Games aren’t just games, oh no!
Anyone who really knows anything about games will tell you they’re far more than mere lowly entertainment.
This is the mantra we repeat to ourselves to prove the value of our hobby – You fool! Games aren’t games! Games are art! Games are mature (most of the time you can read that as “violent with occasional boobs”)! A lot of us – myself included – spend a lot of time talking about beautiful soundtracks worthy of gracing anyone music-lover’s headphones, of complex multi-game plots that can leave you in floods of tears, of art direction that rivals anything a more traditionally respectable source can come up with.
And that’s all absolutely true: At their most emotive games can be incredible life-affirming experiences that leave an indelible mark on your soul and change how you see the world forever. But sometimes we go so far to “protect” games from being called games that we are in danger of rejecting the legitimacy of having fun – a game can’t be a real game unless it’s about something that proves how worthy and intellectual our hobby is and how clever we all are for noticing whatever poorly-realised political commentary the director wrapped up in twenty hours of cutscenes -most of which are spent listening to Steve Blum and Troy Baker monologue at each other in a variety of increasingly improbable accents.
Bishi Bashi Special is in no danger of being grouped in with these intellectual or “worthy” titles and yet it’s undeniably one of the gamiest games to ever come out of the medium – it’s unapologetically a game for gaming’s sake. For the fun of it.
Bishi Bashi Special has no message, no clever twist, no deep visual theme that can be linked back to a famous classical ukiyo-e print so everyone can feel good for noticing the similarities between the two – it’s just a good time neatly packed into a single CD-ROM. In keeping with the series’ arcade roots you’re just supposed to laugh your head off for ten minutes or so and then go do something else… or go back and laugh some more. And you will laugh, because Bishi Bashi’s a virtual smorgasbord of hilarious minigames that have you breathlessly going from looking out for aliens to bowling with cars in an opera house like a sugared-up child’s very best five-sentence story. The collection neatly avoids those tiresome “Oh those wacky Japanese!” comments simply by being very well made – your performance is entirely down to personal skill, not blind luck – and that’s what makes it more than a quick snack of a game, more than something to laugh at for half an hour. If you practise, if you engage, if you compete, you’re far more likely to break your fastest time/largest number of noodle bowls consumed/cockroaches sprayed next time. It’s unquestionably absurd and all the better for it – there’s no point pretending there’s an edifying revelation to be had from shaking up a cola-powered car or inflating a balloon to the point it reduces a crudely digitised kitchen to rubble, but the game embraces the daftness found in every single one of its forty-six little games with aplomb. A very small minority of these delightful distractions do feel a little too similar to one another for comfort but those are so rare and everything passes by so quickly (games are typically over in less than thirty seconds – it’s very much a pre-WarioWare WarioWare) by the time your brain’s gathered itself together enough to think “Hey, haven’t we alre-” you’ve moved on and are now a bomb-chewing baseball player or busy hopping on sharks dressed as an adorable bunny girl. A few events happily ditch all pretence of computer gaming entirely and simply recreate exaggerated versions of universally cherished childhood mischief – clicking the lead out of a mechanical pencil as fast as possible, shaking a can of pop so hard it’ll escape the Earth’s atmosphere, or mucking around with a calculator because it’s the most exciting piece of technology in a five mile radius are all as cheekily amusing as they used to be and knowing you don’t have to clean up or share what was so funny with the rest of the class, Kimimi, only sweetens the experience.
If I had to pick just one minigame to showcase Bishi Bashi Special’s unique entertainment style it would have to be the one memorably titled in the series’ lone European localisation as:
Which has you and ideally a willing friend firing bald muscular men in budgie smugglers (I would advise against clicking that link) out of cannons onto a moving platform held by a giant smiling statue of a man with a similar build.
It. Is. GLORIOUS.
That minigame and Vib Ribbon’s tutorial were, out of all my wonderful PlayStation adventures (and there are many, many, PlayStation games worth cheering for), the two times I was absolutely convinced I was in the presence of greatness.
Let’s not forget the presentation either: The graphics are as boldly inconsistent as the gameplay, taking a good hard look at the artist’s rulebook before setting it on fire and feeding the (cooled) ashes to a nearby dog. Konami, who at this time were wowing not quite enough people with their 2D muscle to stop subsequent Metrovanias moving to handheld (as much as I adore Symphony of the Night it was neither a critical or commercial sensation on release) and squeezing a little Tactical Espionage Action in there between an unstoppable flood of BeatMania and Dance Dance Revolution titles (don’t forget Gungage!) went full scissors-to-a-magazine with this one, taking whatever the heck they felt like from any source that took their fancy. The point being: Once upon a time Konami were thought of as a sensible and respected company with a string of famous and well-crafted hits to their name thanks to the tireless efforts of their obscenely talented staff, so when you see a low-poly digger or a stiffly animated digitised actor – rough edges and all – in Bishi Bashi Special you can be sure this isn’t the mark of a game rushed out the door half-done but a the sort of deliberately lo-fi style that only happens when very highly trained artists who know exactly what they’re doing decide this is how they want the game to look.
This is gaming as a toy – and I mean that in the most positive and joyous way possible. It fulfils its intended purpose beautifully and serves as a great reminder that being a lot of fun really is enough – and that we should all try to be brave enough to embrace these blessed fonts of creativity especially when they don’t fit within accepted norms or standard gaming concepts of “value for money” (most frequently formed as “If Game A and Game B are both Good, but Game B lasts 30 hours longer than Game A, then Game B is the one worth buying”. Bishi Bashi Special in its entirety takes about half an hour to see through to completion and there’s no unlockable content or secrets tucked away in there at all, yet I’ve spent far longer smiling at the thought of playing this than I have playing many other games with far more polish and content.