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Otakon 09 shmup report: Hands-on with 3 hot Japanese STGs

1:00 PM on 07.22.2009 // Topher Cantler

There are plenty of reasons for a nerd to attend Baltimore's annual Otakon. Some go for the cosplay, some for the concerts, some to see the debut of the latest in anime, manga and related merchandise. Any of the above is fine and dandy with me, but the number one reason I wade through the sea of sweaty otaku every year is this: There's an enormous room downstairs full of Japanese consoles, rocking games that will never come out here.

It's always a glorious experience, but the recent release of so many great shmups on the Japanese Xbox 360 made this year's gaming room an especially tasty treat. After spending three days destroying my eyes and thumbs in said cavern of wonders, I've chosen a few of this year's most notable new shooters for some hands-on impressions. 

If you're an STG junkie like I am, chances are you're already filling your piggy bank for a Japanese 360. Oh, you want one. You'll want one even more when you see what's after the jump, and I'll tell you which games are worth importing when you finally get it.


One need only look as far as the Japanese PS Store, Wii VC or XBL Marketplace to see that shooters are every bit as popular in Japan as they ever were -- a sentiment which is unfortunately not shared on this side of the Pacific. With developers like Cave and Konami resurfacing with brand-new IPs and classic back catalog titles alike, there's no time like the present to be a fan of the genre.

It can be tough to decide which among them are worth your time and money based on screenshots, so my hope is that some actual experience will help you make the call. I played through each of the following titles from beginning to end, and here's what I thought.

Mamoru-kun wa Norowarette shimatta (Mamoru-kun has been Cursed)
Developer: G.Revolution, Gulti
Released in Japan: June 24, 2009

I was away the weekend when Dale showed us some screenshots of this one back in May, so the first I'd heard of Mamoru-kun has been Cursed was when I sat down in front of it with the controller in my hands. The super-moe artwork sank its hooks in immediately, and I was quite pleased to see the cute-'em-up genre still alive and kicking. But how did it play?
Interestingly, while the screenshots look like your typical vert shooter, there's no forced scrolling. You more or less have complete control over how fast the game moves, making your way through each level at your own pace. Rather than flying, your character walks through the stages in a sort of "kill everything on screen, move forward, repeat" manner. It's a refreshing take on things, and something you really don't see a lot of. 
Firing works much like its fellow NAOMI hardware game Under Defeat, in that you can release the shot button to reposition your character/ship to direct your fire at different angles. This proves a necessary feature in Mamoru-kun, as some enemies and pathways throughout the levels are at 90-degree angles, requiring you to quickly shift your focus to the right or left. 
There are plenty of cute things to shoot at throughout the game, and it is indeed one of the most adorable cute-'em-ups I've ever seen, but it's the movement and progression that really makes this title stand out gameplay-wise. However, that's also what can make it frustrating. While it can seem almost too easy in the earlier stages, the difficulty ramps up pretty dramatically about 3/4 of the way through, thanks to some punishing level design that can make it almost impossible to see what you're about to get yourself into. The aforementioned right-angle turns often don't scroll your vantage point far enough to give you a peek at what's around the corner, and you can expect to walk into some pretty nasty death traps on your first few playthroughs. 
One thing I thought was especially cool was that if you're playing through story mode, the game gives you five characters rather than five "lives." That means that if you die, a different character swoops in to take the unfortunate one's place, which gives you a chance to play as each of them. They're all different, with unique shot patterns, so you might even work some strategy into it, purposely switching to a character better suited for the stage you're on.
Overall, Mamoru-kun has been Cursed is outrageously adorable, and it's got the gameplay to back it up. The difficulty could have been spread a little more evenly rather than going from easy beans to balls-hard in the blink of an eye, but if you take it in as a whole, it's a fun and rewarding experience. I had a great time with this one and wouldn't think twice about importing it. You can find out more on the game's official Web site.
Developer: Konami
Released in Japan: November 19, 2008
This is one I'm sure you're at least a little familiar with. The latest in Konami's Parodius series, Otomedius brings to the Gradius parody/spinoff franchise the one thing it's been missing most -- big, shiny boobs. What could be better, right? All the wacky cuteness of a Parodius title, with gorgeous HD visuals and a deliciously poppy soundtrack, nestled between a pair of bouncing mammary glands. Sound like the greatest thing ever?
It's not. And trust me, I hate to say that, but it's not. While the game unquestionably lives up to its subtitle, "Gorgeous," it's slow -- often frustratingly so. It might be that the 3D backgrounds are playing tricks on my eyes somehow, but if you're familiar with the other entries in the Parodius series, this one feels like someone seriously let up on the gas pedal.
Not only that, but the hitbox feels abnormally huge. If you were milling around the Otakon gaming room and overheard someone shouting "What the fuck, you just can't go near ANYTHING!!" that was probably me. At one point I almost could have sworn I saw my character's options taking damage. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but there's something not quite right about Otomedius
Fortunately, however, what the game lacks in speed and fury, it more than makes up for with its beautiful visuals and trademark humor. In addition to hilarious bosses and characters unique to this entry, you can also expect to run into some classic favorites, like the ridiculous mermaid boss from the second stage of Gokujou Parodius, and angry penguins for miles.
It may not be shmup hall of fame material, but if you dig the art style and are looking for some "decent-enough" horizontal action, this might be up your alley. Personally, I'm very happy to have had a chance to play it, but I don't think it's worth owning unless you find a great deal on the special edition bundle that hapens to come with the awesome touch screen-enabled arcade stick. Good stuff, but nowhere near as good as I'd hoped or expected it to be. Although the unlockables certainly don't hurt.
Death Smiles
Developer: Cave
Released in Japan: April 23, 2009
Star of the fucking show. So good I'm not even going to bother leading into this paragraph properly, I'm just going to tell you to get your hands on this game as soon as you possibly can. If you're an import gamer and you've ever enjoyed a Cave shooter in your life, you'd be crazy not to give this a try.
An unsual departure from Cave tradition, Death Smiles has us piloting magical girls instead of huge, beefy military vehicles, and horizontal scrolling rather than the vertical setup shared by almost the entirety of the company's library. It's certainly different on the surface, but pressing the start button will relieve you of any initial doubt -- Death Smiles is unmistakably a Cave game, down to its very core.
You play as one of up to five girls (one being an unlockable character), each with her own unique and often adorable weapon option. And moving even further from the expected, not only does the game scroll horizontally, it also eqips you with one button to fire left and one to fire to the right, with enemies coming at you from both sides of the screen. But it just wouldn't be a Cave shooter without alternate weapons when you press two buttons simultaneously, and you'll be happy to know that tradition has been left right where it is.
Visually, Death Smiles takes on a Gothic Lolita theme, with flowers and frilly dresses set against graveyards and Halloween imagery galore. And aside from the character cutscene pop-ups and a perhaps a few background elements, there's nary a polygon to be found. This is all sprite art, folks. Nummy, nummy sprite art.
The soundtrack is a sweeping arrangement of organs and church bells, punctuated by metal guitar and set to a fast beat. It blends seamlessly with the gorgeous visuals, and really serves to emphasize the vibe Cave was going for here. On that note, I should remark on my one and only gripe with the game, and that's enemy repetition. Everything looks and sounds great, but some of it looks and sounds great over and over again.
That asshole cyclops in the trailer? You'll probably kill at least 30 of that guy, albeit in varying colors and sizes. They mix them up enough that I wouldn't say it ever gets boring, but a few more character models wouldn't have hurt. Still, it's hard to stay mad at a game whose final boss is a giant pterodactyl skeleton monstrosity named TyrannoSatan. That's about as metal as you can get.
The gameplay is every bit as Cave-like as DoDon Pachi or Ketsui, and if you're feeling ballsy, there are four difficulty levels to choose from: 1, 2, 3, and 999. You want hard mode? You've got your hard mode. You've also got a definitive, completely visible hitbox to focus on, in the form of a shining heart in the middle of your character sprite. No guesswork; just pure, unbridled arcade shooter heaven.
Two hardcore Cave fans, Hitogoroshi and I stood on the gaming room floor at Otakon, probably with a tear in our eyes just watching it. With each aspect of the game in prefect complementarity to the next, the overall package comes together to form something truly incredible -- so much so that I played through it 12 times over the course of the weekend and haven't stopped longing for it since.
There's a sequel already hitting arcades, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see a few clones pop up before long. It's that good. Oh, and there's also this thoroughly fuckrocking badass Hori arcade stick you can get with it. If you're a shooter enthusiast on the fence about importing a Japanese 360, I think the answer you're looking for is "Hell yes," and I think there's no better way for you to break it in than with Death Smiles.

Topher Cantler,
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