(NES - 1988)
Sometimes, the art in a game's design can be found in its limitations.
If there was a "golden age" of video games, it probably resided in the late 80's, when the wildly successful arcade industry intersected with the Nintendo Entertainment System and its resurrection of console gaming. At the crossroads was Super Mario Bros, providing a synergy of action and platforming elements that introduced a whole new generation to gaming and gave rise to a whole new wave of action/platformers across consoles and arcades alike.
So imagine the collective surprise of arcade patrons when they stepped up to the Bionic Commando cabinet in 1987 and found an action game with platforming elements that wouldn't allow you to jump. Mario could jump. That dude in Rolling Thunder could jump. Even the incredibly obese Karnov could jump. But the Bionic Commando's feet were planted to the ground; he was saddled with a bionic arm that worked like a grappling hook, pulling him up to higher ledges and swinging him across pits like Pitfall Harry. (Of course, Harry, like virtually everybody else in the universe of gaming protagonists at the time, could jump too.)
Despite this novel concept, the Bionic Commando arcade game was a modest success, at best, which made it somewhat of a surprise when Capcom decided to not only port over the game to the NES, but to give it a complete makeover.
For one, the storyline of the game underwent a huge change. The somewhat scruffy-looking protagonist from the first game and fiery-haired Radd Spencer was installed as the hero. His mission: to rescue Super Joe (the protagonist from the original Commando game) from the Nazis and to destroy their secret Albatross project. Of course, even though the Nazis are the villains of choice for countless FPS games today, Nintendo of America felt that their inclusion within the NES version of Bionic Commando was far too controversial for their family-oriented policy of publishing, so Capcom changed the Nazis to the BADDs and renamed Hitler as "Commander Killt" for the North America release in 1988. (As we'll see later, though, Nintendo of America didn't catch quite everything that the game had to offer.)
Beyond the storyline, the rest of the game received a remarkable facelift. The background music was re-imagined into some of the most striking pieces that you'll find on the NES at the time. Communication rooms were added to many of the stages, giving players the chance (if they equipped the right radio) to contact HQ to gain more information about the mission, as well the ability to wiretap into enemy communications. A world map was added to allow the player to proceed through stages in a non-linear fashion, and "neutral zone" stages were added to allow the player to gain information from NPCs and find different weapons/radios for use in the different stages throughout the game. The development team even added a mini-game (represented by trucks on the world map) where the player would be thrown into an overhead action/shoot'em up (in yet another nod to Commando).
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the stage design was tightened up exponentially, revealing the real genius behind the game: the limited mobility forced the player to be a little more creative as they navigated through each area. The stages scrolled vertically, as well as horizontally, and the bionic arm trickery required to get through each stage became progressively more difficult as you go along, building perfectly to an epic showdown with the huge Albatross airship, "Master-D" himself and a frantic Metroid-esque escape from the final stage.
With all of these changes in place, the NES release was a much more robust gaming experience and, as a result, it became one of the greatest action games on the platform, essentially reducing its arcade predecessor to a mere curiosity. Bionic Commando is an absolute blast to play to this very day and, with one notable exception (the inability to change weapons/radios in-stage), the game design that drives it still seems fun and fresh.
It will be interesting to see how the ESRB rules on a release of Bionic Commando on the Wii Virtual Console, if one happens to come down the pike; astonishingly, the original NES game has profanity and a rather grisly depiction of Hitler's death at the end of the game:
Though you would never guess from its humble arcade origins, the NES release of Bionic Commando might be one of the most underappreciated games of all time, and it's certainly one of the best action titles that you can find out there, even compared with the games of today. If you can snag a ROM, I would highly recommend that you check it out.