Don't feel bad if you've never heard of the MSX. It was an early-80s Microsoft-driven initiative to create a hardware standard for home computers to transform software development in the same way that the VHS standard transformed home video: by removing the need to develop for multiple hardware platforms. Unfortunately for the backers of MSX, Japan's emerging status as an electronics powerhouse and dominance of MSX systems manufacture caused US and British companies to stay away in favour of their own proprietary systems. As a result whilst it enjoyed modest success in Japan and some parts of Europe, MSX never achieved the status of global computer hardware standard that was originally envisioned.
Konami was one of the bigger Japanese developers for the system (which pre-dates Nintendo's Famicom) and created many original games for it that have gone on to become major franchises. Whilst it didn't spawn a big series like Metal Gear, Space Manbow has quality visuals and audio that would really have been at home in the arcade when it was released in 1989 and is rightly regarded as one of the very best games on the system.
MSX systems were all-in-one computers like the old Atari, Apple and Commodore 8-bit machines and incorporated a keyboard and cartridge slot and could be hooked up to a television or colour monitor. Checking the controller options in the Wii Shop, you'll note a keyboard icon; those wanting the authentic MSX experience can connect a USB keyboard to their Wii to play the game. Of course since only four buttons are used (L is F1 for pause and R is F5 for continue) the Classic Controller makes a more comfortable alternative - a Classic Controller Pro was used for this review.
Space Manbow looks and plays much like Gradius, but has some interesting twists that give it its own unique appeal. Your ship looks like the Imperial Shuttle from Star Wars and levels are traversed both horizontally and vertically where players will face obstacles, enemy ships and screen-filling bosses. Many enemies resemble those from Gradius games: turrets on floors and ceilings, covered launch bays that open up to release waves of ships, walking robot tanks and squadrons of enemy fighters.
The power-up system is a little different from Gradius, however. Shooting groups of ships or sometimes turrets will result in the release of power-ups with different effects identified by their letter: W is a wide shot, N is a normal shot, M gives you missiles, S speeds up your ship and O will grant you one of two possible options (external gun mounts).
There are two coloured power-ups with every different effects. Red is a shot power-up which gradually fills your power-up meter at the top of the screen. There's a full 20 levels possible, though this is mitigated by the fact that they gradually fade away if not renewed and you'll lose two levels every time you continue play - though there's no penalty for either losing a life or changing your weapon type between wide and normal shots. The blue power-up is a smart bomb which is launched when you next press the fire button, leading to players familiar with level layouts avoiding rather than shooting enemies until reaching a tricky part where blasting everything on the screen is desirable. The options have more in common with those of R-TYPE LEO than Gradius. You can have two: one above and one below; and you can toggle their direction of fire between forward, straight up/down and reverse using the second button (A on the Classic Controller Pro - fire is B).
The level design is similar to Gradius, with open spaces, caves and installations, though there's a good deal of vertical scrolling sections to go with the horizontal. The game is by no means easy, but never feels cheap or unfair; if you use continues you'll certainly get through all 8 levels eventually, but only a really skilled player will do it with three lives. It's got a great sense of balance: no auto-fire, but retention of power-ups. Plenty of enemies to shoot but areas where nimble ship control counts more than shooting back. Bosses are massive and take up half the screen, but have clearly identifiable weak spots and patterns for observant players to exploit on their way to victory.
Visually the game looks as good as any 8-bit Konami shooter, but without the flickering you'd associate with an 8-bit console: the scrolling is silky smooth, the colours are vibrant and the bosses are animated. To top the sundae the soundtrack is a classic and really deserves a spot on NLFM - it's that good.
Space Manbow is an all-but-forgotten treasure from a home computer system many gamers have never laid eyes on, but being able to play it on the Wii is what makes the Virtual Console such a great service. With any luck, the fact that the MSX enjoyed decent sales in Europe (and had a forgotten attempt by Yamaha and Spectravision to sell systems in America) might mean this game can be experienced by retro shooting fans everywhere.