The Switch is fast becoming a fantastic console for shoot ‘em up fans, particularly in handheld mode where its relatively lag-free screen makes it ideal for twitch gameplay. Black Bird is another impressive game to add to the growing library of Switch shooters, courtesy of game designer Yoshiro Kimura, who produced Little King’s Story and both No More Heroes games on Wii.
Kimura is now the founder of Onion Games, a quirky Japanese indie studio that found success a few years back with the brilliant mobile game Million Onion Hotel. When it comes to Black Bird, the studio’s name couldn’t be more appropriate: while it initially looks like a straightforward shoot ‘em up, there are plenty of layers to this one.
Its plot – or what little there is of it – is minimalist at best. It opens with a young girl who suddenly collapses in the street. Passers-by ignore her, and one elderly chap even pokes at her lifeless body with his walking stick before strolling past. Then she turns into an egg (as you do) and hatches as a crow-like creature with the ability to spit bullets of doom. Cue four stages of anarchy as you fly around destroying everything that moves, and most things that don’t.
In order to beat each looping level, you have to fly left and right gunning down endless streams of enemies, while taking out each of the larger bases dotted around. Once every base has been destroyed, the boss will appear: take it out and the stage will be cleared. If you’re familiar with the classic Sega arcade and Master System game Fantasy Zone, it’s exactly the same principle as that.
The game’s art style is a treat, with its sepia-toned pixel art giving everything a suitably moody feel. What makes it even better though is the way each stage is packed with minor details. The tiny little citizens running around add a welcome hustle and bustle to the environment and a generous proportion of the scenery can be destroyed, making for some very satisfying moments as you swoop around unleashing bullet-shaped mayhem on the dinky community (presumably as punishment for ignoring the fallen girl).
These pint-sized pedestrians aren’t just there for decoration, mind you: they actually form part of the game’s combo-based scoring system. Every time you kill either an enemy or an innocent punter your combo number will increase by one (up to a maximum of 30), but if you leave it for a few seconds without killing anyone, it resets back to zero. This can be a problem when taking on the bases because they require a decent amount of firepower to take down, meaning a good strategy is to constantly switch between attacking a base and backing off for a second to kill an enemy or two to keep the combo running.
It’s a simple but effective system, and it’s necessary when it comes to keeping the game interesting, at least in its initial mode. Its four stages are easy to play through, even with the precarious condition that losing your sole life will give you a Game Over and force you to start again with no continues. Only the final boss – a bullet hell monstrosity consisting of three different forms – ramps up the difficulty to a level that anyone even faintly familiar with the shoot ‘em up genre will have any trouble with.
The challenge here, then, is in developing strategies to keep your combo going in order to build the highest score possible (thankfully there are online leaderboards to act as further motivation). This combines with a unique power-up system – in which beaten enemies drop gems that increase your experience and give you new abilities, but get progressively smaller the longer you leave them – to make for a game that initially seems quite basic, but actually has plenty of depth and surprises.
Beat the final boss for the first time and you’ll also unlock True Mode, which is where things really step up a gear. What was previously a slightly too easy shoot ‘em up suddenly becomes hard as nails: enemy bullets pile in from all over the shop and you’d do well to even finish the first level before exploding in a miserable shower of feathers. Suddenly, you realise there are two options to play the game: try to use the combo mechanics to get the highest score you can in Normal Mode, or just try to even beat True Mode in the first place (it has multiple endings and secrets to discover too, just in case there wasn’t enough going on).
It isn’t perfect, of course. It threatens to have a really clever idea in which the music ties in with enemy behaviour: its quirky tunes – complete with nonsensical lyrics – are initially timed to make baddies spawn on major beats. This gives the impression that it’s going to be this brilliantly immersive shooter where the music and action sync together in perfect harmony, but in reality everything fills up with bullets and explosions so quickly that you’ll notice it the first couple of times and then completely forget it’s a thing: there’s just too much going on.
It’s also clearly intended for a specific type of player. If you’re the sort who feels that a game is beaten once you’ve seen the credits then you’re likely to be done with it after half an hour. This is undoubtedly a game designed for repeated playthroughs and you’re going to have to be able to take satisfaction in beating your personal high score and seeing your name climbing up the rankings if you’re going to get the most out of it. This isn’t about an epic adventure, it’s about perfecting a smaller one.
Black Bird is a unique little shooter that only gets better as you play it more and uncover its secrets. Its vintage-style art direction is charmingly melancholy, and its strange soundtrack only adds an extra layer of quirkiness to proceedings. It’s very much a score challenge game, though, meaning players expecting a wealth of things to see and do may be left feeling underwhelmed by its meagre four stages - especially when you consider the rather high price tag. This is very much a case of quality over quantity, and as long as you’re up for repeat playthroughs, you’re in for a wonderfully bizarre treat.