On A Wire: Bionic Commando and Umihara Kawase Shun

Two games explore how gravity is the key to the grappling hook fantasy.

By Anthony John Agnello • September 25, 2012

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.

Bionic Commando

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.

Bionic Commando

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.

Umihara Kawase Shun

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.

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46 Responses to “On A Wire: Bionic Commando and Umihara Kawase Shun

  1. Cloks says:

    I have nothing to add but this:

  2. EmperorNortonI says:

    The very last King’s Quest game ever made featured a grappling hook.  It allowed you to do a variety of things that, previously, had always been impossible in most adventure games – namely, climb up on roofs and whatnot.

    The way that so many gaming genres rely on such silly and arbitrary ways to limit your freedom of movement in the surface of level design has always annoyed me.  Why can’t I pull myself over that thigh-high ledge?  How on Earth does this locked door block my super-powered character who wields the power of several Greek gods?  Why does this particular pile of trash block my progress, when that pile over there is just an obstacle to climb over?

    That was one of the reasons I was always terrible at adventure games – which was frustrating, as I matured as a gamer during the golden age of adventure games.  I always thought of rather obvious, brute-force solutions to puzzles, which made it nearly impossible to think through the “clever” and contrived solutions intended by the designers.

    Only on rare occasions were my intuitions at all applicable – I still remember to this day the absolute joy I felt when, in Full Throttle, I was able to solve a puzzle in what felt like the “right” way for the time and place – by punching it.

    • Citric says:

      Part of the problem with adventure games – especially Sierra games – is that the solution often made sense to the developer and nobody else. Like part of the solution would be rubbing a cat against a wizard* or something else no sane person would consider.

      *Not a real example, it’s late, someone probably has something real and better.

      • In one of the Gabriel Knights you have to chase a cat through a hole with something sticky in it in order to use the hair that somehow comes off the feline to make a false moustache in order to impersonate someone who doesn’t have a moustache in the first place.

        • Girard says:

           And  then you need to find a marker and draw a moustache on his ID. The puzzle is the sublime distillation of boneheaded graphic adventure game design decisions.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          You may be surprised to learn that it was something that the producer threw in after Jane Jensen’s original puzzle got cut because of time and technology restraints!

          Or not.

        • Travis Stewart says:

          Old Man Murray wrote a great article using that very puzzle to claim that the adventure genre committed suicide.

        • Girard says:

           @google-51e69d88a29e1efd2d880564090ed43c:disqus : “Cat-Hair Moustache” is kind of the “Jump the Shark” of the graphic adventure genre in that respect.

      • GhaleonQ says:


        To stay on-topic, I fully understand your 2 criticisms but have never bought them.  Video games themselves are often arbitrary challenges (why is Rad Spencer going in without the support of the American military?!).

        The “faulty” reasoning is not necessarily “guessing developer intent” but deducing meaning from the items WITHIN the world, not necessarily from what they mean outside of it.  *avoids philosophy discussion on form*  Even if you didn’t play Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers 1 teaches you early on that pipes can have hidden secrets (because enemies live in them) and powerups that help you come from blocks (because you’re nearly uninterrupted at the beginning of 1-1).

        Realistic graphics may encourage the thoughts, “I can climb over walls in real life, but not here,” or (on-topic) “Link’s hookshot could latch on to anything, not just certain wall types,” but that’s baggage that the player’s brought to a blank slate.

        Now, yes, disparity and contradiction is bad design.  But there IS disparity in Kratos being stuck in kill rooms.  There isn’t in Gabiel Knight adding a moustache to himself and his identification card to disguise their facial features.  The game tells you every required state to solve the puzzle.

        The Umihara Kawase series is arguably unfair and unrealistic, but it builds the rules very clearly into each field.  There is never any question whether something will work, only whether it’s the right solution and whether your fingers will allow you to do it.

        • Girard says:

           It is very brave of you to use the moustache puzzle as an exemplar in your (well-worded) defense of adventure game “logic.”

          I would also add that adventure games, being among the most overtly narrative and transparently “authored” gaming experiences, that there in fact can be a kind of joy at getting into the headspace of the designer/author of the game. The game doesn’t provide a toolbox for the gamer to create their own emergent experience, because it isn’t really about the player or their experience, it’s about the story being told by the author, with the player, and the sort of connection generated between the two is certainly something interesting/special, and a valid ‘experience’ in and of itself.

          This shouldn’t be read as a blanket assertion of the greatness of authorial voice or narrowly-defined narrative tracks in gaming, but I don’t think it’s an inherently broken design mentality, either. It can certainly become a problem when the author is solipsistic enough that they don’t really give you any in-road into their conception of the story or puzzle, which can result in problematic, idiosyncratic designs like the cat-moustache.

        • GhaleonQ says:


          (I obviously agree with all of that, and you write well.)

          *laughs*  It’s more a dismissal of the simple reading of the puzzle as absurd based on its dissimilarity to real life.  (I genuinely dislike Wolpaw to this day!)  It’s dumb there, sure.

          Is it illogical or impossible within the game’s world?  Of course not.  It tells you the pieces of the puzzle, and it’s a game with flying vampires in it in a world where Gabriel finds out that he also is…

          (Though I adore it, Ace Attorney/Turnabout Trial is way more GUILTY of requiring realism until it wants to be silly without the narrative text hinting that the player should be.)

          Tetris is overrated for the same reason.  Yeah, it’s more efficient to drop blocks into block-shaped holes, but, say, Panel Pon and Puyo Puyo have weird rules that lead to seemingly counterintuitive play and, subsequently, masterstrokes.  Silliness is good, especially in video games.

  3. WorldCivilizations says:

    I can think of 2 other exceptionally good grappling hook uses:
    Little Big Planet 2: The little sackboys are so adorable swinging around, and especially in coop, the grappling hook is frantic and ridiculous as you constantly grapple on to each other and swing around in tandem.

    007: Nightfire: The grappling hook pulled you directly towards where it attached, at absurd distances and angles, which made it great for daring escapes, or dropping down from above on unsuspecting opponents (I never actually played the single player, but I maintain that nightfire was an unappreciated gem of multiplayer enjoyment on ps2).

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Let’s not forget Just Cause 2 (I never played the first one). All other things aside, the cartoony violence, the massive, some would say overblown world, the one-dimensional character… the grappling hook technique is really rather fun. The game defies gravity, inertia and shock at just about every corner of the game and still feels like something good is happening.
      Also, the fact that these grappling hooks are retractable, can be fired with apparently no recoil or reloading, never fail and neither lose grip nor break their rope or cable is just a giant testament how trusting we are in tools.

  4. Citric says:

    I played the SNES Umihara Kawase, it’s that dangerous mix of deceptively cute and incredibly frustrating, since often it can take a lot of effort to get to that door, but dammit it’s a game where you’re playing as a little girl with a backpack and dammit this adorable game will not defeat me!

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Yeah, and the game and its sequel are excellent examples of bite-sized design.  Like The Incredible Machine, you always feel like you solve the 1st 80 percent of the puzzle immediately and then spend the next _ minutes trying to get the rest of the way there.  Bionic Commando/Top Secret is…decidedly not that.  Anyway, Umihara Kawase = Mel.  That cuteness, right?

      I mentioned before how I love games with swing mechanics, and I don’t think the 2 games compared are that similar MECHANICALLY, even if they resemble each other graphically.  The key here is physics.  There’s no reason that physics-free swinging necessarily leads to action over puzzling, but it ended up that way.  The Electric Yo-Yo and the Kuru Kuru Land series are much closer to that instant snap.  I think Paon’s 2 Donkey Kong games resemble the sort of lateral thinking that Umihara Kawase has.

      It’s a versatile mechanic, but Anthony did a good job of breaking down what’s fun about it.  I think it’s interesting how, say, The Electric Yo-Yo is just the abstract version of a more complex, story-based game.

    • alguien_comenta says:

      And then you reach the door on the level and it’s the wrong one… freaking Umihara

  5. TheKingandIRobot says:

    How could he lose?  He’s got a bionic arm.

  6. Kilzor says:

    SPOILER FOR A SEQUEL TO BIONIC COMMANDO THAT NO ONE BESIDES MYSELF SEEMED TO LIKE:  Can i wistfully assume that Umihara’s grappling hook also works only because her suddenly convenient wife was stolen by the military and then somehow transferred into its mechanics?  Because then, of course, I would applaud its commitment to realism.

  7. caspiancomic says:

     Bionic Commando with the hat trick! Get this bad boy an Alternate Soundtrack and it’ll have the home run! I’m pretty sure those sports analogies are compatible!

  8. Girard says:

    I really appreciate the discussion of a “deep cut” game like
    Umihara Kawase Shun
    . Am I mistaken, or is this the first time GS has prominently featured a never-localized game in a feature?

    • I appreciate deep cuts but also stings a little to know I’ll probably never play that game.  I barely have enough time to play localized games being a boring adult, but still, seeing a Japanese platformer from their heyday makes me long for the days of the Eidos “Fresh Games” imprint that imported hidden gems like Mad Maestro or Mister Mosquito.

      • Girard says:

         In that case, though, isn’t it great to at least vicariously experience something that comes from outside your purview?

        Frankly, time and money and various adult obligations mean I won’t play the vast majority of even contemporary, widely-played games discussed on the site, but still enjoy reading about those. And it’s refreshing to see something besides [NES Classic X], [Indie Darling Y], or [Contemporary Blockbuster Z] again.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        While I’d fully encourage you to import, emulation has come a long way.

        I know that we won’t get a blowout on the PC Engine (that’s what Hardcore Gaming 101 is for), but I think they’d find lots to be interested in your Ganbare/Persevere, Neo Poke-Kun (or, heck, alternate history with -, Goemon) or the Wonder Project J series.  They might as well be modern downloadable hipster games.

      • Destroy Him My Robots says:

        I know there already are ROM sites where you can emulate games in your browser. We really need something like this, but proper. Youtube videos are nice and everything, but I’d rather have Agnello point to a save state in 2-1 in the one game and one in 3-4 in the other so we can play each for one level (or whatever would be covered by Fair Use) and get a feel for them, like when the AV Club posts excerpts from movies for Dispatches from Direct to DVD Purgatory or something. I guess we’ll have to wait until cloud gaming technology has matured, but I’m sure it will happen and it will be fantastic for features like this.

  9. CNightwing says:

    The best grappling hook is, in fact, a ninja rope.

    • RTW says:

      This is correct. The first game I thought of when I watched the Umihara Kawase playthrough was Worms Armageddon and the Crazy Crates stage. I’m amazed it didn’t show up in the comments sooner actually, if not first. You want to talk about liberating grappling hook movement? The conversation begins and ends with the ninja rope.

  10. Bad Horse says:

    Speaking of gorgeous 32-bit era sprite work…

  11. root (1ltc) says:

    Bionic Commando is one of the few NES games which I will willingly replay today. The original holds up well, and it’s quite incredible how much of an homage yet different game the current-gen update is.

    It was by this love of BC and the endless praise for it on the Internet that I spent the necessary money to get the PS1 version of Umihara Kawase Shun.

    I was completely underwhelmed.

    I never was able to obtain any sort of responsiveness which I was expecting from this kind of game. I never felt like I had control of her, and I never felt like I was able to do anything that the game expected me to do.

    Not to mention the fact that the game threw me into a baffling difficulty progression, based on the level path which I encountered and I assume is the most common. First few levels: yeah, OK, swing here, ladder up there, fine, great. Then comes this “boss battle” stage of sorts which initiates you within the inside of a gigantic reverse C-shaped block and has you chased by a big jumping fish blob which covers half of the screen and kills you on contact. Technically, there is a way to time a series of jumps and hooks just right to get to the top of the C and skip ahead. The only other way to clear the stage is to swing on the bottom, and spend five minutes in alternating phases of standing inside the C and swinging underneath the C and dodging the fish jumping out of the water beneath that. 
    By the time I figured that much out, I never played Umihara Kawase again, and sold it on ebay months later at a loss without a tinge of regret.

    Don’t believe the hype.