I’ve always been very happy with my lot as far as gaming systems go, and pretty much everywhere else too! But, of course, that’s not to say I haven’t ever cast an envious eye over the fence at one time or another… Going all the way back to the beginning of this gaming thing, and my Grandstand Invader From Space handheld, while I wouldn’t have changed it for the world, when my younger brother’s BMX Flyer came along, with all its fancy colour and fancy detail and fancy gameplay, to this day there has never been a time I haven’t wanted one of my own, although I have come painfully close a few times when units in rare good condition come up on Ebay at an even more rare good price! Crazy money though, but one day… It was a similar story with my Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch when one of the boys next door got the two-screen clamshell Donkey Kong one, but even more so this time, I’d have never swapped my game for his! And likewise for my Commodore VIC-20 versus my best friend’s Atari 2600, although the cracks did eventually begin to show when he upgraded to a Spectrum and I was playing stuff like Chequered Flag and Football Manager on it, or over the road at another friend’s house the likes of Impossible Mission on his Commodore 64! Even when I eventually got my own Spectrum, there were the odd times I’d know that his version of the game and not mine was the one I really wanted to be playing – specifically Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Winter Games and Ghostbusters! That was about it though, and when we both moved to 16-bit I’m struggling to think of much at all – having less Bomb the Bass on Xenon 2 was a good thing as far as I was concerned, and yes, I knew his Shadow of the Beast sounded better than my Atari ST one, but actually I can only come up with one game on the Amiga that I ever really coveted, and that was Banshee.

When I think about it, I’ve had a strange relationship with emulation, which I must have first dabbled with around the year 2000 when I got my first desktop PC, and a CD-ROM containing 3000 Commodore 64 games! I don’t really remember using it that much beyond old favourites like those mentioned above though, and in retrospect that might be where my preference for a more curated collection over a ROM-set of every game ever comes from, whether on a compilation like Taito Legends on PlayStation 2, or more recent hardware like the Sega Astro City Mini or, indeed, The A500 Mini, which is where Banshee will come in shortly! It’s usually things like that that will trigger a more organic type of further discovery too; I’d barely touched a NES or SNES, Mega Drive or PC-Engine game before I got those mini consoles, but now I’m quite the connoisseur on all of them, and the PC-Engine in particular has led to a much wider appreciation of the shoot ‘em up on everything, especially arcade via MAME, than I ever had before. For the Amiga though, it’s just not something I’d ever really thought about – too busy still collecting for my original Atari ST hardware, although emulating either of those always seemed a bit more complicated than I wanted it to be. Turns out a Windows PC is way simpler for things like that than years of MacBooks ever were, but that’s another story!

I pre-ordered The A500 Mini the minute it was announced back in the second half of 2021, mainly because I can’t resist these things, but the lure of the dark side of the Force might have been a factor too! I especially liked the idea of being able to shove a USB stick with your own games into it, but based on what we’ve just discussed I wanted to start a bit more selective! Actually, as is always the case with these units, I wanted to at least try every game that comes baked-in already before I tried any of that nonsense – the curated discovery thing again. That said, there was never any doubt I was firing up some old favourites first, starting with Stunt Car Racer’s unique 3D racing, and closely followed by the glorious future-sports violence of Speedball 2! I’ve always favoured the original Kick Off over the sequel included here, but that’s mainly down to the insane familiarity of it being my number two favourite game of all time, but that was still an easy choice for what came next, and while I’m not going to cover everything here, I mention that one because so far it’s the only place I’ve struggled with the CD32 gamepad it comes with (in addition to the traditional Amiga mouse); I’ve never used one before although it’s not so different to a SNES or Mega Drive controller so I’m perfectly at home with it, but you really need a joystick for the circular motions that Kick Off demands! Fortunately the C64 Mini joystick works fine, although I’m not sure that’s the long term solution for Amiga Mini Kick Off 2, so with bit of experimentation I did eventually get my arcade stick also working fine with a wireless dongle plugged in to one of the three USB slots.

In terms of games I’d never played before, I’ve always thought Zool looked pretty special even if I’m not the biggest fan of the Sonic-style platformer, and that was the game I eventually settled on as the one I wanted to put some time into first. I guess I’m about half way through as I write, and it turns out it’s not exactly Sonic but is the incredibly bright and bold feast for the eyes that old magazine screenshots suggested it would be! Battle Chess is another game I’ve always wanted to play, not least because I bought it for Atari ST without realising it wasn’t compatible with my 520 model, and I’m finally enjoying that a lot; always liked the look of this version of California Games too, though I think the Sega Master System is still the place to play that one; however, another that’s available everywhere, Pinball Dreams, I reckon is most at home here! I’m now resisting the urge to mention all twenty-five games included here from the outset, so let me close on two top-down racers I don’t recall ever seeing before… Super Cars II has you racing through various scrolling terrains over a season, investing your winnings on upgrades and weapons to make sure you keep winning. Very challenging and I think might also benefit from something more analog than this gamepad, but it’s very slick and it’s a keeper! ATR: All Terrain Racing is future rally racing with a slightly more isometric scrolling view, and loads of power-ups, jumps, hazards and short-cuts across more than forty tracks. This one’s faster, more of an arcade experience, and while it’s by no means less challenging, it’s maybe got more immediate fun for newcomers.

Okay, as much as it pains me, I’m going to stop there, and maybe we’ll come back to some of the rest another time! Instead, we’ll turn from games included on the system to the ones that aren’t, and in the lead-up to this arriving I did a fair bit of research on the other stuff I should be playing on here, whether A500, A1200 or CD32, all of which are more or less supported – I’ve had a few issues with a few games either running way too fast, Vroom and Operation Wolf, for example, or very occasionally not running at all, although that’s only really been a couple of CD32 games so far. Back to the games I wanted to try out, as well as Banshee it was mostly a predictable mix of around another twenty-five old favourites from elsewhere as well as classics that in an ideal world would have been included out of the box, like Monkey Island, Turrican II, Rainbow Islands, Microprose Formula One Grand Prix, Super Hang-On, Badlands, IK+ Batman the Movie, Apidya, Agony… As an aside, as I write I’m also slowly putting together a piece on emerging favourite Amiga anthems because, apart from the game over music from Shadow of the Beast, in my ignorance at the time the Amiga was totally absent from the Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems features (Part 1 and Part 2) I did a while back, and in my new-found state of enlightenment I think it might just deserve its own top ten at least! All the same, that Shadow of the Beast game over music, ripped straight out of Miami Vice, is going to take some beating!

Speaking of favourites, of that lot I just mentioned that I’d never played before, I think side-scrolling 2D shoot ‘em up Apidya is the one I’ve been most impressed by; it’s like P-47 with wasps and a killer soundtrack, which is something the Amiga version of P-47 itself could learn a thing or two from – the most ill-suited, bizarre music you’ve ever heard! Anyway, changing orientation, let’s move on to Banshee, a vertically-scrolling shooter developed and published by Core Design in the summer of 1994, when I’d just finished university and was in the process of forming a band that’s yet another story that can probably keep for another time! We’ll get into the looks a bit later too, but there’s no denying what first piqued my interest was that it looked like a very, very pretty version of Flying Shark, which I’d been doing my very best to play to death on my Atari ST, although my colour-blindness sometimes had other ideas! And the reason it was so very, very pretty was that it was built to take advantage of the new-generation A1200, Amiga 4000 and CD32 machines running the Amiga Advanced Graphics Architecture (AGA) chipset, which, without getting too boring about it, allowed for way more colour depth per pixel, with up to 256 colours from a palette of 16 million to be displayed at once, or a thousand times more than that in the more limited Hold-and-Modify HAM-8 mode, used for displaying stuff like bitmap art or digitised photos.

Banshee is set in an alternate 1999; maybe the one Prince had sung about a few years earlier when whatever reality of that year seemed like a lifetime away (which we did cover in a bit more detail when we looked at Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on ZX Spectrum). Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Prince might have been predicting Banshee’s mid-game… “The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere, tryin’ to run from the destruction, you know I didn’t even care.” Nothing about the people running everywhere being on fire though, but we’ll come back to them! In the meantime, you’ll be pleased to hear that the rest of the setup is your average schmup nonsense! The megalomanical alien dictator of the incredibly evil Styx Empire has decided to take over the world, and “only one man has the guts and the inventive genius to stand in his way: Sven Svardensvart – inventor, ace pilot, square-jawed hero and all-round good guy.” He also has a biplane because in this alternate timeline there were no world wars to advance aviation technology along, but he did find a quiet place to load it up with all kinds of mad weapons and name it Banshee, “…and thus begins his one
man rebellion against the exquisitely evil technological might of the
Styxian invaders.”

All of this takes place over four enormous levels, although the last two seem never-ending, and even on the easiest of the three difficulties the measly three credits you’re allowed before the final game over are going to take some serious learning and practice to stretch out to the ending. Which, apparently, isn’t the real ending unless you’re playing on hard difficulty, so that’s a sight I won’t be seeing! The first level takes place over the Atlantikan Ocean, where you need to fly to the harbour town of Mova Schusha on the Eastern coast of what is now the Styx Empire and blow it to smithereens. Level two is in Styx City, where you’ll eventually come up against the enormous Styx City Guardian, but in between times I have to say that while it might not be that iconic 1943-esque over the sea screenshot you’ll often see attached to talk of Banshee, it was my favourite in terms of level design – a real thrill ride where you’re just the right side of overpowered. Which you’ll be pining for in the third level over the Artic Wastes and then the Aridona Desert, and my spellchecker is really loving me now! Here you’re infiltrating the Styxian High Command’s bunker to steal the tech (or, in reality, shooting stuff like everywhere else!) that will allow your Banshee to go into space because on level four you’re off to the Planet Veenix to take out alien HQ before a final game of cat and mouse through the stars, in the unlikely event you get that far!

Banshee is very much the game of two halves though, and things start out pretty friendly; actually, if you’re after a pick up and play shooter that you can just have a bit of casual fun with, it’s a great shout, especially if you’ve got a player two on hand. I do wonder if that’s exactly what the second half of the game was designed for too… The opening salvo plays out very much like a highly stylised 1942, with waves of enemy planes dropping out of the sky over a static but suitably malevolent ocean. Helicopter gunships soon appear to shatter any World War II pretensions, although you will then be briefly thinking about a game set a year later when enormous battleships emerge from the waves, but by the time we hit land the steampunk vibe with its vast cannons and retro-future military tech is in full effect. And, apart from a dalliance with some wonderful gothic spires as you lay waste to the second level, this marvellous mechanical menagerie being thrown at you is getting more and more sci-fi the further you go, eventually putting you in mind of something from similar-era Batsugun or DonPachi over anything more grounded we’ve referenced previously.

It’s not afraid of spraying bullets around like them a bit later on either! In which case, you need to get powered-up and stay that way, and there’s a load of pick-ups to help you out with that. Some of them can even be changed to suit you current needs too, if you can spare the attention for a split second to shoot its icon until it stops on the one you want! There’s speed-ups, loops, double and triple shots, angled shots, heavy missiles, homing missiles, bombs, extra firepower, extra loops… The loop-the-loop mechanic is a bit like 1942’s, except it will cause damage to anything airborne that you pass over as you do it. You start with three of those, indicated on the very steampunk HUD on the left, together with lives left (also three, plus three credits) and your shield, which you can top-up with another pick-up, and is going to be your best friend when things are especially frantic! Finally, there’s a build-up pick-up, and if you get a full “build-up” you won’t have the soul-destroying experience of losing any of this stuff you’ve been amassing if you lose a life! And because I love you, if you fancy unlimited lives and level skip, type “flev17” on the title screen and press enter. Or, alternatively, type “i am exquisitely evil” instead and you’ll now be able to kill not only innocent bystanders while you’re playing, but also the polar bears! And you are most welcome!

Graphically, yeah, we’re on sacred ground as far as the Amiga goes, but I keep coming back to two things that are possibly completely unfounded, so I’m going to blurt them out anyway! Firstly, it feels way more console than computer, although I can’t put my finger on exactly what console – gameplay-wise Banshee would be really at home on PC-Engine or Mega Drive, but it’s more than either of those to look at, with closer parallels to something like the Sega Saturn port of Strikers 1945, maybe. Which leads me to the second thing, where I was trying to place its pixel art style, which is unquestionably absolutely outstanding, but took me on an off-the-wall thought process that started with the very best of the SNES, for example Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana, but then it hit me that Banshee somehow reminds me of Metal Slug, which SNK wouldn’t release for another couple of years yet, but it shares a similar mechanical but very organic, heavy-set, almost illustrated aesthetic that would end up far more synonymous with the relentless run and gun series than this relative obscurity on the Amiga.

There’s a dark humour at play that also wouldn’t be out of place in a Metal Slug, which mostly revolves around torturing poor little unprotected enemy guys in the very moments before their death! Like all good shooters, Banshee will often give you a little clue about where the biggest threat is coming from next, but that kind of aggressive offensive strategy goes out of the window when a troop carrier appears because whatever else might be lumbering onto the screen at the time, you need to take it down before it stops because that will make its burning inhabitants jump out and run away screaming until the flames eventually consume them! Never gets old! You’ll come across more like this too, like the ones that are incinerated into skeletons where they stand before crumpling into a pile of bones (although I do have less sympathy for these guys just gadding about in the middle of some giant robot war), or later on they’re floating around in spacesuits, which expand when you shoot them like some Voodoo James Bond villain, causing them to float helplessly into the dread vacuum of space!

Flourishes like these extend to the environments too, which, while being anything from consistently attractive to sometimes spectacular (and well varied), aren’t especially groundbreaking for this kind of game. They have their odd moments though, like the prolonged, punishing rockfall in the beautifully lit big canyon set-piece, or just little sparks of flavour like the menacing cyber-Egyptian pyramids. And those rain effects! Not the most sophisticated, but definitely some of the most effective, which is true of all of the weather you’ll come across here, as well as other special effects like the giant sparks from the monstrous power generators or even the impact of the regular explosions. An awful lot of life here! That life is evolving too, as bosses turn from giant old warplanes and submarines into giant robot space crabs, and their minions follow suit, from regular tanks to AT-ST-style mechs as you progress deeper into Banshee’s universe. Yes, you might have seen most of this before too, but it’s a pleasure seeing it again when it looks and moves like this – over 3,000 frames of animation on the go here, apparently, don’t you know!

Sound is less of a big deal here. Some suitably epic but ultimately generic Amiga intro music welcomes us through the static opening cutscenes before a slightly less epic but more melodic title screen piece that you’ll gladly have playing in the background but won’t be humming along to! In-game this gives way to some impactful multi-layered propeller sounds that eventually give way to something far more sci-fi, and likewise, historic war guns and explosions and grinding bits of metal give way to star wars, but no music anymore, which is a shame even if it is likely to have been a bit generic anyway. There is some completely unintelligible speech though! Most of the above seems to have been true when I had a quick go on the CD32 version too, although I think I perceived a dynamic engine sound, so it went more high-pitched when you banked, for example. Apart from that everything else was the same as far as I could tell – no FMV, fancy music or whatever, but keep in mind I’m a total philistine when it comes to this and could be wrong in any number of ways!

I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that with everything going on everywhere you look, and with such exquisite attention to detail in pretty much all of it, that Banshee took full advantage of the AGA chipset though, or, indeed, that there can’t be many finer vertical shoot ‘em ups on the Amiga – Xenon 2 and Battle Squadron are up there, and there’s Hybris and SWIV, and I’ve got a soft spot for 1943 and Dragon Spirit too… Banshee might well be the star of the show though! It’s both welcoming and hugely challenging, there’s both simplicity and depth in its systems, it’s fast and smooth and staggeringly good-looking, it feels wonderful to play and you can make tiny little people run screaming as they burn to death as often as it pleases your sick mind to do so! As I write I’ve been on quite the voyage of discovery with the Amiga of late, but while Banshee wasn’t exactly a discovery, it was very much worth the wait, and when I no doubt get to a top ten list of Amiga games somewhere here in the future, you can bet it will be up there. And you can bet you’ll be the first to hear about it too!