Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series predates Bonanza Bros. by several years, but I can’t help think the latter may have provided some of the inspiration for Metal Gear Solid. In the heyday of mindless action games, Bonanza Bros. presented an intriguing mix of stealth and puzzle gameplay, with plenty of comical touches. Guards can be knocked out rather than killed, and you can even sneak past them when their backs are turned. Your character can hug the walls to stay out of sight as enemies pass. Some guards carry riot shields, and all of them yell for reinforcements rather than trying to take you on alone.
The only thing missing is a convoluted story arc that deals in DNA, government conspiracy, quadruple-double agents, and homosexual innuendo. To that end, Bonanza Bros. sticks closely to the early ’90s game design bible, which states, “Thou shalt not burden thine audience with a story.”
Playing as one of the titular Bros. (or both, in two-player co-op), you’re tasked with clearing out ten locales of precious bounty in just three minutes. There’s slight suggestion that you’re robbing from crooked counterfeiters and criminals, but really you’re a pair of thieves, and that’s all the motivation you need to get going.
The stages offer a surprising amount of variety, both in their design and presentation. Spanning multiple levels joined by staircases, zip lines, and spring pads, you’re free to take any route you like to reach your goal. Along the way, you’ll face several guards (some asleep on the job), patrol dogs, traps that you can spring on pursuing enemies, and classic gags such as the rake-in-the-face and the soda-can-slip that both stun you and alert nearby enemies.
With only three minutes on the clock, the game forces you to find the best path to locate the target objects, leaving enough time to get outside and escape in the Bonanza Blimp. This is where the game feels more like a puzzler than anything else. Though you can forge your own path through each stage, discovering the most efficient route quickly becomes critical. Timing your shots and jumping on and off of staircases are a few ways to save precious seconds, but other moments require patience. With time ticking away, you’ll sometimes have to fight off the urge to run or attack, instead waiting for enemies to turn their backs or walk a little too close to a door (where you can smash them against the wall).
Though scaled quite a ways down from the arcade version, there are still plenty of fresh sights from stage to stage, be it the steely blues of The Mint or the brown tones and mine cars of the Underground Gold Bars. The characters are also a sight to behold, offering a strange mix of disjointed body parts and comical animations. Just don’t look too closely at some of the details. Vehicles in particular look almost unrecognizable as you hop over what appears to be a big red rectangle and a blue trapezoid only to realize you’ve just left a parking garage. Eesh! The audio also suffers in translation with dull, sparse sound effects and only the most basic (though catchy) of tunes. Still, the gameplay holds it together and the changing locations keep things different enough to make it fun and playable even by today’s standards.
Once you’ve trodden the best path for each stage, there’s little left to do. You’ll have spent a few days seeing all that the game has to offer while you revise and rework your strategies; but Bonanza Brothers’ quarter-munching arcade roots still show through. Even the two-player co-op mode doesn’t add much as the item placement and levels remain the same.
And yet, this is one of those games that I come back to at least once a year. The gameplay is still fresh (dare I call it Metal Gear Solid Lite?) and despite the archaic graphics, Bonanza Bros. remains a fun and unique play. Don’t let the impersonal, middle-of-the-road score fool you—this is a definite for stealth fans that’ve missed it over the years.