Level 7: The first of four very interesting levels. This is a second boss fight, this time without a build-up before the main event. After a couple of levels that I blazed through, the difficulty has returned here. The boss likes to dump out a huge bucket of water that will flood the battlefield in front of the gate, washing away (and sometimes drowning) friend and foe alike. Once you get it out of your head that you have to kill him, however, this is actually not too difficult a level I'd say, since the gate is right there. You just need to knock him off his perch (by setting up ramp shots by having your men move some rocks into position) then Press your men through the door. If this boss is like the first, then defeating him is worth an extra ball, but you get one extra ball per 100 seconds left on the timer upon exiting. Consider that the boss takes damage slowly, so that it's almost certain you'll need more than 100 seconds to kill him, and you'll probably take fewer casualties that way too.
Level 8: Technically another boss level, but the interesting thing about it is the unique setup for the playfield. There's three "tables" here, each taking up one third of the surface of a 360-degree mountain. You can rotate the mountain to see each table with the C-stick, but the view scrolls automatically when you shoot the ball through one of the side-ramps that connect them.
There are essentially three fronts. The main one, with the Bell, is the one you start on, and there's a gate halfway up that's too small for the ball to pass through that blocks most shots to the upper mountain here. The other sides have no such gate, but less going on. Each of those sides has a statue that you need to Rally your men to in order to move them higher on the mountain. Each statue requires three Rallys-worth of men to move it, and once it's in motion, it in effect becomes an additional Bell Team, causing the game to be lost if the enemy forces it beyond its corresponding set of flippers. I think you can rally additional men to the statue to help defend it, and of course you can also use rice balls to distract the foe. The statue does NOT stun enemy troops when struck with the ball, but it's also somewhat likely that the men won't even be challenge as they get the statue in place if you send the teams out to it right as the battle begins (you can select and target the statues with Rallys even if they're not visible on screen).
There are also some ramps that go up and over the mountain, which provide an additional way to get the ball from one board to another, as well as allowing you a chance to send the ball through enemy ranks, or even strike the bell if it's lucky enough to be in the way. But the true importance of the ramps is a little obscure.
The level summary before play begins explains that getting the statues into place creates a pair of walls that block off some of the ramps, but you have to read the level's description in the MANUAL, or be really observant, to discover that the walls are actually controlled by the flippers. No lie, it took me quite a few attempts on the stage before I discovered this.
Even if you know about them, it's not obvious that the importance of the walls is, so I'll spill the beans: when both flippers are held down, the walls seal off the upper parts of the ramps into a closed loop. The idea is to launch the ball into one of the ramps but release the flipper button to allow the ball up, then while the ball is in the loop area, quickly press and hold BOTH flippers.
So what's the result of this? Did you ever play one of the two real-world High Speed pinball tables, where there's a special loop elevated above the playfield that magnets keep sending the ball through faster and faster? It's just like that, except somehow the act here summons a pillar of light and purifies a temple in the process. It's quite, quite awesome.
Once that's done the gate opens and, although it summons a spider monster to roam the mountain, instead of attacking I chose to utter a few insistent Press Forwards and cleared the level.
Now we're getting to the cool boards. Both levels 9 and 10 are forced-scroll areas, where the flippers are travelling through a large map following the movements of your Bell Team. Level 9 is cool for quite a few reasons. It's set in a town with dozens of buildings, and smashing them to bits with the ball is entertaining in a way I haven't experienced since the days of Blast Corps back on the N64. It's true, smashing up the huts and such on this level somehow feels exactly like destroying things in that game. It's quite entertaining.
Some buildings contain troops. Some of them, for an ill-explored reason since you're deep in enemy territory, are *friendly* troops that immediately run out and accompany your bell team. This seems to be the only way, in the entire game, to gain additional men without converting enemy soldiers by hitting them with a green Odama. Most buildings, however, contain enemy soldiers, and they'll run out to harass your army if you haven't destroyed their building ahead of time.
THe setup of the level requires some additional explanation. The town itself is actually quite cramped, and there are multiple paths through it. When your guys reach an important juncture, they'll stop and ask which way to go, which you answer by saying Left or Right into the microphone. That will be the road the Bell Team travels down, so that will be the way the flippers go. Also travelling with them is a pair of of ghost walls, which simply prevent the ball from falling offscreen anywhere other than between the flippers.
This is one of the most interesting stages, since the multiple paths present several different ways to play it. Power-ups are very common here, and it's sometimes a good idea to let the ball get stuck in the middle of a bunch of buildings and shake the table around to smash them up and collect the frequent hearts and orbs that appear.
Unfortunately, the cavalry make a comeback on this level, and they show up frequently. The board tends to be so busy that it's very easy to not even see them before they're practically through the flippers. The ball tends to be caught up crumpling buildings much of the time, so this is not necessarily a unavoidable drain, but it does tend to make this level a ball sink. This is the deadliest level I've seen in the game by a wide margin.
Other neat things here: there are actual cows on the board! I don't know if this is just a whimsy or a homage to classic Bally/Williams pinball. I imagine it's probably the former, but it's just too cool to ignore the possibility of the latter. The black Odama can show up again here if you take the right-hand path at the initial fork, as that route contains a couple of *evil bells*, scattered amongst the buildings. THey aren't mobile like your bell is, and can be smashed by hitting them on the side where the supports are instead of striking metal, but if you do ring one it stuns your own troops just as hitting the Ninten Bell stuns the enemy, and it also gives the ball that black aura from Level 4. You can dismiss it the same way though, just hit the ball with a flipper and it's back to normal.
A fairly challenging stage, and another journey although one without choices. This is a long hike down a fortified road, and although the clock starts out at 800 seconds you'll probably still have to rush to get through in time.
In this level, the flippers are again mobile, but they're just part of a static bottom portion of the screen that moves upward as the Bell Team advances. As you continue, enemy troops attack constantly, and there are also plenty of enemy fire archers who attack from scaffolds that need to be knocked down with the Odama. There are also some other unusual obstacles here, including catapults, a slot-machine-like gimmick, and a hand attacked to a building that likes to pick up the Bell and throw it back a screen length or so. The best way past the hand seems to be either to get the screen to scroll up far enough that you can smack its building with the ball, or to March Left and try to evade it that way, although the team has a saddening habit of working themselves back into reach.
Despite the gimmicks, this is arguably the "purest" level. For much of it, it's just your flippers, the Odama, and the red and black armies going at it. Power-up bestowing buildings are in very short supply here. Pray, when you smash one, that it won't be a barrel, as hourglasses (because every second counts on this level), hearts and orbs (to give you more reserves) are all greatly needed items here..
Troops are in short supply on this stage because of the limited supply of items to turn the ball green, and the frequent Advance and Press Forward commands needed to make headway will take a serious toll on morale, morale that is difficult to replenish because you run out of reinforcements rapidly. One thing I discovered: if you have a good shot that squishes many enemy soldiers on one hit, very frequently the game will drop a heart right in the middle of the slaughter. Those hearts are what make survival here possible. This is *the* level to test how good you are at crushing the enemy while leaving your guys unflattened and further harming their morale, and it often helps to abuse the table tilt and aim bank shots off the side walls to get the ball around your army, typically standing in the way.
About halfway through, your men will suddenly remark something about hot springs. What they're referring to is a semi-hidden rally objective that they'll just be passing by at that moment. By sending a team there, you can view a humorous scene and replenish your army's morale to maximum, at the cost of, I think, 50 seconds of time. It's usually a good idea to go for it if morale is low, since you can make up the time with the extra Press Forwards and Charges it allows you. They won't rally there if their morale is already in the red however, and if you have to have your troops rally on a rice ball to gain the morale to go to the hot springs, then it may not be worth it.
I have to say that I'm greatly enjoying the game at this point. The levels show such a great variety of play, often containing gimmicks that show up in that one level only, like the path-choosing aspects of Level 9. There's only one level to go at this point, and it's the one with the bonus stage in modern Japan....