Back in eighth grade, a friend of mine received Bionic Commando as a gift and lent it to me shortly after. "This game is really hard," he said as he handed it to me, half in apology and half in frustration.
At home that evening, I inserted it into my NES with some amount of trepidation. He'd made it sound unappealing, maybe unplayable. Was I making a mistake in bothering with it? Would this be a waste of time? Would it sour me on games?
My first experience bore out his claim. Bionic Commando was really hard. It didn't work like other video games at all; the hero had to traverse all kinds of platforms in order to meet his goals, but he couldn't jump. Instead, he had to use a grappling wire to climb and swing around. I mean, I'd played Pitfall!, but the vines in that game had been set to fixed points, and for the most part Pitfall Harry could leap just like old-school Mario. This was a totally different experience.
I made it to the midpoint of the adventure, Area Six, and simply couldn't get any further. A sequence that involved making multiple consecutive grapples using tiny, uneven searchlights as your leverage proved to be more than I could handle. After multiple failed attempts, I eventually gave up in frustration.
The next morning, a Saturday, I took part in a school jogathon fundraiser. My time on the track cleared the cobwebs from my head and gave me a second wind. I was determined to give Bionic Commando another go. And suddenly it clicked. The momentum, the timing, the way the hero could snag a platform or other bit of the scenery in midair — I got it. The daunting climb up the tower in Area 5 didn't seem so grueling the second time around. The impossible swings in Area 6 were... well, not easy, but manageable. And from there, everything snowballed. Within a couple of hours, I was watching a dude who pretty clearly was meant to be Adolf Hitler exploding in a shower of brains and eyeballs, and the surprisingly melancholy credits rolled.
Bionic Commando has remained a personal favorite ever since, a game I can return to any time. When Capcom modernized it via the Rearmed remake for last generation's consoles, they reworked the graphics, tweaked the story, and built some new bosses... but the mechanics and stage designs remained almost entirely unchanged. Capcom hit it out of the park back in 1988, and what they came up with remains one of the most unique and replayable action games of the 8-bit era. A liberating take on the platformer, a defiant middle finger raised to the mundanity of gravity.