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30 years ago, <i>Bionic Commando</i> proved video game grappling hooks are awesome<em></em><em></em>

30 years ago, Bionic Commando proved video game grappling hooks are awesome

Screenshot: Bionic Commando, Graphic: Allison Corr

Bionic Commando was a game that flew in the face of its own era. When it reached Nintendo’s Famicom on this day in 1988—first released in Japan as Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret, the heavily altered home version of a 1987 arcade oddity—jumping had already become the definitive verb of the time, the thing most every video game hero did and did well. Then along came Rad Spencer, Bionic Commando’s ridiculously named red-headed star. He could shoot a gun just fine, fulfilling gaming’s other primordial verb. But he was incapable of jumping on his own, an 8-bit soldier completely, improbably stuck to the ground. Instead, all his climbing and swinging was done with an innovation that became one of gaming’s greatest gadgets: the grappling hook.

In the 30 years since Bionic Commando (or 31 if you want to go back to that anemic arcade original), grappling hooks have shown up everywhere, coming in a spectrum of styles across about every type of game you can imagine. They’re one of design’s unsung heroes, always regarded with glowing praise but remaining relatively uncommon and hardly ever commanding as much attention as guns and our other beloved killing implements. That might be because their appeal—beyond being just flat-out cool—lies squarely in gaming’s most abstract measure: feel.

Video game grappling hooks are objects of pure tactile delight. They are divorced from the needless pretenses of realism and instead are fine-tuned to tickle the primal parts of our brains, the subconscious nooks that find pleasure in rhythm and speed and fluidity. Strip the best grappling-hook games of their art and stories and characters, and the act of flinging out a rope and arcing through the sky would be just as thrilling. Some, like Grin’s underrated but comically grim 3D reboot of Bionic Commando, might even be better.

For a stark insight into what makes a grappling-hook game really work, one need look no further than the original two Bionic Commandos. The 1987 arcade edition is unarguably more impressive from a visual standpoint, and it nailed some of the basics of satisfying swinging. But the big upgrade that makes 1988’s NES version a classic and the arcade original a sort of awkward prototype is your character’s newfound ability to fire his hook in mid-air. With that single update, everything about the game changes. Now, with enough practice, you can string your swings together, staying off the ground for long period of time, flinging yourself up and around obstacles, and flying through levels with whatever inventive route you can assemble. Bionic Commando 1987 was very much a ground-based game with the hook still a means to an end, used to move from tree branch to tree branch or girder to girder as you run around shooting dudes. Bionic Commando 1988 made the hook the end itself, an incomparable tool that was challenging to wield but offered a dynamic, fast, fulfilling way to move through environments.

Illustration for article titled 30 years ago, Bionic Commando proved video game grappling hooks are awesome
Screenshot: Bionic Commando (2009) (Capcom)

And that’s the singular stroke of genius from which all great grappling-hook games have descended. Whether Bionic Commando 1988’s mile-high battlefields or Just Cause 2’s tropical island, their presence and the speed and euphoria of flight they provide make being on the ground the worst possible option. In something like Treyarch’s legendary Spider-Man 2 (because let’s face it, in video games, Spidey’s web is basically just a silken grappling hook), screwing up your swings and ending up on your feet is a punishment, an indignity you have to live with before leaping into the air and getting back into your groove.

Even at 14 years old, that game remains a benchmark for virtual swinging. Its replica of Manhattan is the perfect environment for it, allowing for an endless number of dizzyingly high buildings to leap off and swing from. And when it came to designing Spidey’s webslinging—the sound and look and, most importantly, feel of it—the developers focused on all the right things. Spider-Man can quickly launch himself into the sky, getting into position to start a series of swings. From there, it’s all about building and maintaining momentum, synchronizing yourself with your swinging superhero and locking into a rhythm of button presses to keep jetting forward. You’re riding this line between precise, trance-like control and giving yourself up to gravity’s whims.

Different games handle rhythm and movement differently—you might call it the difference between a grappling hook meant to swing, like Spider-Man or Bionic Commando, and one meant to zip, like Just Cause or the Batman: Arkham games or even last year’s exemplary Flinthook—but illustrating that struggle to harness uncontrollable forces has been one of the keys to great-feeling grappling hooks from the beginning. Even the arcade Bionic Commando understood that. One of its best little touches is the way your soldier wobbles around like a helpless ragdoll when you reel in the hook from a diagonal and fight against your own forward momentum. It’s an animation that perfectly conveys the way using a grappling hook in a game puts you at odds with motion, and it carried over into Capcom’s home version.

Later grappling-hook games with complex physics and cameras and 3D models would take this to new heights. In Grin’s 2009 Bionic Commando, Rad thrashes his limbs like crazy as he barrels through the air. In Just Cause 2, the camera goes off-kilter and violently shakes as Rico Rodriguez reels in his grapnel and zooms toward its anchor. Batman is far too cool to let a little thing like zipping toward a wall at high speed cause his arms to flap around, but in Arkham City and Arkham Knight, he can’t extend that same control to his flailing cape. In all those cases, the visuals are doing a lot of work to help accentuate the speed and exhilaration the designers want you to feel, but just as important is the evocative sound with which they back it up: the satisfying clank of the hook grabbing hold, the whir of gears reeling in, or best of all, the deafening wind rushing past your head.

Unfortunately for Grin’s Bionic Commando, its great swinging wasn’t enough to overcome its bizarre Diet Kojima story and the frustratingly narrow environments that would kill you for straying too far. That latter issue was an understandable concession, but it goes against the freedom of movement and encouragement to push systems to their extreme that makes grappling-hook games so special. That’s a big part of why Spider-Man 2 remains as beloved as it is. There’s no better place to play with those tools than New York’s towering maze of concrete and steel. It’ll become a webslinging playground once again in September with the arrival of Insomniac’s Spider-Man, a game cut from the same mold as Spider-Man 2 and that has internalized all the tricks of the grappling-hook canon; you can especially see that in the kinetic animation of its lithe hero, with his whipping limbs and the way he kicks through arcs and into jumps. It has the feel of a true, modern successor that’s been many years in the making. Here’s to hoping Bionic Commando might someday get the same treatment.

A.V. Club games editor and pin-wearing member of the society since 2012.

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