You wouldn’t find Hitler playing NES at 3 in the morning

Bionic Commando (1990)

I had always considered Mike Tyson to be the scariest end boss in all of gaming. After all, if he doesn’t get you with severe crimes of a sexual nature, then he’ll bite your ears off instead. That’s before we even discuss his one-hit knockdown punches, and his acerbic tongue. But I’m afraid we have consider Tyson as little more than a slightly grouchy pussy cat, because it was recently brought to my attention that big A-H, the Hitlermeister General, features at the end of the Capcom NES game Bionic Commando.

Of course, he’s not actually called Hitler in the game, although the Japanese version makes his allegiance a bit more blatant. In Western territories, the man with the unmistakable moustache is actually Master-D. What could that D stand for?

I shouldn’t be surprised if it stands for Death, in much the same way as I like to think the M in M. Bison, another Capcom villain, stands for murderous. That’s what you call nominative determinism, which may also be why the protagonist you play as in Bionic Commando is named Ladd, or Rad depending on what translation is used.

Master-D is the supreme commander of the… Nazis? No, despite not changing Hitler’s appearance, they actually decided to do a bit of Nazi censorship here. So, they’re called the Badds as well. Well, they always said history was written by the game devs.

Anyway, not only does Hitler have a starring role as the villain, putting your pedestrian baddies like Bowser to shame, but his death scene steals the show as well. He doesn’t just disappear or fall into a hole or anything work safe like that when you best him – his head actually explodes, in full graphic detail, right there on your NES.

This was the console where you couldn’t even say die, and they censored seals from Ice Climber in case children immediately ran out and battered the first seal they could find. But a human, or I suppose inhumane man’s head exploding, that’s fair game? Maybe they reckoned that because it was Hitler, it was OK?

Perhaps it’s a realistic rendition of what happened when he shot himself in the head? If you believe that’s what happened, of course – you may be one of those loopers who believes that Hitler freestyled past the Red Army, and legged it to Brazil or Argentina, where somehow no-one found out or they all somehow failed to identify him.

That would be in a similar fashion to how a not insignificant number of people believe that Elvis is still cutting about small-town America to this day. Yes, Elvis has not left the building, and he categorically did not suffer an exploding heart while sat on the bog after sixteen burgers and fries.

The game is Bionic Commando, a Capcom game that was originally released as Hitler’s Resurrection in Japan. No ambiguity there, anyway, but talk about a great way of getting you motivated to get to the end and kill the villain – again. The game was made slightly easier for its US release, which may be a subtle reference to the fact that war does come quite a bit easier for the US Army. A fat man and a little boy once saw to that.

Even so, the game definitely isn’t easy if you don’t know what you’re doing, although I’d actually call this an accessible, NES game, if that makes any sense. And a NES game that’s accessible must never be taken for granted. It helps to have a guide so that you can find the best weaponry, including a tactical Rocket Launcher which will win you the game handily.

Initially, I didn’t use a guide to track down the weapons and the areas to explore, and I found the game quite difficult as a result. What I really couldn’t get to grips with, and this is probably the second most notable thing about the game behind Hitler’s exploding mush, is that fact that this is a platforming game where you actually cannot jump.

You need some sort of means of travel though, otherwise you’d be a bit of a lame soldier. Hence, where the jump button should be, you’re given a grappling hook to swing about the place, or climb buildings. This is the new warfare – Hitler won’t have seen anything like that in the 1940s, you can be sure of that.

You can fire your grapple hook directly upwards, or at a diagonal angle, letting you cross ravines, bypass spikes and climb up into towers, all while trying to avoid enemy gunfire. You’ll do this across several levels, called Areas, and you can select which Area you’ll deploy to from an overworld.

You observe the battlefield from your helicopter, and you’ll backtrack to previous Areas you’ve visited as you go about your military strategy. I’m far from any kind of military strategist of course, as my exploits in Fire Emblem would point out to you.

There are some strange helicopter battles in the game as well, where you use your chopper to smash up enemy vehicles. But once you do get down onto the ground, then it’s just a case of infiltrating buildings or getting to the top room, or getting down into the basement while blowing away any enemies that might come towards you.

You don’t get many hits either, indeed at the very beginning of the game, it’s one bullet and you’re gone. How’s that for realism? So you’d better slaughter the opposition first. There’s no Geneva Convention out there, you know, not against the Nazi Badds. You can be as cruel as you bloody well like, and you can use various different weapons to achieve that.

Now, thinking about it, I don’t think I’d like to be a frontline man. Far too much risk of me copping an unfortunate bullet and ending up face down in the mud. No, I’ve always wanted to be a sniper actually. Just like the Bionic Commando, a sniper has no need to jump around the place like a charlatan. They can also lie down wait for days on end, if they have to. They just need a bag for their own turds, whenever they need to go. That’s the only non-sexy part of it. But otherwise, you can just shoot the enemy from miles away and never come under any return fire, hopefully.

Failing that, I’m wondering how else I could realistically contribute to the army in an anti-Nazi war effort, especially if I lacked the ability to jump. I’m sure all the Nazis can leap – must be those tasty German rations. I have a clean driving license, maybe I could rent out a tank and turn up with that?

Maybe I could also supply my own ammo and shells, be as economical a solder as possible. As I understand it, 95% of your time in the armed forces is spent cleaning things, whether that’s the barrel of the artillery or the floor of the shittery. Not being a tremendously neat and tidy person, I don’t think the army would ever want me, even if I was a dab hand with a grappling hook and bazooka combo.

Anyway, I digress. The plot to kill Hitler obviously needs the best of the best, like the SEAL team that allegedly got Osama bin Laden. So there’s no point in me complaining about Bionic Commando being a little bit too difficult for me, because this isn’t just your common routine mission. This is to take down the most evil man who ever lived.

So we can conclude that the gameplay is decent, playable, but pretty hard. But the music is Capcom’s usual excellent standards, with some very nice graphics as well. You might even recognize some of the sound effects from Mega Man 2. I suppose, given how limited the NES instrumentation is, it was inevitable that there’d be musical similarities.

Actually, and I’m being hyper-critical now, but the music doesn’t often fit the situation – even when you’re going into the final battle against Hitler, you’ve still got cheery boopy music playing. You’re almost waiting for a remix of Air Man’s theme to start playing.

You always want to see franchises from long ago given some sort of revival, and Bionic Commando did get a graphical reimagining in 2008, to hype things up for a fully 3D game a year later. Both of these updates to the series just got the graphics and design all wrong, however.

Yes, you have the updated Bionic Commando games, as well as the old arcade instalments, but it seems that Bionic Commando NES was one of those games that captured lightning in a bottle. Perhaps you just can’t release a game these days where you need to kill the Nazis and take down Hitler.

Well, I suppose you have Wolfenstein, but could they make Hitler’s head explode? Could they get away with a shocking translation, where every soldier you meet says goofy things like, “get the heck out of here, you nerd”? That’s just the kind of thing that games of the time could get away with. That’s what gave them soul.

Hitler may not have died in such a fashion, but this is what games are all about, right? Presenting an alternate reality. That’s why I like to imagine myself as a crack Bionic Commando. I reckon all I need is a bazooka, a grappling hook and some luminous spandex.

25 June 2021

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