360 review: Dodonpachi Saidaioujou

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In a rare move for developer Cave, Dodonpachi Saidaioujou1 moves not toward increased complexity but pared-back simplicity, a straightforward bravado borne of its status as the original innovator, the series that started this whole bullet hell business.

This is bullet hell in its purest form, a glowing neon blur of explosions and flak, skillchains climbing into the thousands, zen focus terminating in split-second panic bombs. Patterns are stripped down, basic, predictable even, but they move with unrelenting speed. If this isn’t Cave’s hardest game, then it’s damned close to it.

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Sheer difficulty isn’t Saidaioujou’s prime attraction. Truth be told, it’s maybe something that will slowly wean me off the game, as time goes on and I still can’t beat the third midboss without bombing like a maniac.

But Saidaioujou is a damned fine game, one that addresses core problems with the series while keeping its character intact. The Dodonpachi series is (in)famous for its strict chaining system, which offers players very little leeway if they want to score high. Essentially, if you want to earn points, you have to do exactly what the game tells you to do, potentially turning the game into a real-time puzzler instead of the thrill ride it’s meant to be.

They’re legitimate gripes, but Dodonpachi’s scoring has always been completely natural. No matter what, players would be using rapid fire to take out smaller enemies and heavy laser to take out hulking warships, and all as quickly as possible. The series rarely makes players jump through arbitrary hoops, rather, it just asks them to do perfectly the things they’d be doing anyways.

What Saidaioujou brings to the table, then, is more leniency. Previous games were incredibly strict, ending your chain completely if you lacked pixel-perfect precision, but Saidaioujou is content to let it drop in smaller chunks. Players are given incentive to strive for mastery, but aren’t punished for learning the ropes.

The bullet patterns reflect this more lenient design. There’s a greater amount of simple spreads that work together to kill, rather than visually impressive patterned waves. Unlike earlier games, the patterns don’t feel set into place, just so. Playing Saidaioujou, you sense that you’re learning to play bullet hell in general, rather than one specific section of one specific level of one specific game.

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And the production is sublime. Above anything else, Cave has managed to turn high scoring into an art form, turning abstract numeration into visual spectacle. Saidaioujou shows scores onscreen, not as the number in the corner, but as endless gold stars cascading down from exploded enemies. Visuals come in waves, overstimulating, concussing, driving out consciousness and forcing zen mindlessness. You can lose yourself. It’s incredible.

And the scoring makes sense just from playing the game, revealing nuance more naturally than is typical for Cave’s output. When I say it’s relatively simple, I don’t mean there’s no depth – Saidaioujou holds its own against any game. But there’s a level of extreme opaqueness to many of Cave’s games that’s been stripped away here. Unlike the involved mode-switching of Akai Katana and Espgaluda 2, there’s nothing to pull players out of the immediate action, nothing that breaks concentration.

That accessibility means nothing if new players are constantly being beaten down, and Cave smartly addresses this with a wealth of new modes and options. Novice mode brings the difficulty level down a significant amount, while Novice Expert provides an in-between, with extra bullets that move much more slowly across the screen and bosses that aren’t total jerks. Novice Expert feels like the game Cave would have made if they continued in their modern style. It’s a great counterpoint to the game’s arcade mode.

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But there’s also 360 mode, which rearranges the game in a much larger way, remixing the mechanics and making the game more accessible to new players. Cave has added a rechargeable health bar, giving players the ability to take a few hits and recover from dire situations. It’s something that doesn’t seem to gel with the genre, and yet it works wonderfully. Skilled players live dangerously, skirting death to earn massive chains, while newer players can stay safe to maintain a full health bar. 360 mode plays great, even with its garish glowing interface.

To top things off, the game’s soundtrack is incredible, the perfect sort of pulsing trance2 for driving players through impossible enemy waves. Outwardly hopeful but retaining a hard tech edge, it occasionally eases back but never loses intensity. Unfortunately, the mix feels a bit washed out. The hazy sound gives tracks a live-venue vibe, but they could definitely be cleaner. 360 mode’s remixes aren’t quite as strong as the originals, either. They’re hard to live up to.

But Dodonpachi Saidaioujou definitely lives up to its legacy. It hits every mark of a great bullet hell, featuring accessible and deep scoring, a wealth of options and modes, and perfectly refined core mechanics. Cave has really pushed the limit with their 360 output, and I was skeptical whether they could get me excited for another shooter. Saidaioujou does so by being the purest one they’ve released in years. A gold star for Cave, then.

1 Dodonpachi Saidaioujou is an import title, but will play on any region 360.
2 Bearing in mind that I don’t know my electronic genres ;O
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