Developer Arkedo Studio got off to a rough start in their career with Nervous Brickdown – the game scored well enough but nobody really played it (except in Japan). With their sophomore effort, Big Bang Mini, Arkedo is hoping to get more support from publisher SouthPeak Interactive than it did Eidos, says CEO Camille Guermonprez. He believes Big Bang Mini will appeal to more than just the casual DS crowd and stand on its own merits as a hardcore shooter. Shooter? Fireworks? It makes sense in practices, trust me. In arcade mode, you appear as a little ship on the lower screen. You shoot fireworks at targets floating around in the upper screen. Hit the target, and a star-shaped power-up will drop. Miss and the firework will explode, raining down fiery projectiles that your ship has to dodge. You need to collect as many power-ups as you can to fill a gauge on the left hand side of the lower screen in order to get to the next level. There are two dominant strategies for getting through arcade mode – a careful target-and-shoot approach and the all-out firework blitz. Target-and-shoot takes way longer and leaves more opportunities for the targets in later levels to hit you with their own projectiles that they drop into the lower screen. The blitz creates even more havoc down below as the bounce-back from the exploding fireworks will kill you as easily as it kills the targets you’re trying to hit.In total, there are 90 levels in the whole game – 10 per world, 10 boss fights total. The worlds range in theme from Hong Kong to underwater; completing each grants you a special tactic such as a whirlwind that sucks in enemy projectiles, a charged-shot firework, or a homing missile firework. The design for each world is pretty detailed – even the music creates a distinct sense of atmosphere (I particularly liked the Paris rooftop level). And bosses like the Mohawk-sporting walrus or the secret last boss? I haven’t seen stuff that funky since Ren & Stimpy’s Powdered Toast Man. Beating arcade mode unlocks mission mode, where you replay levels and try to satisfy a laundry list of special requirements for each. Beat that, and you unlock the alarm clock feature where you can set any song from the game’s extensive musical library to wake you up at a specific time. The downside to alarm clock mode (aside from the bleary flailing involved with turning it off and the grim meat hook reality that you’ve got to get out of bed) is you’ve got to have the cartridge in the DS for it to work. On the plus side, though, you only need one cartridge to enjoy multiplayer. Bless you, Arkedo, this is what Wi-Fi was made for. In versus mode, you and a friend appear as little colored balls with wings – like golden snitches only in pastel. You turn the DS on its side like a book so you can see your opponent on one screen and yourself on the other (you can set it to left or right, depending on your handedness). You then have to shoot fireworks at each other – but you’ve got to angle your shots upwards so it arcs between screens. If you miss your opponent, don’t sweat; the firework will explode when it hits the ground on your opponent’s side, spraying fiery projectiles upwards. Don’t get too trigger-happy – some of the multiplayer stages feature environmental hazards like bats that will chase you if you happen to hit them with your fireworks. At your disposal, you have four special items keyed to the D pad that you can use to attack your opponent with or protect yourself. There’s a bubble shield, a reflection wave that sends all projectiles over to your opponent’s side, a super-tiny ray that shrinks your opponent, and a “fade to black” attack that limits your opponent’s field of vision so they can’t see to dodge. Each can be used only once, so use them wisely. All in all, this is hardcore shooter masquerading as a fluffy firework extravaganza. That’s not to say the fireworks aren’t pretty – gosh, I wished my Fourth of July looked like this game. But there is a layer of difficulty to this game lurking below the fireworks that sets Big Bang Mini apart from casual shooters, Geometry Wars rip-offs, and just about anything else on the DS to date. Big Bang Mini is out sometime in January (pending Nintendo submission approval), and at a $20 retail rate, the price is right. Check out screens below.