Style triumphs over substance for better or worse in this delightfully bizarre Fantasy Zone-inspired shoot-’em-up.
The controls of off-beat shoot-’em-up Black Bird are exceedingly simple: just move, shoot, and bomb. Everything else about the game from Japanese indie developer Onion Games is completely bizarre, from the wordless story about a dead girl exacting revenge as a demonic bird to the constant and enthralling soundtrack that features operatic lyrics in a made-up language. Black Bird is dripping with style, especially with the sepia-toned majesty of the detailed pixel art. Unfortunately, it lacks substance, as it’s generally a short game with depth only found by mastery and perseverance.
While Black Bird is the Switch debut for Onion Games, this small team has some Nintendo-adjacent history, as they are headed by Yoshiro Kimura, who has previous credits ranging from No More Heroes and Little King’s Story to Romancing SaGa 2 and 3. The rest of the team includes Kazuyuki Kurashima, who worked on character designs for Super Mario RPG and Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, and Tom Ikeda, who has a background in Harvest Moon and Grasshopper Manufacture. This weird game has a pedigree behind it.
For starters, this is essentially a shooter in the style of Fantasy Zone, but instead of taking the good drugs that result in colorful worlds with characters named Opa-Opa, Black Bird feeds you the bad drugs as your devilish bird reigns fury across a dark world. Each stage takes place in a looping horizontally scrolling world where you fly around firing at enemies and dodging fire. The goal is to destroy different towers and once you take them all down, you move to a boss fight. Along the way, jewels drop from enemies that upgrade your bird when enough are collected. The bosses are where the gameplay changes up a little bit. You’re still shooting and dodging, but each boss presents a new challenge, with some involving vertical scrolling or a fixed screen.
The uncomplicated shooter controls are nice, but even still the difficulty is more on the unforgiving side and your options to start are limited. You can try to beat the game or practice any stages you’ve reached, at least until you beat the game for the first time. It isn’t terribly long, but you only have one continue. I’d consider myself somewhere between okay and decent at this style of game, and it took me a handful of playthroughs before I could consistently reach the third stage. Beating the game once unlocks True Mode, which is said to hold more secrets and bonus characters. So far, I have yet to make much headway in True Mode because it is very challenging. The majority of the differences involve some new enemy types to make a hard game even harder.
What I’ve played of Black Bird I’ve enjoyed; it’s just somewhat disappointing and primarily a high score chase with some hard-to-obtain bonuses. I wish there was more to it, or at the very least that it was a little more forgiving. The style of Black Bird is masterful as the mixture of the peculiar soundtrack, dour pixel art, and elegantly simple gameplay makes for a fun yet fleeting experience. It’s just over too soon for everyone except shoot-’em-up savants.