PinkSweets and Exelica location tests
By Alex Kierkegaard / January 31, 2006
I had originally planned to check out both games on Sunday, but on Friday afternoon my curiosity won out and I ended up going over to Hey for a quick look at PinkSweets (the Exelica test wouldn't start until the day after). I had been running errands all over Tokyo for most of the day, and by the afternoon I just wanted to get some takeaway, go home, pop in a DVD and relax. But I had to see Cave's new shooter first. What spurred me on despite my tiredness was the fact that virtually no information had been released about the game up to that point. In fact, many people were confused by Cave's announcements and some sites were reporting that PinkSweets was the same game as the Ibara Black Label revision. As I ran up the stairs to the STG section I revelled in the excitement of the moment. A brand new Cave shooter. I hadn't felt like this in a while.
Sadly, my whole experience of the event that Friday afternoon was incredibly underwhelming. For a start, only four or five people were waiting to play. Of course, everything was very well organized. There were a lot of promotional materials around: posters from Ibara and other Cave shooters and three very pretty cardboard cutouts of some of the game's bosses. The cabinet itself was beautifully adorned with many fake (and a few real) pink roses. The PCB was naturally in the cabinet that Hey reserves for the latest Cave game (Espgaluda II had been in there since its release, and I am sure they will stick it back in after the PinkSweets test is finished).
That particular cab (a Taito Egret II) is quite unique. It's hooked up to a decent stero system and blasts out more Watts of Cave sound power than 5 or 6 individual cabs, I reckon. The end result is great, if you are the one playing on this cab. If you are playing on another one, close by, the story is a bit different.
Of course I didn't notice all that when I arrived. All I cared about was the game. Posters and cutouts and all the other crap were just things I passed on the way. I walked up next to the guy who was playing and looked at the monitor. Visually, the game seemed unappealing -- certainly a far cry from the lush beauty of Espgaluda II and Mushihime-sama. Even the original Ibara is much prettier, and both games run on the same hardware. In this game, however, the backgrounds are barren, and the enemies are not nearly as polished as... well, as those of any other Cave game I can remember. But more importantly, the action didn't add up to much. Raizing-shaped bullets and Cave-like bullet patterns may sound good in theory, but in practice it didn't look so hot. Of course I was watching an obviously novice player fighting his way through the 1st Stage. Maybe that was the reason. I stayed there and watched for a little longer. The next guy was faring a bit better. The more I watched, the more bewildered I got.
The previous game, Ibara, was almost entirely pure Raizing. This didn't look anything like a Cave game, nor a Raizing one. It looked like the miscarried child of a forbidden marriage. The toy-like enemies simply didn't blend in with their backgrounds. Where was this fight taking place? And why? What were the bosses from the previous game doing as selectable chracters? Weren't they dead already? I realized I knew nothing about the story nor the setting. Normally the story is not important, but I wanted to understand this game -- I wanted to see some logical explanation (or at least a complete lack thereof) so that I could rationalize the choice of style and art direction. If it didn't look good in my eyes maybe it'd look good in my mind. I really wanted this game to look good. All the other ones did.
Pink seemed to me like a cute, easier version of Ibara, minus the debris and the teeth-gnawing frustration, but with worse graphics, less-inspired art and, crucially, much less action. The music was cool though. Fast, catchy electronic beats mixed with even faster and somewhat menacing tracks for the boss battles. Probably Manabu Namiki, but don't quote me on that.
But my tiredness was catching up with me so I decided to head home -- disppointed, but determined to return and take the time to play the game and watch others play, to see if my first impressions were indeed correct.
I couldn't go back on Saturday because my day was full up, but on Sunday I managed to make my way over there at around 7 in the afternoon. I decided to head to Club Sega first to get Exelica out of the way so I could concentrate on Cave's game for the rest of the evening. Club Sega and Hey are two of the biggest arcades in Akihabara. They are both right in the middle of Chuo dori, the main strip, and almost right next to each other. Two STG location tests at the same time, in neighboring arcades no less, is more than any fan of the genre can ask for in this lifetime, I think. [Edit: Little did I realize that a third one would take place a week later.]
Warashi, the makers of Triggerheart Exelica, is an obscure company, even by STG developer standards (i.e. pretty damn obscure). They made Shienryu, a competent, nice-looking 2D swarmer but I couldn't think of any other shooters from them. Judging by comments on the shmups.com boards, it seems that they have indeed done more shooters in the past, and the company seems to have its fans. But a string of mahjong games have made many write them off. And then, two days ago, someone on the boards linked Exelica's page on Warashi's site. The company was back in business with a new shooting game and the location test was taking place the very next day.
The event was as low-key as they get. The game was in the middle of Club Sega's shooter section (which is tiny, only 5-6 cabs compared to Hey's 25+), on the third floor. The cabinet was adorned with the usual 'loketesuto' sign indicating that there was, indeed, a location test taking place. And that was it. No cardboard cutouts, no posters -- no players, either. Only one guy was there, absent-mindedly blasting away, and looking as if in a hurry to lose and go play something else. Meanwhile, I dutifully watched him and tried to keep my eyes from wandering to the Espgaluda II machine that was sitting right next to him.
He didn't take long. A couple minutes later he was gone and then it was just me and the game. And two eager Warashi employees taking detailed notes on their official company-issued clipboards.
I felt somewhat embarrased. Those poor guys had arranged the event to show their new game to the fans, and no one was interested. So I sat down, plunked in a 100 yen coin and fired up the game. I'd show them there was at least one gaijin who cared.
Faced with a choice between two pink-haired underage anime chicks, Exelica and Cruel Tear, I picked Exelica. And then I was off flying over some bland and empty green fields, strapped in a silver mecha suit and shooting everything that moved. I stayed sharp. I wanted to make a good impresion on the guys with the clipboards standing three feet behind me and, apparently, studying my every move.
One thing stands out about this game. The sound of your mecha firining bullets completely drowns out the music, and has a very annoying, almost mind-numbing, effect. It's simply unbearable after a while. If you watch the second video that I recorded (later in the evening when I came back -- after the Warashi guys had left) you will easily be able to make it out. Now set your speakers to maximum volume and you'll have a good idea of what the game sounds in real life. I can't stress enough how much this one problem fucks up the game experience. But that's only the start of this game's problems...
By that time I was getting a bit depressed. Here was another brand new shooter, and it looked worse than many games that had come out 5 or 6 years earlier. The 3D backgrounds felt empty and lifeless. No effort had gone into breathing some life into them. The bosses were your standard big, generic-looking mechas. I saw the first three of them but none stuck in my mind (whereas I can still vividly recall every one of PinkSweet's bosses that I saw). Warashi obviously doesn't have competent 3D graphic artists, so they should have stuck with 2D instead. This game is running on Saga's Naomi hardware -- a system powerful enough to run something as awesome-looking as Ikaruga. Warashi was just lazy and/or didn't want to invest the time and money.
By the end of the first level I still hadn't figured out much about the system. It seemed that by going very near the enemies and pressing the secondary button, I could get extra points. So I kept doing this (I guess mostly from a desire to impress the guys behind me), losing two lives in the process. I beat the boss easily and it was on to the next level. The SFX were still getting on my nerves and the game hadn't improved in any way. I finally died for good somewhere in the middle of the second level.
I played another credit. This time, half-way through the first level I realized that one of the guys with the clipboards had moved right behind me -- he was literally holding his goddamn clipoard right over my head and breathing down my neck. I mean for fuck's sake dude, I am trying to play your goddamn game. I did even worse the second time, of course. Try playing with someone breathing down your neck and you'll see why. I lost at the beginning of the second level. No one else was waiting to play -- no one else was even anywhere near the game expect me and the Warashi guys. I didn't really want to play again. There were at least three shooters on the same floor which I'd rather be playing and PinkSweets was waiting half a block away. I wanted to take some pictures but, of course, I couldn't, so I just watched the attract mode once and left. I still wonder what those guys wrote in their reports.
A few moments later I was in Hey again, and the place was packed.
It felt very different on Sunday. It seemed as if the atmosphere was charged with the energy of all these veteran pilots, waiting for a chance to take on the challenges Cave had devised for them. Surrounded by all these hardcore fans, I told myself I'd stay there as long as I had to, and I'd line up to play again and again, until I'd made up my mind about this game. Had Cave, after more than a decade of shooting perfection, finally screwed up?
I had to wait a long while until I got my chance to play. In the meantime, I snapped some pictures and shot a couple of videos. Some of the others gave me disapproving looks (and this one guy next to me seemingly ran away after I started recording!), but only for a moment. We all only had eyes for the game, really. And then there was this girl with the oversized pink handbag that sat down and got as far as the Stage 3 boss! Now how cool is that? Not only was she playing a tough shooter and doing pretty good (better than you and me, that's for sure), but she was doing so at a location test! She hadn't just happened to come by with her boyfriend, and sat down to play some 15-year-old relic from the war with the Bydo Empire. She had been looking forward to this -- the sequel to one of the most frustrating shooters in recent years...
Hard Core, is what that was. God bless Japan.
This other guy sat down and almost 1CCed the game. And then he went and joined the back of the line again. Throughout, the speakers were pumping out fast beats and bright tunes and we were all entranced by the action. The later boss fights were very exciting to watch. Their attack patterns were varied and well-designed, and, as I've mentioned, the music totally changed mood, acquiring an almost DDP DOJ-like edge. It was very interesting watching all those skilled players face those bosses for the first time. It's a whole other story if you've memorized every single atttack pattern and response. This felt fresh.
It seemed like a different game from the previous day. The first Stage was still nothing special, but watching a good player go through the second Stage onwards was engrossing. And then came my turn. I made it to the middle of the second Stage. I have to make it clear here that I've only played Ibara about a dozen times. And I must admit the pressure got to me. I was extremely nervous having all those top players watching me, and probably wondering whether I was any good. If you haven't been in this situation, let me tell you: it's a weird feeling being the only white guy in a room full of Japanese people who may or may not think you have no place to be there. Well, it turned out I was not the only foreigner there. This other gaijin showed up a bit later and you can see his exploits in the first video. He was a bit better than me, and more composed, but he didn't get much further.
So far I have avoided discussing Pink's system on purpose. I simply didn't want to end up with a bunch of scattered observations. So after watching some of Japan's best players go at it for over an hour, and after two credits' worth of hands-on time, here's what I made of it:
The game uses two buttons. The first button is the shot and the second is the option. The shot button alone doesn't seem to be that useful for most of the selectable characters (most people weren't really using it). Only one of the girls seemed to have a pretty powerful shot, though I can't remember which one. The option button is more important here. You hold it down and a small shield appears in front of your ship. Keep it pressed and a shield gauge (that's what it's called) charges. While it charges the shield increases in size (the maximum size is about the same as your craft). When it's fully charged you press the shot button and unleash one of those special attacks you see people use constantly in the videos I posted. The special attack depends on the girl you have selected. One of the girls has this fat laser beam that spans the length of the screen and stays in one spot for a few seconds frying everything it touches -- at the same time protecting you if you stay inside it. Another girl has this expanding shield that covers half the screen, kills everything it comes in contact with while, again, protecting you within its boundaries. Etc. etc. (I don't remember what the other characters do, that's what etc. etc. stands for.)
If, on the other hand, you have an empty shield gauge and you keep both buttons pressed at the same time, then you fire off a constant beam the shape of which, again, depends on the girl you have selected. This is a standard attack for Cave games, but it is implemented rather differently here (watch the videos). And if memory serves right, at least one girl has a completely different attack that forces you to rethink your strategies. And then there are the so-called "Rose Hips" which are basically options, with some degree of player control.
And that's all I came away with.
PinkSweets is a very original game, both for the company as a whole, and for Shinobu Yagawa, the director of both Ibara games, as well as the driving force behind Raizing's most famous titles. You can easily see that the game is original because the feeling you get from playing it is not similar to anything else that came before. It doesn't feel like Ibara and it certainly doesn't feel like.any previous Cave titles. And yet, variouse elements we've already seen are in there, but in different proportions. Much less debris than Ibara and more colorful bullets; more Cave-like bullet patterns and negligible rank effects. And then new elements in the form of four wildly different selectable characters, and a shield which, when fully charged, can be used to unleash a powerful attack which destroys enemies while also cancelling oncoming bullets. Also, I need to mention that the game grows on you. At least it did on me. I still don't like the bland backgrounds very much, but it's true that they improve in later Stages. Only the first Stage is a bit jarring in this respect.
I had a second go at the game (lost at the second boss) and then I set about taking some more pictures of the promotional materials.
And then I decided to go back to Club Sega and see if the Warashi guys had left.
They had, indeed, decided to call it a night. I took some pictures and recorded two short videos of this one guy playing. There were two more people watching this time, so it wasn't just me. But they didn't stick around to play.
The funny thing is that I missed what is probably the most important feature of the game. You don't actually have to go near the enemies to perform the secondary attack, as I had kept doing before. The secondary attack can be used to capture enemies from a distance and throw them at other groups of enemies. You can clearly see this in the second video. It wasn't until I got back home and watched the videos that I realized this. While filming, I wasn't really paying attention to the action. I was looking out for any employees that might see me and freak out and call the cops. This actually happened last summer at the KOF XI loke at the very same arcade -- they took me to the nearest police station and kept me in custody for three hours, until I agreed to delete all the pictures I had taken. That's Club Sega for you. At Hey, on the other hand, they seem to be much more lenient. They saw me taking pictures a couple of times, but they only politely informed me that it was forbidden.
But I digress. The important thing is that Exelica might not suck after all. We'll know for sure in a couple of weeks at AOU, if Warashi shows up. I bet they'll have even more clipboards there.
Meanwhile, back at Hey the crowd had thinned out considerably.
Next to the cab there was a little stand with a stack of questionnaires and a ballot box. I found it interesting that the first question asked you to rate the game's graphics, and then the character design, sound, system and playbility. The order must have been random. I stuck mine in there, not bothering to rate the game or anything -- there was only one thing I wanted Cave to know. And then it was time to leave. I had decided to visit some shops and look for a new shooter to get. Perhaps the Mushi port, which I had yet to buy. I was craving for more Cave action at the comfort of my own home. Arcades are nice and all, but nothing beats a smoke- and noise-free enviroment, a comfortable couch, the volume turned all the way up and the lights dimmed. Yeah.
At the entrance I shot a video of the Ibara soundtrack ad that was playing on two large monitors. [Edit: Someone has since told me that you can get a direct feed video of the ad from Cave's site.]
So there you go. Exelica needs to be examined more closely to see if there really is a potentially fun system in there. As for PinkSweets, I can say with certainty that it's another great Cave shooter. How great, however, in relation to the company's previous games, is something that each one of us will decide in good time, and will no doubt endlessly debate with each other in our favorite forums for years to come.
I look forward to that.