Bangai-O Spirits (DS) review
"This is how you make shooting games mean something again. Bangai-O Spirits puts so many twists on the genre formula it's hardly recognizable, yet all the more fun for it. Just be prepared to die a lot until you get the hang of it all."
There's an old, tired line to be said here about big things and small packages, but we'll skip that today. Still, keep it in mind--there'll be a quiz later.
Quick primer: in Bangai-O Spirits, you play as a "giant" robot that's less than a couple of dozen pixels tall and wide on your screen. However, in a wonderful ironic twist, this robot has the power to lay massive waste to anything in its vicinity by the use of several high-powered weapons; mostly missiles. It's a spiritual, but not direct sequel, to a game called Bangai-O that debuted on the N64 and Dreamcast where you did pretty much the same thing, only with a much more traditional progressive stage-based setup.
The game's a curious beast, to be sure. Upon boot-up and first glance, Spirits looks like something that would be at home on the Game Boy Advance--but once you actually start pressing its featured action buttons, you instantly understand that the power contained in this little cartridge is something that not even a system that can play Super Mario 64 on the go is capable of fully handling. Literally hundreds of bullets come after your little tiny mech, and your job, as it is in most shooting games, is to avoid the assault and use your own weaponry to destroy your opponents. Said opponents may have the edge in sheer numbers, but you have an impressive array of selectable weapons at your disposal--from reflecting bullets to napalm bombs, from homing missiles, to a sword and shield, to a bullet-reflecting baseball bat--which you can carry two of at any given time.
These alone would be enough to even the odds a bit, and indeed, most games actually would stop there. However, the titular Bangai-O also has the ability to let loose super weapons. So you can strike back with a gigantic spreading cluster of projectiles based on your normal weapons, reign supreme with the ability to stop time, or simply make the enemy feel bad about itself with a bullet-reflecting wave that affects the entire screen.
Here's the kicker, though: the Bangai-O gets stronger the more danger it's in. This means that if you fire your super projectiles just as you're about to be hit, they will increase in number, size, and power (up to a factor of four). Suddenly, you're using these waves of enemy missiles against the very foes that fired them. You're rushing into hailstorms, risking it all, for that one chance to employ the biggest destructo-wave ever, and you're doing it constantly. This is not a game for people who like to "play it safe."
Such intense action--and, as even the box says, "sensory overload"--can and will cause massive slowdown on the Nintendo DS, which in turn can garner two possible reactions. The first is, "wow, look at this slowdown! This game has problems." The other is, "Dude, I just sent hell of missiles at those guys! Enough to make the machine choke! That's awesome! I rule, and so does this game!"
A hint: only one of these is the right reaction, and it's not the former. In edited stages (more on this later), I've actually managed to send over 1,000 missiles back at my targets using the bullet-reflecting super weapon. I had to go get a snack while the DS processed them all, but let's face it: what was the last shooting game you played where you had to deal with a thousand projectiles at once? Some things are just worth the sacrifice.
Anyway, the result of this pixel-madness design is something that is part shooter, part puzzler--which, to be honest, is how pretty much all of Treasure's shooting games end up. From Ikaruga to the original Bangai-O to Gradius V, there's always a built-in trick within the game engine to allow for higher scores or more efficient kills. The true key to mastery, however, just as in the videogaming days of old, is to analyze the stage until you die, then to restart, and do better the next time using what you've learned. This is not a hard tactic to employ, as the game is very good at destroying you, time and time again.
It's unforgiving, yet fulfilling. In an industry where designers are scrambling to make their games "friendly," "pick-up-and-play," and overall less intimidating, Bangai-O Spirits challenges the player to rise up to it. Your mind and reflexes must be finely honed in order to many any real headway here. Much like last year's Contra 4 and this year's Mega Man 9, they just don't make them like this anymore--but they ought to.
Challenge aside, it'll take you a while to get through the game's 160+ stages as well. Each of these stages has absolutely no sense of progression or a difficulty curve to speak of. You're free to tackle them any way you choose. There isn't even a set theme among them, really. Some are shooter-fests, others are block puzzles. Some are death traps that can only be solved one way; others are fun to go back to again and again with different weapon combinations to see how one can best beat them for time or score attack purposes. Still others are time bombs that need to be solved or defused--and then you have boss fights that are as evil as they come. All the while, pumping techno music blares in your ears as you strike against the hear of the invaders; however, odds are you'll be hearing and concentrating more explosions than anything else.
Should you somehow tire of the staggering amount of included missions, you can make your own, using a stage editor that holds power comparable to that of the developers themselves. Thanks to the touchscreen interface, it's surprisingly easy to use, yet infinitely robust. These stages can then be transmitted via sound files over whichever online medium you choose. It's a double-edged sword: while this manner of transmission frees the game from friend codes and the like, the game is also very picky about its sound detection. Still, if you can wrestle it under your control, you've essentially got Little Big Planet, only instead of a cutesy (yet great) platformer, you're playing, creating and sharing one of the most hardcore shooters on the face of the earth.
This is, to date, one of the best DS games of the year, and if you were ever around for the golden age of arcade games, shooters, and the like, then you owe it to yourself to pick his sucker up. Just don't expect it to play nice when you do. However, should you prove yourself worthy of the challenge, Bangai-O Spirits will reward you with the potential for infinite amusement. There are very few games in all of history that can make such a claim.
Freelance review by Jason Grant (October 18, 2008)
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