Waifus in Bullet Hell

Must… Shoot… Must… Not… Shoot…

The success of PS4 has blessed the console with some surprising releases of which Game Tengoku CruisinMix is probably from the most peculiar end. It’s a port of a 1997 Sega Saturn game which in turn was an enhanced version of a 1995 arcade shooter by Jaleco. Going further, that one recruits six pilots from Jaleco’s arcade lineup from the eighties to step against the mad scientist Yamada who decides to conquer the gaming world by invading the cabinets of a local arcade. If that sounds a bit goofy then it’s perfectly normal as the game is a proud representative of the small but gallant genre of parody shooters, and even after all these years, it turns out to be none too shabby.

The game was originally a six-level vertical shooter that was given two additional stages on Saturn, all of which are focused on bona fide 90’s otaku fan service. You can play as an everyday space fighter jock, a sentient mecha, one of three cute girls, or even as a plump pork. The choice is fairly irrelevant as all of them have their basic gun that fires in some direction and a handful of mega bombs capable of clearing almost the entire screen in one way or another. At the beginning of each stage (or after each death), the game immediately gifts you with a couple of pint-sized helper drones while the main gun can be upgraded a few times with bonus icons picked up on the way. Each character excels in some parts of the game while sucking at others, but their differences are so minor that it’s almost disappointing. Actual shooting isn’t that promising either, introducing a model where constant button mashing only fires off weak shots while holding down the button gives a really short burst of rapid fire before starting to charge for a slow but admittedly powerful shot. That’s tactical, sure, but after a whole day of shooting my thumb is already screaming for mercy.

Each stage takes place in an arcadey setting, themed from an entire venue to pinballs, UFO catchers, racing games, or 80’s retro gems. The stages in the arcade version are mostly good for a wry smile but the additional stages of the Saturn version manage to raise a few genuine laughs. For example, there’s a level in which a cute gal is singing karaoke, filling the screen with hiragana that should either be destroyed quickly in hopes of a better score or desperately avoided so that your inner otaku can enjoy through the whole song. Even JRPG boss battles take a strange turn when Yamada, posing as an evil wizard with hit points and an entire role-playing user interface, faces off against some rapid-firing shoot ’em up justice. Should nothing else raise a smile, the destructive fetish bombs of the loliest character in the roster are likely to make the player both shake and nod at the same time. Oh, endearing Japan, never ever change!

Still, since we are essentially talking about a Japanese shooter, it can be a cold shower straight from the very beginning. I made the mistake of hopping straight into the Saturn port of the arcade version, which on normal difficulty and a 4:3 playing area was nothing short of torture. Bullets fly into your face with such intensity and accuracy that I was lucky to survive for 15 seconds and even if credits are infinite, constant dying ate away gaming enjoyment like a starved squirrel (fond of gaming enjoyment). Utterly demoralized by all this, I switched over to the original arcade version, changed difficulty to Very Easy, upped lives from three to five, and even activated a feature that automatically uses a mega bomb in case of an immediate death. After this, the game began to open up. The arcade mode is obviously even more narrow as far as the whole screen is concerned but at least I finally had time to react to things. Even with every possible training wheel in play, it took a few tries to complete a 1CC run but I’m happy the options were there. This is probably how learning any ruthless shooter begins, anyway.

After enough training, even the bonus stage inclusive story mode of the Saturn version became tolerable. Not only does repetition help in learning the enemy patterns, it also teaches when not to shoot at all. Since each downed enemy fires off one sizable bullet as a bitter thank you gift, it’s often better to concentrate on mere survival rather than a position on the high score table. Also, the story mode has an added benefit of adorable between-stage chibi cinematics. Nonsensical for those of us who don’t understand Japanese but still amusing, even if you can only pick up a word here and there.

One day on the easiest and most pathetic difficulty was perfectly fine to have a grand shoot ’em up time. The game might not have enough oomph to rival Konami’s ever-awesome Parodius series but I’m still thankful to Kadokawa Games for releasing this port of a port, even if only in Japan; at least in this household, silly shooters are always welcome!