Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Insect Princess Duo


This last couple of months has been graphic whore paradise for me. I'm currently playing Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Bayonetta is probably next on the list. Both of these games have spellbinding production values and intricately detailed, artistically-inspired game worlds. I'm sure there'll be future frothing entries on both of them.

But while I'm playing the above games, I'm also plugging away at Mushihmesama Futari 1.5, the translation for which forms the title of this post.

MushiFutari is also a graphic feast, albeit one rooted in an older style of gaming. Like the game Donpachi essayed in a previous post, this is a 2d vertical scrolling shooter from Cave. This one, however, has had Cave's years of experience between now and that game's release in the mid 90s. There are lots of refinements, but mostly the experience shows in all the different game modes... Cave's efforts at making the game have more accessibility, replayability, and longevity to the 'non-hardcore'.

Why should that be significant? As I've written in other earlier entries, 2d shooter (or STG or shmup) fans are kind of a cult amongst video game players. The mechanics of the STG are amongst the oldest (and in a sense the simplest) in the history of this entertainment form. Everyone knows what Space Invaders is, the grandaddy of all shmupdom. An argument could be made that the even more venerable Space War is the prototype, but that game has a more direct modern lineage in the arena shooters like Geometry Wars or 0 Day Attack on Earth. As time has marched on since Space Invaders, graphics, scoring mechanics, immersion factor, etc. have all advanced significantly but the dodge-and-shoot-on-a-flat-plane-playfield is the same within the genre, game after game. This probably really doesn't need explaining... its the very definition of 'genre' after all. Every FPS has the same basic mechanics. Every driving game operates the same basic way. Blah blah blah. The point really is: how very old the STG genre is. By video game standards it is as non-modern as it gets. And like a lot of 'old things' 2d shooters have evolved to something of a conoisseur's field. The players tend to be older (many having grown up with these types of games in abundance), and with a lot of the responsibilities that quick-shot arcade-style gaming can be integrated with as opposed to long drawn-out gaming commitments like role-playing games.

Shmup players can be pretty fucking snotty too. Like wine, cigars, music, or any pastime that has a history, eventually you get a hardcore enthusiast elite. Knowledgable, adroit, and often not afraid to let everyone else in the culture know it. Within video games, shmup players are already something of a hardcore subgroup, but drilling further into it you can find the REALLY hardcore sects. Amongst these are the Cave fans.

Now I'm not saying there are no new players, or nice players in the 2d shooter world or in the subcult of Cave players. I'm an old shmup player and a relative newcomer to Cave games, and I'm plenty goshdamn nice. I'd just like to make those interested in the scene that there are 'curmudgeons' out there who'll happily rain on your parade with their superiority, and the internet (really the main voice and social tool for subgroups and subcultures all over) gives them a voice out of proportion to their numbers. If you can develop a thick skin to ward off these poopers, then there is some very unique and rewarding... though difficult... gaming to be had.

Cave sticks to bullet hell shooters. They have dabbled in other genres a bit, but they seem to have decided where there bread and butter lies. Lots and lots of bullets. Alternately called danmaku (curtain fire) or manic shooters, bullet hell games like a lot of modern media have succumbed to the 'more is better' mentality. Historically, developers have balanced the simplicity of play with flashier window dressing and more complicated scoring mechanics as increases in video game technology have allowed. With such basic move and shoot play, the enemies, bosses, music, pace, and everything else have ramped up to make the experience more intense. While there have been the occasional over-the-top titles with aspects that have never been duplicated (Batsugun's firepower or Radiant Silvergun's length and boss rush), shmups have followed the summer blockbuster film pattern of attempting to outdo what has gone before... a pattern that has culminated, for the time being at least, in the so-called bullet hell shooter.

Some shmup players hate this style of game. They prefer the quick twitch and dodge gaming of the some of the older styles characterised by companies like Psikyo... few but fast bullets as is typically stated. Or the memorisation-based games like R-type or Last Resort. Or mixup games like the ThunderForce series. But for sheer eye candy, and processor-bogging screen hazards nothing beats a manic shooter. And Mushi Futari is a really great recent example.

Now Cave knows that their speciality, the manic shmup, has uber-niche gaming appeal only. But they want to make a go of the home market. They've typically had SOME titles make their way to home conversions, like the previously-posted-about Donpachi. But in today's market, like studios making DVDs, you have to offer something more. You can't just slap a conversion of an arcade game straight onto the disc, no frills included and expect gamers to love it-- apart from the aforementioned frequently-snotty hardcore faithful. If you don't add the video game equivalent of commentaries and easter eggs your game will need to be bargain-priced. Especially if you hope your sales will reach a bit beyond your core audience. Unbelievably, not only does Mushi Futari offer almost every version of this game that was released in the arcades (Cave tends to update the arcade boards as balance or other issues come up), versions allowing graphics all re-drawn for HD setups in the home, world leaderboards, and a lack of region protection... it actually has versions of the game ideal for novices to learn how to play manic shooters.

The company primariliy responsible for making bullet hell shooters the hermetic environment that they are, has with Mushi Futari, given the keys to the gate to every video game player. There are so many play modes and so many difficulty levels, that my eleven year old son... who has always marveled at bullet hell games... is actually able to play and make progress. The point of most STGs is to play for score or survival but unlimited credits really REALLY shortens the play life of these things. If you don't give unlimited credits today's player will often quit because progress involves replaying the same early levels over and over again until you master them. If you do give unlimited credits then most players just push the continue button, see the end, and then put the game away. Some STGs have figured out various ways to compromise. Offer an option to limit credits. Reward hours of play with extra credits. I particularly like Mars Matrix' solution-- play time earns 'money' which you use to buy ship upgrades between games. Amongst the upgrades is more ships or more credits. But it takes quite a bit of play to earn enough credits to get these. Pretty much all shooters punish you for using extra credits by resetting your score, but that really just isn't enough unless you are hardcore.

Mushi Futari puts the credit and no-credit options right on the front page of their game. You can play one credit and earn the right to put your score on the world leaderboards. Or you can have credit feeding as an option. Credit feeding is a viable tactic for practicing later levels and bosses without the drudge of working up to them again and again. But the greatness in this release is the iterations you can work through to get better. Sure they are all basically the same game (apart from Arrange mode). Same enemies. Same levels. Same bosses. But the bullet frequency, speed, and patterns varies widely. Your firepower and the scoring systems also change quite radically. If you start out with the novice versions of the game and move up as you get better, you find that Mushi Futari is teaching you how to play a bullet hell game. In addition, as stated above, Cave made the game region free. This most Japanese-exclusive of game companies has made this game available to Xbox 360 owners everywhere. Even the downloadable content, a headache for most players because it requires you build a separate Japanese Xbox Live account complete with Japanese address info, just shoots onto your console no problem.

Kurt Kalata's 'blog entries on Hardcore Gaming 101 go into his personal feelings about how Mushi Futari has made strides. I wasn't really intending to tread the same ground he has. This entry is supposed to be more of a clarion to game players-- if you are going to buy one bullet hell shooter it should probably be this one. At least until Espgaluda 2 comes along and outdoes it. Even if Mushi Futari's protagonist (cute teen anime princess) doesn't really do it for you, the environments, enemies, and bosses probably will. You progress through waves of dinosaurs, bugs, and ultimately dragons-- all lovingly detailed and animated. Though you will find it harder and harder to discern those details as you move up through the difficulty levels. They'll be obscured by whorls and waves of enemy firepower. You will really feel like you've accomplished something if you get good at this game.

That might be surprising for today's low-attention/high expectation players. A game with only five levels, dodge-and-shoot mechanics like Space Invaders, and no 3d! Who'da thunk it?
(pic cribbed from NCSX)

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