The original Bionic Commando may be nearly old enough to rent a van and buy fireworks without ID, but don't let that put you off this modernised and expanded 2D remake: the 20-year-old game's bionic arm, which latches onto things with a grappling hook and allows you to swing from them like Spider-Man, was ahead of its time, and Swedish developer GRIN gives it a new lease of electromechanical life in Rearmed for XBLA and PSN.
Initially it's hard to grasp. Standing still and pressing the bionic arm button looses a grappling coil diagonally upward, while pushing forward or upward with the d-pad or analogue stick sends it in one of those directions. Once you've grabbed a ledge or a concrete block, you can then reel yourself in and sit or hang there. Alternatively, diagonal grapples allow you to swing, and then you can detach, soar and fire off the hook again to avoid flopping back to the ground. After a while, you can build up momentum, and with practice and fast reactions you can propel yourself almost anywhere by varying detach timing and plotting a route.
It's a massive amount of potential - more versatile than Mario's feather or Ratchet's Clank-powered copter - and the rest of the game falls into place around it: you're only able to fire left and right, so hovering adversaries have to be chased upward over platforms and stunned by your elastic punch to bring them into range; sandbagged platforms require a double-swing to scale because they block handholds from below; and bosses' weak spots are scattered up and down their metal bodies to force you skyward. Seemingly regressive steps like the absence of a jump button instead provide focus, justified by depth and variety of gameplay scenarios. There are tricks that veterans of the NES original won't recognise, too, like bolts to unscrew and a number of objects that can be reeled in and thrown.
Progress through the single-player campaign brings you face to face with new enemy and level designs to recalibrate your approach. Levels are scattered across a rectangular world map, over which you're ferried by a jabbering female chopper pilot (she's got serious "stones" though, so don't worry), and which is split into colour-coded territories that you can only access when you've acquired the right pass-codes. As you pick between levels, you're occasionally set upon by the enemies' mobile goons, who have to be dealt with in a throwaway top-down shooter sub-game, while progress through individual levels is punctuated by hacking sections: little 3D logic puzzles that involve pushing a coloured orb between blocks to reach a goal.
Of most interest though are the Challenge Rooms you unlock by visiting friendly areas. An extension of the game's Metal Gear Solid-style virtual reality training level, these give you 30 seconds to traverse an aerial obstacle course, and for gamers who warm to the unique demands of the bionic arm, these will provide most of the replay value. There are over 50 to unlock, each with its own online leaderboard, and after a few basic attempts they ramp up in difficulty, covering every surface in one-hit-kill spikes so you can scarcely mis-time a single bionic swing.
The game helpfully tells you how many attempts you've taken to best them, too: by the mid-teens we were averaging 30, occasionally spiking much higher. Instant restarts and the tantalising red glow of the finishing line brought us back time and again. Cross words will be spoken, but time-trial enthusiasts and admirers of twitchy physics games like RedLynx Trials 2: Second Edition and GripShift will lap it up, egged on by Achievements, Trophies (post-release on PSN) and their friends' best times. We'd probably adore this even if it didn't have an entire game strapped to its back.
It does though, and there's more to it than we've described so far. You can play it co-operatively with another player, the camera gradually drawing back if you're separated, and there's a local competitive multiplayer mode for up to four players where you swing and shoot one another in deathmatch and last-man-standing. There's even a don't-touch-the-floor mode where you have to try and knock your enemies to the ground like a sort of Monkey Gladiators. Sadly the multiplayer modes are offline-only (Capcom says they were added too far into development), but with the competitive offerings closer to something like Super Smash Bros. than Quake we can probably forgive this.
Elsewhere, the quality of graphics and audio belies the game's NES origins - and certainly throw a lot of Xbox Live Arcade's "graphical overhauls" into sharp, if not comic relief. Rich, saturated colours, amusing animations (enemies flop to the ground and then tumble Havok-style off the near side of a platform), gorgeous use of light and shadow - backed up by suitably retro sound effects and catchy music that Capcom liked so much it put out a CD (it's available on iTunes, too). The silly 8-bit plot gives the game away, but the comic-style 2D story and not-too-desperately self-referential writing saves the day - or can at least be skipped.
If we're to nitpick, the one thing that's likely to stop BCR swinging merrily to the top of the download best-sellers list is the difficulty level. On the default Medium setting you will struggle to complete levels culminating in a boss encounter on the first go, and mid-level checkpoints expire when you run out of lives, which doesn't take much, leaving you with a potentially gruelling mountain to rescale. Those who find the bionic arm takes longer to click can at least fall back on the Easy setting, but this is definitely Old Capcom, which is worth bearing in mind if you stumbled through New Super Mario Bros. or find yourself playing co-op with David Cameron.
Otherwise this is a deep, generous proposition we're likely to look upon favourably when the review comes around in a couple of weeks. Half the people in its XBLA and PSN target audience were more interested in conkers and kiss-chase when bionic arm first meant something, myself included, and these days we expect our 2D platform games - when we expect them at all - to have jump buttons, multi-directional firing, and difficulty curves that run their fingers gently through our hair rather than ripping it out in clumps. But BCR demonstrates that modern-day updates of revered '80s games needn't be cynical or regressive. Completing it may become a badge of honour now as it was then, but playing Bionic Commando Rearmed could well be essential.
Bionic Commando Rearmed is due out on 13th August on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points (GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.99) and on 14th August for PlayStation Network (GBP 6.99 / EUR 9.99).