Do me a couple of favors, will you? I want you to stop playing all the popular games on the DS. Not permanently, of course. Put your ridiculously overpowered Final Fantasy IV party aside for a second. Give your Pokemon a rest. Take a break from defending Phoenix Wright’s clients. Whatever you’re playing, just take it out of the card slot and tuck it away somewhere safe. Don’t worry; this won’t take long. Just make sure you’re not distracted by the undeniable quality that those respective titles possess. If anything, you’re probably unaware that there’s another game out there that deserves an equal (if not greater) amount of attention, but you’ll likely never notice it. It’ll likely be buried beneath all the drivel that comprises most of the handheld’s selection of titles. But should you ever come across Bangai-O Spirits in your occasional jaunts through the more obscure sections of the DS’s library, be sure to pick it up. It might look like a generic mech action game, but it is anything but.
The name Bangai-O ought to ring a bell for some of you seasoned gamers out there. For those precious few Dreamcast owners and hardcore Nintendo 64 importers, the title ought to invoke flashbacks of hundreds of laser beams, missiles, and God knows what else wreaking havoc for as far as the television screen would allow you to see. That’s basically what the original game was about: mechs, explosions, and whatever got caught in between. There was a quirky story involving a couple of mech pilots waging all-out war against the Cosmo Gang over fruit contraband (because we all know of the evils of oranges and their kin) and wiping out everything in their path. This offbeat plot has been axed in the DS installment, however. Fans of the original will find the old scenes replaced with a few snippets of bland dialogue between each of the challenges in the game’s incredibly brief tutorial mode.
It’s not like it matters, though. For the rest of you that haven’t heard of Bangai-O, you’ll be too busy blowing up stuff to even care about the game’s half-assed story. The premise is simple: you pilot a tiny, pixilated mech armed to the teeth with bullets, rockets, super missiles, a rush attack, and a few melee weapons and tear your way through anything that gets in your way. These aren’t you’re usual assortment of weapons, either; many of the projectiles can bounce off walls or home-in on enemy forces, and your incredibly large and unwieldy bat can deflect enemy bullets like lead baseballs. Your super missile attack is even better; it fills the screen with a wave of projectiles, but requires charging and fuel via the fruit you’ll pick up from your dismembered foes. Since you’re given the ability to map weapons to whichever buttons you want, you can try out various arsenals until you’ve come up with the perfect setup. That done, you’re given access to a list that spans over 150 playable stages. These areas aren’t designed in a linear progression, but as a series of challenges; you can choose to complete them in whatever order you wish. It’s all too easy to just pick one at random and rush forth with your trigger fingers tensed…
…And getting wiped out in less than a second.
That’s the catch that comes with the gameplay of Bangai-O Spirits; the levels are designed to be gruelingly tough and mentally challenging. You know that awesome bat that can reflect bullets? It won’t help you when you’re torn to scrap metal by the cannons that surround and annihilate you as soon as the level starts. All of those weapons won’t be able to do much when you’re faced with a wall of falling stones or explosive bricks that have to be carefully dealt with one at a time. Each of these levels are designed to test not only your prowess in battle, but your ability to strategize and take down some incredibly well-crafted defenses as well. You’ll take on entire fleets of enemy mechs of all shapes and sizes, scorch dozens of infinitely spawning missile launch pads, and somehow find a way to destroy all of the targets that are designated on the map on the top screen. Some of you will inevitably take the easy way out by spamming your super missile attack. However, such tactics can’t always ensure victory; you’ve got to use your wits and the landscape of the level to succeed.
Victories are rare, however. If you can’t take failure well, you’ll never have the patience for this game. Face it: you will lose. A lot. You’ll see the Game Over screen more times than you’ll ever dare admit. Considering how ridiculously easy it is to screw up, it’s not surprising that you’re given infinite continues. That’s how the game beckons you back; you’ll sit there musing over different ways to approach the challenge, which weapons to use, and how to get through certain areas. If you die again, you just go back to the drawing board, come up with something new, and see if it works. Rinse and repeat as much as you need to; the level and its challenges will always be ready for another go.
But should the game get to frustrating for you to handle, you can always find relief with the level editor. This handy little system does exactly what its name implies; you can design your own unique levels from scratch. You’re given the option of tweaking literally anything you see in the regular challenges. You can manipulate the size of your stage, which backgrounds to use, what kinds of walls to use and where to place them, which enemies you want roasting your mech at the blink of an eye, and countless other little options that add up to the final product. The Japanese language barrier can make using the menus difficult at first, but it’ll only take a little trial and error before you figure out what you have to do to get things up and running. The editor is remarkably easy to use thanks to the Touch Screen; you can just tap or doodle wherever you want your foes or items to appear onscreen and easily browse the menus. A little creativity can go a long way in ensuring the longevity of the game.
Such a practical use for the Touch Screen doesn’t save Bangai-O Spirits from its share of gimmicks, however. Aside from some local co-op and multiplayer options, the game allows you to send your uniquely designed levels to other gamers. It’s how you go about the transaction that makes it strange. Rather than relying on Wi-Fi, the game transmits information via the microphone. It converts your level into a sound file, emits it out of the speakers, and can be picked up by another DS mike. While this effectively ruins any chance of direct online multiplayer, it’s still possible to give out your creations over the Internet. This process is as unnecessarily convoluted as the regular trading. Rather than having a site to upload designs onto, you have to transfer the stage to your computer by hooking up some earphones to your PC and placing them near the DS to retrieve the level. Once you’ve gotten the stage off your DS, it can be saved as a MP3 file and sent to whichever gamers you choose. While the transfer system works decently, passing on Wi-Fi multiplayer – an obvious choice considering the DS’s online capabilities – is a huge blunder. While it may have been a creative idea, there are more conventional and efficient ways of establishing trade.
Don’t let that stop you from picking this up, though. Like its predecessors, Bangai-O Spirits is a gem of a game shrouded in the shadows of more popular titles. Dishing out mass destruction upon legions of enemy robots is a fun and addictive experience. With a nice variety of weapons and abilities, you’ll be able to tweak your mech’s capabilities in plenty of ways. Thanks to the game’s incredible level of challenge and steep learning curve, you’ll lose track of how many times you’ll face the Game Over screen. This title is not for the easily frustrated; it challenges you in both combat ability and puzzle solving. With tons of cleverly designed levels, it won’t take long for you to get stuck. But if you think you can do better, the extensive level editor ought to provide plenty in terms of replay value. Even if the trading system falls short of their potential, you’ll have the chance to show off your best creations if you give it a chance. Regardless of the problems, Treasure has delivered yet again. Bangai-O is finally back.