Mushihime-sama Futari location test
By Alex Kierkegaard / September 13, 2006
After a summer of speculation around Cave's Mushihime sequel, I was really looking forward to playing it at this year's AM Show in Tokyo, which starts, oh, in about ten hours. But getting to Japan in time for the show proved to be a bit of an adventure. My passport had expired back at the beginning of August, and for reasons too complicated to relate here I had to pick up a new one from the Greek Consulate General in Marseilles, France.
When they finally called to inform me that the passport was ready, I booked myself a flight from Athens (where I had been staying for the previous six months) to Paris, a train ticket from Paris to Marseille and back, and another flight from Paris to Tokyo... through Moscow, of all places (Aeroflot is currently the cheapest airline flying from the European capitals to Japan).
The end result of this crazy itinerary was that I would be arriving in Tokyo on the morning of the 12th, a comfortable two days before the show was scheduled to begin. But on the 5th of September, the day after I bought all these damn tickets, it emerged that Cave would be holding a location test from the 7th to the 12th of the month in Akihabara's Hirose Entertainment Yard, also known as Hey arcade. The game would be sitting there for six whole days -- enough time to play the shit out of it if you do nothing else than stand in line all day -- but since I was arriving at Narita on the morning of the 12th, I would only get to be in the same room with it for around ten hours (Hey closes at one a.m.). As it turned out, that was an unrealistically optimistic estimate.
The plane landed at Narita at 9:45 a.m., by which point I hadn't slept, nor eaten anything of significant nutritional value, for over twenty hours. By 10:30 I was through with airport formalities and riding the Keiyo line home; by noon I had shaved and showered, grabbed a quick sushi lunch at my favorite spot (six months without sushi is six months too many), and was on my way to a grey, and drizzling-wet Akihabara.
The shower, the meal, and the prospect of playing the sequel to one of my favorite shooters of all time gave me the energy rush I needed, but in the end I only lasted for a couple of hours. I should have taken drugs instead.
What did me in was the relatively long line, which I was only half-expecting since this was the last day of an unusually lengthy location test (six days is almost unprecedented, even for Cave -- most other companies do two or three maximum). I can only imagine how crazy it must have been on the first day.
So there were about six to eight people in line at any given time, and sometimes there were as many as ten or twelve. With each one playing for eight minutes on average, you had to wait about 40 minutes between goes. I would have lasted much longer if it was possible to sit down, but standing up on one spot for such a long time, after being sleepless for so long, was just too much. I felt like collapsing at times.
The trouble I went through to be there was all worth it, of course. The game plays flawlessly, seems to be harder than the original, and, partly as a result of that, is heaps of fun right from the first hectic moments. The different modes thankfully make a return, and the scoring system in Maniac mode has gone from being slightly deranged to something actually comprehensible. The addition of another selectable character, the 9-year-old dragon-riding Palm, and two different playing styles, normal and abnormal, give you much more room to experiment than the simple choice of three shot types of the original. And on top of all that the game is also very pretty and has a killer soundtrack.
But to be honest, despite these additions and improvements, after watching a bunch of experienced guys (and one girl!) give it their best, and after playing three credits myself, I am not ready to declare this a better shooter than the original Mushi, or even Espgaluda II for that matter.
I mention the second Galuda because Futari takes almost as much from it as it does from its predecessor: normal shot and rapier attacks, bullet shapes and patterns, screen-filling score multipliers, upbeat electronic music, even the art style -- a ton of ideas have simply been ripped straight from Espgaluda II. Someone on Shmups called it "Mushiluda", and right now I can't think of a more apt nickname for it.
Is this a bad thing? Well... kinda. You see, the original Espgaluda and Mushihime-sama felt and played very differently. Then Espgaluda II came along and turned up the difficulty and made the scoring system more elaborate, while remaining true to its roots. This game, however, doesn't. Because even though the systems of Galuda II and Futari are wildly different, their looks and sounds, and more importantly, the way they feel, have converged.
Now you might expect a blend of two awesome games to be least a game of equal awesomeness, and since in this case the two games are also Cave's most commercially succesful ones since the Donpachis, you can't really blame them for going doing this route. And I don't -- blame them, that is -- I would just have preferred a shooter that moves away from what Cave has done before, and towards something a bit more fresh. Don't ask me what that might be -- it's not my job to make these games, I just write about them.
Well, enough about that. Cave seems to be alternating between tried and true designs, and novel approaches (see Ibara and PinkSweets), so their next game will likely be more surprising than this one. In the meantime, Futari is still wicked fun, and I can't wait to play it again at the AM Show tomorrow, where there is a good chance I might totally change my mind about it (my initial impressions of Cave games have never been very favorable -- it's only after I play them for several hours that I eventually "get" them).
Besides, I still haven't seen past the third stage (no one was able to get that far while I was there), and Ultra mode was absent from the initial selection screen -- and god only knows what that might play like.
Though I've written before of my desire to see Cave move on from their third generation hardware, it's certainly interesting to see how far they can push their current Hitachi SH-3-based design. Futari definitely pushes it further than any previous title, with an unbelievable amount of crap flying around at all times -- from the usual rain of bullets, to floating islands, giant falling rocks, and all manner of projectiles launched at you by the game's massive bosses. The first boss is in fact a fireball-spewing T.rex (and not a dragon as I had assumed before from that Arcadia screenshot), who breaks through a wall of rock in spectacular fashion and chases you, while the screen furiously scrolls backwards.
The stages meanwhile offer more variety than before, with the second one taking place over an ice world, and the third one over a dense forest canopy. Everything looks wonderful, and the characters' weapons produce some mesmerizing effects. Take my word for it: all four videos I made are worth downloading.
I am as happy about the visuals as I am of the evolved scoring system. In Original mode collecting gems builds up a counter which acts as a score multiplier for every enemy you destroy. This counter never goes down, so you don't have to worry about keeping a chain going or anything. Nice and simple, and perfect for beginners.
Maniac works the same way, though there is also a bar under the counter, which does go down, though I have no idea what you are supposed to do to keep it increasing. I am under the impression that shot-tapping has something to do with it, but whatever it is I am fairly sure, and glad, that it's nothing as intricate as that of the original. In any case, if you destroy enemies while that bar is filled high enough the screen fills with multipliers (as in the Galudas), and the enemies release gems with a blue outline, which presumably give you more points than the normal ones.
Oh and by the way, that 2.4 billion default high score that was in the Arcadia screenshot (I mentioned it here) was apparently a joke. Nice one Cave, you certainly had me gagging at the thought of Giga Wing-like scores.
After my third go I joined the back of the line again, which at that point had grown to more than ten people. with another handful of guys just standing around and watching. It was the worst time to be there, since Hey always gets busier as the afternoon rolls on. After a few minutes in line I realized I didn't have the strength to once more face the almost hour-long wait, so I took a break to walk around and shoot some pictures.
But when I was done taking pictures I gave the fast-growing line one regretful glance and just walked out of the arcade. I could barely stand straight by that point, and even if I had stayed on to play another credit I would most likely have wasted it. Though I got to the second boss on my first try (in Original mode), by the third credit I couldn't even clear the first stage. Modern shooters are not the kind of games you play when tired, no matter how much you might want to. So much for trying to come up with a cool name for my website.
Out in the increasingly dark Akihabara afternoon the (relatively) fresh air woke me up a bit, so I decided to check out a couple of my favorite game stores. Boy oh boy, 360 game prices have collapsed while I was away. I picked up four games for the price of one (!), and the latest Famitsu and Arcadia magazines, and settled down at one of the dozen or so Starbucks-inspired joints that fill up the space between game stores throughout the length of Chuo-dori. With two cool game magazines, a bunch of sandwiches and a glass of iced tea, I finally managed to sit back and relax. The end.