Sequels made over 15 years later are notoriously awkward. The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Plastic-Wrap Aliens, and more recently Tron: Legacy have tainted that which we held dear all those years ago.
Modern videogames have the more difficult task of bringing something that worked on a 2D plane into the infinitely more complex realm of 3D. Sonic the Hedgehog never made this transition effectively, so bringing Capcom's favourite cyborg super-soldier to the modern era seemed an arduous task indeed.
As an act of good faith, the studio behind Bionic Commando, GRiN, preceded it with an HD remake of the original NES classic, which it dubbed Bionic Commando Rearmed. It captured the cheesy eighties action-movie atmosphere effectively, with leading man Nathan Spencer sporting shades, a green windbreaker and white sneakers as he attempted to rescue national hero Joseph "Super Joe" Gibson. Fighting dwarfs, grumbling about his ex-wife and making Hitler's head "explod" was just the kind of daft nonsense one would expect from a guy nicknamed "Rad".
It may come as a surprise then that GRiN seemingly abandoned this tongue-in-cheek humour in favor of a grittier soldier's tale with the 2009 home console release, simply called Bionic Commando. Spencer - who in Rearmed was all smiles and pointy Phoenix Wright index fingers - has degenerated into a dreadlocked, Tarzan-like creature voiced by Mike Patton.
"Super Joe", meanwhile, has now become simply "Joe Gibson", the corrupt government agent who removed Spencer's arm and imprisoned him for a decade after bionics were deemed unsafe. It's a jarring transition after their budding bromance aboard the sinking Albatross last time out.
Reinvention is all well and good if done well, but things get off to an uneasy start when Spencer starts shouting lines like "Nailed ya!" every time he defeats an enemy. Rather than continue down the path of satirical machismo or humanise him, GRiN's ill-fitting response was to make him edgier. Did we learn nothing from Prince of Persia: Warrior Within?
This never improves. In fact, when Spencer learns the truth about what happened to his wife in one of the most preposterous game endings ever, his purpose in life goes from, "I'm gonna murder Super Joe," to, "Now I'm really gonna murder Super Joe!" Hardly compelling character development.
So how did I come around to not only tolerating Spencer's portrayal but actually enjoying his work? (Because he certainly didn't work his way through charm school by throwing a grenade into a mechanical gorilla screaming, "Sucks to be you!") The trick is that the game around him is an underappreciated gem. What it lacks in manners, it makes up for in soaring highs, and Spencer's likeness merely serves as a reminder of all those great times we had together.
He was there when I catapulted myself from underneath a bridge to latch onto a flying sentry whose innards I proceeded to rip out. He was there when I swung round an atrium taking out half a dozen meticulously placed snipers. He was there when I propelled myself through the clouds, grappling from droid to droid in an attempt to murder a Walt Disney lookalike in a robot suit, whooping and hollering all the while, mirroring my own exhilaration.
It's not immediately apparent how to get around with a bionic arm, though. We've been trained for years that the best way to launch oneself far is to release at the apex of one's swing, but in fact releasing towards the middle offers greater propulsion.
Getting into the swing of swinging things takes some getting used to, but the accomplishment is meaningful. It's something you've earned. When it clicks, it works so well that playing any third-person shooter without a grappling hook feels archaic in comparison. Was Just Cause 2 the only game to get the memo?
After playing through Bionic Commando on each of its three difficulty settings, I couldn't look at the real world without imagining how I'd swing around it. Streetlights, buildings and ceilings were transformed in my mind. At every turn I found myself frustrated with our antiquated legs and arms. Bionic Commando makes me dream of a better world where we all have bionic arms and never get stuck in traffic (shut up - it would be better).
While Bionic Commando's 2009 outing lacks the retro stylings and kooky characters of its predecessors, it's not entirely humorless either. It just presents its rambunctious personality in different ways. When facing off against a giant mechanical worm (which you actually get to fight, unlike the one in Gears of War 2), Spencer retorts, "Is that a long health bar or are you just happy to see me?"
Your contact replies, "There's no way out. You'll just have to fight it." Upon dying and starting over he'll change his tack to, "There's no way out. You'll just have to f*** it."
"Ummm...?" Spencer snickers. This line is never repeated again no matter how many times you die. Even stranger, the subtitle still reads "fight it". Not since I woke up slaying vampires in Snake's dream in Metal Gear Solid 3 have I been so afraid I was hallucinating. (I've checked around and it really happened. I'm not hearing things. Well, not these things.)
With such attention to detail, it's a shame GRiN went under shortly after its release. Due to poor marketing, middling review scores, and some misguided attempts at baditude, Bionic Commando fell by the wayside for many. It's not all bad news though. Several GRiN staff moved on to Fatshark to work on Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, and our angsty tank-topped pal made an appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
Then again, limiting the agile Spencer to an enclosed fighting arena seems cruel, like that Star Trek episode where people find themselves part of an intergalactic zoo. Captivity doesn't suit a man who was born to swing. Maybe his devil may care attitude wasn't misguided after all, but a cathartic last stand. Sometimes, you just have to f*** it.