Release Date: 19/03/08
There's a stage just a short way into Bangai-O Spirits that's seemingly impossible to survive. There is little room for Masato and Ruri's mech to manoeuvre, let alone escape. Four enormous gun turrets aim at the stationary "explosive, invincible Bangai-O" from all angles, and the only way to survive the next few seconds is to repeatedly charge and deflect; sending hundreds of miniature rockets firing back in the direction of the turrets, until there is nothing left on screen. This is Bangai-O in a nutshell, and it's the way it's always been: tense, often terrifying, but always exhilarating.
A cult favourite on N64 and Dreamcast, Bakuretsu Muteki Bangaioh was a defiant, knowing celebration of 2D gaming, triumphantly combining hectic but deeply rewarding free-roaming shooting with an intricately-detailed display of sprites and explosions. News of a sequel (especially given Treasure's reluctance to tread familiar ground) was greeted with pleasant surprise amongst fans. For the uninitiated, or those that have forgotten, Bangai-O basically involves flying a huge and incredibly powerful mech over a 2D map and shooting the shit out of everything in sight. Treasure games are known for their unconventional controls systems, and Bangai-O was no different, requiring a certain degree of patience and a fair bit of skill in order to master its nuances. But even for players of the original, Spirits (admittedly by way of necessity) employs a revised system to accommodate the button layout of Nintendo's handheld, and the whole thing can be little disconcerting, at least at first.
To briefly explain, there are 3 types of firing modes; the default fires whichever way your mech is facing, meaning in most situations you can't accurately kill enemies whilst flying. The second is activated by tapping a direction on the D-pad, then quickly pressing your fire button. This locks the bullets in said direction, and is essentially a work-around for the extra weapons now assigned to the DS’s face buttons. The third and final firing method is activated by double-tapping the fire button, which causes your mech to remain stationary (either in the air or on ground) and directs bullets whichever way you aim. Again, there's a good chance that if you're accustomed to the original, this change will take a bit of getting used to. Not only this, there are all-new weapons to master: baseball bats, swords and shield's comprise some of the new close-range abilities, and the player is now free to choose a shot and screen-filling “EX” attacks before the start of each stage. These all add a degree of strategy to the 160 main stages, which act more like self-contained puzzles than traditional stages as in those from Bangai-O. It may take around 25 or so of these stages before everything clicks into place, but once settled in, after the short tutorial mode - and the new controls become second nature all over again - you slowly begin to realise just how joyous and on-point Bangai-O Spirits is.
Bangai-O was all about throwing your robot into impossible positions but somehow coming out alive, but weapon choices now play a bigger role in overcoming problems than before. Often it's a case of being annihilated by a gang of space pirates time and again, only to learn that taking a baseball bat to them will send the entire company crashing into a heap of destruction. The tiny sprites belie the drama and thrill of obliterating a city-sized arena of mecha and buildings – bullets and vectors ricocheting off every surface. Some levels are contained within a single screen, whereas others are several times larger, with the DS’ top screen handily displaying the complete map, meaning there’s no chance of getting lost. Bangai-O can dash through walls, automatically cancel-out and deflect 50 incoming missiles from all angles and reduce all on-screen enemies into fruit power-ups that can then be used to replenish the EX gauge all over again - all this within a breathless matter of seconds. Equally, a single mistake on many stages will see your mech finished within half of that time. But you'll try and try again, because Spirits has a wonderful balance of challenge and skill that has an almost unrelentingly addictive quality. The range of ideas packed into each level is astonishing, and it would be a shame to spoil any of them here. Some stages can be finished within seconds, whereas others will take a little bit of head-scratching; then it’s back to the carnage. Not a single second is anything less than utterly absorbing, smile-enducingly tense and euphoric.
All of this and not a mention of the wealth of other modes, all of which are well considered and excellent inclusions in their own right. Video replays can be saved to cartridge, and the drama relived or traded with a friend. Along with a simultaneous co-operative mode, there’s a brilliant level-editor, from which levels can again be saved to cartridge and, mind-bogglingly, traded to another DS via the microphone – transmitting the data in an encoded sound wave. Level-editors in general can often be redundant (with Masato himself humorously labeling them “for losers”), but with Bangai-O it's a superior addition, and proved to be the factor that gives Spirits the kind of longevity and enduring appeal it could only previously have dreamt of. Starting with an empty void, everything from the arena size, enemies, backgrounds, item placements, required targets and even the music can be customised and saved to the cart - it’s remarkably addictive. The foundations of the game and all of its possibilities are laid bare, and the only limits will be that of the players’ own imagination.
What wasn't often credited to Bangai-O was its genuinely amusing dialogue, but because there's no real story present in Spirits, (apart from that which is limited to the tutorial), there's little reason to mourn its loss in the main mode. Non-Japanese readers might initially struggle with the option menus, but it would be foolish not to persevere because of this, as the game eventually reveals itself as a rich, addictive and above all, fun experience - certainly not one to be missed.
It by no-means makes the already-excellent previous version obsolete, but this sequel truly found its home on the DS. Bangai-O Spirits is simply here to remind us of the spirit of Bangai-O, leaving in its wake a dozen shooters that have graced consoles and handhelds since Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O’s inception. It’s a gamers’ game to be truly savoured - here to show anyone who forgot or missed it the first time, just how ridiculously good it is at what it does.