There will always be a contingent of gamers that bemoans the movement of large studios towards large games. As perfectly polished as Super Mario Bros. seemed when it first came out, there was an intimacy to it. You could believe (until the end credits proved you wrong) that a couple of dudes sat down somewhere in Japan and produced this amazing experience just to give you hours of pleasure.
It was in that era, when relationships blossomed under the warm glow of a cathode-ray tube, that Konami first reached ubiquity as a top-level developer. Today, the trend is for sites to show you what your friends voted for in the hopes that you will like what they already "Liked." Back then, however, just seeing the Konami badge on a game meant much the same thing: it was shorthand for "You are probably going to want to play this for the next two days straight."
Why not spend your nights drooling on a piece of limited-edition Otomedius Excellent bedding?
But in the modern day, where it might take an entire team just to get a character’s face right, and where even a respectable Metacritic score can doom a game to an early bargain-bin burial with no chance for a sequel, that sense of intimacy is hard to find. Companies have a great financial incentive to tailor their releases to a safe demographic. But even as Konami continues to sit pretty with blockbusters, it continues to publish games like Otomedius Excellent. And for that, I am very thankful.
The Otomedius series is based on Gradius, one of my absolute favorite and most-played games on the NES. The classic setup of that game has persisted through decades of sequels and related titles - most notably the Parodius series, which coupled a side-scrolling space shooter with surreal visuals and zany music. You may be drawn in by the huge bosoms and high-pitched Japanese squeals of the protagonists, but the power-up system and even the attack formations of the first wave of enemies will let veteran players know undeniably that Otomedius Excellent is of a distinguished lineage.
The most striking difference here is that you are controlling one of nine adolescent girls, who just happen to have access to powerful starship parts. Fans of Deathsmiles and Trouble Witches Neo will be drawn to the art style, and I trust they will stay for the distinctive gameplay.
At its core, the Gradius series is all about building your offense. Whereas many "bullet hell" games place you in difficult situations and have you unleash a defensive move at the last moment (a reflective barrier, a screen-clearing bomb, or some kind of absorption field), in Otomedius Excellent, as in its predecessors, the greatest joy is tricking out your ship with the best tools.
To that end, vanquished enemies leave behind energy you can use to build your strategy. You can choose from speed boosts, missiles, lasers, photons, energy orbs called "options," and a damage-absorbing shield. Speed and options can be powered up through multiple levels, so you can be kind of fast with one option, blazing fast with four options, or anywhere in the middle. The options shoot similarly to your ship, and they take no damage, so it’s like having up to four ghost buddies with you that can be locked in formation or trail every movement of your ship.
Power-ups are tracked via a segmented panel. Picking up energy lights up the next segment and activating an upgrade uses up energy, sending you back to the beginning. So, for instance, the first power-up that becomes available is a speed boost. You can activate that right away, or choose to wait. Kill more enemies and the missile becomes available. The trick is to figure out what to pick and when.
Up to three people can participate simultaneously, in either online or local multiplayer. The game's heroes are designed by celebrated manga artist Mine Yoshizaki and represent various Konami franchises, including Castlevania and Twinbee. Konami promises at least one or two downloadable characters and other future content aimed at pleasing longtime fans as well as newcomers.
And speaking of fan service, launching simultaneously with the regular $29.99 release will be an Otomedius Excellent special edition that includes a series soundtrack, a sixty-four-page art book, and a double-sided pillowcase featuring the girls. If you don't get uncomfortable ogling the game's extensive gallery of unlockable art, well, why not spend your nights drooling on a piece of limited-edition bedding?
Niais Taylor, an assistant producer at Konami Digital Entertainment put it like this: "Deeply anchored with the roots of Gradius and Parodius, an import shooter has never been this challenging, this attractive, or this accessible, until now." The stages I played back up that assessment quite nicely, and I know what I'll be doing on July 19.