Blasting Things: Thoughts on Three Shooters

Post date: Jun 28, 2013 6:23:12 PM

DoDonPachi: Sai-Dai-ou-Jou (XBox 360)

All things considered, Cave has been pretty generous to their fans outside of Japan by releasing many of their XBox 360 shooters with region-free coding. The latest (and likely last) Cave shooter to hit the console is DoDonPachi: Sai-Dai-ou-Jou, and it's pretty darn lovely. The game is a top-down, vertically-scrolling shooter that should make most fans of "bullet hell" games go nuts. The patterns of enemy fire are logical enough that I've been able to make it to the fifth stage without seeing my ship explode (after plenty of practice, of course), though I'll admit I'm by no means a master player of shooting games, and my high score is not going to take the top spot on the leaderboards anytime soon.

I've mainly been focusing on the score attack mode, primarily in the XBox 360 mode, thoughthe game provides much more content to dig into as well, such as the Arcade version of the game as well as a Novice mode.. There are also many nifty unlockables including background wallpapers and even a "story mode" (basically, you see visuals of characters chatting it up on the sides of the screen outside the gameplay area while you're playing) that can be purchased with coins earned through progressing in the game.

I thought the previous game in the series, DoDonPachi Resurrection, was completely fantastic, but Sai-Dai-ou-Jou is growing on me, and it might end up being my favorite of the bunch. It has hyper bright, almost neon-like visuals that were a little off-putting at first, but I've grown to really dig the style. The whole visual design looks bulkier when compared to other games in the series, with more angular geometry in the background designs, and I think this may actually make it easier for me to discern and avoid enemy projectiles all the more.

I've actually only played through the whole game once via the shameful method of credit feeding (I think it took about 10 Continues for me), and I doubt I'll have the skill to clear the entirety of the stages on one credit, but overall I'm finding Sai-Dai-ou-Jou to be one of the easiest Cave games for me to get into a zone and find success in navigating streams of enemy fire. Likely, it helps that I'm playing the game with a Hori arcade stick, but even with the standard controller, fans of shooting games could do a hell of a lot worse than focusing their efforts on Sai-Dai-ou-Jou. It's too bad their XBox 360 games have sold poorly when they've been localized in the US, so thanks to Cave for making this one region-free so that fans can enjoy Sai-Dai-ou-Jou outside of Japan.

Diadra Empty (PC)

Rockin' Android is a publisher I always keep my eye on. Though their output may not be frequent or voluminous, chances are if they are bothering to publish something, it's going to have something about it that makes it interesting. Diadra Empty, the latest game to get some Rockin' Android love, is a doujin shooter that reminds me a lot of Defender if it were run through an otaku's twisted brain, or Fantasy Zone if it were given the danmaku treatment.

You take control of a dragon-riding girl who is on some type of mission to find and rescue her sister--though, to be honest, backstory in games like this mean nothing to me. What matters most of all is how the game plays, and Diadra Empty is quite captivating. Instead of being a straightforward shooter that goes from point A to point B, each stage is set in a horizontally-scrolling arena, and enemies spawn from different areas on the map, tasking you to speed back and forth to take them out. The set-up makes for a much looser game than traditional shooters, but it also gives players a sense of freedom, though I'd imagine some people might feel a little lost before they become accustomed to how to play.

The first couple of stages are rather tame, but before long the screen becomes filled with countless enemies to shoot and projectiles to dodge. Thankfully, controlling your character is a breeze, thanks in large part by the ability to lock her so she faces a particular direction. This comes in especially handy when facing huge bosses, allowing you to keep whittling away at their health without having to miss any opportunities to land shots as you retreat back from blankets of bullets. Helping ease the challenge even more is the ability to execute a quick speed boost, which is a godsend to escape especially tricky situations, even if it means you momentarily lose more than a smidgen of control responsiveness. You can also customize the weaponry you choose to take into battle, and repeated play sessions will unlock more choices.

As with many doujin shooters, the production values are nothing special. The sprites are decently drawn, but there is limited animation, and the backgrounds are servicable if a little bland. However, the trade-off of the simple visuals is that the game rarely chugs when there is a ton of things happening at once, which is a compromise I'm willing to accept. Really, things can get crazy in Diadra Empty, and the fact that everything continues to run smoothly is impressive. Like the graphics, music and sound effects are also nothing outstanding, but at least they're not jarring or grating, and they get the job done in terms of providing a non-intrusive aural component to the experience.

One of the best aspects of Diadra Empty is that its arena-based design and customizable weapons give players the option to approach clearing the stages using different strategies. That is, with some shooting games, there is a "right" and "wrong" way to play, but Diadra Empty is a lot more forgiving in accomodating different play styles. This may actually be a turn-off to some fans that enjoy the tighter mechanics of more streamlined shooting games, but I personally think the openness provides a lot more incentive to replay stages.

As with most Rockin' Android releases, Diadra Empty is going to have a very limited audience, but I'm sure those anyone who is into doujin shooters will find something to like with the game. Keep 'em coming, Rockin' Android!

Kokuga (Nintendo 3DS)

If I could only use one word to describe this G.Rev-developed tank shooter, it would be "chunky." And I mean that in a good way. Everything about the game feels so thick and heavy, from the sparse, blocky backgrounds and enemy designs to the steady, syrup-pouring-from-a-bottle sensation of controlling your craft. Your tank has a hefty weight to it, and I sometimes got the feeling the tank was actually pushing back against my thumb on the Circle Pad. Rotating your turret back and forth takes time, and firing off rounds at enemies is suprisingly methodical. It's a refreshing change of pace to be put in control of such an atypical craft in a shooter.

Kokuga comes from the mind of Hiroshi Iuchi, who was the creator of Ikaruga, though anyone expecting Kokuga to be in the same vein will be very disappointed. Still, there are some similarties, such as how both games are very calculating in the way their stages are designed, which dicates the high level of thought players will need to employ to succeed. But a vertically-scrolling shooter Kokuga is not. If anything, the game initially made me think of Commando in that you set your pace as you make your way forward through stages, taking out strategically-placed enemies with a limited range of fire. The level layouts have a touch of Gauntlet, too, requiring you to navigate through corridors that twist and turn until you find an exit.

The tank's basic shot is fairly powerful, but the time between firing off rounds is pokey, and slowly turning the turret to aim at enemies adds to the challenge. To make things a little easier, players can power up their tanks, and the way Kokura handles this is intriguing. Instead of picking up power-ups on the map, the 3DS's touch screen displays a selection of "cards" that all have different abilities, such as stronger shots, rapid fire, and screen-clearing napalm bombs, not to mention other forms of assistance like forcefields and damage repair. Players can tap on these cards at any given time, but they are limited to the number of times they can do this per stage, so it's beneficial to practice restraint and use the cards only when necessary.

I really appreciate the minimalistic graphical approach G.Rev took with Kokuga. The stage colors are muted and overall the game has a cold, industrial look to it. At the same time, there are really neat design elements to the world, such as a very deep 3D depth in the visual plane below which your tank moves about. Explosions look really cool, too, even if they are nowhere near the perfection G.Rev accomplished with Under Defeat.

I have a feeling few 3DS owners will even notice Kokuga exists, and those that do will probably balk at its $15 price tag, but there is nothing else like it for the system, and it provides enough challenge to keep players busy for quite some time. Kokuga is probably not going to be considered G.Rev's top accomplishment, but at the least it should be thought of one of the studio's most unique titles.