Insomnia | Reviews

Mushihime-sama Futari

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By EOJ, edited by icycalm / April 5, 2009

This review was originally published on CAVE-STG.


The day the premature version landed
It was an early morning in late November 2006 in Honolulu, the day before the postman left a notice of an express package from Japan waiting for me. I got up early to drive to the post office and pick it up before I headed to work. Upon bringing the package home, I carefully unwrapped it to reveal the brand new Mushihime-sama Futari PCB kit I had ordered the week prior. The store had offered it to me for an exceptionally low price, and since the game had only been out about two weeks and I was such a fan of the original, I could not refuse. I ordered it without thinking twice, counting down the days until it would arrive and I would experience what Tsuneki Ikeda had come up with for a sequel to Mushihime-sama, perhaps my favorite shooting game ever.

I had about an hour to try it out before I had to leave for work that morning. On my very first credit in Maniac mode, I recall being somewhat disappointed with the game, as the scoring system felt very different and quite alien actually. But, I was optimistic and eager to see more. One thing I really loved from the start was the option to select between two characters (Reco and Palm), and two shot types (Normal and Abnormal) for each, as it gave the game a fresh feeling, with the potential to have more variety than its predecessor. I made it towards the end of the second stage in Maniac mode on one credit that morning, and popped in a few more credits to see stage 3 before I had to get ready to go. When I left for work that day, I felt satisfied, but not exactly thrilled with the game I had just spent so much money on. I told myself I would like it more after some intensive playing time.

The weeks passed, and I played the game daily, in whatever free time I could spare. I did like it, but there was something keeping it from being a true classic. For one, there were only Original and Maniac modes. No Ultra mode in sight. Rumors abounded on the Japanese forums about how to unlock it, but none were ultimately corroborated. People 1CCd both Original and Maniac modes, but no end credits rolled. What other explanation could there be except that there was an Ultra mode hidden in the game, waiting to be unlocked? For almost a year, it seemed like Ultra mode simply was not in the original game. Amazingly, just this past month (September 2007), Ultra mode was finally, somehow, unlocked in a 1.0 board in an arcade in Shinjuku, to the great surprise of just about everyone. So it had been in there after all, most likely waiting to be unlocked either by a lengthy timed system, or some requirement to clear the game a specific number of times. Oh Ikeda, you sneaky bastard.

The problems with version 1.0 were mainly in the scoring systems and game balance. In Original mode, once you died your multipliers were slashed in half, making it very frustrating to play. The bullets were very fast from the get-go, making it tough to get past the third stage for less-skilled players. Bombing bosses did a miniscule amount of damage, and the lack of bombs in the game (you got a total of five bombs even though there were six bomb slots!) made it a tough road indeed. And to top things off, the final pattern of the stage 4 boss was basically impossible to get by without bombing.

Maniac mode fared even worse. The scoring system was based upon a multiplier which was only really profitable once it reached around 7000 (it maxes at 9999), but since the gold gem values were so low, you could only "cash in" on this multiplier a couple times in a level, or save it for the boss fight. The system soon felt stagnant and very restrictive. Other problems included the inability for Normal Palm to defeat the stage 2 midboss without bombing, and the inability for Abnormal Palm to defeat certain enemies in stage 3.

After many days with the game, I began to feel somewhat disappointed with it. It felt like incomplete and had glitches to show for it (such as the aforementioned impossible-to-get-by-without-bombing last form of the stage 4 boss in Original mode, and a high score display glitch). But the art, music, and impressive challenge still kept me coming back. The most painful thing was that the game was brimming with potential, it just needed a few things added, subtracted, and tweaked to have that "perfect" feel. It was like looking at a beautiful woman who wore too much makeup, had her hair in a less than ideal style for her face, and walked around in sloppy clothes.

Toward a new version
In early December 2006, the store I bought the game from sent me an email saying Cave was releasing an updated version of the game, called version 1.5. They stated the balance and all the glitches were fixed, the mechanics tightened up, and an Ultra mode was selectable from the start. I could get this new version, they said, if I sent back my original version 1.0 PCB. The exchange would cost me nothing except the price to ship back the PCB to Japan. It did not take me long to decide. I packed up my version 1.0 and sent it on its way back to Cave later that week.

Version 1.5 was released on December 19th, 2006. I happened to be on vacation at the time, so I did not pick up my PCB from the post office until January 4th, 2007. My first impressions that morning when I first fired it up could be summarized with one word: "incredible!" Basically, they had fixed every problem, and then some. What follows is a full description of the changes from version 1.0 to 1.5 (technically speaking it is actually version 1.54, as that is what is displayed when you power up the game).

In Original mode, the first three stages were made easier, with the bullet speed and density reduced to make it less daunting. Stage 4 was more or less unchanged, though stage 5 is actually harder in version 1.5 (faster bullets). This created a more even difficulty balance over the course of the game. The gold gem system was modified to make the values higher, so scores increase faster, high score limits are vastly expanded, and the penalty for dying is only a one-third reduction from your multiplier, rather than the half reduction of version 1.0. Extends were set to 35 and 100 mil, and the last boss remained basically unaltered.

In Maniac mode, the changes in difficulty were much more subtle, with it only being slightly easier compared to version 1.0. Most of the bullet patterns were unchanged (though the start of stage 2 is a notable exception). As for some specific mechanics problems found in version 1.0, the inability for Normal Palm to destroy the stage 2 midboss without bombing was fixed, the enemy placement after the stage 3 midboss was altered, the ability to milk the stage 2 boss was added, and some boss patterns were tweaked. The most significant change, however, comes in the scoring system, as in version 1.5 the gold gem values were significantly increased. You can get a multiplier of 9999 by the first stage boss without trying too hard, for example. This leads to a much higher and more flexible scoring potential, and a more accessible way to integrate one's own playing style into the game. Also, the "destroy enemies when the chaining bar is flashing red with the A shot to get double the large gems" feature was added, implementing a slight Ketsui-ish feel to the multiplier system. Extends were set at 100 and 250 mil and, once again, the last boss remained basically unaltered.

Ultra mode was added and it is easily Cave's hardest non-looping shooter yet. It has a ton of gold, due to there being a ton of bullets, so this is by far the highest scoring mode among the three (current world record scores are 3.6 to 3.7 billion points). The scoring system is based on Original mode rather than Maniac, in contrast to the original Mushihime-sama. Extends were set at a brutal 250 and 650 mil, and there are three final bosses to face (two TLBs after the stage 5 boss), a first for a Cave game.

Other changes include: bombs were added before the second and third stage bosses (for a total of seven bombs in the game); Abnormal Palm's A shot was strengthened; there are marks on the life gauge of each boss showing the point at which each phase of the boss ends, à la Espgaluda; the placement of the 1up in stage 5 was changed, as it was moved to the building that comes after the building it was originally in, right before the descent of the last large purple dragon in the stage; the stage 4 boss's crazy, (near-)undodgeable final pattern in Original mode was altered to make it doable without a bomb; an Abnormal Palm "demonstration" was added; the high score display glitch was fixed so the all-time high score for each player always displays properly up at the top center of the screen during a run, à la Yagawa games like Ibara and Muchi Muchi Pork.

In summary, the changes from version 1.0 to 1.5 were everything fans wanted. Soon version 1.5 PCBs swept across Japan, replacing the vast majority of version 1.0s, and becoming the mainstay of the shooting scene for months to come. But what is so great about the game, anyway? Well, let's dive into it a bit.

The Scoring Systems
In Futari 1.5, we see two core scoring systems: one in Original and Ultra modes, and another in Maniac mode.

In Original mode, you have two multipliers in the upper left of the screen: the overall multiplier and the stage multiplier. The overall multiplier increases from the start of the game to the end with no known maximum, and only decreases when you bomb or die. The stage counter maxes out at 9999 and resets at the start of each stage. The scoring system is based upon destroying enemies with the C shot when the multiplier is between 0-4 in the 100 digit, and using the A shot when it is between 5-9 in the 100 digit. Doing so gives you large gems instead of small gems, which increases your multipliers faster. There is also a proximity effect similar to games like Espgaluda and Ketsui, where the closer you are to an enemy when you destroy it, the more gold you collect. In Ultra mode the system is the same except two differences: 1) The stage counter no longer maxes out at 9999: it increases indefinitely just like the overall counter, and 2) You need to switch from the C shot to the A shot to destroy enemies every time you get 2000 gems added to your counter. So to give an example, when you start out in stage 1 you should use the C shot until you get 2000 on the counter, then switch to the A shot until you reach 4000, then back to C and so on. To aid you, the counter changes from a light green to a light blue every time you need to switch from the C shot to the A shot in Original and Ultra modes (use the C shot when it's green, and the A shot when it's blue). However, in an actual run I find it much easier to just rely on the values of the multipliers rather than their color, as it can be hard to discern in the heat of a run. Obviously, making it change from red to blue would have been much easier, but Ikeda apparently did not want it to be so easy, so we have to take on the challenge as it is presented to us.

In Maniac mode, you have a chaining bar and a multiplier displayed in the upper left of the screen. As you destroy enemies with the C shot the chaining bar increases from blue to flashing red. At this point you get large gems, and double the large gems if you quickly switch and use the A shot when the chaining bar is flashing red. Once you hold the A shot, the chaining bar decreases to zero in a matter of seconds. The scoring system is based on a multiplier that increases up to 9999. You can only "cash in" on this multiplier by destroying enemies with the A shot when your chaining bar is empty. This gives you blue gems which reduce your multiplier, but add significantly to your score, when you absorb them. It creates a very intuitive ebb and flow in the game, and feels like a mix of a Ketsui and an Espgaluda system without any slow motion during scoring phases. I often describe it as feeling somewhat like a "fast-paced kakusei system".

The Graphics
This game has gorgeous artwork, complex parallax scrolling beyond anything previously scene in an SH3 game, wonderful animation, superb purple and pink bullet patterns, and very detailed bosses. Simply put, it is one of the most beautiful 240p games currently available. It should be noted that some of the explosion graphics are recycled from Espgaluda II and Mushihime-sama.

The Bullet Patterns
The bullet patterns in Original mode are fast but fairly sparse. Once you reach stage 5, the bullets are faster than anything found in the original Mushihime. In Maniac mode, the bullets are dense but slower, with particularly beautiful patterns in the stage 4 and stage 5 boss fights, sections of stage 3, and the stage 4 midboss. In Ultra mode you get the best (or worst?) of both worlds, with the speed of Original mode but at least twice the density of Maniac mode. This leads to a fearsome challenge, but also some of the most impressive bullet patterns ever made. You have to play through (meaning credit-feed for most players) Ultra mode once in your life just to experience it all first hand. It's that amazing.

The Music
The soundtrack is quite good for a shooter, with the exception of stage 2, which is rather terrible to be perfectly honest, pretty much some of the goofiest stuff I have ever heard in a Cave shooter. My personal favorite is the stage 4 music, though stage 3 is also nice, and stage 5 has some very interesting Eastern tones to it. Overall it is a soundtrack more or less on par with the first game. Music is quite a subjective thing [Like everything else in the universe. --Ed], so you will need to hear it for yourself to make a decision. The OST has been released and is readily available, so check it out if you are interested.

So, is it worth it?
To conclude, version 1.0 is a formidable challenge that suffers from some glitches and a restrictive scoring system in Maniac mode. It is a game which may appeal to those who took on and succeeded at the first loop of Ketsui or Daioujou and need something of similar difficulty in one loop. Version 1.5, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of a game that will surely go down in history as one of the great shooters ever. Its combination of fantastic artwork, very good music, deep scoring systems, great game balance offering a wide accessibility for different types of players, three game modes, and the ultimate Cave single-loop challenge (Ultra mode) make for a package that few could deny as being anything but top-notch. Of course every gamer prefers different types of shooters, so you must play it to see if its style fits your style. But chances are if you like Ikeda games, this one will pull you right in. And for me, it does not get much better than this. It is worth every penny I paid, and then some. I have played it for nearly nine months straight, and still get the urge to fire it up at least once a week. Unfortunately, a home port is extremely unlikely at this point, and the price for a kit is still $1000+, nearly a year after the release of version 1.0. But that's the way it goes these days. If you want to play the best, you have to be willing to spend a good amount for it. Personally, I rate version 1.5 higher than any other shooting game released in the past few years.