Pocket Power: Bangai-O Spirits

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

As the gaming world continues to grow and mature, we find that the element of storytelling is one of the biggest areas of improvement.  From the early days where a deep and complex story was one that actually had writing on the side of an arcade cabinet to modern games where they take on a cinematic quality that can rival some holiday films.  By 2008 we had experienced games by companies like Square Enix and BioWare that demonstrated how strong of a medium video games had become to tell well crafted stories that could also provide a significant emotional impact.

Bangai-O Spirits on the Nintendo DS is not even remotely close to being that type of game.  The story in Bangai-O spirits is included because some unwritten rule says it needs one.  It also is so negligible; I don’t even remember what it entails and I just spent some time playing it to jog my memory for this article.  What I do remember is it entails controlling a flying robot.  With guns.  And rocket launchers.  And lots of things to blow up.  And that is just fine.

Bangai-O Spirits reminds us that not every modern game needs to have Shakespearean storytelling to be grand.  This game is straight up enjoyable carnage.  My generation grew up where  a game’s story was a couple pages of usually badly translated text that occasionally matched up with the events in the game and that was good enough for us dag nabbit.

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The levels involve destroying specific targets using a multitude of weapons, including but not limited to napalm, freeze blasts, and homing missiles.  The flying robot is capable of dash attacks, because having a giant jet propelled robot slam into you sounds very painful, and can also perform melee attacks with a sword and baseball bat.  This robot knows what’s up.  The mafia has successfully employed the use of a baseball bat for intimidation and sending messages for several generations.  This might be a high tech robot, but it appreciates tradition, and goes by the old adage if it ain’t broke, use a baseball bat.  This statement being equally applicable to ideas and kneecaps.

There are a series of tutorial levels that have some dialog between characters to make the level objection seem like a training exercise.  Like all tutorial levels these are easier to complete than the regular levels, but to give credit where credit is due unlike many tutorial levels these are actually fun to play.  One training level in particular required the use of a giant basket ball to blow up a lot of of enemies, and I actually died in my first attempt at this level which is pretty much on par with my real life basketball skills.

Outside of the tutorial levels there are 160 levels.  If you are somehow able to beat all of those and crave more flying robot mayhem, there is a level editor for you to create your own levels and share them with friends.  None of the levels are terribly long if you are successful at completing them but this is one of those games where repeated deaths are an inevitability.  But it does teach the important life lesson that death can be fun, which is a moral that every good game should strive to pass on to the player.

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Going back to the game’s story, or lack thereof, this is the sequel to Bangai-O which is for the not so pocket sized Dreamcast and Nintendo 64.  Unless you are wearing those ridiculous Jnco jeans that were popular in the late 90’s, but ridiculous fashion trends are a topic for another day, especially since that trend isn’t even from the same era as the game we are discussing today.  The term sequel is used very loosely, since what little story this game has is not part of the same continuum of its predecessor.

In fact, while I have not personally experienced this because I am not good enough at the game to beat all 160 levels, doing some research I found out that if you are able to beat all 160 levels, and are most likely some sort of superhuman gaming cyborg, the ending is simply a cutscene with a character stating “We’re only here because the fanboys would throw a fit on the internet if the game didn’t have an ending.”  You gotta respect the game that shamelessly owns their lack of a plot.

A good chunk of this article is ripping on this game for not having much of a story, but the fact of the matter is it does not need one.  This game is not about having a deep intellectual and emotionally charged narrative.  This game is about strategically using weapons to be blow up a lot of stuff before you get blown up.  It is primitive gaming fun, and while the cinematic cutscenes and great advances in story telling are welcome changes to video games, a throwback to the days of mindless carnage is a welcome addition to the modern world of gaming to remind us of gaming roots but also to show us what would happen if you used modern (or since this is a 2008 release, modernish) technology on a gaming philosophy from 1983.

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Older games didn’t have any of the now common advanced storytelling approaches and just relied on fast-paced fun action.  That is what Bangai-O Spirits is all about; it is aware of what type of game it is and does it very well.  The simplicity of this game is what makes it so great.  As much as I love the advances that I have seen in games over the years, sometimes a throwback to an era of mindless carnage and explosions is a welcome change of pace.  And when I get that itch, Bangai-O Spirits is a great way to scratch it.

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