[ Writer ] = Eight Rooks
[ 03/17/03 ] = Guwange

For those supposedly forgotten genres lacking populist appeal nothing less will do, to satiate their long-time fans, than constant pushing of the envelope. Devotees of the shooter, veterans of countless classic titles across more formats than the PlayStation generation ever dreamt existed demand their skills be tested to the limit. Japanese devco Cave are credited by many with inventing the "manic shooter" in 1996's DonPachi and its sequels; a distillation of the genre where the player spends forever in "the zone". Tiny, almost unconscious course corrections keep one's on-screen avatar darting constantly between bullets spewing across the level by the hundreds.

Guwange is little different. Enemies march out of hiding, gunfire drifting in baffling patterns towards the base of the screen; the casual player watches in horror as shots blanket every avenue of escape and he/she dies, over and over again; yet persist, concentrate, slip under the surface and the depth, the joy of sitting right with the ambience and the play mechanics is simply staggering. Three characters must navigate a feudal Japan swarming with fantastical enemies - demons, armies of
foot-soldiers, war machines; Button A fires, the shot growing in power (and size) when the correct pickups deposited by fallen enemies are collected. Button B triggers the ubiquitous bomb, a jet of markedly more powerful fire that can be left to fire straight forward while moving or waved around on the spot.






Guwange's gimmick, however, is the making of it. Each character has a sidekick of sorts, an ever-watchful guardian demon and holding down the fire button deploys it. Pushing the stick with the button held down moves the sidekick, slowing the player to a crawl, still able to dodge an incoming barrage and move around obstacles yet more concerned with "painting" enemies with the guardian. Further complexity means when it passes over enemy shots, they grind to a halt, if briefly. This touch of The Matrix is a rare epiphany, when you realize you can't pass unscathed through that hail of fire; easier to stop a handful of them in their tracks for a moment, slipping through the gap left behind. Add to this the possibilities for score attack and you suddenly begin to wonder where the time went.

Though enemies drop tokens when killed, judiciously powering up the guardian (through killing something with it) and then painting any frozen bullets with it turns them into still more coins, pushing your points even higher. Inventive or not, it is still prohibitively difficult, but not as intimidating to the newcomer as a Mars Matrix or a Giga Wing 2.

Cave's hardware is showing its age, yet Guwange is still rich with their customary extraordinary detail. This is bitmapped art at its finest, the character selection screen, intermissions and brief frames of story startlingly beautiful, sprites and backgrounds brought to life with pleasing touches that prove a constant source of delight. Voices and effects are crisp and clear, the music cleverly subdued - even those pieces that disappoint (and at least one of the level themes is simply marvelous). Though you wonder how much further the formula can still be refined, this is unquestionably the shooter near the peak of its powers.
Atmospheric, euphoric, frustrating yet endlessly rewarding - even when you, too find yourself thinking how easy it's become, impatient for the next thing to make you throw your hands up in despair.