Release Date: August 13, 2008
Capcom has proven time and again that it is the master of remakes. Ports and remastered games have been keeping franchises like Resident Evil and Mega Man alive and kicking generations past their prime. Once again, Capcom is firmly capturing the hearts of the retro gaming crowd with an almost flawless remake of the most original side-scroller on the NES, Bionic Commando.
Bionic Commando Rearmed should have been purely mediocre. As an almost direct translation of a 20-year-old game, it seemed like little more than viral marketing for the upcoming next-gen Bionic Commando title. But GRIN really delivered the goods and created something to not only ease newcomers into the series, but also deliver some hardcore thrills and fun surprises for dedicated fans. It's equal parts accessible and hardcore, with a Duke Nukem "give-'em-hell" attitude and a visual flair to match. While the game isn't perfect, it is about the best thing to come out of the retro revolution this side of Mega Man 9.
In Rearmed, you fill the sneakers of Nathan Spencer, the Bionic Commando. At the start of the game, you're tasked with saving Federation hero Super Joe from the hands of Generalissimo Killt with only a ridiculous revolver and an extendable grappling arm. The first thing you'll notice is that just like on the NES, you don't even have the leg strength to jump. All vertical (and a lot of horizontal) motion is accomplished by way of the versatile arm, which can fire forward, diagonally, or straight up and grab onto almost any surface it touches. This includes floors, barrels, cinderblocks and eventually enemy soldiers.
The game plays just like its NES namesake, in all its 2-D glory. The game may look like a 3-D masterpiece, but it's still definitely the same old game. The level layouts will be familiar to anyone who's played the original, with the exception of the final level, which replaces the epic boss fight against Mega-Hitler. The final levels suffer from a bit of Wily's Fortress syndrome, and this newly designed level is the biggest perpetrator. Its sheer length compared to the other levels makes it an almost unfair challenge at the end of the game, but extra lives and Commando's multiple difficulty levels keep this from being too big a hindrance. Still, it's odd that the replacement for the most unfair boss fight in gaming history is four huge rooms full of one-hit kill traps and bottomless pits.
All of the bosses have been retooled for Rearmed, however, and mostly for the better. Now, instead of just being buckets you pour damage into, each boss has a definite strategy that only the Bionic Commando can pull off. Each level has a communications room before you reach the boss, and if you successfully hack into the enemy network, you'll obtain hints at the strategy, so even the densest of gamers has a good shot at taking down each boss. There are really only a total of five or six bosses, and although you'll see several similar bosses along the way, they're each a little different and require different strategies, preventing it from becoming a tedious slog through the same old fights. They're even more fun to fight with a friend.
Playing co-op in Rearmed is so natural and fun that it's a wonder it wasn't on the NES in the first place. The game does its best to keep you both on-screen from the outset, encouraging you to work together to take down the hordes of enemies and figure out the trickier platforming elements, but thanks to a dynamic split-screen, you can take off and explore the level whenever you feel like it. The split is very smooth and streamlined to prevent you from chucking yourself off a cliff when it splits, so whether you want to stick by your buddy or split up, the game has you covered. The bosses even change their tactics to encourage some cooperation and increase the difficulty when you partner up. It definitely makes you wonder why every side-scroller doesn't offer this option.
Whether you take on Generalissimo Killt and his fascist army by yourself or with a friend, though, you'll be doing it offline. The only online component of Rearmed is the leaderboards. It'd have been best to have both online and offline co-op play, but if they had to pick one, I'm glad they chose the lesser of two evils and let people have fun in the same room, just like the good old days. The game just wasn't built for four-player skirmishes.
The leaderboards offer some online challenge by way of the challenge rooms. These "VR Mission" style mini-levels have you finding creative ways to swing from point A to point B in the fastest possible time. Early time limits are usually 30 seconds, though more challenging ones can take longer. The challenge quickly ramps up until it's even more difficult than the final level of the main game, and it can keep players busy for days trying to figure out how to get past that spiked wall or bottomless pit. Not only is there an Achievement for completing every challenge, but you're also constantly taunted by the incredibly quick times of anonymous strangers half a world away.
So, what keeps Rearmed from being a perfect 10? I can't say it's the length because there's really almost an unfair amount of playability for only $10. Between the main game and its unlockable extreme difficulty mode, the co-op playthrough, the multiplayer battles, and the 50+ challenge rooms, you're easily looking at 15 hours of gameplay, and it's such an addictive experience that it'll probably be more like 20 or 25.
The sound is still at a perfect 10, with an absolutely fantastic 8-bit score. The action-packed remixes are a joy to hear in every level, and the sound effects are crisp and clear the whole way through. Everything about the soundtrack has been fine-tuned and perfected, complementing the game all the way through.
The graphics are about the best yet in a 2.5-D remake. They outshine the cutesy Mega Man remake on the PSP, or even the stylish Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. The ragdoll physics on downed opponents are a hilarious touch, and the game is full of little graphical nods to its past.
Even the dialogue is all snappy and smart, so where is this game's weakness? Its only fault is in clinging to its past. While it revamped so much of the game, including a host of interesting weapons and doing away with the old inventory system that doomed the unprepared, it kept the original top-down encounter sequences. These are pointless, annoying and occasionally a huge pain. Once you get your hands on grenades and rocket launchers, it becomes a bit simpler, but it's still frustrating to go through them again and again just to get from base to base. Picking up extra lives from past areas or going back to explore becomes more painful than a root canal when you realize you'll have to fight through three annoying encounters, and then maybe a fourth on your way back. To aggravate things, the thumbstick and the d-pad both feel a bit sloppy on the diagonal, occasionally making you go the wrong way on the world map — and right into the enemy. It's still not a big enough bother to ruin the game, and neither are the absurdly long final levels designed by architects with a penchant for torture.
Bionic Commando Rearmed is easily a strong enough title to go for $30 on the PSP, and it's definitely a worthy PlayStation Network/Live Arcade title at $10. The graphics overhaul, improved boss battles, hacking mini-game, new weapons and bionic arm abilities, multiplayer support and additional content will provide immense replay value. Existing and future fans of the series should grab it and hope that the next-gen offering can compete when it's released later this year. It's going to be tough to top this.
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