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TwinBee: Double your pleasure, double your gun

TwinBee is a Famicom port of a 1985 arcade game that never left Japan. It was Konami's answer to Namco's Xevious. As with many early arcade titles, the NES only got the sequel, Stinger (whose Japanese title translates to "Burning TwinBee: The Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon"!).

TwinBee Famicom cartridge

TwinBee is a vertical-scrolling shoot-'em-up. It uses a cutesy style ("cute-'em-up"), so the enemies are things like kitchenware and flowers. The game's main gimmick is that power-ups are gained through color-changing bells. When you shoot certain clouds, a yellow bell flies out. If you catch it, at first you get a mere 100 points, but their value increases sequentially to a maximum of 10,000 points. If you let it fall through the bottom of the screen, it resets to 100 points.

But you can also "juggle" the bells by shooting them. Three shots turns a bell white. A white bell, instead of awarding points, gives the TwinBee a second gun. If you shoot the bell again, it reverts to yellow, but every five shots brings out a new color: blue speeds you up; green gives you three phantom ships that mimic you; and red gives you a protective forcefield. Taking advantage of these bells is essential to success. Fully-powered up and with multiple speed boosts, the TwinBee becomes a war machine. When you die and lose everything, it feels so underpowered. On later stages, it's a struggle to get them all back before dying.

There are five unique stages, each with a different theme of enemies. The first is fruits and vegetables, the second kitchenware, the third sea creatures, the fourth tools (e.g., a magnet and a pen), and the fifth flowers followed by electronics (e.g., a lightbulb). After the first loop, you apparently play remixes of the original stages, with the same bosses. Then the game loops to the beginning. I haven't been able to get past the fourth stage, as the enemies become quite intense and I've never been a strong shoot-'em-up player.

Like most shoot-'em-ups, TwinBee supports simultaneous two-player. The second ship is named WinBee, and when the two Bees are adjacent, they shoot fireballs! And when one is directly in front of the other, they shoot a wide blast! This is really fun and makes the game even better, but it's also good as a single-player experience.

Another gimmick of the game (which it stole from Xevious) is that the A button launches a ground attack. You don't need to be in perfect position, as there is an automatic targeting system as long as you are close enough to the target. Most of them look like pinecones, but later stages include gloved hands. Ground targets drop more bonus items, mostly fruit that awards at most 200 points. A few of them leave a star that clears the screen, a yellow bell that gives you a three-way shot, or a baseball that keeps flying around the screen destroying everything.

Another interesting thing about the game is that when you get shot, you lose one of TwinBee's arms instead of immediately being destroyed (collision, though, is always instant death). Once you lose both arms, you can't lob ground attacks. However, once per life a flying ambulance will appear! Fly into it and it will repair your arms.

It seems Konami wanted to make some improvements for the Famicom version. The bell system takes one extra shot to get the first color change, and it's the blue speed-up instead of the white double shot. This makes it easier to get repeated speed-ups. Instead of a green bell that gives three phantom ships, it's a flashing bell that gives only two (which is still very strong). The final red bell is the same, but if you shoot it five more times it turns into a bee that tries to attack you! They also gave the three-way shot a proper sprite: instead of re-using the yellow bell, it's a cute piece of candy. And they upped the values on the fruits (up to 500 points) to make them more worthwhile.

Left: arcade; right: Famicom

I appreciate these little additions. Unfortunately, they don't compensate for the downgrade in graphics. By 1985, arcade machines had surpassed what the 8-bit system could replicate. TwinBee on the arcade looks better, like SNES quality. It also features voice samples, such as saying the boss's name. I crack up every time it says "Onion Head." Compared to other early NES games, the home version looks fine, but it can't compare to the arcade, which remains the definitive way to play.

TwinBee's ordinary-life themes are a highlight of the game. The single background music track isn't bad either. I'm not a huge fan of the bell-bouncing, but it adds an interesting challenge as well as a way for skilled players to rack up a high score. The five years that separate this game from Galaxian really show how far the shoot-'em-up genre had come by 1985. Galaxian looks ancient by comparison.

TwinBee may have missed America originally, but thanks to its many modern re-releases, it can claim its rightful place in the world history of shoot-'em-up games. I heartily recommend it to fans of the genre.

Grade: A-

Gameplay: Fun, but perhaps not for everyone (16/20)
Themes: Compelling, well designed concept and characters (20/20)
Controls: Controls are smooth and let you do what you want (15/15)
Difficulty: Goldilocks: Not too easy, not too hard (15/15)
Graphics: Good-looking if a bit lackluster (12/15)
Sound: One solid track (12/15)

Stats
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Shooter
Arcade release date: March 1985
Famicom release date: January 1986
Extend: 20,000
High score: 267,550

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