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I’m a Cave Man

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.

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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.

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 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.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

5 thoughts to “I’m a Cave Man”

  1. Thanks for this, I hadn’t heard much about Cave but it sounds like I should have. I just downloaded Bug Princess and am pumped to try it out on my bus ride home. I love Treasure and bullet hell shooters a lot so this is right up my alley. What’s their best title on XBOX live.. or do they even have one?

  2. They do, they’ve got Guwange on XBLA. I’ve not played that particular port, but it’s a good one. It’s got a Feudal Japan setting (yeah…) and it does this cool thing where the fixed scrolling changes to sideways/diagonal periodically. Some really neat bosses in it.

    The other 360 titles are expensive imports…but Mushihimesama Futura Black Label is possibly their best game. It’s about $80. One of the guys over at F:AT from Australia actually loaned me his copy for a couple of weeks, which was very cool of him.

    Knowing what I know about your tastes, I think you’ll definitely like this stuff…the games aren’t as quirky in terms of mechanics as Treasure games are, but the over-the-top video gameness of them I think you’ll dig.

  3. I think the shmup is really the argument waiting to be made in the “Are Video Games Art?” debate.  Most games that are held forth as examples in this debate usually have vanilla gameplay with a coat of either pop culture relevence or decent art direction.  However, when I think about historical examples of high art they are usually formally innovative, technically masterful and initially inaccessible.  

    Shmups are high art, in particular those examples put forth by Treasure and Cave.  In spite of the fanboy anime trappings of the games, in motion they’re basically pure abstraction: wave after wave of bullet patterns that the player has to simultaneously process and navigate.  To concentrate with any of these games for any length of time is to induce a fugue state.  The bullet hell shooter distills video gaming into one pure reflex oriented experience.  It isn’t trying to be a movie, replicate a boardgame, or simulate a real world experience.  What it offers is singular amongst all other mediums, and in that specificity I think Space Invaders may well have been the cave painting of things to come.

  4. I have to agree with this somewhat. Even though I don’t really like the idea that a video game has to be considered “art” to be taken seriously. I wish there was some other term.

    In any case I think Platinum has moved that kind of game into the more modern American style with Bayonetta and Vanquish. Vanquish felt as much like Afterburnner as Gears of War to me. It found a way to be purely a video game without all the pretending to be a movie bullshit in so many modern games. There has to come a time when video games want to be recognized on their own terms and not some other mediums idea’s of what “art” means to them. I’d be more likely to consider Mario Bros. over Mass Effect. I was playing this Bug Princess today and it is excellent, one of the best iPhone aps I’ve ever played. Super Bangai O is my xbox live game of the year without a doubt. Guardian Heroes was awesome but it was the same old one from back then pretty much, Bangai found a new way to present itself. These are games that impress me artistically. 

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