Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi Extra

So I’ve spent some good time with Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi Extra (literally Determination: Cutting the Bonds of Hell, uh, Extra) and I have to say it totally rocks out with its cock out.

I preordered the limited edition with a fair amount of hope, and a little trepidation. Ketsui kind of has a reputation… as a failure with the arcade public (in Japan, no USA exposure to speak of) but seriously lauded by the hardcore. In the time since the arcade game has come and gone (it was released in late 2002/early 2003) the prices for the pcb (the dedicated board you’d put in a cabinet) have climbed or remained steadily high. A testament to its standing and its dedicated following.

Ketsui’s rep is partly due to its rarity, but also to it just being badass. Not badass in the difficulty sense, though the game is goshdamn difficult. Cave, the developer, puts out shooters that require badass reflexes, have badass scoring systems, or feature badass bosses. But they also have cute loli-witches that soar through pumpkin lands or teen princesses riding giant golden beetles. Or androgynous looking replicants with huge butterfly wings. In short, a lot of cute or a lot of pretty. Even the Donpachi series, replete with tanks and jets, nowadays puts the loli-droid co-pilots at the front and center of all its PR materials.

Ketsui doesn’t have any of that. The pilots are not the most masculine looking dudes ever, but they are recognizably dudes. And all the backgrounds, music, and hardware on display hearken back to earlier days (re: the mid 90s) when a grittier, more ‘industrial’ aesthetic was the rage in shooters—see Raizing games like Battle Garegga. It is more testosterone fueled.

It seems like Cave chalked a large part of the game’s failure to this macho aesthetic. Later titles have mostly all done better and they all feature distinctly less masculine design choices. Of course, western players have been positively cuckoo over this game, searching out the pcb where possible and salivating over the possibilities of an Xbox 360 release. Personally, I don’t mind Cave’s design choices. They make great games. I’ve watched enough anime and read enough manga to be pretty well acclimated to the Japanese pop culture gender preferences. But it is nice to have some variety. The game also has a relatively simple in-your-face scoring system (Literally. The closer you are to an enemy when you kill them, the bigger the multiplier chip they spit out.). Ketsui is an older game, but amongst recent Cave output it’s almost a breath of fresh air.

The LE comes with a 2-disc pack containing the ‘arrange’ version soundtracks for both Ketsui and Dodonpachi Daioujou BLEX. I’m not the kind of player who listens to game music when NOT playing a game, but I make a few exceptions. The Ketsui soundtrack is one of them. These discs would be even better if they also had the original versions on there, but I’m not really complaining since what’s on here is so good.

The story of this port actually becoming reality is almost the video game world’s version of The Odyssey, threatening for a bit there to become another Duke Nukem. You can find a lot ranting and fist-shaking in posts and forums at places like Cave-STG or Shmups!

Essentially, when the Xbox 360 really started looking as a viable spot for home versions of shooting games, a company named 5pb managed to secure the rights to Dodonpachi Daioujou BLEX and Ketsui. Even BEFORE DDPDOJBLEX came out there was a lot of reservations expressed in the shooter fan community. 5pb was a ‘visual novel’ publisher whose content tended towards more eroge (Japanese contraction for erotic game) subject matter. ‘Visual novels’ are just that. Little interaction is required, mostly its reading the screen. The question was how a company big on artwork, writing, and little else was going to manage the demanding programming on something as intricate as a Cave STG. The answer turned out to be: they didn’t. At least not by themselves.

Several years ago, the PS2 saw an earlier iteration of Dodonpachi Daioujou released for it. The port is considered a high water mark for home versions of Cave games. THAT version was handled by Arika, and Mihara the man heading up the port is/was a known stickler for accuracy relative to the arcade version. It turns out some unscrupulous sorts at a subcontractor for 5pb used the code from Arika’s PS2 port as a baseline without permission. This meant 5pb got an up-and-running game, but appear to have run out of time to tweak and optimize everything. So there are a number of bugs and inconveniences to their Xbox 360 version of DDPDOJ. 5pb got a lot of hate for a long time. They fessed up to their people swiping the code, made some sort of amends to Arika, and buckled down to work on Ketsui. The reception DDPDOJBLEX got was tepid going to worse over time… as bugs and problems came to light. So dealing with the bad PR, pulling copies off shelves, avoiding legal problems with Arika, and wondering if Cave was going to pull the Ketsui rights probably all added up to the delay after delay Ketsui experienced.

It appeared the majority fan opinion that Ketsui was going to be cancelled. A few people held out hope. The idea that Cave themselves might pick it back up and release their own version was balanced by the fact that they seemed interested only in the newer parts of their catalog (this has since been excepted by their announcement of Guwange, but as an XBLA title).

Personally, I like DDPDOJBLEX just fine. It COULD be better. It has now-infamous long load times… and those ARE a bitch to wait through. But some of the other issues that seem to break this game for fans I never really suffered. The menus don’t bother me, and I don’t experience the button inconsistencies reported from within those menus. The graphics have been subjected to endless debate and scrutiny, mostly owing to CRT-designed objects being displayed on HD televisions. But on my setup, component cables running to a Panasonic plasma screen, the picture looks fine. Fanatics for certain games can wax endlessly about how close a home version is to the arcade original and apparently there are some pretty glaring inconsistencies in DDPDOJBLEX, but with no experience of the original I don’t have the same frustrations. I think the greatness of the game still comes through. Maybe if I owned the PS2 one and saw what its like to be closer to the original I’d feel differently. The Xbox 360 version includes the Black Label version of the game and by all accounts it is a better, more balanced game, so that works for me. The goobs can complain all they want but at the end of the day, DDPDOJBLEX is a fun game and that’s what counts most.

So for me, back on the Ketsui front, the fact that 5pb was doing the port did NOT mean it had to suck. I figured at the very least they’d learn their lesson and get the load times down and the major bugs all ironed out, IF in fact they actually released the game! Ironically, Ketsui was also on the slate for Arika to port to the PS2 back in the day, but they decided against it owing to the PS2’s lack of power for handling certain sections of the game. So there was no finished code to be kyped in Ketsui’s case, I guess.

To almost all fandom’s surprise, the Ketsui port is great. Now the terms used are ‘amazing’, ‘redeemed’ and of course the one I’m pushing, ‘badass’. There’s even some interest now in 5pb’s future original shooting game. The eroge novel team proved they could pull this off. There are, of course, tons of threads and posts comparing graphics, accuracy, and all that shit. But there appear to be no bugs (apart from an intentional one that replicates a bug in the arcade… and that you can turn off!) AND the load times are practically non-existent.

Details about game mechanics are readily available on the internet with the best one probably the guide in the strategy section at Shmups! My point with this post is not to give a review in the same way a proper review is written. More to give my feelings about the game on a personal level, since it has had a pretty strong impact on me, even as the experienced STG player that I am.

The game is easy to get into, but the difficulty in making progress might make it unapproachable, a trait common to the manic shooter sub-genre. But there might be enough badassedness to get non-Cave fans to hang in there. 5pb included an additional ‘arrange’ version of the game called X-Mode. It involves a bullet canceling mechanic somewhat akin to switching to zesshikai in Espgaluda II. There’s a shot timer in arcade mode, manipulation of which increases your multiplier chips. In X-Mode, doing something similar also cancels all killed enemys’ bullets. So it is basically a screen-filling, bonus-raking free-for-all.

There’s also a level select for practice, and a selection of achievements mostly easy to get. The game doesn’t start out giving you enough credits to credit feed to the end, but it doesn’t take long to earn them… probably one of the few ticks in the ‘con column’ I’d give the game. I like the earning credit procedure in general but this goes by too quickly. There are leaderboard and replay options. All the usual stuff. As per 5pb’s previous release it DOES NOT contain versions of the game with re-rendered sprites for HDTVs. So the visuals will not be the unbelievably sharp objects Cave blessed us with in Deathsmiles or Mushihimesama Futari.

Ketsui doesn’t reinvent the 2d shooter genre. If you can’t see replaying the same levels to get better and better, trying to go further on one credit or reduce the number of credits it takes to reach the end, then this one ain’t gonna change your mind. It just does what it does very well. Any criticism I have for this port would be about the stuff ‘around’ the game, like the too-soon credits, or the plain menus. The game itself is stellar.

I have so many games on my list to get to, and so many that I like to return to, that attempting a 1CC on a shooter just isn’t usually in the cards. I try to play shooters enough to where I ‘finish them on a buck’. In the old days I used to give myself about a dollar to spend on each game. So it is traditional for me to allow myself the initial play and three credits on arcade style games—shooters, fighting games, etc. Occasionally if a game hits me just right, I may take the time to go for the 1CC. Ketsui is probably such a game. I don’t know if I’ll do or how long it’ll take. Ketsui is also known for having two separate second loops, one extremely difficult, and one full-on prison-love brutal. I don’t now at this point whether I’ll require THAT of myself to count the clear. I may just not be able to invest the time. We'll see. I'm getting to the middle of level three on my first credit. Figuring out how to manage all the battleships on that level is taking some doing.

If you have the wherewithal to play import Xbox 360 games and you like the genre, this is a no-brainer buy. Unless something miraculous happens with Cave releases over here (probably contingent on how the first one, Deathsmiles does) shooting fans should just assume they need to own a JPN Xbox 360 anyway.

Weirdly, for all its western aesthetics and appeal, this may be one of the least likely of Cave’s home ports to come over here. But that won’t stop the baddassedness at MY house!

PS: I realise there is a Nintendo DS iteration of Ketsui. Not really the same thing.


  1. Eroge means Erotic Games. You're thinking Ero-guro, erotic grotesque.


  2. "Eroge" is a contraction of "Erotic Game (Ge-mu)", not "Erotic Grotesque"!

  3. Quite right. Fixed in post. That's what I get for spending time with Maruo's Ultra-Gash Inferno!

  4. Ero-guro is admitadly very interesting, even though I've got very little experience with it, outside of influenced things and some Takashi Miike sort of stuff.

    And paintings/art.

    However, I've never seen any of the wacky pink films, I guess I should wait 'til I'm legal for it.

  5. Don't let your Mom find that stuff under your mattress.

  6. That is one HUGE review man. It's taken me a few days, but I read it all... word for word... all 20+ paragraphs XD

    Now I'm mad I can't jam on it. Good job man!

  7. It is kinda long. But then most of my reviews, such as they are, are on the long side. Isn't that because, usually, I'm including a lot of background bullshit, a lot of personal history with the game or genre bullshit, and some explanations for those not hip to all the game-insider bullshit. I'm thinking about starting up a side page on this 'blog that would have more what I would consider REAL reviews. I don't think I'd substitute this sort of post out, because the point of my 'blog is the whole personal view/nostalgia thing.