Capcom is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2013. Since the company formed in 1983, it has published a host of classic titles from the Resident Evil series, countless Street Fighter games and many timeless iterations of Mega Man. One of its lesser known titles is Super Pang (known as Super Buster Bros. in North America), an arcade-style bubble-blasting game released in 1992 on the Super Nintendo, which audaciously attempted to combine a shooter with a puzzler.
The basic premise of Super Pang is to clear the area of bubbles, which bounce around the screen at varying speeds. The bubbles come in a host of different shapes and sizes, and for the most part start off pretty darn big. Popping a bubble splits it into two smaller sized bubbles — this happens again and again until they become so small that popping them removes them from the arena completely. It sounds simple enough, but the screen can quickly become encumbered by dozens of tiny bubbles that rain down on you relentlessly, leaving you frantically shooting like a mad man in an often vain attempt to clear the stage.
You can only take a single hit from the bubbles. If one so much as brushes your arm you’ll find yourself pinging around the area with one less life in your arsenal. You’re equipped with a hookshot, of which you can only fire one at a time and, short of a few power-ups, that’s it. Upon shooting your hook, it travels from the bottom of the screen to the top, and you can’t fire again until it either reaches the ceiling or pops a bubble on the way up. Helpfully, bubbles are also popped should they wistfully bounce into the chain left behind the hook itself.
Super Pang has two modes for you to play through: Tour and Panic. Tour has you travelling around the globe to various countries, each one with three stages to play through. The stages are actually quite diverse, with some of them being extremely challenging and inevitably frustrating. They’re usually made up of walls, floors, ladders, destructible blocks and, if you’re unlucky enough, ice. It all varies depending on which difficulty you select at the start: easy, normal, hard or expert. The speed of the bubbles also increases depending on difficulty; expert is not for the faint-hearted.
Panic mode, on the other hand, is a clear arena with an endless barrage of bubbles coming from above. You progress through the levels by popping them and filling up a meter along the bottom of the screen. It quickly gets challenging and has a nasty habit of causing intense frustration; however, there’s something about it that makes you want to play it again, even after you’ve lost all your lives. Tour mode, meanwhile, starts off easy enough; at first there's an ample time limit and only a couple of bubbles to get through, but after just a few short levels the difficulty really begins to ramp up as several bubbles ping around causing you grief.
Tactics quickly become important. Sure, you could shoot all the easy-to-hit big bubbles, but then you’ll find you have too many small bubbles on your hands to handle. Choosing the best approach in such a short space of time can be exhilarating and often punishing — one wrong move and you’re dead.
As mentioned there are power-ups to help you along the way, some of which are more useful than others. The power-up system is necessary if you want to progress, but it can also become an annoying hindrance. For example, there are three main weapon upgrades: the double shot, the grapple hook and the blaster. The double shot, which allows you to shoot two hooks at once, is the most common of the three and is as excessively useful as you’d expect.
However the grapple hook, useful as it can be, can also leave you stranded without a weapon. When you shoot a grapple hook, it attaches itself to the ceiling and stays there for a few seconds, or until a bubble hits it. This can be useful, but while it’s stuck there you cannot shoot another hook, and you can’t get rid of the power-up until you pick up another weapon. This often leads to you running away from bubbles in a mad panic that rarely ends well.
The most useful of the three weapons is the blaster, which shoots out a Contra-style spread of bullets that takes out any bubbles unfortunate enough to get in the way. As soon as you get this weapon you find yourself hammering the fire button, decimating all those which cross you. It doesn’t run out and you have it until you pick up another weapon.
Power-ups are dispersed in various ways; they come out of popped bubbles, destructible blocks and even the ceiling. The problem is, sometimes you’ll be firing away at some bubbles and a power-up will fall onto you without you really having anything to say on the matter. This can be exasperating when you’re decimating with the blaster and all of a sudden a grapple hook falls on top of you, often leading to an untimely death and a tossed SNES controller.
There are other power-ups that, again, vary in their helpfulness depending on the situation. There’s a blue protective bubble shield which is always handy, allowing you to take a hit before kicking the bucket. Then there’s the time stop, which freezes all bubbles, and the hourglass, which slows them down — both of these are useful in pretty much any given situation. But then there’s the dynamite, an item which explodes all bubbles into their smallest form. In a stage where there are several medium-to-large sized bubbles, picking up the dynamite is as good as signing your own death warrant. Super Pang often throws items at the player as if to tempt them into using it, but crucially success depends just as much on leaving certain items alone as it does picking others up.
On occasion, the game will even throw monsters onto the screen which again will either make your life easier or ten times more difficult — the creatures pop bubbles but can also kill you. The main bunch you’ll find the most are a collection of birds that fly back and forth across the screen, a bizarre red cloud which flies around destroying everything in its path when it's shot, and the slow moving lizard who ponders across the bottom of the screen from time to time eating any bubbles that go near him. You can touch the latter monster without dying, but shooting the poor fellow will cause him to bounce off in a random direction and explode — destroying bubbles, and sometimes you.
Super Pang has aged reasonably well. The backgrounds can become a little uninspired at times, but for the most part the visuals stand up pretty well — you don’t need HD graphics to enjoy this one. The audio isn’t too bad either. The odd track can become highly irritating — especially when you end up playing for prolonged periods on a level you just can’t seem to beat — but the majority of the music is fun and has a habit of getting stuck in your head for a couple of days after playing. The diversity across the many levels, which modify themselves depending on the difficulty, is actually pretty impressive and there’s a lot of fun to be had with Super Pang. It’s definitely worth a look for the high-score chasers out there.
While it’s unlikely to win any awards these days, Super Pang has enough charm and challenge about it to make it enjoyable. Its punishing difficulty can become frustrating at times, but there’s a real sense of reward from climbing the high-score ladder. It’s not a game that you’ll spend hours at a time playing through, but if you fancy a quick half hour of addictive arcade-style gameplay, then there’s enough here to keep you entertained.