Bangai-O is an insanely fast and frenetic Dreamcast shooter from the offbeat Japanese codeshop ”Treasure”. Released in the UK in the year 2000, like many shooters in this country it sold relatively poorly, even at the insanely cheap price it hit the shelves at. As usual the lure of the glossy driving game or sports sim proved more compelling even to the more discerning Dreamcast gamer community and Bangai-o quickly passed into that elite company of games that few people have played, but those who do fall in love with it for ever.
Initially this game arrived on in Japan on the N64 under the catchy name ”Bakuretsu Muteki Bangiaoh”. Later released on the Dreamcast it remained essentially the same game, but with vastly improved speed and refined gameplay. In the game you play two characters, brother and sister team Riki and Mami Makashi. They both inhabit the mobile robot-fighting suit - Bangai-O. Unlike typical shooters, which tend to work on either horizontal or vertical planes of attack, this game allows complete freedom of movement around the level in all directions. Instead of the usual space ship, you are piloting this robotic suit that can fire in all directions. You can land and walk along the ground firing at enemies or hover and zoom around the maze-like levels. As the levels don’t scroll independently of your character you don’t have the same pressure to keep moving forward. Instead this brings a puzzleier dynamic to the genre.
Each level is small with various locked off areas, there are buildings you can shoot as well as lots of flying robotic enemies and stationary gun turrets. Killing a certain number of enemies will open locked sections. Each time you kill an enemy it turns into a piece of fruit… erm. Yes that’s right a piece of fruit, which you can then collect to boost your score. You typically have about 3-7 mins to find the end of the level and take on a Boss Character. Initially you’ll be playing frantically just to get to the end of level Boss with enough energy for a decent scrap. As you become more familiar with the level and that attack patterns of the enemies you’ll start replaying the levels in order to destroy as much as you can as fast as you can to accumulate some mega High Scores. Both of the two characters have a different attack type. Riki fires homing missiles, Mami fires bouncing bullets which will ricochet around the level until they run out of energy or hit something.
The controls are very simple; the analogue stick sprays bullets around in all directions when your character is at rest. The d-pad moves you up, down and all around the level while you pump out bullets with the red button. The left trigger allows you to switch between Riki and Mami modes. Pressing the right trigger or the yellow button will launch a massive counter attack. Bombs/bullets fly out in all directions and neutralize every single enemy and enemy bullet on screen. You can only perform these a limited number of times though and the key to performing them successfully is to wait until there are so many attackers that you are almost overwhelmed. Initiating the counter attack will result in a spectacular series of explosions and the more explosions that are set off at the same time, the better the fruit that appears and the higher the score you can get. The more enemies you kill in one go, the higher you can charge your bomb meter for counter attacking again with. So the trick really is to have nerves of steel, wait until the absolute last moment to destroy everything and then reap the fruity rewards!
There is a typically insane plot to this charming game. Told via the hilariously badly translated manual and in game text, you discover that Riki is the self proclaimed ”ultimate man of all men”. He works as a police officer even though e is still at school and yearns to do something more exciting than his current duties allow. So when the chance comes to get into Bangai-O and combat the evil space syndicate ”The Cosmo Gang” he eagerly accepts. His little sister Mami comes along to provide support. The Evil Cosmo gang are taking over star systems and smuggling the valuable ‘’space frooties” for massive profit. They now have their eyes on the ”Dan Star” and it is this Riki and Mami must defend.
The Cosmo Gang is made up a motley selection of complete and utter bizarre nutcases as are friends and allies of the pair. There is Sabu, a street urchin who cannot ”resist the waffles of the goldfish salesman”. Or Mr. Saruman a teacher who wants to go on a ”love trip” with ”little darling Riki”. There is even a sheep called Montgomery who ”appears to be harmless, but rambles on all day long. He comes from Mongolia, no really. There’s Riki’s younger brother Black Riki who is jealous of Riki as he wants to be the star of a videogame and can’t stand the fact Riki is. Helpful advice on tactics is dispensed by Mrs. M Informer from her info pods scattered around the game. She ”allegedly buys ties or stuff like that from her husbands income”. There are many more crazy characters to meet across the games 44 levels, and it’s most satisfying when they match up with their manual profiles. The five Core enemies are described in the manual as ”completely useless”, and when you meet them in the game as end of level bosses they are indeed, completely useless. They just sit there while you fire at them until they are destroyed. Fantastically silly!
Graphically it’s not the most sophisticated game that ever appeared on the Dreamcast. The character you control is tiny, as are the enemies. The graphics are strictly 2-D, but this trade off in detail means that much, MUCH more action can be handled on screen with very little effect on the speed and frame rate. The music is a fairly non-descript selection of 16 bit style tunage, with a limited range of character noises and explosion sounds, but it complements the main action well without ever becoming irritating. The game manages that clever balance of being hard enough to be challenging, but never so hard that it becomes frustrating. The small size of the levels means that dying and replaying them never becomes a drag. You’ll notice your proficiency rising quickly, as initially you’ll just race through avoiding most of the enemies. Later on locked doors force you to clear out sections of the level and engage in furious mass destruction. There are not many pick-ups available, in fact only health and shields can be acquired. This keeps things simple, but the lack of weaponry might put some people off. Also the level design tends to favour the homing missiles of Riki over the bouncing bullets of Mami, so it’s a pity that part of the game is not exploited to it’s fullest.
But these are minor quibbles. This might not be the purists ideal of a shooter, in fact it almost sits in a genre of its own - The ”fruit collecting platform shooter”. It has no adjustable difficulty levels so the hardcore may find it too easy and the newbie, possibly will find it too hard. But for those who sit in the average bracket of gaming ability its has a marvellously tuned learning curve and really pushes the ”oh just one more go” button that sees you turning it on for a quick fifteen minute blast, only to find yourself still glued to it three hours later. With high scores to be chased and a ridiculous story that takes several goes to figure out (due to the amusing but impenetrable dialogue), there is plenty of replay value to be had. Developers Treasure have a long and distinguished history in this genre, with classics such as Radiant Silvergun, Guardian Heroes and Sin and punishment in their softography to name but three. Bangai-o can hold its head up and stand proud amongst such distinguished company and deserves to be played by everyone who appreciates a quirkier and defiantly non-mainstream approach to game development.
Nine out of ten