Building a Better Bionic Commando

A lot of developers are remaking classic games these days, so I thought I’d share GRIN’s experiences with Bionic Commando Rearmed and the upcoming Bionic Commando, two projects that are something as unusual as a remake and a sequel to to a 20-year-old game.

The ground rule of reinventing a classic game such as Bionic Commando is you always have to keep in mind that something that worked perfectly 20 years ago might still work perfectly today, while at the same time you have to be able to see through the haze of nostalgia and realize that the original wasn’t perfect and dare to break down certain aspects of the old in order to build something new. The tricky thing is to determine the difference, and dare act upon that determination–you have a lot of stoked fans who will be very angry if you mess things up!

Staying true to a classic is nerve wracking because development is often a balancing act between pleasing the existing fans and appealing to new ones–although if you have a source material as good as we were lucky to have those two aspects often chime in unison. At first you might think "Hmm, the developers back in 1988 probably did it this particular way because of hardware restraints", but then you realize that it’s really a timeless way of doing it that is still the right way to do it even in 2008. Why change a winning formula?

And about that formula in particular: Some have asked why you can’t shoot the bionic arm out in any of the 360 degrees around your body now that there are analog sticks on every controller. These people don’t realize that the simplification of the arm’s angles benefits the ease of play. Some just have their minds locked on "more freedom means better gameplay," which isn’t always true. That even some gaming journalists fail to realize this boggles my mind.

It’s the same with the jump button–you just can’t add one. Bionic Commando is like an action/puzzle game combination, forcing you to think in new ways to traverse through the world–an aspect that becomes a part of the fun. If you added jump you’d have to fundamentally redesign every level too. Not being able to jump is the trademark of the game. If you miss bubbles in your wine, maybe you were really looking for champaign? Bionic Commando is a fine bouteille de vin that has aged very well.

Nowadays, you can look at plenty of other games outside of the new Bionic Commandos to see remakes done right. I’ve mostly played Mega Man Powered Up! and Metroid Zero Mission, and both are excellent. MMPU really has the controls down to perfection and it feels exactly like the original. (…Although I don’t care for the fact that they turned Mega Man into a big-eyed anime boy with this whining kid’s voice. If I was in charge, he would be kept mysterious – have had the apathetic dead eye stare from the 8-bit games and never utter a word. He’s like the Man With No Name who just rides into town and kicks ass!)

Remaking classics also means revisiting those old, sometimes cheesy stories. The story in an action game such as Bionic Commando would usually come second hand, but there are certain elements in the original story that are part of what made the game so memorable, so we kept it completely intact. Although the 3D sequel coming Q4 2008 has a more serious tone, we totally embraced the "Engrish" translation of the original NES game and went with that kind of corny tone of dialog to go with the bright colors and comic style graphics.

We worked closely with Capcom, who didn’t only approve the design document and prototype, but were also constantly sent the latest playable version of the game to give feedback on. We’ve also had week long design and feedback meetings here in Stockholm for that valuable face to face dialog about the projects and visions. That’s how it has been on both Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando Rearmed. They’ve been great to work with, and between the Japanese and Western design philosophies and development processes we’ve really squeezed out two gaming gems.

And a little bit off topic, but a life lesson learned from working on this game: Don’t lose your girlfriend over work. No reception no matter how good can patch those wounds up.