Insomnia | Reviews

Shikigami no Shiro III


By Simon Coong / November 28, 2007

Risk and reward. Whether it be in the form of sleeping with your best friend's girlfriend, or robbing a bank, or jumping off a high bridge with a giant elastic band attached to your ankles, throughout history mankind has enjoyed taking big risks to gain an exciting payoff.

So how does this relate to shooting games? Well, high scores have always been a staple of the genre -- even the earliest examples calculated your score, allowing players to compete against each other for bragging rights. As the genre matured, developers continued to experiment with new kinds of scoring mechanics outside of the basic system of giving you points for everything you destroyed. Yet even though new ideas for awarding points appeared and were further developed, the genre continued to stay rooted to the basic creed of "stay away from hostiles for maximum score". The only "risk" involved was in braving increasing levels of difficulty.

The first example of a change in this style of design came in 1989 with a vertical scroller by UPL called Omega Fighter. Unlike many games before it, Omega Fighter rewarded players for taking extreme risks by awarding a multiplier of increasing value based on your proximity to the enemy -- the closer to "point-blank" range you were, the higher the multiplier. This game encouraged and rewarded you for flying all around the screen, getting up-close and personal to your enemies.

The first Shikigami no Shiro took Omega Fighter's scoring elements and developed them further. While OF's multiplier was based mainly on your proximity to enemies, Shikigami's multiplier (called the Tension System) was affected by your proximity to everything hostile: bullets, enemies, walls, etc. And not only did it give you a multiplier for your score, but also, when you were close enough to get the maximum multiplier (x8), it would temporarily power up your main shot, which would suddenly start tearing right through most enemies. Also, the amount of coins you got for destroying an enemy would be increased based on your multiplier: x1 would net you maybe one or two coins (even if you destroyed the enemy with the Shikigami Attack), while at x8 you'd get a flood of them.

This system worked extremely well. It gave players an incentive to go for the maximum multiplier both for survival (for those who relied on the main shot as a weapon) and for scoring (for the experts who liked to see big numbers next to their high score initials). As you gained more and more confidence with this risk-taking style of play, you'd find yourself "scratching" everything on-screen in a bid to maintain an x8 multiplier throughout the whole stage.

Shikigami III takes this basic system that was present in both the first two games, and adds something new to the mix. Along with the basic Tension System there's now something called Hi-Tension MAX. By expending a bomb from your stock you can activate a gauge that slowly drains, and, while this gauge is active, everything on-screen that you destroy is worth the x8 multiplier, regardless of your proximity to a hostile object. For a few seconds at a time you are given a temporary boost in firepower and scoring opportunities, without the hassle of having to get close to a dangerous object.

Now this presents an interesting problem. In the first two Shikigamis bombs were secondary -- they were there for you to use, but you didn't have to use them. In Shikigami III they are now extremely important. Do you use up one of those precious bombs to temporarily power yourself up for a boss fight or to shot-clear out a difficult section? Do you use it to give yourself a chance to boost your score? Or do you save it so you can use it in a time of emergency, to get yourself out of a jam?

Not only that, but the new HT-MAX System changes the basic strategy for veterans, adding a measure of Raizing's infamous suicide-and-carpetbombing play to a series that started out by playing like a mix of Ketsui, Psyvariar and Omega Fighter. While the first two Shikigamis advocated one-life clearance as the way to score high, here you're encouraged to kill yourself before you hit your next extra life, to exploit that free bomb you're given as compensation for dying. Clever management of your life-stock and bomb-stock is key to pushing scores well over the five billion mark; the best strategy is riding your last life via constant suiciding, and using up those extra bombs in regular HT-MAX scoring bursts. Using bombs as a crutch would be detrimental to your score. Raizing-like strategy indeed.

It is this new style of strategy that might work against the game, however. The suicidal risk-taking style has never really endeared itself to the STG community as it is often seen as unintuitive -- something that contradicts the "kill or be killed" creed that has dominated since the beginning of the genre [Since the beginning of videogames period, in fact. --Ed]. Those who were weaned on the strategies required to score high in the first two games might be turned off completely by the way this new installment works.

Shikigami III presents a very difficult challenge for all but the most seasoned of extreme risk-takers, that much is certain. However, for those players who are willing to try something a little different, the carefully balanced blend of risk-versus-reward to be found here might just be what the doctor ordered [And by doctor he means shrink. --Ed].

Simon Coong (aka Icarus) used to run the STG fansite with the coolest name around ( Nowadays he runs Namkoteam!, a gathering point for some of the UK's best STG players. His personal records page, complete with pics and replays, will probably make you give up on real games and go back to Super Mario Galaxy or some shit.