If you tried to write a modern who’s who of big name Japanese Shoot’ em Up (SHMUP) developers, then your list of candidates would be pretty thin on the ground. Most of “old masters” who didn’t fade away along with their beloved arcade market have long since moved on to bigger and better things, or for the sake of marketing still exist in name only. Sadly there’s been little sign of any younger teams springing up to replace them either, with many of the most talented teams making their home within Japan’s bloated hobby scene; their games seldom getting enough mainstream exposure to see much recognition outside of japan.
So in a world where the Japanese SHMUPs are quickly becoming a distant memory, it’s nice to see the much celebrated developer Treasure truly living up to their namesake by once again returning to the genre which owes them so much. Following on from the success of their critically acclaimed 2009 revisiting of Sin and Punishment, they’ve wisely decided to do yet another modern sequel to of one of their long forgotten IPs with Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury for the Xbox Live Arcade.
Before I’d even had a chance to get past the start screen I could already feel the game’s arcade roots oozing out through the funky j-techno soundtrack, which has a few tunes that should be instantly familiar to fans of Treasure’s 2003 classic Gradius V. Not that you’re going to hear the music very often though, as it tends to get somewhat drowned out by the sound of THOUSANDS OF MISSILES EXPLODING OVER AND OVER OH GOD.
If you’re overwhelmed rather than intrigued by game over screens that look like this, then perhaps Bangai-O HD is not for you
Of course there’s no logical explanation as to why those missiles (or anything else for that matter) are there at all, but narrative has never been much of a priority for these types of games I guess. The original title attempted to spin a ridiculously absurd tale about two children hunting a gang of intergalactic fruit bandits, and its sequel Bangai-O Spirits for DS even had one of its few characters plainly state that the only reason the game had any kind of story at all was because “the fanboys would throw a fit on the Internet if the game didn’t”. For Missile Fury they’ve taken it one step further just dropped any pretence of narrative whatsoever. The game’s entire “cast” consisting only of Dr Ban, an old man represented by a signal piece of EXTREMELY rough artwork that was likely doodled in someone’s spare time.
Even then his only real “dialogue” comes in the form of brief hints at the beginning of each stage, the usefulness of which varies between confounding ambiguous titbits such as “Lower the number of enemies before you end up with a chaotic battle”, or truly Zen guidance like “Beware of ninjas”. It’s possibly a missed opportunity overall, as I would have certainly enjoyed an awkward arcade game style rational as for why I’m rewarded with fruit for blowing up suburban homes (complete with screaming inhabitants) in order to power the missile systems on a giant mech. In space.
The game delights in throwing down some absurdly powerful enemies at the end of many stages
The Bangai-O (at least I assume that’s what the mech you play as is called) is well equipped with a fairly extensive arsenal of special attacks and weapon types which fit neatly into tried and tested arcade shooter archetypes such as spread shot, dash attack, homing shot, explosive, rapid fire etc etc. However in a more unique twist, the game rewards reckless abandon by having the power and size of each shot determined by your proximity to enemy targets, meaning that close range combat often times results in you rapidly firing cartoonish satisfyingly gigantic projectiles many times the size of the Bangai-O itself. But even so, in a lot of situations your standards attacks can do little more than slow the overwhelming hoard of enemies even at close range. In the end it’s a war of attrition, and there’s hundreds of them and only one of you. The only way you can ever possibly kill enough of them in one go is by unleashing (after collecting enough fruit from fallen enemies) the game’s big money shot: The EX counter.
Holding down the counter button freezes your movement and starts a very quick count up from 1 to 100 to appear below the Bangai-O, granting you total immunity from damage until you either release the counter button or the count up hits 100. Once you’ve stopped holding the button the Bangai-O will then unleash an omnidirectional missile assault, the magnitude of which is determined by how close to 100 you cut the timer and is then multiplied by the number of absurdly close enemy projectiles that were a few pixels away from destroying you. As a result, a few extra seconds charging the counter while in a precarious position can cause the resulting barrage of projectiles to number anything from a couple of dozen up to ONE THOUSAND warheads. But should you dare to hold the counter for more than a fraction of a second after it reaches 100 you’ll lose your invulnerability which, considering you’ll have deliberately positioned yourself in a imminently fatal situation to get the best proximity multiplier, will almost certainly result in you meeting a very explosive end.
The HUD around the Bangai-O is exceptionally functional, showing the exact range of several abilities, the location of the proximity multiplier milestones and how many dash attacks you have stored up.
Almost all of Bangai-O HD’s stages put you in seemingly impossible situations with woefully inappropriate weapons and often harsh limitations on your abilities, forcing you to come up with abstract solutions in a matter of seconds using whatever tools the environment can provide. In this way, each stage become far more than just a wave of mooks that need blasting, they’re more like conundrums that need solving. Admittedly the solution to just about all of them is “shoot missiles at it” it’s more about HOW and WHEN you shoot missiles that matters. For example in one mission you’re asked to kill all enemies on screen simultaneously with an EX Counter that requires precision timing and ideal enemy placement, while in another your expected to defeat a party of giant one-hit-kill enemies using a stack of footballs that can only be weaponized with a well positioned dash attack.
Some stages last minutes. Some last seconds. All of them are insane
After a while you begin to realise that Bangai-O is more of a puzzle game than anything else, and like any good puzzle game, actually finding the solution is only part of the fun. The real payoff is the torrent of emotions that comes at the conclusion of every challenge. That sense of relief after finally defeating a stage by the skin of your teeth on the 30th attempt, the satisfaction of leaving thousands of wrecks in you fiery wake, the curiosity at what the game could possibly throw at you next to try and top that crazy messed up stuff you just saw. But more than anything it’s that feeling of accomplishment after succeeding at yet another impossible task, that feeling that no challenge is insurmountable in Bangai-O no matter how crazy it looks. A whole 25 seconds to destroy 200 enemies? What, and you’re only going to disable all my weapons? Pfft cake walk.
Obviously this very masochistic style of skill progression isn’t for everyone, especially if you start struggling to stumble upon the correct solutions or if you lack the relatively fast reflexes required to execute those solutions once you’ve found them. However in an act of uncharacteristic generosity the game will actually offer you the opportunity to proceed to the next stage after a measly 3 deaths, meaning that even if you can’t finish each stage you’ll still get to see them all eventually. Whether you pride will allow you to take it up on that offer is another thing entirely of course.
But even if you can handle that sort of punishment it might be best to approach Bangai-O HD cautiously, because in terms of scope it’s a very limited package. If you don’t like the idea of a puzzle game where every puzzle is solved through the use of mechs and gratuitous amounts of explosions then this game has absolutely nothing else to offer you. However if you DO like the sound of that and are willing to learn the nuances of Bangai-O the hard way, then you’re in for a refined SHMUP gem crafted by true masters of the art. Oh, and lots of missiles.
Seriously I can’t stress that last point enough.
Just putting that out there.
- Frantic but cerebral gameplay
- SO MANY MISSILES
- No “real” tutorial.
Recommended similar games
- Gradius V (PS2)
- Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (PS2)
- WarioWare franchise (Wii/DS/GameCube)
- Touhou franchise (PC)
- Super Meat Boy (PC/Xbox360)