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lunar_vagrant
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In which two schools of shooter thought collide making a whole new game in the process.



ESPGaluda
Developer: Cave
Publisher: Arika
Platform: PS2
Year of Release: 2004



Though scoring mechanisms have today become an archetypal component of the modern shooter, this was not always the case. In the genre's earlier days, power-ups and weapons the player could utilize were about the extent of the gameplay mechanics, and they were more of a tool for survival than scoring. In those days, beating the game came first, scoring came second. And the scoring system itself was about as simple as it gets. In fact, even calling it a “system” in the first place is clearly hyperbolic. You shoot enemies to score points, the longer you live, the more points you can score. All you have to do is NOT DIE.

There was no "system." The goal in high-scoring wasn’t to exploit the nuances of a scoring gimmick but to keep going as long as possible on a single credit. This in itself was a challenge depending on the game. Ultimately, however, scoring took a backseat to the primary objective: to complete the game. In those days, scoring came second. Shooters of the day and age were made to be beaten, pure and simple.

Let's look at say, R-Type. Regardless of your score, merely completion of the game would be an accomplishment in of itself. Beating the final boss gave the player a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction far before the concept of scoring even became an issue. After that, the player could take it a step further and try to top his or her old high score. Let’s compare that to say, Ikaruga. If you beat the game, so what? I recieved little, if any, feelings of accomplishment when I completed Ikaruga. From the get go, each and every wave of enemies that comes your way practically shoves in your face the fact that if you aren’t gunning for that perfect chain, it doesn’t matter how few times you died.

With the advent of the scoring system which is today a hallmark of the modern shooter, the genre itself changed significantly: for the first time, there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to be playing the game. Often, many modern shooters implement a scoring system so arbitrary that it cripples any attempts the player may have of playing the game in his/her own style. If you’re not playing according to the rules established by the scoring system, your score is going to suck.

So naturally, during my first play-through of ESPGaluda, the first question I had was “How am I supposed to be playing this game?”

I think I have the answer now, but we’ll get back to that later.

Cave games are especially notorious for not giving the player a lot of levity with the score systems implemented in their games. You're going to play it the way Cave wants you to play it, and like it. Needless to say, I was initially very wary of this as I first played through ESPGaluda. Cave are also notorious for being the company that is most often associated with the “manic shmup:” a take on the genre where more bullets than you can count are hurled at the player at insane speeds. ESPGaluda continues in this tradition: the action is fast and frenzied, hundreds of bullets fill the screen, and the player scrables to avoid them while wreaking as much havoc as the situation will allow.

Aesthetically, ESPGaluda is breathtaking. The general scenery/enemy design has a very “steampunk” feel to it: Victorian era propeller ships, soldiers with wings on their back, giant, steam powered warships and cannons all accent the look the game strives to achieve. A lot of the enemies in ESPGaluda are not sprites but pre-rendered images, which meld in with the game seamlessly and fluidly. The most poignant quality of the game, visually, is the bullet patterns. They twist, contort, and fold in on themselves like pastel mobius strips. The whole “2D bullet patterns that look 3D” thing has never before looked nearly as convincing or as well done as it does in ESPGaluda. There is very little, if any, slowdown in the game. Everything works as it should. However, the game truly shines musically. There is a stark emotional quality to the music which is made evident the moment you start the game, as the opening synth line erupts at the same moment that your character lays waste to a squad of soldiers, each one disintegrating into blood as he takes off into the fray at high speeds. The music only gets more tense and there seems to be a central recurring theme or motif to it which is repeated during later parts of the game. Moreover, enemy waves appear to move in sync with the music at times, an effect which truly makes auido in the game memorable.

Instead of ships, your fighters in ESPGaluda are flying kids with psychic powers, both of which have different attributes. The first, Ageha, has a strong shot that only fires forward. The second, Tateha, has a wider shot that isn't as powerful as Ageha's, but covers more area. Tapping the button fires the normal shot, holding it down fires the laser. The laser is more powerful than the shot, but your character moves at about half-speed. This is typical Cave fare, and has been the general basis for their games since like, ever. Instead of traditional bombs, there is a meter known as the guard shield. As you hold down the bomb button a field of energy expands around your fighter, which absorbs enemy bullets. When released, a powerful forward shot is fired which obliterates all in your path.

The heart of the gameplay revolves around your manipulation of going into “Awakened” mode with the press of a button. Each character has a different persona that exists within them that they switch over to when the respective button is pressed. Interestingly enough, each one is the opposite gender of whatever the character normally is. Is it too much to hope that Cave had Carl Jung's idea of the Anima and Animus in mind when they designed this game?

Probably not. It'd be nice, though. Yet nevertheless, there is a very pluaralistic nature to this game.

While in this form, your shot and laser are much more powerful. Additionally, if hit while in Awakened mode, your character will bomb automatically (assuming you still have the required energy for it) thus saving you from taking a hit and losing a life. The most important feature of the Awakened mode is that it reduces the speed of enemy bullets greatly, a necessity for difficult situations. While in Awakened mode, bullets turn purple and move at about half speed. There is a catch, however, to being in this mode: in order to power it you are required to collect Green Crystals, which are acquired by defeating enemies while in normal mode (more on this later). Just entering Awakened mode causes your crystals to dwindle, and the amount you have remaining drops sharply every time you destroy an enemy. If you run out of green crystals, you can still enter Awakened mode and all its abilities are still available. However, instead of slowing down the speed of enemy bullets, they turn bright red and now move twice as fast as they normally do. This is called double-time mode, but even this has its advantages.

Each time an enemy is destroyed, it drops an item depending on what mode you are currently in. In normal mode, enemies leave behind green crystals which are used to increase the amount of time you can remain in Awakened mode. While you are actually in Awakened mode, enemies leave behind golden tablets which serve a number of different functions: they serve as a score multiplier for how many points enemies are worth, the number of which increases depending on how many bullets are on the screen at one time. If you destroy an enemy while several bullets are on the screen, the bullets turn into Gold Crystals which automatically send themselves to the player and increase your multiplier.

The biggest payoff this system offers is double-time mode. If you go go into this mode when you have no green crystals, your score starts rapidly increasing automatically depending on how many of these golden tablets you have acquired. The more you have, the faster the rate at which your score can skyrocket. Adversely, during boss fights, your number of golden tablets slowly diminishes automatically. At first, I wondered if I was doing something wrong during the fight which was causing it to dwindle, but this device exists instead to urge the player along and defeat the boss in a timely manner.

The game messes with you, in subtle ways. It knows all the misconceptions and premonitions you will have coming into it. It knows that you want to be playing it the "right" way and as such challenges you in ways a shooter has never challenged you before. This game is for all purposes, about you. It is about the player’s decision in how he or she will interact with the world that is provided in front of him under given circumstances. There is no right way to play this game. No one is going to hold you by the hand and tell you what to do in a given scenario. You have to decide.

There is naturally going to be an initial period of frustration. At first, this system is going to seem daunting, obtrusive, clumsy, perhaps even arbitrary or constricting. In reality, there are few games in the genre that give you nearly as much levity.

There is a clear dichotomy between the effects of the actions that the player takes, maintaining a balance. There are pros and cons to staying in either mode, which at first I had found to be confusing. I was unsure which mode was the “right” one. The truth is that the modes of play are tools that the player can use at his or her discretion. A novice player might use the Awakened mode solely to slow down the bullets during tough situations. A more advanced player might eventually begin to see ways in which to milk this system for highest possible score output. Truly skilled players can just play the game in double time mode for maximum score output. Because of the ability to essentially adjust the difficulty on the fly, you are as involved in this game as you decide to be. No one is going to tell you which way to play, and therein lies the beauty of the game.

I was at a loss initially. I had no clue how to approach this game. It was almost like it didn’t want me to touch it. But then I realized.

I can play this game however I want to, but I have to be the one that decides how.

I’d been wondering how to play this game for so long that I hadn’t really even been playing it. Once I realized this, it all made sense.

And my god, it’s beautiful.

The scoring and gameplay mechanics are one in the same. Instead of two separate entities, they both further the same goal. Awakened mode is both a tool for high scoring and a tool to help you with tough situations. And here’s the best part: the player has the final say in which one it should be. Both high-scoring and reaching the end can be the focal point of the same playthrough, if you so desire. Or, it can be used to allow the player to challenge himself as he or she sees fit.

The game does not alienate the player nor does it embrace it. It stands an equal distance and leaves the player to come to it. You have to decide how to involve yourself with this game. Two schools of shooter thought collide to dazzling effect in which playing for score or survival is entirely up to the player. ESPGaluda is Cave’s finest offering. It toys with the player initially yet makes up for it by giving him liberty to play the game as he or she chooses. But be prepared to think. No one will hold you by the hand in this game. No one is going to tell you how to play it. Experiment. Learn. Change. Adapt. Isn't this why we live?

Bottom Line:

The Game: Rendered sprites look amazing, the scenery and music fully accent the overall image the game is attempting to create. Control is flawless, everything that is supposed to work, does. Collision detection is more than fair: if you die, it's your own fault.

The Experience: Initially confusing as the player struggles to grip with the concepts that the game lays out before them. As the game unfolds the player comes to realize that no one will hold his or her hand and in doing so begins to explore for themselves. Encourages, not alienates. You are as much or as little as involved with this game as you decide to be. It leaves you to your own devices. We need more shooters that encourage this way of thinking. Ultimately, Cave's finest offering yet and the best shooter I played in 2004.
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