There are few games developers in the world that engender such a fan driven fervour as Treasure. Their games are revered in an almost monolithic sense, beacons of taut gaming functionality they distill the mechanics of a game into something palpably cogent. However, there are a few instances amongst their creative portfolio that have wider cultural leanings.
I am, of course, referring to Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O. A series of games featuring the titular mecha, Bangai-O, as it sprays a colourful 2D world with a vast array of homing missiles and lasers. The initial functional impetus for the game was outed as being that of the Sharp X1 title Hover Attack but in a more recent interview, this was merely a partial catalyst as it became clearer that the main influences took on a far greater role.
Specifically, three anime series were cited in the interview; Macross, Layzner and Ideon. For those that have been reading the column regularly, I’ve already covered the effect of each of these series (here and here). Now it’s time to see how these influences actually manifest themselves in a gaming series such as Bangai-O.
Before I get started, lets have a quick look at Assault Suit Leynos 2 on the Sega Saturn. This game was released at the beginning of 1997 and was a direct sequel to the original Leynos on the Megadrive. The reason I want to show this first is because this highlights the problem that faced 2D mecha games as their functionality became more potent. Basically, the more agile and well equipped a mecha becomes the more viewing space the player needs to use it effectively. Leynos 2 partially solved this problem by having the camera zoom in and out.
The reasoning being that you needed to see your cool assault suit, as that was the main focus of the game. Right?
Well, no. Mecha, apart from its size and aesthetic, are not solely defined by aesthetic parameters. Just showing these aspects to a player is rather pointless in fact, as they have no functional merit. The real purpose of a mecha, in a game at least, is based around what it can do. Two years later Treasure came along and proved this rather magnificently.
Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O (Nintendo 64)
Treasure solved the problem of their mecha’s potency by making the actual sprite tiny. As a consequence they were able to “fit” the mecha functionality into the player’s view. This is where Hover Attack comes in, as games like Leynos were too hung up on showing off how cool the mecha was but Hover Attack wasn’t showing a mecha at all so the game didn’t suffer from a limited viewpoint. Hover Attack was also only a partial base as Bangai-O was offering something far greater in scope.
This is where we get onto the three anime series I mentioned earlier. Let’s start with Ideon first, as this is the most ambitious influence of the three. Ideon is a super robot that can cut planets in half, fire black holes and re-boot the universe. If mecha were an interstellar empire, Ideon would be its terrifying emperor.
However, Ideon also possessed an array of other weapons tucked away within it. These were installed by the humans that originally found the alien artifact. One of the more visually memorable attacks was when the Ideon fired off a volley of omnidirectional guns. Now, try and imagine that occurring in a game where you just see the mecha up close. Doesn’t work, does it?
You need to see where the shots are going, so you can ascertain whether you’ve taken out your targets. Bangai-O approached Ideon almost reverently in fact, to the point that it put its array of attacks in the player’s view, leaving the mecha itself as a relative dot on the aesthetic horizon.
The remaining super robot abilities, unsurprisingly, didn’t make it into the game. As re-booting the universe is a problematic endeavour at the best of times.
Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O (Dreamcast)
Barely six months later, a Dreamcast version of Bangai-O was released in Japan. Despite initial appearances, this was not a direct port but instead a fundamental reworking of the original N64 game. It also received a global release and became the “face” of the series for many Western gamers (as the N64 version never made it out of Japan).
It also evolved the anime influences further. So it’s time we moved onto Macross’ involvement. This was a series that featured balletic dogfights with transforming mecha but with the added adage of wonderfully excessive missile volleys.
Ideon offered the catch all omnidirectional attack of doom, whereas Macross afforded a level of pretentious precision. Specifically, the fact that the missiles snaked their way through the air to find their targets was something that Bangai-O nabbed from Macross.
Macross also had an influence in the way the mecha Bangai-O moved, whilst precise there was an element of momentum. This made matters more tactical as you didn’t want to be wrong footed at the end of a maneuver. You were also always fighting the subtle effect of gravity, which fed into the momentum even more. Thing is, this wasn’t realistic physics at work. Not even close in fact, it was skewed anime physics. The kind that allows constant thrust in space to equal constant speed (though it does look cool in all fairness). This tactical wrong-footing was and still is part of the Macross dogfight. Seeing variable fighters fire off dummy missile volleys so as to position an enemy for a well placed bout of vulcan gunfire fits perfectly into the Bangai-O mould.
Bangai-O Tamashii (Nintendo DS)
Bangai-O Tamashii was released earlier this year to much acclaim. It’s quite a substantial change to the original Bangai-O formula more down to its increased functional platter. However, the original anime triumvirate are still very much present and fueling the core that makes this shooter tick.
I’ve saved Layzner until last as it’s more relevant in the newer DS iteration than it was in the original. Layzner is one of the most realistic mecha that falls under the category real robot. However, it’s also one of the most potent. This contradiction is at the very centre of Bangai-O’s gameplay.
Specifically, the Layzner is a mecha that has to work within in a very rigid ruleset, it also expects an inhuman level of precision from the pilot (something it’s onboard AI helps to partially assuage) and it’s also terrifyingly fragile once pitted against other SPT’s.
Throughout the Bangai-O series, the player is expected to work within a very focused rule set, be precise in their control and teeter on the razor’s edge of near death around every turn. In Tamashii this is even more true.
There are a few other visual aspects of Layzner that are very much at work as well. The V-MAX halo is now present whenever Bangai-O dashes and generally the movement is more exacting now.
Generally, Layzner makes itself felt in the taut nature of the levels themselves. As the expectation is on the player to perform within a suitably cunning set of parameters, which is probably why the level design is far more engaging than most other shooter-em-ups.
When mecha collide…
It’s always interesting to see people jump on gaming references as the sole functional influence, when there are other far more relevant cultural aspects afoot. Bangai-O, as a series, is resolutely in the mecha gaming genre. Each of the series listed above have had an obvious tactile outcome. Without them Bangai-O,as we know it, simply wouldn’t even exist.
If anything, Treasure are pulling on more anime series with the latest iteration with beam sabres, super napalm and baseball bats. Those abilities alone call on a good quarter of a century of mecha anime after all, in addition to the series mentioned obviously.
With this gaming genre specifically it’s worth realising that it doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum, with only gaming influences taking an effect. Mecha gaming has been borne out of Japan’s half century fascination with its varied pantheon of manga and anime robots. Treasure, it seems, know how to build upon and innovate from that. Maybe more people should learn from their example?