TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of the Famicom version of TwinBee on the 3DS. The emulation is titled 3D Classics: TwinBee, but the 3D effect was not used for the purposes of this review.

Playing TwinBee proves that “cute ’em up,” a description frequently attached to the game, is almost as inarticulate and useless as “shmup.” I’ve never thought about TwinBee’s cuteness (the visuals are fairly bland in the Famicom version), which testifies to both the non-communication of trendy game terms and, more significantly, the intensity of TwinBee as a vertical shooter.

Developed by Konami, TwinBee follows the lead of Namco’s Xevious with the dual concern of shooting flying enemies and bombing enemies on the ground, but the inspiration largely ends there. TwinBee introduces a bold conceptualization of the power-up. Clouds appear as the screen scrolls in TwinBee, and some clouds release bells when you shoot them. The bells are typically yellow and change color when you juggle them with enough shots. Non-yellow bells grant upgrades that include speed, twin-fire, two ghost copies of yourself that shoot their own fire, and a shield.

Unlike the unfocused Dragon Spirit, TwinBee establishes a clear strategic point for its elusive upgrades. The most obvious problem is that you have to battle flying and ground enemies while juggling the bells, which are lost once they fall past the bottom of the screen. You soon realize the challenge is far more complex. TwinBee only has five repeating levels, but the enemies grow deadlier each time the levels repeat. When you desperately need an upgrade in a tougher level (your default speed and weapon are disadvantaged to say the least), you run the risk of inadvertently juggling a non-yellow bell while killing enemies. If you juggle a non-yellow bell, it turns back to yellow, that is, a non-upgrade, meaning that you have to juggle more bells for another chance to upgrade.

But never forget, the main point of TwinBee is a high score, not survival, even though the high score requires survival. The game’s five levels contain zero of the visual allure or mystery of Xevious’ one continuous level, so the only convincing reason to continue beating the five levels is attaining the highest score imaginable. If you’re not getting a better score, survival is a nuisance given the madness of the bells.

The dialectical art of TwinBee follows: the yellow bells, which don’t help you survive, are the key to higher scores. This rule is more counter-intuitive than Xevious’ approach, where destroying enemies is often the best path to both survival and a high score. In TwinBee, you get a higher point bonus every time you collect a yellow bell, provided you never allow any bell to fall off the screen. Once you hit the maximum bonus of 100,000 points, every yellow bell you fly into will be worth that many points. Gaining more points also gives you extra lives.

Extra lives don’t prevent your inevitable destruction as effectively as a strategy that incorporates different upgrades. My preference is the triple shot, a candy-shaped upgrade left behind by certain ground enemies you destroy, combined with a shield and four or five speed upgrades. (Too much speed in TwinBee can kill your handling.) The triple shot has a wide range of fire that can destroy enemies and juggle bells straight ahead or in two diagonal paths. The triple shot can be particularly devastating with lateral movement. The issue with this style is that triple-shot bullets can juggle bells when you would rather let them fall for collection. Simply collecting bells is a tricky affair, as you have to make sure you’re not running into an enemy or fire as you anticipate the descent of the bells after some juggling. You also can’t collect bells at the very top of the screen — quite the nerve-wracking rule.

If any of this sounds cute, it certainly doesn’t play cute. The panic you experience in TwinBee is more comparable to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Bells.” The last part of Poe’s poem goes (for the proper format of the poem, visit here):

In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

In TwinBee, a bell turns into an enemy if you shoot it too many times. You’ll have trouble thinking of a more diabolical vertical shooter.

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8 comments

  1. Have you ever played Fantasy Zone? It’s considered the first “cute ’em up” game, though it’s a horizontal side-scroller. However, it allows you to switch directions rather than forcing you to always go right.

  2. This series is very interesting thus far, not only concerning the games selected for review, but the attitudes you display in regards to them. I have a background in flying ship shooters, but most of the ones that I have played are either curtain fire style games such as Dodonpachi or Ikaruga, or are horizontals, my favorite being the R-Type series. From hanging around communities that like such games, I’m used to opinions that favors extreme difficulty, pure action with less memorization and military sci-fi themes. The preference was also toward vertical shooters, though I don’t think it was for the reasons you listed in your initial post. It also had a strange, nostalgia-based elitism permeating some of it. I haven’t been active in such communities for a long time, so my assessment may not be fair, but that is some of the stuff I remember from it.

    Thus far, you’re outlook on the genre has been far different from the one I am familiar with, and that’s is certainly not a bad thing. It allowed me to see that style of gameplay from a very different perspective than the “harder=better” style that I was used to for so long, and made me want to take a closer look at why I liked certain games from it. As well, you’ve sparked my curiosity about vertical shooter games that aren’t curtain fire-style, which is also a plus. Vertical shooters with a lower bullet count are virtually non-existent in these times, so I may have to buy a classic collection or two to try them.

    Thanks for these, and I’ll be checking for the next entries into this series.

    1. Hey Rod, I started getting into these types of shooters when I discovered that I could download TurboGrafx-16 games on the Wii (the TG-16 deserves its reputation for shooters). These games gave me a connection to game history that I haven’t found in other genres. I eventually stumbled upon a shmup community. I found a lot of judgmental yet unobservant comments in that community. It was then that I was convinced that “shmup” as a term is linked to an uncritical, unthinking mindset (though some “shmup” fans can do some impressive things in these shooters). So I’m glad this series seems different and that you’re finding it interesting.

      At the same time, I do believe difficulty in vertical shooters is important, but difficulty by itself is not impressive. I’m trying to judge difficulty with a case-by-case approach.

      Btw, I actually plan on reviewing both DoDonPachi and Ikaruga. Next up is 1942, which should be done soon.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

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