Interview: GRIN's Viklund On Rearming Capcom's Bionic Commando
When Capcom decided to refresh the Bionic Commando franchise with a next gen title for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 alongside the Bionic Commando: Rearmed downloadable remake, it tapped Sweden-headquartered GRIN for the job.
As Rearmed's creative director, GRIN's Simon Viklund had some interesting decisions to make in reviving the original for XBLA, PSN, and PC. And as lead sound designer on the next-gen Bionic Commando, Viklund also had a key role in deciding how much of the game's aesthetic should echo its predecessor.
Here, Viklund talks about GRIN's experiences along the way, from selection by Capcom to the final aesthetic choices in both versions of the game, plus the challenges unique to a franchise reboot.
On Working With Capcom
Did you guys go to Capcom, or did Capcom come to you?
SV: They came to us, actually. Capcom Japan went to an American production company with connections in the game industry, and asked them, "Do you know western developers? Can you find us a couple of Western developers to choose from?" And those guys came up with a few studios -- and I have no idea which the other ones were, but I know that Capcom got pitches from a couple of other studios.
Apparently they were mostly interested in GRIN, in Stockholm, Sweden, and they sent over some guys; amongst them, Keiji Inafune, of course the guy behind Mega Man. He's like the head honcho over in Japan, so whatever he says, that happens.
He could see that we had the technology -- like the physics and everything -- which we are pretty well known for in our past titles... a technical expertise in physics and lighting. And I think that he and the rest of the staff at Capcom could appreciate that, and see that a Bionic Commando game needed that physics aspect of it. That's why I think they found GRIN so suitable for it. So it was like, "It's GRIN, or it's not happening."
[Ed. note: Inafune is in fact head of R&D for Capcom Japan.]
Did you need to develop Bionic Commando with any thought to Capcom Japan's sensibilities, or is it primarily considered a Western game for a Western market?
SV: Bionic Commando is one of those titles that was developed by Capcom, a Japanese company, and it flopped in Japan, but it was popular in the West and primarily the US. So they pretty much let us make it more of a Western title, which is inevitable because we are a Western developer.
Although, it's a Western title leaning toward Japanese, because we're working together with Capcom Japan, and they approve everything that we do. So it still has... this Japanese touch to it, and a lot of people... think it's the same engine running Lost Planet, so they think that the graphics kind of resemble that, although it's GRIN's own engine; so it's actually not the engine running Lost Planet.
But we kind of like that people seem to think that it's a title that -- or type of gameplay, whatever we have achieved for this -- that fits into the Capcom philosophy, or their style of games.
On Bionic Commando: Rearmed
Speaking of Capcom philosophy, it looks like there are little references to other Capcom titles in Rearmed -- will there be some of that in the full 3D game as well?
SV: Maybe. Rearmed is a more comical, cartoonish type of game. I was the creative director on that one, too, so I approved all of the... Like, on the construction site, you'll see that they always wear helmets, like the helmet character from Mega Man.
And on the top-down level, which is in the desert, it's like you're playing in Gun.Smoke, almost. So, of course, we have these references to Capcom games. You have the yashichi, the pinwheel pickup that's in a lot of old school Capcom games, like Gun.Smoke, and the first Mega Man game; you could pick that up. 1942 had it, too.
So we put that in the game, too, as a secret pickup that you can find one of in each area. If you find all of them, you get something special. So there's a lot of that in Rearmed, but that's also a retro title -- a remake of a retro game -- so we wanted to reference all these retro games that really appeal to the retro market.
And I'm a retro gamer, myself, and I really enjoy those old games, so that felt natural. But I don't know about the 3D game... It's not humorous in the same cartoonish way, so I would say probably not as much.
As creative director, you made some changes in the remake -- what was your process like in deciding what to modify and what to keep?
SV: Well, once they approached me within the company and they said, "OK, how do you feel about being the creative director on Rearmed?" I started immediately to think about what I would change in the game. So, I had a pretty good picture. I knew immediately that I wanted the bosses to require you to use the arm. [Instead of having] a huge sprite that you can shoot anywhere, you'd need to find a weak spot on it -- more classic boss gameplay like that.
Bionic Commando is one of those games that it wasn't like years and years since I played it, when Capcom came to us and asked if we wanted to work with them and do it; it was actually one of those games that I brought out all the time.
So it was literally months, or, at most, a year since I last played the game on my NES. So I always had it fresh in my memory, and when I was asked to do be the creative director on Rearmed, I was pretty much like, "OK. I pretty much know what I want to change about it."
So it wasn't that hard to find out what I wanted to change; the hard part was deciding and setting in stone, like, "This is what we're going to change," and be confident about that decision. But I had a pretty good picture of it.
On Bionic Commando 3D
So, then, how do you move from that to the larger game, and differentiate it from Spider Man 3 or Lost Planet?
SV: It's been hard. Until people grab the controller and get to play the game themselves, they tend to compare it to Spider-Man, or something that has a grappling element. I mean, you have a grappling hook in Lost Planet -- which is, of course, another Capcom game -- but it works nothing like the swing mechanic in Bionic Commando.
So once you see gameplay footage, you kind of realize that it's something else, but not until you actually play it yourself do you completely understand how the swing mechanic works; and then you get that it's nothing like Spider-Man, actually.
Sometimes when you do make it more precise like that, and the learning curve gets steeper, it can be potentially limiting for the audience, in terms of making it mass-market; how have you balanced that? Is it a concern?
SV: Well, in a way, we feel that it's OK for this title, because the original has such an unconventional movement mechanic; the fact that you couldn't jump, but needed to use the arm. That was unconventional back in the day, and people have a hard time -- like, people playing Rearmed, and it's still exactly the same movement there.
And we think that it's OK [for] a sequel to such a game -- even though it's brought into the 3D environment -- to have a movement mechanic which is unconventional in this time and day, you know? So I don't know if it's been a concern; we just hope that people appreciate what we've done, and we go down another route that is unlike other games.
It seems that hardcore stuff is much more acceptable when you have, first of all, a clear understanding of what you're supposed to do, even if it's hard to do, as long as the mechanics aren't unclear or frustrating.
SV: Yeah, exactly. It's a game that's created for you to have fun. And it's not like we're trying to create something that's intentionally hard; we just wanted to give the player freedom, and that comes at the cost of more player initiative, and more player timing and practicing.
I think a lot of work has to go into kind-of gradually teaching the player, and not having the deadly traps early on, but just letting the player get used to the controls.
We have no fall damage in the game, and that's one of our design decisions -- I'm talking about 3D, of course -- we have no fall damage, so that's one of our decisions by which we try to encourage the player to be a daredevil, and take a leap of faith.
You jump out, and if you miss, all you have to do is climb back up; you won't lose any health or anything. It's just a matter of, I think, trying to encourage the player in that way, and try to teach the player, slowly, what he or she can do, and just gradually increase the challenge that comes at you. We have a game that starts off with sort-of a tutorial for people, so hopefully that will work out.
With a game that gives players a fair amount of freedom, in a way, how do you keep them from getting out of the world?
SV: That was a problem, initially; that we gave the player this ability that gave him or her the ability to go anywhere and get there very fast. With the swinging mechanic, once you get it, you can just zip up a skyscraper, and you're on top of the roof in no time. So we needed to limit the player, but we didn't want invisible walls.
So, how we solve that is: They blew up this bomb inside the city -- it's not a nuclear bomb, it's some kind of futuristic bomb. I don't know exactly what it is, but we can paint surfaces with these glowing cracks, and that's kind-of a futuristic radiation which your bionic grappling hook cannot connect to. So that's how we limit the player, and we can have that on surfaces where we don't want the player to get up too easily, or to get up at all.
How did you decide on the music with the 3D game?
SV: The game has this grand feel to it, with the huge outdoors environment, and the cinematic sequences and everything. It's more like a movie, more suitable with that cinematic style of symphonic music.
So in the 3D Bionic Commando, you get the kind-of symphonic, cinematic take on the melodies and harmonies from the original game; those melodies and harmonies are reused in that game. Whereas, in Rearmed, you have the techno, break-beat kind-of update of the original tunes; more like wink-wink towards the old NES sound, or course.