Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Game 400: Twinbee

Going a bit out of order here, TwinBee, not Gradius, was the first game that Konami developed for their Bubble System arcade board. Unlike Gradius, it has a proper two player mode. I wanted to play it with "B" in order to cover properly, but illness, weather, and more illness delayed this session, and therefore, this post.

TwinBee, much like Capcom's debut Vulgus from the year before, is a vertical shooter that draws mainly from Xevious. If anything, it copies the formula more closely, bringing back secondary air-to-surface bombs, which are guided with generous aim assistance instead of an onscreen reticle. Some of the enemy movement patterns, like the shot-evading strawberry ships, and shot-blocking spinning baseball bats downright rip off Xevious! And yet it plays quite differently, thanks to a powerup system based around colored bells, anticipating the more advanced Gradius system to follow.


I'll say this up front - TwinBee is better than Vulgus, but it isn't half as good as Xevious, even with a two player co-op mode. The sense of progression and difficulty just isn't there - the six stages get faster and busier, but they just feel randomly designed and repetitive, with little to distinguish one stretch of gameplay from another. Ground targets aren't nearly as big a factor as in Xevious, and there are no targets of opportunity that tempt you to go out of your way to bomb them for extra points. And apart from the Twinbee sprites, the pastel-colored visuals aren't imbued with much personality beyond "cute." Though the music's not bad.

At least, unlike Vulgus, there are bombs to add some variety, and there's a cute little mechanic involving them - if you get a hand shot off, your bomb power is cut in half, and if both hands are shot off, you lose bombs entirely until you touch an ambulance powerup, which restores both of your hands. Also, in co-op, you and your partner can hold hands, which turns your shots into powerful giant bullets, though doing this also makes you a double-wide target until you separate.

The biggest issue, much like in Gradius to come, lies with the powerup system, which both "B" and I found frustrating and confusing. Shooting clouds sometimes spawns yellow bells, which can be juggled and eventually changed into powerups by shooting them repeatedly - every five shots changes it to a non-yellow color corresponding to an ability; blue for speed, red for shields, white for double shots, and green for screen-clearing options. A sixth shot, far too easy to do by accident with a stray bullet, changes it back to yellow. Counting the shots on each bell is pretty futile, especially once you get a fire powerup of your own and shoot multiple bullets per discharge - it's better, though still very difficult, to just hold your fire once you see a color you want and grab it while avoiding enemies and their bullets.

Make no mistake, you need powerups to survive for very long. And if you do survive long, one hit will ruin your day, just like in Gradius. You lose everything, and with your pitiful default speed, you don't have much of a chance of surviving in the later levels long enough to color-cycle and snag the powerups that you so desperately need. It's not quite as murderously difficult as Gradius, but it's still far too unforgiving.

One clever bit of design is that the yellow bells are worth big points with consecutive pickups, eventually earning you extra lives. But the extra lives don't help much if you can't survive for more than a few seconds on a fresh Twinbee, so doing this is mostly about the points.

"B" absolutely preferred Gradius over Twinbee, citing his frustration with Twinbee's bells, his difficulty in seeing the bullets on Twinbee's busy backgrounds, and the repetitive design compared to Gradius' variety of set pieces. And I'm inclined to agree with these points, though the insane difficulty of Gradius harms my estimation of it.

I played one-player for a little while to see if I could get any farther, and I could, but it's difficult; solo mode disallows continues. I did find I lasted longer when I made an effort to collect red bells for shields, and to avoid the green bells for options, which are mutually exclusive. Making the screen bullet hell for your enemies is cool, but shields let you take hits without dying and losing everything and are renewable, and you can collect a three-way splitter gun from certain ground targets anyway. In fact, the game gets rather easy with the shield and splitter combo, a least until your shield runs out. Then you scramble to get a new red bell to replace it before you take another hit.

In my best run, the shield ran out just before I made it to the final boss, where I got hit and died. And then, having no opportunity to gain any power ups since there were no bells, got hit again and again and lost the rest of my lives.


GAB rating: Average. Konami's first game on the doomed Bubble System isn't much more than a manic Xevious clone with worse craftmanship, way better music, and a very flawed powerup system that would ruin Gradius with its absolutely unforgiving one-hit-and-you-might-as-well-quit feedback loop. The same system doesn't ruin Twinbee quite as badly, but there's less here to ruin.

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