Treasure is one of the most distinctive development houses in the business. As the force behind such games as Astro Boy: Omega Factor and Ikaruga, it has repeatedly demonstrated a knack for designing outstanding and unusual shooters in which the screen is frequently filled with outrageous numbers of bullets. Its mech action game Bangai-O, released in 1999 for the Nintendo 64 and later on the Dreamcast, was no exception. Now Bangai-O's successor, Bangai-O Spirits, has arrived on the DS, and it delivers intense action with more tactical depth than your average shoot-'em-up.
Most traditional shooters have automatically scrolling stages, but the stages in Bangai-O Spirits are self-contained areas of varying shape and size where you can move freely in eight directions. Your Bangai-O is an incredibly agile machine, capable of effortlessly flying in any direction or hovering in midair, and it controls like a dream. Pushing the D-pad in any direction sends you effortlessly soaring in that direction. If you stop flying, gravity will pull you down, but a quick tap of the B button will have you hovering in place, allowing you to fire in any direction while remaining stationary. On each stage, you must destroy certain targets to succeed. All of the action takes place on the lower screen, and the upper screen serves as a map that shows your position and the position of your targets, as well as other useful information, such as enemy life bars. There's no Story mode here, just a large collection of individual stages that you can tackle in any order. It's cool to have access to all of the game's content from the get-go, and there's no denying that the game is a great value, though some sort of a campaign mode would have added some nice structure to the game.
Bangai-O Spirits is an extremely tactical action game. It's also extremely difficult, so understanding the unique properties of each of your various attacks, which the game goes over in its 17 tutorial stages, is essential to enjoying the experience. Among the premade stages included in the game is a group of 18 levels called puzzle stages, consisting of mazes, box-pushing puzzles, and other brainteasers; but in fact, each of the game's stages, even those in which you're firing hundreds of missiles at swarms of attacking mechs, is something of a puzzle. Critical thinking is as essential to success as fast reflexes. You need to know when to take your enemies out from a safe distance with your bounce cannon and when to get up close with your trusty baseball bat, or you won't last long at all. The game's more tactical nature means that it doesn't have the instant pick-up-and-play appeal of many shooters, but the depth of the gameplay means that those with a little patience will find a rich and rewarding experience here.
Among all the weapons in your arsenal, the EX attacks are the most important. They're the most powerful attacks at your disposal, and they're also one of the most unique, fun aspects of Bangai-O Spirits. That's because, in order to release the most powerful EX attacks possible, you need to put yourself squarely in harm's way. If there are more enemy shots flying toward you, your missiles will be bigger and more powerful. Under the most dangerous conditions, it's possible to unleash 100 missiles that are each four times the size of your normal missiles, and although the tutorial points out that they may not all be displayed because of system limitations, it still makes for a ridiculously massive flurry of projectiles.
What makes the game such a great value is its versatile, easy-to-use level editor. Even if you have just mild interest in designing your own levels, it is great fun to mess around with the editor. At any point during normal gameplay, you can enter edit mode and remove enemies or give yourself unlimited hit points or EX attack power. The game won't save your high scores for levels you pass using edits, but it's still enjoyable to make troublesome foes vanish with the tap of a stylus, and giving yourself unlimited health can help you study a level so you can devise a strategy for conquering it. But it's in the freedom to create new stages that the versatility of the level editor really shines. You can totally start from scratch or copy and paste elements of existing levels into your own. You have access to everything in the game--every item, enemy, piece of music, and background artwork. And the interface for doing all of this, which makes great use of the touch screen, couldn't be simpler. If you can think it up, you can toss it together.
All this editing power wouldn't be that useful without a way for clever designers to share their creations with the world, but Bangai-O Spirits offers a way for you to do just that with its innovative sound load feature. The game converts any level you wish to share into a brief sound file that other Bangai-O players can play into the microphone on their DSs to receive the level. The method was a little finicky in our testing, requiring considerable adjustment of volume levels when transmitting stages from a PC to the DS using the game's recommended method of earbuds as an output device, but after getting things calibrated properly, we were able to receive levels with ease. There's already a decent community of designers making some wicked level designs readily available by posting the sound files on such sites as YouTube, so those players seeking more content won't have to look far. Also adding to the game's value a bit is the local multiplayer option. Unfortunately, you're limited to the premade stages during multiplayer games, but it's still good fun to tackle a stage with a friend or three.
The game's graphics are relatively simple, but the screen is often packed with so much action, it's hard not to be impressed. Although your mech is small, it still feels tremendously powerful thanks to the size of the EX attacks you constantly unleash. Slowdown occurs frequently in Bangai-O Spirits when the screen gets busy, but it actually doesn't deter from the experience of playing the game. In fact, firing off EX attacks is so awesome, you won't mind seeing all those massive rockets fly out from your tiny mech in slow motion. The music and sound effects are also solid and befit the action very well.
Bangai-O Spirits requires considerably more thought than your typical shooter, but it is still fundamentally a shooter, and a great one at that. The play control is tight, the weapons at your disposal are powerful, and the levels are packed with explosive action. Best of all, there should be no shortage of new content in the future with the exceptional level editor. This is a spectacularly over-the-top game that any shooter fan with a penchant for serious challenge would do well to check out.