Fortune favours the mecha with omni-directional missiles.
Bangai-O Spirits is the latest frenzied offering from Treasure, developers of such action classics as Gunstar Heroes and Ikaruga. Just as was the case for its 1999 progenitor on Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast, Spirits puts players in control of the Bangai-O, a mecha that finds itself constantly under fire from all directions. However, on this occasion Treasure has decided to eschew a traditional progression structure, offering instead a myriad of levels to play from the get-go, with a robust and intuitive level editor opening up the potential to create and play countless more. The result is an intense, eclectic, and wildly creative experience that blends chaotic action with measured strategy to superb effect—a unique package that is only diminished by a certain lack of polish, and the all-too-obvious sense of the DS cracking under the strain of the sheer madness of it all.
Upon booting up the game for the first time, it quickly becomes clear that Bangai-O Spirits was created with no aspirations beyond gameplay. The gloriously explosive world of Bangai-O is never explained or rationalised in any way; in fact, the fourth wall-breaking dialogue during the game's tutorial achieves quite the opposite. Wry self-awareness aside, this section uses a number of simple levels to introduce players to the controls, weapons, and gameplay mechanics that comprise the game's design.
Controlling your (ostensibly gigantic, but very small on screen) mecha is fairly complicated, as it is equipped with a full range of movement through the air and various pieces of omni-directional weaponry. This extensive functionality proves to be a lot for the D-pad and buttons of the DS to handle. As a result, the scheme may take some getting used to before players feel in complete command of the highly manoeuvrable mecha, but the controls are ultimately very effective thanks in particular to a well-implemented auto-aim function.
Bangai-O's weapon types span two categories from which players choose two of each: standard and EX, with some types appearing in both categories. Standard weapons include machine gun-like missile launchers and melee weapons, such as an energy sword and an enormous baseball bat. EX weapons perform charged attacks by consuming a power meter, either releasing an omni-directional barrage of missiles, or performing special functions such as reflecting enemy fire or freezing enemies in place for a short time. Matched up against a wide range of enemy and level designs, this array of weaponry becomes a suite of strategic options for players to employ.
As a product of the gaming minds at Treasure, it will comes as no surprise that deft use of strategy is not the only key to survival in Bangai-O Spirits; twitch reflexes also prove invaluable amid the perpetual maelstrom of ricocheting projectiles, and players are actively encouraged to embrace danger. Close proximity to enemy fire can magnify the firepower of EX missile attacks up to four times the standard full charge, meaning that breaking into the middle of the fray is often the most efficient way to blow away the enemy. Furthermore, damage taken actually replenishes your EX meter, while enemies destroyed by bigger explosions drop higher value pickups (varieties of fruit, naturally) that rack up the score and also fill the EX meter, helping to perpetuate a cycle of destruction.
Once the tutorial levels are out of the way, the game simply leaves you to sample the other 150+ levels on the game card in any order you choose. The levels are grouped into three categories: "Treasure's Best", "Puzzle Stages", and "Other Stages", with the vast majority falling into the latter. Though it is recommended that the levels be attempted in order within each category, this implies the presence of an underlying difficulty curve that is not discernible in reality. Naturally, there are fluctuations in difficulty across the large number of levels, but in general they are all similarly (very) difficult. Moreover, a number of levels are designed to destroy the beleaguered Bangai-O within a matter of seconds if the correct strategy is not executed, so trial and error is unquestionably the order of the day. This is where Bangai-O Spirits' open, bite-sized structure can be a blessing, as there is no need for players to remain stuck on a particularly frustrating level, and the process of learning a level's pitfalls is rarely a prolonged one.
Bangai-O Spirits' refusal to adhere to a structure also brings with it some significant drawbacks. Without unlockable content or some other incentive structure, some may not be sufficiently motivated to explore the depth of the game's content. The game's score system could have provided scope for the creation of tiers of achievement for each level and rewards associated with them (such as the medals found in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games), but no such structure is implemented. This lack of encouragement is compounded by the absence of a progression of levels, which means players may not become drawn into the game in the same fashion as would be the case if there were the promise of a line of new worlds with different enemies and weapons to encounter in each. Perhaps most surprisingly for a Treasure game, there are no unique set piece boss fights in the game, only a few larger enemies that can be found interspersed throughout the game on numerous occasions.
In lieu of some greater visual, narrative, or other context for the proceedings, Bangai-O Spirits is heavily dependent on the ingenuity of its levels to capitalise on its gameplay potential. Though there are a few designs that seem like throwaway inclusions, the multitude of stages deliver a wealth of diverse creativity. The abstract nature of the game imposes very few constraints on the level designs, leading to stages based inside everything from giant faces to classic arcade games. Some are focused on testing reflexes and endurance, but Bangai-O Spirits is at its best when a level's layout challenges you to devise your own personal solution to a conundrum, one composed of enemy and weapon types rather than moving blocks (though the game has a few of those too). To this end, the various enemies have been designed to force players to grasp the merits of all the different attack types. For example, a wall of missiles will not always destroy everything in its path as some foes can block or deflect them back in your direction; but with a whack of the baseball bat, these enemies can be stunned and left helpless in the face of another volley of explosives.
This union of over-the-top action with strategic combat inside of cleverly-designed levels gives Bangai-O Spirits its unique feel—a game with traditional arcade-style qualities, but with none of those old constraints attached. The chief detraction from the effectiveness of this design is the fact that it is apparently too much of a technical burden for the DS to bear smoothly. The visual style on show may be very simple, with basic backgrounds and uncomplicated enemy sprites of limited animation, but the sheer number of rebounding projectiles that flood the lower screen of the DS frequently has the game juddering along at a reduced pace. The largest EX attacks can literally bring the game to a stop for a second or so before the oversized missile sprites begin to slowly fan out across the screen.
The staccato pace that results is visually unpleasant, but its impact on gameplay is not as significant. The occurrence of slowdown is so systematic as to be reliable; thus, when entering an area about to be filled with missiles, you can prepare for the inevitable change of pace that ensues. Indeed, this phenomenon makes positioning the Bangai-O between lines of enemy fire to deliver the biggest possible EX attack considerably easier, which given the overall difficulty of the game will doubtlessly come as a relief to many. More jarring is the sudden sensation of increased speed felt when the smoke clears after a massive explosion obliterates an entire area. The net result definitely blunts the game's intensity, but Treasure has done a reasonable job of trading off between the amount of on-screen chaos and the playability of the game to find a middle ground that still works well.
Otherwise, respectable use has been made of the capabilities of the DS for Bangai-O Spirits. The soundtrack is unremarkable, but the sound effects help accentuate the action very well, with crunching explosions that lend some much-needed weight to all those sprites knocking into each other. Also, up to four player co-op is possible through multi-card wireless play, but this could not be tested for the purposes of this review. The top screen is left to display the layout of the entire level, which can sometimes prove useful, but the dual screens are really put to use in the game's level editor. The touch screen interface makes editing any of the existing levels or creating entirely new ones a breeze, and with the comprehensive range of tools available, it really is possible to create levels every bit as full-featured as the levels pre-existing on the game card.
In terms of sharing your creations with the rest of the world, Treasure decided to bypass the framework of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection by implementing the "Sound Load" function. This involves levels being encoded into a stream of modem-like audio data, allowing the level to exist as an audio file on a PC which can then be distributed online without restrictions. To play a level in this form, the audio must be played into the DS microphone via headphones. This process proves to be inconsistently effective, and thus will likely cause annoyance, but the trade-off for unfettered availability of levels is probably worthwhile; the more gamers are able to play levels created by their contemporaries, the more their own creativity will be spurred.
The level editor proves to be the true heart and soul of Bangai-O Spirits, as it reveals Treasure's rationale behind structuring the game the way they did. Their goal was clearly to create an extensive playbook for gamers to draw upon when devising their own levels. This is not to say that the content on the game card is of scant significance, because the 170 levels are infused with tremendous creativity, provide a lot of entertaining content, and stand up very well as a game in their own right. However, the potential of the level editor means that the Bangai-O Spirits experience is intended to be much more than simply a play-through of a series of levels.
Combined with the unorthodox structure and uncompromising difficulty of the game, this emphasis on user-generated content may limit its appeal to a relatively small audience. But for those who are intrigued by what Bangai-O Spirits has to offer, there is a deep and rich well of truly unique gaming enjoyment to be tapped here. It may not exude high production values, and it lacks the satisfaction associated with the kind of skilfully crafted linear experiences that Treasure is most famous for; but if gameplay is king, then Bangai-O Spirits is a monarchist.