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Pang: Magical Michael

16:3403/10/2010Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

For gamers of a certain age, the very mention of the word ‘Pang’ will conjure up childhood memories of weekends spent stalking noisy, smoky arcades clutching a stack of ten-pence pieces destined to fund a few sweet minutes on the latest cabinets. Unfortunately, with this sense of nostalgia may also come a feeling of utter indifference; a feeling that old-school classic though it may be, Pang is a series that found itself in a creative cul-de-sac a long time ago and that it has no more secrets or surprises to share. As recent titles such as Space Invaders Extreme have proved however, it is possible to breath life back into the stalest of franchises and (despite the awful title) Pang: Magical Michael does just that; this is Pang re-imagined and reinvigorated…this is Pang: Evolved.

As with previous games in the series, Pang: Magical Michael is centred around a wonderfully simple – and indeed elegant – formula; players must shoot floating, bouncing balloons with a harpoon, with each balloon shot splitting into two smaller ones until they reach a size where further division is impossible; clear the screen and it’s on to the next level. In practice, this makes for an experience that blends the pin-point shooting of Space Invaders and the spatial navigation of Asteroids with basic platforming mechanics (minus the ability to jump!).

The beauty of Pang: Magical Michael is that it manages to retain the simplicity of this concept, and yet still push the series in new and interesting directions. It does this mainly though constant reiteration and riffing upon a basic concept, tweaks to tiny elements having a substantial impact on how each level must be approached. In many ways, it shares much in common with Treasure’s wonderful Bangai-O Spirits, a game that broke down the arcade shooter into its core elements and then proceeded to re-fuse them in a dizzying number of combinations. Pang: Magical Michael might not match Treasure’s effort in the sheer quantity of levels, but it mirrors the same relentless pursuit of the new, the different or the (seemingly) downright impossible.

Split into a number of modes, Magical Michael certainly has breadth. The natural starting point is the Tour mode that sees the titular character travel the globe in hot pursuit of renegade balloons. Spread over forty levels, Tour Mode opens with the basics, but quickly introduces new elements, ranging from glass-platforms that shatter when stood upon, playing cards that can be machine-gunned at balloons, split screen challenges and much more. With it being possible to clear many levels within the space of twenty seconds, the Tour mode manages to maintain a heady pace that prevents it from growing stale. Once completed, an expert mode is opened up, extending the well-balanced learning curve and the title’s lifespan.

Arcade mode is in essence a retreading of the Tour but with only a limited number of lives being provided. Though a small change, it results in more taught gameplay, as you can’t simply throw yourself around the levels safe in the knowledge that an infinite number of restarts lie waiting should you fall foul of a heinous balloon. Other modes of play include Panic Mode (survive for as long as possible) and a fiendishly addictive multiplayer which offers single card multiplay as well as virtual opponents. In the latter, Balloon Battle is particularly noteworthy, with players building their own balloons before blowing on the DSs microphone to launch them onto the opponent’s screens. Underlying all of these game types are extensive online leaderboards, another simple addition that does much to raise the experience from casual arcade distraction to a veritable playground for high-score hunters.

While the solidity of the gameplay is an obvious strength, ‘solid’ is about as big a compliment as can be paid to the Pang’s visuals. Michael himself is a pink suit wearing non-entity (think: Lloyd Christmas from that scene in Jim Carrey’s Dumb and Dumber) and while spotting the real-world background locations could be considered a small meta-game in itself, the slabs of colour of which they are made are perfunctory rather than pretty. The sound effects and sound track are also pretty uninspiring, and some repeated samples can begin to grate.

Developer Mitchell Corporation has approached the task of reinvigorating a 22-year-old game with intelligence and verve and regardless of the presentational shortcomings (which are easy to forgive when considering the low RRP) Pang: Magical Michael is an engaging and consistently entertaining experience. Perfectly pitched for the portable gaming market, it also proves that there are ways out of creative cul-de-sacs – you just need to find the right developer!

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