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Bangai-O Spirits

May 28, 2009

The fact that you can walk into your local Best Buy, Gamestop, or Wal-Mart and see Bangai-O Spirits on the shelf is nothing short of a miracle. Considering the completely backwards localization tendencies of Nintendo of America as well as the quirky and virtually unmarketable nature of this video game made by Japanese company Treasure, this has “Import Only” written all over it. In fact, although this Nintendo DS release is the second installment in the Bangai-O series, it is the first to hit US shores on a Nintendo console. The original game, Bangai-O, was released on the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast in Japan in 1999, and was not localized to the United States until March 2001, and it only saw a release on the fiscally doomed Dreamcast which would be completely withdrawn from the hardware market that same month.

The original Bangai-O was quite a game, in fact one of the best games for both the Dreamcast and the Nintendo 64. Following in Treasure’s established pattern of a more or less visually lighthearted but mechanically insane approach to the shoot-em-up genre, it was a missile shooter decorated with cute graphics and, like most Treasure games, many complexities. Bangai-O has received good reception throughout the years, and it has become, also like many other Treasure games, a cult hit among hardcore players. Chances of a sequel have always been present considering the games success but the opportunity has never quite arisen for several reasons.

In the world of three dimentional games, Treasure’s decidedly two dimentional approach has a hard time finding its place on consoles and the company has instead opted for handheld development. Three releases from 2004 to 2005 were sidescrolling platformers for the Gameboy Advance, two of which were sequels (Gunstar Super Heroes and Advance Guardian Heroes) and the remaining of which was a licensed game (Astro Boy: Omega Factor). The quality of these games was mixed. One was fantastic (Gunstar), another horribly mediocre (Guardian Heroes) and the third somewhere in between (Astro Boy).

It would seem appropriate for Treasure to have released a Bangai-O sequel on the Gameboy Advance, but it is almost certain that the Gameboy Advance hardware simply was not powerful enough. This probably left Treasure with several options: the Sony PSP, possibly a WiiWare (Nintendo’s online outlet for smaller scale developers to release their games at low costs) release, or perhaps the Nintendo DS. For whatever reason they opted for the latter option, and here we have one of the more obscure titles the DS has to offer, but also underhandedly one of the better.

In Bangai-O, the player controls a mechanized giant robot “Bangai-O”, which actually is represented by a very small sprite on the screen. The object of the game is to destroy designated targets on the vertically and horizontally scrolling screen, which could either be enemy robots, objects, or structures. The game is essentially a missile shooter. Your robot, as well as enemy robots, turrets, and other enemies, have an assortment of indirect and melee weapons at their disposal, of which the player can bring two of into any given match/round. Gun weapons can be combined. For example, the “Homing” rounds can be combined with the “Napalm” rounds to make rounds that explode with powerful napalm after homing in on the enemy. The player also has a powerful EX Attack option, which essentially releases a great number of missiles into the air, and a counterattack, which can be initiated when the EX Attack is used when many enemy bullets are near.

The levels themselves can be vast and expansive with many targets and enemies or tiny and constricted. It might take as short as less than a second to finish a level, or as long as five minutes or in extreme cases even longer. At any given time, the screen may be completely filled with a flabbergasting amount of bullets and missiles, which is not a new concept to Treasure games by any means. After defeating an enemy, a fruit will appear in its place, and collecting this fruit fills the EX Meter, which allows for the EX Attack to be used. Gameplay here has not changed much since the original Bangai-O on the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.

Unlike the original Bangai-O, Bangai-O Spirits has no story or campaign mode, and thus the game at many times feels like an emotionless catharsis. Treasure has never been known for their storylines though, and for that reason the company’s core fanbase will not have a problem playing the game for the sake of the gameplay alone. The levels/missions are divided into three categories; Treasure’s Best, Puzzle Stages, and Other Stages. The first group comprises of a selection of stages that focus on firepower and strategy to reach the goal, the second group relies more on cunning and intuitive problem solving, and the third group is an assortment of groups that shows a compromise between the other two. All of these stages can be accessed initially and the game has no unlockables. One would think that the motivation to play the game would be nonexistant, but as always Treasure breaks down expectations and makes the game quite compelling.

One of the ways that Treasure differentiates Bangai-O Spirits from the original is with its extra features, and what features are here are a mixed bag. The standout inclusion is definitely Edit Mode, which allows for players to create their own stages and puzzles to fight through. The hell of it is that making levels is actually really easy and fun, and playing through your own levels is really rewarding. You can share these levels, potentially with friends or even over the internet, with the sound load option that involves turning stages into readable sound files, but the system is wonky and takes some calibrating to get to work. I haven’t gotten it to work yet, which is a shame because I’m thinking that if I could the level sharing could be a lot of fun. If you have friends who own the game, you can also participate in local multiplayer matches (I would think local level-sharing would have been a helpful feature too.)

It should also be noted that the levels that Treasure includes here are actually quite difficult, almost inordinately so, for how simple the gameplay seems to be. The more skill and firepower related stages require great precision, and the puzzle stages never have obvious solutions. In fact, these puzzles may be among the most difficult Treasure has ever created, which is a bit of a contradiction, because most Treasure games have gameplay made especially to have multiple options to tackle stages, including Bangai-O Spirits. However, in most instances, solutions require hard thinking, and cannot be reached with simple tweaking of weapon selection. So in the end, these levels require a great deal of strategy and know-how as well as hard headed skill.

And as always, lag is your friend. Just like when the screen lagged in Treasure’s Gameboy Advance titles, the slowdown allows for more time to think and more precise movements. At first, a player might feel guilty taking advantage of what seems to be a constraint of the technology that Treasure have at their disposal, but some of the stages are so difficult that it seems like one almost has to take advantage of it. And like Astro-Boy before it, the weapon that seems to be the players trump card, the EX Attack in this game, ends up being the driving weapon of the game, and the necessity for success. And many times, players will find themselves carefully inching into situations to draw the enemies in so that they can pick them off one by one, and pitting the limitations of enemies against them. If the game wasn’t so brutally difficult, these tactics would seem cheap, but we get the feeling that Treasure are completely aware of how difficult they made this game, and we really need to take advantage of these capabilities to succeed.

That suspicion might seem a little farfetched to someone who isn’t familiar with Treasure’s output, but for those of us who are, it should be a familiar concept that the developing team is all about creating engines that can be pushed to their absolute limit with a player’s inventiveness. The most definitive proof of this in their catalogue would have to be the infamous S Ranks in 1997’s masterpiece Mischief Makers, ungodly difficult speedrun challenges that required taking advantage of the most clever and ridiculous subtleties. The challenges aknowledged that Treasure knew their own games front to back, and way better than most developers. In most of their games, including this one, Treasure challenges the player to go the extra mile and really master a process.

Treasure generally craft their games with two paths to completion: one for the casual gamer and one for the hardcore. This leaves their games mostly playable to a wide audience, something for the people who want to stretch their minds a little but don’t want to be frustrated, and something for the “hardcore gamer” who actually likes sitting down for hours pulling their hair out about how to save milliseconds on speedruns or how to top their already ridiculous high scores. Bangai-O Spirits is admittedly mostly the latter, like Alien Soldier and Ikaruga before it. It is almost always difficult and requires hard thinking and good reflexes. Not one for the kids. We have to ask ourselves, who were Treasure expecting their audience to be here? But we know that they have a pretty good grasp on the kinds of people that keep track of such a low-key indie gaming company, so it makes the presence of Bangai-O Spirits on the shelves, shaped with great precision to cater to the kinds of people who were waiting for it and who have the open mind to take a chance with it, quite a touching fact.

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