a review of Bangai-O Spirits
a videogame developed by treasure
and published by D3 publisher
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
I hope you guys had fun reading this website, because I’m probably not going to bother writing on it anymore!
The reason would be Treasure’s Bangai-O Spirits, a game so perfect and so deep that when it comes right down to the wire, I’d probably rather be sealed in a sensory deprivation tank playing it against my best friend for millenia than working, vacationing in the Bahamas, or even having pseudo-violent sex. That’s the sign of a good game, right there — if you’d willingly give up an opportunity to let a girl live out her fantasy to rape a man just so that you could deflect projectiles for a couple more hours. I get this feeling, playing this game — if I keep deflecting projectiles, eventually I’ll be so good at deflecting projectiles that I won’t even need to close my eyes or tense my knees to ejaculate. I will simply be. I will flow.
Maybe that’s not enough for the videogame company PR dudes who troll this website (hi dad!), so let’s put it into more back-of-boxy language:
Bangai-oh Spirits is “Brain Training” for God. He spake unto the earth: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the First and the Last, the Street Fighter II and the Street Fighter III, the Sin and Punishment and the Ikaruga, the carbon dioxide and the oxygen, the Bangai-oh Spirits for the Nintendo DS.”
This isn’t just the best game Treasure has ever made — hell, it isn’t even just the best game they can make, it’s a 210-gun salute to the head of the pathology they’ve waved proudly for the last decade and a half of their illustrious careers designing quirky little games that only morbidly obese people like myself seem capable of enjoying. It’s them dropping all their cards — five aces, including the elusive Golden Ace of Knives — on the table and putting a pistol in their mouth and saying fuck you, I will pull this trigger, I swear I will.
This is hardly hyperbole.
Bangai-O Spirits is a puzzle game, a shooting game, a fighting game, an MMORPG. It is Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter III at the same time. In this age of Everyday Shooter and dozens of other one-man games that let you use two analog sticks to move and shoot at the same time, Treasure steps in with an update to their own Robotron riff, and they manage to outclass literally everyone, even without the multidirectional shooting gimmick.
What’s so good about the game? It’s kind of hard to put it in a few words, so we’ll have to break with tradition and actually discuss the way the game plays — not yet, though, don’t worry. I know, you wish I’d just keep talking about my penis for the duration of the review, though hey, sometimes we humans have to endure boring stuff.
The tutorial in Bangai-O Spirits is pretty boring. However, unlike an actual school, the long-winded tutorial in Bangai-O Spirits teaches you how to be objectively awesome. Each tutorial stage opens with a dialogue between three characters — a commander with an eyepatch, a young girl with large breasts, and a too-cool youth in a hip military uniform. In addition to teaching you how to use weapons, the commander also manages to enrage the cool youth: as the tutorials get more complicated and wordy, toward the end, the kid literally says that he didn’t realize he signed up for “an actual robot anime” — he just thought the robot and the anime characters on the box were there to draw in anime fans. The professor then gets defensive, insinuating that the end of Evangelion was “the best part”. Not making this up! When you beat the tutorial, the commander says, “We’ve defeated the Tutorial Army!” And the kid says, “That was fast. If we sell this game back now, do you think we can get at least 3,500 yen for it?”
Bangai-O Spirits: It burns!
The professor — and the girl — are quick to point out that the game has over 160 stages in the “Free play” mode, and that you can edit your own stages and play multiplayer, if you want. The kid shrugs this off, says that “stage-editing is for losers”.
And just like that — you’ll never see those three anime stereotypes again.
This is refreshing, when you consider that Treasure games have always had problems expressing story and character. Dynamite Headdy, their attempt to break into the mainstream with a “mascot” character, was a huge jumbled cluster of near-impossible challenges; it requires some degree of arcane voodoo magic to even get past the tutorial in that game, and it requires nerves of steel to like any of the bizarre characters. The music is Chinese water-torture. (The game itself is pretty alright.)
Treasure has gone through the weirdest phases of wanting to be popular and not giving a fuck. Gunstar Heroes was an attempt to capitalize on a perceived opening in the action game market for people who didn’t like the look of Contra. It was apparently conceived as a kind of Sonic the Hedgehog with guns and fighting-game inspired close-quarters combat. Gunstar Heroes thrives whenever it’s not trying to tell a story, or be otherwise interesting. Each stage plays differently from the last, with a short shoot-em-up runup to the gimmick segments or boss parade: the Dice Palace stage, cited as the “best stage ever!” by game “journalists” with maybe a quarter-piece of their cranium missing, is all at once Treasure’s fragmentary genius and infuriating shortcomings rolled into one. It’s a line of pleasant little challenges — one-offs involving their pristine game engine — interrupted by an absolutely lazy hub where you roll a dice to move through a “board game” that’s just a straight line.
Gunstar Heroes begins to shine in stage five, which is titled “DESTROY THEM ALL” — contrary to what the lobotomites writing top-hundred lists will tell you, “DESTROY THEM ALL” is the “best stage ever”: all semblance of “level design” falls away, in the best way possible, and it’s just you, an entire enemy army, and occasional platforms. Flying enemies drop bombs, you jump up, grab them out of the air, and chuck them at towering robot walkers. Grunts run full-steam at you, and if you see an opening, you grab one and use him as a projectile, too. You do this over and over again for ten minutes, and the word “ENJOY” never vanishes from the stock-market ticker running across the bottom of your brain.
Why can’t Gunstar Heroes just be six straight hours of this? Why can’t it just never end? Let the computer just keep crunching the numbers and shitting out bad guys — the more I kill, the more the computer shits. Zen Masters will tell you that there has to be balance, that without low points, high points wouldn’t feel as special, shadow lends context to light, et cetera, though really, Pac-Man Championship Edition is non-stop fun, and anyone who complains because there aren’t any NPCs to talk to is probably also a chimpanzee.
At any rate, Gunstar Heroes was something of a failure in Japan because
1. Most people on earth literally can’t read
2. It was on the MegaDrive, which was essentially the Xbox of its day.
Back then, people who owned MegaDrives in Japan were called “MegaDrivers”, just as the first wave of Xbox players called themselves “Xboxers”. Dynamite Headdy was Treasure’s idea of appealing to a broader audience — at least, in theory — and when the three-year-olds of the world found out that the instruction manual contained more words than “Happy” and “Fun”, it all went south.
Thus spake Alien Soldier, a schizophrenic, shattered velvet bag of demonic battle fragments. The full title of Alien Solider is, and I quote, “VISUAL SHOCK! SOUND SHOCK! NOW IS THE TIME TO THE 68000 HEART ON FIRE ALIEN SOLDER FOR MEGADRIVERS CUSTOM“. In other words, they’re weren’t lying to themselves — or anyone, really. Alien Soldier‘s title screen contains perhaps the longest story crawl of the 16-bit era, and no amount of resetting the console will make it any less ridiculous. Watching the superplays embedded on the Sega Ages compilation disc are like attending a waterski wedding on the surface of the sun. The game’s arcane mechanics are a Treasure staple: encouraging the player to play in the most ridiculous, unattractive way possible. To wit: the strongest attack at your disposal isn’t the flaming, screen-spanning dash that you can only perform with full health (and even then, only once) — it’s the pixels-wide flames that erupt from your character’s back as he’s doing said dash. Playing the game to completion is equal to breaking it — finding the pixels that work, freezing there, and TKO’ing every opponent in the first instant of the fight.
Eventually, Treasure tried to make money, and mostly failed, because they thought a game needed a “story” to be a phenomenal hit, and the story in the relatively high-budget Sin and Punishment was so loopy and bizarre that you can’t overlook it; to say it was written on acid or after smoking much reefer is a criminal overstatment. It’s more like something written in one day by a man with really bad indigestion cascading into diarrhea. For its mechanics, it’s easily one of the best games of all-time, and though the cut-scenes are fiercely skippable, the very fact that it has a story (and that its music sounds like pornography for librarians) keeps it out of the specialest place in my heart. It also — and this is pure conjecture — kept the game from being released outside Japan, even though it was written entirely in English and intended primarily for US release.
All throughout the years, as Treasure floundered with the weirdest cartoon licenses (Tiny Toon Adventures, for god’s sake), I wished they’d just make a full-on fighting game with Gunstar Heroes mechanics. They kind of almost did that with Yuyu Hakusho for MegaDrive, and later Guardian Heroes for Saturn — and most recently two Bleach-based fighting games on the Nintendo DS — though the games always felt too focused on “personality” and “selling points”. And they never set the world on fire.
Treasure’s Ikaruga, which resulted seemingly from a sudden desire to make the cleanest, simplest shooting game of all time as a kind of counterpoint to their Radiant Silvergun, the clusterfuckiest shooter ever conceived, ironically, was perhaps their most internationally acclaimed game; maybe this has had something to do with Treasure’s recent game design roll-backs.
Bangai-Oh! for Dreamcast and the Nintendo 64, has always been my favorite Treasure game, not so much for its “hilarious quirky dialogue” as for its crunchy shooting action. There’s very little fat in the game, and it’s quite an accomplishment that Bangai-O Spirits is even leaner.
ACTUALLY DISCUSSING THE GAME NOW
I’m not even going to bother discussing how this game differs from Bangai-Oh, because it doesn’t matter: Bangai-Oh hardly exists anymore. Instead, I’m going to try to explain to you why you should buy this game, and not something like, I don’t know, Super Smash Bros..
In Bangai-O Spirits, you control a giant robot — which happens to be only the size of one “block” of the playing field. I believe this was the core concept of the original game — control a cursor-sized player character that looks like a giant robot.
Your goal in this game is to destroy various targets in stages. A rough map of the stage, with the required targets highlighted, takes up the top screen. You move around on the lower screen.
You have five general kinds of attacks. Before each mission, you’re free to select which weapons you want to use.
Press the Y button to use one basic weapon, and the B button to use another one.
Press the A button to dash in the direction you’re facing. Press any direction while dashing to change direction.
Press the L button or the R button to use one of two “EX Attacks”. Hold the button to charge the EX attack, and release to unleash it. The more enemy bullets in your general area when you release the trigger, the fiercer the attack you’ll unleash. If you let go of the button just as a bullet is hitting you, the missiles emanating from your body will even increase in size.
There are seven types of basic weapons. None of them are “better” than any other. Each has a definite strength and a definite weakness. All bullets are capable of canceling out other bullets, meaning that “the best defense is a good offense” and “the best offense is a good defense” are more than just something karate teachers tell kids.
I will explain the weapon classes briefly:
1. Bound laser: Laser-like missiles that reflect off walls at 45-degree angles. Pros: Can be used to access unsuspecting enemies in tight spots. Cons: Very average strength.
2. Homing missiles: Missiles that chase enemies. Pros: will hunt enemies down for several seconds; no need to even aim, most of the time. Cons: Even weaker than the bound shot; sub-par mid-air turning radius.
3. Break shot: Special shots capable of canceling two enemy bullets instead of one. Pros: can be used to cut through an enemy’s bullet curtain. Cons: even weaker than homing shot.
4. Napalm shot: Super-powerful shot. Pros: relatively twice the power of a bound shot. Cons: very easily canceled — normal bound / homing shots can eat through two napalm shots before being canceled themselves; break shots can eat four napalm shots.
5. Sword: It’s a sword. Pros: ultra-powerful, ultra fast. Cons: ultra-short-range. Hard to move forward and close in while attacking.
6. Shield: It’s a shield. Position it by tapping a direction and pressing the attack button. Pros: eats any and all bullets endlessly. Stays in the direction where you put it. “Movable cover”, essentially. Doesn’t fade even when you fire your other weapon. Cons: kind of hard to get used to! (Though in a Treasure game, “Kind of hard to get used to” is often used to describe The One Thing The Game Designer Wants You To Do All The Time.)
7. Bat: A giant baseball bat. Pros: can deflect any projectiles back at the enemy. Can deflect dozens of projectiles at a time, even. Can even turn enemies into projectiles. Can also be used to hit physics objects (conveniently shaped like soccer balls, baseballs, basketballs). Cons: Kind of slow. Not much attack power on its own.
Some of these weapons can even be combined in Radiant Silvergun style — homing and bound, for example — by pressing both buttons at once.
Your default attack mode is “free” — you can move while shooting — and your robot can fly all around the stage, with delicious crispy coasting physics. However, should you tap an attack button twice and then hold it the second time, your character will enter “fixed” mode, and you’ll stop anywhere (even in mid-air) and be free to aim in any direction. Useful in so many ways.
Now I’ll explain the EX attacks. Man, I’m like IGN over here:
1. Homing: Fires a multitude of homing shots. Good for: wide-open spaces with lots of enemies.
2. Bound: Fires a multitude of bound shots. Good for: twisty tunnels and lots of projectiles.
3. Break: Fires a multitude of break shots. Good for: lots of bullets, feeling tricky.
4. Napalm: Fires a multitude of napalm shots. Good for: feeling lucky.
5. Freeze: Freezes enemy bullets in the air. The “Treasure Factor”. Good for: super-playing and “puzzle”-solving. The longer you hold the button, the longer the bullets freeze.
6. Reflect: Works like a bat, except in all directions all at once. Good for: people who know what the hell they’re doing.
All EX attacks (except Freeze) can be “focused” in a direction of your choosing. In the previous Bangai-Oh game, you could only blast the bullets in a circle around your character’s body. In Spirits, you can press a directional button in one of eight ways while charging your attack, and then release the button to unleash the attack in only that direction.
And that’s it. That’s the game’s engine. The instruction manual doesn’t even describe the weapons — it just tells you to play the tutorial and find out for yourself. It knows that if you’re holding that instruction manual, you’re a Treasure-gaming freak who doesn’t read manuals anyway.
The tutorial contains the game’s only instances of “Story”. Its little lessons cascade into something huge, and the last stage is a frustrating, amazing, idiotic feat of level design with an infuriating execution and an exhilirating climax. Once you get past it, you’re free — as you’ve always been — to play the “Free Play” mode, which has, yes, well over a hundred and four tens of stages. You can play the stages in any order. You don’t even have to clear one stage to move on to the next. The interface is DOS-like in its cleanliness. Press the right directional button to advance forward one stage. If you’ve cleared the stage, your best time and top score will be displayed at the bottom of the screen. If you want to play a stage, press the A button. Now you have the DOS-like weapon-select screen. Choose your arsenal and play the stage. If you die, sucks to be you. Choose “exit” to go back to the stage-select menu. Try different weapons.
Many stages are beatable with any weapon selection; few absolutely require use of the bat to obtain the “easy” solutions. Many stages feature hang-ups that force you to open the menu and restart. Some stages feature extended side-scrolls climaxing in epic one-on-five battles with steel-trap-minded opponents of equal abilities. Some stages are massive labyrinths with multiple targets and pursuing grunts. Some stages are vertical scrolls that force you to avoid cascading unbreakable blocks while breaking the correct breakable blocks in order to reach the target. Other stages begin with the player surrounded at point-blank range by four giant honkin’ beam cannons; the 3-2-1 countdown to the start of the stage is basically a countdown to the trigger being pulled. You have literally half of one second to figure out how to win.
All of the praises heaped on Wario Ware instead belong to this game; the yokels of the world jump on Wario for featuring Nintendo Characters, who are virtually like game journalists’ “childhood friends”, only better, because they actually exist. Wario Ware has “amazing” stages that begin with a screen of The Legend of Zelda — there’s Link, and there’s a cave in a wall. When the game starts, you have five seconds to get into the cave. Get in, and the game pats you on the head and moves to another challenge. Sure, there are some nice things to say for the vision of Wario Ware, though at the end of the day, it doesn’t make the player feel spiritually complete, much less any smarter: there’s something to be said for the game’s glee in forcing the player to sharpen his mind to a point where he can acknowledge in a microsecond what he’s supposed to do, though the game ultimately fails in the eyes of god (and me) for never telling the player why. Bangai-O Spirits is about a son-of-a-bitching giant robot with fantastic weapons; your character is a soldier fighting the bad guys. You have to survive so that you can fight again. The only way to survive is to DESTROY THEM ALL.
Sometimes it’s a puzzle game, sometimes it’s a platformer. Sometimes it’s a hardcore bullet-hell shooter. Sometimes it’s a fighting game meant to be played by robots with laser-eyes. It is Every Genre. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter what it is, because it’s Bangai-O. It’s mind-expanding. It’s a diamond-sharp core engine joyfully level-designed gang-bang-style by a team of dudes who have been putting the “crunch” in “scrunch” for over a decade now. On the one hand, they don’t give a shit what order you play the levels in. On the other hand, they need you to play this game every day for the rest of your life. For this purpose, they have created a level-edit mode.
The level-edit mode is more than just level-design — it’s a shockingly deep elementary course in game design. I described the weapons above, right? If you have any imagination at all, your mind should be teeming with possibilities. Make a puzzle stage, make a rock-hard traditional-style platform stage. If you’ve got a crush on the “Reflect” EX attack, make a stage that puts a new spin on it. The game is saintly in its generosity. Like I said above, Treasure aren’t just shooting themselves in the foot with this game — they’re shooting themselves in the throat. If you be a man who loves hardcore action games, you don’t need anything else.
The platinum icing on this golden cake, however, is the multiplayer mode. I spent six minutes throwing together a long rectangular stage with soccer balls and two evil enemy Bangai-O clones in it, and then played a deathmatch with a friend. We used bats and EX reflect, and just had a screaming orgy, squealing like distorted schoolchildren for literally 25 rounds in a row. Remember when you were ten, and you played River City Ransom with your buddy, and you stood on a garbage can and your buddy kicked the garbage can, which made you slide toward the edge of the screen, so you jumped and kicked a guy in the head? Then, years later, remember when you first played Halo co-op, and your friend got in the driver’s seat of the Warthog and you got on the turret, and you guys drove around fucking shit up? Well, even in this day and age where four friends can get on Xbox Live and play Halo 3 transcontinentally, with one guy driving the warthog, another guy manning the turret, a third in the passenger’s seat firing a sniper rifle, and a fourth on a Ghost flying around shooting lasers — Bangai-O Spirits manages to provide gaggingly huge thrills with tiny sprites and solid-color backgrounds. It’ll make you remember Halo, and then remember River City Ransom, and then remember Bangai-O Spirits — the game you are playing right now. At the low points, it’s like playing the best game ever; at the high points, what is on the screen in your hands is pretty much the same thing that huge-headed aliens see when they mind-fuck each other for sleepless, foodless dozens of hours on end.
What might go down as the game’s biggest “mainstream” innovation is its ability to transmit data via audio files. It says on the back of the box: “For the first time in history, custom map and reload data can be transmitted as sound files.” That’s kind of neat. Here I’d thought, for the longest time, that Treasure despised the aural sense (what with the brapping scrapping scraping nonsense-bullshit music and limp sound effects that tend to populate their games, this one kind-of included). It’s nice to see them acknowledging that human beings have ears, I suppose. To load map data, you put it on an iPod and then just hold a headphone over the DS microphone. Sounds wacky, I know. The first time it actually worked, it kind of scared me a little bit. I wouldn’t shit my pants with amazement if this cute little feature, above all else, is what makes Treasure world-famous after all. Failing that — well, listen to a stage for yourself. Game or no game, I know some people who would pay good money to stand in a dark room and listen to grown men in Darth Vader suits make sounds like this for two hours and call it “music”. Hell, one of those people is me.
At present, the Amazon.co.jp score for this game is three and a half out of five stars. The first review on the page describes the game as fun and nifty and all, though the tutorial is perhaps too confusing for beginners, so he has to give the game two stars. Boo-hoo. Another reviewer says, and I quote, “I wish they would have just ported the N64 version.” As a person who has played and loved the N64 and Dreamcast versions both, I say that this game is easily the better version. Not only that, you might as well not even compare it to the originals. It is its own game. And besides, everyone knows that the guys who write reviews of games on Amazon.co.jp are coke-bottle-glasses-wearing greasy-haired horse-teethed freakazoids who wear dirty pale-green electrician’s uniforms all day, every day, even though they don’t have a job.
I really don’t know what else to say to recommend this game to you. Don’t think about it in relation to any other games. Consider this game, for all intents and purposes, the only game in existence. If you read the description of weapons and it sounded purely awesome, if you’ve played every Kenta Cho game and often tell people “Yeah, this shit is better than that Xbox shit”, if you bought an Xbox 360 because Jeff Minter designed the music visualizer, if you know why Panzer Dragoon Zwei is exponentially better than Rez, if you possess enough cold hard evidence of the heart to prove in front of a jury that Cave Story murdered Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, then even if you be a female, you are my brother, and we will join for great justice and we will love this game until and even after the end times come, until and even after we lose our corporeal bodies due to the explosion of the sun or nuclear war. We will live on, in spirit — in Bangai-O spirit.
This game is a joyful disease. Pass it on.
In other words:
Absolute highest recommendation.
addendum: I just revisited the instruction manual and read the profiles of the three “characters” in the “story” mode. It says of Ruri, the girl, that it “seems as though she’s not in love with Masato”. It says of Masato, the boy, that it “seems as though he’s not Ruri’s brother”. Yeah, that’s not just game-of-the-year-worthy story exposition — that’s the Best thing ever, right there.
addendum the second: To clarify, the multiplayer mode doesn’t allow the two players to kill one another. Yes, it’s tragic, because this game would essentially destroy Senko no Ronde in that case, and, in all ways imaginable, become the Greatest Game Ever. The multiplayer mode is, instead, about shooting bad guys together, competing for points on a stage-for-stage basis. If you set up a custom stage so that there are a bunch of evil Bangai-O clones, working together is pretty fun! Like, really pretty fun. Amazingly fun, sometimes, especially if you set up a stage that, scientifically, just isn’t possible to win, and then proceed to lose fifty times in a row, until you suddenly win ten times in a row. Balancing a VS mode for something like this would have been code-murder. It would have been like making a whole separate game, which I’m sure Treasure didn’t have time for.