The TwinBee series enjoyed relative success in Japan throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Pop’n Twinbee was the sixth game in the series, and the last proper shoot ‘em up entry before Konami took it in a different direction with things like spin-off platformer Rainbow Bell Adventures.

Because it was never released in North America, Pop’n Twinbee never quite enjoyed the following it probably deserved. In an era filled with mean and moody shoot ‘em ups where spaceships and starfields made up 95% of the genre’s output, Pop’n Twinbee’s colourful visual style and quirky enemies really should have given it a larger fanbase (the same, incidentally, goes for Konami’s other cartoon shooter series Parodius).

The game tells the story of Light and Pastel, two appropriately named pilots who fly the colourful, sentient aircraft TwinBee and WinBee. The pair are contacted by a young girl called Madoke, who informs them that her scientist grandfather Dr Mardock bumped his head and has turned evil. Mardock wants to take over the world, so it’s up to Light and Pastel to hop into TwinBee and WinBee, fly through seven enemy-filled stages and slam a healthy helping of gunpowder into the evil doctor’s bum.

TwinBee (or WinBee if you’re Player Two) is armed with both a standard rapid fire shot and the ability to drop bombs on enemies on the ground. Enemies can only be killed with one or the other, depending on which plane they’re on. As well as these standard attacks you can also perform a screen-filling special move where you fire a bunch of tiny TwinBees around the screen, dealing huge damage in the process: naturally, these are limited in number.

Finally, you also have the ability to perform a punch attack. At first glance this move looks like a bit of a waste of time given how close you have to get to enemies to perform it, but it can also deflect some bullets and is needed to take out certain foes that can’t be harmed in any other way. All of these different moves combine to make a shooter that’s a little more than just taping down a single fire button and swooping around.

Punching planes aside, Pop’n Twinbee’s other main gimmick is its power-up system. Rather than simply picking up randomly dropped weapons and the like as in most other shoot ‘em ups, here you’re instead collecting bells that fall from the sky. These bells are usually bronze in colour when they first arrive, and only give you points when you pick them up. However, you can shoot these bells and juggle them back into the air, potentially changing their colour in the process.

Pink bells increase your shield, green ones add a new little mini helper ship to fly around you, blue ones speed you up and so on. The trick, then, is to keep juggling bells until they turn into a useful colour, while also having to cope with the constant onslaught of enemies in the process. It’s a fun way of keeping you on your toes, even if the two weapon power-ups you can collect are a little on the underwhelming side. One is a larger shot that doesn’t appear to be much more powerful than your standard shot, whereas the other is a spread shot that lets you fire with a wider range but has a slower rate of fire.

The single-player mode is as you would expect, but if you don’t fancy going it solo a second player can hop into the pink ship WinBee and the pair of you can fly through all seven levels together. There’s also a brilliant addition here that should have been present in more co-op games over the years but sadly failed to catch on: it’s called Couple mode and, as the name suggests, it’s designed to let you play with your partner, even if they don’t have a lot of gaming experience.

Here’s how it works: with Couple mode switched off your co-op experience is pretty much the same as it is in other shoot ‘em ups: you both take on the approaching enemies as equals and deal with them in the normal manner. Turn on Couple mode, however, and the enemies will focus all their attacks on TwinBee (player one), meaning the player controlling WinBee has a much easier time of things and can act as an assistant, taking out bad guys to lessen the onslaught their partner is facing. It’s an excellent way to get a non-gaming partner, child or sibling involved when they may otherwise be intimidated by a load of bullets flying at them.

You would think this Couple mode combined with its cutesy graphics would make it an easy game, but the reality is that Pop’n Twinbee is as challenging as you want it to be. The Options menu generously gives you seven difficulty settings to choose between, meaning you can make it a stress-free scroller or a knuckle-clenching knockabout depending on your own personal taste. The easiest difficulty is easier than in most shoot ‘em ups, however, and this – combined with the fact that the bosses are less imposing than in its peers – makes it an ideal entry point for people curious about the genre but intimidated by stories of ‘bullet hell’ hijinks.

Conclusion

Finally making its official North American debut 27 years after its original release, Pop'n Twinbee is a charming, colourful shoot 'em up that will appeal both to complete novices and grizzled veterans. Its special Couple mode is a great twist on the typical co-op formula, and its brilliant stage and enemy designs make it a treat to play to this day.