Hi, I’m Philip Armstrong, aka Loki, aka Cooltendo. You might have read my internet comic about Mario and Link and Metroid over at http://www.drunkduck.com/Nintendo_Super_Squad/ It’s cool if you didn’t though. I asked Tim and John if I could share some thoughts I had on this game I played on their blog and they said yes! Here they are, please enjoy.
Big Bang Mini makes you cool. Not just cool for a DS owner, or cool for a person who plays games in general, but bona fide leather-jacket-tight-jeans-rock-star cool. When Big Bang Mini is nestled in your DS you strut.
If you’re anything like me this isn’t your normal attitude when it comes to games. I shudder at being labeled a “gamer.” Upon entering a Gamestop I tend to cower into my coat, shielding my face, afraid that I’ll be lumped in with the meathead “dude you just shot off that guy’s face!” brand of capital “G” gamers or with the Japanese obsessed weaboos who are expounding on the finer details of Ar Tonelico II with a disinterested clerk.
Lord forbid I ever take my DS out in public. I take advantage of the system’s portability primarily to move from the couch to the toilet without having to interrupt my game. I would never allow myself to be seen playing outside for fear of the silent judgement of strangers.
Not so with Big Bang Mini. It’s the kind of game that you play hanging around the bus stop or food court hoping that someone will take notice and ask what is that you’re playing.
“Oh, you know,” you reply, having prepared yourself for this very moment, “just a puzzle shooter mash-up travelog where you fling fireworks towards all sorts of crazy targets. There. I just exploded a surfing punk-walrus.” If you’re lucky you just might get the kicker response: can I try? Next thing you know you’re the life of the party, king of the crowd, Mr. rock star cool guy.
These are lofty expectations to have of a small budget title. The game was developed by the France based Arkado Studios, which seems to be made up of just three people. Big Bang Mini could easily be lost in the copious amount of shovelware being produced for the DS. But this is a game that was named after the event from which all matter and life sprang forth. And like that awesome celestial explosion Big Bang Mini’s got style.
The meat of the game takes place across various real world locations. The game starts during a New Year’s festival in China then moves on to the savannas of Africa, New York City, Rio de Janerio and other exotic travel destinations.
Each level offers a new art and musical style. The superhero comic book stylings of New York’s alleys shift to Rio’s graffiti urban art and salsa beat. From the pixelated pyramids of Egypt to the serene neon of the lonely ocean depths each level exhibits a sophistication that’s absent from the gray space marine sensibilities of western game design and the animu nonsense of the East. Generalities, I know but that doesn’t change the fact that Big Bang Mini is like a fine imported lager in a world of Bud Lights.
My favorite level is Paris, France. It features a string jazz arrangement with a cool double bass beat along with a comic art sensibility that bucks the stereotypes of “European design” and hews closer to something that might have been conceived by Lewis Trondheim or Joann Sfar. As you wander the crooked streets of Paris at dusk you take aim at black cats on laundry lines and the canaries they stalk. (“You” being a neon green orb with spinning aura of course.)
See, along with everything else in the game your avatar varies from level to level. Whether you’re a pulsing snowball in the northern wastes or an angler fish’s lure in the deep depths the objective of the game is to keep your avatar safe on the bottom screen while destroying the targets on the top. At first this seems like any other shoot-em-up but there’s a twist.
The game is completely controlled through the stylus. Tap and drag on your avatar (I won’t call it a ship, it never resembles anything one would pilot, and it’s purpose is only to represent you on the screen) to move it around. Flick the stylus across the screen like a match to fire fireworks skyward. You can only ever shoot or move- never both at the same time. The game is less a shooter than an exercise in management of the action on both screens. Taking the time to line up your shots and fire them leaves your avatar vulnerable to the attacks raining down towards it but moving your avatar doesn’t stop targets from shooting at you or get you any closer to your goal, it merely keeps you safe. The result is a frantic sort of gameplay where your attention is constantly shifting from the bottom to the top screen, from offense to defense, from calculated and precise shots to oh-god-I’m-going-to-fire-as-fast-as-possible-and-hope-that-something-hits desperation. To make matters more complicated any firework that missed its target fails to explode and fizzles out instead. The embers of the failed firework drift back down to the bottom screen increasing the threat. What’s more, simply shooting a target won’t advance the level. You must collect a star that appears from an exploded target which floats to the bottom screen, often in the midsts of a rain of bullets. The game that results from separating shooting and moving is as far from a shooter as it is from a platformer.
That’s not to say that shooter tropes are absent. Fans of danmaku bullet hell games will find a familiar flavor here, especially during the boss fights. Maneuvering through these curtains of death is much easier when moving your avatar is as simple as dragging the stylus across the screen. But again what good is dodging shots when you can’t fire back? The tension created when your avatar is standing still before a few hundred bullets while you pump off a handful of fireworks is palpable.
This type of gameplay results in what may seem like a few cheap deaths but in my experience every time I got hit it was due to pushing the balance between shooting and moving just a bit too far. I cursed at my DS and punched the couch cushion frequently after the first few stages but I never felt like the game was unfair. Hit detection never feels loose and may be a bit forgiving. There were times where a bullet would graze the side of my avatar and wouldn’t result in a loss. For a tough game like this a little leeway is greatly appreciated.
The bosses also serve as highlights to a game already bursting with style. They fit the theme of the level yet are always a surprise. They range from the desecration of a holy lion statue to a life and death battle in a petri dish. The final boss of the game deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest in all gaming and stands with the ladder in Metal Gear Solid 3 as the best meta boss ever. It’s a shame that Big Bang Mini seems destined to fly under the radar and many gamers are going to miss out this fantastic battle.
All of this is contained in Big Bang Mini’s Arcade Mode. In addition the game also features a infinite Challenge Mode where you can track your high score on a worldwide ranking, Mission Mode where you are presented with a verity of tasks such as beating a level with a time limit or with a specific number of shots, Relax Mode where you can simply enjoy the various types of fireworks, and Alarm Mode where you can select any of the games music to wake up too. It effectively serves as the game’s sound test.
The game also includes a multiplayer mode where you hold the DS like a book and flick fireworks at another player’s avatar. The fireworks are affected by gravity so you must be careful in how you aim your shots. It’s fairly simplistic but the fact that you can’t move and fire at the same time again makes the game much more interesting than it would be if it was a standard shooter. The multiplayer mode also allows two players to play off of one cartridge, a feature that is greatly appreciated.
This is a lot of content for twenty dollars. There is a risk that people will pass up Big Bang Mini because it is cheep, comes from an unknown studio, and features a graphical style that isn’t immediately familiar. This is a real shame as Big Bang Mini is a game that should at least be experienced by every DS owner.
But hey, not being recognized for greatness until after one’s time is a hallmark of cool. I’m confident that years from now Big Bang Mini will be considered one of the very best in the DS’s already substantial library. It will be showcased as an example of the system’s strengths. People will scour E-bay and pawn shops for the game, thinking “I wish I could nab a copy. Then I’d be cool.”