Your number's up, monster!: The life-long thrill of Bionic Commando
"I'll talk about the war criminal I shot when was I young..."
July 20, 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of Top Secret: Hitler's Resurrection, a Famicom game later renamed Bionic Commando in Western territories. As part of the localization, all references to Hitler and the Nazis were removed from the game; the enemy soldiers were now "the Badds" who wanted to resurrect their long-dead leader "Master-D." While the changes were no doubt influenced by Nintendo's insistence on maintaining a family-friendly platform, they ultimately transformed the legacy of the game from "an action-platformer with a gimmick" to an all-time classic.
The legacy of Top Secret (a.k.a. Bionic Commando) started in the arcades with a platform game starring a hero who could not jump: Roc'n Rope. It's very much in the vein of Donkey Kong. Each level is a single screen where the hero must climb to the top to rescue a captive, in this case a legendary Roc. Instead of jumping the player can shoot a harpoon tied to a rope upwards diagonally, enabling the hero to climb to the next platform. However, monsters can also climb the rope or simply shake it to knock the hero loose. As in Donkey Kong, the game only has a few screens, which loop forever once conquered.
Roc'n Rope was designed by Tokuro Fujiwara, who would go on to create some of Capcom's most famous games, including Ghosts N' Goblins and Commando. In time, he wanted to return to the jumpless hero concept. In a 2003 interview with Continue magazine, Fujiwara said "Roc’n Rope had a lot of limitations due to the hardware of the time. I had quite a few ideas I’d been wanting to try piling up on the back burner."
Fujiwara's original Top Secret arcade game, released in 1987, was plotless. The hero has a gun and some sort of metal arm that extends his reach and lets him scale platforms, but neither he nor his enemies have any identity. The action itself tells a story of infiltration with a final level where a missile countdown must be stopped and a final foe (a nameless bearded man) must be killed, but after a million-point bonus and a bit of text, the game continues forever.
It was the Famicom version of Top Secret that turned the game from a coin-muncher into an in-depth experience, adding RPG-like elements, a story, and one of history's greatest villains to the game. No actual Nazi politics are featured in the game, but there are swastikas and reichsadlers everywhere, and the game's intro features a man making a one-armed salute to a cheering crowd. The NES version scrubbed most of the explicit Nazi symbols from the game's backgrounds but the one-armed salute remained, a subtle (by video game standards) hint that the "Badds" were fascists.
In discussing the Nazis and Hitler in Bionic Commando, it is essential to think about where the Nazis were in society at large in the 1980s. With their defeat 40 years in the past, the Nazis had been reduced to comic foils, a recognizable evil that we had utterly defeated. They were, like the Ku Klux Klan, "real" racists that could appear on TV or in movies and represent the worst humanity had to offer while simultaneously holding no real power. They were the ultimate non-threatening threat. When Harrison Ford says "Nazis. I hate these guys," in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a film released one year after Bionic Commando), it's a punchline resting on the understatement of a fact we all accepted at the time. In that same film, Indy kills three Nazis with one handgun bullet and unwittingly gets Hitler's autograph.
As much as we all held Nazis in contempt in 1988, it would have been shocking to play a video game and fight "real" people in it, especially on a video game console marketed towards children. Nazis were common in other mediums but had yet to become cliché video game villains; Wolfenstein 3D was still years away. It made sense to purge Bionic Commando of Nazi imagery and let players fight a generic evil army instead of actual war criminals.
Yet in scrubbing swastikas and renaming Nazis, there's one shocking localization choice in Bionic Commando that transforms the entire experience: Hitler's face was left in the game. He's not called Adolf Hitler (or Hilter), he's "Master-D," but his unmistakable likeness appears in the game's final chapter. He even calls the player a "damn fool" which qualified as profane language at the time. By removing visible Nazis while leaving behind the definitive Nazi, Bionic Commando contained a twist ending that Top Secret did not.
To make the impact of Bionic Commando on my life clear I must elaborate on who I was in 1988: a Jewish kid studying for his Bar Mitzvah who went to synagogue every weekend. I don't know at what age most other kids find out about the Holocaust, but for me it was a nightmare I had been aware of since I asked my father why he lit a single candle and said a prayer each Spring. My father kept records of our family, and there's a conspicuous drop in the number of Feits in the 1940s; they did not die of old age.
Nintendo games had their share of violence, but to that point it had been largely fantastic: Saving Hyrule, slaying Medusa, shooting aliens. If 11-year-old me had seen a game called "Hitler's Resurrection" on store shelves, I would have been creeped out; to this day I cannot believe there was a popular game called Rush'n Attack. But when 11-year-old me fought all the way to the end of Bionic Commando only to meet Hitler and then shoot him in the face, it was cathartic. We didn't have "speedruns" in the ’80s, we just played games over and over until we got good at them or bought a new one. And for a spell there, when I wasn't practicing my Torah reading, I got really good at shooting Hitler in the face. It's no coincidence that years later, when tool-assisted speedruns were first becoming popular, the game I tried to run was Bionic Commando.
Unlike a lot of popular NES games, Bionic Commando fell silent during the 16 and 32-bit eras. There were other action games with grappling hooks, and plenty of games with Hitler, but Spencer and Super Joe were nowhere to be seen. The series made a small comeback with Bionic Commando Rearmed, an 2008 HD remake of the NES game which improved upon the original in many ways save for one: Master-D became an anonymous masked villain which sucked all the impact out of the game's final battle. It kept the exploding head but lost the emotion, and that's a shame.
Coincidentally, 2008 was also the year Steven Spielberg directed Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, nineteen years after the release of Last Crusade. Set in the 1950s, Indy's long-time rivals the Nazis were replaced with Russians. Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly that an early draft of the script had Nazi agents but after his dramatic experience making Schindler's List, he was no longer comfortable making them "Saturday-matinee villains." Killing Nazis in the dawn of 21st century, it seems, was no longer hip.
Now, so much time has elapsed and I'm old now. Bionic Commando came out 30 years ago, and even Rearmed is a decade old. I'm a grown adult who no longer practices Judaism and can't read the Torah without a smartphone, but that doesn't change how I was raised. Yet to read the news in 201X it would seem that we're supposed to be nice to the Badds, for some of them are very fine people. And while there are modern games willing to state, unequivocally, that Nazis are evil, those games are all made for and marketed to adults. Where are the games made today for little kids that teach them the joy of shooting Hitler with a bazooka?
Won't somebody think of the children?