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.
But is it better than Defender.....
not a shoot'em up fan, but would love to see MSX on VC in the West, also nice box art, wouldn't mind a poster of that.
That shmup looks beautifully detailed.
EDIT: Ah, that's why. It's from Konami. Looks good
@TG64: Well, not in my mind, but I'd give it the same score!
I'm sorry, I commented before I actually read the review.
I finished reading the review now, and I thought the review was good, Sean.
I remember liking LifeForce for the NES years ago, though I'm sad to admit I beat it once with the thiry-life code. That'll change.
Sounds like a decent shooter
Uh, oh. I just sandwiched (4 & 6, 6 & 8) two comments.
I'm in trouble.
But, either way, Space Manbow sounds like a good time. Perhaps, once it hits the VC, I'll give it a spin. Sounds like a blast.
Wonderful shmup of the awesomness MSX2, it will never reach occident and I can't play it on my wii. DAMN IT!
Tut tut, never say never! I should think Konami would have an interest in pushing these games overseas and since many of them got release in Europe localisation wouldn't be an issue.
Keep fingers crossed!
I own it, I've had it for a little while, it has awesome graphics and music, but it's hard!!!
Aha, the fabled MSX eh! I have read plenty about it in retro magazines, but never seen one in the flesh. It is great news that its games are available on the Japanese Virtual Console. From the screenshots, the visuals look completely nifty for an 8-bit system in '89, I like Sean's Imperial shuttle comparison and from what has been mentioned by @Starboy91, the mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling sections sounds a bit like Konami's Salamander/Life Force.
**** Edit: Doh! I think that I may have got myself confused here, the vertical sections must still be presented from the side-on view, but as Sean says they "are traversed both horizontally and vertically". I was thinking that it may include top-down sections, too! ****
I would definitely check out MSX games if they headed to the US Virtual Console, particularly as it is a retro gaming machine that I know almost nothing about. Yet again one of Sean's reviews has led me to cross my fingers in hope!
An excellent, informative review, Sean.
@Sean Aaron: But the system was a flat-out failure in North America. Europeans might get it, but I doubt North Americans will too.
The Turbografx was a failure too, though not on the same level. The purpose of the VC isn't solely to sell people games they have already played, either, as evidence by the selection of import games. If Konami find it worth releasing the likes of Bokutte Upa, there's nothing preventing them for giving Space Manbow a go either.
Don't forget the TwinBee games, Adamant. Detana! TwinBee is a good game (I feel bad to have had a bad impression on it at first, but after putting some time into it I found myself having fun with it).
I'm interested in Pop'n TwinBee. Looks good.
@JamieO: If you're really hard-up there's a Sony MSX2 on Ebay right now with one day to go and it's located in the UK!
@Sean_Aaron Wow, cheers for for that Sean, "really hard up" is a perfect description of my finaces at the moment. lol.
I just checked it out and it is a great price, it is only at £11 (plus £15 postage) at the moment, it finishes at 10.06pm though, so it may rise. To be honest scraping together a quick £30 may be tough for me at this time of year.
I am clueless about the MSX, I can not even tell if it is an import machine, I wonder if its menus would be in Japanese?
Would it be quite easy to find a joypad and a copy of Space Manbow for it?
I'm wondering if Play Asia sells them.
Sorry about all the questions, I could always e-mail the seller when I get back from the Christmas shops!
Well, firstly they sold a lot of them in Europe, so I'd be surprised if someone in the UK would have an import version, but best ask the seller to be sure! Secondly I don't know if they support any joypads at all, so likely you'd just use the keyboard to play games (this game prompts you to press SPACE to start), but that means no peripherals required!
Ebay is probably your friend for finding the game, but I think you're more likely to get a copy from the Americas. Really depends on how patient you are!
There's also the Parodius series Konami created that parodied their Gradius series of games.
Wonder if they're good import choices?
@Sean_Aaron Cheers lots for your time, Sean. The ebay seller was sound, the system is Japanese and he is pretty sure that it is region free, but he is not completley sure. He confirmed what you said about peripheral support, but I was a bit shocked at the price of Space Manbow on ebay, it is priced at least £150 for a Japanese copy at the moment, so I have decided to leave it for the time being. I don't know enough about MSX2 to buy it on a whim and Christmas has been really expensive so far, already!
Perhaps another time, although I will have to add it to my 2010 shopping list, alongside a Japanese PSN card, a GenMobile (portable Mega Drive) and 64GB iPod touch!
For the price of MSX Space Manbow, I think that importing a Japanese Wii would be the best option at some point in 2010, in any case I am most excited about Chōtetsu Brikin'ger.
Thanks loads for all of your advice, though.
@Starboy91 I really like Parodius, too. That would be a sweet SNES or PC Engine game for Konami to bring to Virtual Console. I don't know much about the MSX version though, it would be worth importing the PSP collection.
Yeah, I was going to say importing a Wii might be a better option. There's so many good shooters, so many...
It´s an excellent shump !
Man i really want MSX games on NA's VC
I would love to get Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 Solid Snake, especially since my dad's a huge MG Fan
Hope a version for the U.S. is released...looks impressive for a game from 89'
@JamieO Try a Panasonic FS-A1GT or FS-A1ST or use openMSX emulator in Windows or Linux.
Space Manbow originally selled in a cartridge that have inbuilt a special sound chip by Konami called SCC.
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