DS

North America

Bangai-O Spirits

by Greg Leahy - September 8, 2008, 9:54 pm PDT
Total comments: 9

9

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.

Score

Graphics Sound Control Gameplay Lastability Final
7 7 8 9 9 9
Graphics
7

The visuals have been kept fairly simple to accommodate astonishing levels of on-screen action, but this only limits the slowdown to manageable levels. All the levels have a generic look owing to the fact that they could have been created from the templates in the game's level editor, but the anime-inspired sprite aesthetic retains a certain charm.

Sound
7

With a soundtrack of forgettable compositions and instrumentation familiar to anyone who has played through Treasure's GBA titles, Bangai-O's music is passable but far from impressive. The sound effects are much more satisfying as they supply the near-apocalyptic events with real punch.

Control
8

Applying the full range of Bangai-O's functions to the D-pad and buttons of the DS makes for a control scheme that is not immediately accessible, but is ultimately very functional. The effectiveness of the auto-aim function will assuage concerns over the need for analogue control in a game that constantly surrounds you with enemies from all angles.

Gameplay
9

Bangai-O Spirits' core gameplay is based around creating as much danger as possible, and then encouraging the player to rush headlong into that peril. This proves to be a constant source of amusement in itself, but the set of weapon and enemy designs open up a range of strategic possibilities within this framework which the level layouts then exploit to excellent effect. The result is a diverse range of challenges that require thought, quick reflexes, and persistence to overcome.

Lastability
9

170 levels may overstate the lasting appeal to be found in the content present on the game card because many of them are very brief, and the absence of a defined progression or a reward scheme may leave gamers uncompelled to methodically play through them all. However, the challenge on offer can keep committed players occupied for a considerable amount of time, and the excellent level editor and freedom of level sharing promise a world of possibilities to make Bangai-O Spirits worth coming back to.

Final
9

Bangai-O Spirits is a truly unique package of old-school gameplay sensibilities and a completely untraditional structure. The experience is raw and rough around the edges as the game strains the technical capabilities of the DS, but the superb (and taxing) gameplay design triumphs over the game's shortcomings, and the level editor should entice players to dive into the world of user-generated content in order to further explore its considerable potential.

Summary

Pros
  • 170 levels provide many and varied challenges
  • All the tools needed to freely edit, create, and trade levels are available
  • Excellent core gameplay combines all-out action with strategic combat
Cons
  • Lack of structure and incentives may render the experience less absorbing for some
  • Systematic visual slowdown
Review Page 2: Conclusion

Talkback

Wow, excellent review!  The last paragraph is wonderfully written.  I think I'm too dependent upon modern tools of motivation in gaming, however artificial they might be (medals?).  Still, if there weren't so many other DS game coming out imminently, I would be tempted to get this anyway just to experience the wackiness.

Flames_of_chaosLukasz Balicki, Staff AlumnusSeptember 09, 2008

I echo's Jonny's thoughts about the review.

Even though there can be quite a bit of slowdown however with so much stuff going on in the gameplay you would expect it to chug, the game is really quite an achievement for the DS considering that the specs on the DS aren't that really great to begin with and in a way it's a port of the Dreamcast version in a way.

The only con I can really say about this game is that it is not newbie friendly at all, if you are a person that ignores tutorials or refuse to learn the nuances of the game then Bangai-o will eat you alive in a few seconds.

KDR_11kSeptember 09, 2008

Which deflecting enemies can be hit with the bat? The only one I can think of is the baseball guys, the ninjas seem immune to direct hits with the bat, at very least it doesn't knock them around and going melee with a melee enemy is a bad idea (though sometimes they'll take damage from bullets...).

If you want REALLY annoying slowdown try a bomb battle vs Longai-Os, they cause the same bomb slowdown as you do and with 400 bombs from each of them that's a LOT.

Overall I found the difficulty a bit overstated, I'm a below average player but I can blast through most levels just fine (the Longai-Os still give me trouble though I've figured out you have to give them a facefull of Direct EX when they dash, just need to figure out what makes them dash...). Mind you I can barely get to the second level of Contra 4 and then usually get killed by the aliens, never got through the fourth level of Ikaruga (only get asfar as I do because there's so many lives and continues to go through) and haven't even beaten Metroid Prime's final boss or Ridley in SM.

I think Bangai-O Spirits looks harder than it really is, it gives a sense of accomplishment by feeling like a really hard game but often the right weapon makes a level really easy and a few tries are all it takes to beat a level (with zero penalty to retries). The controls are way overkill though, I can't even consistently toggle the weapon combining (not that I've really found situations where that's needed).

YoshidiousGreg Leahy, Staff AlumnusSeptember 09, 2008

Quote from: KDR_11k

Which deflecting enemies can be hit with the bat? The only one I can think of is the baseball guys, the ninjas seem immune to direct hits with the bat, at very least it doesn't knock them around and going melee with a melee enemy is a bad idea (though sometimes they'll take damage from bullets...).

I've been able to stun the ninjabots with the baseball bat on a pretty consistent basis, though for whatever reason it isn't quite a sure thing. If you keep them at bay with fire from a standard weapon like Break, then you can get just the right distance away from them to (somewhat) safely strike them with the bat, which sends them tumbling away, at which point obviously they become easy to finish off however you'd like.

Regarding the difficulty of the game, I don't think the hardest levels in Bangai-O Spirits are extraordinarily difficult compared to the toughest sections in other Treasure games, in fact they may be a little easier. However, in most games you build up to those final stages gradually, whereas here anything past the tutorial can be about as tough as the game has to offer (sadistic user-created levels aside). So as an overall experience I would say that Bangai-O Spirits is a pretty difficult, but the main reason why I refer to the difficulty as "uncompromising" is that the game makes no attempt to ease you into things outside of the very basic tutorial section.

UltimatePartyBearSeptember 09, 2008

The ninjabots don't seem to get stunned by the bat while they're either swording or dashing.  You can deal with them easily enough by circling them, anyway.  It's only in tight spaces that they're truly threatening.  Mostly, they're a problem because they dash to the front of the fray and block all your shots, defending everything behind them, and if you forcefully stop shooting at them, they charge in and cut you to pieces.  It seems to me that you have to shoot at them so they deflect, get close to them, then stop shooting and back away.  If you got close enough, they'll dash at you.  Then you have to nail them with the bat the moment they stop dashing to attack you.  There's just a few frames between the end of the dash and the moment the sword comes out.  I haven't had much luck doing the reverse, i.e. catching them after they put away the sword and before they dash.

Quote from: Yoshidious

(sadistic user-created levels aside).

Does that mean you finally got mine to work?

YoshidiousGreg Leahy, Staff AlumnusSeptember 11, 2008

Quote from: UltimatePartyBear

Quote from: Yoshidious

(sadistic user-created levels aside).

Does that mean you finally got mine to work?

Haha, actually that was not in direct reference to your creations as I still haven't had any luck with those yet. I honestly don't know why I can't get things to load in certain cases; for instance, I managed to load up almost all of the designs from the IGN developers contest with very little trouble, but most other stuff has been very difficult to get to work. I will keep trying though, and maybe if I can find a more suitable pair of headphones that would help too. Also, I'll probably get around to designing some of my own now that I've pretty much completed all the levels on the game card and the ones from the IGN contest.

UltimatePartyBearSeptember 11, 2008

I had some concerns about the compression and low bitrate messing things up, but since they work for me I thought that wasn't an issue after all.  They may be harder to get to work than raw wav files, but even higher bitrate mp3s would be way too big to upload here, let alone uncompressed files.

Tuxedo.BondSeptember 26, 2008

Is this like a good version of a Mobile Suit Gundam game minus the story?

KDR_11kSeptember 26, 2008

It has nothing to do with Gundam, in fact you'll hardly even notice that it involves giant mechs. Geometry Wars is probably closer to it. You're one shooty thing in a maze (or open space) full of enemies, most of which shoot mass amounts of bullets and you blast them with liberal amounts of bullets.

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Genre Shooter
Developer Treasure
Players1 - 4

Worldwide Releases

na: Bangai-O Spirits
Release Aug 12, 2008
PublisherD3Publisher
RatingEveryone 10+
jpn: Bangai-O Spirits
Release Mar 19, 2008
eu: Bangai-O Spirits
Release Aug 29, 2008
PublisherD3Publisher
Rating7+

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