I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
I frequently recommend obscure games to others: this often means urging players with more “mainstream” sensibilities than mine to venture into somewhat intimidating territory, at a loss for how to react to certain unusual features and design choices, if not scared off outright. With this series, something of a stand-in for what would otherwise be “regular” reviews, I attempt to not only give readers a general idea of what to expect from an unusual game but offer some additional insight into how best to approach and enjoy it even if it’s something completely new for you – as well as what makes the experience special for an avowed enthusiast like myself.
I’ve begged. I’ve pleaded. I’ve threatened. I’ve hyped. I’ve highlighted. I’ve probably driven both myself and a hunk of my readers halfway over the edge in an effort to get people to import Mushihime-sama Futari for the 360. Why have I done this? In case you’ve been avoiding my blog over the past few months (that should cover most of you), Futari, sequel to an excellent 2004 “bullet-hell” vertical shooter from niche developer Cave, is the first title that the company is releasing without region protection, i.e. you don’t need a Japanese system to play it. Despite the 360 boasting this generation’s best shmup library, now is the first time that any such company has openly reached out to overseas fans, with their unique circumstances in mind – in a nutshell, if Futari does well, we may be seeing more games like it aimed our way. Considering how high-quality most of Cave’s output in particular is, this would be cause for celebration for shmup enthusiasts like myself.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that most people are NOT shmup enthusiasts – so why should anybody else care about this game or its numerous cousins? I could go into a rambling diatribe about how scrolling shooters embody many all-but-forgotten elements of what makes video games fun and rewarding and blah blah blah, but that’s a task for another day: for now, I’m going to focus specifically on Futari and why any gamer on the lookout for an unexpected but impeccably-realized treat should consider plopping down the cash to import it. This game does not conform to most of the unwritten “rules” that games (and gamers) have shackled themselves with over the years and may well shock more than a few players out of their seats at first blush, but those able to set aside their preconceptions and give themselves over to its pulsing, neon-purple embrace are in for one of the best action titles to see daylight in a long time. The following aims to tell you why and how you should do just that.
Less Is More
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves – you are about to be exposed to the three things that have toppled countless mainstream reviewers faced with the task of critiquing a shmup in the modern era. This terrible trio has reduced countless professional mavens’ brains to quivering piles of jelly, frequently rendering them utterly incapable of penning a suitable, reasonable summary of even a relatively simple genre. Do you think YOU can handle them? If so, here they are:
1) This game only has five stages. 2) A full run-through of this game takes less than an hour. 3) This game does not have any unlockables.
If the aforementioned has already made you write off Futari as a “rip-off” that’s not only “too short” but “lacks replay value”, congratulations – you’re fully qualified to review old-school shooters for just about any major media outlet. Feel free to submit your applications now; or, as an alternative, listen to why such a rash dismissal of a game like this is the pinnacle of laziness, inflexibility, and downright willful ignorance. Yes, this thing is short, and doesn’t take long to complete – IF you just keep continuing every time you run out of lives, and never pick the thing up again once you’ve invariably reached the end on Very Easy mode. The fact that even people paid to play games do this almost without fail (and then complain about it) is a frustrating reminder of both how jarringly unmotivated most of today’s gaming community is when it comes to getting the most out of their purchases, and how few contemporary products truly have the depth to hold one’s attention without artificial stretching – what in God’s name ever happened to the desire to improve one’s high score, or attempt a no-continue clear, even if the title doesn’t dangle some worthless unlockable carrot in front of your nose under the guise of “adding replay value”? What happened to replaying a game for no other reason than because it’s fun enough for you to want to play it again?
For the record, yes, there are Achievements on offer, but for anyone who plays Futari with the right mindset those won’t matter – what WILL is the joy of playing it (remember that?), mastering the different modes, gradually learning how to best exploit the various scoring systems, discovering new tricks, getting farther and farther without dying thanks to a bit of practice (remember that?). If you’re the type who rushes to get maximum trade-in value at Gamestop the second you can say you technically “beat” a game (try bragging to any shmupper about how you “finished” a game whilst continuing a dozen times on “Baby” difficulty, and he’ll laugh in your face), you’d better undergo a major attitude adjustment before jumping in here – this game is too finely-tuned and built-to-last to lump in with that copy of Avatar: The Last Airbender you bought for the Gamerscore boost. Futari isn’t just a purchase – it’s a commitment. A commitment to play the game on its own terms, in pursuit of more than the latest flash-in-the-pan “okay, I’m done, next!” helping of digital junk food. A commitment to not be content with a paltry score, to desire an increasing mastery of the game’s inner workings, simply because this particular box of gold-plated Cracker Jack is worth wolfing down even without the cheap plastic toy waiting at the bottom. A commitment to you playing the game, NOT the game playing you. Just to be clear, if you’re new to the genre and want to start out by turning down the difficulty and giving yourself some additional lives to start, that’s fine – but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop there!
It’s probably been quite awhile since many of you had to rely on something other than a developer’s self-serving breadcrumb trail to determine the “value” of a game – well, kids, few genres force-feed you the opportunity to do just that more effectively than the scrolling shooter, and few of those do it better than Futari. Open wide.
While this item isn’t essential to enjoying Futari, it does make for a more “authentic” experience if you can manage it. In the arcades where it was first released, this game was meant to be played full-screen on a vertically-oriented arcade monitor; by default, on a horizontal TV, the original dimensions are preserved via a much smaller display with letterboxed borders. While the game is playable this way, a chunk of the graphical detail is lost – if you really want to play Futari in all its glory, go to the Options screen (all the menus are in English) and change the “Rotation (Game)” item to either “RightRotate” or “LeftRotate” depending on which way you’ll be turning your TV.
Yeah, you heard me – flex those muscles and turn that sucker on its side (shmuppers call this “tate” [pronounced “tah-teh”] mode, from the Japanese adverb for “vertical”). This practice does come with some caveats, however – if you’re playing on a CRT this could possibly damage your set, so look around for some tips on how to do it safely (you might want to check here, here, or here for some info). Monitors tend to be safer than TV sets (after all, those are similar to the hardware used in the arcades), and flatscreens are probably the easiest of all to manage (though you might have to lean them against something), so if you have either of those options, go for ‘em if you can. A last-resort (if a bit awkward) option for playing in full screen is to change the display setting as described above but leave your TV as it is – when you start the game, lay down on your side and simply play that way (this process is commonly known as “ghetto tate”). You might need to explain this position to your folks if they walk in, though.
In any event, while you definitely shouldn’t risk breaking something if you’re nervous about it, try to play Futari, and other vertically-oriented shooters, on a rotated screen if you possibly can – if memory serves, the domestic versions of Raiden Fighters Aces and Raiden IV for the 360 as well as Radirgy and Karous on the Wii’s Ultimate Shooting Collection include this option, as do nearly all import-only shooters released from the 32-bit era onward. There’s a reason for this – the games were designed to be played this way, and are best experienced as such. From here, feel free to mess around with the multitudinous other display options and tweak those settings (some of which can be seen here) to your liking.
If you’re (for some reason) wondering about the story behind this game, well, there is one (and it explains the title, which roughly translates to “Insect Princess Together”), but as is usually the case in shooters it doesn’t matter a heckuva lot – all you really need to know is that you’re riding on the back of a giant beetle, and have to kill a whole bunch of even BIGGER bugs, dinosaurs, sea monsters, dragons, and so forth. If this was the stated rationale behind, say, an upcoming Double Fine title, I can just hear the community hype now – Let me say that again. You fly around on a laser-shooting insect whilst making dinosaurs explode. This game is by default AWESOME. For some reason, though, whenever I detail this scenario after telling people that the game is an import shooter, I’m usually met with rolling eyes and a dismissive “Japanese stuff is too weird for me.” Not enough zombies, maybe? Either way, seriously – just go with it.
Especially since everything looks so great – from the pterodactyl midboss to the giant ice spikes to the tank-like ground beetles to the missile-spewing Oriental statuary, the threats you face from start to finish are detailed and alive, as are the lush backgrounds, though you probably won’t have a heckuva lot of time to admire them. The reasons for that are the thousands upon thousands of bullets that will be thrown your way; arranged into intimidating but aesthetically-pleasing patterns, enemy ammo is its own manner of visual spectacle. Thankfully, its bright coloring and constant spinning and flashing animations means that they’ll rarely, if ever, become too obscured for you to see (and avoid). Perhaps the most impressive sights of all, however, are the thunderous explosions – while you don’t fight a single mechanical opponent, everything still blows up real good (how? Who cares?), especially when accompanied by a screen-filling shower of golden gem rewards, or, in the bosses’ case, the emergence of an even nastier mass of teeth and tentacles after you blast away the outer layer. Sometimes things get crowded enough to slow the action down, but this is frequently meant to be used to your advantage, so learn to appreciate it when it shows up (also, you can tweak how much slowdown manifests itself in the Options menu). Moreover, as is detailed below, while things come across nicely on a standard-def screen if the settings are tweaked properly, most modes feature redrawn HD graphics which look even better than the original arcade version – without question, Futari, daring to proudly display its own 2D feathers in a world of 3D peacocks, is a feast for the eyes.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the sounds along with the sights – while the various claps and booms of your vanquished opponents frequently steal the show, enemy critters also roar, screech, and groan in order to make you unmistakably aware of their presence. Crowded sections will unleash a cacophony of threatening noise, as if you’d just stumbled into some sort of surreal lion’s den - your own character’s handful of voice clips, while well-placed, sound like mere squeaks in comparison. Then there’s the music – oh boy, is there the music. Longtime game composer Manabu Namiki, also responsible for the first game’s soundtrack (which, by the way, is also excellent) again lends his talents to the project, keeping a fast-paced, high-energy tempo throughout while mixing things up with hints of hopefulness, wonder, nostalgia, intimidation, or desperation when the scene calls for it. Unlike his high-profile compatriot Hitoshi Sakimoto’s work, this game’s aural style is anything but symphonic or classical, but despite the soundtrack’s unapologetic electronic nature it’s still undeniably epic in its own way – Limited Edition versions of the game, in fact, included a remixed CD as the featured offering.
Speaking of which, unlike Atelier Annie, I did not buy the Limited Edition of this game, and thus can’t comment on the extra packaging, faceplate stickers, or remixed soundtrack CD included therein – look around a little and you should be able to find some pics and impressions by others, though.
While the aforementioned section details several things about Futari that make the game decidedly larger-than-life, once you get into the groove of how it’s played, you might be surprised to find how much the game depends on minuscule precision and fine-tuning to work as well as it does. Item Number One here is your character’s hitbox – if you’re not familiar with the term, a “hitbox” is a small part of your onscreen sprite that registers as a “hit” when an enemy attack touches it. The rest of the avatar is invincible, and bullets can safely pass right through it – if you’ve ever watched a video like this one and thought to yourself “I know that bullet hit him, he must be cheating!”, you’ve simply witnessed well-executed use of the hitbox. While some games make you guess as to this area’s exact location, Futari conveniently displays it as a small glowing area in the middle of your sprite – when things get hairy, just concentrate on getting that little dot through the barrage without touching the enemy’s bullets and you should come out okay. Even if the space between two projectiles looks too small to squeeze through, you might be surprised at just how much leeway the game gives you if you’re brave enough to exploit it. If you need a more exact reference, check out this image - as you can see, the hitbox is a bit larger in "Original" mode (more on that later) than the others, but either way you've still got plenty of wiggle room to work with.
Another thing to notice about the above-linked video and others like it is the relatively small amount of long, sweeping motions that the player makes, especially when the screen is chock full o’ death – this might come across as counter-intuitive if you’re used to older shmups that encourage players to immediately get as far away as possible from any onscreen danger, but this is definitely not your daddy’s scrolling shooter. Thanks to the aforementioned hitbox mechanic and the truckloads of threats you’ll have to deal with at once, most of the time zooming around haphazardly will only make life more difficult for you – instead, you’ll want to get used to making lots of tiny, deliberate motions, inching over just enough to get out of the way of that missile without running headlong into the next one. It’ll probably take a little time for this to feel natural for most of you, but a good thing to remember is that even if most of the screen is covered by bullets, you don’t need to dodge them all: the ones headed straight for you are the only ones you need to worry about, so keep yourself focused on those and you should do alright. As a parting shot for this segment, the minuscule movements required for success are easier to keep track of when the game is displayed in full-screen, which is another good reason to play in vertical orientation (as described above) if you can.
Once you’ve placed the disc in your 360 and started it up, here are the basic things you need to know to play properly – while going for high scores is a bit more complicated (and will be dealt with later on), just getting your feet wet in this game is actually about as simple as it gets. For starters, aside from the pad/stick you use to move around, most of the time you’ve only got three measly buttons to deal with at the very most: button “A” (however you choose to map it) is your “Shot” button, which will fire “normal” bullets when tapped, and more powerful “focused” shots when held down. Using the “focus” shot will also slow your movement down, though, so be aware of that. Button “B” is your "Bomb" – drop one to clear out enemy bullets and give yourself some breathing room, as well as do some extra damage to enemies. Your supply is limited, of course, so use them wisely. Button “C” is your “Rapid-Fire” trigger – hold it down and you can fire “normal” bullets without having to tap repeatedly. The only other button you’ll ever use is a fourth “Switch” button, which will swap characters when playing in “Arrange” mode – I’ll also go into this later on. Other than that, aside from plentiful golden score-boosting items, the occasional collectables you encounter are all self-explanatory – “P” items make your shots stronger (thankfully, you don’t lose power if you die), “Bomb” items give you an extra bomb, and the rare 1-Up is the same as in every other game (you can also earn extra lives by scoring high enough, though the exact point amount you need varies by mode). No big deal, right? Basically, if you’ve ever played a shmup before, there’s not a heck of a lot you’ve never seen as far as the bare essentials are concerned.
Now, on to your options in the dramatis personae department: while the original Mushihime-sama offered a single character and three different firing “types” to choose from, the sequel shifts gears to two characters (Reko, the girl, and Palm, the boy) with two “types” (“Normal” at the top, “Abnormal” underneath it) apiece, adding a little more variety than before. Which character and type you choose affects both your weaponry (shots and bombs alike) and your movement speed, so be sure to experiment with them all to see which best suits you in each mode – most players tend to go with Normal Reko or Abnormal Palm, but if you like a different setup better by all means stick with it. One notable anomaly to be found here is in the “Abnormal Reko” configuration – unlike the rest of the cast, using her “focused” shot actually speeds her up instead of slowing her down, so be prepared to drastically alter your play style if you take her for a spin. If you’re looking to just get up and go, that’s really about it – with the above information, no matter which mode you pick, you’re all set to blast off. By the way, speaking of modes…
Know Your Modes (Part 1 – The Basics)
Unlike most console shmups, which are content to give you little more than a standard arcade port and maybe one console-exclusive offshoot if you’re lucky, Futari goes even farther beyond its predecessor (which was fairly full-featured as it was) in offering players a truckload of different ways to test their skills – so much so that I won’t be able to cover everything under a single subheading (or even two)! First up, let’s check out the various “versions” of the game available for play on the 360. At the initial “Top Menu” screen, you might notice that the default mode selection is “Version 1.5” – this is a port of the final arcade release, which was tweaked in several ways after the original “1.0” version. In short, 1.5 is pretty much the “standard” way to play Futari: select it, and you’re given another pair of choices, Arcade and 360. These two modes play the same (more details in a bit), but while Arcade uses the same visuals as the original PCB release, 360 Mode boasts the aforementioned redrawn, hi-def graphics, which will look nicer on an HD TV or monitor.
Beneath that is “Arrange”, an exclusive set of additions for the 360 port – make this selection, and this time you’re asked to choose between Novice and Arrange. The former plays like Version 1.5, but as the name suggests the difficulty has been toned down – enemies are less aggressive, bosses go down more quickly, items are more plentiful, and a (less powerful) bomb will automatically be dropped to save you if you get hit, assuming you have one in stock. Shooter veterans will whiz on through, but this mode is perfect for newer players to get used to the game’s style while being given a little extra breathing room. Next up is the “proper” Arrange mode. Here you actually control 2 characters at once – unlike, say, the “Double Play” mode found in Raiden III or Raiden IV, however, only one at a time is your “primary” avatar which plays as normal. The second character, while not “directly” under your control, gains a shield which can slow down or reflect enemy bullets, and is dragged behind the “primary” character like an “option” power-up in Gradius. Enemies are more aggressive than usual and this ability wears down with time, however, so regular switching between your team members is a must – thankfully, as in Novice, the “auto-bomb” feature is enabled. More details will be revealed in another section, but in a nutshell “Arrange” plays a bit like the Giga Wing games, and is just as eager to cover the screen with glittering rewards if you play your cards right.
Know Your Modes (Part 2 – Downloadables)
While the above modes are available to players right from the start, two more of the title’s available game types must be downloaded to be accessed – thankfully, despite Futari being a Japanese game, you CAN get this stuff on your regular ol’ NTSC-U or PAL 360. There are mercifully few hoops for us to jump through, as luck would have it, but in case you need information on how to obtain either, it's right here. The undisplayed “blank” option, Version 1.01, is free and a cinch to acquire, if you’re lucky – first-print copies of the game include a DLC voucher card, similar to the costume voucher found in the Street Fighter IV Collector’s Edition. Unfortunately, a mix of first- and second-print copies were shipped out from the very beginning (some more info is here) - if your game doesn’t include the card, there’s not much to do at this point except hope that it becomes available on the Marketplace later on. If you were lucky enough to snag the card, just log onto your usual domestic account, hit the “Guide” button, scroll to the leftmost blade and select “Redeem Code” just as you would for any other game. 1.01 is based on an older version of the arcade release, and plays pretty much the same as 1.5, except that the bullet patterns are generally more challenging – once you’ve cut your teeth on some of the other modes you might want to take on this primeval beast and see how well you measure up.
The “grayed out” option, Black Label (based on a separate, limited-release arcade board), just became available in mid-December, for 1200 MS points. In exchange for those points you get new enemy and bullet patterns, tweaked scoring systems, a different firepower setup for your characters, a new “God” mode to replace Ultra, and several other features to separate this from the other versions (for more specific info, go here). Like 1.01 this sucker is considered tougher in most aspects than 1.5, so be prepared for a challenge once you dive in - as a reassurance, though, more than a few players consider Black Label the best way to play Futari, so even if you have a tough time with it hopefully you'll be too enthralled to care very much. As for how to get ahold of it, while there were some doubts at first, it turns out that Cave was nice enough to put the content right up on the US Live Marketplace - as seen here there's a typo in the name, but in any case you can obtain it with a US account and US points, no fancy setup needed. The one thing to be aware of at this point is that some players are reporting juddering after downloading this - you might want to wait until a patch is applied before plunking down.
Know Your Modes (Part 3 – Sub-Modes)
Yeah, so methinks those claims of shooters like this one being inherently “skimpy on content” and “not worth replaying” are starting to sound even sillier by now, aren’t they? Well, now it’s time to really get into the nitty-gritty – you see, every one of the modes described in the above sections are sub-divided into even MORE modes, which even more drastically alter how the game plays. When you get to any of the above selections’ Main Menu, aside from the standard “Options” item and such you can choose from “Score Attack” (in which all the difficulty settings are standardized and continuing is disabled – only score results from here can be sent to the Leaderboards), “Normal Play” (in which you can tweak lives, bombs, etc. to your liking, as usual, and high scores can be saved to your machine) and “Training” (in which you can practice a particular stage or boss, again with the settings to your liking). After choosing whether you’d like to start on the 1P or 2P side, you’re given three more options to choose from, which are perhaps the most important ones of all.
At the top of this final list is “Original” mode – compared to the others, this one throws fewer bullets at you but at higher speeds, so this might be a good place to start out if you’re more accustomed to “old-school” shooters. “Maniac” is next – this mode plays more like a “traditional” Cave game or a “Touhou” title, as bullets are slower but there are lots of them, and players need to spend more time carefully weaving through tight patterns. Finally there’s “Ultra” mode, which is the source of insane-o videos like this and even more infamously this – in case you needed me to say it, this bugger throws the kitchen sink at you (including an extra boss at the very end), and is one of the definitive ways to test how good you REALLY are at shooters. Approach this one with caution – believe it or not, there’s even a secret Achievement which pops up if you select Ultra but wimp out after seeing the “warning” message it gives you. These three final variations are ALL selectable from ANY of the above-listed modes, so you’ve got LOADS of different ways to play Mushihime-sama Futari when all is said and done, even if you don’t bother with the DLC – moreover, each of these three selections features a different way to earn lots of points, which is where the fun REALLY starts.
If you'd prefer a quick bit of reference for comparison's sake at a glance, here are some videos of Stage 1 played in Original, in Maniac, and in Ultra – compare the latter video to these corresponding captures of “Ultra” in Novice and Arrange.
Get Greedy (Part 1)
Ah, finally it’s time for the real meat of any shoot-em-up worth its salt – racking up the big points. While you should take your time getting used to just surviving without being shot down when you first start out, before long you’ll definitely want to start hunting for high numbers, as this adds a whole new dimension to the game. Each mode has a handful of notable differences when it comes to high-score chasing, but the general idea, as should be somewhat obvious if you’ve watched any of the linked videos, is always to collect lots and lots of the gems defeated baddies and cancelled bullets leave behind. One important thing to note is that you can auto-collect nearby gems depending on whether or not you’re using the “focused” shot by holding down the “A” button – if it’s being pressed you’ll draw in treasure dropped by ground enemies (the round ones that stay put onscreen for a bit), but you’ll need to lay off of it to suck up swag from flying adversaries (the oblong ones that fall offscreen soon after they’re dropped). “Ground” gems are worth more than “flying” ones, but there tend to be fewer of them – either way, the name of the game is to collect as many as you can without getting yourself plugged, especially since either dying or dropping a bomb will reduce your gem count and force you to rebuild your overall scoring potential a ways. Be sure to take special note of certain enemies which, when killed, will immediately “cancel out” all enemy bullets onscreen and turn them into gems – an opportune takedown of these guys can not only lead to an impressive haul, but save your hide in the process!
But there’s more to it than just killing things and picking up what’s left behind – the way to really clean up in Futari is to make the shiny things even shinier. How do you do that? It depends on which mode you’re playing – let’s start with Original. If you look at the upper left corner of the screen there are two counters separate from the actual score tally – the larger one up top keeps track of your overall gem count throughout the entire game, while the smaller one beneath it, which maxes out at 9,999, tracks your performance on a particular stage (larger/more valuable gems increase them faster, obviously). As you pick up swag from enemies, watch the top number closely – when the hundreds digit is anywhere from 0 to 4, it’s displayed in green, but when that digit is from 5 to 9, it turns blue. This is what you need to keep an eye on (just be careful not to get sniped while your attention’s elsewhere!) to maximize your score – when the counter is green, finishing off enemies (including bosses!) with your “normal” shots makes them drop larger, more valuable gems, while bringing them down with the “focused” shot when the display is blue has the same result. Basically, success boils down to how effectively you’re able to juggle the two attack buttons at appropriate intervals, not only to max out enemy drops but auto-collect them as detailed above – it’s a bit intimidating at first, but with a little practice it becomes second nature.
One more thing you can do on Original to be a score hog is to kill enemies at as close a range as possible – when this is done, they’ll frequently drop glowing green gems that are worth twice as much as usual, but will fade out if left unclaimed for too long, so taking the risk of rushing down an enemy can pay even further dividends to your point total. Be prepared, though – as your counter goes up enemy bullets get faster, so shooting for a high score comes with some risk. While we’re here, Ultra mode, as it happens, plays very similarly to Original in terms of scoring – just as above, the main idea is to watch the counter, adjust your shots, and kill at close range. The main differences (other than the challenge level) are that it takes more collected gems (2,000 instead of 500) to change the counter’s color (though since there are more bullets to cancel and turn into rewards, it kind of evens out), and that the “small” stage counter can now grow indefinitely, meaning that you can skyrocket your point totals much higher…if you can survive long enough. Thankfully, unlike Original, the game doesn’t get any harder as your counter goes up – of course, it’s plenty tough as it is!
Get Greedy (Part 2)
So you’re all set when it comes to Original and Ultra – what about the “middle” mode, Maniac? This one’s setup for scoring is different from the rest, being based somewhat on the corresponding mode from the original Mushihime-sama with an added element of choice as to when to “cash in” on points, which is pretty cool to see in action. This time around, replacing the “total” and “stage” counters is a single multiplier, which goes to a max of 9,999 and resets at the end of each level – as you collect gems from enemies it goes up. Moreover, underneath the multiplier is a “chain” meter – as you destroy enemies in rapid succession with the “normal” shot, it fills up, but using the “focus” shot (or just taking too long to shoot something) decreases it. The goal here is to “chain” enemies, without too much time between kills, with the “main” shot until the bar is full enough to flash red at the far right end – once it’s at that point critters start coughing up more valuable loot. Moreover, if you can quickly switch over to the “focus” shot and finish an enemy off before the red portion disappears, it’ll give up double the normal amount of gems and offer a big boost to the multiplier.
Now, by this point you might be wondering exactly what the multiplier DOES – here comes the good part. Anytime you destroy enemies with the “focus” shot when the “chain meter” is completely empty, you’ll effectively “cash in” on the gem stock you’ve built up: baddies will now surrender special score-rich blue gems which will send the multiplier back down but award a ton of points based on how high you managed to get it beforehand. In essence, if you try to “cash in” when the multiplier hasn’t been padded at all, you’re only making 1/10,000th of the points you could potentially be hauling – if you can master the art of beefing up the multiplier, “cashing in” at a point-rich spot, and repeating, you’ll be positively rolling in pointage and impressing your friends to boot.
Finally, there’s Arrange mode, whose scoring system is completely different – while you still make the Original/Maniac/Ultra selection here, the scoring system is the same for all three, and only the bullet patterns will vary. On a basic level, it plays like Maniac mode – in the upper left corner a counter increases (this time up to 99,999) as you collect gems, and this multiplier can be “cashed in” by killing enemies with your “focus” shot. However, as discussed earlier, you now control two characters at once, one on “offense” and the other, surrounded by a shield, on “defense” – when enemy bullets hit that shield, if you’re using your “normal” shot they’ll slow down, but if you use the “focus” shot they’ll be reflected, leaving a shower of gems in their wake. On that note, each character has a “gem stock”, the former’s displayed in the lower left and the latter’s in the lower right – the defensive character’s stock will decrease if a bullet hits him dead-center or the “reflect” function is used, and if he runs out completely his shield will be unusable. While on “offense”, thankfully, any gems collected are added to that character’s stock, so you’ll want to switch your characters’ positions to keep them fresh – to REALLY cash in, though, wait until your “offense” character’s stock is maxed out at 9999, and then send him to defense. When fully stocked, reflecting bullets in short bursts will no longer decrease his counter, so you can basically send them back infinitely as long as you take short breaks in between – moreover, if both characters can hit 9999 together, activate the “focus” shot to enter a temporary “Fever” mode, in which your shield is pretty much infinite and you can wreak havoc as you please.
By now your eyes might be spinning in their sockets a bit, and admittedly this stuff can be tough to wrap your head around at first, but as I said earlier, don’t worry about scoring until you’ve gotten a bit of “casual” play time in. Once you’re a bit more comfortable with the basic survival mechanics, look for some of the things mentioned above as you play, and tool around with different ways to exploit them – when these systems finally “click”, you’ll find it nearly impossible to go back and play without them in mind. Whether the glory of Futari as a score-centric game reawakens long-dormant arcade-era sensibilities in you or comes across as a totally new experience altogether, trust me – you’ll be VERY glad you put a little time into figuring out how this stuff works. I do not exaggerate, after all, when I state that this game comes from a school of design with the ability to keep players hooked for life. Checking the video links at the end of the “Modes: Part 3” segment might be helpful as well – be sure to watch for the techniques detailed in these sections. As a final note, the scoring methods found in the “Black Label” content vary a bit from those in the other modes, but since that DLC isn’t out yet I decided not to cover it here (methinks you’ve got enough to chew on as it is) – check the link at the end of “Modes: Part 2” for that data.
Share in the Knowledge
So by now you’re veritably swimming in information – probably the last thing you’d expect when it comes to an old-school scrolling shooter, right? Thankfully, you don’t need to go it alone when attempting to figure this thing out – after your game ends, you’ll see a message (in Japanese) asking you if you want to save a replay of your last run (“A” will accept, “B” will decline; this feature can also be turned off altogether in the Options menu). If you play on “Score Attack” settings, you’ll also be asked whether you’d like to submit your score to the Leaderboards – every player, from the professional on down, has access to this feature, and is able to share both scores and gameplay movies with anyone else across all regions, so if you keep your 360 connected be sure to keep an eye on the progress and techniques of both yourselves and others. Personally, I rarely hook my system up to the internet so I can’t go into too much detail here, but those who know their way around Live better than I do should be able to manage. Of course, some players might prefer not to peep on others’ techniques and figure things out for themselves instead – this is also a perfectly legitimate way to go, but still, don’t hesitate to ask around the shmupping community (we ARE out there) if you need a quick tip! Trust me, by and large we would much rather have someone keeping us on our toes with questions than the deafening apathy we usually put up with.
Finally, if you want further details on pretty much anything covered here you can check fellow shmupper EOJ’s strategy guides for the arcade versions of Version 1.5 and Black Label, as well as this thread on NeoGaf and this one on shmups.com, all of which were very helpful to me while I was putting together this article. You might also be interested in the (Japanese) official sites for the arcade game and the 360 port – if you’re looking for translations of (most of) the Achievements, you can find them here (some of the untranslated “secret” ones are probably related to the Black Label DLC). If you want to watch expert players and check out their techniques off of XBL some such videos can be found on YouTube or the like – you might also consider a dedicated database like Super-Play. Good luck!
Whew, I guess that’s about all I can think to throw up here for the time being – even I don’t think I could have guessed that my “How-To” on a shmup would be significantly longer than my previous one on a sim-RPG. Anyhow, to anybody out there who took the plunge and a leap of faith in importing Mushihime-sama Futari (or is considering doing so), I’m extremely grateful to see support shown for the genre, and sincerely hope that you’ve been enjoying your purchase – moreover, hopefully this guide is able to help you do so even more. My fingers are crossed that Cave heard from us loud and clear, and is considering more projects like it. Either way, thanks as always to this blog’s readers – now take a break from all this text, boot up Futari and have some fun!