Konami’s cute-em-up series suffered a few compromises en route to Game Boy, but still managed to offer a good time.

Konami’s TwinBee series could be seen as a sort of companion piece the Gradius games, which we’ve already seen on Game Boy (as Nemesis), NES (Gradius), and Super NES (Gradius III). Both TwinBee and Gradius debuted in arcades in 1985, and both revolve heavily around their respective power-up systems.

TwinBee never seemed to gain as much traction as Gradius, though… probably because it’s less unique. It likely doesn’t help that it falls into the “cute-em-up” genre, something that has never really flown in the U.S. Indeed, the series’ Game Boy debut appeared in both Japan and Europe, but not in America. Until 2007’s Konami Arcade Classics for Nintendo DS, the only TwinBee title ever to reach American home consoles was Stinger for NES. And it almost didn’t leave Japan, for that matter. 

This Game Boy shooter debuted in Japan in October 1990, but it didn’t make its way to Europe until 1994, where Konami localized it as a tie-in to the Super NES release of Pop’n TwinBee, a conversion of a 1993 arcade title. That was stretching the truth just a bit; in Japan, this so-called “Pop’n TwinBee” for Game Boy appeared under the name TwinBee Da! and lacked the fancy mechanical additions that appeared in the console version of Pop’n TwinBee. This is really nothing more than a fairly basic follow-up to the original 1985 TwinBee, one lacking the fancy bells and whistles of the series’ sequels. (Well, OK, it had bells.) In fact, the Japanese manual specifically places TwinBee Da! between the original TwinBee and Stinger (which was actually the second game in the series). Not that much of anyone cares all that much about TwinBee canon.

Pop’n TwinBee for Game Boy has a straightforward design that spans four fairly brief stages—assuming you can live long enough, the game takes less than half an hour to complete. Like Super Mario Land, that’s pretty much the right length for a handheld experience of this type… though unlike Super Mario Land, Pop’n TwinBee lands on the “weirdly difficult” side of the balance rather than “extremely easy.”

For those familiar with Gradius, Pop’n TwinBee differs from its Konami stablemate in its format. Rather than playing as a horizontal scroller, it instead scrolls upward as a vertical shooter. TwinBee in general actually takes the majority of its design cues from Namco’s Xevious. Not only does the action scroll upward, your ship—a sentient combat machine named TwinBee for player one, and his lady pal WinBee for player two—attacks on two planes. The standard gun fires the length of the screen and destroys aerial threats, while your ships arm’s can also lob bombs to take out targets on the ground. It’s possible to lose TwinBee’s arms to enemy fire, and losing both of them leaves you completely incapable of retaliating against terrestrial attackers.

The dual-plane combat takes a little more getting used to here than usual, due primarily to the limitations of the Game Boy screen. In order to minimize visual confusion and clutter on a device capable of rendering the world in a paltry four shades of grey, Pop’n TwinBee’s designers denoted the plane of action on which objects appear with the use of color contrast. Aerial objects appear in darker tones than ground-based objects, which are instead rendered in Game Boy’s lighter shades. This is a smart and clever design choice, allowing the backgrounds to be more interesting than the vast expanses of blank white nothing we’ve seen in other shooters, while immediately communicating what is a “live” element and what is merely background. 

There’s only one frustrating exception to this rule. Enemy ground emplacements, whose appearance varies with each level, are also rendered with the same pale grey as other background details. They look like passive background details despite their ability to fire projectiles at TwinBee. It takes a little while to get used to the fact that objects fading gently into the background scenery can, in fact, blow you out of the sky.

Aside from this one minor quirk, the other issue that detracts from this game is the way it falls afoul of the same crime everyone commits in converting an NES or arcade title to Game Boy: The sprites are just a little too big for the Game Boy’s limited resolution. Compared to TwinBees on more robust platforms, the scale of Pop’n TwinBee’s proportions doesn’t give you a lot of breathing room when the action begins to fly fast and furious.

To compensate, Pop’n TwinBee moves a bit more slowly than in the series’ other incarnations. Still, it’s impossible not to feel like it all gets a bit unfair at times, especially in boss encounters. The final boss in particular is infuriating: It crowds your ship while firing off a triple spread of large projectiles that have surprisingly unforgiving hit boxes. Pop’n TwinBee tends to give the player a bit of clemency when it comes to collisions, but some of the bosses feel a lot more strict, and it’s hard to shake the impression that Konami compensated for the brevity of the game by making certain parts unreasonably challenging.

Pop’n TwinBee has one other maddening factor working against it: It suffers from the “Gradius effect” so common to Konami shooters. That is, when you die, you lose your power-ups. Going from a speedy, multi-shot death machine trailed by phantom helpers down to a pokey, weak default TwinBee is basically the point at which you should give up and call it a day. It’s not as completely ruthless as Gradius, fortunately. As in Life Force for NES, Pop’n TwinBee does offer a hint of mercy: When you die, your ship’s ghost drifts up toward the top of the screen. If you manage to grab it before it vanishes, you’ll recover your powers. This can be quite difficult to pull off, since TwinBees are slow to respawn—agonizingly slow, when you’re watching all your hard-earned power-ups float away off the top of the screen. If you die near the top of the screen, your phantom self gets a head start on floating out of reach, so you might as well not even bother. Still, a slim chance of recovery beats none.

With these issues at hand, Pop’n TwinBee may not be quite the slam dunk one might hope. Nevertheless, it’s still an excellent shooter for the platform. It looks great, with charming graphics that convey TwinBee’s general weirdness in monochrome. Some levels have you fighting flying butcher knives, so it’s as unhinged as expected.

Pop’n TwinBee maintains the series’ traditional power-up scheme, which requires you to shoot clouds to cause colored bells to fly out, they waft toward the bottom of the screen. You can “juggle” the bells to keep them in play by shooting them, and every few shots the bell changes color. Well, “color.” The monochrome limits of the Game Boy definitely work against a series so defined by its love of pastels, and that could be disastrous for the color-based power-up system. Pop’n TwinBee manages, though.

Bells appear as medium grey by default. As you shoot them, they turn light grey, then white, then transparent. The lack of actual color requires you pay a little more attention to the state of a given bell than on console… but considering how disastrous this system could have been on Game Boy, the fact that Pop’n TwinBee’s bell management works at all is quite remarkable.

Anyway, there’s a point to shooting bells and changing their “colors.” By default, bells simply provide you with points, but once they change colors, they begin granting different power-ups. They can increase your speed, double your fire, and generate phantom TwinBees that work a bit like Gradius’ Options. The bell system requires careful aim and the ability to shift your attention between hazards and bonuses. It demands a different skill set than Gradius’ power-up cycle or the shoot-’em-and-grab-’em power-ups of something like Star Soldier. You can also pick up occasional power-ups by bombing ground installations, though most of the time you’ll just find point bonuses there. 

Pop’n TwinBee spans multiple stages, each with a distinct visual theme. You’ll fight unique enemies in every level, and the different sprites you fight aren’t just cosmetic tweaks; different-looking enemies behave distinctly. 

The bosses are reasonably interesting, though they tend to demonstrate the same dichotomy you find in Gradius bosses. If you’re powered up, you’ll tear through them like tissue paper; if you’re stumping it with a default TwinBee, though, they can be almost impossible. This really becomes evident once you complete the fourth and final scrolling stage and have to take on the fifth stage, which consists of nothing but bosses. But hey, what’s a shooter without a little cruelty, right?

Like the best cute-em-ups, Pop’n TwinBee looks adorable yet hits hard. It definitely takes practice to master… or else an infinite lives cheat. Despite never making its way to the U.S., Pop’n TwinBee appears to have done well for Konami. They republished Pop’n TwinBee in an enhanced color version for Game Boy Color on the Japan- and Europe-exclusive Konami GB Collection 2. Years later, developer M2 gave the game a full-on arcade-style upgrade on the TwinBee Collection for PSP.

Still, it’s annoying that America missed out on this perfectly charming little Game Boy shooter. It’s a pleasant and challenging diversion, packed with cute graphics and great music. And it’s all topped off by one of the most amusing and self-indulgent endings I’ve ever seen, with caricatures of the dev team flying by one by one.

The Japanese version is a pretty cheap pickup these days, and it requires basically no reading comprehension, so you could do a lot worse than adding Pop’n TwinBee—or rather, TwinBee Da!—to your collection.