Reality ruins few fantasies quite like it ruins the grappling hook. It’s all so clear in your head: You toss this enormous metal spike up a building, then can climb the rope, free of elevator and stair tyranny. Then you swing all over the place. Nope. Gravity is real. Just climbing up the cord attached to the hook is a herculean feat. Hell, throwing the hook is hard. The imagined freedom of the grappling hook is a terrible lie.
Not so in video games. In 1988’s Bionic Commando and in 1997’s Umihara Kawase Shun, you receive grappling hooks that let you swing about the world with two different kinds of fantasy ease. Commando’s is rigid, forcing you to sway on the line in precise arcs; whereas Kawase finds that line pliable. Both are effective, because unlike the wholly impossible physical abilities of most games—flight, jumping in mid-air, surviving impossible falls—Kawase and Commando keep you tethered with their grappling hooks, anchors that provide a constant connection. Solid ground in an unreal world.
The more rigid of the two, Bionic Commando casts you as military man Radd Spencer. He’s on a mission to save his super-soldier pal from the imperialist BADDs, and doing so requires infiltrating and destroying 12 bases. They’re a hodgepodge of construction sites, caves, and sci-fi research facilities, a series of spaces with tiered floors positioned precariously over spikes and bottomless pits. There’s an occasional elevator, but no stairs anywhere. This is what it looks like when a fascistic government designs its empire around grappling-hook traversal.
Still, you’re the only person who has to swing around to get anywhere. Enemy soldiers can freely jump down from ledges, or emerge from doors you can’t enter. They even parachute or fly in from above. You’re surrounded, and the hook compounds the constrictions on your rescue mission. A silver coil with a claw on the end, Radd’s grapple only zips out in a 45-degree angle or horizontal in front, recoiling immediately if it doesn’t connect with a surface. Once he’s hooked on, there’s no adjusting. He either swings in a slow arc left and right, or he’s stopped and pulled up to whatever he’s attached to. It’s almost as bad as the real thing.
Frustration sets in quick. Getting around these crazy, tiered installations requires you to learn not just where and when to toss the hook, but when precisely to let go. There are more than a few leaps of faith required.
But the tempo of hook-and-release has an invigorating grace once you internalize it. In level six, for example, you have to swing over open ocean using a series of lampposts. The sinking gut sensation of tossing the line, breaking it halfway through your swing, and perfectly timing the next connection feels close to a real sensation of denying gravity, without the risk of breaking a leg.
You lead a more whimsical, Seuss-ian life as schoolgirl Umihara Kawase than as Radd Spencer. In Umihara Kawase Shun, you wander an abstract world of pastel blocks, pools of water, giant carrots, fish, and road signs. It’s the sort of dreamscape you’d expect a teenage hippie to conjure up the first time they get drunk and pass out watching Ponyo. Unlike Radd, Umihara can jump, but her chief mode of transportation is a fishing pole whose lure is a grappling hook. She uses it to fling herself around the game’s hallucinatory obstacle course, looking for doorways out.
Kawase’s is cognitively tricker than Bionic Commando. The military world of the latter is full of rigid tiers, so figuring out how to swing around requires simple mental arithmetic. Kawase requires more lateral thinking. Most of the doors you need to reach are on platforms way out of the read of your wan fishing line.
The hook doesn’t work like Radd’s taught spring; it’s buoyant. Umi bobs around on the line, extending or reigning in to give her extra bounce as needed. The bendiness of the line lets you wrap it around obstacles, creating tension, so you can slingshot yourself over open space. Reaching new platforms isn’t just a matter of knowing when to let go and fly free, but determining the proper tension to fling yourself forward.
As the game progresses and the levels become even more strangely arranged, the game plays with perception. How you bop from one place to the next is always the biggest mystery, and solving it is a matter of rethinking how to use your hook’s flexibility to its advantage. The militaristic obstacles in Commando require planning augmented with improvisation. Kawase needs you to think creatively before all else.
The glee of both games comes from learning the ins and outs of their imaginary gravity. Bionic Commando is a game of hard angles, asking players to find freedom in precision. Umihara Kawase Shun turns that freedom on its head by keeping the hook, but making it malleable. Kawase drifted farthest from real grappling hooks, but its fantasy ultimately proves the same point Bionic Commando did: A tether, whether hard or soft, can create marvelously liberating ways to move through space.