Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Onion Games' Black Bird is the dark Fantasy Zone clone I didn't know I wanted or needed

When Onion Games announced earlier this year that its next release--after the pair of mobile curiosities known as Dandy Dungeon and Million Onion Hotel--would be a PC and Switch shoot 'em up called Black Bird, I was nearly beside myself with excitement.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the time I spent with the aforementioned Dandy Dungeon in 2017, but I had similarly thrilling experiences with many of company founder Yoshiro Kimura's previous offerings--Chulip for PS2 and Little King's Story for Wii chief among them.

My enthusiasm for Black Bird waned a bit after seeing the game's first real trailer a few weeks ago. Not only did it look a little too close to Sega's Fantasy Zone for my liking, but it also looked a little too much like a bullet-hell shmup. (The only bullet-hell shmup that's tripped my trigger to date is the gay, smutty Sugar Shooter.)

So, I didn't buy the Switch version of Black Bird upon release as planned. And at that point, I wasn't sure I'd ever pick it up. A few days later, though, I apprehensively plopped down $20 on it anyway. Why? For starters, I'd been looking forward to it for so long that ignoring it seemed wrong. Plus, I felt like both Onion Games and Kimura deserved the benefit of the doubt. Neither has done me wrong yet, so why start second-guessing them now?

Boy, am I glad I went ahead with the purchase. In the 10 days since I bought Black Bird, I've put more than nine hours into it. That's quite an accomplishment when you consider the game has just four stages and its normal mode can be finished in about 20 minutes.

So why do I keep returning to it over and over again? Here are five reasons I'd say are as relevant as any:

Black Bird may be short, but it has a lot of depth--This game may not have a lot of raw content, but it makes up for that by having a lot of components. There are weapon upgrades. Combos. Collectible gems. Bombs. End-of-level bonuses. And they're all intertwined in a way that takes some time to understand. (Hell, I still haven't wrapped my head around a few of them--and I've played Black Bird for nearly 10 hours.) Given that, I actually think this game's brevity is a plus. It allows you to come to grips with its many elements without asking for too much of a commitment.

When everything "clicks," it feels like you've entered another plane of existence--OK, so maybe that's overstating things a bit. I don't think saying it's easy to "get into a zone" while playing Black Bird is hyperbolic, though. I often feel like I'm on autopilot--and I mean that in a good way--whenever I make another run at a high score. (And let there be no doubt: moving up the online leaderboard, and not reaching the end credits, is the focus here.) Is that due to its entrancing soundtrack? Maybe, but I think there's more to it than that, too--like all of the mesmerizing details that are crammed into each level and the sheer number of enemies and projectiles that careen around the screen at any given moment.

Black Bird's amazing soundtrack is like an extension of its gameplay--Don't take that the wrong way; the music here isn't interactive like it is in, say, ASCII's Otocky for the Famicom. Still, Black Bird's gameplay and soundtrack feel intertwined in a way that's unique and unusual for the medium. Even if that weren't the case, though, the tunes here would be well worth trumpeting. Besides the poppy, Beatles-esque theme song, they're so otherworldly vaudevillian they'd surely make Danny Elfman proud.

Some of the enemy designs in this game are so cute I almost feel bad shooting them to smithereens--The key word here is "almost." After all, they'll gleefully gun you down if given the chance. Still, there's no denying most of them are downright adorable. I especially like the ones that bob around the screen with colorful balloons tied around their waists. (I'm also pretty fond of "Aspara-san," who is part asparagus, part rocket, and mumbles "let's kill something" as he launches himself into the air.)

I appreciate that Black Bird's story is bleak--Or at least it seems to be bleak. You see, Black Bird's story is told through painfully short between-stage vignettes that feature no words or voices. (Aside from the occasional exclamation or guffaw, that is.) Still, those bits and pieces make it clear this is no childish fairy tale. A case in point: the game begins with a little girl falling over dead on the street as people pass by without missing a step. After an old man pokes her corpse with a cane, she transforms into the eponymous fowl.

Clearly I'm in love with this peculiar, pint-sized shoot 'em up. That doesn't mean I think everybody will feel the same way about it. If you're not a big fan of the genre, you may not get your money's worth from Black Bird--especially given its $20 price tag. Those of you who fall head over heels for shmups, though, should download it to your system of choice (PC or Switch) as soon as you have the funds.