Back in my day (the old school era), the phrase "shooters" wasn't used to refer to first-person combat games like Halo or Battlefield. It was used to describe white knuckle spaceship shoot 'em ups like Gradius, R-Type, Raiden, 1942, Gunbird, Strikers 1945, and so on and so forth. Nowadays, when a quality shooter comes out, it's a time for celebration.
Get out the cake fellas, because today we're celebrating XS Games' release of Castle Shikigami 2–a vertically scrolling shooter that wraps 2D and 3D graphics around legitimately awesome old school gameplay.
Admittedly, this birthday celebration is extremely belated, considering the game was released in November 2004… and it's now August 2005. But let's forget that and bear two things in mind: 1) this game rocks, and 2) it retails for $9.99.
That's right, for the low price of $9.99+tax, you can bring this bullet-riffic shmup home.
("shmup" = hipster slang for shoot 'em up)
So what makes Castle Shikigami 2 so good? In most respects, it's just a run of the mill shooter. But what it does, it does well. Enemies large and small fly on screen and your job is to dodge their bullets and blow them up. There are seven different characters to pick from. Each has a unique standard shot as well as two optional charge shots (you can select one). Tapping the fire button unleashes the standard shot attack, while holding the button activates the charge shot, which the game refers to as a "Shikigami." Shikigami attacks can often home in on and lock onto enemies, but the downside is that they very often leave you unprotected from excess enemies, as well as the soft bullets that your normal weapon can simply neutralize. Like any good shmup, you can also unleash a "bomb" by pressing the X button.
And so it goes, for ten levels or until you expend 3 lives and 3 continues. In each level, you'll fly up the screen dodging bullets and shooting minor enemies until you reach a mid-boss. Then you'll do it again to reach the level-boss. Bosses tend to have multiple forms and transformations, which is always a bonus. They're also psychotically well armed. In the vast pantheon of shooters, this one falls into the "bullet hell" category… which means that the screen is constantly packed with bullets and lasers.
In an interesting twist, though, bullet hell is a helpful aspect of gameplay. Castle Shikigami 2 is one of the new breed of shoot 'em ups that employ what fans refer to as "buzzing." Simply put, buzzing means flying as close as possible to enemy bullets without touching them. What good is that, you ask? Not only does it multiply your score as much as eight-fold, it's also the only way to power up your weapons. When you let bullets skirt past your character, your normally blue tone shots will turn red. The rate of fire, spread, and overall damage doled out by the weapon will also improve. The catch is that the effect only lasts for a split-second after you stop buzzing, so you have to try to balance safety with the desire to literally cut through bosses like a hot knife through butter.
Despite the "bullet hell" design, the game isn't particularly difficult, so long as you're only trying to complete the game. The hitbox is tiny, which makes it easy to zip through bullet fountains and get out of supposed traps. Shikigami attacks and bombs can also neutralize bullets, and they do a fine job of slashing away the bosses' life meters too. You may not be able to get through the game in your first few plays, but after a few hours and a few continues, you'll probably find yourself challenging the final stage. If you want to set a high score or finish the game on a single credit, however, that's a whole different ball of wax. You can only get the highest scores by buzzing close to bullets, and doing that increases the likelihood that you'll get hit. Thusly, Castle Shikigami 2 can also be extremely challenging, depending on your style of play.
The ride is certainly pleasing to the senses. At first glance, Castle Shikigami 2 looks like any other old school vertical scrolling shmup–with ship sprites and bullets overlaid over scrolling backdrops. Look closer though and you'll see that those cities and forests aren't hand drawn, but are instead photorealistic concoctions made from polygons and high-resolution image elements. You'll also notice a free flowing river in one level, and moving car traffic on a freeway in another. Meanwhile, the ship sprites and bullets are made out of 2D and 3D elements, but the kicker there is that they're also highly animated. Your own character's arms and legs will kick out and sway as you shoot and fly around, and enemies will twirl around and show off their little flaps and engines as they try and catch up with you. There's some slow down here and there, but that's understandable given how many bullets are often on screen. Not bad for a 3D shooter designed for old Naomi/Dreamcast hardware.
Purists will appreciate the inclusion of a vertical "tate" mode. Normally, to play the game on a TV you have to pick from one of three horizontal display modes, which scale the graphics down to fit and let you select how the score and weapon overlays look. But, if you flip your TV on its side, or better yet, buy an LCD monitor or other display that officially supports a vertical setup, you can play the game unscaled (100% size) by selecting the vertical display option. Even if you can't take advantage of this mode, don't worry. You don't lose anything in the horizontal modes–everything is just shrunk by 25%.
The audio is about what you'd expect from a shmup. There's little that can be said for the bullets, bombs, and explosions, except that there are plenty of them. As for the soundtrack, you get two choices: original and s2mix. Personally, I prefer the original because it's classically-themed and filled with dramatic drum beats and cymbals. The s2mix has a more techno bent, which while not my taste is probably just fine for some of you out there.
What else do you get for your $9.99, besides a rock solid shmup? In terms of play modes, there's an arcade setting with two difficulty options (normal and extreme), a practice mode, and a boss rush mode. A number of miscellaneous extras open up as you go through the game, including a story recollection gallery, which lets you re-watch the cut scene dialogues, and an artwork gallery, which contains character and enemy portraits and concept art. Oh, and lest we forget, let's make this last point very clear: the game supports 2-player simultaneous play .
If all that hasn't convinced you to buy the North American version of Castle Shikigami 2, then there's one more thing you need to know about it… its localization is rather awkward. Awkward to the point of comedy. Not mild comedy. The bust a gut and yell "oh my God that's funny!" kind.
My Japanese friends tell me that the translation isn't incorrect, just that it's too literal.
For instance, take a comment like "Don't come yet! Don't soil your hands!" Sounds like a line from a porno. Clearly, the emphasis of the original line was to suggest that the hero stay out of the battle and not get his hands dirty. Unfortunately, the translator wasn't shooting for meaning or context while writing up the English script. And so, Castle Shikigami 2 is full of entendres, nonsense phrases, and all manner of "say what?!"
Add to that, the voice acting is completely deadpan, as if they put the actors behind a microphone and simply had them recite lines without direction. Imagine a dozen William Shatner or Christopher Walken clones getting together to read lines, and that's about what we've got here. Some of them tried to rephrase or re-inflect their lines to add meaning, but since the original script is just a collection of unrelated and mistranslated phrases, that effort just makes the end result even funnier.
Normally, this sort of broken dialogue and voice acting would be a negative. But in a game like this, where the story is unimportant and doesn't interfere with gameplay, it's actually a positive. You'll find yourself pushing to see the next level or to beat the game with all the characters just to see what crazy stuff they'll say next. Then, you'll find yourself inviting friends over to show them those wacky dialogues in the game's story recollection gallery.
To sum up: solid game + hilarious translation + cheap price = MUST BUY.