Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sunfish Gets Shmupped, is Mistranslated

at 2:13 PM
You know what space shooters need? Smooth scrolling and twitch gameplay. Coincidentally, do you know what computers couldn't provide in the 80s?

But, for reasons I haven't looked up on Wikipedia yet, Konami loved the MSX (itself an 80s gaming computer). Two of their classics, Metal Gear and Snatcher, debuted and each received a sequel on the machine. And heck, Nemesis (Konami's knockoff of their own Gradius series) showed up on MSX, so they weren't unfamiliar with putting space shooters on the machine.

So, it's not entirely bad news that Konami developed Space Manbow for MSX and decided to never remake it ever. It runs remarkably well, competing with the NES; it runs at a speed the NES could've handled, but with less flicker and only slightly less fluidity.

The game's name is explained in a comic provided with the manual, which you can read in English here. Er, here. The enemy's mother ship is a giant sunfish-shaped ship. Basically, Konami wanted "mambo", but ended up with "manbow." Incidentally, Mambo from the Parodius series is a throwback to this very game.

Powerups mark the most noteworthy element of Space Manbow, straddling the line between Gradius and something normal. On one hand, Gradius' red capsule system grants stability. You'll never miss a laser upgrade or an option because you missed a particular enemy; there's only one kind of pickup, and it predictably moves your powerup selector forward on a clearly defined list. Also, you'll never accidentally pick up a powerup you don't want, since you'll only gain a powerup once you hit the A button. If you don't want the tail shot, it's as simple as not hitting A when your powerup selector is on the tail shot.

On the other hand, Gradius loses convenience. Upon starting a new game, half of your attention is devoted to making sure you collect enough red capsules to earn the laser you want. In other shooters, getting a powerup is as simple as crashing into the appropriate icon.

In Space Manbow, powerups appear in a predetermined sequence. First comes the weapon upgrade, then the speed up, then the option, so on and so forth. Each time you spawn a pickup, it will be the next in the line. If you miss the chance to spawn a pickup, no big deal; the sequence of pickups won't advance until you get one to appear. Unlike Gradius, though, you won't have to save up a whole bunch to get what you want. The option is always going to be the third one in the line, no matter what.

Observe:



This video also demonstrates that Space Manbow is open to squirrely gameplay.

I die over and over, and yet the challenge is never unsurmountable. Ric Viper never tarries too long on a single continue point, almost always making decent headway before slamming nose-first into something or other. I've only cleared the first four stages of eight, but from what I've played, a little thought and a good thumb go a long way.  Throw in infinite continues, and you can feel free to ram your head against an obstacle all day with the confidence that you will eventually get somewhere.

But it probably won't take you all day. You can see in the video that my deaths are pretty dumb. There's no need for planning anything in this level. It's obvious what enemies are going to do, and so long as you stay in the middle of the screen, you'll have the time you need to react to anything. Come to think of it, it's even generally safe to hug the back of the screen.

Take, for instance, the elevator portion at 2:21. This looks like a good time for some memorization, but the sequence has enough predictability to avoid that need. Platforms move down at a constant rate, and openings appear on the sides at a regular interval.

Another notable instance of predictability comes in the digging level. Background objects appear and show you where dirt will shortly spawn. The cue gives you plenty of time to put your ship right where you want it.

Anyway, the elevator sequence also avoids the need for any particular equipment. You might think that space is so tight that you'd need options planted backwards to handle bogeys behind you. However, if you corral the enemies properly, you'll have plenty of space to maneuver without shooting a one down. I haven't yet seen a portion of Space Manbow that will always destroy you if you come in with nothing but the shirt on your back.

On that note, Space Manbow is one of the few old school shooters I've played where stages have distinct character but don't require analysis. Enemies aren't mindblowing--there's the guy that spawns cronies, the guy that shoots three ways, and so on--but levels are paced slow enough and designed to emphasize one or two enemies over the rest, granting each its own feel. Stage 2 is the level for guys that shoot three ways but stick to the floor or ceiling. It doesn't hurt that levels generally have a unique asset like level 2's elevators or level 1's docked fighter planes.

Space Manbow may have a bloated reputation, but it's definitely a cool guy. It makes the MSX (MSX2 to be precise) look better than it is, and more than that, it finds a unique place among old school shooters for its powerup system and stage design. While nothing innovative, Space Manbow shows what can be done with smart use of familiar elements.
Wait I didn't notice this was animated when I linked to it
In conclusion, I really like Space Manbow, but there's kind of several different reasons why, so this writeup doesn't have a ton of focus, but I want the Wii Virtual Console version to come out here (although it's doubtful, being four years old as of this writing).

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