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DoDonPachi – Dai-Ou-Jou : ***1/2 (three and a half stars)

January 28, 2008

I’m sure every gamer has been privy to the golden age of video gaming at some point. That time when arcades were popular, Gradius and R-Type innovated the shooter genre and brought leagues of players towards their flickering arcade cabinets, waiting for a chance to waste their money. These were games that offered huge challenges – everything wants to kill you. It was the one man show; one ship against many, you as the savior of the universe.

Alas, the shoot ’em up has descended into darker days, mostly from the advent of the 3D graphics engine we know and love today. To be honest, it’s just difficult to realign an entire genre from a flat 2D plane to a full 3D world. Some game types made a successful transition (The platformer, with Super Mario 64, being a good example). Shoot em up’s have tried, but not always with great success. 2D is still where they excel, and this is where Cave came in.

A Japan only developer, Cave started the manic shmup genre with DonPachi, their first game. This new trend in shooters involved massive quantities of pretty bullets being thrown at the player, who at first glance couldn’t possibly make it through the game. Yet, the saving grace appeared to be the ship’s deceptively small hit box – only a small section of the ship actually registered a hit, which meant destruction. Players began to slip through holes in the waves of flowery death with practice, bringing a rush and a thrill to the hardcore willing to go through the trouble of learning the game. That was 1995. 7 years later, with one sequel, Cave decided to create the hardest shmup in existence. DoDonPachi: Dai-Ou-Jou (Or Double Bee Storm: Peaceful Death) is that games. This tough as nails shooter tests your skills, your brain, and your twitch reflex for every second you are playing.. Yet, this difficult experience turns out to be great heaps of fun…for certain people, such as myself.

DOJ is a vertical shmup, and while the concept isn’t new, the complexities certainly are. Press the shoot button, you shoot. Hold the shoot button, you shoot a huge laser (and I mean HUGE). Press the bomb button…a bomb comes out and blasts everything on screen. Shoot a bomb with the laser out…the laser beam gets enchanced. You can pick up power ups for the laser and shot through destroying cargo ships, and these can be upgraded about 5 times or so for a more devastating and wide weapon. Now, here’s where we get crazy. At the beginning of the game, one gets to choose one of 2 ships, A or B. A has more maneuverability ( a godsend) while B has greater firepower. In addition, you must choose a pilot, each with its own characteristics. Shotia, for example, has a very powerful regular shot, but her laser slows down the ship a great deal. However, she gets 6 bombs. Exy, on the other hand, gets 2 bombs, but moves normal speed with either shot. One picks up upgrades through the game for the shot as well. When you die, your ship loses a certain amount of powerups – Shotia loses 3 levels or so, while Exy loses only one. Certainly, it’s alot to think about just starting what appears to be a simple shmup, but trust me; each ship/pilot combo has different intracacies. You’ll play a while just to find out what you like best for strategies on getting through the levels (I’m an A/Exy player myself). To be honest, I can’t remember the name of the other pilot (who’s laser is more powerful, I believe, and she gets 4 bombs).

The levels themselves are excellently designed. Enemies pop out from all angles, shooting bullets eagerly hoping for your demise. There’s a reason why they call these games “bullet hell” shooters, and that descriptor fits DOJ quite perfectly. At all times (Especially starting with Level 3), enemies and bullets stream out at incomprehensible rates. How do you win at this, then? Spamming bombs? (They remove enemy fire from the screen, by the way). No, of course not. What is absolutely fascinating about the game is that it can be completed without dying. ONCE. Just check the DVD that comes with the game – there’s some people who can do it, and it’s like a World Record when they do it. If you meet certain requirements, the game can also be played over again in the dreaded “Second Loop”, which ups the difficulty a few notches past insane. More bullets, tougher enemies, and a super secret final boss (as well as a lack of continues) makes this content something mere mortals will never see. Cave has to be applauded for the design allowing a one credit play through. The first loop, at least, is something people can.

However, we got to get onto the scoring system. This might be a foreign concept if you’ve never played an arcade game, but this is where a shmup player’s skill is determined. The scoring system in DOJ is deceptively simple. Basically, killing enemies constantly garners you a chain (Denoted by the “HITS” word appearing). There are a couple prerequisites for keeping this chain going:

1. Something must be exploding at all times

or

2. Your laser must be kept on a target.

Now, this might seem easy, but destroying enemies too fast can destroy your chain. Too slow, and the chain also ends. Playing through the levels alot is the only way to get the practice in, and as the game give you a simulation mode to choose what stage and particular circumstances (ship, powerups, etc), you can definitely master a stage. However, there is yet one more component to be discussed.

Hypers: They are your best friend for scoring…but not so much for your survival chances. Simply put, if you can get a chain going long enough, a nice purple item will appear, and the word “Hyper” appear where your bombs would be (It might also be a good time to note that pressing the bomb button now will unleash the hyper). The hyper makes your shots glow bright yellow, and they becomes huge and cover a wide radius. Hypers chain like crazy, bringing your score incredibly high if used correctly. However, they do something bad when activated: they increase the speed of ALL bullets. This effect (called a rank up) persists until you lose your ship, and most likely you don’t want that to happen. Judicious use of hypers is up to the player, and it’s his strategizing that makes the game fun. As you can see, the scoring is rather intricate, as well as integral to the gameplay (Points = extra lives!).

The graphics are quite nice. Sticking to the 2D style, Cave has become known for carefully crafted, highly detailed visuals. Everything animates beautifully, and the battlefield isn’t cluttered: those bullets are bright blue and pink to make sure you can pass through them. However, the music really takes the cake. Best described as an eclectic mix of electronica and haunting melodies, it really gets you into the zone for the game and the coming tribulations. You’ll be bobbing your head and humming the tunes long after you play (and as you replay the levels in your head; trust me, you’ll be strategizing alot once you get the core gameplay down). There’s 2 soundtrack choices as well, the arcade original and the arrange (both of which are fantastic). The sound is what it is; it does it job, and does it admirably. Whatever space ships shooting at each other would sound like, this would be it.

I won’t lie: this game is hard. Hard to the point of frustration, controller throwing madness. Best point of advice:

1. Do not play this game to relax; it’s meant to give you a heart attack, not snooze.

2. Don’t play this game when you’re tired; you want to be fully alert to avoid being discouraged.

I’ve done 1 and 2, and believe me, those are the worst times to play. Be active or drink some coffee before playing the game. Acute spacial awareness is neccesary to bob and weave through the madness (and if you don’t believe me, check some YouTube videos…you’ll piss your pants for sure). In addition, for those that define replay value as 25 levels or something else…you’re not gonna find unlockables here. This is pure action, and the only reward is your succesful run through something you though impossible days beforehand. It’s quite amazing what you can accomplish with practice. DOJ encourages you to dive into the moving wall of death and come out unscathed. Some may be turned off by this, but that’s their loss. The learning curve, as you might expect, is also fierce, but that comes with time as well. Unlimited continues are here, but the true hardcore try with one credit and stop. Your mileage may vary depending on whether you can stick to one game (Thus the 5 rating I give for value). Lots of practice is required as well; sometimes your path through the level (your plan) might not work as intended. However, the practice is time well spent, and can definitely impress friends (and the ladies…or men, for you girl gamers). 2 people can play, but this requires some one else who also has a in depth knowledge of the game (most likely, no one you know). As such, you may want to stick to solo on this.

What DOJ really suceeds in is recreating that old-school vibe – that rock solid difficulty still feels just as good to conquer as it does today. The gamers of back then never dreamed of this craziness, though. DoDonPachi: Dai-Ou-Jou will make your eyeballs bleed, but you’re gonna enjoy it if you can get past the learning curve and difficulty. Once over the difficulty hump, it’s a visceral, intense, strategic experience you’ll want to go to again and again. Guaranteed.

(I copied this off my Gamespot page, but I loved this little piece, so now I’m immortalizing it.)

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