7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
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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)
(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.