Five. Not days, hours or even minutes, but <i>seconds</a>. That's the countdown to death in Bangai-O, the rock hard, futuristic shooter from Treasure. Though you shouldn't be surprised; this is the developer that brought you Ikaruga, possibly the hardest game residing in your Xbox Live Arcade cabinet right now.
And on first impressions, Bangai-O seems even harder. That's steeping aside from the five second death knell for a minute. Images and trailers would have you believe there's no room to manoeuvre in stages that are flooded with missiles and bullets from a multitude of different enemies. And you'd be right in that summary. So where's the fun?
The game has you controlling a gun-firing mech wielding more alternate weapon choices than Turrican and Contra combined, and the gameplay is more like a multi-directional space shooter than platformer. You soar round multiple levels of all shapes and sizes taking out targets, bosses, or racing towards exit points before the tight timer runs out. There's Score Attack element bundled in there too- faster times and bigger scores bag you bragging rights on the online Leaderboards.
Gameplay isn't about punching a thread through a needle during a hurricane, but about timing your counter-measures to see you through.
Here's the kicker: while some titles have essentially two states that divide the populace between average joe and purist (Street Fighter can be enjoyed by everybody, but professionals are adept at using combos, parries and the like) Bangai-O strips out any of the former, but welcomely outlines the counter-offensives, EX dashes and cancel-attack systems needed to survive to all.
So, that five second countdown measuring from the level start to your explosive combustion due to a symphony of bullets from all sides occurs in one of the earliest stages of the game. Fail to play like a ninja, and you're looking at a Game Over icon in the blinking of an eye.
Cry broken gameplay and you'd be wrong. The correct interpretation is: "I'm defending my poor reaction times with terminal intensity. Let's hit restart, and give this another go."
Yea, you'll die a dozen more times, but Bangai-O really doesn't pull any punches when it comes to impossible odds. And you know, that's kinda cool.
You've a three-stage dash move in which you're invincible while using, and can be used to bash smaller aerial enemies off course. Tap the button, and without a directional push instead, and you'll fire a close range freeze attack, disabling anything within the inner target circle around your mech.
This circle is one of two translucent spheres. The outer works as your lock-on space. Hold LT and you'll charge your counter-attack, which once the trigger is released will destroy anything within that outer circle. More enemies means more points, which kicks off a combo multiplier, and chaining that will see enemies drop fruit, which charges your counter-attack meter...its all about escalation. And having the balls to charge neck-deep into Death Valley and pull off a counter at the last possible second for maximum payback.
There's more to the system than that basic overview, but the emphasis is on the speed, and the confidence of each move. A 2D space shooter version of Ninja Gaiden, if you will - a comparison that might best describe the type of gamer this game will be of interest to. Though we doubt there's any other game that condescends you so much for your repeated failings by pushing you onto the next level if you die more than three times?
From a fan's point of view (the series began on the Dreamcast in the West in 2000, and has remained fairly unchanged since) the production outside the levels themselves leave a lot to be desired. A static screen with some rough art in the Tutorial intersperses the stage, and both it and the text are hugely dry when compared to the garbled english translation and fourth-wall breaking characters that (either through conscious lampoon or happy accident) softened the original's tough edges.
While there's a multiplayer element to the game, and a tidy little Level Editor to let you share creations with friends, this is more a test of solo skills and perseverance than anything. In that, Bangai-O remains frustrating, near-impossible - and a real gem in both genre and platform.