• Mushihimesama Review - Sony PS2

    Released in Japanese arcades in 2004, Mushihimesama proved such a success that it was soon ported over to the PS2 in 2005 courtesy of Taito after Cave severed their connection with former publisher Arika on grave terms - a huge disappointment considering how accomplished a package their conversions regularly proved to be.

    Like most of Cave’s other games, Mushihimesama is a vertically scrolling shooter with a fondness for filling the screen with luminously coloured bullets and projectiles that rain down on the player in an increasingly complex fashion. Like other shooters of this variety, memorisation is key, so if the grey matter isn’t up to the task of remembering elaborate bullet formations and scoping out a safe path through them, perhaps it’s best you steer clear of this title and return to your fifteen-minute-a-day Brain Training.

    The easiest way to describe Mushihimesama is as DoDonPachi with insects and a curiously minimalist soundtrack. Of course, while not at all fair, many players will write it off as just that without putting any amount of time or effort into investigating what’s beyond the cutesy art and superficial initial impressions. First impressions, after all, can be deceiving.

    While not inherently different to other ‘Bullet Hell’ shooters, Mushihimesama, and Cave titles in general, exemplify a sense of panic, of franticness that very few shooters (or even games) these days demonstrate. Sweaty palms, compromised vision, perching on a seat's edge - they’re all mainstays of video gaming but in lieu of truly innovative, envelope-pushing titles needed to advance this past time beyond its current rut of endless identikit titles and needless sequels, these symptoms are currently only exhibited by players of this simple, age-old genre. A newcomer to the genre, or even Cave virgins, will be mystified upon starting a game of Mushihimesama as to how one’s supposed to advance past these seemingly never-ending streams of Day-Glo projectiles without constantly fingering the “bomb” button. This, of course, is the appeal of not just Mushihimesama but all Cave-developed titles - with a little practice they allow the player to accomplish the seemingly impossible and in a pleasing way. It’s no surprise, then, to discover just how exciting a spectator sport it can be to watch an experienced player who’s learned all the ins and outs of the game just fly through each stage with ease and tackle every colossal boss without so much as breaking a sweat. And it’s this aspect which proves without question that video games can be perceived as art - you just have to be discerning in the titles you nominate to express this.

    With the exception of Original Arcade, all game modes share a combo system - dubbed the “Parent Counter” by fans - relatively similar to the chaining system found in DoDonPachi. During play, in the upper left-hand corner of the screen is a counter that either increases or decreases depending on the player's actions. By either keeping your laser tracked on enemies or simply shooting them with the shot weapon, the counter will increase leading to a greater score; stop eliminating enemies or detonate a bomb, and the counter will decrease along with your overall score. The key to amassing sizeable scores requires timing, strategy, and discipline and is generally too complex to go into detail here.

    As if that wasn’t enough to boggle the mind for one lifetime, Mushihimesama also incorporates a secondary counter into the mix - the “Child Counter” (again, not the official name). Throughout the game, players will occasionally come across enemies (usually only larger-scale enemies such as bosses) with a second number listed by them. “Child Counters” are activated by the same means as their counterparts (no pun intended) - firing towards enemies with your laser or shot weapon - and result in an increased score if manipulated correctly. The utilisation of the “Parent Counter” in harmony with the “Child Counter” brings about an interesting aspect to the score system which, if exploited correctly, can raise your overall score ad infinitum. Counter Banking allows you to merge your “Child Counter” totals to your “Parent Counter” and is achieved by holding fire upon foes for a fraction of a second before resuming the onslaught once your combo meter turns a red colour.

    This version of Mushihimesama encompasses all content from the original arcade release while also including additions exclusive to this console port. Essentially you have two different modes of play - Arcade and Arrange. Selecting Arcade brings about a further three game modes - Original Arcade, Maniac Arcade, and Ultra Arcade. Original Arcade feels fairly lightweight when compared to the other game modes with kill combos deactivated and a simpler ‘destroy everything’ scoring system. Maniac Arcade adapts upon Original Arcade’s rather straightforward score system to allow combo multipliers and counter banking, while bullets also move at a more relaxed pace than normal. Ultra Arcade plays a lot like Maniac but at a more demanding rate. In fact, Ultra is widely considered to be one of, if not the, most difficult challenges set upon players by Cave. With screen-filling enemy attacks and generally more powerful adversaries, it’s really only one for the experts.

    Unquestionably the highlight of the show, however, is Arrange. Returning from the PS2 conversion of ESPgaluda, Arrange is exclusive to this version of the game and incorporates the changes to the scoring system from the Maniac and Ultra Arcade modes. Unlike Arcade, Arrange starts the player off with fully equipped options - six in total, two more than the maximum amount in Arcade - which immediately decreases the challenge levelled towards the player. While it’s true you only have a limited number of continues - especially compared to Arcades infinite supply - Arrange is still indisputably the easiest of the two modes and a fine entry point for newcomers. Also, throughout play, you can switch weapon modes on the fly with a simple press of the square button - extremely useful if you feel the need to change to a wider spread shot to tackle a cluster of enemies. Another aspect which makes Arrange more forgiving to newcomers is if when hit while in possession of a bomb, you’ll automatically set that off rather than lose a life. As such, a more tactical approach is required if you’re to get the most out of Arrange; stocking up on bombs becomes essential to amassing a sizeable score on some of the later stages as, while using a bomb will interrupt a combo, it won’t kill it completely allowing the player to retain their score and also achieve the “No Miss” score multiplier upon completion of the stage.

    Graphically Mushihimesama fails to instil confidence as it lacks both the flair for colour and design Cave titles usually demonstrate. Despite being several years its senior, Mushihimesama’s graphics are hardly an improvement over DoDonPachi: Dai-Ou-Jou’s with scenery and environments of meagre quality which look rather washed out on a normal horizontal screen. The game's visual sins are further compounded when compared to the pleasantries of both Ibara (also available on PS2) and ESPgaluda II; the simple use of additional shaders in these games makes for a visual tour de force unprecedented by similar titles in the genre. Sure, Mushihimesama isn’t hideous - far from it; it’s still light years ahead of fellow franchises such as Alfa System’s Shikigami No Shiro series (or any Type X shooter for that matter) - it’s just not as pretty as one would expect.

    Mushihimesama’s biggest problem, however, is that it’s derivative of Cave’s past successes in much the same way as Metal Slug 4 was of SNK’s. It’s unclear whether this was an intentional act or not; it isn’t uncommon for developers to celebrate their legacy through their art and if this was the case then it does a good job of commemorating the artistry and thoughtfulness that adorns a lot of Cave’s titles - both past and present.

    While Cave aficionados will have already bought, played, trumpet this title, moved on to Ibara, and returned to DoDonPachi: Dai-Ou-Jou, Mushihimesama remains an appealing prospect that fans of the genre would do well to sample.

    If you want an undiluted shooter free of frivolous gameplay hooks and gimmicks, this will quench your thirst for such a title. However, as good as it is and as much as it could be recommended, it shouldn’t take priority over any of Cave’s other PS2-generation titles.

    As an accompanying title, Mushihimesama is very good teetering on the verge of excellent at times; on its own it’s merely good and nothing more.

    Review by Adam Gellatly
    Score: 6/10
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