Monday, November 24, 2014

Pop'n TwinBee (SNES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1993


Every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of how great some companies were before entering a period of constant failure – with critics and gamers alike. Case in question: Konami, specifically the division that takes care of shoot’em ups. I’m not even fond of the gameplay concept behind the TwinBee series (or maybe I’m negatively biased by the excruciatingly raw difficulty of the first arcade game), and yet I consider Pop’n TwinBee a near masterpiece of the cute’em up subgenre. I revisited the game a few days ago after a long strenuous day, which probably left me in a predisposed condition to enjoy it in a single victorious credit. I played only once and looped it to top my previous best in more than a million points. The next day I came back to check if my understanding of bells was actually correct so that I could write about it.

Developed from the ground up for the Super Nintendo and released only in Japan and Europe, Pop’n TwinBee came after Detana!! TwinBee and before TwinBee Yahho!, the only real arcade sequels to the original TwinBee. Counting all chapters released until 1993 it’s the sixth entry in the series, and I guess Konami's cumulated experience is one of the reasons for the level of polish applied to every aspect of the game. Graphics, colors and music unite to provide one of the best examples of a great cute shooter, one that’s capable of truly wowing the player while leaving out undesirable characteristics such as drabness, stiffness, unfair or non-existent challenge and excessively quirky or sexualized character designs (okay, to be honest I don’t mind this last one).

There is a story going on involving two main characters (player 1 in blue as TwinBee, player 2 in pink as WinBee), a damsel in distress (rescued at the end of the first stage) and a mad scientist/villain that must be defeated in the final level. The beginning of this story is unveiled in the images shown during the game's attract mode.

First level of Pop'n TwinBee
(courtesy of YouTube user RudyC3)

After pressing start you'll be asked to enter your name and select one of three option configurations: trailing, rotating or forming a lateral moving barrier. Basic attacks remain the same as in previous games, which in the default configuration correspond to shot (B) and ground bombs (Y). Pop'n TwinBee expands on the basics by adding a stock-based smart bomb called chibi (A) and a powerful short-reach punch triggered by holding and releasing button Y (the chibi bomb makes you invincible while the ship expels lots of lethal bouncing miniatures of itself). Each cloud that appears in the horizon hides a bell, the secret to both powering up and scoring. Bells change colors as you hit them, and depending on their color when collected you'll receive a different upgrade or bonus. As they get hit bells switch back and forth between orange and other colors, as described below:
  • orange: gives a score bonus that starts at 500 and maxes out at 10.000 points if you don't let any bell fall down the screen;
  • gray: soft straight shot;
  • purple: 3-way shot that works somewhat in a scattered pattern;
  • green: option that provides additional firepower, up to 4 can be activated;
  • pink: shield, protects against 4 hits;
  • blue: speed-up (every 4th works as a speed-down, reverting the ship back to its default starting speed);
  • blinking gray: extra bomb.

Unlike in previous chapters, in this game lives are replaced by a single health bar that gets refilled at the start of every level. Each hit takes away a portion of the health bar and one of the options you have activated, while pink hearts uncovered by specific ground enemies serve to refill the health bar. Once the health bar is depleted it's game over, and that makes the shield the single most important item of the game: every time it was about to disappear (when it's pink) I would start cooking another pink bell to get it back to blue. My favorite weapon is the 3-way shot since it's more powerful and has side coverage, much useful to hit a few enemies and bosses without getting in front of their vertically aimed bullets.

At first I thought the punch move was useless, but then I changed my mind when I found out it's able to destroy some of the more resilient enemies in a single blow. Those seemingly invincible watermelons of the first stage, for instance, will be instantly sliced to pieces when you punch them. Granted, in later levels things get so hectic that using punches becomes naturally riskier, but whenever there's a breathing window it's always good to have a punch prepared to hit something. After all, it can even deflect bullets!

Flying grapes and rowing minions!

Pop'n TwinBee is artistically one of the most pleasing games in the SNES library. Lots of personality, varied design, catchy music and top notch animation on bosses are the obvious highlights, but the game also excels technically. I haven't tried playing in co-op, but on solo play there is no slowdown whatsoever. The graphic trip allows you to soar above castles and fortresses guarded by all sorts of cute creatures from vegetables to mechanical machines, as well as navigate deep oceans and take down a huge flying battleship. Most bosses are multi-jointed and rendered with cool effects, moving a lot around the screen as they try to crush the player. When they're defeated you're greeted with a shower of bells that can result in a huge amount of points if you're able to collect them all. I think at least two speed-ups are needed to succed at that.

Konami also infused the 2-player mode with extra bits of gameplay. From what I could check, if you're able to play with a friend you'll both be allowed to throw each other against enemies by using button R. And if your ally is low in health it's possible to transfer part of your own energy by pressing X. By switching GAME MODE from "normal" to "couple" in the options the computer will aim most attacks on player 1 instead of player 2, in a particularly clever way to allow less experienced players to tag along. Got kids or nephews? This seems perfect for you then!

I replayed the game on Normal (difficulty 4) with TwinBee (player 1) and selected the trailing options. I scored 52% more than my previous best and died in stage 2-3. It wasn't that hard, but I definitely had a blast doing it.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Edward, I'm commenting on this post for want of a better place. I really enjoy your writing and collection of shmups links, thank you for doing this. Your achievements are quite impressive, and you share your excitement/knowledge in a generous way.

    Here's where I'm coming from. I don't really like shmups per se, yet---which is just to say that I have yet to work hard enough to achieve anything in this genre. (I hope to change this!) But I love the spirit of hardcore persistence and achievement and the strong community that exists around the shmup genre. My own core gaming interests right now are in 8- & 16-bit platforming/action games, but I haven't found nearly the level of online communities focused on in-game achievements (other than retroachievements.org ). People seem more interested in talking about acquiring huge collections, perfecting their home gaming centers, etc.

    So I have a couple questions for you, if you have time:
    1) Having ventured so far into shmups, do platform-type action games still hold interest for you? Or challenge? E.g., are notorious NES games like Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Ghosts 'n Goblins, Battletoads, etc. easy to master once you've run through the gauntlet of shmup training?
    2) Can you recommend any forums/blogs of a similar 1CC spirit for other action-game genres?

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Andy.
      First of all, thanks for the feedback!

      I think that spirit of persistence you mention is what makes any gamer want to add another layer of enjoyment to the hobby. Of course other types of games also fit the bill, but the structure of shmups is perfect for that: they’re short, intense, fun, demanding and allow us to measure our performances against ourselves and others. There’s an underlying beauty in being able to play a game from start to finish without continuing or losing a life, isn’t there?

      Since I was first exposed to gaming at that period, of course I have always loved the 8- and 16-bit generations. So to answer your first question, yes, I still like platform action games. I’ll cheerfully join anyone who wants to have a good time trying to play Ninja Gaiden, I just don’t dedicate my solo time to these games anymore because life is short and there are so many shmups I’ve yet to play – and you know, that’s where my focus is. Are platform games easier to master after playing shmups for so long? I don’t know, I think they require the same level of dedication but perhaps because I’m more experienced they’d be easier than they were (for me) back in the 90s. Some of my favorites from back in the day are Battletoads (rented it SEVERAL times until I could beat it), Battlemaniacs, Bart Vs. the Space Mutants (NES), Metal Storm, Astyanax, Batman (NES), Yo! Noid, Kenseiden, Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Kid Chameleon, Mega Man (all NES chapters, but mainly II and III), Sonic 2, Jewel Master, Cybernator, X-Men (MD), Contra, Super Turrican 2, Super Mario World, E-Swat, Fatal Rewind, Heavy Nova (yes, the one everybody hates). And lots of others I’m forgetting now.

      As for your 2nd question, I honestly don’t know of any forum or blog with the same “1CC spirit” but dedicated to the action genre. But I’d suggest you check out highscore.com, a growing website dedicated to archiving high scores from users. It covers all genres of old and new-school gaming and it works on a peer review system to approve your achievements (to which I have criticisms of my own). The community seems to be quite active, so it might be worth a shot.

      Delete
  2. Thanks a lot Edward, this is helpful!

    I have one last, but key question for you: where do you stand on training assists such as

    a) watching superplays,

    b) credit-feeding/continues,

    c) emulator save-states?
    (Assuming one owns the title and is legally entitled to use an emulator, etc.)

    I separate (b) and (c) because emulator save-states are potentially more powerful depending on the game's particular continue system.

    Your shmup links already suggest a diversity of viewpoints. icycalm seems to celebrate complete adherence to a 1-credit rule, while Prometheus advocates any and all training aids. Of course in the end one hopes to sit down and beat a game without continues or cheating. The question is what training regime is most satisfying/rewarding.

    I know this is quite subjective/personal. If I were devoted to becoming a world-class player in some game I would accept all training aids (at least once I was sufficiently advanced). However, there is something thrilling about beating a game as it was originally intended to play, perhaps without continues, and by one's own wits alone. If the goal is just to beat a particular game, I am still unsure which approach I favor. It would be great to have your input.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All of these options are valid and I welcome them all in the process of learning a game. Credit-feeding/continues were all we had back then (before emulators). Savestates help immensely to accelerate the process especially if you’re playing within a given time frame (contests, etc.), as well as watching superplays.

      However, as you put it well, going through a game by your own merits is a great experience in itself.
      Primarily that’s what I’ll try to do, but these days if I notice I’m not getting anywhere or if it just takes too long to reach a certain difficult part I’ll gladly fire up an emulator or look out for a replay. If you keep dying in the same place over and over you might end up hating the game, so why not check tips on strategy boards and videos? This is a hobby after all. And it’s the same case of musicians, athletes and chess players. Unless exceptionally gifted, they all dedicate a lot of their time to studying what others have already done.

      In a nutshell, I believe the more complicated and unfriendly the more resources you need to learn something. Extreme example: how the heck am I supposed to score at least decently in Raiden Fighters if I don’t watch a superplay? That game’s scoring system is the epitome of secrecy! Non-extreme example: how the heck would I know how to get past stage 3 in Subterrania if I didn’t watch someone doing it first? I could’ve figured that out for myself, but I have no idea how many blind tries I’d need. Survival example: Dellinger Core in Gradius III arcade. Yeah, I could get past him dodging his lasers in 1 out of 4 times on a good day, but that just was too low a ratio to keep me motivated. So I watched saucykobold’s replay and suddenly Dellinger Core was no problem anymore.

      In general, if you care about scoring every shmup with a strict chaining system such as Dodonpachi will also require you to watch a run by an experienced player at some point, or else it will take too fucking long to even come close to an acceptable performance. On the other hand, dealing with stuff like Mars Matrix or Caladrius is a much more flexible process that allows players to devise new scoring routes on their own.

      Delete
  3. Master Edward teaching new pupils. Very lovely. :D


    This Twinbee game is actually the one I'm eyeing to first give a serious go out of them all. And thus to help me finally break into this one Konami STG series I'm having a very hard time getting into. And here I hear you confirm my thoughts to be true by your strong approval of this particular release too.

    And as a bonus, you pages saves me the trouble for having to research game mechanics as a very big bonus. Especially as I think the colours of the bells change what they give out with certain releases, no? Whatever. Thanks for all your work.

    - Sinful

    ReplyDelete
  4. esse jogo, junto a parodios dá é uma prova de que gradius 3 de snes tem lag(slowdun) por mau programaçao, e não pela cpu do console. esse jogo junto a space megaforce, rederinger rager r 2,parodios dá, super r tipe 3 , night mare buster,irom comand entre outros são a prova que o snes tem um processador muito bom só faltava os caras dominarem sua arquitetura , que era totalmente diferente dos demais consoles. nesse jogo a uma tonelado de sprites grandes em bastante quantidade ,tanto em tela por contagem de sprits quanto por nivel de animaçao que junto a muitos outros jogos como Goemon fiquei bem impressionado.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. De fato, há muitos bons jogos no SNES.
      Excesso de problemas como slowdown e falha de sprite são reflexos de programação deficiente.

      Delete