Version tested: Xbox 360
Treasure's latest, as with much of the company's best output, carves its own determined path. Paying little mind to fashion or genre, Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury instead sticks tenaciously to its own vision.
Somewhere, buried deep at its core, this is a twin-stick shooter in which you pilot a gigantic weaponised bipedal robot, viewed side-on from a camera positioned a mile away. But we are a long way from Geometry Wars and its ilk; the mechanics and twists heaped on to Bangai-O mean it defies easy classification.
It looks like a bullet-curtain shoot-'em-up, projectiles filling the screen in a furious swarm. But while there is an intermittent demand for keen twitch reactions, very often it's more like a puzzle game, a generous collection of stages conundrums that must be poked and picked at before they can be properly unravelled and understood. Or wait, should that be more like a racing game, in which you must dart towards an exit point before a crate falls to block your path? Or perhaps a sports game, in which you try to outwit a baseball bat-wielding enemy robot, sneaking around its maniacal swings to bring him down?
In truth, Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury is all this and more: a hotchpotch collection of discrete game design ideas arranged like a linear mini-game collection, somehow made coherent by way of the giant/minuscule robots and hails of missiles that fly through each one.
It's the third game in the series. The first, released for Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast (in two slightly different variations) told a bats**t insane story of two child mecha pilots on a mission to take down the fruit-stealing Cosmo gang.
For the sequel, Bangai-O Spirits on DS, story and structure were largely discarded in favour of a dizzying array of standalone micro levels which could be tackled in any order. With no narrative to couch the game in, and no set order to play it in, Bangai-O Spirits felt like Treasure freestyling game design at an open mic night (or perhaps playing as support band for WarioWare). It was smart, infuriating, ingenious and exhilarating all at once, stripping the company's previous output down to its constituent parts, a flurry of micro-games to show the world that the developer was more gifted than you, even when it wasn't really trying.
Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury falls somewhere between its two predecessors. There's no story here to frame the experience, but then Treasure's stabs at narrative have always come across as half-hearted, the company preferring to let design do the talking. Instead, the preamble to each stage is more like a hurriedly scrawled note from its designer: "Watch out for ninjas", "Be sure to use the napalm gun", "Hurry to the exit before it's too late."
Very soon, these clues reveal themselves to be indispensable, often holding the key to finishing the extremely challenging stages. There's no concession to newcomers. The Tokyo-based boutique developer has never shied away from challenging us, but Missile Fury's learning curve is dispiritingly steep, even for veterans of the series.
The main 'campaign' is comprised of 47 short, sharp stages. According to the leaderboards, at time of writing, only 11 people in the world have completed the set so far, with nobody yet making it through all of the additional 56 bonus levels thereafter.
The challenge is enjoyable for the most part. As many of the stages can be completed in a minute or less, players who approach the game like a Trials HD, knowing they will need to play and replay each one before progressing, will have the best time of it.
But unlike Trials HD, the learning curve is poorly plotted, with huge difficulty spikes very early on. It's a failing that Treasure itself seems to admit. Fail a level three times in a row and the next in sequence will unlock for you anyway, allowing you to progress through the game (but leaving a taunting gap in your leaderboard statistics). Too often, the game tips from challenging to infuriating, to the extent that its difficulty becomes the primary talking point, rather than the regular ingenuity and brilliance of its design.
This begins in the core mechanics of controlling the titular Bangai-O. Surrounding the robot are two circles on the HUD. If there are any enemies within the outer blue circle, which encompasses most of the screen, then your ship's bullets will emit at double power. Meanwhile, if there are any enemies within the inner yellow circle, your stream of bullets triples in both power and size, encouraging you to fly close to danger in order to deal the greatest damage.
But while plainly shooting at enemies is effective up to a point, the vast majority of Bangai-O's levels require you to master counter-attacks in order to survive and triumph.
Holding down the left trigger puts the Bangai-O into charge mode, freezing the mecha in place while a numerical counter races up to 100 beneath it. While charging, your ship is invincible, allowing you to absorb any enemy bullets that strike you. When you release the trigger once the counter reaches 100, you'll unleash a hail of missile fire, the number of bullets you send out rising exponentially depending on how many enemy bullets were absorbed during the charge period.
You can store up to 10 counter-attacks at any one time, the gauge for each refilling as you collect fruit dropped from downed enemies. That's not all there is to counter-attacking. Press the right trigger while charging and you can stack another counter-attack onto the first one, up to four times. Doing so resets the numerical counter, allowing you to absorb yet more enemy bullets, in preparation to launch an ever more impressive firework display of missiles. Timing and positioning are key to successful counter-attacking, and most levels demand complete mastery of this mechanic.
Guns (of which there are seven varieties) aren't the only weapons in the game. Pressing the right trigger while tilting the left stick will perform a dash attack during which time you are invincible, exploding enemies or bullets that fall within your path. At high-level play, it's even possible to cancel out of the dash while still benefiting from the short period of invincibility.
You can store up to three dashes at any one time, these replenishing when you next deal a counter-attack, or three seconds after invincibility ends. Meanwhile, hit the right trigger while stationary and you'll perform a freeze attack, freezing all enemies and bullets within the inner circle on your HUD for a few seconds.
Stages are judged on time and score, with a separate leaderboard for each. The top 10 places on the leaderboards come with replay videos, so you are able to view how the best in the world do it if you're stumped for technique. However, the servers seem overwhelmed at the moment, and downloading and viewing replay videos is currently hit-and-miss, a failing that will hopefully be rectified in coming weeks.
A multiplayer mode allows two players to tackle a series of bespoke levels together, but the few matches we were able to join were plagued by slowdown – and not the good sort, used in this game to add weight and drama to a particularly impressive counter-attack.
As with its predecessors, Bangai-O HD's fussy, slightly convoluted control system soon becomes second nature, subtle audio and visual prompts guiding you toward releasing a counter-attack at the optimum moment. When you have the muscle memory, everything clicks into place, allowing you to view the ingenuity of the stage design with fresh eyes.
Once again, it's here that Treasure's pedigree shines through. In one level, you weave your way through a tight corridor maze overrun by giant ants. In another, you must smash your way into a pile of explosive footballs in order to bat back a battalion of robots.
These moments are wholly idiosyncratic and unique in gaming right now – and for those with the determination to work through them, Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury offers a smorgasbord of treats to delight and infuriate in almost equal measure. The mean, almost contemptuous difficulty curve is something that shouldn't be celebrated, but almost everything else is golden.
8 / 10