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Destructoid interview: Bionic Commando's Ben Judd

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Back in October of this year, Capcom turned the heads of more than a few old-school gamers (including my own), when they announced that a new Bionic Commando game was in development for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC -- and was looking to woo a new generation of fans in the way that the NES version captivated many of us in 1988.

In the vein of its predecessor, Bionic Commando once again has you taking control of the man with the golden arm, in his quest to right a few wrongs. Along the way, you learn a few important life lessons which culminate in the realization that when one finds themself betrayed by their own government in a post-apocalyptic city in ruins, the act of jumping is not only highly overrated, but completely unnecessary. That is, when you are outfitted with the latest technological advances in bionics. Simply stated, it's all about having the right tools for the job -- and Nathan Spencer has the tools to get the job done.

Having seen the debut trailer and the gameplay videos for yourself, you might have a few unanswered questions about the new game and the direction in which it's headed. Not to worry though, as Destructoid has you covered. Recently, we had the pleasure of talking with Capcom Japan's own Ben Judd, who was tasked with heading up production of Bionic Commando's first sequel in over 20 years.

Sit back and relax, hit the jump, and enjoy the musings of a Capcom producer and a Destructoid editor, as they discuss Bionic Commando, the game industry, and RoboCop. 

First of all Ben, I'd like to thank you for taking time to give us an interview. If you don't mind, I'd like to start with a few questions about you, the industry, and then transition to the game itself.  Did you seek out the chance to work on Bionic Commando, or did the job find you? How did the team up come to be?

I had to seek it out over a period of 3-4 years of my life. I am very grateful that Inafune-san (Kenji Inafune) decided to support me on this project.  His support and insights have been invaluable.

What are your all time favorite video games, and how do you think they've influenced your work on Bionic Commando?

I come from a Japanese game background so with the exception of Warcraft 3 (Blizzard are gods), most of my favorites are Japanese: Final Fantasy 2, Street Fighter 2, Guardian Heroes, and probably Resident Evil. I’m not sure if any of these games specifically influenced my work on BC, but they did influence my desire to want to join Capcom and to contribute to a game company, which I highly respected and admired.

If you weren't working in the videogame industry, what do you think you'd be doing?

Probably teaching Japanese. I love the language and teaching is a very honorable and personally fulfilling profession. It really gives you the chance to help others achieve their dreams.

BEN JUDD OF CAPCOM

How do you feel about the current state of the video game industry? Are games that much better than the days of the Bionic Commando on the NES, or has some of the magic been lost?

I think current games are much more cinematic and have far richer stories than their predecessors. However, when it comes to gameplay mechanics, I believe that “true” innovation stopped in the early PlayStation/N64 days. Some brief examples: There really aren't any new genres. SquareEnix still uses a slightly updated version of the ATB (automatic time battle) that was first shown in Final Fantasy 2. Super Mario Galaxy relies on the same old wall jumps, hip-drops, and race modes that made Mario 64 really stand out as something new and unique.

Certainly some of that magic has been lost but to be honest much of that responsibility goes to the developers and publishers. As games get more and more expensive, it becomes harder and harder to take chances. I would find it much easier to throw down 1000 dollars at the poker tables in Vegas than I would my life savings. For some smaller developers that is exactly what they are doing. It's all or nothing and no one wants to be risky with that much on the line.

However, I also think that it's not just the creators and publishers at fault for this trend. Consumers are the ones with the real power.  With each purchase or non-purchase they are
determining what trends will survive and which ones won't. If they don't buy critically acclaimed games with say strong adventure elements and cel-shaded characters, then there will be less and less opportunities to push the creative envelope in different ways.

I think that I have to ask what many fans of the original have been wondering: What took so long for Bionic Commando to make a comeback, and how does it feel to work on remaking a game that many in our generation adored? Has that caused you to approach this game any differently than other projects?

The major stopping point was that BC never did well in Japan when it was released. Since Capcom is a Japanese company and that was a game from 20 years ago, it was really hard to convince people of just how popular the original game was in the US. I mean, there really isn't any clear sales data from the NES period so no matter how hard I pushed the idea, I was usually met with skepticism and doubt. A lot of people were concerned that I wasn't being objective enough and was thinking about the game from more of a gamer perspective rather than from a business standpoint.

When it comes to working on the title it's both fantastic and scary as hell. I think that the swing mechanic is something that has so much potential in the 3D space that it needed to be updated and fleshed out a bit. Spiderman was an excellent start but it didn't give you the sense that it was skill based nor did it offer enough control to the user. We've seen a lot of comments about people comparing the game to Spiderman, which I think is only natural but I do think that is like comparing Ridge Racer to Gran Turismo. Both are racing games but they play in very divergent ways. From our perspective, just like Resident Evil kicked off a new genre with survival horror, we think that BC fits into the "Swing Genre" (Yeah, it's hard to say that with a straight face). Just as there are games with simplified swing interface like Spiderman, there are games that give the user more control like BC. I am confident that once people play the game, they will understand exactly what I am talking about.

As far as what approach we took, since the game is set 10 years in the future from the original we had to be careful about what areas we kept as is and what areas we decided to alter. Unfortunately, any time you are dealing with a person's nostalgia, then you are going to come into contact with fans that want the game to be as they remembered it. But when making the jump (or swing) to 3D, you already have put yourself in a different territory. When people imagine what a 3D Bionic Commando would be, everyone is going to have a different perception and if the choice you've made as a developer doesn't fit that perception then the fans may be upset. So as far as redesigning something goes, it certainly can feel like a lose-lose situation at times. However, I hope that even if the character or story changes that we have implemented don't appeal to all the fans, I hope they give it a shot and play the game. It may not be 100% the Bionic Commando you remember, but it IS fun to swing in 3D and blow up shit and that's one thing I have total confidence in.

BC LANDSCAPE

Funny you should mention that. I remember playing through Spiderman on the PS2 a couple of years ago, and being reminded of Bionic Commando. Will the remake most likely resemble this, God of War, or Rygar?

You will see elements of all these games in BC. It really is a nice blend of action and adventure.

Besides the obvious thrill of swinging with the bionic arm, what is going to make this game stand out from the great line-up of games we've come to love recently? Will you be content with Bionic Commando being another great game in a sea of many, or are you striving to raise the bar in any way?

When people play it they will understand that the swing alone makes this game play very, very differently from the sea of FPS and TPS games we have been seeing for the past 10 years. Movement in a game is a very basic function and swinging from place to place while shooting at enemies is something that just hasn't been done to this degree in other games.

As we all remember from the Japanese version, there was a likeness of Hitler who served as the final boss character. Were you tempted to follow the anti-Nazi theme this time around?

Honestly speaking, when developing the game there were 4 major paths we could have taken:


A) Go with the original Japanese theme 100%: Nazis, Hitler, and of course exploding heads. This would lead to the game being banned in Germany and most likely Japan, but would keep the original game intact as far as story.


B) Write around the Nazis backstory without actually using real-world names or graphics so that we leave it open to user-interpretation.


C) Embrace the US version of the story: Killt, Master D, Badds, etc. Of course, unlike the NES version, we wouldn't be able to show likenesses of Hitler.


D) Create a clean version that totally removes any questionable areas but focuses on other BC-esque areas such as the swing, robotic bosses, and other staples.


I'm not going to say which path we took right now but I can say this: Some of these choices aren't even up to the development staff. Ratings organizations, 1st party, and even various political climates can often force you to make in-game choices that really, really suck. That being said, I do think we have made some good choices. Choices that people will NOT know about until we reveal more than the first 5 minutes of the game which is currently the only information we've released to the public.

[Laughs] You kind of read where I was headed with this, and touched upon my next question. How much have you thought about the ESRB while producing this game? Have they influenced the game's direction in any way?

A lot. Although I would argue games are going through their conservative period like all forms of entertainment from books to movies to music have in the past, I'm sure that once enough of us gamers get out in the marketplace, standards between TV, movies, and games will start to balance out. At that time, every form of entertainment needs to have a ratings organization to make sure we are protecting the youth so I'd much rather have the ESRB around than not. Whether people know it or not, they are here to protect developers, publishers, and consumers. 

BIONIC COMMANDO SWING

When you were designing the look for Nathan, what made you decide to deviate from the typical look that we've come to associate with a commando? After all, the dreadlocked look is certainly a 180-degree turn from Rad Spencer in the original.

Rad initially embodied the ideals of a patriotic hero that resembled a Captain America of sorts. He was the archetypal hero of all those action movies with sugar-sweet happy endings and enough one-liners to make your head spin. However, keeping this "true hero" vibe just didn't leave us a lot of room to put doubt in the main hero. We wanted him to be a changed man who doubted some of the blind faith he had put into his government.

I know people think that the "bad-ass" anti-hero thing is overdone and I couldn't agree more but Spencer really isn't this at all. He is a broken man who has lost a lot of things in his life. We have a deep backstory that connects the events of the original game to the new game. They show off the transition of Spencer from being the government’s poster boy hero to his ultimate fall from grace. Until some of this backstory is revealed, I'd imagine people won't see the connection between the original Spencer and the Spencer in the new BC.

But no worries, we'll get that information out to the public as soon as possible and see at that point whether or not users agree with the path we have chosen. One final thing worth mentioning though is that people, trends, and mindsets do change over time. If the original Spencer was symbolic of the cheesy action heroes of the 80s, then the Spencer in the new Bionic Commando is certainly a more jaded 90s version of the same man. Much with the times, he has changed, too. 

Why did you choose Mike Patton to voice Nathan Spencer, and just why do you think he is in such demand as a voice actor all of the sudden?

This idea actually came from the developers at GRIN but once we heard it, everyone agreed that Patton would fit the role quite well. Not only does he have great vocal range and experience doing voice acting in video games, but he is also a huge fan of Bionic Commando. It was one of his 3 favorite NES games when he was younger. Of course, most of the people who originally played BC when they were young remember Faith No More so I think he kind of syncs up with some of the fans and our target audience. I think he is in such great demand because he loves video games and is passionate about his work. Plus, he’s so damn cool.

There has been a lot of talk concerning the challenges of developing for the PS3 vs. the Xbox 360.  Any comment on this? Has your team in particular, faced any memorable obstacles with the two?


Yes, as many developers have already mentioned, the two architectures are very different and developing for both is no easy task. That being said, GRIN is incredibly tech-savvy and has a good handle on this.

The Wiimote seems to lend itself to a game such as Bionic Commando. Any chance that we'll see a version for the Wii?

There is always a chance. If we see that users truly desire a Wii version of Bionic Commando then of course we would take it into consideration.  We’re in the business of keeping our fans satisfied and I believe Capcom does a pretty good job of listening to its fans. You obviously can't please everyone but certainly releasing updated classics like Bionic Commando and Street Fighter 4 along with unique original games like Dead Rising and Lost Planet shows that we really are putting out a diversified product line-up that has something for everyone to enjoy.

The post apocalyptic Ascension city looks to be a match made in heaven for our character. Having said that, would he still be as bad ass on an open plain?

On an open plain he would have to rely more on his shooting skills of which he has in spades. But, his newly-implemented wire abilities will also help level the playing field as well.

Being the 80's aficionado that I am, I have one last nagging question for you Ben. RoboCop or Nathan Spencer: Who would be the last one standing?

[Laughs] I'd say that Nathan would win. He is the perfect blend of man and machine. Being able to think on his toes and make emotionally-based decisions rather than pre-programmed ones gives him that "human" edge that fully programmed computers or robots will never have. And his bionic arm also gives him the same strength as RoboCop. Besides, RoboCop only has a pistol. Nathan would bazooka his ass back to the 80s.

Thanks again for the interview, Ben. It's been a pleasure talking with you.  We'll be keeping a close watch on the game.

The pleasure is all mine. Thanks for  the opportunity!

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