Retro Rated – Pang

Factfile
Developed by: Mitchell Corporation
Released: 1989
Format played: Arcade

Ruminations

The evolution of videogames has led us to a never before witnessed explosion in creativity and complexity. Yet for all that, some of the most enduring themes in gaming remain some of the most simple, born of a time when the drive was not to leave you fulfilled so much as to suck another 10p out of your pocket.

Released in 1989, Pang (or Buster Brothers to our North American friends) sees you and a buddy traipsing round the world, trying to destroy a set of devastating, bouncing balloons. Yes, game plots were much simpler in the 80s.

There are 50 stages in total spread across 17 global locations. Each level is a single screen affair which features a combination of balloons to pop, blocks to shoot, ladders to climb and various beasties trying to stop you. Balloons come in a variety of sizes, each popping down to a smaller size until they are finally vanquished. Blocks are mostly fixed, floating platforms but occasionally can be of the ‘disappearing when shot’ variety, opening up the playing area to make your target easier to reach but also freeing up the balloons to make the bounce of death in your direction.

For make no mistake, these are not your common or garden balloons that float around harmlessly whilst you thwack them at each other. A single touch from one of these bad boys will see you lose a life as the coin up stifles a money grabbing chuckle at another sucker.

Fear not though, because you come well armed. Your standard weapon is a harpoon, which fires up towards the ceiling and disappears the moment it comes into contact with anything, moving or inanimate. Popping balloons drops various pick ups and upgrades. The grappling hook latches on to a vertical surface, remaining solid for a short time and acting as a barrier of sorts. The twin harpoon meanwhile, my personal favourite, lets you fire off two shots at once giving you a vital edge, especially as the balloons get down to their smallest size and their bounce trajectory is reduced, brining the threat closer to ground level. And for the shooters amongst you, a rapid fire machine gun-like variant is available, good for long distance shots from safety but far trickier when balloons bounce at you from the side.

Weapons aside other pick ups include a bubble shield, which stays with you until you come into contact with a balloon or finish the level, a clock that freezes the balloons for a short time whilst you sprint around frantically trying to blast them before they wake; an hourglass to slow the balloons and dynamite that bursts all balloons instantly to their smallest size, meaning just a single shot is required to take them out but in turn making the playing area dangerously congested.

This is of course just a variant on Asteroids with the balloons replacing rocks and your little bloke replacing the ship. But when a concept is as fundamentally sound as Asteroids it would be foolish not to try and get a slice of the pie and whilst that grandfather of arcade gaming is an influence, Pang goes far and away above the source material. Levels are intense as you try to dodge between balloons, many a life lost in the forlorn, mis-timed lunge for the twin harpoon as a balloon crashes down onto you. And with the clock constantly ticking the action never lets its intensity fade. The single player game is a challenge but for added fun plug a mate in too, the extra fire power afforded compensated for by that irrepressible, Gauntlet-esque desire to get to the pick ups first whilst death of any one of you spells level over for both.

It’s certainly a challenge. Each level may be only a single screen but thinks quickly get hectic and you’ll have to duck and weave and plot your next move, strategically firing off a harpoon then trotting the other way, always trying to stay one step ahead. It’s tough but fair, your little man lithe around the screen, the bubbles bouncing in realistic, predictable patterns with no artificial, unfair difficulty spikes.

Graphically this is bright and vivid, the various global scenes providing a nice backdrop to the action. Sound is superb too, bubbles popping with a satisfying, well, pang whilst in-game and between level music is of that insanely catchy variety that only videogames can muster.

Conversion Capers

We looked at the Amiga version in our Top Ten of that legendary gaming machine and it remains one of the premier arcade conversions, perfectly capturing the look, feel and sounds of the arcade parent.

Elsewhere the SNES didn’t receive a straight conversion but rather a version so spectacular they had to rename it Super Pang! I’m not quite sure what the obsession was with calling games ‘Super’ on the SNES but either way this sequel offers a variant on the original. The basic principle is the same but balloon configurations and movement patterns are markedly different. For instance in one of the early levels you are faced with two rows of the smallest bubbles that rotate on opposite axis. So whilst your task is simple in one sense – one shot will take out each bubble – you have to bob and weave in between the rotating lines of death, picking your shots as you go. It adds a different spice to the ingredients whilst retaining the flavour of the gameplay that made the original so enjoyable.

Also in this version, as an addition to the standard world traveller mode is a ‘panic’ mode, that tried and trusted variant that tasks you with seeing how long you can last against a seemingly never ending horde of balloons.

Worth Playing?

True arcade perfection. Simple in concept, beautiful in execution, this is a fiendishly difficult, wonderfully satisfying cooperative blaster that is as much fun on your own as with a friend. An essential game in any serious retro gamer’s collection.

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