Bounty Arms: The Demo

Bounty Arms shouldn’t be anything special. It’s a PlayStation action title from Data West, an obscure software publisher that rarely made actual games. This particular game also revolves around an awkward idea: anime heroines using telescoping cybernetic arms as whips, grappling hooks, and flamethrowers. Besides, Bounty Arms was canceled, and that strongly implies something was wrong with it, that it wouldn't stand out at all.

But it does.
For those aware of it, Bounty Arms seemed unlikely to ever show itself. Unreleased Japanese games are hard to lay hand on, and Bounty Arms is quite low-profile. Yet part of it saw an official release. In 1995, a brief demo of the game appeared on the fifth volume of Demo Demo PlayStation, Sony’s early line of discs made for Japanese store kiosks. The demo is incomplete and barely lasts for two minutes of the game’s first stage (five minutes if you take it slow), but it might be all of Bounty Arms we’ll ever play. And it’s better than I ever thought it'd be.

Data West planned to ship Bounty Arms in April 1995, the same month it appeared in Demo Demo PlayStation. Yet the demo included here isn’t finished. That much is apparent even on the title screen, which mentions a lack of “game balance." One can’t help but catch a whiff of desperation in it, as though Data West itself is confessing that their game isn’t ready and asking you to please patiently enjoy this fine product sample.

The character-select screen presents two playable leads: the dissatisfied, red-haired, red-eyed Rei Misazaki and the blonde, ponytailed, coquettishly grinning Chris Prenacaluto (which is how I’m spelling her mess of a last name until this contest is over). While the artwork recalls a low-rung (and possibly adults-only) 1990s Japanese PC game, it’s an improvement on the washed-out illustration that Data West used in a Bounty Arms ad, and the portraits come close to giving Chris and Rei trace amounts of personality, however stereotyped. They’re identical in gameplay except for one thing: Chris wears her Relic Arm on the right, Rei on the left. It’s a seemingly pointless distinction, but it has subtle effects in battle.

The first level of Bounty Arms is a jungle raid, just like Ikari Warriors and Mercs and every other top-down arcade shooter that might’ve inspired Bounty Arms. Once Chris and Rei get going, their Relic Arms show off the game’s novel approach. Press the one and only attack button, and Chris or Rei whips her Relic Arm like a Castlevania lead, lashing out and retracting the pointy, tentacle-like appendage. The Relic Arm does heavy damage, and any bullets it strikes are bounced back at enemies. Holding down the button charges a meter at the bottom of the screen, and releasing it makes our heroines whirl their Relic Arms in huge circles of flame.

Upon running into the demo’s first robot troops, one will notice that Chris and Rei are invincible. They even damage enemies simply by walking into them, be they steel tanks, android soldiers, or creeping ground-turrets. This would be that lack of “game balance” mentioned on the title screen. Just how hard would the game be if it had damage parameters? Well, the absence of a life meter suggests that Rei and Chris could take only one hit. Considering how tough Data West’s Rayxanber shooters were, Bounty Arms could’ve been quite the soul-crusher, revered among those lunatics who don’t believe in finishing games on more than one credit.

Completely devoid of challenge, the demo can be finished if Chris and Rei just keep walking forward. That’s no fun, of course, and playing it traditionally is far more engaging. While it sounds clumsy in concept, the Relic Arm works surprisingly well. It slices through enemies, reflects gunfire, spouts flames, grows longer with each power-up, and apparently reaches across gaps (the last of these feats, sadly, can't be seen in the demo). It also presents some careful techniques. Chris and Rei stand still while whipping their Arms, but they can move while pulling back the extending metal chain, snagging enemies and power-ups in the process. Other details emerge in the way certain bullets are reflected in different ways, and some of the larger enemies can be destroyed piece by piece.

Of course, the demo is still just half of the first stage of Bounty Arms, and it’s a basic introduction that ends before it can get truly interesting. The level is straightforward, and the enemies, while varied, aren’t stocked too heavily. Chris and Rei move slowly at first (though a speed-booster icon takes care of that), and they can’t attack in one direction while moving in another. Yet the game never suffers much for that. If the stage design picked up, Bounty Arms could've really impressed, and that’s a rare quality among canceled games.

As a traditional 2-D action title from the PlayStation's early days, Bounty Arms doesn't push visual boundaries. It resembles a mid-1990s arcade game, and the designers' idea of background flair is a parrot swooping across the screen. The enemies are all comparably mundane, with most of the graphical attention reserved for Chris and Rei. They don’t have faces, but they have distinct poses for each direction they can turn, and the developers went through the trouble of giving Chris a lopsided ponytail and Rei poor choice in pants. Bounty Arms also douses itself with plenty of explosive destruction, particularly when those circles of flame fill the screen and obliterate all they touch.

The demo’s music track is a forgettable, faux-jazzy mix apparently delivered by a Data West staffer's keyboard. I get the impression that I’ve heard it before, that it might be placeholder music stolen from another Data West game. Or perhaps the tune is just that generic.

The Bounty Arms demo’s jungle crawl ends with a fight against a huge tanklike litter carried by four robots. Once it and its commander mecha are destroyed, the game stutters to a halt and presents the player with a Game Over screen featuring... well, Chris and Rei’s rear ends. The women weren’t exactly dressed for combat in the first place, but their mannequin-like poses here are unintentionally hilarious. It also reveals the game’s most embarrassing secret: Rei’s wearing half-pants, a hideous combination of long pants and shorts. Japan’s anime and game industries thought that looked cool for a few months back in 1994.

Is that all there is to the demo? Perhaps not. A look at its files reveals things never seen in the playthrough: continue screens, a ravine, a huge log, and sprites of Chris and Rei using their Relic Arms to cross over pits. The most impressive hidden sight is a robotic snake boss that weaves in and out of a waterfall (and apparently has a tiny man riding in its head). It’s shown in screenshots and footage of the game, and it’s evidently the first level's ultimate boss. Perhaps that entire stage is in the demo, denied us only by some malicious scrap of coding.

I really like Bounty Arms, biased as I am. Hunting it was a side project of mine for the last five years, and I did my best to prepare for the ugly truth of the game being terrible. Yet the demo is intriguing, even without damage settings or a real boss. It’s enough just to screw around with the Relic Arms, their fiery attacks, their unintentionally nuanced methods, and their mixture of Castlevania and Bionic Commando. I was first drawn to Bounty Arms because it had many things I liked about games back in 1995: explosions, 2-D play, hand-drawn art, mechanized enemies, and, of course, sexy anime chicks. After I grew up a little, I kept searching because the game seemed a strange, one-of-a-kind creation. The demo suggests exactly that.

There’s no blunt greatness in the Bounty Arms demo. There’s only the promise of a solid action game with a creative twist on a genre that’s usually predictable and neglected. The demo’s a unique diversion that could easily grow better, and that’s reason enough to want more of it. Over a decade after Data West left it for dead, I’m still convinced that Bounty Arms deserves to be brought to the surface.

I’m also convinced that Bounty Arms should be played by anyone who wants it. You can grab the demo right here, extracted and neatly packaged with help from Lost Levels member Carnivol. It runs fine on ePSXe and comparable PlayStation emulators, though the apologetic title screen and ridiculous ending screen sometimes don’t display properly. If my emulator is any indication, you might also have to select the woman you don’t want as your avatar. Bounty Arms is all about breaking traditions.

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