• DoDonPachi Saidaioujou Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou marks the final entry in Cave's now venerable bullet hell shooter series. It's a vertically scrolling 2D game with an emphasis on explosions and mayhem, and attempts to up the ante of the superb Dai-Fukkatsu/Resurrection release from a couple of years back, whilst also delivering a rather different gameplay focus and art aesthetic.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    The scoring system is simple enough - as you shoot enemies a hit counter rises, which in turn increases the value of the items they drop when destroyed. These contribute to a hyper gage, which can be built up to multiple increments and can be unleashed to clear the screen of enemy bullets (also turning them into valuable pickups) and switches the player to a more powerful weapon that strews forth more and more score items as you rain down destruction on your foes. Banking multiple hypers for use in one go not only results in a longer duration for this transformation, but also reduces the increase of the player's rank level, higher values of which trigger more difficult bullet patterns. So the replayability comes from learning enemy attack patterns and working out the most opportune moments to trigger large hypers to rinse the mid-level bosses for everything they're worth.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    This set of mechanics is solid enough, if a little unambitious compared to some of Cave's past output, and does the job of getting the player up to speed quickly so that they can begin the process of raising their scoring potential. However, this focus on immediacy and pick up and play mentality has permeated through to the weapon balance and enemy wave design in a negative manner. Firstly after selecting a character, each with slightly different attack patterns, the player is graced with the ability to choose from three different setups – one for each of the two weapon types (shot and laser) and one for experts which immediately puts the game on the ridiculously hard second loop, something few will want to do. The shot weapon fires a wide spread of bullets while the laser releases a concentrated burst in a straight line. Whichever type you choose will be automatically powered up to its maximum strength, while leaving the other woefully inadequate by comparison.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou boxshot.
    There are some other minor differences between the setups, but fundamentally which armament you want powered up is the key decision maker. The problem with this is that there's really no point in ever using the other weapon after this decision has been made; you'll get an increased hit counter rate for your selected loadout and the rather large difference in damage output renders the other gun’s damage distribution a mute point. It's essentially done away with the concept of adjusting your firing choice based on enemy types and turned the game into a one weapon shooter.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    With the fact that your main weapon is now fully powered up from the get go there's also the not insignificant issue of what this has meant for enemy health – outside of bosses and the odd large craft, they die fast. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing but couple this with a huge reliance on popcorn enemies and you're left with a system oddly bereft of satisfying opposition. For anyone not familiar with the term, popcorn enemies are the most basic form of threat in a shooter, they are weak, rush on to the screen in large waves and pump out a very small number of bullets, often only one or two per craft. They are typically used as filler content to keep the player doing something in between more complex setpieces. With Saidaioujou, they are utilised all the time, sometimes for so many waves in a row that your brain can start to disengage from the action. All the player has to do is hold down the fire button and sweep their craft from left to right, clearing the whole screen with these foes exploding in vast numbers. It's visually impressive the first few times, but is indicative of a lack of imagination in bullet patterns that runs throughout the whole experience.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    There's a real sense of repetitiveness when it comes to the patterns you encounter across the five stages. They almost all fall into two camps, wide angled bursts that gradually spread out as the range increases, usually locking to form a solid bank of refused horizontal width, and tightly knit, focused streams, aimed straight at the player. The only laser nets most players will see come from one of the later bosses and there's precious little variety in the form of multi-directional shots, upward angled bullets or screen real estate denial. The bosses just don't provide the kind of epic confrontation and variety that they should, and when you see the same stock bullet shapes and patterns repeating time and again, the whole thing feels a little hollow and is deeply out of step with the DoDonPachi games that came before.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    With such a strong focus on the last minute dodging of very fast, aimed shots there's a lot less utilisation of vertical space, as being close to bosses or enemies just isn't viable. This is exacerbated by the fact that just by briefly switching to the laser, the player can hoover up all the items on screen, including static ones based on the ground, and even some that have already fallen off the bottom. This means that you never have to dodge and weave your way across the screen to reach any of these pickups. For most players the only time they'll use much of the vertical space is if a particularly large swarm of popcorn enemies have pushed them right up to the screen edge and you have to slowly inch up as they approach. In general there's far less focus on weaving your way between screen filling networks of different speed hazards and it's less engaging and interesting as a result. It also doesn't help that slowdown, a necessary tool for navigating the more torturous portions of bullet hell titles, is frustratingly inconsistent, kicking in regularly for bomb activations and boss deaths while remaining full pelt at times when the screen is littered with enemy shots. And when it is activated there are sometimes frustrating occasions when it can revert to full speed with little to no warning despite the fact that the bullet density hasn't changed, with the resulting jarring impact on the player's flow.
    DoDonPachi Saidaioujou screenshot.

    There is an additional issue caused by the fully upgraded weapon set, and the graphical style in general – it's incredibly distracting! The player's hitbox is the same as in Dai-Fukkatsu, a small, rapidly pulsing hexagon of purple and white, any bullet touches it and you either lose a life or your bomb supply if autobomb is enabled. This is fine, and the fact that all the enemy bullets are shades of pink and blue, sometimes both, blended with white would be fine on their own as well. But the sheer amount of visual clutter around the player's ship, when heaped on the above palette similarity, will be too much for some. Colour sensitivity varies from person to person but there's no doubt that the player's hitbox colour and that of the bullets are very close visually, so you really need a colour balance around the ship that isn't fighting for attention and dominating these, somewhat muter, colours. Sadly, that hasn't happened here.

    First there's a huge, at least twice the size of the hitbox, green hyper counter suspended just below the ship, that gets in the way and serves absolutely no purpose when the same information is available elsewhere on the HUD. Then you've got the hyperactive flickering of these screen filling, upgraded weapons, particularly in the case of the shot type where the low frame rate of the animation creates a particularly strong staccato effect. With all the upgraded options following you around, coupled with the oversaturated colours of the weapons in red, green and blue (which is far brighter than that used in the enemy projectiles), you're left with this constant visual noise around the hitbox, that for many, will overwhelm their peripheral vision of the incoming bullets. Yes it's visually impressive and striking, but when all these facets combine, it just crosses that line into distraction and gets in the way of the gameplay. Being able to quickly and accurately assess a screen layout of hazards while keeping a zen like focus on the hitbox is the single most important thing in a game of this ilk, especially one with the aforementioned focus on very rapid stream shots. This fact is really rammed home when engaging the hyper mode, with its flatter, muted yellows and large darkened ring around the player’s ship making waves noticeably easier to navigate thanks to the reduced clutter.

    In the case of Saidaioujou the designers have opted for a rather stylised approach to the enemy designs. They are the kind of basic, angled-geometry mechas and tanks you jotted out in the back of exercise books at school, without any of the artistry of flair we've seen in past Cave games. These generic designs then have some very flat shaded gradients applied to them, with a little bit of a chroming metallic look here and there. It's quite clear that the art budget for this release was lower than we're used to seeing, as the artwork on show has been a lot quicker and easier to produce and simply hasn't had the time investment put in that you would expect. On the plus side it's at least consistent throughout, and given the preponderance for popcorn enemies, half of them are already exploding while entering the screen anyway, and the explosions are quite nice. Disappointingly the backgrounds, while perfectly solid for the first couple of stages, descend into generic, basic tech and cyberworld themes for much of the second half. You'll see the same gun metal grey doors sliding open again and again, and the old scrolling neon-green hexagon pattern that seems to have been in rotation since at least the PlayStation 1 days. These later backgrounds have the same quick and dirty shading gradients as the enemy designs, it's all a little uninspired and underwhelming.

    A number of additional modes are on offer. The tweaks made to Version 1.5 represent the kind of unneeded fiddling that adds little to the package on the whole. You might change your normal character for one with a more optimal scoring weapon, but the way the game is played remains almost unchanged. It's there for real diehards fans of this release, but fails to offer the kind of diversity it should. Novice mode represents a much lower level challenge and actually succeeds on some levels by providing a sufficiently different experience. Bullet spreads are much less dense and there's far fewer rapid, aimed shots thrown at the player. It actually mitigates some of the issue with the graphical overload described above, as the bullet patterns are wide enough that the player can get away without focusing too much on the small hitbox, instead treating the entire ship as the collision boundary and directing their attention to the bullets. It's not something that's going to appeal to bullet hell fans, but it will satisfy those who stick to more traditional, less intensive shooters and on that level has to be commended.

    If there is one saving grace however, one standout mode that pulls Saidaioujou back from the brink, it's the Xbox 360 mode. Essentially a retooling of the main game with one massive difference – instead of life and bomb stocks, the player is graced with an additional counter. Getting hit reduces this, as does using a bomb, but it can also be increased by using hypers. The crucial twist, however, is that the player is able to activate a super laser which will rapidly increase the hit counter, and as such the hyper gage, whilst also depleting this second counter. This creates an interesting dynamic where racking up the high scores comes at the expense of survivability, adds a whole new layer of strategy to your game plan beyond just when to hit the hypers for point milking. Getting caught in a sticky situation can see you have to adapt and switch to a more defensive style of play until that counter is replenished. It goes a long way to increasing the diversity across playthroughs and, unlike Version 1.5, offers a really different feel to the gameplay. Added benefits of increased visibility with the super laser, much like when using hypers, and a far more reliable and controllable, via super laser activation, implementation of slowdown culminate to create a greatly improved form of the game. That's not to say it fixes all of Saidaioujou's issues, there's still a lot of music reuse, the cheap and cheerful enemy designs, plus somewhat flat bullet patterns, but Xbox 360 mode drags the whole thing up a notch and offers a solid enough, involving experience.

    Saidaioujou ultimately is the shooter equivalent of a cheesy, summer pop hit – bold, brash and colourful, it grabs your attention fast but doesn't have the depth or rewarding character to keep you coming back after the initial hook has faded. The visual overload won't affect everyone to the same degree but, regardless, it's still an unnecessary distraction. The Xbox 360 mode is undoubtedly the stand out offering here, it provides an interesting risk-reward hook and this helps gloss over some of the other issues present. But for the definitive DoDonPachi experience the best option is far and away the previous title, Dai-Fukkatsu and its very cheap Western localisation, DoDonPachi Resurrection, offering far greater diversity and production values. For those with Japanese machines, 5pb's port of Dai-Ou-Jou, even with its technical issues, also represents an overall more satisfying and long lasting experience than what's on offer here. Saidaioujou certainly isn't the worst shooter out there, and its initial flash will make good first impressions, but there's a large library of Cave output on the 360, against which a mediocre release such as this simply can't compete.