The Bangai-O games defy the standard definition of good game design. The levels feel like a thrown-together mess. The controls are weird and fussy until you get used to them. The story is either nonexistent or translated to make everyone sound like they have brain damage. And worst of all, they commit the high crime of being giant fighting robot games where the giant fighting robot is smaller than your thumbnail.
On paper, they sound like they deserved to be shackled to budget publishers like Crave and D3. Itís no wonder the Bangai-O name carries only a fraction of the weight of something like Ikaruga or Gunstar Heroes. But the games are far from kusoge. With Bangai-O, Treasure created an experience that was built around giving players a visceral thrill through sheer numbers. Itís about flying into the middle of a storm of bullets to unleash an impossible number of missiles on a screen full of enemies. Navigating an entire game built around this risk-reward mechanic made for an incredibly satisfying experience full of individual moments that made you feel incredibly empowered. The visual spectacle of a fully-powered scatter bomb, complete with awesome slowdown, didnít hurt either.
In the end, Bangai-O was an offbeat game that held many of the same values as more traditional shooters but displayed them in an unusual form. In other words, it was a Treasure game through and through. These traits also meant that it would be hard to replicate in a sequel without betraying the creative uniqueness the game had. The solution? Donít try.
Bangai-O Spirits is a very different game than its predecessor, though you might not realize why at first. Youíre still rushing into danger to power up your scatter bombs in levels that feel like they were designed solely for this purpose. You still fly your tiny robot around self-contained levels seeking out the objectives to destroy them. But take a look at the average scope of the levels and youíll begin to realize that the game suddenly has a new focus: working on a handheld. While the original game had some sprawling, linear levels, Spirits shrinks the proportions of the levels, making for gameplay best suited to playing in short spurts. The levels are often bolstered through multiple objectives that make the most of a small space, but overall the levels arenít meant to last long.
On the whole, the freeform nature of the levels is the point of the game at large, even extending as far as the level select screen. The first Bangai-O was already a meaty game with 44 stages, but Spirits trumps its predecessor with 160 levels that can be played in any order. There is no pesky story to get in the way of the experience. There is only a bare-bones menu, a map that shows the layout of each level, and a vague title. The Japanese version actually provides a linear order with a proper difficulty curve, but the mixed-up order we got reflects the gameís openness. Itís true that you donít know how difficult a level will be until you try it, but because the levels are so brief, thereís no harm in just sampling some levels until you find one you can do, carving out your own path in the process.
The mechanics themselves celebrate freeform play as well, though this seems contradictory at first. Because while the levels are structured less like a linear level and more like a goal-oriented playground, the smaller scale means that the possible ways which you can accomplish the objectives are seemingly reduced compared to the larger levels of the original. However, Spirits provides additional options to compensate. In a move lifted straight from Gunstar Heroes, you can have two different weapon types and two different scatter bomb types, and though you can use them individually, you can also mix them to have the qualities of both types. Homing and Bounce makes shots that home in on enemies and bounces off walls. Add in two different melee weapons and you have a toolbox far beyond what was previously seen in the series. Combining this toolset with the small levels creates an interesting combination that straddles the line between a puzzle game and an action game.
Adding a level editor on top of all of the existing levels may seem unbelievably generous, but it is actually an obvious fit in hindsight. After all, Bangai-Oís levels always had an inelegant quality about them that made them feel like they were made in an end-user level creator even before editors were a feature people expected in their games. Spirits will occasionally take it a step further with level designs that were created just because the designers could. A level that renders the face of a character from the first game is a technically impressive feat and is interesting to look at, but actually playing in the level renders this artistic accomplishment meaningless.
In any other game it would be a pointless novelty. But Spirits lets the Bangai-O freak flag fly proudly and encourages its players to do the same. A level that is just a big picture or set of words? Go for it. A stage that serves only to maximize the number of missiles you can fill the screen with? Sounds awesome. A room thatís just a wall of robots ten times your size? Go nuts. Whether someone aspires to make a quality level or just to screw around for the sake of novelty, it doesnít matter. What matters is that Bangai-O Spirits frees the player to have fun creating their own way. After all, thatís what the designers of the game themselves did.
When you get right down to it, doing things your own way is what Spirits is all about. The scaled-down level design allows players to sample the many levels buffet-style. The huge weapon customization options let you demolish the bite-sized levels in tons of different ways. The level editor encourages creators to be as creative or as stupid as they want. Even the ingenious Sound Load system, which transforms levels into an audio file, allowed for incredibly flexible stage trading.
Bangai-O Spirits stands as Treasureís unique sandbox statement, an amazing evolution that transformed a quirky linear shooter into an incredibly open smorgasbord of concepts that come together to reward individual play styles and encourage players to find their own fun. Best of all, youíll never be truly done with the game. Whether youíre chipping away at the 160 levels, finding new user levels, or creating more of your own, thereís always something more waiting for you no matter what your definition of fun is.
Based on: Cultivating high-level play while presenting a sense of scale. Want to make explosions the size of a skyscraper on the DS? Make them tiny, but make them surround a giant robot that's even tinier. Ta-dah! You've created scale.