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.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 6 | Botany bane

Note: I just realized I never bothered to mention that The Anatomy of Mega Man Vol. I is available on Gumroad, if you’d like the PDF. So… there’s that.


 

If Area 2 was the game’s optional warm-up, Area 3 is more of an instant-kill death trap trial-by-fire… though still an optional one, as it happens. The item you earn for completing this stage (the Rapid Fire Device) allows you to shoot a bit more quickly, but it’s much less useful an item than something like the Energy Recovery Pills or Iron Boots, and at no point in the game is it required. You’ll probably never even equip it.

In fact, the only real value this stage offers comes from a shred of plot you can glean by wire-tapping (the Badds have moved Super Joe to the garbage disposal area) and from the helpful mechanical exercises it thrusts upon you.

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Area 3 pours on the death traps pretty heavily, right from the start. The opening sequence presents you with several expanses of quicksand, which — as you would expect — cause Captain Spencer to slowly sink beneath the surface as he runs forward. Not that slowly, though. You descend quickly enough that you can’t actually run from one end to the other before drowning beneath the sand. If you make the attempt, you will find yourself dead about halfway across.

Of course, the solution is to use your grappling wire to minimize your time on the unstable ground. Not only does it allow you to pull yourself free by grabbing onto nearby tree limbs, you can also sail midway onto the quicksand patches by swinging forward from the trees in front of the sand and releasing your arm once you reach the far right of your arc. Functionally, your arm serves the same role here as jumping would in any other platformer featuring quicksand, like Super Mario Bros. 2/USA. But because grappling, unlike jumping, requires environmental elements with which to interact, you have to give more consideration to your approach than in standard platformers. It’s a nice little case-in-point of the complexity inherent in Bionic Commando‘s design.

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Beyond the quicksand, you find yourself scaling a cliff wall to a Badd outpost where apparently they’re performing bizarre biological experiments on the local plant life… or else they just decided to set up camp in some sort of Savage Land-like locale where all the bugs and plants are the size of men.

Your first encounters here are with spiders (or are they ants!?) that scuttle along the wall and can be fairly unpredictable for their ability to sidle up to you from any direction. You can use your grappling arm to knock them away if they approach from above, but really the best thing to do here is enter the stage with the Wide Cannon (acquired in Area 4) equipped. It shoots in three directions, and the bullets pass through walls and platforms, so it’s helpful in crowd control when bugs (or arachnids, I guess) come shuffling toward you.

Your weapons can’t help against the other threat here, though: Giant, invincible, man-eating plants. Man, look at those teeth.

The plants appear in fixed locations, though you won’t know which locations until you come close enough to trigger their attack. There’s a momentary rustling of grass and suddenly the whole flytrap (mantrap?) bursts from the ground. If you’re standing over the rustling grass when it emerges, even partially, Captain Spencer is done for. Instant death.

The combination of spiders in hard-to-reach spots and (initially) unpredictable plant life makes for a daunting scenario. You can avoid the plants neatly if you stay on the move, but the bugs in hard-to-reach spots make this more easily said than done. They tend to appear in multiples and congregate in ways that leave you vulnerable to the mantraps if you stop to deal with the bugs by smacking them with your arm to knock them into range of your weapons.

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The plants also tend to pop up in very inconvenient places. For instance, the one that pops up beneath the entrance to the stage interior is positioned exactly where you’d instinctively stand to grapple up to the top platform. So you need to be mindful of where you stand as you travel to prevent being devoured unceremoniously while getting about the Area.

Toward the upper portion of the cliff the spiders begin to give way to giant moths (altitude, you know). Moths are somewhat less of a threat in one sense; you can kill them with your grappling arm. However, they tend to be more mobile, more numerous, shed a dangerous dust as they hover overhead, and quickly respawn when destroyed. Although you can knock them out of the air, their heavy numbers force you to stop and deal with them more often, which means you’re more likely to bumble into a plant trap.

Should you make it into the base interior, you’re confronted with one of the trickiest level layouts you’ve yet faced. A wide pit descends into the unknown, and it’s flanked by alcoves populated by enemy soldiers who take potshots at you as you descend. At the bottom of the pit, an elevator waits to take you down even further… but once you step on it, it instantly plummets into a bed of spikes, giving you a split second to grapple to safety on the platforms to the left. Thankfully, this reaction is something you’re already set up to perform, since you can see the communication room door to the left as you approach the elevator — you’ll already be primed to swing or run in that direction, so this trap is more about keeping you on your toes than killing you.

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The remainder of Area 3 is pretty simple to handle until you get to the very last stretch before the boss door. Here is the first true grappling mastery test of the game. You’ve had to deal with a tough swing every now and again, especially if you’ve attempted Area 5, but this sequence requires an advanced technique the game hasn’t really demanded of you to date: The ability to grapple consecutively.

Here, in the final run, you have to cross three sequential beds of spikes. Now, Bionic Commando‘s spikes aren’t the instant-kill hazard that you have to deal with in Mega Man games, but they still hit hard: Each contact with spikes throws Captain Spencer backward and knocks three points off his health. Depending on how many bullets you’ve been collecting, you may only have three points to begin with. So there’s only the tiniest room for error here — you can theoretically recover from a screwup, but not easily.

To clear this area, your best and most reliable tactic is to pass over all the spikes without touching the ground. If you’re very precise, you can possibly land on the gaps between the spikes, but it takes talent. On the other hand, you can simply swing, break contact at the furthest extent of your arc, and grapple again while in midair to hit the low-hanging structures. This takes careful aim, because the structures are only a single tile wide. As you’ll need to master this skill for less forgiving portions of the adventure, it’s wise to practice here.

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If you can make it to the door, you’ll find a new kind of boss here: A machine that looks remarkably like one of Dr. Wily’s machines, though it’s much easier to destroy. This robot simply moves up and down and fires a three-way spread from its forward cannon. The bullet spray can be difficult to avoid… but you can simply run behind the machine and fire into it from behind to destroy it without having to worry about taking a scratch. Not exactly a hardcore test of skill, really.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 5 | Born with a heart full of neutrality

I touched on the Neutral Areas in a previous update, but it’s worth looking more thoroughly into them. By and large, the Neutral Areas do precisely as advertised — they allow you to interact with enemy and unaffiliated characters non-violently, allowing the story to advance in small but useful ways. The Neutral Areas also throw occasional wrinkles at you, forcing you to deal with dangerous adversaries that pose a threat despite obeying the letter of the neutral law.

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Perhaps the most significant example of exposition through neutrality comes in Area 15, right at the beginning of the game. At the entrance you meet none other than the (remarkably tall) leader of the enemy forces, Generalissimo Killt. He insults you and marches along, but the real value here is to create some context for the plot and provide a callback at the game’s climax.

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You can’t avoid this encounter. Although you can skip many Neutral Areas, Area 15 is mandatory: Included in one of its chambers is an item you need to clear a subsequent level.

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This isn’t your first exposure to Killt; a rather younger and bluer version appeared in the attract mode.

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Once you get past Killt, though, you can collect this communicator, which is essential for clearing certain later levels.

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Communicators are equipped as the last item on the gear selection screen at the beginning of each level. It goes: Weapon, Armor, Support Item, and Communicator. There are four communicators, and each one works in several different areas, where it interfaces with that stage’s communications system. If you use the wrong communicator, you just get static (or rather, “GA• GA• GA•”, which I guess is Japanese for static). If you don’t possess the proper communicator for that area, you can’t unlock the boss door; though you only need to have found the communicator in question, not to have brought it into the stage with you. And knowing which communicator to use in a given area isn’t a crap shoot — denizens of various Neutral Areas will let you know the specifics if you seek them out. But the upshot is that you need to collect all the communicators in order to complete the game.

But here’s the thing about Bionic Commando: You don’t have to beat all the stages in order to complete the game. In fact, according to the Internet’s oldest dedicated Bionic Commando site, you only have to complete 10 of the game’s 18 areas — eight of which belong to the action stage category (of 12 total action areas), while two are Neutral Areas. Nearly half the game is superfluous, existing entirely for flavor.

Of course, the first time you play the game, you won’t necessarily know which stages are mandatory. Furthermore, because you can tackle stages in a non-linear fashion, you don’t even know the optimal route through the game. There’s a heavy element of discovery and exploration at play in Bionic Commando; as with the grappling mechanic, the non-sequential stage sequence encourages experimentation in subsequent playthroughs. Your first time through the adventure is quite like to be very different than follow-up playthroughs.

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One such optional level is Area 2. Although Area 5 might seem the next map point to tackle, given its placement on the map layout, a newcomer will quickly discover Area 5 to be remarkably challenging. Area 2, on the other hand, doesn’t demand nearly so much from a player as Area 5 — though it does contain a new and unique mechanic.

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Specifically, Area 2 is full of goo. I guess this is meant to be industrial sludge that the pipes secrete, though the goo blobs seem to have a bit of a mind of their own. You just can’t help but anthropomorphize the little things. Probably because they’re a bright shade of blue.

The sludge blobs gush forth from the outlets located around the stage and shimmy in a given direction. If they hit a wall, they’ll reverse and slither along the ground in the other direction. Sludge blobs always seek the lowest point and will drip from a high ledge to a lower one.

For Captain Spencer, though, sludge globs have a powerful adhesive property that causes him to become swept up as they ooze past. You can’t run through a blob, as it will begin dragging you helplessly in its current direction.  Your only hope of escape is to pull yourself out with your bionic arm.

Your first encounter with the blobs offers you ample opportunity to break free before you’re dragged down into a drainage pit. There’s actually a pipe right next to the interior starting point of the stage, so you have to deal with the blobs right away. But the path it leads you along runs beneath multiple overhead platforms that you can grapple up to easily, and which will pull you clear of the sludge blobs. This leads you upward to the main portion of the stage — and while you’ll still have to deal with slime as you climb, there are many undulating platforms that slow the sludge’s progress and give you ample opportunity to ascend to safety.

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This leads you to the level’s other new threat: Dwarves in cranes. These vehicles can be destroyed fairly easily, though the chain pulley that descends and ascends resists all damage you throw their way; and if a crane drives overhead while you’re hanging from a platform, the chain will break your bionic arm’s grip and cause you to fall.

When you shoot a crane, the driver ejects to safety. Weirdly, Badd drivers are all very short. As a short person myself, that strikes me as the worst kind of editorializing.

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The back half of the stage is actually less dangerous than the opening portion; there are fewer slime outlets, and rather than pull you into an open pit they’ll instead try to drag you toward beds of spikes. Those are still hazardous, but they’re damaging rather than instantly fatal.

Ultimately, this level teaches you to rely even more on your bionic arm. You can’t jump or run to free yourself from the sludge trails, so you need to use your grappling skills to break loose. And grappling up to higher platforms and advancing by swinging along the ceiling rather than running often keeps you safely above the slime. Even though its location on the map might cause you to pass over it until later, Area 2 really does make a good follow-up to Area 1 (and 4, I suppose): Tricky but not too dangerous or overwhelming, and designed to impart important life lessons.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 4 | Meet with enemies and descend

At this point it behooves us to discuss some of the unique features that set Bionic Commando apart from other platformers of its vintage. Yes, it’s very neat that you can swing about with a grappling arm, but by no means was that the extent of Bionic Commando‘s deviations from run-and-jump standards.

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The map screen, for one. Not only does it allow you to travel freely around the game’s world, playing stages in almost any order (with invisible gates at the junctions between Areas 6 and 8 and Areas 8 and 10), it also has an almost RPG-like “random encounter” element to it as well. As you fly about from Area to Area via helicopter, groups of enemies roam the maps by truck. Should your copter intersect a truck, you’re forced to descend and fight your way through the blockade on foot.

This feature bears a remarkable resemblance to the roaming Koopas in the world map of Super Mario Bros. 3, though as it happens Bionic Commando actually predates SMB3 by three months. Which isn’t to suggest that Bionic Commando invented this idea, but to my knowledge it was the first NES game to make use of it.

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The truck sequences differ from the standard platform scenes in a very interesting way: They take the form of a top-down shooter. Capcom devotees will recognize these levels as a direct reference to Commando, from the overhead-but-behind-the-shoulder perspective to the tendency of bad guys to use grenades that they lob like Super Joe did in Commando.

“But of course,” you say. “Commando. Bionic Commando. Naturally, it’s a sequel.” And, sure, yeah, that makes sense. But this is something Capcom retconned into the game on NES. Super Joe starred in both Commando and the arcade Bionic Commando, but that didn’t signify much; Super Joe was originally intended to be a jack-of-all-trades character like Mario. He also starred in the racing action game The Speed Rumbler, which has doodly-squat to do with Commando.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Commando was called Senjou no Ookami (Wolf of the Battlefield) and Bionic Commando was called Top Secret. The NES Bionic Commando went by the name Top Secret: Hitler No Fukkatsu (The Revival of Hitler). I can only assume they decided to rename the arcade game to avoid confusion with the dumb Val Kilmer spy flick Top Secret!, and that carried through to the NES version as well. But interestingly, the Commando connection implemented in the localized title worked its way back into the actual substance of the NES game, despite the lack of an overt connection in the game’s name in Japan. And then Commando got an actual sequel (Mercs, aka Senjou no Ookami II) a couple of years later. This has little bearing on the gameplay, but it’s an interesting example of Capcom’s tendency to flail around with its sequels (see also Street Fighter ’89 and Street Fighter 2010 predating Street Fighter II).

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The top-down sequences allow you to carry only a weapon into combat; unlike Super Joe, though, Captain Spencer can’t chuck grenades. Instead, he still wields his bionic arm. Obviously, in a top-down sequence there’s little call for the ability to swing and climb, so pressing the bionic arm causes Spencer to spin around while extending his arm. This knocks away any foot soldier in range and deflects most bullets, so it can be a handy defensive maneuver in a pinch.

You encounter several different types of enemy in the top-down stages. Footsoldiers are obvious enough, while soldier behind cover can only be attacked when they stand up to take aim at you.

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Far more valuable are the “boss” enemies of the areas, which take multiple forms: Jeeps, command officers, even other bionic soldiers. These opponents wield heavier firepower and can soak up more damage, but the tradeoff is that if you can defeat them they’ll drop a Badd eagle emblem. Each emblem you collect is worth a continue. Normally, once you die three times, it’s game over. With an eagle emblem, however, you can choose to continue from where you left off. You can carry up to nine emblems at a time, and you can replace any that you use.

This is an interesting feature. When you first begin Bionic Commando, Captain Spencer can literally only take three hits and it’s Game Over. But as you collect experience via enemy drops (to level up your health pips) and eagle emblems (for continues), you can essentially battle indefinitely. Why they didn’t just build continues into the game by default we may never know, but in a way it positions Bionic Commando as a bridge between the old-school approach to action games in which you either couldn’t continue or had to hold a button combination to access a secret continue feature (as in Super Mario Bros., Wing of Madoola, etc.) and modern games, where the idea of a permanent game over is reserved for deliberately cruel indie games.

One big difference between the shooter zones in Bionic Commando and the entirety of Commando comes in their comparative lengths. Commando‘s stages stretched seemingly forever and contained numerous secrets, whereas these levels are brief and straightforward. You don’t even have to accomplish anything in particular, besides collecting emblems. In order to “beat” a truck encounter, you just have to reach the exit at the opposite end of the zone. There’s no reason to ever take more than about a minute to clear these stages.

In the most technical sense of the word, these sequences are not required to complete the game. Although a couple of hidden routes that you can unveil midway through the adventure feature mandatory top-down sequences, you can complete the game without ever passing through (or even uncovering) those routes. And aside from the eagle emblems, there’s no real reason to enter the shooter zones (save, again, for a key item you can collect in one of the hidden passages). In theory, you could avoid the trucks the entire game and never see the top-down portions of Bionic Commando.

But they’re worth playing. They provide an interesting connection to the game’s heritage — Commando — while pushing forward into the burgeoning reality of video games — infinite continues. And, most of all, it’s loads of fun to slap enemies around with the bionic arm.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 3 | Fumbling toward Section Three

With Area 1 conquered, you return to the overworld map, hovering above the ruins of your conquest. At this point, you’re given three options for transferring to other areas: Area 0, which is pointless; Area 4, which angles away and leads into the bulk of the map; and Area 13, which appears directly above Area 1 in an isolated cul-de-sac.

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Visually, the game nudges you toward Area 13 here. Not only does it appear suspiciously isolated there on its own, your chopper points toward it by default. There’s no reason not to go to Area 13 next.

Of course, you don’t have to. The game gives you the option to skip ahead or Area 4 or in fact any map point on the present side of the divide beyond Area 6. For instance, you may think, “Ah, it’s best to tackle the map in numerical order” and advance to Area 2. That’s fine. But you can’t take this approach too far for several reasons — not least of which being that tackling Area 4 before visiting Area is a tremendous mistake.

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Despite its higher numeration, Area 13 doesn’t represent a greater threat than Area 1. On the contrary, it’s no threat whatsoever. Like all other map points depicted as maroon icons, Area 13 is a Neutral Area where enemies wander but don’t exist. Given the white uniforms and the distant mountains, Neutral Areas are like tiny Switzerlands. Actually, Swiss uniforms aren’t white, but they feel like they should be.

Anyway, the rule behind Neutral Areas is simple: You don’t attack anyone and you won’t be attacked. Theoretically. In some cases, you may encounter foes who use melee attacks — and you can actually smack people with your Bionic Arm. You can also murder with impunity inside building interiors, for some reason.

However, if you fire your weapon in the outdoor portions of a Neutral Area, you will be swarmed instantly by an infinite array of Swiss soldiers out to put an end to you and your non-neutral ways. What could turn a man’s heart neutral? We may never know, but they sure do take it seriously.

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It’s pretty easy to freak out the first time you enter a Neutral Area and see a soldier making a beeline for you, a bayonet held straight ahead. But you can’t kill him; as soon as you pull the trigger, he’ll vanish along with all the other NPCs in the area, replaced by the neutral army. If you hold your fire, the enemy soldier will taunt you, but he won’t attack. Meanwhile, you can gather intel from the non-hostile soldiers who populate the area; some useful, some not.

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Each Neutral Area contains a couple of rooms that you can duck into. These almost always contain items, tips, or bullets to gather for experience. In Area 13’s case, one of the rooms contains this handy item: Flares. These slot into the “active gear” slot in Captain Spencer’s inventory selections at the beginning of the level and can be activated with the Start button once equipped.

This might seem a little self-defeating, since the bonus for completing Area 1 was the Energy Recovery Pills, which also go into the same slot — and you can only have one item active at a time. Were the pills pointless!?

No, as it turns out. Only in Area 4.

You descend into a narrow chasm in Area 4 (Captain Spencer is wicked awesome at parachuting). You can see woods and mountains in the background; it’s quite picturesque. To the right you see a low entrance into the rock outcropping. You step inside the doorway, and bam! HDR! The screen goes completely black; you can’t see.

But of course, you can toss the flares into the air and light your path. NPCs in the Neutral Area clued you into this fact! Assuming you went there. If you didn’t go to Area 13 first, well, this will probably be a short experience for you. Unless you know about the secret level exit command on controller two (which is not mentioned in the instruction manual, alas), you’ll have to stumble through the dark…

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…which is a super terrible idea, because Area 4 is lined with tons and tons of spikes. There’s about a 50-50 split between solid flooring and spikes here. In the dark, you’re probably going to have a short and unhappy life. And unless you happened to encounter a convoy on the area map, you’ll almost certainly encounter a game over here.

It’s not impossible to get through here without the flares, mind you! I wasn’t kidding about the HDR; when you first enter the cave, the screen goes completely black… but after a moment, Captain Spencer’s eyes adjust to the dark and the highlights of rocks and spikes become faintly visible in a midnight blue against the black. It’s a cool little touch… and a fun way to challenge your Bionic Commando skills once you get a feel for the mechanics.

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As an act of mercy, Area 4 is far smaller than Area 1 one. The cave interior comprises less space than the Area 1 base interior alone, and there’s no equivalent outdoor space. There’s also only a single communication room to deal with. While Area 1 offered a little taste of multiple challenges, Area 4 revolves almost entirely around learning to make use of your tools (the Flares) and swinging clear of spikes. The new opponent here is the bayonet soldier — well, he appeared in Area 13, too, but here he can actually cause you quite a bit of pain. He requires several shots to take down, and he dashes toward you when you enter his line of sight. Area 4 is smaller than Area 1, yes, but it requires more precise control over the Bionic Arm and faster reactions against quick-moving enemies in tight spaces.

Area 4’s interior space beyond the communication room also offers players two possible routes forward. You can take the obvious path straight ahead, grappling around a number of small platforms over pits of spikes; or you can take the advanced route by swinging along the ceiling and sneaking up through a narrow platform that bypasses the room of tiny handhold. Both offer their own challenges, but the upper route is designed in a way such that only advanced players who fully understand the inner workings of Bionic Commando will recognize it as a possible path.

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And inside the reactor room at the end of the stage, you don’t have to deal with the swarms that appeared in Area 1. Instead, there’s another… bionic commando? This guy lacks your awesomeness; he’s thoroughly grounded, a thick and heavy trooper toting a massive riot shield and capable of alternating between a gun and a knife. His bionic arm is strictly for offensive purposes, not for navigation; he walks around on the floor and flings his wire arm upward when he pulls up directly beneath you.

Like your own arm, his doesn’t cause physical harm; it can only send you reeling. However, he can keep smacking you over and over, eventually knocking you to the ground, where he can plow into you with his bayonet. In order to have a chance of defeating him, you need to swing behind him, drop down, turn, and immediately fire… three times, because he has two pips of health.

Similar to the enemies in Area 1’s reactor, the bionic soldier will vanish once you destroy the main system. However, you can’t simply stand and pump bullets into the reactor with the beefy dude patrolling beneath you; you have to either draw him away from the reactor or figure out a way to defeat him. In either case, he’s the trickiest foe you’ve faced so far, with the saving grace that you don’t have to beat him.

The Anatomy of Mega Man Vol. I: It’s a book

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And realize that this blog
Works quite well in book form

Eat your heart out, Bob Dylan.

ANYWAY. The Anatomy of Mega Man Vol. I, which includes all the bits about Mega Man and Mega Man 2 from Anatomy of Games as well as a bit of new material, can now be purchased for American dollars. Probably some other kinds of dollars, too. I think Blurb is pretty open to most forms of capitalism.

The color hardcover and color paperback are both available. Yes, as always, self-publishing is spendy. The inexpensive black-and-white compact pocket edition will be along in a few weeks, and the PDF version will go up for sale next Monday on Gumroad (Patreon supporters get a one-week “exclusive” on it, you see).

The Anatomy of Mega Man, Vol. I PDF.indd

I tried to do up the cover art in the style of Keiji Inafune, but it didn’t work out, so I did it up in the style of Hitoshi Ariga instead. That didn’t work out so well, either. Alas. I’m out of practice on the illustration front. But hey, the game analysis is pretty OK!

I love the way this stuff converts into coffee table format. So clean and crisp. Yes, it’s very much the definition of vanity press, given how few copies of these sell.

P.S., on a related note: Don’t forget that The Anatomy of Super Mario Bros. is featured in the Story Bundle Games 4.0 package for one more week, a big chunk of revenue from which goes to a charitable cause.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 2 | King of swing

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Having reached the communications array for Area 1, you’ve opened the door to the base interior. In order to get there, though, you need to make your first true and proper swing; the outer base is divided by a large gap that can only be crossed by swinging across with this lamp as your grappling point. The game does a good job of communicating what you need to do here; the space between the two installations consists of nothing but pure blue sky punctuated by a single search lamp post topped with a lamp whose design incorporates a visual dimensionality that breaks the visual plane and appears tangible. It doesn’t take much to get the point: This is how you’re traversing the opening.

The second outer fortress has much the same design as the first: You need to climb it, but you can’t simply zip from one level to the next. You need to work your way back and forth, avoiding obstacles and enemies.

Speaking of enemies, you face two kinds of soldiers here: Standard roaming soldiers, and stationary gunners who protect themselves with cover. The foot soldiers are practically a non-factor; they wander about aimlessly and will occasionally drop down from one level to the next, but they stand and twitch momentarily before committing to a jump, as if they’re nervous about taking the leap. Every once in a while, they’ll fire a random bullet or two as well. But if you let them stand around long enough to take a shot at you, you’re doing it wrong. The enemy infantry will become more aggressive in later stages, but here they appear to have been deliberately toned down to keep things manageable for you.

The cover-shooters are a little trickier, as they pop up just long enough to fire three shots at you in rapid succession and immediately drop back down. You need to fire at them right as they stand and then immediately duck below their fire. Where the foot soldiers simply introduce you to the idea that there can be bad guys wandering around, the gunners introduce you to a more sincere threat. You can’t get past them unless you master the idea of timing your shots to hit a target before it moves, as well as the need to duck out of enemy attacks.

When defeated, the enemy soldiers here drop only a single type of collectible pick-up: Green-tipped bullets. You can collect them by walking over them or by grasping them with the bionic arm to pull them close, but either way they have no immediate effect. It’s not until you reach the second half of the stage that you’ll be able to collect enough to enjoy the benefits of gathering these drops: Once you pick up your fifth bullet, you’ll hear a chime and a small icon will appear at the top of the screen.

Again, the value of this turn of events may not be immediately apparent, but the icon represents a point of health. When Bionic Commando begins, it works just like the arcade game: One hit and you’re dead. But this being a console game, it’s meant to be something you can master rather than a quarter-gobbler. Knowing the play mechanics are tricky enough on their own, Capcom redesigned the NES game to include the ability to fill out Captain Spencer’s life bar. Bullets works as experience points, and the more you collect the longer your life meter will become. Any attack you suffer in the beginning of the game will instantly destroy you, but once you’ve gained  a life point, you can soak up an enemy attack. The more life points you add — and the cost to upgrade increases with each level, though not quite exponentially — the more durable you become.

Another tactic you can learn for effective play here is precision grappling. Several of the gunners sit on platforms with a bit of space behind them. You can snag onto the ceiling beneath the unoccupied space, pull yourself up, and shoot these otherwise dangerous foes unguarded. It’s a handy tactic to learn, and one that will become essential throughout the game.

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Area 1 turns out to be surprisingly large for an introductory area to a game built around a never-before-seen mechanic. The base interior actually occupies more total screen real estate than the outside, and its structure is considerably more intricate. (Better not to question why the interior of a narrow tower appears to be constructed within endless bedrock; Badd technology is spectacular.)

The entry area flanks you with two elevators that will carry you down a tall shaft, deeper into the earth. Remember that hacked dialogue that said to beware the elevator? Well, here’s the elevator. It turns out the one to the left is rigged to send you plummeting into a pit of spikes as soon as you step on it — though a quick-witted player can save their own bacon by snagging a wall as they drop. While this booby trap isn’t entirely fair, the game does set you closer to the safe elevator on the right, which can be controlled by pressing the up and down arrows. You’re more likely to step on the elevator immediately adjacent to the interior entrance, especially since it triggers your “move left to right” platforming instincts. If, however, you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do here, the rigged left elevator will drop from beneath you and clue you into the fact that you need to descend.

An alcove midway down the right elevator takes you to another communication room, where you unlock the door to the boss chamber. You could theoretically reach the boss before using the comm station, but it’s unlikely, since the stage design is fairly convoluted and the alcove is right next to the entry shaft.

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You’ll find a considerably elevated threat level inside the base. Foot soldiers endlessly parachute into base (through the bedrock, even); the cover-using soldiers now can alternate between rocket launchers and bombs, forcing you to stay on your toes. Several electrical barriers obstruct the paths through the base, forcing you to use your grappling arm to pull yourself up toward the ceiling and shoot the shield generators out before you can advance.

There are a few niceties to be found here. You’ll see a couple of green-and-white boxes parachute into the base. By this point you should associate that particular color scheme with good things thanks to the bullets you’ve been gathering and the white-and-green health point icons they help generate. In this case, the boxes contain a variety of power-ups — usually a POW symbol that causes an indestructible ball to orbit around Captain Spencer for about 10 seconds, taking out any enemy it hits and blocking deadly projectiles.

Speaking of bullets, the endlessly parachuting soldier drop them (unlike infinite troops supplies in most other areas of the game), so you can continue to farm health boosts. When you reach a new character level, your health is completely refilled to its new maximum, so gathering power-ups basically amounts to free healing. There’s definitely a point of diminishing returns with leveling up, as after about three or four health icons appear the cost of reaching the next boost becomes tediously high, but the thick swarms of foes actually work in your favor here due to the low danger they pose and the ample rewards they offer up in defeat.

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The boss door waits at the upper left of the base interior. Your route takes you down, then left, then up, then left. If you haven’t gotten a feel for Bionic Commando‘s move away from linear or one-directional scrolling, this should clear things up nicely.

The boss door poses the most difficult scenario in the entire stage, with a shield generator, a rocket soldier ducking behind cover, and the usual throng of parachuting soldiers. You need to take out the shield while avoiding the other hazards, which can be tricky; the guy with the bazooka will blast your feet while you dangle to take out the shield, so you have to alternate grappling to the ceiling with ducking. Unless he decides to chuck a bomb at you, which rolls past you and doesn’t inflict damage until it explodes — that offers a perfect break in his attack pattern for you to focus on the shield generator.

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Inside the door, the base commander — a burly, bearded guy — threatens you and begins summoning an endless array of infantry. Unlike the paratroopers in the previous area, these guys move quickly, fire fairly aggressively, and don’t drop bullets upon their defeat. It doesn’t take long to realize there’s no percentage in dealing with them; better to complete the objective as quickly as possible.

The commander, by the way, is completely harmless. He simply stands in place and waves his baton. However, he does have a special death animation: He slumps forward before vanishing.

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The objective here seems pretty clear: You need to destroy the base’s central reactor. In case you weren’t clear on this fact, the commander even taunts you for your intention to “destroy the main system.” There’s a nice big target to shoot at here, and no Mother Brain-like complexity to get in your way. Just stand and blast the thing until it explodes, dodging the occasional scrub-class foe. You don’t even need to make special use of your bionic arm or anything — the vulnerable point of the reactor is at gun level.

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Destroy the reactor and you’re treated to a mission report screen in which Captain Spencer reports back to his team to inform them of the bonus item collected for completing Area 1: Energy Recover Pills, which slot into your equipment grid and can be used to instantly restore your health in the heat of battle.

The first stage is down, and with its completion the player should have a solid grasp on Bionic Commando‘s fundamentals. The game gets trickier and more complex, but by and large it simply iterates on the challenges you’ve faced here.

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 1 | OK, we’ll move

After some deep soul-searching (read: Half-hearted musing until moved by a fickle whim), I’ve decided to forge ahead with Bionic Commando. After the unevenness of The Goonies II, it’ll be nice to have a genuine masterpiece to look at.

That’s right, a masterpiece. I’m not saying Bionic Commando doesn’t have its shortcomings, but it’s a shockingly well thought-out game that elegantly incorporates a lot of the concepts The Goonies II fumbled with, all the while presenting itself with wholly unique play mechanics. Despite the complexity of the game for its time, it holds up quite nicely and does a great job of presenting its innate rules and mechanics. Hence, a masterpiece.

Bionic Commando does three rather innovative things for its time: It abandons traditional platform mechanics (by which I mean “mechanics that had been established about three years earlier by Super Mario Bros.“); abandons standard level-by-level advancement in favor of an area map containing the stages in a nonlinear arrangement, similar to what Super Mario Bros. 3 would do several months later; and integrates an RPG-like system of advancement in which tools and equipment play a key role in progress, with clues for their use provided through dialogue with non-player characters. That’s a pretty heady combination of features for a work of this vintage — and a lot of big ideas to communicate with the player. But Bionic Commando manages to pull it off for the most part, which is a significant factor in its classic status.

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The game begins with a quick conversation to set the plot into motion and introduce the radio dialogue mechanic — although you can occasionally have conversations in person, most of the chatter here plays out like Metal Gear codec conversations, either through radio-style dialogue or by interacting with the communication centers throughout the world. Once the radio patter concludes, the action begins.

However, instead of flinging you immediately into combat, you begin on the map screen, where you’re forced to choose your course of action: Descend or Transfer. In truth there’s only one possible act here — you begin over Area 0, which isn’t an active zone. Selecting Descend does nothing, so you’re forced to choose Transfer. Once you make this selection, the chopper in the lower left corner (the player avatar) moves up toward Area 1, its only possible destination. At the same time, you see enemy trucks kick into action, shuffling about the map while the chopper is active and coming to a rest when the helicopter does. It’s almost roguelike, in the most rudimentary sense of the term.

Once you reach Area 1, you’re given another prompt, and now you can choose Descend. But beyond Area 1 are trucks moving, an uncertain dynamic elements — they won’t come to Area 1 yet, though, so while you can move past Area 1 and skip it, a new player almost certainly won’t. It just feels more instinctive to tackle this stage ahead of you.

When you choose Descend, you run through a quick equipment select screen. For the moment, you only have two items, so there are no alternatives here, but this feature will become important later.

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You parachute into Area 1, and immediately anyone experienced with platform games grasps that Bionic Commando works a little differently than most. Where most platformers see you running from left to right and avoiding obstacles and enemies, that’s not how this stage unfolds. You start at the far left on a flat expanse of ground containing no hazards, only a few low-ceilinged platforms. Shortly after the beginning of the stage, you encounter a small barrel.

For any other platform action game protagonist, this would be a non-issue. You’d hop it and move along. But Captain Spencer here can’t jump; the B button fires his pistol, but the A button instead causes him to plant his feet and fling a bionic arm. By default, the arm rises at a 45-degree angle, but if you press forward it’ll fly straight ahead. Press up and it’ll sling out directly overhead.

The barrel here serves the same purpose as the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. World 1-1: It’s an obstacle that forces you to learn how to use the game’s basic mechanics. Instead of jumping over the barrel, you need to swing over it. Your bionic arm is actually marvelously versatile. It can pull you forward (fling the arm straight ahead at the barrel and you’ll pull yourself toward it… but not climb it). It will also allow you to grab onto a thin overhead platform and scramble up to mount it, which would normally be the easiest answer to this sort of obstacle. However, the ceiling directly above and to the left of this barrel is lined with more barrels, which create an obstruction that prevents you from climbing to the floor above.

So, your only recourse is to use the 45-degree angle function. Stand next to the barrel and press the A button by itself and you’ll grasp the ceiling on the other side of the obstacle. Once connected, you can tap the controller forward to swing past the barrel. You’ll continue swinging back and forth until you input another command; pressing forward, backward, or down will cause you to disconnect your grappling arm with momentum moving in that direction, while pressing A again will cause you retract your arm and dangle directly below the ceiling.

At this point, any action (besides swinging back to the left of the barrel) is correct. Your only goal here is to bypass the obstacle on the ground, and in doing so you learn to use the grappling mechanics. Unless you drop off the ledge to the far left into the water, there are no hazards or threats here to deal with yet. You can fumble around with the controls until it clicks. It’s all good.

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Having scrambled over the barrel, you’ll quickly discover the level design of Bionic Commando is quite unlike that of other platformers. Continue running to the right and you’ll come to a wide pit that can’t be crossed — Spencer can’t jump, and there are no grappling points within reach.

As it turns out, stages in Bionic Commando tend to be more vertical than horizontal. Thankfully by this point NES programmers had sorted out the secrets of multi-directional scrolling; Bionic Commando would never have worked with Metroid-style alternating scrolling. The grappling mechanics allow you to cover a large amount of space in a single action, moving both horizontally and vertically, and because you can easily climb to a higher level by simply tossing your arm upward and pressing up, the stage layouts take advantage of your range.

In order to reach the right side of the stage, you need to climb up two levels in order to reach a spot lamp that rises from the water between the two halves of the area. The lamp’s pole isn’t interactive, but you can grab onto the light fixture itself and swing.

The structure on the left side of the divide is arranged like a tower, leading you upward before you descend back down to reach the pole. As you climb, you’ll actually see a door at the pinnacle of the building before you notice the spot lamp, which means you’re more likely to investigate the door before advancing forward. After all, you’re already working your way upward — why not just keep going?

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And just as well, because you can’t actually enter the final portion of the stage until you enter the room at top of the first structure. It’s the first of the game’s communication rooms, where you tap into the enemy systems to relay messages back to your chopper crew — or, alternately, to spy on enemy communications. Each area’s system uses one of four different communicators; you can only carry one at a time, which you choose at the beginning of a stage. Carrying the wrong communicator will render you unable to activate the current stage’s computer system, which in many cases means you won’t be able to complete the level.

Here, for example, you need to broadcast to your chopper crew in order to open the door to the base interior. Since you only have the α Communicator and had been forced to select it at the start of the stage, there’s no possibility of you being improperly equipped for Area 1: α is the only one that works here. Once you chat with your chopper crew, the door on the right half of the stage opens.

You do have one other option here, though: Wire-tapping. Instead of speaking with your support staff, you can also listen in on enemy chatter, which will often clue you in to secrets of a stage, hints for navigating future areas, or even enigmatic plot developments. The downside to using Wire-tapping is that there’s a roughly one in three chance that the enemy will be alerted to your surveillance, and when you step away from the computer you’ll be accosted by a pair of large melee soldiers that flank you and rush at you as well as an endless stream of standard troopers who parachute into the comm room until you duck out again.

That won’t happen in Area 1, though. You can wire-tap with impunity and learn about the rigged elevator inside the enemy base (though some of the localization work here makes the clues so abstract you won’t understand the message until you’ve already triggered the trap in question).

It may be a complete coincidence that the communication screen looks almost exactly like the one from Metal Gear, which launched on MSX almost exactly a year before Bionic Commando on Famicom… but probably not.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 6 | Farewell, Astoria

Like so many video games, The Goonies II presents some strong ideas and solid moments… and it ends pretty terribly. The game sort of peters out, losing its momentum in the final stretch.

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Quite possibly the strangest portion of the game comes in this final zone, a completely unique tile and palette set that comprises all of nine screens worth of the game world. On the map, it’s the tiny little curlicue on the bottom-right of the Back map, and it exists only one one side of the world — there’s no Front-side equivalent here. This area has only a handful of doors to explore, and you can cruise through this portion of the adventure in a matter of minutes.

Given the tight memory constraints of NES carts of this era, the addition of such a small, unique zone seems almost wasteful. It’s over before you even can really appreciate it, and then you’re back to more attics and cellars — the same couple of tile sets arranged in different color sets, though similar enough colors to be fairly confusing.

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At this point any adherence to the movie is pretty much out the window. You could kind of see the Goonies film connection in things like skeletons and knights, given the dead pirates and museum curios in the movie, but fire-breathing dragons over open pits of magma that spew gouts of flame? You can see Konami pretty much laying down the template for a decade of sketchy licensed adaptations. “Well, we’re out of ideas that look like the actual flick, so, eh, what the hell.”

The hazards in this zone hit unbelievably hard; the dragons take something like a dozen hits to put down, while they shave an entire block off Mikey’s health with a mere touch. Those fireballs, which have a tendency to blast into you while you’re trapped on a lift, are nearly as dangerous.

Still, even if it’s horribly out of place and lopsidedly difficult, the fire zone has a certain charm to it. Visually, it’s quite appealing, with the bright green dragons popping out against the rich earth tones and deep neutrals of the caverns. And gosh darn it if those critters don’t look downright delighted to be frying Mikey’s face with searing gouts of superheated air.

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As it turns out, I was mistaken about being forced to reach the fire zone by traversing the bridge. As it happens, you can get there two different ways: Through the geyser caves, yes, but also by way of a Warp Zone in the Back portion of the opening stage, where the first Goonie was trapped. So there’s no need to risk life and limb and boomerang on the bridge; whatever time you might be able to shave off your run by going from the ice caves to the cavern across the bridge is negligible and certainly not worth the risk of losing your hard-fought boomerang, which you desperately need against the powerful creatures in the latter stages.

The far end of the magma caverns takes you to another Warp Zone that leads into the most advanced area of the Fratelli hideout. Although it looks similar to the attics above the Front portion of the hideout, the main difference comes in the enemies: The Knights here use short sabers and small round shields, and the skeletons are a weaker variant with hunched posture.

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Given the visual repetition here, much of the difficult in the quest for the final Goonie comes from the simple act of keeping track of where you’ve been already. It’s easy to get lost thanks to the reuse of assets, and while this one green-tinted version of the attic definitely stands out, the others (all in tan and orange) blend together. And it doesn’t get any easier once you descend into the cellars for this portion of the map, which appear in slightly different shades of orange.

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In any case, it’s worth searching until you find the last key item of the game: The optional but extremely useful Bulletproof Vest, which reduces damage to Mikey by 1/2. This greatly increases his survivability, which is important despite the mild penalty for continuing: The final two hostages to rescue are secured in areas where weak, easily defeated enemies are less common than more durable monsters, so grinding for Keys can be a hassle. Better not to wipe out and lose all your Keys in the first place.

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Surprisingly, there’s one last underwater section, though it’s small: A simple two-screen sequence where a Goonie is held captive. It feels like this portion of the game was designed to be annoying; the pipe here deposits you in an area where Mikey can’t help but bump his head on the ceiling and immediately rebound back into the pipe. It’s a small detail, but one that suggests the designers weren’t really paying much attention at this point in the game.

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With all six Goonies safe, Mikey can venture through the Warp Zone in the Front area of the initial hideout. Annoyingly, there’s no short route from the sixth Goonie to the beginning; you need to backtrack all the way through the confusing attics and dangerous fire caves. Alternately, you can sacrifice Mikey, jot down the password, and choose to continue the game. You’ll restart from the beginning, a few screens over from the Warp Zone leading to the final run. When accepting a game over is your most efficient path forward, you’ve probably done a lousy job of designing your game.

Also, props to the inclusion of one last unique background tile set, though using it to depict yet another cabin/attic-type space seems a bit of a waste.

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The final run is actually fairly straightforward — if you head right every time you enter a new area and take the first door you encounter, you’ll reach Annie in short order. Finally, it comes down to this twisting screen full of mundane enemies you’ve been fighting throughout the game. None of the weird end-game monsters show up here — the lumbering golems or sword-wielding skeletons or bizarre ghost that warps in from all corners of the screen to center on Mikey’s current position. Nope, just some anticlimactic snakes and spiders.

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Which in turn leads to that last underwater door and a massive steel gate that only opens if you’ve saved all six Goonies.

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Inside is your inexplicable damsel-in-distress, Annie the Mermaid, who greets you enthusiastically. This whole thing is weird: Why a mermaid? Why did they base her name and appearance on Little Orphan Annie? Also, I didn’t think anything of it when I first played this game at age 13, but now that I’m much older I’m a little uncomfortable about the princess at the end of the proverbial castle being a nude underaged girl.

All in all, a fairly bizarre mix of the movie’s concepts with the developing tropes of video game design and storytelling.

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I have to imagine that for those who have never played The Goonies II, discovering and playing it for the first time today must feel an awful lot like the way I feel when I try and boot up a old Spectrum game whose praises I hear trumpeted on high. I can sense the underlying ambition and innovation that resonated with people several decades ago, but it’s so opaque and unfriendly I can’t lose myself in it the way its contemporary fans did.

I will say, though, that The Goonies II has one advantage over most Spectrum games: It’s not ludicrously difficult. The defanged penalties for dying and infinite continues might undermine its appeal for some, but this would be a considerably lesser game experience if you had to play it through in one sitting, or even on one credit. It’s every bit as unfair in places as something like Jet Set Willy, with powerful enemies placed for maximum cheap hits, but you can keep hammering away at it until you finish. Flawed, but well-meaning, and an important albeit halting step toward greater things.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 5 | Truffle shuffle

The biggest bottleneck to progress in The Goonies II really amounts to simply figuring out how things work — where to punch and hit in Adventure scenes, how to use the second page of tools like the diving gear. With those things sorted out, the game actually moves pretty quickly. You develop a routine of investigating rooms: For instance, punching the back wall, hammering the wall and ceiling and floor, examining the room with the Glasses, and finally checking the Transceiver for that scene’s hint. It’s a little pokey thanks to the interface — every action requires a slow text crawl of explanation — but compared to contemporary pixel-hunts, it’s really pretty innocuous. There are only three possible hotspots per room (hidden objects, to my knowledge, never appear on the side walls), so it moves along at a pretty decent rhythm once you sort out the limitations and possibilities.

The world of The Goonies II really isn’t that big, either. The Front/Back arrangement can make it a touch confusing in places, but the in-game map can be a big help in keeping things straight. Once you reach the first underwater sequence, the final pieces of the game fall into place and the remainder of the quest becomes a matter of finding the last few Goonies and sorting out where Annie is located. Actually, you get a glimpse of her prison in this area; like the slice of the Fratelli hideout you could peep at early in the game, there’s a screen at the very bottom of the underwater lake that exists entirely so you can see a mysterious door well out of reach, giving you something to work toward.

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The lake itself completely changes the mechanics of the game, though it shouldn’t be too hard to cope with if you’ve played Super Mario Bros.; Mikey swims just like Mario, by pumping the A button to create buoyancy that counteracts his natural tendency to sink downward. The difference here is that the map doesn’t stick to ratchet scrolling — you can move freely in either direction — and Mikey’s diving suit comes with a spear gun that fires in a straight line across the screen. This sounds all well and good, but trying to draw a bead on fast-moving fish while bobbing along demands good timing.

Annoyingly, pits still function like video game pits here, despite the fact that you move vertically between areas. You can only make those transitions by using pipes embedded in the floor or ceiling, though. If you let Mikey drift down below the bottom of the screen, he’ll die, even if there’s an explorable portion of the lake below where you drop off.

The only other weapon that works underwater besides the auto-equipped speargun is the bombs you can collect from fallen enemies. They drop straight down to land on the bed of the lake before exploding, and besides being very useful against foes like crabs they can also reveal hidden doors, like the one above.

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The underwater zone contains the final two key items players need in order to advance: The Ladder and the Jumping Shoes. The former comes into play during the Adventure scenes, allowing Mikey to climb to other levels through holes in the floor or ceiling. The latter you need to make an action jump back in the geyser caverns across the bridge. Yes, you have to face the skulls again before you can complete The Goonies II. No one ever said NES games were very nice.

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How droll.

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The Goonies II doesn’t really give you any guidance as to which tool you should put to use next. The Jumping Shoes actually come into play further from where you collect them than the Ladder….

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You may recall a hole in the ceiling in one of the first Adventure scenes in the game; well, now you can use it.

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As it turns out, there was a Warp Zone up there all along. If only the Fratellis had invested in some stairs or something. This Warp Zone leads to the hideout’s attic, which appears to have been based loosely on the attic upstairs at Mikey home in the movie, where his dad kept overflow exhibits from the museum where he worked. It’s full of the bat-winged skeletons from the caverns and a new ridiculously powerful enemy, knights.

In terms of platforming action, The Goonies II ceases to hold up quite so well here. With the arrival of the knights, you’re suddenly faced with multiple enemies that require nearly a dozen hits of any of Mikey’s weapons to defeat. (Well, Knights will actually go down with a single Molotov cocktail, but those are a limited resource and don’t drop from defeated enemies nearly as often as you might like.) The narrow passages of the attic, combined with the powerful and difficult to defeat enemies, can make it difficult to advance without dying frequently. Of course, there’s no permanent penalty for death in this game, but continuing reduces all your consumable to zero… which can be maddening when you’re trying to unlock a jail cell or safe in this area. You have to grind against those same powerful enemies until one of them drops another key.

Also new to the attic zone is the final Fratelli: Ma Fratelli herself, who throws deadly and accurate bouncing bombs at Mikey and takes four hits to stun. You may wonder why an hunched elderly woman has twice the endurance of her sons, but I’ll allow it: Anne Ramsey was a tough old lady.

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If you follow the path through the attic zone through to the end, you’ll eventually come to the isolated underwater area you spotted earlier. Yes, it’s the end of the game, where you’re greeted by an army of Moai heads. The door above your entry point contains nothing but a massive steel door… which at this point won’t open. You can advance to the end game early, but it turns out you can’t rescue Annie the Mermaid until you’ve saved all of your fellow Goonies. Alas.

There’s no benefit to trying to sequence break, either; the Adventure scenes you encounter in the latter half of the attic and beyond are completely useless. At this point, you’ve acquired all the weapons and items in the game. You don’t need additional key rings. And there aren’t even that many skirmishes in the final sequence, so there’s no real benefit to addition Bomb or Fire Boxes. So you encounter a lot of empty rooms and safes whose message consists of the most annoying platitude in the game: “It’s fun to play The Goonies II.” Which, ironically, creates a valid counterpoint to its own claim.

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No, in order to see the game through, you have to head back across the bridge of boomerang thieves for the true climax of the action scenes: The terrifying fire caverns. And you’ll almost certainly have to face them without a boomerang. It’s fun to play The Goonies II… maybe.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 4 | Rocky Road

“Sure, The Goonies II is an 8-bit game,” you say. “But I’m not convinced it really hates me.” Well, please allow me to show you the truth in all its grim fullness.

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Following the Keith Haring graffiti will lead you to another section of the orange caverns, which offer a one-way trip to the exterior of the Fratellis’ hideout — the only portion of the game in which you’re outdoors rather than underground in a cavern or in some sort of man-made structure. Don’t worry, The Goonies II doesn’t suddenly go all open world on us; this is more like the courtyard in Castlevania: A contained open-air section that lends a touch of scale to the proceedings.

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In this case, the open air surrounds the bridge that links the west half of the game to the eastern areas. It’s a rickety suspension bridge, as such things are wont to be, and the sense of vertigo the comes from the blue skies makes for a more stressful challenge than if this were one of the many similar platforming sequences within the hideout.

Not that it needs any help creating a sense of stress. The bridge is the single most evil area of the game — not hard in the traditional sense, but capable of inflicting a terrible setback on players that in many ways is much worse than simply dying. After all, The Goonies II barely penalizes you for dying. When you run out of lives, you can continue in the exact spot where you expired with no punishment save the loss of your consumable items (keys and bombs and the like). But the bridge, unless you play flawlessly, can rob you of an incredibly valuable item and force you to backtrack to recover it.

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The culprit? These inexplicable metal skulls, which fly swiftly toward Mikey and will continue to spawn every few seconds for as long as you’re on the bridge. The skulls are unique in the game as the only enemies that don’t injure Mikey; when they make contact with him, they hover for a moment before flying away.

So what’s the big deal? The problem is that they have voracious appetites, and the only menu selection in their diet is boomerangs. If a skull makes even passing contact with Mikey, they’ll devour his boomerang, removing the weapon entirely from his inventory. It’s not lost, exactly; you can go back to where you found it and retrieve it. The problem is that the boomerang resides in the ice caverns, which is a good five-minute jaunt from the bridge. Every time you lose your weapon, you need to trudge back — as good a justification for save states as I’ve ever heard.

Getting past the skulls unscathed is no easy task. They’re quick and resilient, requiring three hits before they go down. And no, you can’t hit them with the boomerang to stun them — they’ll destroy it in midair.

The best tactic for dealing with the skulls is to use your other ranged weapon, the slingshot. Slingshots drop very rarely from enemies, and you can also find one in a room in the hideout cellars near the beginning of the game. It’ll respawn every time you run out of slingshot ammo, or when you die (slingshots count as a consumable item). The slingshot allows you to take out the skulls from a distance with three quick shots. Even then it’s no easy task… though it can be made slightly easier if you find the hidden item immediately before the bridge: A pair of Hyper Shoes, which allow Mikey to run faster when equipped. The door that contains them is hidden, requiring the use of a bomb to reveal the entrance, but it makes the dash across the bridge far quicker, meaning you have to deal with fewer skulls (as they appear on a timer).

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Keeping the boomerang intact is of the essence beyond the bridge, too. The enemies here are largely similar to the ones in the previous caverns, but they move much more quickly. They don’t hit harder or soak up more damage, but the threat level is automatically much higher here.

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You also have to deal with new threats, like these… I don’t even know what they are. Skeletons, sure, but they have demonic bat-like wings. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were the skeletons of Dracula’s demon form from Castlevania. Whatever they are, they’re the worst. They’re powerful, take eight hits to destroy, and respawn on the same quick timer as weak enemies. To date, all other large, dangerous foes — scorpions, walruses, etc. — only respawn if you scroll too far away from where they appear. These guys just keep showing up. The saving grace is that they move pretty slowly, and strictly by making large leaps that allow you to run beneath them safely.

They’re pretty easy to take out from a distance with the boomerang, but god help you if all you have is a yo-yo Island Star.

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Another hazard here comes in the form of the geysers that appear along the ground and blast blobs of scalding water in all directions. You can dodge the water if you’re quick enough, but it’s not easy. Thankfully that’s easily remedied with a direct allusion to the original Goonies:

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A waterproof coat that grants you immunity from the geyser blasts. This coat is much easier to find than the one in the original game — it’s hidden in an Adventure Scene, but you quickly gain an intuition for when you should hunt for hidden objects in rooms. It’s nowhere near as arbitrary as the way the coat was hidden in midair in an innocuous spot in the first game. As a bonus, it also protects you from the waterfalls in the caverns on the west portion of the map.

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Also in this area you’ll find another Goonie, provided you have figured out how to access the Glasses from the Tool menu. However, this captive isn’t the most important discovery in this area by any means.

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No, that distinction belongs to the Diving Suit, which allows you to enter the game’s submerged areas. You may have seen a diving pool earlier; yes, The Goonies II adheres to classic metroidvanian principles, sending you far into dangerous territory in search of a tool to allow you to access an area in previously covered ground. In others words, it’s backtrackin’ time.

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Of course, this means you have to make your way back across the bridge, where Fratelli archers mark the least of your concerns. But let the skulls do as they may, I say. The way ahead takes you back to the very Adventure scene where you collected the boomerang to begin with — not a coincidence, I suspect. Konami knew this sequence was kind of a load of malarkey, and while they didn’t get rid of it altogether they did at least mitigate the pain by making sure you’d be certain to collect the boomerang again on your way to the next Goonie. Little by little, video game designers are learning to be merciful and considerate.

The Anatomy of The Goonies II | 3 | Did you really think I’d kill myself…?

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Well, alright. So you’ve rescued a Goonie. But that wasn’t a given by any means; The Goonies II nudges you in this direction, but it doesn’t strong arm you. There was another path you could have taken from here, and it goes rather far astray from Mouth or Chunk or whoever this kid’s supposed to be. In theory, this grumpy child could be the last Goonie you rescue. It’s a pretty open game, and with openness comes the potential for getting lost… though it should be said that going the other direction once you reach the cellar isn’t going the wrong way, exactly. It’s just not the most efficient use of your time.

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Should you wander over to this guy first instead of exploring the back side of the Fratelli restaurant, you’ll find yourself taking your first step into a much larger world. Sadly, you don’t inherit your father’s old lightsaber; dude’s a museum curator, after all. Instead, you move beyond the initial hideout and venture deep into a series of tropical caves.

The best way to explain the arrangement of the game map in The Goonies II is that it’s essentially stratified. There are multiple zones, but generally speaking these don’t sit side-by-side on the map. Instead, they sit one on top of the other, and a given zone usually stretches the width of a given chunk of the map. Basically these “chunks” each comprise about a quarter of the total map; both Front and Back maps are divided into an east and a west portion, and the only thing connecting east and west is a bridge that spans the middle on the Front map.

Occasionally you can move between two different zones by a ladder — for example, going from the restaurant to the cellar. And in all but a handful of cases, each zone exists (as palette swaps of a single graphical tile set) in the same approximate area on both Front and Back maps. You can pass between the Front and Back version of an area by passing through the Adventure scene that connects the two, but standard Adventure scenes only link up same type areas. To move between different area types — say, a cellar and a tropical cavern —you need to use a Warp Zone.

Again, it’s a slightly confusing world map arrangement, but The Goonies II does follow a certain consistent and orderly set of rules once you sort them out.

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Anyway, this is the aforementioned “cellar to tropical cavern” Warp Zone. Ta-dah!

This earthy cavern feels like a major callback to the original Goonies. Rocks! Vines! Waterfalls that injure Mikey unless he’s wearing a rain coat! You really start to see how visually distinct this game is from its predecessor here, though. The enemies are completely different than the creatures you fought in the hideout and cellars, including giant scorpions that hit hard and can take a beating. There’s no more One-Eyed Willy, but this is kind of worse.

As in the restaurant cellar, you can elect to take a couple of different paths here. One of them leads you to the bridge that connects the two halves of the maps, though that leads to a dead end thanks to an insurmountable jump. And in any case, the door just to the left of where you arrive in the caverns takes you to yet another Warp Zone, which leads you to…

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…some kind of bizarre ice cavern? Man. Astoria, Oregon has the weirdest geology. Though clearly this isn’t meant to be a natural formation given that it features polar bears and penguins and walruses and Eskimos, for some reason. These do not share a single habitat in nature!

The rapid transition from cellar to cavern to freezer feels too abrupt to be “right” — you’d think the game would give you a little more time in the waterfall area to get acclimated to the new environment — but in fact there’s a second trapped Goonie easily accessible here. Still, it’s a strange choice to make this the next immediate destination; your gaming instincts upon reaching the ice tell you to come back later. With falling stalactites and slippery footing, not to mention the rather aggressive native life, the ice cavern gives the impression of an advanced area. But it’s also quite small, one screen high and about three wide in total, and right away you’ll find one the lady Goonies to rescue.

There’s more to the freezer section than this, though. Like the other areas of the game, the ice caverns have a Front section and a Back section. Unusually, though, they’re not connected to one another directly. Instead, you need to pass between Front and Back in the waterfall caverns, then Warp to a corresponding section of ice caverns from there.

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The second (Back) ice area is larger than the other section was by a modest amount, and it’s packed with essentials. It’s connected to the caverns by a pitch-black Adventure scene, though, which may serve as a deterrent to passing between map sides. There have been a few black rooms already, and while you can walk through them and fumble around blindly, it ultimately amounts to a guessing game that’s not particularly enjoyable.

You need the cache of goods from the second frozen cavern, though. Inside a hidden safe you’ll find a pair of glasses, an essential tool. And in the same Adventure scene, you can grab a Boomerang, a (semi-) permanent weapon selection that lets you hit enemies the length of the screen in eight different angles. It’s basically a slower version of the Metal Blade from Mega Man 2, which is to say, invaluable.

Unfortunately, this is also the point at which the game’s flaws begin to show through.

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Konami’s designers still hadn’t quite gotten over their habits from the bad old days of hiding things in oblique ways. The Goonies II isn’t as bad as Simon’s Quest, but it still involves a lot of blind guesswork and trial-and-error. For instance, this door here is one of several in the game that only appears if you press up in an otherwise unremarkable area — a feature unfortunately carried over from the original Goonies. In itself it’s not a a totally unforgivable design choice (none of the hidden doors are utterly essential), but it introduces a maddening possibility space if you get stuck. Can’t find your way forward? Well, you reason, maybe the secret is hidden in a secret door, at which point you commence pressing up in front of every possible tile in the game.

The Goonies II breaks its own rules at times, too. In many of the Adventure scenes, you’ll meet NPCs who offer tips and help (the invisible door above, for example, is the home of Konamiman, who will refill your health for free). If you hit said NPCs, though, they’ll grow angry and refuse to talk to you. Except for the old lady living in the ice caverns — if you hit her five times, she’ll give you a candle to light the darkened Adventure scenes.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the Glasses (and another item you can find in this area, the Transceiver that allows you to gather hints from other characters remotely) demonstrate a strange quirk of the Adventure scene inventory system. Because of visual space limitations, Mikey’s inventory won’t fit into a single menu when you select “Tools.” There’s a second page that can be accessed by pressing the B button. The problem? At no point in the game or the manual does it tell you to press B to view that second page. Perhaps this is entirely an anecdotal complaint, but I found myself stuck for weeks in this game because I couldn’t figure out how to use the glasses I had collected. I didn’t think to press the B button because the manual literally says, “The B button is not used in Adventure scenes.” Even the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, which I bought specifically for help getting through this game, didn’t explain the rules. Ultimately, I figured it out by mashing buttons in frustration. Always a sign of top-caliber interface design.

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Oh well. You don’t need to understand how to use the Glasses to complete everything that’s possible in this area. Once you’ve combed the caverns and ice platforms, there’s nothing left to do but follow the Keith Haring graffiti to the daunting next area.