The Player

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Bangai-O Spirits & r & Rated Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS & r & 3 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's difficult to track Bangai-O, the mecha-robot hero that players pilot through Bangai-O Spirits. The problem isn't his pushpin size or that all the game's action takes place on only one of the DS's tiny screens. The difficulty comes from the hundreds of other details onscreen. Missiles fly from every direction, trailing lines along their trajectories as they ricochet off walls. Bombs explode in haloes of white haze. Life-size ants skitter across the screen while other little mecha-robots zip around blasting at Bangai-O. Pineapples and melons fill the spaces occupied by destroyed foes.

Bangai-O himself is equally kinetic. Swinging a baseball bat, he sends bombs flying back through space. He launches his own fleets of 100 missiles in 360-degree starbursts, or sends them swarming in a single direction. He dashes up, down and side to side, flying freely and pummeling obstacles in his way. In fact, between the different attacks that Bangai-O can launch, and his enemies' myriad missiles, it's impossible to know exactly what sort of chaos will engulf the screen. The results regularly resemble a game of out-of-control, anti-gravity pachinko.

Bangai-O Spirits' only coherent section is made up of training missions, where a professor and two anime youngsters explain the logistics of battling via Bangai-O. After that, Spirits is a grab bag of missions. Some take place on enormous levels full of mammoth enemies. Others are cramped mazes filled with block-pushing puzzles that would weaken Mario. But none of them relate to the characters in the training section, and winning a mission doesn't achieve anything (except a high score). It's a free-form throwback to the arcade era, when a game wasn't expected to last hours, and the action was never expected to waver.

THE GOOD: Bangai-O Spirits seems to be a piece of handheld videogame-design software masquerading as a game. By far its most powerful feature is a touch-screen level editor that allows players to create their own Bangai-O Spirits levels or modify any of the game's 150-plus pre-existing levels. The possibilities are widely varied: side-scrolling shooters, race-mazes, mid-air battlegrounds... The result is one of the most customizable, imagination-tapping videogames around -- if players take the time to tweak it.

THE BAD: Bangai-O Spirits' designers decided to ignore the DS's built-in, working-perfectly wireless network, probably because it would have made file-sharing ordinary and uneventful. Instead, they've contrived one of the geekiest systems of data transfer since the days when audiocassettes stored computer files. Custom levels, as well as playbacks of awesome kills, supreme scores, etc. are convertible to audio files that are then output through the Nintendo DS's speakers. These soundtracks -- which replicate the whistling and scratchy static of old modems -- can then be shared in a variety of absurd ways. The Bangai-O Spirits instruction booklet displays two DS's lying face-to-face with the speaker of one pressed to the tiny microphone of the other as though they were coupling. Another is depicted with an earbud aimed at it. It's almost weird enough to be cool. Almost.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Though they fail to add up to a coherent game, the parts of Bangai-O Spirits are frantic, zany and puzzling in the extreme -- just not all at the same time.

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