with drones that fly up and buzz you. But even if you take the lower route, another drone pilot appears above, closer to the choke point between this structure and the next, so you’ll still have to navigate the stage vertically while dealing with drones.

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A single grapple point connects you to the second half of this portion of the level — a simple grab-and-swing made slightly tricky by the fact that it’s raining men (i.e. paratroopers). It’s just a taste of what’s to come, though: Multiple sequences requiring consecutive mid-air grapples via these tiny spot lamps. The first string of lamps comes with a sort of safety net — if you miss a grapple, there’s still solid ground beneath the lamps. But the last few swings require you to make perfect grabs in mid-air, and if you miss you’ll go sailing into the ocean. Your target is a small platform with a door in it, and you need careful control to reach it.

Interestingly, though, the door doesn’t lead you to a comm room. This is the first stage in the game without a communications array; instead, the door leads you to… the second half of the stage. Despite this already being the most challenging level to date, all of this has only been the first half of the stage.

There’s one final swing-of-faith for this stage immediately after entering the second half, and it’s the toughest grab in the game. You have to swing off a structure toward a high light pole and grab it perfectly, then swing across a huge chasm and grab a ceiling at the edge of your range at just the perfect time. It’s a hell of a jump, and you really have to possess a flawless, instinctual grasp of your bionic arm’s range and timing in order to pull it off.

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The final stretch of Area 6 involves a climb up an undulating structure, dealing with these guys. The giant soldiers toss spiked balls at you, which roll along and drop from higher levels. I’ve already referenced the Donkey Kong games in relation to Bionic Commando, and the connection is even more overt here: This sequence feels like a direct nod to the first stage of Donkey Kong.

I don’t think it’s an accidental nod, at that. Donkey Kong pretty much invented the platform genre, and Bionic Commando reinvented it in its own way. Running left and right along girders while leaping barrels chucked by a hulking ape was the ur-platforming challenge. Now, here’s a hero who can’t jump. So how does he go about evading this classic genre trope?

The answer: By grappling out of the way, of course. When a barrel comes rumbling along, you have to snag the ceiling and pull yourself up for a moment. This requires more forethought and time than simply jumping, so you have to stay on your toes here and learn the patterns of the spiked balls. They often drop in from off-screen, appearing so quickly you don’t have time to react once you spot them, so you need to learn their timing and plan your movements accordingly.

As an extra little gut-punch of challenge, the teal blocks bolted to the ceilings here can’t be grasped by your arm. Only open expanses of green ceiling are interactive for you, and much of the difficulty here comes in the need to dash from opening to opening between spikes. The lower portion of this sequence places only a handful of teal barriers in your way, but by the time you reach the top the available interactive ceiling consists of single tiles spaced quite far apart. There are also a few of those spring launchers from Area 5 that will send you, but not the spiked balls, sailing into the air, so you can also use those to avoid damage from time to time.

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One nice thing Area 6 has over Donkey Kong is that unlike in that classic, you are armed with a rocket launcher. You can take your revenge. Sweet, sweet revenge.

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Congratulations, you’ve bested the most grueling stage in Bionic Commando to date. Oh wait, this hell hasn’t ended; inside the reactor room is a towering giant, the Badd’s own bionic commando. He doesn’t have a bionic arm, instead carrying a huge backpack that can fire a grappling wire at three different angles. He’s no less deadly for that, though; his arm doesn’t grapple onto ceilings, so he can reach through the floor to grab you. Once his arm connects with Captain Spencer, he pulls you into him for massive damage.

To make matters worse, the enemy commando is only vulnerable in one point: His head. You have to grapple up to the level of his head to take aim, and he’s very likely to snag you from your perch while you try to line up a shot. The one saving grace of this encounter is that the commando only reaches out to grab you every few seconds, and he kneels before doing so; this slight tell allows you to time your actions. Grapple up, drop and fire, duck. With the Rocker Launcher, you need to blast his face four time to take him down. Tricky, but not unmanageable.

Alternately, you can run beneath his platform and grapple up to shoot the reactor three times with the Rocket Launcher, but where’s the fun in that?

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Your reward for all of this is the key to the second half of the game. The good news is that nothing else in the game is quite as difficult as Area 6.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 7 | A tower struck down

I’m as surprised as anyone by just how many parts this Bionic Commando series is turning out to be. I figured by this point I’d be toward the end of the game already, but I’m still working toward the halfway point. Maybe the second half will be much faster, but who knows? I mean, I already loved the game for its complexity, but seeing it in print like this really doubles my appreciation for it. I didn’t even know that was possible.

So here we have Area 5. On the stage map, this appears fairly close to where you begin the game, so in terms of visual information it appears to be a stage you’re meant to go after early on. The numeration tells the true story, though: This is a much more complex and difficult level than Areas 2-4, and it really behooves you to get a handle on some of the game’s advanced mechanics before making this perilous ascent.

Although there’s no fear of falling damage in Bionic Commando, the Area 5 climb can be quite deadly. The stage is so large that Capcom’s designers divided it into three sections, likely as a matter of memory conservation. Each of the three sections, pixel-wise, comprises roughly the same volume as the interior or exterior portions of many other stages. I don’t know how exactly Bionic Commando‘s memory management works, because why would I?, but I would be in no way surprised to learn that the game has a hard limit on the vertical or horizontal resolution of a contiguous area. If that’s the case, Area 5 is so extensive that it exceeds that limit twice. It’s a beast of a stage, and its scale is matched by its difficulty.

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Unlike most other stages we’ve seen so far, Area 5 doesn’t really bother with nonlinearity or alternate routes; you have a single task here, and that is to climb. While the route upward presents multiple handholds for your bionic arm at first, you have a single direction to advance, and one way to get there.

This stage really gets into what makes Bionic Commando different from a legion of other platformers: Its verticality. Yes, other platformers allow you to jump, but here you move vertically as both a primary and secondary means of locomotion. We’ve seen that before in portions of Donkey Kong Jr., but unlike the protagonist of that game Captain Spencer is quite capable of moving around on the ground competently, thank you very much. He commands both axes of motion, a real rarity in the genre.

If you actually stop to look at the physical structure of this tower, it’s bizarrely hilarious — a ramshackle mess rising hundreds of feet into the air, with entire segments consisting of bare girders and bunker-like constructs of concrete and steel jutting unevenly from the central mass. It would probably be a lot easier to just fire a bazooka into a load-bearing pillar and bring the stage collapsing down, but alas that video games rarely offer such sensible solutions.

Area 5 begins to introduce a number of new threats and challenges to the combat matrix, as it were. In addition to the usual guys who snipe from behind cover and drifting paratroopers, you’ll also encounter a number of dangers designed specifically to inconvenience you on your ascent rather than simply harm you.

The steel balls in the image above, for example, hang from a chain until you draw near, at which point they break loose and come plummeting toward you. While they cause Captain Spencer some minor physical harm, the real danger they pose is an implacable moving object that advances quickly toward you and which you can’t simply duck, unlike enemy bullets. They force you to react by pulling yourself off the ground — though in doing so you run the risk of exposing yourself to other hazards. Like the snipers behind cover.

In the lowest portion of the tower, you’re forced to learn to use precarious footholds to climb to higher areas. Way back in Area 1, you had to use a searchlight as a grapple point for moving between portions of the stage, but here you begin to find areas where you have to stand atop those searchlights in order to reach the next highest platforms — the trick being that their rounded shape causes you to beginning slipping off immediately. So you have to use your arm again as soon as you scramble to the top of the lamp. The first time you encounter this particular situation, you get to wrestle with it in an area where you can easily clear out all the bad guys and take all the time you need, but further up you won’t encounter such luxuries.

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After making a fairly impressive climb, you’ll finally reach a communication room door at a point at which the screen stops scrolling upward. You need to activate the comm array in order to advance here — not to open the boss door, but to open the second comm room overhead. When you step out of the communication room, the lower portion of the tower becomes inaccessible, and the second portion of the area sprawls above.

This sequence is much more challenging than the last, because you face entirely new challenges new to this stage. Mounted on the ceilings you’ll find sprinkler-like devices that fire off an energy beam every few seconds. The beam is narrow and flies along parallel to the ceiling, so it wouldn’t seem to be particularly threatening. However, it has the ability to sever your grappling arm’s hold on the ceiling, so unless you have a weapon capable of destroying the emplacement you’ll have to time your climbs carefully lest you find yourself constantly knocked back down.

Supplementing these nuisances you’ll encounter an endlessly spawning array of heli-pack troops who hover around and harass you as you try to climb between laser emissions. These soldiers putter around in midair for a while before locking into a fixed vertical position and strafing across the screen. As they strafe, they fire an electrical beam that always seems to be just about the right height to smack Captain Spencer in the head. You can duck beneath them, of course, but at the same time you’re trying to climb to new heights between devices whose sole purpose is to prevent you from doing so. And there’s no end to these hovering menaces, so you can’t simply clear them away before advancing. Eventually, you just have to go for it.

As a new element of risk in this stage, you can’t allow yourself to be knocked off the side of the tower. On the lower level it didn’t matter so much, but here in this sequence and the one above the screen will no longer scroll all the way back down to the bottom. If you fall off the side, you’ll die — though perhaps that’s a mercy versus being forced to make a three-section climb all over again.

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Beyond the second communication door, the screen locks into the uppermost portion of the tower, and the tower itself narrows. The dangers of the middle portion — the grip-smashers, the hovering soldiers — retire in favor of a much simpler challenge: Paratroopers. However, the new challenge here comes in the constricted space in which you can maneuver. The tower at this point only spans half the screen, and there are no more wide platforms to traverse, only small blocks that you must navigate one by one. If you overshoot with your swings, you’ll quite possibly go sailing over the edge and fall to your death.

Because the paratroopers spawn infinitely, you need to take care with your climb; it’s entirely too easy to swing into a soldier and be knocked down to the lower levels (or worse). An added element of complexity comes from the plug-like objects in the upper-middle portion of the image above. They work as springs or air fans or something; whatever the case, they send you shooting upward in an arc as soon as you climb onto them. They’re sort of a spiritual counterpart of the spotlights in that you can’t stand on them, but you’re thrust upward rather than down. The springs are essential to reaching distant platforms, but it’s important that you understand their mechanics — that is, which way they’ll send you flying when you mount them. These springs have appeared in previous stages in a not-particularly-noteworthy fashion, but here they serve as an integral element of the level design and demand mastery.

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But should you finally reach the top, congratulations! You’ve done something remarkable. Your reward is the best weapon in the game, guarded by one of those laughable robots from Area 3.