My experience with the Bangai-O series is a bit backwards. I was introduced to the series with the sequel, Bangai-O Spirits (2008) and I enjoyed it immensely. Recently I have started playing through the original Bangai-O (1999) and I love it as well, for most of the same reasons and a few different ones. A part of me would like to review the original, being that it is the start of it all and freshest on my mind, and technically it is an N64 game (although it only made it to the West as a Dreamcast game.) You should cross your fingers that the original Bangai-O someday makes it over as a virtual console import (however unlikely that may be) because it is well worth playing. Alas, I am currently playing the Dreamcast version, and I don't feel comfortable writing a review for an N64 game without having played the N64 version. Don't feel ripped off though, Spirits deserves a review as well. It is an excellent sequel that deserves your attention. The upcoming 3DS may be all of the rage at the moment, but you still have some time to play a few of the DS gems you may have missed!
One thing you should understand from the start is that this is a Treasure game, and it definitely lives up to everything that this means. Bangai-O Spirits is a balls to the walls non-stop action game, and it will have you dying over and over and coming back for more. Death is accompanied by an evil cackling laugh, which I can recall in my mind to this day. I will never forget it. I have heard it many, many times. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely not the most difficult Treasure game (Ikaruga?), but it will certainly test you.
Pretty much all mech units should have swords. It doesn't get much better than that.
I suppose I should talk a bit about the actual gameplay. Bangai-O Spirits is a shmup, of sorts, albeit a bit different than any other shmup I have ever played. You play as a child in a mech unit (why is a child in a mech unit? Ask Japan...), and at the start of each stage, you get to select two normal attacks and two special attacks to be used on the stage. There are many types of attacks to choose from, ranging from projectile attacks like homing missiles and napalm missiles, to melee attacks such as a sword and a... baseball bat?, to a defensive shield. I guess a shield isn't really an attack... oops? Nonetheless, it's an option for those who want to play a more defensive game. You can also combine some of the attacks. Personally I tend to rely on the homing + break missile combo 95% of the time, but the other options are pretty fun as well, and certain stages lend themselves better to certain choices.
There are over 160 stages to play, divided up into a tutorial and then three sets of stages to choose from. The stages are generally not start to finish, side-scrolling stages, but instead allow a large degree of freedom of movement in any direction. Your objective is to destroy all targets in any given stage, which may be anything from environmental objects to assorted enemies to a single (often screen sized) boss. The stages themselves range from minutes long to mere seconds. Yes, some are literally only a couple of seconds long, and those stages are often designed to make you hear the evil cackling laugh before you even realize what is going on... and then hear it again and again as you repeatedly die trying to figure out how to stop repeatedly dying.
Enough going on for you? No? Don't worry, there is plenty more where that came from.
I'm not sure if I am using this term correctly, but I tend to think of Bangai-O Spirits as a “bullet hell” type shmup. Not in the sense of needing to dodge in and out of patterns of projectiles, like in Ikaruga and its brethren, but just in the sense that the screen is often completely full of projectiles. You don't get much breathing space in Spirits, there are constantly bullets, lasers, and all sorts of random projectiles flying your way, and often the only way to counter the massive amount of projectiles coming at you is with one of your special attacks. In fact, a large part of the combat system involves an interesting risk/reward set-up for using your special attacks. Basically, the proximity and amount of enemy projectiles determines the power and amount of your own projectiles when using a special attack. In other words, if you run away from enemy projectiles and try to use a special attack from afar, it won't actually be that effective. However, if you let yourself be surrounded and use a special attack at just the right moment before being pummeled by enemy projectiles, the attack will be much more effective. It's a beautiful moment when you get the timing right and see countless, massive missiles erupting from your mech and flying towards your enemies. But if you wait just an instant too long, well... be prepared to hear the evil cackling voice again.
Although I called the game a non-stop action game above, that is only partially true. There is also a pretty strong puzzle element to many of the stages, in fact, one set of stages are specifically dubbed “Puzzle Stages” (although so many of the other stages have puzzle elements that it seems like a dubious distinction.) These puzzle elements often include things like block pushing, dropping the right blocks at the right times, etc. and are worked into the midst of this crazy action game, giving Bangai-O Spirits a super unique feel. Furthermore, there is a pretty interesting “wick” mechanic that is used in a lot of stages which adds both a sort of artificial time limit, and a means to letting free enemies, opening areas, and dropping blocks in a dynamic way. Although this isn't really a puzzle element per se, it is often used in conjunction with the puzzle elements to make for some pretty compelling stage designs.
Hmm. I feel like I'm still missing a key component of what Bangai-O Spirits is about, so I'll add this; soccer balls, fruit, giant ants, and a 3 bedroom apartment. Make sense? It will.
Yes, giant ants I say. Do you have a problem with giant ants?
Another cool feature is the ability to build your own stages, using pretty much all of the tools that the designers of the preloaded stages were able to use. I have played a lot of games with stage designers, and they are usually either easy to grasp but don't allow for much emergent design, or overly complicated and tough to get into. One thing I love about Bangai-O Spirits is that the action and puzzle components, combined with the wick mechanic and others, allows for some pretty creative stage designs using a basic set of tools. This is a rare thing indeed. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to share your stages once you have built them. The developers decided to forgo any kind of wifi connectivity and instead have implemented a strange method of trading which requires recording a sound file that contains the data of your stage and sending it to a friend (presumably through a PC), who can then play it into their DS microphone to download your stage to their copy of the game. A novel idea, sure, but a pretty convoluted and backwards solution, especially as it doesn't really work consistently.
There is also wireless multiplayer for up to 4 players, albeit it requires multiple copies of the game, and thus, I have never had the chance to experience this myself. Whether it adds to the insanity in a good way or a bad, you will have to discover for yourself.
As for graphics and sounds, they're pretty respectable. The graphics are kind of typical colorful anime fare, but fairly basic (often pixelated even), to allow the processing power to go into all of the projectiles flying around. There is definitely some slowdown when projectiles start flying all over the screen, and at times the game slows to a crawl, but it isn't too bad. The soundtrack is catchy enough, though working through 160+ stages the songs start repeating fairly often.
This isn't even a boss. It's just a really big-ass enemy.
Bangai-O Spirits definitely has some flaws. One of my major complaints is that there is no real sense of progression in the game. Once you finish the brief tutorial, you have access to every stage and can play them in whatever order you choose, and the stages are ordered in what feels to me like a random and chaotic way. For instance, the first few stages under the “Other Stages” heading (the main group of stages) are fairly long and difficult, but immediately after that are a bunch of shorter and easier stages, and then the difficulty goes back up, and then down again, and up and down and up and down, and you never quite know what to expect. The quality of the stages is also variable, with many long, well thought out designs put right next to short, gimmicky designs (albeit the quality is still pretty solid overall.) I kind of get the idea that the developers made a bunch of stages and were behind on a deadline and just threw them into the game in the order they were designed in without thinking about any greater scheme, which is a bit disappointing, as the original Bangai-O has a more clear sense of progression. And if you are looking for a story, there isn't one. In fact, the game toys with this, going so far as to include an incredibly short end cutscene where a character states: "We're only here because the fanboys would throw a fit on the internet if the game didn't have an ending." Not much in the way of a coherent presentation and arrangement here. There is also a bit of trial and error involved in some of the stages, and a few involve luck as much as skill and persistence.
Still, the core gameplay is unique and varied, so if you can accept the fact that this core gameplay is pretty much all that there is, you can find a lot to love about Bangai-O Spirits. It's a great game that stands out, which to me, is more interesting than an excellent game that follows a predictable formula. Bangai-O fans should love it, Treasure fans should love it, and everyone else should at least give it a shot. Bangai-O Spirits is the very definition of a “hidden gem”, and the type of game that more people need to know about and love.
@Tranquilo Yeah it can be very cerebral, and I think, even though I tried very hard to put it into words, that I still missed explaining that side of things well.
It's not always even a puzzle that needs to be solved per se, but just making quick on-the-fly executions based on keeping your eyes open and recognizing what is going on around you. It's easy enough to bust the wrong wick at the wrong time and end up buried in unbreakable blocks or something.
@Pandareus You better! In part I wrote this review for you!
BTW XBLA is getting its own exclusive Bangai-O soon. There are many 360 games I am envious of, but an exclusive Bangai-O might just push me over the edge and make me get my hands on a 360. Although maybe I shouldn't bring up the 360 game right now, because you shouldn't wait for it... go play Spirits!!! And anyway, that preview makes it sound like the 360 version is good but maybe missing a bit of the weirdness of the DS version?
I don't own a 360, no. And I already own Bangai-O Spirits, picked it up used a while back. I just wanted to know what to expect once I actually played it.
I think you got across the cleverness of the level design just fine, that's a great review. Between this and Simba's Thruspace review, I'm the one who feels like his reviews are inadequate. But no one ever gives me constructive criticism!
@Pandareus I dunno, I thought your Fluidity review nailed it. I was originally planning on reviewing it and I thought why bother? Your review pretty much said it all. Of course, I posted some comments anyway because it's an awesome game and I wanted to discuss it. I like when reviews lead to discussions.
As for specifics, everyone reviews differently and that is part of the fun of Negative World. My general review style is to start of with a bit of background, you know, give a little context for my specific, personalized experience with a game, so people get an idea where I am coming from. The negative of this is that it usually isn't until the 3rd paragraph or so that I start talking about the actual game itself in concrete terms. From that point forward I try to cover both the general gameplay concepts and some specific things that really hit me. As anyone who reads my reviews probably notices, I don't spend much time talking about specific controls too much (I sort of skipped it entirely this time) nor graphics, nor sound unless the soundtrack really resonated with me. And I try to cover unique features, but I'm not giving bullet point lists of everything in a game. Maybe this is a flaw in my review style, but I'd rather focus on the core of the gameplay. Or not even that specifically, but just somehow get across the feel of the game... of which controls, graphics, and sound are often a part, sometimes even a big part, but there are often other subtle, more important things.
Anyhow... reviewing is fun! I wish I had the mental time and energy to do it more. I'm kind of tempted to jump back in and knock out another review today or tomorrow, but... I'm even more tempted to take some time to myself and actually play some video games.
@anon_mastermind Did you guys not read the text in the poll!? It was to get a feel for things, I never said I was going to blindly follow it (in fact I said I very well might not.) It influenced me in some ways though... like I knocked out Orbient and Battle Network, two games I was very much considering, because no one seemed to be interested in seeing them reviewed. And when I saw all the excitement over Kirby's Dream Course I decided to review it... and then remembered I don't have it right now, so that review will be in the future sometime when I can get my copy back and play it again.
Yeah following the poll Dream Course was actually my first choice. But then I thought, do I really want to review a game that I haven't touched in a few years and don't have access to right now? I'm trying to figure out where it is. I believe I may have lent my copy to Red Shell, but I'm not sure about that. I sent him a message asking if he has it.
And I did seriously consider reviewing Zack & Wiki as it also had a lot of votes, but I couldn't really come up with a clear plan in my mind for what I wanted to say about it. I love the game, but can I put it into words easily? Hmm. Maybe someday.
The compelling thing about reviewing Dream Course (this is a recurring theme in my reviews, I suppose) is that it is a super unique piece of software that not enough people played. And I really feel that it has passed the test of time, it's a kind of simple concept that wasn't really limited by hardware or anything like that, and it is a game that I would always pop in here and there and replay a bit (until I lent it out.) Also it lends itself well to "high score" type gaming (or well, low scores, as it loosely resembles a golf game...)
And it is on virtual console now. So people can buy it up for cheap.
But... I'll wait till an actual review to say more.
I'm a huge fan of the Bangai-O games. The Dreamcast version is still my favorite, but I'm looking forward to the XBLA one too. I own the N64 version, but haven't played it as much as the one on DC. The lack of progression in Spirits is my only complaint about the game. I miss the whole WTF?!? story and characters of the Dreamcast version.
Yeah the Dreamcast version definitely excels in that respect, it feels like a more coherent whole. The DS version has like... no story, no progression, just random stages. Where I think the DS version excels is the creativity though, they really went and tried out a bunch of different ideas, and even if some of them don't work as well as others or are used in gimmicky ways, others work very well, and it makes it feel like a super unique game.
I am disappointed that you did not review Kirby's Dream Course and will express my outrage without reading any of the text explanations in this review or in that thread! RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE.
But good review. The game was pretty challenging until I found the bounce/break combo, then I steamrolled through most of the missions and only switched in certain occasions.
Though now that I think about it, I never finished a dozen missions or so. The one where you have to trigger the explosives inside all the blocks and navigate your way through them down to the bottom seems like one of those luck-based missions that just seems like total crap, I definitely didn't finish that one yet.
And as much as I loved the idea of the baseball bat, it rarely seemed useful, same with the shield and sword. The weapon diversity was pretty cool, but most of them were obsolete after seeing just how useful Break is.
I didn't play around with the level creator much, just a few crude setups, but it is indeed quite intuitive and robust. Multiplayer...haven't tried that yet either. I have to wonder just how conducive the try-not-to-die style of the game actually translates into multiplayer, though.
Check out my minute-by-minute experience of first starting the game. It'll be like re-living the first time you heard the evil cackling!
No, I just talk, stream-of-consciousness, into a tape recorder every so often while playing. I write the replay afterwards.
I like the site's gimmick of focusing on how a game starts. Pacing is something a lot of reviews just gloss over, and an important part of that is the first sixty minutes. I like the idea of rewarding games that start fast, but it's also helpful for those games that are worth playing, but may not immediately feel like it. Though yes, the minute-by-minute thing can be overly thorough. It's kind of fun to re-live bits of that first virgin hour with a new game, though, in a weird way.