Treasure has always been known for the undying commitment to the spirit of the 16-bit era, but their cult classic Bangai-O was old-school even for them. One of director Yaiman's most personal works, it was a loving homage of an obscure homebrew game, Hover Attack for the Sharp X1, one of the budding programmer's earliest inspirations. He pleaded with his boss, Masato Maegawa, to spare a few months of development time for his project, and dedicated a year to filling Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast screens with tiny, low-resolution sprites. The wacky sense of humor and absolutely mind-blowing action, (pushing upwards of 1000 on-screen objects at once) has made it a cult hit ever since.
What Spirits offers is an amazing construction kit and a mother lode of new content that was sorely lacking in the original.
For years now, Yaiman has been talking about a sequel, but it's only now that the opportunity has finally come. With only nine months to get the job, it's a quick and dirty effort, for sure, but then Bangai-O always was. In presentation, this seems to be more of a companion piece for those who loved the first than it is a strong stand-alone game, but it delivers where it counts most: gameplay and long-term value. It's as if fans waifishly approached the cult developer and begged "Please, Treasure, may I have some more Bangai-O?" and Treasure unceremoniously slapped a big, nasty-looking glob onto our plates and said "Here." It might not have all the trimmings, but when you're starving, that doesn't make it any less delicious.
Perhaps most striking is the lack of any real story or campaign mode. The closest Bangai-O Spirits comes is a few tutorial stages, strung together with some dialog scenes. After that, the credits roll, and a character jokes that it's time to go trade in the game. The rest of the game is dumped into a giant "Free Play" mode with 170 or so levels to play in any order at your own leisure. High scores are saved, and a big part of the appeal comes from challenging yourself to play for speed or points. There isn't really a difficulty curve, and other than a few loose thematic categories, there's no real method to the madness. This is simply a big heaping helping of Bangai-O for those who complained that the original lasted only a precious few hours with its 44 stages.
Gameplay is more or less the same basic concept, but it has matured a bit. Unfortunately the classic "ABXY" control scheme that used the face buttons as a second d-pad for firing (think: Robotron's twin sticks) has gotten the axe to accommodate the new features. You still pilot a giant robot with a tiny sprite, balancing risk and reward by launching "All Around" attacks right on the brink of disaster. Depending on your timing, these attacks can fill the screen with projectiles and wipe out your foes. The object of each stage is to destroy all the key targets. Targets could be a solitary boss, or a series of enemies or objects, depending on the stage. Levels can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
To keep the formula fresh, however, Treasure has changed things a good deal. You still only have a choice of two main weapons, but now you can choose from an armory of six different types. These include the classic bouncing and homing shots, as well as explosive bullets, and even melee weapons like a sword and a bat. Independent of these, you can also select different types of super attacks, and in some cases the properties of these can be combined. A new dash, and the ability to aim your supers round out the list of new tweaks. The pace of the game leans a bit more toward the slower Nintendo 64 version, thanks to the need to collect fruit to refill your super bar, but its balanced better for score play than that version ever was.
Perhaps the most compelling feature is the edit mode. This gives players the ability to create their own stages from scratch, or tweak any of the levels included with the game. It's a fully powered construction set that makes for a thoroughly entertaining playground, and makes for warm memories of creating stages Penguin Land or Excite Bike. Although there is no proper online support, you can save and share levels, thanks to a unique "sound load" feature. This will generate a noise that can be recorded containing level data, and played back into the microphone of another DS. It doesn't work 100% of the time, but it is functional, and it ensures that this title will have some long term staying power.
Initially, it might be hard not to be disappointed by Bangai-O Spirits. After the better part of a decade, we're left with downgraded visuals (simplified for the sake of level sharing) and none of the wacky story and kooky characters of the original. But then, we still have all of that in the original. What Spirits offers is an amazing construction kit and a mother lode of new content that was sorely lacking in the original. While it may not really stand on its own, for devoted fans, it might be just the refill we've been waiting for.