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Cave is a developer who has been gaining more traction outside of its homeland of Japan as of late. It specializes in the niche of crazy “bullet-hell” shooting games – the sort of title where fire fills the screen and finding out how to just barely scrape by a bullet barrage is every bit as important – if not moreso – than returning fire. While we’ve only seen a handful of their more recent releases like Deathsmiles and ESPGaluda II in North America so far, they also have a large back catalog of Japan-exclusive arcade games that have never been transplanted to consoles. That’s beginning to change with Guwange, a 1999 arcade release seeing new life on Xbox Live Arcade.
Guwange is set in Japan’s Muromachi era, and takes the rich mythology of the land to heart. Each of the three selectable player characters has access to a regular shot, a powerful, limited-use barrage shot, and a “Shikigami” deity companion. You play through increasingly difficult stages, blasting up hordes of soldiers, artillery, and impressively grotesque yokai monsters before facing off against a challenging boss. Unlike Cave’s other 360 ports, the graphics are a direct port of the arcade game with little in the way of enhancement – meaning blocky, low-res sprites – but it’s still fantastically pretty, boasting a unique and consistent art design that expertly captures the look of the time period and the exotic feel of the mythological beings. The stages are also unique in that you traverse them by foot rather than by flight, meaning the screen will auto-scroll in multiple directions, and you’ll need to maneuver around obstacles while dodging barrages of enemy fire.
But even though you’re outgunned in sheer firepower, you have your powerful Shikigami to help you. By holding down the fire button, you’ll summon your deity onto the field, where you can control him using the standard movement input. These beasts can cause heavy damage to foes and have the unique ability to hinder the advancement of any bullets they touch, slowing down enemy fire and – in several cases – allowing you to defeat enemies by “holding” their own projectiles over them. The key to success (and high scores) is wisely using this bullet-hindering feature. However, Shikigami are difficult beasts to control – they essentially take over your standard movement, leaving your player character only able to run slowly left and right and hindering your dodging ability. Learning how to use and control your character and Shikigami effectively takes some serious getting used to in the standard arcade modes; you can expect to die a lot before you start to get the hang of it. Though Guwange is a bit more lenient with health than other Cave titles, the rather obtuse control scheme and quickly climbing difficulty make this a game not very well-suited for a newcomer to the “bullet hell” subgenre.
Compared to some of Cave’s other ports, Guwange is a bit lacking in the bells and whistles department. Besides the standard arcade mode, there are only 2 other game modes: “Blue” (based on a rare Japanese arcade variant that re-adjusts the game’s difficulty) and a 360 “special edition.” The 360 mode addresses the control conundrum by allowing you to control your player character and Shikigami with the left and right control sticks – which, unfortunately, are not the best devices for pixel-perfect dodging. There are also practice modes that let you hone your skills on all of the stages as well as a replay save function for high-score fiends. While there is a bevy of display options for those on HDTVs, standard-definition TV owners are stuck with a forced widescreen display, further reducing the already “letterboxed” play area. It’s a strange oversight, especially considering how hardcore shooter fans usually turn an SDTV vertically to play theses game in their original arcade orientation – which is a no-go in this version.
To sum it up: Guwange is an atmospheric, challenging shooter unlike anything else out there, but it’s definitely not for everyone – the odd controls and punishing difficulty will no doubt turn off many casual fans. If you love a short but intense thrill ride and/or carefully perfecting your high-score game, however, you’ll find a lot to love in Guwange.
Nov 30, 2010