Game designer Yoshiro Kimura isn't precisely a household name, unless your house is extremely well-versed in the creators of offbeat Japanese games. A former SquareSoft designer, Kimura left that company in the ’90s to help establish Love-de-Lic, a decidedly niche studio whose works (including Moon and Lack of Love) never made their way into English. Once Love-de-Lic folded, Kimura founded Punchline before joining Grasshopper Manufacture and eventually establishing his current studio, Onion Games.
At Grasshopper, Kimura worked on the stylish No More Heroes series, but his own tastes seem to tend more toward the low-key and quirky. That probably accounts for the output we've seen so far from Onion Games, whose first two creations have a whimsical yet decidedly ominous pixel-art vibe built atop accessible game mechanics. The second of these games, Black Bird, debuted this past weekend at BitSummit Vol. 6 in Kyoto. Black Bird sees Kimura's studio working in a similar vein to last year's Million Onion Hotel, at least in style if not in format. Where that mobile title amounted to a puzzler, more or less, Black Bird takes the form of a 2D shoot-em-up.
Black Bird might remind you of a number of older examples of the shooter genre. It's a bit like Williams' Defender or Sega's Fantasy Zone in that the action scrolls freely left or right in a fixed space and waves of enemies materialize to beset the player's "ship," the titular Black Bird. The Black Bird itself may or may not be an actual bird. It's a round ball-like object with an eye and a beak, but a strange, chaotic black energy surrounds it, giving it a decidedly demonic aspect. It darts back and forth and fires projectiles at its enemies, clearing out waves of soldiers and weapon emplacements protecting fortress-like structures.
The game's vibe has an old-timey sepia-tinted vibe to it. If Cuphead was a living Fleischer cartoon, Black Bird is a 19th century daguerreotype come to life. The only real spots of vivid color in the game manifest as green gems and the searing red projectiles enemies fire at you, which generally appear as barrages of arrows. Here, Black Bird almost calls to mind Taito's arcade classic New Zealand Story, as enemy archers often take to hot air balloons, launching enormous spreads of bow-and-arrow attacks or fusillades of bullets as they drift across the screen. Individually, these soldiers don't pose much of a threat, but they appear suddenly and in huge numbers, forcing players to dodge and weave madly.
If Black Bird were simply a standard shooter, it wouldn't pose all that much of a challenge. The game introduces a risk-reward collection element to keep things more interesting; as in Fantasy Zone, defeated enemies drop crystals that fall to the ground and benefit the player when collected. Gather enough gems and the Black Bird's firepower will increase. Even more valuable are the larger cores dropped by the fortress' gun emplacements. These grant you instant perks ranging from added attack power to screen-clearing bombs to health recovery. Like the bells in Konami's Twinbee games, these special cores will cycle through the rewards they grant as you shoot them, which adds even more complexity to the action. Not only do you need to dodge and weave through enemy fire in order to swoop down to the hazardous ground zone and grab these gems, you need to be mindful of the gems' state when you collect them.
It's a fast-paced game that doesn't precisely break new ground, but it explores an interesting combination of classic shooter conventions in a stylish way. The BitSummit demo consisted of a challenge to simply survive enemy attacks for several minutes, after which the action shifted to a boss battle against a bizarre zeppelin with a prow designed in the shape of a comical face. As with the rest of Black Bird, this showdown straddles the lines between cartoonish, nightmarish, and retro game.
The majority of games on display at BitSummit this year were slated for release on Switch and Steam, and Black Bird is no different. Its release is currently slated for summer, so fans of surreal vintage shoot-em-up action won't have long to wait to get their demonic avian nightmare on.