BLACK BIRD is a horizontal bullet hell shooter from Yoshirō Kimura’s studio Onion Games, which previously gifted us with the surreal mobile romps Dandy Dungeon: Legend of Brave Yamada (now sadly defunct) and Million Onion Hotel (still around and still delightful).
The latter reveled in its central thesis that “the universe is nonsense,” and BLACK BIRD shares this conviction, but it leans more heavily into the parts of the universe that humans have built, and it weaves a vivd, operatic nightmare about class consciousness and the parts of society that can seem, and might even in fact be, beyond saving.
When I say BLACK BIRD is operatic, I refer not only to its heavily vocalized score—sometimes shonky, sometimes soaring, always shameless—but also to its sense of scope. That makes the game sound heavy-handed, which it is, and also self-serious, which it resolutely isn’t.
Here’s the setup: The opening shows a young girl lying down and dying on a busy street, and only one of the passers-by noticing, and even that one not particularly caring. You then see this girl—you—reborn as and/or in league with the Black Bird of the title, a spirit of vengeance and ruin and calamity. Then you start blasting through everyone and everything.
Though you’re moving along a single 2D plane, the levels are essentiality cylindrical, wrapping around to the starting point if you go far enough in either direction. Once you’ve destroyed a certain number of relatively well-fortified guard towers, you fight a relatively ludicrous boss.
The game’s scoring system is fairly standard stuff—you get points for killing enemies, and there’s a multiplier for keeping a chain of kills going—but these are not merely points in the arcade sense. They’re also a kind of experience points, with your attacks getting powered up at certain milestones. (The Bird starts out freaky, but also vaguely chibi, almost cute. Then as you gain more power, it becomes more and more monstrous and frightening and hard to make physical sense of, after the fashion of The Binding of Isaac).
This means that your score is, in some sense, a measure of your power, and that scoring high on the first level will make you that much more potent for the second, and so on. It also means that you’re making lots of quick, tricky moment-to-moment decisions about how much damage to do to your main targets before refocusing on smaller ones, how best to keep your combos going, and how much power to try and amass before leaving the current level.
Ideally you want to be both efficient and thorough, and always on the move—which the game reinforces by only allowing you to fire your primary weapon in whichever direction you’re currently facing, left or right, and by making bigger enemies drop gems that give you extra points, but that fall to the ground and bounce repeatedly, losing some value with each bounce. You can move forward by taking down major foes, but to grow stronger you also have to be sure to wreak a good deal of bleakly pleasing havoc.
The score-based level-ups make an enormous difference, as do the power-ups: When you shoot open little Strange Hotel pots, an item pops out, and you can cycle through its effect by shooting it: Do you want to one additional brick of health, allowing you to take one more hit? Or do you want another bomb? Or would you rather increase your shot speed and movement speed both? The fact that the game offers build diversity (of a sort) is neat in itself, but the real magic is in fact that you’re cycling through the options using your primary verb, and hopefully doing so without breaking stride. You never stop.
This feeling that you’re on a ceaseless rampage gives some weight to the game’s arcadey git-gud affections (a Game Over sends you all the way back to the beginning) and its unpleasant difficulty spikes (I’ve never died anywhere except the last boss on the game’s default difficulty). Modern convineces such as save points, welcome as they would be, wouldn’t feel quite right in this single-sitting story of single-minded escalation. So it’s one of those games where I appreciate even the parts of the design that I occasionally hate, because they serve the tone and the themes, and they make the whole package that much more resonant.
You’re rampaging through this whole terrified kingdom, but you’re also traversing classes, and as such, also sort of traveling through time, from the feudal hamlet of Oppidum, to the industrial exurb of In Agris, to the late capitalist downtown of Neo Lumia, to the priestly techbro futurescape of Aristocracia. BLACK BIRD operates on the same central insight that Cradle did—namely that the future always contains the past, unevenly distributed based on social status, identity, and geography.
As you make your way farther from the shitty little berg where you died and closer to the halls of power, you’re presumably striking back at people who were less and less involved in the specifics of your tragedy, but almost certainly more responsible for the conditions that made it possible, and likely, and what in fact happened. The bumpkins near the site of your death could perhaps have done more to help you directly, but the Queen and her Aristocracian court could certainly do more to help people like you avoid fates like yours, as a rule.
So, you know what? Blast ’em all.
What befalls the protagonist of BLACK BIRD is, after all, the most hideous and unavangable and ordinary of crimes. A child dying of poverty or sickness or neglect is the kind of thing that can (assuming you haven’t blunted your empathy too profoundly) make your mind reel, and make you grasp about for someone to blame and then, not finding anyone specific, make you fixate morbidly on the idea of just burning down whatever morally bankrupt system could allow something so obviously wrong to happen (and happen, and happen).
BLACK BIRD is a hallucination on that feeling—a power fantasy steeped in the fantastical notion that a society’s foundational, commonplace sins can somehow be avenged. And again, this makes it sound like the game is poe-faced, or that it moralizes explicitly at the player, and again, that’s not the case. The universe is, as ever, nonsense.
But in BLACK BIRD, reality doesn’t make sense because things aren’t right. It’s that particular flavor of absurdism that has at its center a white-hot rage about what’s wrong with the world, and more specifically about how normal the wrongness has become to us. It’s the kind of absurdism that says, hey, when you consider reality with fresh eyes, it really is just about this bizarre, this violent, this out of joint.
BLACK BIRD maintains a whimsically apocalyptic tone throughout, so propulsive and ridiculous that, even at its saddest, it never quite feels despairing or defeatist. It just insists—urgently, surreally, and with a healthy dose of the absurd—that we recognize what’s wrong with this world and try to imagine a better one.