Insomnia | Reviews

Pink Sweets ~Ibara Sore Kara~

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By Alex Kierkegaard / December 25, 2006


After the release of Ibara I had my doubts as to whether Shinobu Yagawa would remain with Cave, and, if so, whether he would be able to keep making the kinds of games his fans have come to expect from him. Because in sharp contrast to Cave's previously unbroken string of hits Ibara seems to have been some kind of a flop. It seemed at the time (and it still does) that there had been a good reason for Raizing's closure, after all, and no amount of tits and ass would persuade enough shooter fans to give a second chance to Yagawa's brand of punishing, rank-heavy shooters.

However the PS2 port that Taito released earlier this year seems to have matched the success of the Mushi port, something that might seem surprising at first. In retrospect, though, this is easy to explain. In an arcade setting players get to try out a game before deciding whether to invest much time and money in it, but console shooters are reflexively picked up by fans of the genre, in Japan and across the world. And of course Tomoyuki Kotani's lush illustrations and the limited edition booklet drew in a different, previously untapped, demographic: Japanese and Western otaku only marginally interested in shooters. Whether any of them managed to get past the first couple of stages is another matter of course.

But the success of the PS2 port of Ibara cannot have been a deciding factor in the release of its sequel, since the go ahead for Pink Sweets must surely have been given long before its release. Now as is already evident Pink Sweets isn't going to do much better in arcades than Ibara did, something that Ikeda and co. must have certainly understood well in advance of giving Yagawa the green light. So why do they insist on producing the man's painfully unpopular shooters?

As usual I have a theory, and it is a simple one. Tsuneki Ikeda has stated that he is a fan of Yagawa's works, and that's all there is to it. Think about this for a second. If you were, let's say, a big Psikyo fan, who just so happened to be the star director of a game company focused on shooters, and if furthermore your company's fortunes were improving year after year, wouldn't you want to hire Shin Nakamura (Psikyo's number one director) and offer him the chance to pick up his work where he had left off? And wouldn't you ask him (impatient as you would be to play something other than your own games) to make his first work a sequel to your all-time favorite Psikyo shooter?

This at any rate is what I believe happened with Ibara, which was a sequel in all but name to Battle Garegga (1996) -- a game that Tsuneki Ikeda has stated that he loves.

There is though another, more pragmatic scenario, in which Ikeda's love for Garegga is merely the icing on the cake.

After the huge success of Mushihime the decision was made for Cave to up its output to two shooters a year, and, with Ikeda physically unable to do more than one, a second director/chief programmer had to be found. And since experts (let alone legends!) in this tiny niche of gaming don't exactly grow on sakura trees, and given Yagawa's unmatched résumé and out-of-work status, it only made sense for Cave to hire him. They must have figured that the unpopularity of his games would be counterbalanced by a generous helping of sexy artwork, and, hey, they were right.

But anyway, enough speculation! Ikeda and Yagawa have agreed to take turns making shooters under the Cave brand, and after Ikeda's Espgaluda II it's time to see what Yagawa has been up to... after Ibara (this is what "Ibara Sore Kara" means). The main question here is: can Yagawa finally move past Garegga/Batrider/Bakraid/Ibara and towards previously unexplored directions? Can the old wolf learn new tricks?

The jury is still out on that. An obscure Famicom shooter called Recca (1992) served as inspiration for the system of Pink Sweets, so at least in that respect Yagawa didn't make anything new. The novelty here comes from the fleshing out of Recca's bomb/shield system and its mixing with traditional Raizing aspects, chief among them the use of rank as a core game mechanic. And contrary to what I had expected there are few discernible Cave influences, apart from the relatively easy-to-see bullets and lack of harmful debris.

And of course the sluts. In fact I think that instead of "after Ibara" a more fitting subtitle would have been "Now with even more sluts!" Because gone are the boring negotiators, Bond and Dyne, and in their place you get to play as one of their popular adversaries: the Rose Garden chicks of Ibara, minus Theresa Rose, the final boss, who seems to have died and stayed dead. Each of them now pilots a ship (except Meidi and Midi, who fly together) which in a nice twist looks kinda like a miniature version of the ones they had in Ibara, and goes up against another team of chicks (seven in all) calling themselves Rose Future, headed by a pimp-like eight-foot-tall gaijin called Big Burn, who styles himself the "Untouchable Monster". The clash of these two groups of pretty gals then serves as the backdrop for Yagawa's, and Cave's, first try at a cute 'em up.

The upping of the selectable ships from two to four is one Raizing characteristic I am glad to see return, and one of the game's strongest points. Ikeda also uses multiple ships/characters in most of his shooters, but they are usually not very differentiated and as a result most players always go for the default choice (in an Ikeda shooter it's always obvious which ship/character is the default one). In Pink Sweets though, more so than in any other Yagawa game, the strategies you employ during the stages and against bosses change drastically depending on your ship choice. But to understand why this is so you must first understand how the game's system works.

Pink Sweets, in contrast to most shooters, asks you to lay off the shot button. As long as you are not pressing it a bubble-shaped shield builds up in front of your ship, starting out small but growing in size as time goes by. The status of this shield is shown in a gauge at the bottom of the screen -- once the gauge is at full strength (i.e. when the shield has reached its maximum size) you can press the shot button to unleash a special weapon, which differs depending on your ship choice.

These four special weapons vary greatly in size and shape, but they all have two common characteristics: they act as barriers which cancel incoming bullets, and they deal damage to enemies they come in contact with. Kasumi's special weapon, for example, is your standard circular bomb, similar to the one found in Recca, while Shasta's is a thick laser beam that stretches the length of the screen. And not only the bombs but also the regular shot types vary wildly. For example Lace's ship spews out lighting bolts while Kasumi's fires extremely effective homing missiles.

Indeed, picking a character can be difficult at first, since there's not really a default, "beginner's" choice. It will take some time to figure out which one suits your playing style, and in true Raizing fashion you'll have to try all of them extensively before you make a final choice. And if at some later point you change your mind you'll have to sit down and more or less relearn how to make your way through the stages. If for example you get comfortable using Shasta's long-reach weapons during boss fights, switching to Kasumi will mean having to get more accustomed to the bullet patterns of different bosses, in order to get closer to them to deliver her short-range bombs.

Now in Recca the bomb/shield mechanic was mostly used in boss battles, but Pink Sweets is designed so that you can practically go through the whole game almost without firing a shot (granted, I haven't seen anyone do this, but I wouldn't be surprised if such a superplay turns up eventually). Alternatively, it seems you can tackle the game without using the special weapon at all (I've seen someone reach the fifth stage in this way). My guess is that most beginners will use the basic shot the whole time and only utilize the special weapons to get out of tough spots.

And there is certainly no shortage of tough spots here. Due to the shield/bomb mechanic and the lack of hard-to-see bullets Pink starts out easier than Ibara, but from the third stage it starts picking up, with screenloads of enemies coming in from every direction and bosses with multiple attack patterns to keep you sweating. So though this game is more accessible the challenge is still there, and only the truly commited (in more ways than one) will ever get past the fifth stage. Which brings me to another old-school aspect I am glad to see return: Pink is a long trip, with seven full stages compared to the five-and-a-half or so that we've become accustomed to these days.

Yet another thing I love about this game is the variety of bullet types. There are round and stubby, short and long bullets; thin laser beams and thick dual ones, and many more besides, and the bosses spew out all sorts of colorful shit at you. With such wide variety it is hard at first determining which bullets your shield can absorb and which not, and everyone will go through a dozen deaths cursing like a drunken sailor because of this. And to make matters a bit more complex, some types of bullets can be cancelled by shooting them -- in fact, at certain points you are more or less required to do that. But I wouldn't even call that a negative. There's lots of trial and error involved here, tons of things to figure out, and that's part of what makes this a fun and long-lasting challenge.

Pink Sweets has an unusual rhythm. The hitbox is as big as in Ibara so weaving between bullet patterns is limited; instead, you either avoid them altogether or use a combination of your shield/bomb to cancel them. Now for each and every tough spot, for each and every pattern of a boss, you have to make that choice. But before you make it you must first find out what you are up against -- therefore the game is a pure memorizer. Boss fights in particular play out like a strategy game; the boss attacks, you avoid or block his fire, and then, at just the right moment, you launch your counterattack. Then you avoid or block his next, different, pattern, and so on and so forth. Once you figure out a strategy for getting past a specific point (and remember: the winning strategies will vary depending on ship choice) you'll never get stuck at that point again. Reflexes have little to do with it, and that is a first for a Yagawa game -- and certainly for a Cave one. The experience is absolutely unique, and it's all because of how thoughtfully Yagawa adopted and expanded Recca's system, and how he made the shield/bomb a central aspect by designing stages around it (it's worth noting here that Recca itself was nothing more than a purely twitch shooter).

The scoring system, on the other hand, remains as simple, and devious, as before. This was another surprise, as I was under the impression that the rank meter of Ibara Kuro was an admission that the concept of rank as gameplay mechanic had failed and we wouldn't be seeing it again. But the rank from hell is back, and it's here once more to sort out the men from the boys. So if you are "just" going for a 1CC you should avoid picking up medals and the roses left behind by destroyed enemies, and if a decent high score is what you are after then pick everything up and use your shield to milk the bosses for points, and see how far you manage to get. I am not clear yet on whether suiciding helps keep your rank in check (and neither is anyone else at this point), but there are tons of extends to be found so it's a fair bet.

Now Yagawa's games remain an acquired taste, and his heavy use of rank is always divisive: you either love it or hate it, but I believe that (at least for the sake of enjoying his otherwise excellent games) you can learn to love it, and if you haven't already done so then his charming new shooter is as good a place to start as any. Visually, it's no tour de force, as Espgaluda II was, and the backgrounds and sprites share the same rough quality with Ibara, but that is not to say they are unappealing. The mixture of so many bright colors with an army of toy soldiers as enemies (watch out for the oven-toaster boss!) and fantastic videogamey disco tunes will not only immediately grab your attention, but also grow on you the more you play. If nothing else, it's certainly different. It strays far into cute 'em up territory, but not as far as to turn away those who are turned off by that kind of thing, and it's certainly no Parodius. And who can fail to notice, and thoroughly enjoy, all the hard work that went into creating so much variety -- in characters, enemies, bosses, stages, bullets and attack patterns, music, and -- above all -- in ways to play the game.

This brings me to the best aspect of Pink Sweets, which I kept for last. In addition to all its other virtues, this is the most fun two-player action I've had since the coming of the bullet hell subgenre more or less killed that aspect in shooting games. I've already noted that Ibara was also rather enjoyable with two players, but this is another thing altogether. In contrast to Ikeda's games, where the constant torrent of bullets makes co-op play a cruel joke, the rampant bullet-cancelling in Pink Sweets provides ample room on-screen for both players to manoeuvre, and coordinating your bomb attacks with those of your friend opens up a whole new dimension of strategy. Trying out different combinations of ships is also endless fun.

Pink Sweets is a sure sign that Yagawa is back for reals, and the genre is all the better for it. His second Cave title is easily the best new shooter I've played all year, and the most original game produced by Cave since Espgaluda (2003). That it took an outsider to make it tells us something about the state of the company, and I am afraid that something is not very flattering.