On The Level

Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando (1988): “Area 5”

A perilous tower at sunset exemplifies the heart of Capcom’s early ambitions.

By Anthony John Agnello • August 21, 2012

Released in 1985, the arcade game Commando was an exemplar of the style that Capcom embraced in those early days: It was simple, repetitive, and pretty to look at. You play as a little blue soldier named Super Joe, shooting down green soldiers in some generic jungle until there aren’t any more. Then a helicopter picks you up, and you get a message from the game: “CONGRATULATION YOUR EVERY DUTY FINISHED.” That was enough. Commando just needed to provide enough structure for players to keep putting in quarters. It didn’t need to stick to your bones. By 1988, when Capcom made Bionic Commando on NES, the studio knew that its games needed to be more than just a pretty lure for quarters. This was a longform game that you were supposed to finish. It needed a heart. The first place you can detect that heart is Area 5.

Bionic Commando was unusual but familiar. There was no shortage of games about gun-toting dudes wearing green military jumpsuits back in 1988, but unlike most of them, Bionic Commando’s Nathan “Radd” Spencer couldn’t jump. Instead, he had a grappling hook that he used for swinging over chasms and climbing up bases. Learning the hook’s weird rhythm through the first couple stages—on your way to rescue the old hero, Super Joe—is tricky and discouraging, but the process helps lends the game a distinctive character that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Those introductory stages are a bunch of caves, fortresses, and pits full of spikes, every bit as generic as Commando’s jungles.

Area 5 transforms Bionic Commando, galvanizing the entire game with unexpected trials and a somber air. Unlike the previous stages, which are just blue skies and dark interiors, Area 5 takes place at sunset, the background a wash of orange and pink mountains. Junko Tamiya’s score matches the shift, going from staccato military themes to a stirring, driving minor-keyed anthem. The whole scene is so convincing that the inherent silliness of a guy named Radd saving a guy named Super Joe slips away. Suddenly your task matters. It’s not just about getting to the end of the stage and making sure every duty finished, but also about saving a human being and stopping a real military threat.

The shift is more than an aesthetic change. Rather than send you to another cave or military compound, Area 5 has you climb an enormous tower still under construction. Before that, the grappling hook’s used only as a jump replacement. You may be using a different mechanism than Mega Man or Super Mario, but it’s pretty much the same principle of jumping over something right in front of you. Ascending the tower, though, involves grappling up smaller objects like lampposts—which are rounded, so you can’t stand on them—in order to grapple up to even higher tiers. The tonal shift toward desperation and resolve are mirrored in the physical effort.

You’re appropriately rewarded for getting through. Getting to the top and finishing off the milquetoast boss—yeah, there’s a bad guy up there, but the real “boss” is the tower—nets you a rocket launcher. More than just an upgraded weapon, it’s also the key for entering Area 6, a nighttime port stage that continues to raise the stakes of the grappling hook challenges, if not the emotional stakes. That ramp characterizes BC’s back half—big challenge, less emotion.

The heart’s still there, however, beating away under the surface, and it’s most present again in the game’s ending. After you save Super Joe and the two of you attack the enemies’ headquarters, the action climaxes with a gruesome depiction of a resurrected Hitler’s head exploding, and what follows are epilogue scenes that are celebratory but contemplative. A fanfare plays over an image of celebrating soldiers, but eventually the music fades out, and this message pops up on the screen: “Now, so much time has elapsed, and I’m old now. I think it’s time for me to tell you the whole story. I hope this story will be told for a long time.—2010.8.2 Joe”

That coda’s a far cry from “Congratulations!” It’s moving and means Area 5 isn’t an accident. Capcom struggled often with its Nintendo games, trying to find a way to make them more than the diversions that their first arcade efforts were. Endings were a good way to rethink the emotional payoff. And it only works because of the groundwork laid in Area 5, the place where that heart Capcom was trying to evoke beat the loudest. Just like Radd Spencer climbing the tower, Capcom was aiming higher.

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72 Responses to “Bionic Commando (1988): “Area 5””

  1. Cloks says:

    Huh. I remember 2010 pretty well and I just can’t place the Hitler resurrection.

    • John Teti says:

      It was the same night as the Lost finale, so nobody noticed, because it was only the second worst thing to happen that day.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      It’s because it all took place in South Dakota.  Nu-Hitler made the seat of the Fourth Reich the Corn Palace in Mitchell.  Shortly after, the roof collapsed due to snow weight, killing him.
         The whole thing was such an embarrassment for Racist eugenics-warriors everywhere, they hushed it up.
         It did, however, get a ‘Jeers’ in the Cheers and Jeers column of the Sunday People and Places section of the Argus Leader.  

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Ahem.  Refer to the real title. Top Secret!

  2. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    Bionic Commando, you magnificent son of a bitch.  God help you if you did have the cyber-testes to enter Area 6 before getting that aforementioned Rocket Launcher.  An impenetrable wall would prevent you from going any further.  with no air support to come and rescue you from the level, and the way behind you presumably blocked as well (an under construction Carl Jr’s., perhaps?) you would have no recourse but to reset the whole damn game, losing all your progress, making you throw a couch cushion across the room in frustration, knocking over your buddy’s Coke, and he freaks out because it got all over the carpet his parents Just Bought and shut up, shut up, because if they come down here one more time, they’ll send you guys home, I know they will, they did it before!
       But yeah, what a fantastic game.  The angry red of Area five combined with the staccato beat made everything feel so urgent and dangerous.  Combined with the super-annoying soldiers flying in on their weird personal helicopters, the level just made me tense.
       All worth it though, to be one step closer to earn the chance at watching The Fuhrer’s cloned head a-splode.  

    • Zach Adams says:

      …I’m almost a little afraid to tell you there was a button command to get back to the map screen (start+A+B or select+start+A+B, I forget)

      • Craig says:

        Son of a bitch!

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        Well, shit. Oh well. Add it to the formidable pile of things I should have known at 9 and didn’t.

        • GaryX says:

          I, like a lot of my NES games, was given it by my cousin with no package or instructions or anything, and I thought the same thing for the longest time.

          That way of getting games also made Dirty Harry* nigh impossible because I had no clue what to do, and The Legend of Zelda that game I really liked but would just wander aimlessly in until I died.

          *Dirty Harry is the game that made my father swear them off. He was up until 2am one night, desperately trying to figure out what the fuck to do, only to end up dying, losing everything, throwing the controller across the room, and realizing he was an adult and shouldn’t do that.

          EDIT: Though, that shit didn’t end with NES games. I spent much of RE4 (up until, literally, five or so minutes after the “Right Hand” boss fight) thinking “Holy shit, I wish this game let you move faster,” and at some point I hit the B button while moving and felt like an idiot.

        • Cornell_University says:

          There was a point where enough of your friends had Nintendos, and somebody had Nintendo Power or one of those tip paperback books, that I think some of the knowledge, at least of the more popular games, was somehow collective.  I don’t know how I know to crouch on the white brick in 1-3 in Super Mario Bros 3 to go behind the end stage and get the whistle, I just do.  but at the same time, there’s plenty of games that I find out secrets about 20 years later, because HOW THE HELL COULD I HAVE KNOWN ABOUT THAT.  

          (I just remembered there were video cassettes.  I think I have one somewhere with hints for a bunch of Ultra games.  no, it didn’t make the first TMNT game any easier.)

        • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

             Picturing your father raging against NES ‘Dirty Harry’ has made my day.  But that is something that often gets left out of the discussion of contemporary games hovering over the player too much, compared to the older hardcore games.  To whit, sometimes those older games were just designed poorly. There’s be some barrier to progress that relied on either an esoteric piece of knowledge held by a completely random bystander, or you were just supposed to guess.  In the case of Castlevania 2, a clue needed to progress was mistranslated, making it useless.
             Also, god forbid you put a game down, only to pick it up a few months later and try and remember what quest you’re in the middle of. Because whatever it is you’re supposed to do, you can be certain nobody’s going to remind you.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

             Isn’t that pre-internet gamer Jungian group subconscious amazing to think about today?  It feels like information was just passed along by osmosis.
             I rented a game hint VHS tape once, as well.  Which is a strange thing, given I was playing one, maybe two of the eight or ten randomly featured games on the video.  It seems so inelegant and inefficient compared to today’s breezy Gamefaqs.
             And not even the guiding hand of an interventionist god would make the NES Ninja Turtles game easier.

        • Cornell_University says:

          Its kind of fun revisiting games with my girlfriend, who is astounded at the idiotic things I knew about various games.  “yeah, yeah, it’s called the Konami code.  I mean, everybody knows about it practically.  Because I was a boy and alive in 1989.  Stop looking at me like that!  Probably because your family was POOR!”

          Re: VHS tipguides, not just the inefficiency, but the quality of those videos were highly suspect.  The Ultra one actually sprung for color box art and a comfortingly stuffy father figure narrator, though walkthroughs of a linear game that is difficult simply because if is difficult seems sort of pointless.  “this part is hard, I hope you are good because I cannot help you!”

          There was a website that rated/pissed on the genre.  Seanbaby?  (OMG remember Seanbaby?)

          Long story short, I still retain the muscle memory to beat the racing stages of Battletoads, though I think the ol’ NES took a few dropkicks for its trouble.

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           @Cornell_University:disqus Seanbaby is alive and well on the Cracked website, still making jokes, still writing articles with no content at all.

      • scoutinthenight says:

        Start then Select.  You could use that to open the gate with Super Joe’s machine gun at the start of the last level, leave, and switch to the superior Rocket Launcher.  You could also hit Select to launch the flare in the dark stages, leave, and go back in with the hit point refilling medicine.

    • George_Liquor says:

      Killt, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!

  3. Zach Adams says:

    Such an amazing game, and such an amazing stage.  I remember the intense frustration the first time I played it, getting up to the last section with the springboards and falling down, climbing back up and falling down.  It probably took my uncoordinated ass about 20 minutes just to do that last third, but it was totally worth it.  Too bad the launcher is such a game breaker.

    And that stage music is just awe-inspiring.  I like a lot of the “Rearmed” music, but “Heat Wave” (their version of the Area 5/6 theme) was badly inferior to the 8-bit original.

    • Craig says:

      It’s an amazing song.  Melancholy and stirring at the same time.

      Nintendo was really smart about franchising their best titles.  Mario, Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, they made a lot of bank by putting out sequel after sequel.  Bionic Commando feels like the best NES game that never really got franchised (well, I’ll go to the mat for Crystalis, but I don’t think that game sold all that well, whereas every other person I knew had a copy of Bionic Commando.)

      • Victor Prime says:

         Yeah… except several of those had nothing to do with Nintendo.

        • Staggering Stew Bum says:

          Do you expect accuracy from someone describing themselves as a “Professional dickface“? This isn’t some amateur dickface we’re dealing with here son.

        • Victor Prime says:

           It’s not just the dickfaces, though – there are plenty of people who conflate NES first-party titles with third-party titles.

        • Raging Bear says:

          “Their best titles…best NES game…” = games on/identified strongly with Nintendo consoles. No one said “first-party.”

        • Cornell_University says:

          I believe at the time Nintendo was forcing developers to sign contracts that would forbid them from developing for rival game systems while getting the Nintendo Seal of Quality.  So it makes sense that the notion of 1st/3rd party wasn’t widely understood, since the games were all NES exclusives.

        • Victor Prime says:

           “(T)heir best titles”. Implications.

      • Girard says:

         While many of those series aren’t Nintendo, your general point is still worth bringing up. Many companies cranked out numerous sequels to their more popular games, and it’s interesting when a company conspicuously opts not to do that (especially when that company is Capcom, who were and are pretty much all about taking any successful property of theirs – Street Fighter, MegaMan, Resident Evil – and sequeling/revisiting the hell out of it).

        Kid Icarus is another game that didn’t really become a franchise, yet stayed in players’ consciousnesses enough to warrant inclusion in Smash Bros. and a recent long-in-coming sequel. I wonder what else there is that is similar. I’d suggest “Mole Mania,” as probably the most obscure, forgotten Miyamoto game, but it hasn’t been as well-remembered and its non-extension into a franchise kind of makes sense, unlike Kid Icarus or Bionic Commando, which were hits.

        • GrantB says:

          I was really interested in the new Kid Icarus… until I saw the trailer.  It looks terrible.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Regarding rare Nintendo stuff: I’d agree, but if you REALLY want deep cuts, you have to skip Game And Watch and consoles and go to arcades.  Sky Skipper and the Punch-Out universe title Arm Wrestling are great fun.  Also, holy cow, I just discovered that Cuthbert did a sequel to X, 1 of the most obscure Nintendo games.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-Scape

          Regarding sequels: Have you seen the tortured history of Balloon Kid, Balloon Fight’s sequel?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balloon_Kid  Also, it did get Of Myths And Monsters, which was ONLY released overseas until the Virtual Console.

          I think the biggest hit without a sequel would be Mach Rider.  That was big, right, and Nintendo’s definitely constantly acknowledged it since?

          By the way, Gameologicists, a great inventory would be “Japan-developed/-originated games not released in Japan.”  You have some Nintendo Wars games, Light Myth, Silent Hill, and Balloon Kid (for awhile) to start.

        • blue vodka lemonade says:

           @GhaleonQ:disqus Didn’t Silent Hill get released in Japan just a few months after it was released in North America? I’ve certainly read enough fan-translated Japanese-only documents about it.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          @green_gin_rickey:disqus Oh, 1 did, but I was referring to the series.  5, 6, and probably Book Of Memories didn’t.  I did add “-originated” to be more accurate, but it’s still a big deal since Silent Hill is still owned and published by Konami.  This isn’t like Burgertime World Tour or whatever.

        • Girard says:

           @GhaleonQ:disqus : Yeah, Kid Icarus got that sequel, but it still seemed a bit underserved as far as first-party Nintendo stuff went. Imagine if Metroid had stopped after Metroid II!

          Based on my totally solipsistic research (i.e. I hadn’t heard of it until just now), Mach Rider wasn’t particularly notable. It seems like it certainly had less cultural currency than Kid Icarus, and  (again, in my completely subjective experience) seems to have remained in the cultural consciousness less than most of the other NES launch titles. Then again, it has a Smash Bros trophy and Hogan’s Alley, which I’d have pegged as more notable and well-known, doesn’t, so I could be totally mistaken.

    • Nudeviking says:

      This game was a staple of my youth that unlike some other NES games I really haven’t revisited.  I had forgotten how outstanding the music was.

  4. caspiancomic says:

    Bionic Commando for Alternate Soundtrack! Then it’ll have the Gameological Feature hat trick!

    Also, *dons “I survived the Great Two or Three Hour Disqus Blackout of 2012” button*

    • itisdancing says:

      But then you’d have to listen to something other than the Bionic Commando soundtrack. Which is amazing! Next you’re going to be advocating an alternate soundtrack for Blaster Master…

  5. JokersNuts says:

    I used to play Commando all the time, I seriously had no idea until now that Bionic Commando was technically a sequel.

  6. GhaleonQ says:

    Well scouted.

    Gosh, there needs to be a proper history of the late 1980s, early 1990s arcade scene. That’s not to say that all of the best stuff was in that time, just that the competition was so cutthroat that one sees the best and worst of the creative process. To compile my “to play” list and canon, I went through GameFAQs over about a year and at least watched gameplay videos on Nico Nico Doga/YouTube/whatever of every game that was new to me or that sounded interesting. If you haven’t done that, you won’t know that there are SO MANY shocking ripoffs among the arcade leaders, far more than is acceptable now or near the video game crash. However, that competition also created classics and cult classics, such that you have a much clearer picture of the studio culture.

    Capcom, a late starter, was always the 1 attempting to ground their arcade “trifles” in story or place.
    Sega was the flashy powerhouse that fed on players’ secret aspirations.
    Namco pushed the extremes, focusing on extremely juvenile (not in the insult sense) or mature concepts.
    Taito, the early leader who fell behind, tilted toward the bizarre or wonky when it could.
    S.N.K. loved to be the grimy one.
    Konami excelled at copying, but then pushing its copies into something wholly its own.

    And so on. This is all to say that the outside world’s necessary console/handheld focus made us overlook a ton of classics (everybody play Rompers!) and confused our sense of video game history and identity. The strides made between the above and Strider 1 make much more sense when it’s clear that Capcom conceives of itself as pushing the envelope in that way.

  7. Chris Tempas says:

    This stage would have been influential if 99% of the ppl who played this game got beyond stage 2.

  8. Cornell_University says:

    are there enough games with Hitler as the enemy (hidden or otherwise) to make an Inventory?  Wolfenstein is the obvious entry point, I didn’t realize Ol’ Adolph Ballgame was the endgame boss of this, because I was never good enough to actually beat the game.  the ninjas that kidnap Ronny in Bad Dudes aren’t explicitly exposed as Hitler ninjas, but then again they don’t get exposed as NOT Hitler ninjas either.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Well, you’d have to exclude strategy games, because the answer then is “obviously.”  I’m not sure how many include him directly, but I think it’d be easy if you stopped at “thinly veiled versions.”

      The funniest is still Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (“punch Hitler”), but my favorite is the great Pax Softnica’s graphic adventure Time Twist: On The Edge Of History.  It’s kind of like Infocom’s Trinity.  http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm16273099  I don’t know if it was odder that a relatively children-focused developer did this game or that Nintendo published and helped foster a graphic adventure game with the Holocaust, the Nativity, and nuclear weapons in it.

      • Cornell_University says:

        that is just… something else.  is Honest Abe getting assassinated by one of the Herculoids?  THE PROPHECIES ARE COMING TRUE!

      • Girard says:

         That game looks nuts. In addition to Trinity, it gets me thinking of Legend Entertainment’s Timequest, in terms of graphical interactive fiction with a time-travel twist.

        It seems a little odd that every historical occurrence is one from Western history (according to Wikipedia, the only periods that take place in Japan are the “modern day” ones), and of course the inclusion of the life of Jesus – a narrative that has had an astronomical impact on religious and secular Western civilization, but which is probably mostly only relevant in Japan to its 2% Christian population – is strange (Christianity of course shows up as window dressing in a lot of Japanese pop culture, but to devote 1/6th of a game explicitly to the story of Jesus seems fairly unusual).

        I wonder if the game was meant to be educational. Like, as a tool for introducing kids to some of the keystone moments in Western (especially American) history.

        On a sort of unrelated note, while looking up info on the game Cosmology of Kyoto to maybe posit as an example of a Western game focusing minutely on Japanese history (turns out that’s not really the case), I found this review of the game by Roger Ebert, where he waxes poetic about the game and seems to describe in terms one would reserve for a piece of great art

        • GhaleonQ says:

           It definitely was supposed to be educational in some sense.  You visit dying Jews and sneak out a tunnel, I think?  It’s been a bit.  Famicom Storybook: The Forest Of Beginnings is kind of like My Neighbor Totoro, but their earlier games (which you may recognize from Smashing) were fractured fairytales (like Okami, for instance).  They were supposed to have fun with 2 classics of Japanese/Chinese literature, so for the next, erm, the Christ is Wukong Sun?

          (And kudos for making that reference.  http://hardcoregaming101.net/cosmologyofkyoto/cosmologyofkyoto.htm  I think the 1st 1/3 of the 1st sentence is supposed to be a bigger compliment than the 2nd 2/3 of it.)

    • duwease says:

      I was just thinking about this the other day.  Unfortunately, my thinking time is limited, so I could only come up with a handful:

      – Bionic Commando
      – Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (flying Hitler clone heads ftw)
      – Persona 2: Innocent Sin
      – Wolfenstein 3D

    • Girard says:

       The Japanese title of Bionic Commando was, no kidding, “The Resurrection of Hitler: Top Secret.” So they were pretty up-front about it there. The American release was, as you could expect, scrubbed pretty clean of Nazi references, but still included an animation of Hitler’s head exploding in its ending sequence, which probably struck some kids as a grotesque non-sequitir.

      • Ike1 says:

        Yeah, I played this when it was first released on my NES, and I was definitely like, “WTF?” when I reached the part with Hitler’s head. It wasn’t clear to me that he was being resurrected — I just figured the game’s premise was that Hitler had faked his death and hid out in South America for all these years, or something.

        Even funnier, I told another kid about Hitler being the boss in the game, and he was like, “No way could that be Hitler. He’s definitely dead.” As if you can expect realism in NES games. So I was like, “Well, maybe he secretly had a son.” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’s possible.” Heh.

        That’s hilarious about the original Japanese title. I had no idea.

    • caspiancomic says:

       Don’t the Metal Slug games feature a thinly veiled Hitler as an antagonist? I seem to remember the climactic twist of Metal Slug X being the martians turning on Hitler, and then the players team up with the Notzis to kill the aliens, which was pretty rad.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        Nope.  He’s just a man (and Canadian!).  If anything, the Metal Slug storyline (HEY SHUT UP I JUST KNOW THIS OKAY) makes him more like 1900s South American/northern African strongmen.

      • alguien_comenta says:

        Is that the one were you save him and then he lands face first while being tied up?

    • duwease says:

      I count 7 so far, that’s enough for an Inventory even though I think we must be leaving at least a couple on the table..

  9. George_Liquor says:

    Hey, synergy! I finally bought a copy of Bionic Commando last weekend, and have been getting my 8-bit ass handed to me ever since.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      You have a functional NES, huh?  Are the controllers still as comfortable as I remember?

      • The Guilty Party says:

        Was that irony? Because I remember picking up a sega master system controller (essentially the same as the NES one) years afterwards in some archaic video game store in Japan, and holy hell those had some kind of super anti-ergonomic technology built straight in. Corners to dig into your hand, buttons that are awkward to hit and cheaply constructed, directional pads that dig into your thumb.

        In short, no. No they are not.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

          I wasn’t being ironic, I swear.  I recall the NES controller as being very comfortable.  It’s been  many years since I’ve held one, though.
             The Super NES controller still stands as my favorite controller as all time.

        • George_Liquor says:

          As a bitter little Genesis fanboy, I’m loathe to admit it, but yeah the SNES controller is one of the best, if not the best around.

      • George_Liquor says:

        Yep, I have two refurbished & lockout chip-less front-loaders. But for convenience’s sake, I usually use the Retron. I try to avoid using the original NES controllers in favor of the NES Advantage or Maxx.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

            Ah.  The NES Advantage with that sweet, sweet turbo.  Made buying potions in Final Fantasy a breeze.  Good ol’ 8-bit Nintendo.  When even buying stuff in games was more difficult.

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

       As good a place as any:

      Are there any “go-to” handhelds to play NES/SNES ROMs? I’ve used one that plays cartridges, but it’s too bulky to carry around much. As it is, I feel weird spending $6 on Virtual Console games when I own the cartridge already.

      • Girard says:

         You could get a flash cart for almost any handheld you’re likely to already own. The DS and PSP both have support for emulating SNES and NES games (the DS even has a build of SCUMMVM).

  10. itisdancing says:

    Bionic Commando helped instill in me a deep, lasting love of video games where you have a grappling hook. Bionic Commando, Worms, Just Cause 2… there should be more, is what I’m saying.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      I’m glad that you made this very specific comment, because I have a friend that feels the same way.

      I also am surprised that I don’t really like it, because I really love video games where you spin around or swing off an axis.  Clu Clu/Spin Land series, the 2 Paon platforming Donkey Kong games, The Electric Yo Yo, and so on are all fun.  I don’t really like Canabalt, but I think it gives people the same feeling those give me.

    • alguien_comenta says:

      There’s Ninja Five-0 on the GBA and I think Megaman Zero 3 had a grappling hook as well

  11. alguien_comenta says:

    Area 5 is also the area in which you can “break” the game. If you have enough patience you can keep collecting the “bullets” (were they bullets, I have no idea) from the parachuting soldiers until you fill your energy bar. This takes ages and also most of the deaths are from falling so it’s not that much of a break, but it does makes things a easier. For example, if you have enough energy and the metal boots you can survive screw ups on fire and spikes

    • It’s actually way, way easier to do this at the end of the first level. Just before the end is an area where soldiers are parachuting in constantly. It takes about ten minutes to max out your health. It was the first “exploit” I ever learned in a game by accident.