Bangai-O is the latest game from the action auteurs at Treasure to make it to North America. Originally released two years ago in Japan for the Nintendo 64 under the title, Bakuretsu Muteki Bangaioh, the U.S. Dreamcast release of Bangai-O continues a long and excellent Treasure tradition of fast and furious arcade thrills that began with the Sega Genesis game Gunstar Heroes and culminated with Treasures magnum opus, the Sega Saturn import Radiant Silvergun. Bangai-O reunites Treasure with Silvergun collaborator ESP, and not surprisingly, it marks a triumphant return to hardcore shooting madness.
Considering how recent efforts like Mischief Makers on Nintendo 64 and Silhouette Mirage on PlayStation were more experimentation with platform gaming than straight action, its great to see the masters of disaster at Treasure back in top form. Bangai-O isn't quite the shooting masterpiece that Silvergun was, but it's filled with high-octane action, wacky characters and totally bizarre and hilarious dialogue. In short, it has that magic that characterizes all of Treasures games. With Bangai-O, Treasure fans have a reason to pick up a Dreamcast, and Dreamcast finally has a fun 2D action game.
Riki and Mami Makishi are a goofy brother and sister crime-fighting duo and co-pilots of Bangai-O—a flying, Gundam-like, fighting space robot. Their mission (and yours) is to blast through 40-plus levels of explosive mayhem. That's pretty much how it reads on the back cover of the CD case, anyway. Theres always something else going on in a Treasure game, something just different enough to keep it from being standard shooter stuff.
For starters, the robot in Bangai-O isnt a hulking behemoth—its a teeny little speck on the screen. Why? To make room for all of the explosions of course! Bangai-O is perhaps the first game Ive played in which the objective is to create as many simultaneous explosions as possible—no doubt a natural progression in game design given Treasures track record. However, this is also a case in which the game plays up to a consoles strengths.
The graphics are nicely detailed and very colorful, but they're strictly of the 32-bit variety. But that's perfectly OK. The graphics dont have to be composed of 128-bit polygons to be effective. Where Bangai-O takes advantage of the Dreamcast hardware is in how it handles all of the destructive on-screen commotion. There's nary a slow down, hiccup or stutter during the hectic action in Bangai-O, even though there are thousands of things buzzing around on the screen at any one time. Hordes of enemy robots and gun turrets surround you and spit countless missiles and lasers in several directions; objects of varying size and description line the floors and ceilings of the levels and simultaneously burst into flame; your Bangai-O robot unleashes an all-out attack of about 10,000 missiles (give or take a few)—throughout all of this, the screen thumps and shakes with every tiny detonation, and the game still maintains its composure. Something like this probably couldn't have been done as well on PlayStation or even the late, super 2D friendly Sega Saturn. It takes the extra available RAM on Dreamcast to allow for such smoothly running chaos.
Bangai-O plays like a cross between the little-known Sega Genesis gem, Subterrania, and the very well-known, classic arcade game, Robotron: 2084. Bangai-O's gameplay is much more simplified and action-oriented than the slower, more cerebral approach taken by Subterrania, but the free-roaming levels are similarly enormous and clever in their puzzle-like design. I like how the game doesn't force you in a particular direction. Since you can fly where you please within the confines of the levels, you can form your own strategies and make your own discoveries. In the more difficult stages, more thinking is required in finding a levels boss character, but the game nicely balances this with just as many levels that require nothing more than mad shooting skills.
Dreamcasts controller adapts easily to the same dual-joypad set-up as the one introduced almost two decades ago in Robotron: 2084, and used later on in the spiritual follow-up, Smash T.V. It's proven to be an ideal configuration for a fast action game—its simple, and it gives the player complete control over the action. Despite the fact that you fly around in Bangai-O, this control scheme works just as brilliantly as it has in the Robotron games. The left hand uses the directional pad to move in eight directions, while the right hand uses the ABXY buttons to fire in eight directions. A set-up like this is perfect for laying waste to anything and everything, and thats pretty much what Bangai-O lets you do.
The similarity to Robotron ends with the controls however, as Bangai-O puts its own spin on old-school gameplay. In typical Treasure fashion, the weapons system is amazingly simple, yet different enough to distinguish it from more ordinary shoot-em-ups. There are no weapon power-ups in Bangai-O. What you start with is what you have for the rest of the game. The Bangai-O robot has two shooting modes, one for each co-pilot character. In Mami Mode, Bangai-O fires reflecting lasers, while in Riki Mode it can shoot homing rockets. Both modes get their fair share of use in the game. In tight spots, the lasers work best, while wide-open spaces are optimal for the rockets.
Both weapons feature the Scatter Bomb attack, which can be used if you have built up enough Scatter Bomb Energy. The more explosions you can create on-screen, the more of this energy you acquire. A Scatter Bomb attack is merely an all-out blast of the selected weapon that completely surrounds your little robot, sometimes filling the entire screen with thousands of lasers or rockets. However, a successful Scatter Bomb attack requires careful timing. How many lasers or rockets released during a Scatter Bomb attack depends solely on your robots proximity to enemy fire. The more enemy shots there are, the faster their speed, and the closer they are to you; the more powerful your Scatter Attack will be. As you can imagine, the game becomes filled with hundreds of fast-moving enemy projectiles, so the potential to create a devastating Scatter Attack is tremendous. Of course, there's a flip side to this as well, as it can turn into a dangerous game of chicken and possibly backfire. Trying to execute the perfect Scatter Attack can force you to wait too long before releasing it—at which point Mami or Riki yelps as your robot is blown to bits.
The reward for nailing a Scatter Attack can be well worth it, however. The more stuff you destroy with an attack, whether it be enemy robots, enemy homes, enemy small sedans, teddy bears, etc., the better the chance of them leaving behind life capsules and more valuable fruit. That's correct—the objective in Bangai-O isnt merely to see how long you can stay alive (though the end result isnt much different). Here we have a game that recalls the old days of arcade gaming by letting you shoot and destroy to collect fruit for points—as proven a formula for fun arcade action if there ever was one. Bangai-O makes the idea more interesting by imaginatively working it into its story. We're told that Riki's and Mami's mission is to end the SF Kosmo Gangs reign of terror by disrupting their illegal "Space Fruit" trade operation. Hence, every time you blow up a bad guy or a crate sitting on the ground, fruit is left behind.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as Bangai-O's story in concerned. Treasure has yet to make an action game in which the characters don't stop to chat with each other via text boxes, usually containing outrageously written dialogue. Bangai-O is no different. Just as in other seminal Treasure games like Guardian Heroes and Silhouette Mirage, the characters in Bangai-O are so cute and weird that it's impossible not to be interested in what they have to say. It's a given in a Treasure game that the heroes can't fight the bosses before talking to them first, but also strewn throughout the levels in this game are "Information Satellites," which are run by a strange character called Mrs. M. The idea is that you go to the satellites for information on how to play the game, but most of the time what you learn is only useful for laughing your ass off.
The humor in these conversations is always double-edged. Sure, the characters say funny things, but the game also makes fun of itself by intentionally screwing up the spelling and grammar and by allowing the characters to realize that theyre in videogame. When talking to Mrs. M, Riki and Mami lament the fact that they have to read so much text, while on another occasion they rejoice that theyre in a 2D game. ("We're prepared to live in the plain and die in the plain Three cheers for Bangai-O!") Conversations with boss characters are even sillier. Imagine talking to Montgomery, a sheep who speaks like a comic-book narrator, and Master Builder Hashioka, who hates Riki and Mami because they're blowing up all the levels hes constructed. Core Boy Koa-Zo, a boss that doesn't fight back, is the author of the immortal line, "I am a fox. I certainly don't like it, but you already know that."
Bangai-O is filled with colorful, functional visuals and truly inventive sound production. The excellent soundtrack and riotous background noise keeps the game as busy in the audio department as it is in the graphics department. The game also provides a challenge that only hardcore gamers will appreciate. It's classic Treasure stuff. Because Bangai-O is filled with that unique flavor weve all come to expect from Treasure, the game is twice as fun as it would have been otherwise. It's cool because it doesnt take itself seriously, and yet the gameplay is uncompromising in its simplicity and its honesty. Bangai-O is both funny and fun, and I, for one, am very happy that it has finally been released in America.