Back in the late ’80s, a Japanese studio called Mitchell Corporation – which had previously cut its teeth on motorcycle fighting game (Mad Motor) and a risque casino title (Poker Ladies) – decided to have a go at another increasingly popular genre: the action-puzzler. Originally made for arcades, Pang (or Buster Bros. as it was known here in the West – it was also called Pomping World in some regions, which is the best name for any video game, ever) took something as simple as destroying a multiplying set of bouncing balls and transformed it into a timeless gaming hit.
Turn the clock forward 30 years and the latest iteration, Pang Adventures, is ready to mark its anniversary with a debut on Nintendo Switch. Now in the hands of French studio DotEmu – which is best known for porting all manner of retro classics to Switch and other platforms – this new incarnation keeps the same basic rules and co-operative gameplay and simply turns up the dial up with even more challenging layouts and power-up combinations.
At first glance, Pang Adventures looks and plays like a cross between Bust-A-Move, Block Breaker and Space Invaders. Whether played solo or in local or online co-op, you play a young hero who is faced with fighting off a cartoonish alien invasion. To do this, you’ll play on a single-screen where you can only fire a harpoon gun upwards. Above you, a set of bouncing balls explode and divide into smaller ones every time you land a hit. The more you strike, the greater the chance you’ll get knocked out when they land, so it’s all about tactically destroying balls in focused groups.
The fun comes not just in using space to your advantage, but how each map can be used to destroy every ball safely and within each 30-second time limit. Some balls start in strange and usual patterns, requiring you to hit them in a certain way to create pockets where you can continue the fight. Others will have platforms that can be shot away to funnel balls into a 'kill box', or creatures such as crabs that will pop them for you if you guide them carefully into their pincers. You’ll always want to be thinking about scoring big, so collecting everything from fruit to statue heads will help you hit those numerical heights.
With power-ups to collect (which offer a short time of extra defensive or offensive use, such as a gem-like shield or life-saving blaster that coats the air above you in glorious bullet hell) DotEmu has managed to maintain the simplicity of Pang’s original design while ramping up the variables at play. When played solo, it’s certainly far more of a challenge, but when played locally or online with a partner, Pang Adventures is a riot as you rush to save one another from a rain of bouncing ball death. When you factor in those increasing difficulty spikes – such as balls that send electrical currents into your path if you destroy them – there’s a gratifying sense of achievement to be found once you’ve overcome a particularly tricky level.
'Tour' mode will likely be your first port of call, splitting its alien invasion story across the globe as you travel to each location (ranging from the sands of Bora Bora to the cold highlands of bonny Scotland, and beyond) and its 15 themed levels. In between each one you’ll face that region’s boss, which will force you to put into practice some of the new tactics you’ve learned, such as using explosive balls to take out larger pockets of balls in the air, or learning patterns to avoid instant death. It’s the right balance of challenge and fun, but that difficulty really does start to ramp up about half-way through its four-to-five-hour campaign.
Elsewhere, there’s a survival-style 'Panic' mode, and a retro-themed version of Pang in Score mode if you’re in this for the high scores. You can play cooperatively in all three modes, so there’s a ton of content here for someone who wants to play with a friend, a stranger or by their lonesome. The near-instant retry system means that you never really feel like you’ve been cheated out of a win, and with every level only last for 30 seconds at most, Pang Adventures serves as a far more suitable pairing for Nintendo Switch than it did on PC or other consoles.
If any real criticism can be laid at Pang Adventures’ door, it’s that DotEmu simply hasn’t tried to do something wholly original with the concept. As a contemporary tribute to an arcade classic, it ticks all the right boxes, but compared to the likes of Tetris Effect – which took an even more iconic game and turned it into a near out-of-body experience – this instalment does feel a little too safe considering the innovation that’s already available on the eShop.
Pang Adventures offers a tense and instantly enjoyable ode to a timeless arcade romp, and one that’s bound to engage and reward players who enjoyed it 30 years ago as well as those discovering it for the first time on the eShop. The support for online play is a real bonus, as many puzzle games of this ilk are want to simply plump for couch-play only, but for all its colourful chaos you are left hoping for something a little less predictable. Fans of the original will love it, but they may also lament the fact that more hasn't been done to update this classic series.