If you've ever played a Treasure shooter, or almost any Treasure game outside of, say, Stretch Panic or Wario World, you know a bit about what to expect from Bangai-O Spirits. For years, Treasure has been creating incredibly strange games with overt humor and colorful graphics overlaid on top of complex mechanics and piles and piles of enemies. Each game has a "gimmick" that drives the gameplay and defines the player's abilities: swapping colors in Ikaruga, throwing in Gunstar Heroes, and so on.
Bangai-O Spirits has all the hallmarks of a Treasure shooter. It doesn't take itself seriously, but provides more than enough of a challenge for any gamer. It features the same gimmick as the other Bangai-O games, and will be instantly familiar to fans of those. In fact, it seems to be the ideal Treasure game. At the same time, it completely subverts the usual Treasure dynamic, with brilliant results.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Bangai-O Spirits is a shooter that takes place in enclosed levels. Generally, the goal is to reach one or more target points (and blow them up), and your path is generally impeded by lots of enemies. Using two pre-selected weapons ranging from homing shots to a giant baseball bat, and the game's trademark EX attacks (explosive screen-filling missile attacks fueled by the proximity and number of onscreen bullets), you attempt to make your way through the stage.
The enemies, however, are not the passive formations of ships most shooters feature. They're flying around sending streams of missiles at you, as well, along with giant cannon fire and melee attacks. And they can easily overwhelm you and kill you pretty much instantly if you don't know exactly how to take care of them, or if you happen to bring the wrong weapons in.
Teeming crowds of drill bosses and respawning robots aren't the only way that Spirits is really hard, however. In fact, it feels like Treasure has explored the many ways in which a game can be difficult. Some levels are hard because of enemies; some levels are Sokoban-style box puzzles. Others force you to race from one end of the stage to the other before blocks fall in front of the target. The normal stages are puzzle-like in that you have to figure out the best weapons and path in order to solve them, but at least one whole series of stages (found in the "Puzzle Stages" section of the main menu) consists of actual puzzles. And they're all brutal.
Treasure's real stroke of genius lies in the fact that due to the game's layout, the extreme difficulty does not matter. After the hilarious tutorial, every stage is unlocked, meaning that if a stage is too hard, or you aren't good with puzzles, you can just skip it and play a different one. You aren't forced to complete stages to progress, so Treasure is free to make individual stages as painfully difficult as possible. This kind of freedom is unprecedented for Treasure.
Adding further to the freedom is the edit mode, which can be accessed at any time in real time. Not only can you make new stages, but you can add, subtract, and move around items in stages, fill your EX bar, and make yourself invincible, in the middle of gameplay. The game doesn't save your score when you "cheat" like this, but that's the only penalty.
The freedom extends to the level-sharing method, which lets you use pretty much any method of transferring sound to share stages. US publisher D3 has set up a YouTube channel for just that purpose, and provided you can record on your PC using a mic or (better) a cable from the DS headphone port to the computer's line in, you can upload stages and replays as video and share them with anyone. The process for downloading stages is a bit fiddly -- it may take five or six tries to transfer correctly -- but it works. I tested it with stages from the Japanese stage contest, and it worked like a charm.
In the end, it's not just your willingness to be challenged that should factor into your decision about whether Bangai-O is for you. There's enough to do to satisfy a lot of people, between the shooting, the puzzles, and the creative aspect of the rich level editor. If you enjoy action games at all, and maybe don't mind leaving a game unfinished, this is a purchase that could last you forever.
Final score: 9.5/10 -- It makes me nervous to give any game a super-high score, but Bangai-O is just such a complete game that it merits it. The game excels in mechanics, presentation, level design, variety, and just about every way it is possible for a game to be awesome.