As a new 3D modern Bionic Commando adventure swings into stores this week in North America and Europe, it seems only appropriate to take a look back at the official artwork behind the original adventures of hero Nathan "Radd" Spencer and his amazing bionic arm. We all know the story by now: when the notorious Badds led by Generalissimo Killt put into action a plan to resurrect their slain leader and launch a fearsome airship weapon, the Federation's greatest soldier, Super Joe, is sent to destroy the threat. When he goes missing, it's up to Spencer to go behind enemy lines and finish Joe's mission. From Area 1 to the mighty Albatross airship and everywhere in between, there's a reason why Bionic Commando stands out as one of the most beloved video games of the late 1980s... but it's sure not because of the artwork. Let's take a walk back to the 1980s and do a little gawking.
Released to the Japanese arcades as Top Secret, this early interpretation of metal-armed heroes sports an almost Mega Man-style of tone thanks to the flying spiky floating fortress and whimsical enemies.
Top Secret kicked into North American arcades as Bionic Commando with this awesomeized artwork representing it. Note that the bionic arm does not replace Spencer's own hand at this point in his American career. Oddly enough, one could consider that this image also shares tones with similar Mega Man artwork of this era, by which of course I mean the horrendous original Nintendo Entertainment System Mega Man box art.
The North American arcade artwork would go on to become the cover art for the Nintendo Entertainment System Bionic Commando title after a little reworking. This image maintains the same composition as its arcade predecessor, although now with more detail and danger added for a more eye-catching visual. The bionic arm is still just an add-on to Spencer's physiology though. The metal-claws walking tank in the lower left corner is destined for greater things.
Someone make a note to call Omni Consumer Products and tell them that we found their missing ED-209. Nintendo Power insists that this is Bionic Commando, so I guess we'll just have to take their word on that. Aside from the bionic arm (which is still not right), is there anything here that screams Bionic Commando to you? I'm just not feeling it.
Capcom's European arm used this image to represent the NES game. This is still Spencer and he still has the bionic arm (although if you were unaware of the game's swinging mechanics, you probably would mistake the bionic arm here for just a silver gauntlet of some sort), but he's not kicking into the mission like an action hero here to ruin the enemy's day. He almost seems to be trying to escape from the enemy soldiers coming up behind him.
This is a European advertisement for the NES and associated PC Bionic Commando titles which tries to blend both the composition of the original Japanese Top Secret artwork with the really-wants-to-be-serious style of the North American arcade artwork. In the end, it seems to do neither particularly well. Spencer's wild eyebrows and pouty lips aren't exactly selling me on his game here. Congratulations to the flying dragon beast on his promotion, however. He's much more prominent here than in his original Top Secret appearance.
The NES Bionic Commando remained known as Top Secret in its native Japan, presented uncensored with the threatened resurrection of Adolf Hitler looming large over the action.
The Americanized (read: censored) Japanese cover of the Famicom Bionic Commando is my favorite of all of this artwork, as it nails the tone much more accurately than any of the North American or European takes on the action. The bionic arm is still wrong here (Spencer doesn't even get a silver gauntlet), but it hits the color tone properly, shows a somewhat accurate depiction of the gameplay, and features an evil not-Hitler mastermind lording over the scene from above. Really, what more could you want from Bionic Commando artwork of the era?
(Images via The Bionic Commando Database)