I've got a confession to make. When I first heard of Big Bang Mini I didn't think: "That's a shmup with fireworks." No, what I actually thought was: "That sounds like a porn film. A particularly disturbing one at that."
Luckily for you (and my reputation), I did a spot of research. Big Bang Mini is the second game from little-known four-person Paris developer Arkedo Studio. It follows Nervous Brickdown, a variation of classic top-down arcade game Breakout (it's probably on your phone, if you've never heard of it before), which scored a 5/10 in our review from late 2007. Thankfully, Arkedo's improving, because Big Bang Mini is certainly better than that.
It's classic top-down shmup stuff, with a twist. On the bottom screen you move your craft by touching it and dragging with the stylus, avoiding bullets and objects that rain down from above. To shoot fireworks towards the top screen you strike the stylus upwards like a match, which fits in well with the fireworks theme. You can't move and shoot in Big Bang Mini, but because of the "match-striking" firing mechanic you are able to accurately direct the exploding rockets towards their targets as quickly as your wrist will allow.
There's an interesting gameplay dynamic at play in Big Bang Mini that prevents you from simply spamming rockets without looking where they're heading. If a rocket hits an enemy it will cause damage to it, eventually destroying it and sending a star floating down for pick up (you need to collect a certain number of these to move on to the next wave). If the rocket fails to touch anything it will explode in a shower of very colourful and pretty sparks that head straight for the bottom screen, each and every one able to destroy your craft with a single touch. Because of this, you need to actually aim your fireworks at your enemies and limit how quickly you fire them. Spamming fireworks into thin air will more often than not send a screen covering carpet of deadly sparks spiralling towards your craft- and deal you an inevitable death.
For much of the game the move then shoot then move then shoot gameplay works well, but it falls down somewhat when the game gets harder and throws tons of bullets and enemies at you all at once. When the poo hits the fan you really wish you were able to move and shoot, like you can in traditional shmups. Practice, however, does help, and eventually you'll find yourself moving your stylus hand from dragging to striking motions quicker than you ever thought possible.
A bigger problem however, is the lack of accuracy when touching your craft to drag. Because your craft is small it's often hard to actually touch it at speed. I found myself often missing it when I thought I was bang on top of it, resulting in a frustrating death. It's a crying shame, too, because that's about the only major problem I can find with this interesting, addictive shmup.
Gameplay aside, Big Bang Mini impresses with some quality visuals that lays on thick the psychedelic neon feel. Each of the nine worlds has a unique background, craft and fireworks, distinct enemy types, clever gameplay variations and introduces a permanent upgrade, like homing missiles (hold down L or R when firing) or enemy bullet-attracting whirlpools (draw circles with the stylus). Kamakura, for example, is a Halloween-themed scary world with East Asian-inspired ghosts and spirits to destroy, and walls that slowly close in on you, squeezing the amount of space you have to play with. The opening world is a journey through the sprawling skyscrapers of Hong Kong. There's even the Luxor from Las Vegas, a Savannah world, New York, Rio de Janero, and a Paris world to work through before getting to the last level, Abyss.
Each world in the main Arcade mode has nine levels and a single boss fight that must be completed in order to unlock the following world, giving Big Bang Mini a meaty 81 levels to work though. Once you've finished Arcade the Challenge mode, which has scores that can be uploaded onto online leaderboards, and the multiplayer mode, which allows you to battle with a friend using only one copy of the game, should keep you busy during those cold winter commutes.
We can't leave without a mention of the music, which is a definite highlight. The game's won awards in France for its soundtrack, and we can see why. The 20 or so electro-esque tracks are packed full of big beats and carefree beeps and boops. I enjoyed the music so much that it kept me going through the Arcade mode so that I could experience each and every one. The Hong Kong world music wouldn't be amiss on my iPod, so infectious is its banging drums and monk-like vocals. Just make sure you use quality headphones - the tinny DS speaker doesn't do it justice.
The shmup is a genre that's struggled to find a place in gaming's mainstream, and we doubt Big Bang Mini on the DS will change that fact. But it's an impressive effort with an interesting control scheme that, for the most part, works well. Is it as good as Geometry Wars: Galaxies, a game you can pick up for about a tenner? No, but it's a worthy addition to any shmup fan's on the move collection.