Arcade Archives: Bells & Whistles (Review)

I’ve somehow managed to play multiple versions of TwinBee over the last year. The arcade version was included in the putrid Konami’s Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection, while the NES version is free with Switch Online. I wrote off the formula as being unworkable and dumb. The concept of a shump where items come in the form of bells that must be juggled via shooting until they become useful is, frankly, kinda not good. That doesn’t change here. While playing Bells & Whistles, you’ll want to shoot a lot. But if the bell changes to a useful item, a second shot changes it back to gold, which is only worth points. And you’ll make that mistake a lot because, you know, you’re supposed to shoot a lot. That’s by design, too. The screen is often spammed with enemies at the very moment the clouds that contain the bells arrive. That’s useful in the typical Arcade Archives Hi-Score or 5-minute Caravan modes, but not so much when you’re trying to go as far as you can in the game without losing a life. It’s a bizarre mechanic for sure, and while it has fans, I’ll point out that TwinBee as a franchise is comfortably on the fringes of gaming and never rose above it. Maybe that’s why?

I’m happy to report that bosses are a LITTLE more than “spam with bullets until dead”. I mean, they really are still that, because Bells & Whistles is a shump, but the bosses are each different and open themselves to attack in ways that require a bit of finesse. I’m a finesse type of chick, so I appreciate the effort. Also, they’re some of the coolest looking bosses in a shmup.

Having said that, I’ve played two very decent entries in the series this last week. Bells & Whistles was chosen by a fan to be included in this Arcade Archives marathon, while a previously Japanese/Europe-only SNES release, Pop’n TwinBee, is now included globally on the Switch Online SNES lineup. Surprisingly, they’re both pretty decent. It’s not entirely a “realized potential” situation because I don’t think these represent the maximum “as good as TwinBee CAN get” situation. You still have to juggle those fucking bells, but at least the enemy formations are more rational (at least early on) and the speed, pacing, and reliability of projectiles feels more modern and slick. I wish the power-up system was handled differently, since getting the desirable guns was a pain in the ass, but otherwise these were both pretty decent shmups. Focusing on Bells & Whistles, it has some clever enemy & boss design, a charge shot that is bad ass, and a decent variety of power-ups. The cutesy setting is also a welcome break from your typical bleak space setting.

Don’t let the adorable facade fool you, though, because Belly & Whistler dips its toes in bullet hellfire late in the game. And that can be problematic, because the visually loud background and relatively small, under-developed bullets are often very hard to see. Some fans of the genre disagree with me, and I’ll fully admit I’m not a hardcore bullet hell fan, but I think the key to a really good bullet hell is to make the bullets visible. In a screen full of projectiles, the challenge should be dodging them, not trying to locate them and dodge them. In a fast-paced, auto-scrolling shump, having to do both isn’t a reasonable challenge. It’s just not. Granted, this game was made to earn money 25¢ at a time, and if the person is deep into the game, that means they’ve been sitting there for a while. If they’re there by virtue of being good, that machine wasn’t making money. Spamming the screen with low-visibility bullets against backgrounds that bleed into the bullet colors is a cheap, borderline dishonest way of getting the person occupying the cabinet to put more money in it, but it works.

For its time, this probably was visually impressive, but it needed to make bullets stand out more.

Still, this is the first TwinBee game that’s fun enough on its own merit to warrant a recommendation. I’ll be talking about Hamster’s misguided $7.99 price tag when this marathon is over with, but needless to say, eight bucks might be a bit too much for a one dimensional (albeit finesseful.. yes, finesseful, it’s a word as of now) shump. This should have been in the Konami Anniversary set, which had a miserable lineup outside of Life Force. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Bells & Whistles is comfortably better than everything in that set but Life Force. I’ve played a lot worse, and I’ve played a lot better, but if you’ve got an itch for a decent shmup, you won’t hate Bells & Whistles, even if it’s lacking, um.. something that indicates extra effort.

Arcade Achives: Bells & Whistles was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Switch, PlayStation 4

$7.99 never learned how to whistle in the making of this review. Hey, I only learned how to snap my fingers within the last year.

A fan purchased this game for this review.

Bells & Whistles is Chick-Approved and will be ranked on the IGC Arcade Retroboard when it debuts July 1, 2020.

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