Wednesday, April 7, 2010

AA Look - Mushihime-sama Futari

So maybe you bought Raiden Fighters Aces. That was a fantastic deal eh? You got three great games for $20 or less. Maybe you followed up with Raiden IV. Sure it was $40 but at least it came with a soundtrack. Now did you buy Mushihime Futari? That one runs close to $80 and it doesn't even include a DLC-only mode. It's rough isn't it? The 2D shooter genre is an expensive one as it's heavily niche and features a lot of titles that won't ever release in the rest of the world. Still with Aksys picking up Deathsmiles there's hope for the genre gaining a wider acceptance and a chance at becoming more accessible for gamers who won't pay import prices.

But who cares about all of that? Today it's all about Mushihime-sama Futari. There's a story buried somewhere in this game and I think it's about a 17 year old girl pissing off the ugliest queen in videogames. I guess it's because this girl killed the queen's son in the first Mushihime or something. Again just like the fate of the 2D shooter genre none of this actually matters. Just hop on your giant bug or dragon, stay away from the purple stuff, and make thousands of evil animals explode.

Over the course of five stages the player will take control of four possible characters. Actually strike that there are two characters. Reco is your garden-variety top-heavy heroine with some very questionable attire and Palm is some kid. Both characters have a Normal and Abnormal weapon setting. What this does is it effects the power of their shot & laser attacks. There are also different ship speeds associated with Reco and Palm so both play-styles are catered to.

The hook of Futari's scoring system is that the player must rely on both the shot and the laser. The shot is better for spread attacks that hit lots of enemies at once while the laser's focused power can make short work of bosses. Thing is no matter the situation the player can't focus on one exclusive and expect a great score. In fact this game uses a rather arbitrary system in that depending on how many medals the player has collected they must use either the shot or laser when destroying an enemy to get lots of large medals as opposed to a few smaller ones.

There are other factors to consider like how close the player is to an enemy when they're destroyed but that's pretty much the extent of it. Grabbing all these medals creates this huge multiplier which doesn't seem like much at first but by the final stage you're usually doing double of whatever score you got in the last four stages. That is provided of course that you didn't die or use any bombs.

The typical use for bombs in 2D shooters is to escape from a bad situation. Sometimes they're used to attain better scores but for the average Cave shooter the bomb is a psychological tool that is used against you. The thing is when the difference between life and death is less than a millimeter why use a bomb when moving ever so slightly can just as easily save one's life? Cave puts this thought-process to the test quite often as the bullet-speed in this game is very fast and can lead to a lot of panic-bombing, which keeps you safe but ruins your score. To further enhance risk-taking a number of enemies can clear the screen of bullets when destroyed. Cleared-bullets reward the player with more medals so naturally it's best to allow as many bullets on-screen as possible before finishing off that particular enemy.

It seems like a lot to absorb at first but this is actually one of the easier Cave shooters to figure out when it comes to scoring mechanics. It also helps that the first two stages are essentially one very long tutorial to help players figure out all of the basics. This tends to work against the game as a whole however since on subsequent playthroughs the player is likely to get tired of repeating stages they've already mastered. To be fair there are multiple difficulty settings but for best results players shouldn't even consider the later ones until they've at least managed to beat the Original setting.

Another unfortunate aspect of this game is that pretty much the best part of the game is stage 5. It's here where all that medal-collecting pays off and it's just wave after wave of intense enemy fire and surviving the most improbable of odds. At multiple points in this stage I start to feel kind of invincible as I effortlessly dance through bullets that I can see for maybe a fraction of a second before they disappear off-screen. Couple this with a rapidly rising score and a cap off with a pretty legendary final boss and it becomes one of the best stages to ever grace a 2D shooter. It's a real shame that the rest of the game doesn't reach this level but I guess that's just how build-up is supposed to work. It would be extremely jarring to jump into a game and suddenly it's as intense as the final stage.

Still that's just one setting. Aside from the Original the game also features a Maniac and an Ultra setting. Maniac institutes some gauge that rewards more points when kept filled but what any player will notice right off the bat is that enemy firepower has tripled. It's nothing too terrible for veterans and strangely it can be a bit easier than Original at times due to additional slowdown and other factors. Ultra on the other hand is just plain yikes. When the player selects this mode it actually warns the player that they will most likely lose before they even reach the first boss. Seconds into this mode the player will already feel overwhelmed as even formerly inanimate objects will turn the screen different shades of purple death. It's basically a hardcore mode for a hardcore genre as it's purely designed for masochists and no-one else.

To take off some of the sting of what is essentially $80 for one game Cave saw fit to include an X360 exclusive mode. This Arranged version is a much different beast compared to the regular game. It's the essentially the same game but with elements of Mars Matrix. In this mode players take control of both Reco and Palm and swap between them at will. The in-active character forms a shield that slows down all bullets in the vicinity. These bullets can then be turned around and fired back at the enemy for immense points. This isn't free however as it will drain the active character's shield rating. Thus it's necessary to swap characters in order to build up shields. Despite all this this mode is very easy and even gamers new to the genre won't have any trouble beating this mode on Original or even Maniac without continuing....Ultra not so much but that's expected. Part of this easiness is due to the fact that as long as a player has a bomb they'll use that instead of dying when hit by an enemy bullet. Since players assume control of both characters that means six bombs instead of three so that makes 18 lives instead of just three. This is the kind of mode where you focus on score above all else cause there's not much if any satisfaction to survival.

Speaking of there's also Novice mode. This is some sort of "baby's first 1CC" mode where you'd have to do some pretty impressive playing in order to actually lose. Playing Ultra mode on Novice is actually kind of pleasant at least but otherwise this is only good for learning enemy layouts and making you feel better about yourself after being humbled by one of the real modes.

For an extra $15 you can get the Black Label version of Futari. This is a common practice among Cave shooters. The Black Label is a revamped version that typically includes various changes to the core game, some changed graphics(like different times of day for the stages), and some new challenges for masters of the original. Futari BL continues this tradition with three new settings. Original is back and it's actually more manageable than Vanilla Futari. There's more in terms of enemy firepower but the two playable characters get a very noticeable boost in firepower(at the cost of having a choice between Normal and Abnormal). This version also introduces a much more severe punishment for using bombs. In fact given the choice you're better off dying because it costs less medals. Still it makes for an easier game if you're willing to sacrifice your score.

Black Label also includes a Maniac as well as a God setting. Yep cause Ultra wasn't enough now you need the skills of a God in order to complete this mode. It's probably not quite as bad as Ultra but for 99% of gamers they wouldn't be able to tell the difference. I for one can't blame them because when all I see is an ocean of death I tend not to notice that there might be a couple more openings to get through. As an added bonus there's an exclusive final boss that just might be the hardest thing Cave has ever developed. Outside of the replays however you'll probably never see her.

There are a handful of issues I have with this game that extend beyond the stages. The character balance just isn't very good. Each character has different strengths for their shot and laser but Abnormal Reco and Normal Palm are just too weak to be worth using. What's also annoying is that while I don't mind having to switch weapons depending on # of medals only Black Label actually does an audio indicator of when the player should switch. In the regular game the player has to pay attention every now and again for the counter at the top of the screen to change color. This is nitpicking I guess because if the player is going for score they're more likely to stay towards the top of the screen anyway because enemies drop more valuable medals when the player is close to them when they die.

The bosses in Futari also represent the sort of thing I wish 2D shooters could pull away from. They're impressive and all but being forced to memorize patterns while hammering at away at large object just isn't appealing to me. I've always wondered why more shooters haven't taken a more dynamic approach to boss fights. It's always something like the screen clearing of enemies and then the warning pops up about a giant whatever. Afterwards it's this big multi-form affair and well I just find it kind of tiring. I've noticed a number of Toaplan games(like Fire Shark and Twin Cobra) actually had the bosses just sort of show up announced. In fact they managed to co-exist with regular enemies quite well and their bullet patterns weren't as extreme as they typical are. It seems like the bosses of those days have become the larger enemies of shooters made today. They have the same characteristics like size in relation to nearby enemies. I just wish something more creative was done with the finale to each stage. Then again I'm probably just saying all this because 2D shooter bosses have always been my weakness.

Still this game is nothing short of amazing. The speed and intensity of enemy fire puts me into the zone like no other game. At times the bullets just seem to stop and I move around them like they weren't even there. It's these moments that I treasure the most out of playing any game. I feel like I'm about to step into the next plane of evolution but only my eyes and hands are ready for that moment. Then when that moment ends the rest of me catches up and is just exhausted by the entirety of it. There have been playthroughs of Futari where I couldn't even function afterwards. I'd have to take a cold shower afterwards just to compose myself. I can't even get this feeling from the other Cave shooters I've played let alone any other game from any other genre. It's unfortunate that those moments tend to come to a screeching halt when the boss arrives but it's probably for the best cause my heart might not be able to take it.

It's this feeling that justifies the price I paid to get this game. In hindsight it's a small price to pay for the chance to feel alive and it's still cheaper than skydiving (though with my fear of heights I'd probably just have panic attacks if I attempted that). I can't promise that it'll have the same effect on any other gamer but at worst Futari is still a great shooter.

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