Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Puzzle Games #13

Pang a.k.a. Pomping World, a.k.a. Buster Bros. (1989)
By: Mitchell / Capcom Genre: Puzzle / Shooting Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 107,700
Also Available For: PlayStation, PC Engine CD, SNES, Game Boy, PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum
Download For: Apple iOS

I recently decided it was high time to revisit this classic game but, upon doing so, it got me thinking. It is usually considered a puzzle game but what actually makes a game a puzzle game? Take Tetris for example - the quintessential example of the genre for most, but any puzzle elements it may contain are extremely basic ones to say the least. Likewise, Pang is even less puzzle-based than the Russian classic and the game to which it bears most resemblance - Asteroids - is considered a shoot 'em up! Oh well, who am I to argue with tradition? Puzzle game or not, Pang was certainly an eye-catching title in its day and it's crazy premise is worthy of the genre - apparently the world has been invaded by 'bouncing balloons' which are somehow 'terrorising several of our landmarks and cities'.

A problem indeed, then. The most obvious solution? That would be to employ the trusty services of two harpoon gun-wielding brothers, naturally! To achieve their goal the brave brothers must travel across the entire world by themselves. There are seventeen locations in total which are each home to a few single-screen stages. These are not divided equally over the locations but there are fifty stages altogether. Each one contains some of the aforementioned balloons which bounce around the screen rebounding off the side walls and any other obstructions that may be present which are usually small (and strategically located) platforms. Your balloon busting hero (or heroes with two-players) can walk left or right along the bottom of the screen and must fire his harpoon gun up at the balloons as they flollop around.

They come in four sizes and, like Asteroids, the larger ones split into two smaller examples when they're shot. Keep shooting until they're all gone to move to the next stage! Obviously it's not quite as simple as that though. Each stage has a time limit and if any balloons touch either of the brothers they'll lose a life. To make things even more difficult, many stages also feature irritating creatures of which there are two types - ground based ones, such as crabs, which prevent you from shooting when they're touching you, and airborne ones which get in the way of your shots. Neither type causes the brothers any harm but some can shoot at you which does. Luckily, spearing them gets rid of them but only briefly as they swiftly return.

Occasionally, some fruits fall from the sky during play which can be shot or collected for bonus points, and there are also a few power-ups to look out for as well. These occasionally appear upon shooting a balloon and produce either a weapon upgrade or a less violent but equally useful item. Comprising the former category are Double Wire, an upgrade to the harpoon gun which allows you to fire two shots at once, or Power Wire, a grappler which attaches the harpoon to the ceiling (or a platform if one is in the way) creating a balloon-damaging barrier for a couple of seconds. Even more spiffy is the rapid-fire Vulcan Missile gun which lets you unleash your fury for a few often-vital seconds on any balloons that may lurk above, and there are a few other helpful bits and pieces too.

These include an egg-timer which slows the balloons down, a clock which freezes them, a temporary shield, or dynamite which splits all balloons down to the smallest kind, although the usefulness of this is debatable - it causes problems more often than it solves them since, if the stage you've started features three of the largest sized balloons, for example, collecting a dynamite means you'll suddenly be faced with twenty-four tiny balloons which can also fit through gaps in the platforms the bigger ones can't! With this, and indeed the general gameplay in mind, it's safe to say that reaction times play a bigger part in succeeding at Pang than deciphering puzzles, and even if you somehow have the reflexes of a hyperactive fly, this is still a mighty challenging game; there is after all some fifty stages to battle through!

They are pretty varied too, despite featuring fairly uninspiring graphics for the time otherwise. The player characters and evil creatures are fairly detailed and everything is neat and tidy but most gamers were used to much flashier visuals than this by the end of the 80's. The music is rather quiet and unassuming as well, although it's not too bad if you make the effort to actually listen out for it. Even the backgrounds which change with each new location aren't particularly impressive. I suppose it is a puzzle game though, technically, and they're hardly renowned for pushing hardware to its limits! That leaves the gameplay itself with the burden of ensnaring the player, and happily this aspect of Pang is much better, with some stage designs getting quite intricate considering the type of game it is.

A few of them (such as the one above) take the form of full-on platform game stages while more often they have fewer but more cunningly positioned platforms and ladders which force you to devise suitable strategies, and there are a few other features as well such as destructible platforms and slippy floors! The one thing that Pang definitely has in common with puzzle games though, is its highly addictive nature. Whether you're playing alone or with a friend, once you start it can be difficult to stop, even though it can prove pretty frustrating on more than the odd occasion! It's also a game with lots of charm despite its rather average front-end. The superior sequels it received may have rendered it somewhat obsolete, but this original is still great, simple fun, and I don't often ask for much more.

RKS Score: 8/10

Gameplay Video: here's a video of the whole game being played by a talented fellow named Dan. Don't watch if you want to avoid spoilers!


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