Publisher: Conspiracy Entertainment
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
Year of Release: 1999
I am the black angel of death.
Though that may seem melodramatic (and yes, a little pretentious), I am by no means exaggerating that statement. Empty shells hit the ground all around me as I fly through the skies, firing missiles and lasers at anything that dares to get in my way. Debris and explosions are all that I leave in my wake. I am a force that cannot be contained by any means known to man. Although I find myself surrounded constantly by those who would try to stop me, I make no attempts to avoid them; rather, I embrace the danger that comes from taking a full-frontal assault head on. There is no motivation for my actions other than the innate desire that lurks in every human being on the face of the planet: to see all things around him fall and to watch in coldest pleasure as the world is unmade. I yearn to see the destruction of all things innocent and wholesome.
In layman’s terms, sometimes I just want to see some shit blow up.
And I have not played a single game that makes this activity more enjoyable than it is in Bangai-O.
In Bangai-O, you play as brother and sister pair Riki and Mami, who are charged with the task of taking down the SF Kosmo gang, who have been smuggling “space fruits” to fund their nefarious deeds. To accomplish this end, they must pilot the giant flying mech “Bangai-O” through each stage, which usually consists of destroying anything and everything that gets in your path. Treasure are a company that needs no introduction: they are extremely consistent in coming up with ideas that are fresh and original, with quirky, innovative gameplay and loads of personality. These characteristics are extremely salient in Bangai-O, yet in some ways Bangai-O is very different from your standard Treasure game.
You can move and shoot in eight directions, pressing the same direction twice on the d-pad will enable you to dash as you fly around the levels. Each button on the Dreamcast controller corresponds to the direction you fire in, you can press two at once in order to combine directions for diagonals. The type of shot the Bangai-O fires is dependant on who is currently piloting it: if Riki is the pilot, your ship fires homing missiles that branch out in all directions, good for open spaces. If Mami is your pilot, your ship fires lasers that bounce off walls, ideal for narrow passages. You can switch between either pilot with the press of a button, which streamlines the gameplay and enables you to react quickly to each situation. The stages are usually fairly large in design and have both large open spaces with lots of enemy ships (as well as turrets which fire several bullets at once) and narrow corridors with little room to dodge. Some of these rooms are separated by doors, opening certain doors requires you to destroy certain enemies, and there are also some that open depending on which side of the door you are on. In each stage (there are 44 in all) you blast your way to the end as quickly as possible and then go on to fight the boss.
The heart of the gameplay in Bangai-O revolves around the use of your smart bombs: when you hold down the right trigger, the Bangai-O releases a cloud of lasers or missiles (depending on who is currently piloting the ship) that radiate in all directions. The default output of missiles/lasers is 20, but here’s where it gets interesting: the Bangai-O automatically reacts to the amount of enemies and bullets that are in its immediate vicinity. When surrounded by fire (and you will be) you hold down the button, wait until it all gets as close as possible to you, and then release at the last second. Depending on how many objects are in your vicinity at the time you let go of the trigger, you can have a maximum of 400 missiles/lasers released from your mech at once, and there is no sight sweeter than witnessing 400 beautifully animated bullets radiating in all directions from your mech and destroying everything that surrounds you. However, there is a price to pay when flirting with disaster. While in most games if you get hit you are usually invincible for a little while afterwards, this is not the case in Bangai-O. If you mess up (let go of the button too early or at the wrong time), your mech will take the full force of the attack and you’ll likely be killed almost instantaneously.
It should be noted, however, that you do not have unlimited use of your smart bombs. You can stock up to five in all, and there is a meter at the bottom-left corner of the screen displaying how much you have left. Fortunately, refilling this meter is easy to do and ties in to the heart of the gameplay: your meter fills up when you cause damage or blow something up. In fact, if you destroy enough objects once you unleash your smart bomb, then your meter my be refilled almost the instant after you let go of the trigger, allowing you fire them in rapid succession as long as there are still enough objects around you to destroy. In. Fucking. Genius.
Additionally, there is a meter that keeps track of how many things you blow up at once. For every 100 explosions you get at once, you get one unit of life energy back. If you get over 500, you are instantly rewarded with invincibility. What sort of things are you allowed to blow up? Everything. Enemies, enemy bullets, cars, bridges, and much more. There are also houses and office buildings strewn about each level that emit a cacophony of oh-so-satisfying screams when you reduce them to rubble. Additionally, when you destroy an enemy or a building, it leaves behind a fruit. The enemies will drop a type of fruit that will give you an amount of points dependent on how high your explosion meter is at the time you destroyed it.
But the real fun in Bangai-O is derived from the sheer mindlessness of it all.
I said earlier that Bangai-O is somewhat different from other Treasure games. Treasure are credited with making games that take a decidedly “old-school” formula and adding a new twist, a certain dimension of “depth” to it. Bangai-O is an anomaly in this regard because it is NOT deep. At all. In fact, Bangai-O is one of the most simplistic games I’ve ever played in my entire life. And you know what? It’s all the better for it.
If Treasure’s own Ikaruga established itself as the first “thinking man’s shooter”, then Bangai-O is its antitype. In Ikaruga, you are forced to choose your shots carefully and think about your situation before you fire. In Bangai-O, you are encouraged to be reckless. While in a standard shooting game, the idea is that you avoid enemy fire, Bangai-O challenges the player because you are supposed to embrace danger rather than to avoid it. This quality is very postmodern, because it does away with all preconceived notions of what a shooter is supposed to be like and in a way, kind of mocks you for thinking otherwise. In fact, since even enemy bullets can destroyed, Bangai-O messes with you by encouraging you to fight fire with fire. Instead of dodging enemy bullets, it is more practical to destroy them. Get as close to danger as you possibly can and depending on how well your timing was, you will be rewarded for your reckless bravery or brutally punished for your failure.
The game thrives on speed and explosions. They flow like fire through its very veins. Mere milliseconds and quick reaction can make all the difference between a glorious triumph as you send a countless number of shots in the enemies’ direction or a crushing defeat as you get blown to bits by hundreds of shrapnel. At the end of each level you are graded on how much you destroyed in each level and how quickly you blasted your way through it, as well as your max explosion count. The action is brutally relentless at all times: you will be moving, firing, switching between the two pilots and grabbing fruit for points all at the same time. Explosions and chaos surround you, debris flies everywhere and screams of people in houses and buildings you just destroyed fill the air. And, because you are rewarded at the end of each stage on how quickly you cleared the level, you are encouraged to do this all as fast as you possibly can.
As you may have guessed from the slant I typically try to take in my reviews, I am fond of the idea of games as art. Bangai-O is NOT art: it does not want me to think or question, just shoot, shoot, shoot everything that moves. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love every second of this game, shooting constantly, firing hundreds of bullets at a time, causing destruction and chaos wherever I go. I relish every explosion, every scream, every chaotic moment that comes from playing this game. The sprites in Bangai-O are rather small, but are well-animated and loaded with personality. Empty shells fly from your mech each time a bullet is fired. When a building or enemy is destroyed, a copious amount of fluidly-animated debris goes everywhere. All enemy bullets, and even the missiles and lasers fired by the Bangai-O too, move smoothly and look great. Backgrounds are well-drawn and add a lot of personality to a game that is already dripping wet with it. The enemies themselves are usually uniform (i.e., mostly look the same but with different colors) but look nice and move fluidly. The explosions are colorful and bright too. After all, what’s the point in blowing shit up if it doesn’t look cool? The sound also has personality and fits the game very well. Screams, kabooms, and voice snippets from the main characters and bosses are all well done and do a nice job of complimenting the action on screen. The music too, is rather quirky and oddball and has many standout pieces that are immediately catchy and memorable. Don’t be too surprised if you find some of the music stuck in your head when you’re not playing the game.
The characters are well-designed and well-tailored to the gameplay, but aren’t particularly important. The same can be said for the plot, which is pretty much disposable and generally makes no sense. However, the game does not put up the false pretense that you should care about either, nor does the game require you to waste time with dialogue and cutscenes. This is not to say that dialogue and cutscenes are not present in the game, but they are thankfully not arbitrary. There is always a lengthy dialogue before each boss fight, but this can be skipped with the press of a button or turned off entirely in the options menu if you prefer. These conversations can be entertaining at times: partially because they were intended to be so, partially because Bangai-O has one of the most awkward Japanese to English translations I’ve seen in ages (though this sometimes actually adds to the humor), but ultimately no one will ever tell you anything you need to hear in order to progress in the game, and as such none of the dialogue is mandatory.
Bangai-O is not without its flaws. As you might have guessed, with all the onscreen chaos there is a good bit of slowdown, but I don’t feel as though it’s anything major or ultimately debases the overall experience. Additionally, many of the boss fights leave something to be desired: many times you’ll be fighting a boss called “core” which is just that: a core, a man with a head that looks like the planet Saturn who does not move at all, or even fire back when you shoot it. This seems like something of an anticlimax after getting to the end of a stage filled with fast-paced action. However, some of the bosses are rather difficult, and can even put out just as much firepower as you can, making for an interesting fight.
Ultimately, however, Bangai-O is the raw destruction in its purist form, melted and condensed to a GD-ROM. Bangai-O is simplistic, but this works in its favor. It does not alienate or daunt the casual player, but hardcore shooting veterans will get more than enough bang for their buck out of it. There are many games in the genre where I find that if I’ve gone a long time without playing them, I end up sucking when I try to pick them up again. Bangai-O is simplistic enough to where I can pick it up again immediately with no trouble, but I can still get my ass kicked on the harder levels if I’m not careful. And you had damn well better believe that I do come back to this game.
At the end of the day, I can say with absolute certainty that I will never get sick of this game. Ever. And that is possibly one of the finest compliments anyone can give a game.
Screenshots: (Source: Planet Dreamcast)