Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Trouble With Cave

I woke up this morning to find out that Play Asia had shipped my copy of Mushihime-sama Futari, which, combined with cheapass shipping and holiday mail service, means it might make it here by Christmas. But that's okay - if I were in a rush I would've ordered it from NCS, which has the benefit of being located approximately an hour away from me, instead of halfway across the globe. In the meantime, I've been pondering my love/hate relationship towards Cave shooters in general.

I love them because, aesthetically, they're brilliant. The gorgeous, sparkling sprite work, the consistently excellent music, the hypnotic bullets - it's such a wonder to see in action that it makes me completely unable to enjoy any similar game by other companies (Psikyo in the late 90s, probably its equivalent would be Milestone, today).

I hate them because of their attitude. Unless you're the type of gamer who plays games either for score, or to single credit them, then they all become fairly disposable experiences that last for maybe 20 minutes before you've seen everything they have to offer. Any time anyone makes a comment criticizing this, shooter fans go all apeshit about how they "don't get it", but really, it's quite a valid issue. You couldn't make a Gears of War that lasted twenty minutes but asked that the gamer kindly not continue every time they died, and charge $60 for it - you'd get laughed off the street. (That actually does sound like kind of a neat extra mode, at least.) But this has somehow become the standard. Now, I have no problem with difficult games, but there needs to be some kind of middle ground - demanding an all or nothing relationship with the gamer is just too arrogant for me to become involved with.

The issue stems from Cave games all originating in the arcade. When you're staring down at a vertically oriented monitor, inches from your face, surrounded by the thick haze and odor of smoke (a mainstay of Japanese arcades), and every death is essentially money out of your pocket, plus the thrill that maybe someone behind you is checking our your shumpping skills - it's something that just can't be replicated on the consoles, when no one's around and continuing is as easy as hitting the Start button. What motivation is there to play it "properly"?

Most publishers realized this a long time ago and started adding additional content to their home ports, particularly fighting games. Treasure games have done it right, by essentially making the Saturn mode of Radiant Silvergun a shooter/RPG hybrid, and limiting continues in Ikaruga until you've spent enough time with it. Even Mars Matrix added a store which added significant longevity. Two of these three games also gave a reason to aim for high score beyond just pride - quicker advancement in Radiant Silvergun, and extra money for the shop in Mars Matrix. These are all great ideas! It prevents an arcade-style game from seeming disposal, and puts some kind of worth into paying attention to scoring mechanics, which are usually explained quite poorly, if at all, making them seem shallower than they really are. Stuff like this will always, always hurt the game in question.

To their credit, most of Cave's home ports have had some kind Arrange mode, but these are often more difficult than the standard mode - they're not making it more accessible, and it's more like preaching to the choir. They do this because they have a large enough audience to sustain these kind of tactics. This is also the same audience that will routinely plunk down quadruple digits worth of moola to buy PCBs for play on their Superguns, and tend to write 10,000 word philosophical ponderances on the purity of scanlines.

Well...that's OK, I guess, if it makes Cave money, but they've also alienated a good portion of the rest of the shooter fan base - the kind of guys that grew up more on Gradius, Parodius and R-Type, all games that were also born in the arcade, but were also perfectly suitable for home play. Realizing the potential for diminishing returns, Cave took the easy route by pandering to the otaku audience, which is how you get shooters based off of gothic lolitas and fat chicks. This in also the kind of stuff that only flies in Japan, making nearly impossible to export. You can try to sell Raiden in the US without much hassle, but it's way more trouble trying passing off the fetishy boobage of, say, Pink Sweets. (It's not impossible, at least - it's no worse than Ar Tonelico, but outside of the aesthetic, they're completely different audiences.)

Still, I think the shrinkage of the console gaming audience in Japan has forced Cave to look West, which is why Mushihime-sama Futari is region free, even if it may not see domestic release. And they're at least trying a lot more than they used to, wherein in the past they've just contracted their games out to other developers with varying results. The Xbox Live Leaderboards go a way towards contextualizing high scores, making that aspect a bit more attractive, as do Achievements. From what I'm hearing, there are also more interesting modes to check out, which should also help expand its appeal. I'm hoping that's the case, at least. I haven't minded the rather bloated costs of the console Cave games in the past, because they've all appreciated in value. I have no idea how much the PS2 Ibara costs now, but it's way more than retail. At least, maybe it'll give the game some more lasting appeal before it gets shelved like all of the others.


  1. The appeal of the manic shmup genre is the fact it is so damn difficult; but for me it is the oldschool feel of the gameplay. I am not a hardcore Cave fan; but I do like the games they produce. They are fun for awhile, then I can usually resell them and make back what I paid or more. I honestly wish Deathsmiles would have been the title they made region free. Deathsmiles has some the best spritework on the 360 and the soundtrack is phenomenal. Deathsmiles' gothic lolita styling could have garnered some big bucks from Western Otaku. As it stands, it is the only Cave game I refuse to sell and that means alot coming from a guy who isn't a score junkie.

  2. I've never played a Cave shmup, and the ridiculous fervor their games inspires makes me reluctant to. I'd rather stick with the more unloved developers who make just as good a product, IMO.

    The fact that their games sell for $texas also dims my enthusiasm.

    No shmup in the world is worth $80, no matter how short a skirt you throw on your fan service marketing tactic.

  3. It's actually well worth booting up MAME to check out Dodonpachi, ESP Ra De and Guwange (some would say Dangun Feveron, too.) Despite my gripes, and the fact that the subgenre is practically all of what's left of the Shmup, they are fascinating to watch in motion.

  4. Cave is a strange thing to talk about. Their whole existence has been to pander to a very specific audience of a sub-genre and the only split-off to really stick as a successor to Toaplan (8ing bailed on shmups, Gazelle died, Takumi faded away apparently). For a company so "specialized" as Cave I'd guess it'll be pretty hard to move into a console mindset without ruining the experience it provided in the first place.

    If Cave wants to take a stab at the west they should use Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu to do it as it has alot of aspects for making novice play easier without really toning down advanced play, and also when most westerners think of Cave I tend to hear Dodonpachi tossed around so there's that to build on. Also the only "Japanese-ish" thing that really sticks out is the schoolgirl Rayman bosses. Hopefully if they do manage any success in the west, they don't fall into the "pander to the west and alienate both audiences" trap like many Japanese companies seem to be falling into.

    Ugh look at these words on the Internet it looks like I just jumbled thoughts together... oh well.

  5. the article makes me cry manly tears of manliness, In the last couple years I really picked up on the shmup genre more than I used to, I grew up on gradius (i guess it was nemesis though) and r-type on the gameboy, and I always had a softspot for them in me since then sometime in highschool I got introduced to the touhou shooters which I enjoyed all aspects of quite a bit till recently, I actually havnt played (somewhat regretfully) a touhou shmup since mountain of faith, mostly due to time but also alot because frankly I suck at them and think it is horribly wrong to have to spend the time playing the same parts repeatedly till you memorize them, I dont play games because i wanna spend X amount of time memorizing every bullet location, and well the touhou fan community of music and doujinshi let me get the experience of the games without having to go through them.

    So I am extremely happy that for once theres someone that shares the opinion I have that difficulty dosn't make the game, things need to be a challenge but a line divides the two most people seem not to see. Recently I decided on a whim to do a quick round up and all at once bought gradius galaxies, gradius 5, gradius collection, salamander portable, and parodius portable. I have by far spent more time playing parodius portable than the others by several orders of magnitude, its just funner and not as brutal, I cant think of how many times i have beaten Jikkyo Oshaberi parodius its fun and it has alotta content. I also have Ikaruga on the 360 and I love ikaruga like I love most shmups as display things because playing them is less a game and more a chore, and well atleast you can earn more credits but the huge amount of time makes it pretty much not worth it

    well I guess im a whore for things that look good and now that i know mushihime-futari is region free im sure ill be picking it up which may be hypocritical to my hatred of the massive difficulty curve but i love shmups so much i cant help it its like being addicted to heroin ;_;

  6. You almost have an argument going with your discussion of Radiant Silvergun and Mars Matrix's home version enhancements, and then you go and talk about completely different, very much "fuck you"-hard shmups for your thesis statement. Bad idea.

    Gradius is probably the worst possible example you could've picked for your ultimate statement about shmups "suitable for home play." In every single Gradius (and Parodius, for that matter), if you die, you might as well just restart the game, as the balance of each stage assumes you've got a full stock of ship upgrades from the previous ones. That seems like the opposite of what you want in a shmup.

  7. Not...necessarily. Certain games are worse than others - the arcade version of Gradius II in particular - but outside of one instance with that, I've never gotten myself stuck with that. Sure, it's frustrating and difficult, but at least they give you unlimited chances to get it right, and it's definitely possible to take down any boss with the few power-ups you're given. It takes some tenacity, but it's focused tenacity - you have a very strict goal to defeat under very strict conditions, and I always found digging yourself out of the hole you dug for yourself to be kinda fun.

    Cave shooters throw so much stuff at you - and then keeps on chugging - that it's hard to really learn from much of anything unless you've played the level extensively. Personally I think checkpoint based shooters work better on consoles and insta-respawn games work better in the arcades.

    It's a common complaint with the series, but Gradius Gaiden let you rearrange the power-ups, almost completely sidestepping this. Gradius II for the PC Engine restarted you at the beginning of each stage per continue, allowing you to power up again. Gradius Rebirth had a lower difficulty level that gave you many more orbs upon respawn. Usually the ones made for the consoles are better balanced than the arcade versions, which is part of my point.

  8. why would you want to use continues in a shooting game like this? removing the challenge removes the fun. the same goes for any genre of arcade port, really. fighting games, beat em ups, shooting games, puzzle games. if you use continues you're just turning them into timewasters, rather than actual, fun games.
    and would you really want a shooter that lasted more than 20-40 minutes? you'd pass out before you ever reached the end!

  9. That's my point. Credit feeding is no fun, but many arcade games aren't balanced well enough to make 1 cc'ing them enjoyable for anyone outside of the most hardcore gamers. That sort of design works in the arcades, when you're not expected that you'll actually spend enough time/money to see it through the end, but doesn't translate well to consoles. A good home port should do something to extend its value.

  10. Raiden IV has an okay system to deal with this in which it unlocks more credits for each stage you defeat the boss in, I believe Ikaruga does the same. I think Cave should try this, maybe for Espgaluda 2's port.

  11. I freely admit that SHMUPs like this have limited value, but that's OK because my ADD just needs something to kill a few minutes. I have neither the attention span or the time (the adult working world SUCKS) to play RPGs, games like this are up my alley.

  12. Turns out Cave hired M2 to port this btw.

  13. "That's my point. Credit feeding is no fun, but many arcade games aren't balanced well enough to make 1 cc'ing them enjoyable for anyone outside of the most hardcore gamers."

    So some games are just too hardcore for Hardcore Gaming 101, eh?

    When you receive Futari sit down and play nothing but score attack. Since you're apparently unwilling or unable to play these games on their own terms score attack is the mode that may teach you the appeal of one credit, score-focused shooting, since it does not allow continues and is the only mode that allows you to post your score online. If you keep with it you will notice your skills improve drastically, and you will probably make faster progress than you ever expected. Faster progress than you ever would have made by credit feeding, or playing the game checkpoint style. Before long you'll probably come to regret slamming the games for their lack of "balance", because as your skill improves (and it will) you'll realize that one credit clearing the game is totally doable as long are you're willing to put in the effort, which, again, isn't as much effort as you think. And you'll probably realize that playing and excelling at arcade games on one credit is more rewarding and exciting than playing single player games with lower stakes.

    Or you'll give up right away and go back to slamming the games for not being like old 2D checkpoint shooters. Which, as was previously stated, may as well be one-life shooters since you're pretty screwed if you die deep into the game. I have no clue how anyone can praise a game as rigid and reliant on pattern memorization as R-type yet slam Cave games for being too difficult. I like R-Type, but as far as I'm concerned it's a far more draining and punishing game than most Cave shooters. And I'm OK with that, since it's still enjoyable and I'm not expecting to be able to beat every game I come across.

  14. Nice read, and also some valid points.
    I feel even more isolated now, thanks.

  15. If you need an explanation as to what the motivation to play properly is, I'd say maybe you just don't like shooting games. The motivation is to get better. Just like all arcade games, the draw is the challenge and the competition with other players. In fighting games it's a direct competition between two players and with shooters it's indirect via a scoreboard. Fighting games become disposable experiences too if you ignore the mechanics that differentiate them.

    As for Cave's games throwing so much stuff at you... Cave's games, with a few exceptions, are on the whole not much, if any, harder than an R Type or a Gradius. They just require a different skill set than those old games do, a skill set that it sounds like you are just unwilling to develop.

  16. You pretty much just answered your own criticism though - it's an arcade game. I'm saying that removed from that environment, the incentive really isn't there, and that there ARE things they could be doing to add it, but (at least previously) haven't been.

    I don't think the fighter comparison really works, because there's a world of difference between direct and indirect competition. I will draw a comparison to R-Type/Gradius in that there's immediate feedback to what you're doing, which makes it easier to learn. You can also still somewhat replicate the arcade experience by having friends over or playing online. Even then, there's tons of single player modes (in the good packages, anyway) to muck around with. I'm not big on them personally, but added value is never a bad thing because they accomodate different types of playing styles. The sort of exclusivity of "play it this way or no way" is the root of what I'm criticizing.

  17. I don't believe Cave games are in the vein of "this way or no way." You can play DDP for survival or you can play for score -- likewise with the rest of Cave's titles. If you transfer from surviving a level to racking up a decent score, more often than not, you hit a brick wall; generally, striving for a top score involves using a different mind and skill set.

    There's just as much incentive to play for score/a 1CC completion as there is any other incentive in any other game. The difference is that the incentive is more or less hidden -- it's self-imposed. I'd say most shmups were made with a 1CC in mind (that, or wanting to take your money after stage one :) ). But you can credit feed through Gradius and R-Type just as you can in any shooter. Ultimately, comparing Cave shooters to Konami, Takumi, Irem and other companies' shooters doesn't really work. Do you prefer Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy? In the end, it's just preference. But you can't slight a company simply because of a gimmick, aesthetic or mechanic because there are plenty of other options. This is coming down to pro- or anti-bullet hell.

    Your argument against Cave could apply to any shmup that was given a console port, in my opinion. I'm not a PCB-sniffer. I play stuff on MAME and I'm glad I can. I grew up on R-Type, Gradius, et al and I get the same kick from Guwange that I do from Gradius V.

  18. You've just proven my point though - either you're a 1ccer/score player (their way) or you're not.

    You can't credit feed through Gradius or R-Type the way you can credit feed through a Cave game. They force some level of skill to require you to progress. Cave games are like, yeah, sure, do what you want.

    You're right that it comes down to self-imposed goals, but that's my problem - you shouldn't have to, and I think that's lazy game design. To reiterate, that's understandable in the competitive environment of the arcade scene, but it's nigh meaningless in a console setting unless you're an obsessive compulsive. Give me some rewards for performing well, game! Give me some indication that spending hours upon hours with you will be a worthwhile investment of my time! Train me! Tell me how you want me to play you so I can learn you play you better!

    Dismissing the criticisms as "well, just don't play it" is totally missing the point. I obviously find some things about them very attractive, but the inability to put it inside of any meaningful framework is what bothers me, and I'm sure bothers lots of other people to.

  19. The same incentives exist at home as they do in the arcade, you simply choose to ignore them. All the recent console ports have achievements and online score boards. Downloadable replays can help you understand the game system and if you need clarification on something, the Shmups forum has strategy threads and tons of information if you ever need help with a game. It's not that hard to not press continue and it doesn't take that much time to see improvements in your play and your score. The problem here is that you dismiss the incentives as something only for people who are obsessive compulsive, which just comes off as an ad hominem attack to deflect criticism, especially when you don't have to be an obsessive compulsive to enjoy the game for what it is.

  20. There's a pretty solid difference between "ignoring" and "not liking" but if you want to keep confusing them that's okay by me.

  21. ...which it seems you refuse to differentiate between when you say things like "the incentive really isn't there."

  22. Because it isn't? I've already established (more than once) that I don't care about playing for score, and 1 cc'ing a game is a little bit too high a barrier for entry. I can't even 1 cc the games I DO really like. But hey, those games don't have such high demands either.

    I realize the "you don't get it" offense is pretty common in shmup-dom, but really, grow up a bit. I'm not new to this.

  23. You just acknowledged that the incentives are there, you just don't like them. The incentives haven't changed in transitioning from the arcade to home, they're the same. If you don't like to play for score, that's fine, but don't try to argue that the game somehow changes from the arcade to home or that there aren't incentives to get better or to play "properly" on a console release.

  24. If I don't like them, then they aren't there for me. If they don't work me they aren't incentives. How do this become such a mind boggling plummet into the depths of semantics?

  25. There being no incentives for you is not the same thing as there being no incentives for everybody. I see a lot of blanket statements applied here that simply boil down to "I don't like it, so therefore it has no value." Personally, I hate MMORPGs. They represent about a good 50% of what I despise about modern gaming( non-games marketed as games being the other 50% ). I have no "incentive" to play them, but that does not mean that the audience the games are intended for can not derive value from their experience. You are stating preference as if it were immutable law.

  26. I think your desire to collect games has overwhelmed you. By now you know full well what is in store for you when you buy a Cave game. But regardless of that fact that you do not like nor understand manic shooters you buy Mushihimesama Futari?
    You are defending your post saying that you aren't saying the game has no incentive, it only has no incentive for you. But you didn't title this post "My problem with Cave"... you titled it "The Trouble with Cave." The thing is, the audience these games are marketed to have plenty of incentive to play them and wouldn't change a thing. I can sit and play Espgaluda for an hour straight just trying to get better at the first few stages and it is extremely rewarding.
    I just don't understand why you would go out and buy this game knowing you basically have zero interest in learning to appreciate this genre.

  27. 1ccing is about as meaningless as credit feeding because by the time you get to the point in which you can 1cc a shmup, the challenge ceases to exist. I've done it myself, and there really is no risk once you've memorized everything perfectly.

    1. Not really. If a shmup is well designed, it should have enough of a random element and enough tightness to guarantee you always have to react and play well. There are plenty of shooters where I've 1'cc'd or even no missed, that are still extremely challenging and exciting for me.

  28. Honestly, this whole article comes off as the result of someone who is trying to pass off a very subjective matter of resonance with an actual objective flaw.

    "Unless you're the type of gamer who plays games either for score, or to single credit them, then they all become fairly disposable experiences that last for maybe 20 minutes before you've seen everything they have to offer. Any time anyone makes a comment criticizing this, shooter fans go all apeshit about how they "don't get it", but really, it's quite a valid issue. "

    Have you ever perhaps considered that neither of you are truly "right"? Really, it's a subjective issue. Either you love the hell out of this style of gameplay, or you don't. There's nothing "wrong" with liking or disliking it. If it's not your style, than it's not your style, but that doesn't mean it's an "issue" with the game. Furthermore, I firmly believe that if one simply doesn't like something for subjective issues, one should at least try to respect it and it's fans.

    I am not exactly a "hardcore" shooter fan. I've played them since I was a kid, and have a great familiarity with and love for all the classic franchises (Gradius, Darius R-Type, Einhander etc. etc. I could go on), but I also have a deep appreciation for more modern bullet hell experiences. I try to be a good player, generally playing for the 1cc or for high scores, but I'm not super invested in scores and generally don't mind just playing the games for fun. I'm also among those who don't consider difficulty to be what determines how fun a shmup is, I enjoy easier shmups like Gradius III and Axelay just as much as their harder brethren.

    Recently, not content with just emulating Ketsui and the original Dodonpachi, I ordered an entire xbox 360 just so I could import Esp Galuda II, Eschatos, and Mushihime-sama. And let me tell you, for a "twenty minute game" I have never felt a 300 dollar purchase was so justified. I don't even really care about getting high on the leader boards (in fact, I haven't even so much as checked them), but these games are just so fun, exciting, and addictive to me that I have enjoyed hours upon hours of playing them, way more than 20 minutes. And with their excellent design, I feel that it will still be fun to revisit these games for years and years to come.

    Do I fault you for not having the same experience? Certainly not. The above is just me after all. What I might fault this article on, is attempting to pass off your own personal experience as a legitimate flaw with Cave's gameplay style. You pass off Radiant Silvergun and Treasures as an example of what modern shooters should be, and while those games are certainly good, not all players enjoy them. Everyone has their own tastes, and by insinuating that there's something legitimately wrong with Cave's style of gameplay, this article comes off as elitist as it simultaneously tries to argue that Cave and its fans are elitist.