The NES Bionic Commando certainly had enough popularity to warrant a version on the Game Boy. However, it’s not really a port, but more of a retelling of the NES game’s story than an actual sequel. This is certainly not a bad thing, though, as it retains the swinging gameplay of the original, accurately translated to portable size. Although the plot is much the same as the “rescue Super Joe and foil the Albatross project” premise, you are no longer fighting the Nazis… or Badds, as the case may warrant. The opposition is the Doraize Army, led by Director Wiseman, who are growing in power and intend to control the Albatross in order to take over the world.
Although there are many similarities to the NES release, it has enough original flavor to avoid the dubious label of “rehash.” (Strangely, this game is also known as Bionic Commando in Japan, rather than Top Secret.) For one thing, the setting is more futuristic and cybernetic. Instead of traditional military fatigues, up-close visuals of characters reveal them to be fitted in cyberpunk-ish armor and helmets. The overall feel is less dark and has some anime overtones to it, but this new style works out quite well. To compensate for the lack of color, more artistic detail has been placed into the sprites and backgrounds, and they look quite good. As for the sound, some of the music is borrowed from the NES game and sounds surprisingly great on the lesser GB sound processor. The original music is also very fitting for the game, and the first level theme rocks in all sorts of manners. It does tend to get a little repetitive as in the NES title, though, with several tunes repeated in the later stages.
There aren’t any drastic changes in gameplay, but there are some things to note. The basic format is very familiar, what with the overhead map screen and the mobile enemy vehicles. Like the NES game, there are Action Zones and Neutral Zones. And, again, every item is exactly as it is in the NES game, which is just a tad bit disappointing – maybe at least one extra weapon would have been pretty cool.
The Action Zones are in a semi-linear format that’s not too difficult to figure out, and like its big brother, you will never get lost in any of them. Some stages are reminiscent of the original game, with some changes – for example, the first level of the NES game was split up into two separate levels here. There’s still a sewer level, complete with blobs, though the design is somewhat different. As the game goes on, the levels become a little more unique.
A number of minor elements have been changed. In the communication rooms, there’s also an option that the rooms in the NES version didn’t have – the ability to switch weapons and communicators, just in case you brought the wrong one. There are enemy trucks roving around, and a fight will break out if your path collides with theirs, but the perspective is just the standard side scrolling one, as opposed to the overhead Commando-esque shooting scenes. Still, if you destroy the strongest enemy units, you still accrue continues. Instead of starting out with only one hit to sustain before dying, Rad has three life points in the beginning, which makes the difficulty seem easier at first.
Many Game Boy games, especially conversions of NES titles, have a problem where the sprites are too large in comparison to the small screen, making the action feel cramped. That’s not a problem here, as the sprites have been redrawn and are well-proportioned. The GB game is quite a bit more fast-paced compared to its predecessors, as Rad moves at a brisker running speed. The only downside is that the scrolling is a little choppy.
The controls manage to improve a bit on the fluidity of the NES game, as using the bionic arm feels even easier. Gravity seems to be a bit more lenient on Rad, as he drops rather slowly after releasing his arm from a ledge above, and can fire it again almost immediately in midair. If he grabs the ceiling straight up, it is possible to pull him up, let go, and in a veritable millisecond, shoot the arm out diagonally and swing off to the left or right. The tradeoff is that the arm seems a bit shorter this time around, but its potency has not lost a step.
At the end of every stage is a reactor core and a guardian to destroy. Usually, you can just blow up the core and pay no attention to the enemies, but a few stages require that you destroy the boss this time around. Some of them are from the NES game (like the soldier with a shield and a mechanical arm of his own), but others, like the dastardly General Rile, are completely original to the GB game.
There is, however, one fairly significant change. In the NES game, the battle against the Albatross was a boss fight. In the GB game, it’s been expanded to an entire level, and is quite hard. The most challenging section is where you have to swing outside the Albatross, grappling from its wings and avoiding the flames from its thrusters. There’s nothing but pure air below you for many of these areas, so there’s almost no room for error.
It also has something that the previous title did not – a password feature. After beating an area, you are given a sequence of squares, triangles, and circles that make up a password. This system is somewhat reminiscent of the Mega Man games, which comes as no surprise because, of course, it was published by the same company.
Save for the Albatross bit, Bionic Commando on the Game Boy tends to be a bit easier overall than its NES relative. The lack of overhead scenes is also a bit disappointing. Aside from all that, though, this is still a shockingly solid title that has translated very well to the small screen.