The Quest for a Japanese Xbox 360 Part 1 – Shmups Are Fun!

I am on a quest to obtain a Japanese 360. Seriously.

What brought about this particular state of affairs? As you might know, I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the better part of a few months. In playing, I somehow accrued the maximum number of lives, and enough banana coins to spare in making sure it stays that way at any one time. I figured that, about halfway through the game, the difficulty would ramp up eventually, but no such luck. Nintendo does design games for a variety of audiences, and at this point in time they did not hit my craving for challenging games quite right. That said, Tropical Freeze still totally deserves your time!

Anyway, to return to the foolish quest of hubris and silly first-world problems, I’ve long wanted to snap up a Japanese 360 due to my love for CAVE. CAVE Interactive, Co., Ltd (Japanese software companies always name their companies like that for whatever reason with a billion surnames) made some of the best arcade shooters. Some call them “shmups” to differentiate them from the first person and third person varieties, but that sounds like a particularly nasty sneeze for than a genre name. It’s difficult to understand, from an outsider’s perspective, what makes them great. I mean, take a look at this:

dodonpachi hibachi

That looks crazy in a still, but just take a look at some video:

Insane, right? But that’s part and parcel of the danmaku (or bullet hell, or…you know what, too many) subgenre of the arcade shooter. What you see here constitutes dozens of hours of work, from intense memorization, mastery of the game’s systems, pinpoint reflexes and, most of all, consistency. The best in the business seemingly knows a lot about the fundamentals of game design, to the point where the shooter genre almost shows a purity of mechanics over all other elements. The fantastic 2D pixel art’s nothing to snuff at, nor the diverse musical arrangement either! So, where do you get this stuff in the West!?

You don’t. Arcades are dead, and Western tastes simply “moved on” from challenges in this particular vein. People sure do like beating their head against the wall on Super Meat Boy stages, but force them to complete a DoDonPachi game? Guess not! Such ideas seem reserved for YouTube videos where a bevy of comments say “this is impossible”…but it’s not! You just have to earn it. And that’s what makes arcade games fundamentally interesting. You must preserve your life, or lose your money; almost all such games are meant to be cleared on one credit (the “1CC”) for precisely that reason, and it’s obvious the games were designed with that tradition in mind. I don’t claim to be any good at them. In fact, I’d say I am pretty terrible! I can probably get past the first two stages of any game; beyond that point, climbing the mountain requires perseverance. I think, though, that the intangible rewards of besting a seemingly impossible feat outweigh all the trials to get there. In other words, I guess I’ll sleep when I’m dead…or maybe not, as the case will be! I do believe in the general spirit of that colloquialism, though; I’ve only got so much time, and if I’m going to play anything it better be something that’s worth playing and mastering.

10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is noactivity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9

That, I think, shows a very different mindset compared to our Western gaming landscape. We like stories and narratives; we like competitive games, but only of a certain type (fighting games, unfortunately, seem like a distant cousin to other competitive genres like MOBAs and FPS). We sure as heck don’t understand arcades, as we’d rather speedrun games via glitches and tool-assisted speedruns. I don’t see any of this as a bad thing, necessarily, but to criticize Japanese games from that perspective seems the slightest bit judgmental (REALLY?!). There’s still a place for these games, and Steam actually demonstrates this via the continual release of some excellent shooters from various doujin outfits. That includes Crimzon Clover, which somehow became a minor hit in spite of its lowly origins.

crimzon clover

Similar, but different. Also totally worth the asking price, since it has some modes to ease you into the curtain of madness. If you have any reservations, though, watch this.

Even so, these games still aren’t Cave (who, thankfully, decided they might want all the money I will throw at my screen circa Steam release dates). I originally purchased a Japanese PS2 precisely for the purpose of playing Daioujou, Espgaluda, Mushihimesama, and (somehow, due to some kind of miracle of Internet purchasing power) Ibara; unfortunately, my arcade stick’s actual joystick seemed to stop working at some point, and I am left a bit rudderless. MAME provides a possible solution, but you always deal with a lack of intentional slowdown and arcade accuracy, not to mention the sticky copyright issues involved in playing those (admittedly, you can’t even play Ibara or its Black Label/Kuro update without MAME at this point unless you own the arcade PCB). Since the aforementioned Steam release could occur far into the future, I figured now (when the Xbox 360 is dead or dying, natch) seems about right to pick up all these shooter gems from CAVE and other companies before the supply dries up.

Before you judge my decision, think about what’s on consoles right about now. Have you seen games like this on a next-gen console? Barring that, do you think you’ll ever see games like this, except on Steam? The licensing and publishing costs to end up on any of the Big Three platforms probably means you won’t see them appear on Xbox Marketplace or Playstation Network any time soon. It’s very likely you will never see such release there, precisely because there’s just not a big enough market to justify the cost. That makes me unbearably sad, and I feel like it’s my duty to buy and play these games (and also record them!) so that other people can feel the joy of weaving through dense bullet patterns and exceeding their own expectations.

So yes, my quest seems foolish, but wait until you see the fun part of figuring out how to buy old consoles from different regions!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.