Over the past few weeks I have looked at both the series and movie of popular classic anime Cowboy Bebop. And as the PlayStation 2 game Cowboy Bebop: The Serenade of Reminiscence never left Japan, I just knew I had to play it as well. Unfortunately, it's a pretty terrible game — though its cutscenes make for a decent episode.
Good — A Bebop Story
Cowboy Bebop: The Serenade of Reminiscence is a story of space pirates, hidden treasure, mysterious disappearances, a legendary pop song, and lots of bounty hunting. Arriving on Mars, the crew of the Bebop sets out to capture a lot of little bounties while awaiting a big catch. Soon though, they find themselves in the midst of a hunt for the lost treasure of famous space pirate Captain H (who even had an anime made about him as Jet is quick to point out) along with two teenage sibling bounty hunters out to make their first big score.
Of course, the Bebop's crew all becomes involved in different ways, as watchers of the anime should expect. Faye believes she has found a clue to the location of the treasure and is in it for the money. Jet stumbles across another side of the mystery when he encounters the widow of one of his friends from his police days. And Spike is roped into the hunt for the only recording of a nearly mythical pop song — which also is connected to the treasure in unforeseen ways. Opposing them are gangs eager to protect their bounty-targeted bosses and a paramilitary force racing to get their hands on the treasure before anyone else.
All in all, it is a fun little Bebop story with more than a few twists and turns. The climax of the game even adds a bit to Spike's story arc from the anime and movie with a big conversation expounding on the themes of dreams and death.
Good — Exploring the Bebop
In the latter half of the game, Jet returns to the Bebop only to find that a large number of bombs have been hidden throughout the ship. Thus, he must search every nook and cranny of the Bebop for these bombs and disarm them.
But really, this is just an excuse to freely roam the Bebop and tour the setting of one of anime's most beloved classic series. From the warehouse with its demonic fridge to the living room where Faye, Spike, Jet, and Ed spend their free time, exploring the ship really is the best kind of fan service.
Mixed — The Chases
While The Serenade of Reminiscence is primarily a brawler (which we'll talk about later), it also has some sections where the tables have turned on our heroes and they are forced to flee from anything from an out-of-control car to an attack helicopter that doesn't mind laying waste to an entire town. These chases are action-filled and cinematic — often making you run toward the screen in a reverse shot as the danger closes in on you.
While these scenes are generally fun, they still suffer from the game's lackluster movement controls and occasionally questionable level design (in that you have no idea where to go). Also, having to press the R1 button at certain points on objects to jump over them/slide under them never ceases feeling a bit strange.
Bad — The Brawling
Most of The Serenade of Reminiscence is spent controlling Faye, Jet, and Spike as they beat into submission every thug on the face of Mars in typical 3D brawler fashion. You have punches and kicks which can be chained together in different patterns for slightly different results — i.e., knocking down or stunning — but you never need to utilise the combos to win a battle. Punching and kicking at random can easily get you through the whole game.
There are two other parts of the battle system as well, grabbing and countering. These are also never needed — that is until the boss you encounter just before the final boss that requires a mixture of both to win. In other words, if you, like me, never bothered to learn how to counter, you'll probably spend a sizable amount of time learning on this final roadblock before the end of the game.
When it all comes down to it, the brawling in The Serenade of Reminiscence is boring.
Bad — The Shooting
Sometimes, instead of going into brawling mode, the game will instead become a cover-based third-person shooter. However, as this came out before Gears of War revolutionised the genre, these sections are horrible.
You basically move behind an object and press the crouch button. You don't stick to cover (in most cases) and you can't move while crouching. So, even behind cover you are likely to get shot — and if you get shot, you fall down sprawled out in the open, taking a few seconds before you can get back up and get into cover again.
If that weren't annoying enough, the shooting controls are hardly tight, especially when compared to shooters of the time like Halo and Killzone. So while the shooting sections are playable, just like the brawling, they are hardly fun.
Bad — The Piloting
The other reoccurring gameplay is the piloting sections. In these you are playing an on-rails shooter where you only have six bullets and no one is trying to shoot you. Rather, you press up, down, left, or right to make the ship dodge in that direction to avoid obstacles.
You must also manage your speed at the same time as you will run out of time unless you are constantly boosting — and thus have to do the whole section over. In the end, these sections are just memorization and as soon as you get the pattern down, they pose no threat, only boredom.
Bad — The One-off Sections
There are also two annoying one-off sections: driving a boat and a stealth level. The boat level is simply Jet going down a canal avoiding mines and debris — which is quite easy to do despite it still taking several minutes to complete. Of course, it also ends with a sudden QTE which, if you mess up, requires you to start from the beginning of the boat section again.
The stealth level is one of Faye's. In it, you must walk (i.e., press the thumbstick halfway) through the whole area without being heard while avoiding various obstacles guaranteed to make sound. Failing means you have to restart from the beginning of the level. Mess up once and that's minutes lost.
This is then followed up by a Metal Gear-style section in which the guards seem to be able to see through objects and sometimes through the backs of their heads. Again, if you are seen once, you must restart the whole ponderously slow section from the beginning. It's aggravating.
Random Thoughts — A Decent Extra Episode
Even though I never found myself enjoying the combat, the numerous cutscenes featuring the anime's voice actors and new music from the ever amazing Kano Yoko was generally a lot of fun. But by the end of the game, I found myself feeling that if anyone ever bothered to just record the cutscenes and then splice in a bit of the gameplay, it would make for a decent 80-minute extra episode of the series. Of course, someone has long since done just that.
The people over at Studio Sokodei (who created the hilarious Evangelion: Redeath years before the abridged series took off) made the cutscenes into a cohesive movie called "The Song Remains the Same" back in 2007 — which of course comes fully subbed in English. While it reorders some scenes, cuts a few of the most useless ones, and re-scores a fair bit of the soundtrack (though with other music from the game), most of the changes work out for the better. So if you can't play the game but are desperate for more Cowboy Bebop, you can check it out on YouTube.
Make no mistake. When it comes to gameplay, Cowboy Bebop: The Serenade of Reminiscence is terrible by today's standards. And while playable, it is almost never what anyone would call "fun." However, a new original story and the prize of getting to wander around the Bebop are probably enough for most fans to slog through the eight hours it takes to beat it. Though honestly, I suggest skipping the game and just simply watching Kotaku's tour of the ship and Studio Sokodei's movie-ized version of the plot.
Cowboy Bebop: The Serenade of Reminiscence was released on August 25, 2005, in Japan. It has never received a Western release.