As a genre, shmups remain largely unchanged since their inception. I've never believed this to be a bad thing, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but a little variety now and then to keep things fresh is always welcome. In fact, some of the best shooters out there are ones that more or less keep the traditional framework and introduce just a little something new that changes the way the game is played.
Big Bang Mini attempts to achieve this by utilizing the unique hardware of the DS, making the most of the touch screen in order to add some new spice to an old recipe. How does it fare? Hit the jump for my full review.
Big Bang Mini (Nintendo DS)
Developed by Arkedo Studio
Published by SouthPeak Games
Released on January 20, 2009
The first thing you'll notice about Big Bang Mini, (aside from its incredibly awesome, Slurpee coin-esque lenticular box art), is that there's no Dpad involved. Right off the bat, this is something you've never done before, and I've often wondered out loud what it would be like to play a shooter with a stylus. It's about time somebody got around to trying it.
Instead of traditional shooter controls, the game is played entirely with the stylus, and you'll use the touch screen to both navigate and fire. Controlling your ship's placement is pretty obvious -- you'll grab your craft with the stylus and drag it around to wherever it needs to be. This allows for incredible control that you'll wish you had in traditional shmups, and it really is everything I hoped it would be. Problem is, you still have to fire, and the only way to do that is to momentarily abandon your ship to make the necessary flicking motions.
Firing your shot works like striking an imaginary match on the touch screen. You flick upward to send a volley of bullets into the sky on the top screen, which then explode into fireworks. This is both pretty and effective, in that exploding shots can damage enemies without a direct hit. The downside is, your own fireworks can kill you, and anything that's not a direct hit results in all that leftover debris drifting into the bottom screen, where you just left your ship unmanned.
This is the real challenge of the game, and sloppy shooting will only make things harder for you. You can fire from any point on the touch screen, completely independent of your ship's location, which effectively splits tradition right in half. What you'll end up doing is taking shifts -- fire fire fire, grab your ship and navigate enemy bullets, fire fire fire, collect powerups and dodge debris, rinse and repeat until the level is over. It's a tricky dance to master, and I can tell you from a veteran shmup player's perspective that 90% of deaths will be a result of not getting back to your ship in time to move it to safety.
Newbies and casual players will have enough trouble with the bullet hell, but seasoned shooter fans will be happy to know that there's still enough challenge to hold their interest as well, thanks to this system. It's a constant seesaw of defense and offense, sacrificing your safety for a chance to squeeze off a few good attacks, and that's what most of your better shmups out there are all about.
The graphics and sound are what seal the deal, and with the game's 90 levels spread out over 10 very unique worlds, Big Bang Mini never feels stale. It leaps from a traditional Hong Kong fireworks show, to a spooky ghost-themed world, to a neon-filled retro matrix reminiscent of Geometry Wars -- each with music and enemies that are distinct and wildly different from one another.
Shmup veterans will recognize tributes to classic favorites at every turn, with familiar doujinsoft-like bullet patterns, common enemy attacks and formations, and characters that are a heartwarmingly blatant homage to the Parodius series. It's evident that whoever was involved with the look and sound of the game was a true shooter fan.
In addition to new sights and sounds, making your way to a new world often means acquiring a new ability or weapon upgrade. Some of these are permanent, like the homing missles, and some are exclusive to their respective world, like the Vortex ability -- which lets you absorb enemy fire by drawing a quick spiral shape on the touch screen. These new weapons, paired with the vast differences in level and enemy design, keep Big Bang Mini feeling fresh from beginning to end.
At the end of each level, you'll be presented with an optional bonus area, which drops you into a quick game of connect-the-dots to make a constellation. The resulting image is often much like a real constellation, in that it will look nothing like what it's supposed to represent.
"It's a lemon wedge! ... Oh, it's the Golden Gate Bridge ... Wait, what?"
These minigames seem painfully useless in the earlier worlds, and while their challenge and variety increase as you progress, (later levels have you clearing debris from the screen or repeating a pattern), they still feel like more of a chore than anything else. I can appreciate wanting to mix things up with a "break" between levels, but I could have completely done without these, and would have, if it weren't for the fact that successfully completing them all unlocks a new mode.
Your reward for
putting up with playing through the bonus annoyances areas is Relax mode, which lets you choose a theme from one of the game's ten worlds and fly around shooting fireworks in an enemy-free environment. It's a nice change of pace if you find the fireworks aspect of the game particularly enjoyable, but personally, I thought the enemies were the coolest part of the whole deal, (refer to awesome skeleton guys above), and I rather missed them when they weren't around. You can also set this mode to auto-fire and do nothing but watch, if you're so inclined. I didn't find Relax mode to be fair compensation for having to complete all the minigames, but like I said, others may disagree.
Fortunately, there are other unlockable modes which I very much enjoyed. The first is Challenge mode, which is essentially a score-attack mode, pitting you against a constant influx of enemies as you try to maintain your multiplier and score as many points as possible before the clock runs out. High scores from this mode can be posted to a worldwide leaderboard and compared against friends via the Nintendo wifi connection, which is awesome, and I wish more DS games did this.
There's also a Versus mode, unlocked by playing the game's initial tutorial, allowing for 2-player action with only one cartridge. Mission mode sets rules and obstacles for you to overcome, such as not firing for 60 seconds, or completing a goal within a time limit. Completing Mission mode unlocks an alarm clock feature that lets you select a song from the game to go off at a set time, because hey, why the hell not.
Of course, the beauty of all this optional stuff is that it's just that -- optional. You can ignore it completely and just play the main game, which you'll be happy to know is very good. It doesn't know whether to be casual or hardcore, inviting or intimidating, fun or challenging, and the end result is a hot and tasty soup containing all of the above. For 20 bucks, you've got no excuse not to taste it, regardless of whether you're a rookie pilot or an old salt who's been playing shooters for decades.
Both sides benefit from its identity crisis. All at once, it feels like a hardcore shooter experience for casual players, and a casual shooter experience for hardcore players. Everybody wins. Regardless of which side of the line you're on, I don't think anybody is going to be disappointed.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)