Let’s cute ’em all up!
Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.
Today’s review is based upon HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives release of Twinbee for Sony PlayStation 4.
Welp, it took only four games for our first 8-bit classic to finally stonewall me, the culprit being none other than Konami’s Twinbee. And what a coincidence: the 1985 shooter happens to be our first Japan-only game as well. Pedantry demands a “technically” to that previous fact: while Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits for DS (there dubbed “Rainbow Bell”) and Microsoft’s Game Room service for Xbox 360/Windows PC would feature the game before HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives, this “cute-’em-up” shooter never hit American arcade cabinets or cartridges. Future sequels in Stinger (Moero Twinbee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue!) and Bells & Whistles (Detana!! Twinbee) would eventually reach Western markets, but this hard-as-nails progenitor sets the tone for the series: a brutally difficult shooter betraying its adorable cartoonish presentation.
Don’t get me wrong: Twinbee instills that very same addiction imbued by every other competent arcade shoot-’em-up, with power-ups galore and enemy waves meticulously swarming the screen. But of its five levels, only the third could be reached for this review. Twinbee operates under the delicate balance of shooting down enemies, bombing forts (think Xevious), and juggling power-granting “bells” that, depending on their bullet-shifted color rotations, bestow ship upgrades (shields, speed boosters, double-lasers, and laser-firing after-images) and high-scores. While one could simply forge ahead without these, the first boss — a menacing aircraft surrounding by regenerative shields — will impede all but the most dedicated of daredevil pilots. Not that any first-timer would deliberately attempt this; if anything, they’re too busy dodging flying kitchen utensils and enemy eggplants, only to fall when deducing which colored bell grants which power-up. (Or, in my case, how they even appear at all.)
Yeah, uh, what is this?
Yes, that’s Twinbee in a nutshell– vegetables and dishware equipped with laser technology flying about and firing at your red ship as you bullet-juggle bells. Why, exactly, Twinbee pursued this bizarre direction remains unknown — despite its cult following, no interviews or documentaries surrounding its development lurk about the internet (given that Twinbee largely enjoys its prestige in Japan, it’s very likely any that exist simply haven’t been translated) — but I suspect it’s for the very same idealism Toru Iwatani strove for Pac-Man: with the never-ending glut of violent space shooters populating arcades (not the least in Konami’s own Gradius, developed side-by-side with Twinbee), why not craft a more light-hearted game for wider appeal?
The result is a colorful, feel-good shooter; indeed, the game wastes no time in impressing with its vertical scrolling, with the titular Twinbee soaring above blue oceans and fields of green. Twinbee takes some overt cues from Xevious, but its light-heartedness is carefully infused into actual play; take, say, the ambulance rescue. Should Twinbee’s wings be destroyed by enemy fire, a wailing aircraft will soar on by for repair services. For the wary wingless newcomer still deciphering red bells and egg avalanches, confusion likely obscures its purpose, but as we grow more adventurous and accustomed, our eventual curiosity is greeted by surprise generosity. In a never-ending sea of cold-black space games with heartless ships and grisly aliens, Twinbee is a refreshing, more animated change of scenery; hence, the “cute-’em-up” moniker.
It’s this enticing balance of attention-grabbing activity and bountiful stress that encourages further play. While it could be said any arcade game invites stress in perfecting runs, Twinbee‘s emphasis on “juggling” multiple bells and dodging and blasting enemy ships injects a growing power surge as we accumulate power-ups, returning fire as we stockpile yellow bell points. This feedback loop is further echoed in the music: a triumphant, high-speed tune replaces the steady song introducing a naked run, further feeding our shooting frenzy until our bullet-hell high literally crashes down to earth; the music and bell-collecting process beginning anew.
Even so, I can’t help but wonder if Twinbee is too difficult. Given it only has five levels, this high difficulty’s obviously a gatekeeping method, but even with caveats in wing damage, the excess of visual activity is hardly for the faint of heart. When it came to bell-juggling, I found my anxiety induced more button presses/shots than necessary in my fervent rush for that double-shot silver bell, my single-minded concentration leaving me prone to enemy fire. Generous as it may be, Twinbee wastes no time in punishing loss of life by stripping upgrades; a practical death sentence for boss fights. Lauded as they are, I can only imagine future entries crank up the heat.
Co-op play was a rarity for shooters at the time.
At least you have the option not to be alone; true to its “Twinbee” name, the game’s co-op joins together two identical ships — the blue titular Twinbee and pink Winbee — into further chaos not merely in friendly fire (player projectiles “push” the other ship), but split, respective scores. With such limited wiggle-room for mistakes, conflict is sure to spill over. But again, the game’s title comes into play — in a more wholesome direction for shooters, the Bee ships can hold hands to unleash a single bullet. In everything from that to even bouncing a baseball back and forth to destroy enemies (no, seriously, check out 4:56 in the above video), Twinbee‘s ultimate emphasis is cooperation.
This Arcade Archives release comes equipped with two versions: “Bubble System” and ROM. For anyone scratching their heads at the former, a quick visit to System 16 reveals it was a short-lived attempt by Konami to store games on bubble memory cartridges; coincidentally, Twinbee had the honor of being this failed system’s first guinea pig. Regardless, I couldn’t quite parse any significant difference between the two — as far as I can tell, the latter enforces different enemy formations, but there’s no apparent difference in graphics, sound or difficulty. Perhaps those more tech-savvy than me can explain any differences, yet I found myself too used to the Bubble System version to switch over.
Twinbee made a number of ports back in the 80’s, with the Famicom (NES) version being the most well-known. While this port made its worldwide debut on Switch last fall, it technically made its overseas trip back in 2011 with the 3D Classics version for 3DS — a version that, sadly, wasn’t acquired for this review. Regardless, some playtime with the Switch-provided Famicom port reveals yet another adequate NES port — while the gameplay translates okay onto home console, there’s a distinct loss in detail, not the least in the ocean waves being reduced to a single, solid blue. (Check out Hardcore Gaming 101’s comparisons for yourself.) While unavoidable given Famicom/NES limitations, it’s a shame given how much the arcade original emphasized color.
I’ll get past these guys. One day.
My two weeks with Twinbee liken it to an active puzzle — whereas other 8-bit shooters I’ve played are immediately gleaned upon play, this game requires risk-taking in poking about to understand. For something so baby-faced, it’s unbelievably cunning for a genre demanding split-second reflexes and decision-making. It’s fascinating enough not merely to instill a drive to eventually best it, but to check out future games in the series.
(By the way, here’s an embarrassing admission: for years and years after the fact, I assumed Pinobee: Wings of Adventure — an obscure Game Boy Advance launch title my friend owned — was a modern update of Twinbee. Whenever praise for the classic arcade game was spoken, I’d always fondly remember that one summer afternoon where I achieved the bad ending in an hour’s time. Uh, hooray for faulty recollections.)