Along with Treasure, Cave is one of the best Japanese video game developers in the business doing old fashioned, arcade style games. Specifically, Cave’s specialty is the kind of manic, bullet hell shooters that the company has been doing primarily for Japanese arcades since 1994. But Cave’s history reaches back even further into the annals of video game history as the company was founded after another great “shmup” house, Toaplan, went bankrupt. A number of Toaplan’s staff, who were responsible for cult shooters such as Batsugan, Tiger Heli, Zero Wing, and Truxton signed on for Cave duty and in 1995 the company released DonPachi. And a billion bullets were launched…
In subsequent years, Cave would release a number of great, mostly top-down shmups that really upped the ante for the manic shooter genre. Esp.Ra.De, Guwange, Progear- these are names shooter fanatics know and love. But outside of arcades, expensive imports, and playing these games on MAME it’s not always been easy to enjoy Cave’s best work. Over the past couple of years, however, Cave has embraced the IOS generation and has offered some of their more recent- and best- games on the App Store of all places. Initially, I was skeptical that the touchscreen would be an acceptable or even functional replacement for a joystick or D-pad while trying to avoid all of those ridiculous bullet patterns, particularly on a tiny, handheld screen.
I had played other shmups on the iPhone including the decent port of Tyrian and a couple of other “off-brand” entries, but none had that unique, balls-out and over-the-top insanity of a game like DoDonPachi Resurrection. After playing their most recent IOS release, Bug Princess (Mushihimesama), I was stunned at how well and even better touch controls were than a standard arcade setup. The native low resolution of the original assets translated both the Retina iPhone 4 screen and the iPad 2 screen without a trace of lost fidelity or muddiness. Add in online Game Center leaderboards and all-new Smartphone modes and these games become more than simple ports of existing titles- they become best-in-class games revitalized for a modern format. Espgaluda II, Deathsmiles, DoDonPachi- these are some of the best examples of this subgenre, and some of my favorite shooters, period.
What makes a Cave shooter great- beyond the outstanding sprite artwork that ranges from Halloween goth to sci-fi Baroque to Miyazakian- is the sheer overwhelming-ness of their games. There’s something positively thrilling about a screen literally filled with an elaborate pattern of bullets that you’ve somehow got to survive. The massive firepower you’re up against is something of an illusion since almost all of those bullets aren’t actually coming your way and you’ve got a huge advantage. Unlike many shooters, the full sprite you control isn’t actually an object. The hitbox is actually a tiny, glowing one pixel box in the middle of your ship or character.
So what happens is that those insane curtains of death become something like moving, living mazes that you’ve got make these tiny corrections to get through unscathed. If you’re chasing a high score or trying to get to a new stage, this can be a sweat-inducing ordeal on the higher difficulty levels. But it’s absolutely exhilarating when you succeed and the screen explodes into hundreds of coins, stars, or other bonus items for you to grab as your reward.
Cave also tends to work in some scoring quirk, new control concept, or gimmick into each of their titles without upending what works. DoDonPachi Resurrection features an awesome bullet scraping mechanic and Espagaluda II has a special smartphone mode with a touch-based power attack. All of the games offer a variety of weapons to power up to ridiculous levels.
Other than the somewhat experimental dual-stick shooter Mushimesama: Bug Panic, Deathsmiles remains their most divergent concept. For one thing, it’s a sidescroller not too far removed from something like Legendary Wings. For another, the IOS version adds a light RPG element complete with a shop. Sadly, Deathsmiles is also riddled with a pandering wink-wink attitude toward the pedophilic gothic Lolita thing. There is no specifically sexual content, but there is definitely suggestion- suggestion that is interestingly toned down from the Xbox 360 version of the game.
All of these games are very short and can be “beaten” in 20 minutes or less. They’re perfect for on-the-go play or stealing a couple of minutes between meetings or whatever. You’ll keep going back to them to try harder difficulties, new modes, different ships, or to beat high scores. And there’s always the goal of the single credit completion as well as a host of achievments and unlockables.
In short, Cave on IOS is a pretty big middle finger to the old fashioned gamers that claim that smartphones and tablets can’t do hardcore games. They’re likely the same kind of fuddy-duddies that still don’t trust ATMS or think that hip hop isn’t really music. Cave shooters are hardcore, old school arcade-style gaming at its absolute best. They’re hardly inaccessible though, with easier difficulty levels available to help usher the “played a lot of Galaga at the Mexican restaurant” crowd through the front door. I can’t recommend these games enough to anyone that likes a great shooter.