Despite its size and lack of color, Bionic Commando manages to easily equal if not surpass the NES game that inspired it
Halfway between a direct port and a remake, Bionic Commando follows the same story as the game of the same name on the NES. You play Rad Spencer, the best of the bionic commando corps, as he goes deep into the warlike Doraize Dukedom to recover lost agent Super Joe. While the original NES title had a contemporary military theme overall, the Game Boy incarnation punches up the technology level into sci-fi territory. The result is a platformer with a shinier, more cinematic feel to it as characters leave the modern army templates to go for spiky hair, arm-mounted cannons and futuristic armor. Not to mention the ever-present grappling hook, without which no Bionic Commando game could feel legitimate.
The sci-fi visuals look especially good on the Game Boy. The cinematics of the opening sequence are remarkably well-done, going so far as to trick depth of field effects out of the limited hardware. The character sprites are well-proportioned and animated, the weapon effects are good and no structure feels out of place, even those you're required to interact with. Themes vary as the levels progress, all remaining consistent with one another while allowing for variety. The sound side of things is very adequate, offering no particular highs but never failing to deliver solid music and appropriate effects.
Gameplay in Bionic Commando is twofold, consisting of platform action sequences tied together with top-down map navigation between levels. Most areas are hostile, while a choice few consist of neutral zones where it's possible to have limited interaction with allied and enemy soldiers, as well as pick up new equipment. While moving from level to level on the overworld map, it's possible to encounter moving troop transports, which pull you into short levels chock-full of parachuting enemies. This is one area where the Game Boy game split from the original NES title's gameplay; while in the original, the troop transport encounters were top-down, here they keep the same platform mechanics found in the rest of the game. While this takes away some of its forebearer's variety, it also means extra time was put into making the main mechanics particularly refined. The controls therefore feel slightly more responsive and overall provide a much better experience.
The premise is still the same: you cannot jump, but must instead use a grappling hook to latch onto structures above you or at your level, swinging and propelling yourself into a strategic position to engage gun-toting enemy soldiers. You can also be creative with the hook, using it to fetch hard-to-reach items or to stun enemies. The game as a whole is also more forgiving than the original, starting the player off with a three-hit lifebar (as opposed to the NES's one-hit-wonder commando) and using a mild RPG element for lengthening it as enemy tokens are obtained.
Where the game experience falters somewhat is in its use of passwords to mark progress instead of a save system. The passwords are visual in nature, consisting of a grid of geometrical shapes which can be inconvenient to write down for later use. Nonetheless, the generous amount of lives and continues means most will only infrequently need to jot down their progress.
Overall, Bionic Commando offers a well-rounded, engrossing and visually attractive action experience, despite the limits of the Game Boy hardware. Despite its lack of color and lower resolution, it manages to easily equal if not surpass the NES game that inspired it. The action seldom feels redundant and the few but notable boss battles offer innovative and sometimes unforgiving challenges that are welcome in this remade classic. Being able to take it anywhere with you is just an added bonus.