All your brain are pudding.
You run gallantly towards a glimmering tower of metal, perfectly molded into a humanoid form with the power of a thousand armies. You leap majestically into the cockpit, point to the stars with a vigorous cry, “Bangai-O GO!” and launch into the ether. It’s an otaku’s dream come true. Moments later, you’re in a no-holds-barred deathmatch aboard an alien ship, in a room filled with basketballs.
That’s right, basketballs. They’re not visual glitches, nor part of a secret level, nor cleverly disguised weapons of mass destruction. They are another unexplainable facet of the hodgepodge homage to gaming greatness that is Bangai-O Spirits. There are even power-ups to collect in the form of fruit. Why fruit? As Treasure president Masato Maegawa said, “During the 1980s gaming era, fruits were items that were quite common!” Thanks for clearing that up, Masato.
Juicy fruit aside, there is no question that Bangai-O is a maniacal shmup of epically genocidal proportions. It simply doesn’t take itself very seriously. While other shmup pilots are busy saving the galaxy with melodramatic missiles powered by the hopes of humanity, Bangai-O can’t be bothered with such frivolities as plot. In its place is a brief tutorial starring an overzealous professor, followed by 167 stages (+infinity) of righteous pandemonium.
Bangai-O Spirits is a lot like Geometry Wars in that both are shmups that make zero sense to the naked eyes of outsiders. It’s a kaleidoscopic slideshow of vibrant explosions amid flowing swarms of enemies firing ray-tracing rockets by the battery. Keep in mind that while Geometry Wars is a psychedelic trip through the flower-powered acid-land of Timothy Leary, Bangai-O is a spectral spiralgraph boosting through a black hole. Got it? Of course not.
The only way to truly understand the game is to play it, immerse yourself in its mesmerizing mazes of digital ordnance, and ignore your mother’s calls to dinner. Food doesn’t matter. Once you’re inside, a magical thing happens. Like Neo, minus the Cowboy Curtis mentor, you can feel the world around you. Every bullet, laser, and bat-toting baseball player morphs into an intangibly visceral point in your brain.
I tried pausing the game to count the missiles once. Beginning at the edge of the screen, I circled the epicenter, reaching 90 before they blended into a floating mass of metal two-millimeters from ground zero. But Bangai-O thwarted them all in a single blow. After all, what kind of self-respecting mech (they have feelings too) flies into battle without a crater-making cannon and a skyscraper-sized sword for backup?
Whereas other shmups mystically drop their upgradeable payloads in the midst of battle, Bangai-O’s armory is ready from the get-go. Missiles, swords, and wall-bouncing bullets are all for the taking. And if that Ninja-bot down the road gets too wily for the average arsenal, feel free to mix and match weapons into a helping of homing-napalm, or take the direct approach and boost in for a homerun hit with the baseball bat. Then again, what saves the day better than a recklessly torrential outpouring of rockets?
It’s simple anime math – when one warhead will do, strike a pose, and let loose with a hundred screaming jet streams of annihilation in slow-motion style. Mind you, that last part isn’t by choice. Remember the pivotal moments of 16-bit shmups when time seemed to bend around you as you entered the zone, only to have your callous friend point out that you’re really just stuck in slowdown? They’re back in full force.
Like a turbo-charged Mini Cooper, there’s too much power under the hood for the DS to handle. Bangai-O suffers from crazy levels of slowdown, but you have to give it credit for trying to soldier through at full bore instead of going for the half-assed handheld treatment. Just do what I do and pretend all the slowdown is there to highlight your heroics, or more likely, your constant deaths.
Even with the generous life-bar, dime-stopping maneuvers, and screen-pounding specials, you’ll need the diehard willpower of John McClane to clear 100 percent. It might take thirty seconds to pass a single stage, but only after your tenth time trying, if you’re lucky. When you reach the breaking point of tolerability, you might consider settling down for the softer side of Bangai-O in the puzzle stages. Sliding boxes and perfectly angling bounce-shots isn’t any easier than battle, but at least you can take your time and relax.
The great thing about Bangai-O is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a puzzle game, a one-on-one fighter, or a last stand against the apocalypse. All you have to do is make whatever you imagine with the level editor. Before you start rolling your eyes at the prospect, you need to know that every stage of Bangai-O was created using the exact same tools. If you can dream it, you can probably make it, and then share it.
By now, most DS owners are probably accustomed to the system’s data-swapping habits, but you haven’t seen anything like this. You need to think old-school, before Wi-Fi and MySpace pages, back to the days when going online meant coupling your phone and modem in an unholy union of technology. In a move of low-tech genius, every level of Bangai-O can be digitally translated and reduced to a few seconds of screeching soundwaves that can be transmitted from speaker to microphone (no… your CDs won’t work). In case you’re still thinking inside the box, this means that you can record a stage with a PC mic, save it, post it online, or email it. Excuse the fanboy enthusiasm, but how awesome is that?
The only question left is whether or not you have any friends worthy of standing at your side on the battlefield. Bangai-O Spirits is one of, if not the most, fully-featured and expansive shmups ever created, but it’s absolutely unmerciful in its brutality. You can feel your determination dissipating, punctured a hundred times per second in a relentless cacophony of explosions. The weak will fade away to their brain games and pet sims, but the true heroes will stand firm against the maelstrom, ready and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of pride, glory, and tasty pieces of fruit.