Insomnia | Videogame Art

Ketsui ~Kizuna Jigokutachi~ (2003)

By Alex Kierkegaard / September 2, 2007

For several years Ketsui was the only Cave shooter you couldn't play without flying to Japan or dropping several hundred bucks on the PCB. Most of their previous shooters had been emulated, and all the rest had either already received ports or eventually would — but not Ketsui. It's always been, and still remains, a game for the few.

Things are different now, of course, what with Cave going nuts and putting out four new STGs in less than two years (Espgaluda II, Pink Sweets, Mushihime-sama Futari and Muchi Muchi Pork) without so much as hinting at a port for any of them. And yet strangely, even though Ketsui's uniqueness in this one respect is gone, its cult status remains as alive, and unequaled, as ever.

Opinions among those who've gone out and bought the game are unanimous. Valgar, zakk, NTSC-J, GaijinPunch, sven666, Dave_K. and other gentlemen from the Shmups forums will all tell you the same thing: that Ketsui is basically The Shit, and you know it, bitch. People joke about Valgar moving to a Buddhist monastery and spending the rest of his days trying to beat the world record, while NTSC-J apparently considers Ketsui 9999 times better than any STG out there.

So there's them, and then there's the others. The guys who are either not rich enough or not nuts enough to spend $750 on a single game, and who don't see what the big deal is anyway. As far as they're concerned Ketsui might well be as excellent as the privileged few are claiming, but then, hey, so is every other Cave shooter. Among those people, it's hard to dispel the notion that the only reason the other guys are raving is because they are the only ones who can.

This suspicion gathers steam now and then; but as time goes by, and as Cave keeps shitting one masterpiece after another without so much as putting a single dent in Ketsui's cult status, it's getting harder to maintain. Ketsui's not even the most expensive among Cave's shooters anymore: Muchi Muchi Pork is going for $1,500 right now and Mushi Futari for $950, and you don't see anyone going round saying that those games are 9999 times better than anything else. So the cult of Ketsui is weathering all attacks on its credibility and there's no reason to think this'll change anytime soon — at least not before the game gets emulated and is finally unleashed among the hordes of credit-feeding internet rom addicts. Once that happens a new chapter in the game's history will begin wherein its Wikipedia entry will grow out of all proportion, and its merits debated for pages and pages in forums across the land — no doubt with lots of ad hominem arguments and plenty of "agreeing to disagree". But in the meantime...

Just take my word for it that if there ever was a video game worth 750 bucks this sure as fuck is it.

On the subject of Ketsui's price there's a little story to relate. What happened was that, shortly after its release, Insert Credit ran a rather scathing preview, and Shumps forum legend has it that this caused the game's price to drop down like a lead balloon, and stay there for months afterwards. IC never followed up with a review, but eventually word of the game's mind-warping bullet patterns and grueling boss fights started coming out of Japan, at which point foreigners began buying boards and realizing what a beast of a shooter Ikeda had unleashed on us. The price headed north soon afterwards, and it's been hovering round the $700-750 mark ever since. [Update: Actually, I've been informed that in recent months full kits are fetching upwards of $1000.] For perspective, consider that all other Cave shooters up to and including Galuda II go for somewhere between $200 to $600.

But now it's time to get down to business and answer two questions: 1) What makes Ketsui different from all of Cave's other shooters?, and 2) Is this really their best one yet?

The first question is easy as pie and will be answered shortly, but I am afraid the answer to the second one is not as straightforward. It's like showing someone a lineup of exotic supercars (Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and whathaveyou) and asking them to pick the 100% definitive, scientifically-proven "best" one. It just doesn't work that way. Any random person off the street should be able to tell you that a Lamborghini is superior to a Fiat or a Skoda, but when you get to the point of comparing supercars, whose very definition is their extraordinary level of technical excellence, you've little choice on how to proceed. You've just got to track down the few human beings who can actually drive these cars they way they were designed to be driven, and ask them to make a choice.

They will not, of course, all give you the same answer. Bottom line is all supercars go kiki fast, handle like missiles wired straight to your brain, and look absolutely smashing. The differences between them are therefore so fine, and the ways in which these differences affect each driver's opinion of them so subtle, that every car is bound to be preferred by one expert driver or another. But — and here's the gist of all this — since we are talking about experienced racers here, their choices will naturally be skewed towards race-bred cars: the Ferraris and the Porsches, basically. But there will always be a few who, for whatever reason, will show preference for an oddball — a TVR or a Maserati.

Extending this analogy to Cave shooters — performance-driven beasts one and all — you'll find that the best players (whose opinions, as I explained, are the only ones that matter in this case) will naturally tend to prefer the harder games (it's no coincidence that guys like Valgar and Plasmo have a distaste for the Galudas) — and it's in this respect where Ketsui trumps every other challenger except DOJ. With its unusually fast pace and thick swarms of bullets which start raining down on the player nearly from the get-go, it completely overloads beginners while giving veterans exactly the kind of challenge that they are looking for.

But the extreme level of difficulty is only half the attraction; the other half is the simplicity of the scoring system. This involves collecting chips of different values left behind by destroyed enemies. The trick is to grab a few high-value chips by killing an enemy at close range, and then switch to the lock shot and chain as many other enemies as possible, which for a short time will also release large chips. The idea therefore is to go through the stages identifying opportunities for high-scoring chains, and string them together to achieve decent runs. Given the game's merciless, unrelenting assault, this is as difficult in execution as it is simple in concept.

It is this perfect combination of simplicity and challenge that makes Ketsui special. Had it been less manic, its simple system would have seemed a fault; had the system been more complex, the game's sheer manicness would have been unbearable. Add two kinds of second loops and a legendary True Last Boss, and you've got a game capable of compelling one to give up on all other games — in order to conquer it.

What else can one compare to this? The Mushis are way too complicated; the Galudas are not only too complicated but also too easy; the Ibaras and Muchi Muchi Pork rely on the most artificial scoring gimmick ever invented (i.e. rank-based medalling); and everything else before Ketsui lags behind either in aesthetics, sheer manicness, or both. Only DOJ can surpass what's on offer here, with its equally elegant chaining system and balls-to-the-wall difficulty — but as a shooter that's practically all pattern it can never be as much fun to play as one that allows some room for improvisation.

So that's what makes Ketsui special; the rest is business as usual. Tomoharu Saito creates a gritty military setting, with bleak city enviroments, dark valleys and heavily-fortified enemy installations. The heroes show up for the party in a pair of cool futuristic helicopters, and the various kinds of military hardware standing in their way are all lovingly drawn and animated. Manabu Namiki is on top form, with a musical score ranging from the synthpop drum & bass of the first two stages to the blood-boiling guitar riffs of the fourth, and I just love the way his music is offset by the intermittent noise created from your lock shot when it switches targets, which resembles the droning sound of a recoiling minigun. The final touch is the total absence of even the briefest cutscene: the whole game is one long, unbroken terrain, and you get to watch your helicopter fly on autopilot even in-between stages, during the slight pauses necessary to add any bonuses to your score.

Every other Cave shooter has its faults, however slight; but here I've been unable to find any. It's true that the company's whole backlog consists of nothing but shooting masterpieces, and that no STG fan should neglect playing each and every one of them, at one point or another down the line. But if I really had to — if I was forced to pick just one? Yeah.