A decade ago, tiny Japanese developer Treasure graced Nintendo's N64 console with one of the finest games it would experience during its lifetime. Limited to a paltry 10,000 copies and only published in its native homeland of Japan, Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O (which translates as Explosive, Invincible Bangai-O) was never intended to be anything more than a niche product. Even a subsequent Sega Dreamcast update (which even had the good fortune of making it to the west) failed to push this quirky title into the consciousness of the gaming mainstream.
You might therefore ask yourself why anyone should get even remotely animated about this little-known game being updated for Nintendo's DS console. This answer is simple: Bangai-O Spirits is pure, unadulterated video gaming genius.
Like all truly wonderful video games, Bangai-O Spirits is deceptive in its simplicity. A shooter at heart, the core gameplay involves guiding your robot avatar around a series of levels neutralizing specific targets in order to achieve your objective. Although your android charge is supposedly as tall as a building, the zoomed-out perspective means it's only a few pixels in size, which grants plenty of onscreen real estate for high-speed manoeuvring and death-dealing action.
Said dealing of death is handled by your arsenal of unique weapons, two of which can be equipped before each stage is tackled. These include shots that rebound off walls and other surfaces (handy for taking out tricky enemies that hide around corners), close-quarter attacks (such as a laser sword and a baseball bat, the latter of which enables you to deflect enemy fire) and heat-seeking missiles.
Unsurprisingly, each weapon is suited for a particular task and you'll often find that many seemingly impossible levels become surprisingly straightforward when using the correct load-up. A degree of experimentation is often called for and the game often borders on becoming a puzzle title at times; occasionally stages can be tackled in ways you wouldn't deem possible and with weapons that might seem particularly ill suited. The developer obviously wants you to test every facet of the weapon system, and more often than not, that is half the fun.
In addition to the standard armaments (some of which can be combined to create even more offensive options) you have EX Attacks, which also come in a range of flavours. These are triggered via the L and R buttons and require you to charge them for a short period before becoming fully effective. They usually involve filling the screen with a quite unreasonable amount of missile-based plasma death, but can also freeze enemy projectiles. They're context-sensitive, too; the more enemy bullets onscreen when you trigger the EX attack, the more authoritative your reply will be.
If this all seems like rather a lot to take in at once, you'll be delighted to learn that the game comes complete with a thoroughly comprehensive Tutorial Mode. In fact, this is the only part of the game that follows any kind of narrative structure, with the more robust Free Play option merely allowing you to tackle any one of over 160 levels in the order you wish. The Tutorial Mode features some seriously whacky anime-style cut-scenes and although the aim of each level is described beforehand, it's rather lost on us as it's all in Japanese (the game is coming to North America and, most likely, Europe).
This is obviously something of an issue, but with a bit of trial and error it soon becomes clear what is expected of you in order to complete the level. The general aim is always to vanquish pre-determined targets that are handily highlighted onscreen, so it's merely a matter of finding the right strategy. At worst you'll have to tinker with your weapon payload, but it's hardly a game-breaking issue.
Once you've finished the Tutorial Mode – and this in itself is a considerable challenge – then you can get stuck into the aforementioned Free Play section of the game. It could be argued that there's no real incentive to complete the 160-odd levels but you'll want to explore the myriad different possibilities on offer regardless, such is the gloriously addictive nature of the game. Score-attack fans will also be undoubtedly pleased to learn that you are ranked on how swiftly you finish each level.
The entertainment doesn't end there, though. Once you've exhausted the both the Tutorial and Free Play portions of Bangai-O Spirits you can create your own levels to run riot in. Given the broad range of possibilities, the different weapon types present and the extensive and varied selection of enemy craft, the appeal of 'do it yourself' shooting action is immense; it's made even more intoxicating when you consider that you can share levels with other players via a unique 'sound data' exchange feature, which harks back to the days of the Spectrum and C64 audiotape loading technology.
To trade a level you merely have to plug some headphones into your DS and place the headphone next to your friend's DS microphone. We were initially sceptical about how well this would work, but to our amazement it functions like a dream. But you can also record a level in MP3 format and email it to a friend for them to enjoy, or even burn a selection of your favourite creations to an audio CD. The opportunities this opens up are quite frankly staggering.
Bangai-O Spirits represents the most fun we've had on the DS in quite some time. The game is hugely addictive, tight and an utter joy to control; it's also simple enough to pick up yet is packed with an astonishing level of depth. In fact, during the course of this review we've barely scratched the surface of the staggering gameplay potential present within the Bangai-O Spirits universe. The appeal of this piece of software is almost unlimited as you can create your own fiendish levels and exchange them with other fans; it really is the game that keeps on giving.
The language barrier of this Japanese import copy is always going to present the biggest stumbling block when it comes to wholeheartedly recommending Bangai-O Spirits to all and sundry. While it's perfectly possible to navigate around the maze of menus using trial and error, it can often be a frustrating experience. Having said that, it's unlikely that anyone but the most devoted Treasure fan is likely to hunt this down on import; unless you count yourself as one of those 'lucky few', you may wish to bite your tongue and wait for the western release, which should be coming later this year.
Whichever option you choose, the one thing you can count on is the fact that the same glorious gameplay experience awaits you.