Play By Play - Bionic Commando (Game Boy)

By Brian • 14 January 2024

Nintendo Game Boy
Released four years after the debut of Bionic Commando on NES.

Game Boy Fever has infected Bad Enough Dudes headquarters! It’s like Pac-Man Fever, though perhaps without a catchy earworm to make matters better/worse, depending on your musical taste.

Since the debut of Game Boy games on Nintendo Switch Online, I’ve taken a turn with a number of them, both on the Switch Online service and otherwise. I referenced in my last post the need, as the father of a spritely 6-month-old 9-month-old (uh, she was still a 6-month-old when I started writing this blog—yikes), to get my gaming fix by taking the last 15 to 30 minutes before bed and cozying up with a fun, charming game that can accommodate quick, bite-sized play sessions. Skyrim? Not a good choice—much like pro wrestler Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, it can take 45 minutes of action just for Skyrim to get warmed up. Diablo? No way—too much potential for “just one more level.” You know what I mean; we’ve all been there.

Now, a Game Boy game from 1992 with short levels and a password feature, and inspired by one of the greatest NES games of all time? That’s a commanding offer! Let’s talk about Bionic Commando on Game Boy.

I have come here to chew bubble gum and blow up reactors.

I bought Bionic Commando on the 3DS Virtual Console in the waning days of the Wii U/3DS eShops. I figured this would be my last best chance to own a legitimate copy of the game (I mean, as far as digital copies count towards “ownership,” which isn’t much), so I grabbed it before those eShops closed for good, adding it to my small, but respectable collection of 3DS games. I don’t have many games for the 3DS, but I love it. It fits my tiny hands well and, like most Nintendo handhelds, makes me feel cozy and relaxed and nostalgic when I play it. In fact, I have a whole hierarchy for managing my Nintendo handheld usage! I use my 3DS for DS and 3DS games, my DS Lite for Game Boy Advance games, and my Game Boy Advance SP for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. This is completely reasonable and socially acceptable behavior, and I see no need to further explain myself. Hey, where are you going?!

Anyway. Bionic Commando ranks among my top five NES games of all time, so trying out the Game Boy version for the first time (aside from piddling around in an emulator a long, long time ago) filled me with both anticipation and apprehension. The generally positive response from retro gamers to this portable iteration gave me hope, but could it live up to my unreasonably high opinion of the NES version? Firing up the game for the first time and seeing an updated, yet familiar, title screen, started my experience with a pretty strong vibe. Hello, old friend. You look a little different, but it’s good to see you again.

Like I mentioned somewhere above, this is not a straight port of the NES game, but a reinterpretation. The opening cinematic reveals I will again assume the role of Captain Rad Spencer (Rad? Ladd? Radd?! It varies from game to game), and that the established federation hero, Super Joe, has gone missing and is presumably in enemy hands. The Nazi villains of the NES game sit this one out—they are replaced by the Doraize Army, led by the diabolical Director Wiseman, and they’re still attempting to launch a secret doomsday project called Albatross. The same story beats are all here, with some changes in the details. And yes, while I’ll miss the opportunity to bionically punch Nazis, the Nazi-adjacent Doraize Army should prove more than adequate for my fascist-fighting needs. (To be clear, they’re not called Nazis in the NES game, either, but the Japanese version for the Famicom pulls no punches, bionic or otherwise, about who we’re dealing with.)

Meanwhile, The classic military aesthetics and setting of the NES game give way to a more futuristic science-fiction interpretation, with a lot of technology in the background, crazy looking armor, and manga-influenced character designs and hairstyles. The opening cinematic shows a future-armored, wild-haired Super Joe dashing off toward a techno fortress, while Captain Spencer sports similar armor and appearance. Dropping into the game’s first level, I could immediately see the same aesthetic in the gameplay, featuring many technologically-influenced backgrounds and enemies that look more like robots than soldiers.

I didn’t find the new look off-putting—evil robots are just as blastable as evil humans, and again, I’d like to believe this is just another interpretation of the same story. The smaller, chunkier sprites look great and optimize the experience for the tiny screen of the Game Boy, and I appreciate it when developers take the time to do that, rather than squeeze NES-sized sprites onto such a small screen. That being said, I did think the straight exposition of the opening cinematic, while graphically very pretty for the time, lacks the weight or emotional response of the NES game’s opening, where the story begins with Super Joe narrating the events of the game. It’s not Hemingway or anything, but the opening line, “Let me tell you about the man I knew when I was younger,” immediately draws me in—I want to know more! When I play Bionic Commando, I’m not just playing the game, but reliving the events of the game as Joe remembers them, which lends a rawness and poignancy to the entire experience. Even as a 6-year-old, I thought Bionic Commando felt different from our other NES games. There was something more serious, more thoughtful about it.

Some oddly-placed punctuation detracts slightly from the mystique of Director Wiseman here.

Graphical and story changes aside, at its core, this is the NES Bionic Commando, but remixed for Game Boy, and it rules for all of the same reasons. The run-and-gun-and-grapple action is all here, and it’s all pretty comparable to what I’m used to from the NES version. The grappling might be even better, but weapons fire more slowly, so, some give and take. Level design leans a bit more linear in this game, as well, but I indulged in many of the same level themes: enemy fortresses, a dark cave, a tall tower, sewers with pipes belching slime, a disposal facility, and so on. It will all feel familiar and comforting to a seasoned Bionic Commando player, but fun and approachable for a newcomer, too. Levels are structured the same way, too, with Spencer seeking out a communications room somewhere within the level, which provides him with (sometimes) useful info, and unlocks the door to the boss room, where Spencer completes the level by destroying the reactor.

Inside a communications room, in which your commanding officer recaps the mission for players who skipped the prologue. You know who you are!

Even some of the less significant trappings and mechanics of the NES game can be found here. For instance, Spencer still gains new items as he beats levels, and can choose his loadout at the beginning of each level. Travel between levels is still accomplished via helicopter on a world map, moving between numbered areas. The helicopter can be intercepted by enemy patrols, but in this Game Boy version, this between-levels combat occurs in short sidescrolling segments, rather than the Commando-esque overhead sequences of the NES game. Also, neutral zones are again present. These areas often yield useful information and items, but use of weapons will result in retaliation by the neutral forces, so beware!

The world map, from which you can descend to the current level, or transfer to another!

I’ve done a lot of compare and contrast between the NES and Game Boy versions. By now, you’re probably wondering if the Game Boy installment brings any innovations to the battlefield. I have the intel you need—psst, c’mere!

I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that equipment brought into the level can be switched out in the communications rooms. This is great for switching weapons and gear mid-level, but it’s most helpful for switching communicators. If Spencer takes the wrong communicator into a level with him, he can’t get the intel he needs, and the boss door won’t open. In the NES game, this required exiting the level and replaying the whole thing with the correct communicator. The Game Boy game corrects this annoyance for a much appreciated quality-of-life improvement.

Standing outside a communications room.

Some unexpected additions to the in-game action include a capture sequence, which sees a bunch of enemies get the drop on Spencer in a certain area and throw him in a holding cell. An ally busts him out, but he must then search the level for his confiscated equipment. I immediately thought of the capture sequence in Metal Gear when I ran across this, but I found it was not executed quite as well. What should be a thrilling equipment recovery just sort of plods on for too long. This sequence, along with a handful of others, also feature extended dialogue between Spencer and his allies and/or rivals. It all adds a little to the story, but I can take it or leave it.

Other additions include a new last level and some new music. The new last level is the greatest challenge yet to Spencer’s grappling abilities (I died a lot, in other words), and adds additional weight to the Albatross Project. Some of the music in this game is remixed from the NES game, but some new tracks are included, as well. It’s all really good—as always, I am astonished by the quality of music that composers produced from the Game Boy’s sound chip. It’s really good stuff.

As a longtime fan of the NES Bionic Commando, I think it’s fair that I had trepidations trying out the Game Boy version for the first time in earnest. However, I can happily report that, now that I have the whole story, any fears I had regarding the quality of this game were in vain. Bionic Commando on Game Boy is legit. While not quite as emotionally impactful as the NES version, all the grappling and run-and-gun action is here, the soundtrack is superb, and the game looks great. Fans of the series or sidescrolling action games, in general, should play this one without delay!

  • Was I a Bad Enough Dude to finish Bionic Commando
  • Is Bionic Commando Bad Enough to play again?

Screenshot Credits: MobyGames