Friday 28 February 2020

Mega Drive Review - Bonanza Bros (Game 183)

 At a time of predictable 2D platformers, 'Bonanza Bros' tried something new. But when stealth games are far more common should sneak back to this one?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

“Not in game footage” is wording many will be familiar with as the line that Distinguishes in game footage and non-playable cut scenes evaporators more with each console generation.  There was a time where games publishers didn’t have to worry that advertising could be considered misleading: potential customers would never realistically believe that the lifelike cinematic footage would really be replicated in the game. In the eighties and nineties box art could get away with showing anything to attract a potential customer.

‘Bonanza Bros’ is a game that I remember having a distinctly eye-catching box, with the rendered 3d characters of Robo and Mobo. Of course in the days pre-‘donkey Kong country’, I didn’t really believe that an actual game could look like this. Even arcade titles or games on the neo-geo weren’t offering real time 3D graphics. But I do remember looking on the back of the box and thinking the screenshots didn’t look that far removed from the experience suggested on the front. With its stylised  cartoon robots Living in a  bizarre robotic world, ‘Bonanza Bros’ looked distinct, which is fitting for this quirky game that really stands apart from other 16bit titles.

‘Bonanza Bros’ is a side-scrolling stealth game that tests your timing and dexterity across ten stages. It’s not a complicated game as your goal is simply grab all the items you can in the time limit and try not to get shot, arrested or squashed. ‘Bonanza bro’s’ title and permanent split screen highlights the fact that this is a game designed for two to play together, but you can enjoy the game alone. That being said, the game doesn’t scale for a solo player so it’s essentially twice as hard when you have no friends. 

Released for the Mega Drive and Genesis in 1991 after a successful year in the arcades, the story for ‘bonanza bro’s’ differs depending on where you’re playing the game. According to the European manual and intro, two wanted thieves Robo and Mobo ply their trade in Badville. The inept police chief has been losing the fight against crime so in a last ditch attempt, offers a plea deal to the wanted robbers. He’ll pardon their crimes if the duo break into certain locations and Secure evidence against other criminals.

It’s a story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as the procured evidence would be inadmissible in court. Meanwhile, the city’s most notorious and successful thieves would be immune to prosecution. The American release has a revised story, but logic and reason are just as absent. Our protagonists are renamed to spike and Mike and are now security testers. They’re approached by a businessman who has been the victim of repeated robberies. He needs them to test his security forces by retrieving every specified item from his properties. According to the game’s graphic designer Manabu Kusunoki, this plot shift was at the request of the top brass.  “The president of Sega didn’t want the protagonists to be evil so we changed the plot slightly. Robo and Mobo then became ‘chivalrous robbers’ stealing for a good cause”.
The narrative change does at least explain the three minute level time limit; the duo’s business card promises results within that time.

The main gameplay is pretty straightforward. At the start of each level you are told how many items you’ll have to find and steal in any oven level. You can tell where these are from an onscreen map, which also shows the stage exit which you’ll need to reach once you’ve found all the treasures.  You have a gun that can stun any guards you cross paths with and to pick up loot simply run over it.  If you get hit either by an enemy projectile or their baton, you’ll drop all of the items you’ve found so Far. But this isn't much of a problem, unless you're in an awkward position with lots of enemies, since you’ll start each new life where you just died.
Your characters can jump and as each level has an additional layer of depth you also have the ability to move between the foreground and background. Mobo and Robo can hug walls which helps throw off any guards that may be chasing you since they will only pursue once you’re in their line-of-sight. If you approach or come out of cover and they're facing the other way you can temporarily stun them, an advisable tactic since enemies can alert others. Police and guards come in a variety of flavours, from the single cop who Fires slowly and keep their distance, to armoured guards who can only be shot from one side.

As the levels progress, new opponents get introduced, and soon you’ll be avoiding dogs, bomb throwing larger guards who can withstand four hits and the almost unstoppable lightning fast ninja guards. However rushing into conflict is never advisable as seemingly innocuous enemies can be a pain if they alert a gang of bigger thighs enemies. The best approach is to be stealthy, picking them off one by one and avoiding detection by switching between the two plains of play. Thankfully, even if you alert an enemy you get a split second to subdue them but it’s best to take a route through the level that avoids them. In this way ‘bonanza bros’ feels more like a puzzle game than an action game. You study the map trying to work out how to get the treasure in a room behind three heavily armed guards, without having to confront them directly.  Different levels add variety and novelty to the gameplay. Throughout the game doors can be used to squash any guard and   the mint levels massive metal presses do much the same but can be activated from a distance. A couple of the levels have zip lines and even objects you can use to disguise yourself to throw off any pursuers. Although you get up to nine lives to complete a stage, all the requisite treasures must be done within three minutes even when playing solo.
On some levels this seems far too long, but by the latter half of the game you mustn’t double back and need to find a direct route through. In practice though, the guards aren’t the biggest headache for a player. Scattered around stages are tripping hazards such as discarded cans, rakes and banana peels. The final pyramid stage also includes instant death pits, which open the second you step on them. They wouldn’t be so bad if the jump was slightly more generous. The low arc and short distance equates to minimal clearance over these level obstructions and anything less than pixel perfect precision leads to instant death. It feels like a lazy way to stop the player completing the game, but achieving this is celebrated with so little. There’s very little more anticlimactic than a text only “congratulations” screen.

While it may not have the sneaking depth of a game like ‘Metal Gear’, designer Manabu Kusunoki remains proud of the unconventional ‘Bonanza Bros’ play style. “Some aspects of the game such as it stealth mechanic and co-op gameplay were fairly new at the time, but these ideas just evolved organically from the robbery theme”. Although often compared to ‘Spy vs. Spy’, Kusunoki believes the game was inspired by a lot of different sources. “We used to play a lot of foreign PC and Amiga games for inspiration. But ‘Keystone Kapers’ and ‘Elevator Action Returns’ were not especially influential. I watched ‘The Pink Panther’ ‘The Three Amigos’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’ and brought their mood and atmosphere into the game.” 

“There's no denying the graphical appeal of Bonanza Bros’” wrote Computer and Video Game magazine at the time. “The sprites are true to the arcade, with some nice, varied backdrops and excellent sprites.”  According to Keith Stuart (in the authoritative ‘Sega Mega Drive Collected Works’) this “idiosyncratic platformer was notable for its use of primitive 3D shapes, primary colours and bold patterns – an aesthetic that was derived as much from the emergent computer-generated imagery of the day as it was from the Memphis style of the 1980”. Manabu Kusunoki says the team had a specific look in mind when designing ‘Bonanza Bros’. “We wanted to create a slick artistic style – what is often called a ‘CG Style’. We created the characters first then decided on the game concepts”. Inspiration for the main characters came from an unexpected, but with hindsight, unsurprising source.
“For Robo and Mobo, we always had the image of ‘The Blues Brothers’ in mind, so they absolutely had to wear sunglasses”. Given that the gameplay required quick reading on the environments, clarity of the game world was essential. “The aesthetic was characterised by linear, simplistic shapes and elegant colour gradients, so we designed each stage with this in mind. We were careful to not create anything overly realistic, but at the same time the environments had to be recognisable”.  As an additional bit of fan service, the Mega Drive’s art museum stage features pictures from assorted Sega games. There are also small Pac-Man style story interludes after every few stages, unique to this home port. 

Audibly the game is quirky and steps away from the thrashing sound typically associated with Mega Drive games. If anything it’s close to ‘Snake Rattle and Roll’ or ‘Toejam and Earl’ than ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’. Kusunoki says that, once again, cinematic comic capers served as an influence. “We even tried to reference the famous theme song from ‘The Pink Panther’ in the game’s soundtrack”. It’s a shame the magic cycles between a few tracks because what’s her is great, with even some digitized speech peppered throughout a play through, which sadly won’t take you longer than an hour.

Critics at the time believed the game was perhaps too easy. “My only gripe is that there are too many continue, and they let you finish the game very quickly (especially if you're also playing it on "easy" level)” wrote Mean Machines magazine.   “There are actually less levels in this version than there are in the arcades and all of the bonus levels are missing too” agreed CVG magazine. “Superficially, 'Bonanza Bros' is a great game, but it lacks the last ability factor that would make shelling out £35.00 truly justified.” 

Fortunately today, players don’t have to pay that much. 20 years ago, All Game Guide said ‘Bonanza Bros’  “is one of the hardest Genesis games to find”. But now, it’s included in most Mega Drive compilation collections. At a time when most platform games played largely the same, ‘Bonanza Bros’ offers something original and quirky. Like most things, it’s more fun with two. However for even a lone player this odd ball romp is a quirky as its European home computer box.

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