Pop’n TwinBee (Super Famicom)

Yowza! Somebody get Dr. Wily there to an orthodontist, stat!

Last August, I covered Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, the unique platforming spin-off from Konami’s fondly-remembered TwinBee series of shooters. Despite its sumptuous presentation and some genuinely fun ideas, I ultimately found Rainbow Bell Adventures to be a mediocre product dragged down by its uninspired level design. A real pity. I still enjoyed the art style and characters quite a bit, though, so I figured it was about time to give the series another chance. What better place to start than with Rainbow Bell’s “sister game” on the Super Famicom, 1993’s Pop’n TwinBee? Is it a better shooter than its counterpart is a platformer? I’m pleased to report that it most certainly is, as well as being the Super Nintendo enthusiast’s single best choice for a two-player shooter experience.

First, though, a brief refresher on TwinBee as a whole. Debuting in Japanese arcades in 1985, the series primarily consists of vertically-scrolling shooters that see the player facing off against a mixture of air and ground-based enemies. The core gameplay is clearly patterned on Namco’s iconic Xevious, with the primary differences being TwinBee’s lighthearted tone, soft pastel art style, focus on simultaneous two-player action, and bell juggling power-up system. Depending on who you ask, TwinBee may or may not have been the first of the so-called “cute-‘em-ups.” Some point to Namco’s King and Balloon from 1980 instead, for example. In any case, it was indisputably one of the early pioneers of the style and would prove to be a major success for Konami domestically over the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, branching out to include toys, manga, and even a radio drama before fizzling out (along with the shooter genre as a whole) around the turn of the century. Overseas markets were another story. Only one TwinBee game was ever officially released In North America. This was the second game, Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue! (“Burn TwinBee: To the Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon!”), which made an unimpressive showing on the NES under the new title Stinger in 1987. Europe fared slightly better with four additional releases for various systems. Still, TwinBee never exactly became a household name outside its homeland. Was it too cute? Too Japanese? Too poorly/weakly marketed? I’ll leave that debate for another day.

Pop’n TwinBee opens with a cut scene in which Light and Pastel (the interpid pilots of the blue TwinBee and pink WinBee ships, respectively) receive a distress call while patrolling the skies of Donburi Island. The caller, a girl named Madoka, tells the pair that her normally kind grandfather Dr. Mardock was driven insane by a bonk on the head (yes, really) and has since dedicated himself to conquering the world with his army of acorn robots. Pastel and Light swiftly blast off to repel the acorn invasion and knock some sense back into the mad doctor in the process. It’s a slight and silly justification for the mayhem to come, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish sensibilities of the franchise. No complaints here.

The adventure ahead consists of seven stages. This isn’t a ton by genre standards. Thankfully, most of them are fairly long, so an average playthrough should take you around 40-60 minutes (depending on how often you die), which is a near ideal length for the sort of simple “pick up and play” experience that shooters are known for. It’s a fairly smooth ride, too, with much less in the way of slowdown and other performance issues than most other SNES shooters.

As mentioned above, players are tasked with defeating both air and ground enemies on the way to each stage’s end boss. Airborne targets are dispatched with your standard shot, while grounded foes are only vulnerable to the short range bombs that your anthropomorphic ship hurls down at them with its noodley Mickey Mouse arms.

That’s not all, though. When things get desperate, you can also opt to unleash a chibi attack, which functions like the screen clearing bombs from other shooters. Dozens of miniature “chibi” versions of your ship flood the screen, destroying most standard enemies outright and dealing hefty damage to bosses while also rendering you invincible for a few seconds. The downside, of course, is that your chibi attacks have a limited number of uses.

Finally, your ship can punch with its gloved fists. This attack has a very short range (naturally) and requires you to charge it up for a couple seconds by holding down the bomb button. Although risky, the punch deals heavy damage and can actually destroy some incoming enemy bullets if timed properly.

Even with all these offensive options, your craft is still quite slow and weak by default, and that’s where the (in)famous bells come in. Shooting any of the smiling clouds you fly past will dislodge a golden bell that drops down toward the bottom of the screen. You can catch these right away and be rewarded with some bonus points, but it’s almost always a better idea to “juggle” the bells by shooting them repeatedly. This will cause them to bounce back up toward the top of the screen and, after several successive shots, start to cycle through six additional colors, each one of which grants you access to a different power-up. You have blue (speed boost), green (satellite helper ships that boost your firepower), silver (a bigger, stronger main shot), purple (a triple spread shot), pink (shield), and flashing (extra chibi ammo). Like in most games of this kind, the majority of these powers are lost if you die. The silver and purple bells remain in effect even then, however, which is uncommonly forgiving for a shooter.

In fact, if there’s one phrase that describes the Pop’n TwinBee experience generally, it’s “uncommonly forgiving.” This is no arcade port, but an original title created with the Super Famicom in mind. As such, the designers opted to move away from a lot of the quarter-munching (or yen-munching) qualities that define other entries in the series. Your ship can no longer have its arms destroyed and bomb attacks disabled, for example. More dramatically, one-hit deaths have given way to a health bar and enemies drop health refilling hearts with fair frequency. Couple this with ready access to the shields provided via pink bell pickups (each of which adds another four extra hits on top of your standard health bar) and your cute little robot bee is a real juggernaut that puts the fragile spaceships from most other shooters to shame. Even the bell juggling is more forgiving in this installment, since it takes multiple shots to change a bell’s color and this means you’re less likely to do so by mistake and lose out on the specific power-up you’ve been waiting for. Experienced shooter players will find that the combination of refillable health and shields on demand makes them feel just about invincible, at least on the standard difficulty setting. Higher difficulties render things a bit more hectic, but the action never approachs arcade shooter levels of brutality. Not even close. The only potential hurdle to overcome is the fact that you don’t have extra lives. Die and you’ll have to spend one of your limited continues to restart the level from the beginning. Still, dying ain’t exactly easy.

Whether this lack of difficulty is a pro or a con is going to vary by individual. If you’re the type that plays these games strictly for the teeth-grinding challenge and bragging rights, you’ll likely get bored quick. If you’re a shooter novice looking for an entry point to the genre, you’re just as likely to be enraptured. Personally, I found myself occupying the middle ground: I never struggled with the game at any point, but I had a pleasant time just kicking back with it for a bit and basking in its loopy atmosphere.

So far, we have what amounts to a cute, colorful, rather easy vertical shooter. Not bad by any means, but what’s the big deal? Well, the real reason I was so emphatic about this being the better of the two SNES TwinBee titles is its amazing multiplayer implementation. Shooters with two-player simultaneous options are already rare enough on the system. Offhand, Taito’s Darius Twin is the only other one that comes to mind. Pop’n TwinBee easily eclipses Darius in this department thanks to no less than three meaningful gameplay enhancements exclusive to its two-player mode. By maneuvering their ships close to each other, players can swap health back and forth, allowing a stronger player to “heal” a weakened one and keep them in the fight longer. Players can also grab and toss each other around the screen in order in order to dish out heavy damage to foes. Don’t worry, though: Players that get tossed around this way are invincible until they recover.

The final multiplayer-only option, “couple mode,” might just be the best of them. While couple mode is activated, enemies will focus the majority of their attacks on player one. This allows for a less skilled player to keep pace with a more adept partner. It’s such a simple, profound gameplay tweak that I’m amazed it never caught on.

On the graphics and sound front, it’s old school Konami glitz all the way. The armada of killer acorns, walking pineapples, pandas, and baby dolls you do battle with are all packed with personality, the backgrounds are intricately detailed and work in some lovely transparency and line scrolling effects, and there are even short animated cut scenes between stages that add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel by depicting the characters engaged in various wacky situations. The soundtrack (contributed by eight separate composers!) strikes just the right balance between whimsy and intensity.

If Pop’n TwinBee has any true flaw other than the debatably lacking difficulty, it would have to be the scoring. Simply put: The points don’t matter. Most shooters will award the player extra lives or other perks upon reaching certain scoring milestones. Here, the only reason to chase those high scores is to compete, either with yourself or rival players. It’s a missed opportunity, albeit far from a deal breaking one like Rainbow Bell Adventures’ meandering, repetitive stage layouts. If you’re partial to vertical shooters, aggressively cute pixilated romps, superb multiplayer experiences, or any combination of the above, Pop’n TwinBee is a no-brainer. As an added bonus, both the Japanese version I have and the European PAL format releases are quite inexpensive at the time of this writing.

Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…and a lucky friend on controller two.

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