Like many gamers this past December I ended up spending over $120 on a videogame, however unlike most of those poor souls I didn't end up with a cheap plastic skateboard and a staggering sense of disappointment. No, my money was more wisely invested importing the latest CAVE shooter to grace the 360, Mushihime-sama Futari Ver 1.5. Though I've long been a fan of shoot'em ups (AKA shmups), I really didn't quite know what to expect with this title. Sure I had a rough idea of what it was like from various YouTube videos, but being Canadian I had never actually had a chance to play it. Would the controls be tight? Was the scoring system fun? Could I really justify the cost? These questions raced through my head but in truth I only really cared about one thing — it was region free. For the first time this generation I could play a proper Japanese shmup on my North American Xbox 360, so as soon as I had the free money I placed my order. Two long days of staring at a FedEx tracking screen later, it arrived.
Throwing the disc in my drive, I was greeted with a few logos and a surprisingly English menu offering Ver 1.5, Arrange and Black Label, though Black Label was unavailable as it has to be downloaded off the Marketplace. Selecting Ver 1.5, I was presented with another set of options, Arcade mode or Xbox 360. On CAVE's last title, Deathsmiles, Xbox 360 mode was slightly altered from Arcade, but here it appears to just determine whether you play with the original sprites or ones redrawn at a higher resolution. Following my selection I was taken to the main menu where I could choose from single credit Score Attack, credit feed Normal Mode, training and a bevy of configuration options.
While it's common for shmups today to feature dozens of display options, Futari takes things a step further by letting you adjust every tiny aspect of the presentation. Under layout you can adjust normal settings like rotation, display aspect ratio, zoom and position, but now you can also add four independently configurable ExtraViews. Each ExtraView can be focused on a specific part of the screen like your character or the score, positioned anywhere you like and zoomed as big or as small as you want. They can also be smoothed independently and delayed to create some rather neat effects. One layout preset has five full screen displays placed beside one another, each running 0.3 seconds behind the last to create a cascade of progress effect. It's functionally useless, but looks really cool. When you're done designing your layout you’ll move on to the picture settings menu where you can adjust effects such as scan-lines and RGB masks, simulate glare and manipulate the colourspace. The bias of each effect can be independently tweaked and the colourspace can be adjusted for Brightness, Gama, Contrast, Saturation and Hue. As if this wasn't enough there are still more options available to adjust for the background wallpaper settings and frame delay. This is the most robust settings package I have ever seen and hopefully it will become the standard for all releases going forward.
Once the display was configured properly it was time to jump in and do some shooting. I was immediately grabbed by the game's striking visuals. While many shmups choose to focus on cold mechanistic designs, Futari opts for a more colourful approach, using a rich forest backdrop to move beyond the world of gunmetal and gray. Every aspect of the game world from the backgrounds, to animal influenced enemies and even the bullet patterns feels just. There's a natural flow to gameplay were you can feel at peace and Zen-like, even though you're on the edge of your seat and twitching. It's a strange sensation I've never felt before, but stands as a testament to Futari's through design and makes it an easy game to pick up and play over and over again. Musically the game is just as competent with soundtrack that again feels more natural and non-industrial. It's very melodic instead of beat focused, adding greatly to the overall peaceful atmosphere.
Before gameplay actually begins there are yet more options to decide. Will you be playing as Reco, the 15-year old rider of the golden beetle Kiniro, or will you take out young Palm and his dragon Hirow; and will you be using the Normal or Abnormal version of the character? Each character has his or her own strengths and weaknesses; finding the set that best suits your play style will ultimately determine how you play. Once you've decided on a character there's still one last choice to make — do you play Original, Maniac or Ultra?
Original mode is sort of the vanilla version of the game. Enemies are the least dense and move slower, bosses die the quickest and scoring is all about playing the item collecting game. Kill an enemy and it drops some gems. Kill them with your bullets when the hundreds position on the overall gem counter is between 0-4, or the laser if it's between 5-9, and you get larger gems that are worth more. The higher your gem count, the higher your combo. If you die or bomb you’ll lose a healthy chunk of your counter so be warned. It's a simple system but it’s fun to play and forces you to try the different shot types. Once you’ve mastered Original it’s time to move on.
This brings us to Maniac mode, where things are kicked up a notch by increasing bullet density and switching from collecting to a chain mechanic. Shooting enemies with bullets boosts the chain meter and makes them drop gems, while firing with the laser rapidly decreases your total gem count. There are two exceptions to this rule. First, if the chain bar is full and flashing red any enemies you laser will drop twice the number of gems. Second, if the chain bar is empty enemies, will drop blue gems which are worth a lot of points, but subtract from your overall gem counter. It takes some time to get a feel for the mechanic, but once you hit your stride you'll find it’s a lot more enjoyable than other chain games.
Finally we have Ultra mode where upon selection you'll be asked in Japanese if you're prepared to die. It may seem like a bad joke to bolster a feeling of fear, but it is very well deserved. If Maniac had the bullets turned up to 11, this mode is pushing 42. Everything and its mother wants you dead. Even stationary rocks are firing at you. To make matters worse there's almost no slow down to make navigation easier so you've got to have lightning fast reflexes to make it far. I'm no shmup expert, but I like to think I'm fairly competent and it took me a good 10 tries to 1CC the first stage. Scoring works off the same item collection system as original mode, only now the interval is set at 2000. The wider berth is greatly appreciated as at 500 you’d find yourself switch too often. Definitely a mode only the most dedicated shmups player will exceed at, but a hell of a lot of fun for one-offs or impressing your friends.
After getting my fill of Ver 1.5 I decided to take a look at the other two modes available on disc, Novice and Arrange, and both offer the choices of Original, Maniac and Ultra. Novice is, as the name implies, an easier mode for novices. Bullet patterns are significantly less intense, you auto bomb when you take a hit so you can't lose a life until you're out of bombs and the game overall seems to move a lot slower. It's not a mode you'll find yourself playing often, except when achievement mining, but it is a handy way to introduce new players to the genre.
Arrange mode, on the other hand, is a complete re-envisioning designed by well-known CAVE programmer Tsuneki Ikeda. It's kind of hard to describe how it works but I guess the best comparison I could draw is a cross between Giga Wing and Ikaruga. Players take control of both Reco and Palm at the same time and must carefully switch between the two as needed. The primary character will take the lead, firing bullets and auto-bombing when they take a hit, while the secondary character has a shield that slows bullets to a crawl. When you fire your laser all bullets caught within the shield are launched back at enemies generating a ton of gems. It costs some of your counter to pull off, but if you capture enough bullets before firing you'll see a nice return on your investment. Be careful though as the gems expended come from the secondary character's stock but collected in the primary's. You'll need to switch before your secondary runs dry because as soon as he does his shield is gone and you're open to attack. As there's no slowdown in Arrange mode this means you could die before you even realize what happened. Firing the laser with both counters maxed at 9999 will cause a massive torrent of gems to flood the screen but reset both counters to zero so you have to be careful. It’s definitely an easier mode than the main game, but a nice way to relax as well.
As I said earlier, Mushihime-sama Futari is the first game CAVE has released region-free. By doing so the company is able to track import sales and determine genuine international interest in their products. Producer Makoto Asada has even stated that if the title sells well it will have a direct impact on whether or not Espgaluda II will be localized. That's a lot of weight to place on one title, but if any game is going to attract western players it's this. CAVE has really gone above and beyond to make this a great title and they deserve to be commended. The varied play structure and arrange mode are sure to keep anyone entertained, while the robust display settings package is a god send for the hard core. Though the price is high once you factor in shipping and DLC, it's a price I happily paid. If ever there was a time to vote with your wallets this is it, so go buy it now.
For those curious on how I ended up spending $120+ on the game, here's my bill:
Game disc from Play-Asia – $75
Less discount Coupon for an order over $100 – $12 (I also imported Tatsunoko vs. Capacom)
Shipping via Fedex – $17
Brokerage Fee and tax paid to Customs/FedEx – $18 ($22 less the $4 for TvC)
Black Label DLC – $15
Ver 1.01 Pre-order card from Yahoo Auctions Japan – $22
Total – $135 and well worth it.
Mushihime-sama Futari Ver 1.5is rated A (All Ages) by CERO.