I find it surprising that Konami had to be the company to make a shooter like TwinBee. The genre has always valued skill and the steady process of gathering power above all else, and Konami’s games reflected that better than anybody else. Yet here’s a game whose most prominent feature (bouncing bells to change what weapons you get) encourages a balance between that kind of serious-minded work and a simplistic fun that eschews it altogether. What’s more, that formula proved popular enough to spawn not only a franchise, but also an entire sub-genre of shooters.
Perhaps that’s why Konami decided to make Rainbow Bell Adventures a platformer instead of a cute-em-up: they wanted to continue their experiments on fertile ground. If that’s the case, though, then Konami’s experiment didn’t play out as they thought it would. This wasn’t because of a failure to understand Twinbee, but because of a failure to understand how this new genre worked. The game’s structures are too loose, and they work against each other too much to induce the play the series is known for. Instead of evoking the iconic lighthearted play that characterizes the series, Rainbow Bell Adventures offers something emptier and less elegant.
I call the game an experiment, but on its face, many of its inner workings look downright conventional. It’s a platformer in the classic Mario mold: your goal is to hop through various stages in search of a goal post at the end of each one. To achieve that goal, you’ll find yourself bouncing on enemies’ heads, navigating a series of increasingly difficult jumps, collecting items that make those first two tasks easier, etc. Where Rainbow Bell Adventures deviates from the formula (at least in theory) is the dash ability: hold the jump button down long enough, and you send yourself rocketing off in whatever direction you so choose. And unless you run into a surface to bounce off like a pinball, you’ll continue rocketing in that direction. In theory, it’s easy to see how this experiment was supposed to play out: give the player the means to create their own fun, free from the rigid script the game provides them. Capture the thrilling speed of Sonic the Hedgehog, but with a zany cartoony ethos instead of an edgy one.
In practice, though, the game assumes a nonexistent conflicts between structure and play, and it’s under this assumption that the game creates more harmful tensions than the ones it’s trying to fix. Far from forcing the player to follow a rigid script, a platformer’s levels are perhaps its best tools for creating mood. They allow the game to model what behavior they want out of the player, which in turn allows the game to set whatever tone it wants the player to experience. Your game could emphasize relaxed structures that encourage play; or maybe tenser, more threatening ones that offer the player a challenge. You can even take control away from the player to simulate a roller coaster experience. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear how much play in platformers relies on the surrounding structures.
So anything that averts those structures, like Rainbow Bell Adventures‘ dash mechanic, risks interfering with the player’s engagement. Unfortunately, that proves to be the case. Because the dash launches your character into the sky, it isn’t bound to whatever features populate the level. And because Rainbow Bell Adventures is such a goal-oriented affair, the game effectively disincentivizes engaging with the levels, no matter how appealing they might look. (In my experience, they looked reasonably appealing.) This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the dash was enjoyable to use for its own sake. Yet at least for me, the opposite proved to be true. After a minute or two of launching myself into the sky, I was able to hit the ceiling in one of the levels (think Metroid II). But this feat brought me no joy. It felt mundane; like the game had long ago disconnected from whatever conversation we were having. Imagine how that feels on a smaller scale, repeated throughout most of the levels. That should indicate the kind of damage dashing inflicts on the game.
The goods news is that the game corrects against this as it goes on, structuring the levels in such a way that dashing through them becomes less of an option. The bad news is that it still doesn’t structure them to any particular end. They don’t press down on you with too much pressure, so challenge doesn’t apply here (at least not too well). And they’re too stiff to offer any real opportunities for play. What’s left is a very grey experience; one where you’re just going through the motions. Under the right conditions, such an experience can feel serviceable, but always with the hope that the next level has something better to offer. Some of them do. For example, I remember one race level toward the end of the game that excited me in all the right ways. And the boss battles are the closest thing Rainbow Bell Adventures has to an honest challenge. These are the exception, though, not the rule.
What makes this especially strange is how well other parts of the game grasp the Twinbee essence. The art style is as on-point as ever: it’s highly cartoony, filling the screen with as many bright colors and soft, easy to read shapes as it can muster. While it’s overbearing in a a lot of areas, the art style at least reflects the whimsy that a game like this should embody. The way you select levels carries that whimsy even further, asking that you navigate the kind of grid you’d see in a board game. When combined with the art (and the glossy Konami music), you get the sense that the game’s inviting you into the experience in much the same way a toy might: for the pure fun of it. So you can engage in meaningless activities that exist for no other sake than their own. This tells me that the game isn’t unaware of how to invoke play. It just doesn’t know how to do it where it matters most.
Ultimately, my response to Rainbow Bell Adventures is apathy: for all the game’s failures do to hold it back, they don’t drag it down far enough that I’m left angry after playing it. Yet by that same logic, I’ve basically admitted that the game left no impact on me. At least games that anger or offend have some effect on you (albeit a very negative one); games that produce apathy are so forceless as to leave no impact whatsoever. That’s the kind of harm that I’ve been hinting at throughout this review: the kind that leaves the game no future after you’ve stopped playing.