Accessibility. In many ways accessibility has always been THE single biggest driving force behind the video games industry. Those who don't abide by this principle are very much the exception.
Consoles like the Atari 2600 and the NES popularised gaming in the home by freeing it from the clutches of tech enthusiasts and offering a simple plug and play system anyone could install under the TV. Years later the Wii broke down even more barriers by tackling the problem of the alienating controller.
Such change has paved the way for colossal revenues and global success for many, but it came at a price – products unlikely to sell to large audiences were deemed as being no longer desirable. The result was that many genres that were once leaders of the field fell by the wayside, and there has been no bigger victim than the shmup.
But like all niche genres, the shmup (a portmanteau of the phrase ‘shoot ‘em up') never went away. It may no longer sit on shelves alongside triple-As like Call of Duty and FIFA but a dedicated fanbase has behind the scenes been fed by a steady supply of titles from a select core of companies, and indeed a very active fan development scene.
From a realistic point of view, if we can prove that the business model
works, we would love to do both more ports and entirely new games.
We are already working on porting another next title, and have a plan
to work on one more title, but haven't decided which one yet.
The title we're porting should be decided soon.”
Dai Ogura - Mushihimesama Producer, Cave
The birth of digital distribution, however, breathed new life into more specialist genres. Freed from the shackles of expensive physical publishing, smaller digital releases could prove profitable with compratively modest sales. The change was one that Cave tried to leap on.
After pursuing traditional publishing roots with mixed success on Xbox 360, the cult studio, founded in 1994, released a handful of titles on iOS (and, via a third party, Android). Many believed that shmups, which by their nature require absolutely pin-point precision, could never work on a touchscreen handheld. Cave proved them wrong. Releases such as Bug Princess 2 (the Western name for Mushihimesama Futari) are arguably the best versions available on any system.
But for shmup fans, purity is everything. And there's nothing as pure as sitting in front of a screen (vertically orientated, if possible) with a heavy-base joystick in your hand.
WELCOME TO BULLET-HELL
News of plans to publish some Cave titles on Steam first emerged in September and this Thursday (November 5th) will see the release of its first ever shmup on PC – a version of 2004 title Mushihimesama. The port might not deliver on every fan request (it lacks native 1080p support, for instance) but Cave says it has worked hard on ensuring that it's technically smooth. The V1.5 Arrange version of the game, which changes bullet and enemy patterns, is available as DLC while the main game will feature a range of difficulty levels as per the Xbox 360 release, so as to try and appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Cave's knowledge of overseas markets like Steam is limited, so we decided to look for a partner,” the port's producer Dai Ogura told MCV. We decided to ask Degica because they already had experience in publishing shooting games on Steam.
We chose Mushihimesama because the port to PC was relatively easy, and the name pretty well known. Seeing how Ikaruga was well received by Steam users was very exciting. The response of the fans to the announcement of the Mushihimesama release and on Facebook [proved] the need for that release was real.
Since recently we have not released games on console, there was no binding contract preventing this version. I knew there were many Cave fans overseas, but distribution and contracts always limited our distribution worldwide. The goal this time is to really make a worldwide release.”
Ogura has explained elsewhere that the Steam version has been in the planning for over a year, with only the need to gather the necessary resources holding up its development. Earlier this year, however, enough staff both familiar with PC and with Mushihimesama's Xbox 360 port became available to allow development to commence.
Publisher Degica has also helped with additional QA testing and implementing Steam achievements, PC controls and display options, although Cave maintained complete creative control and has handled the bulk of development.
The question on many fans' minds, however, is how the PC version will compare both to the original arcade release and the Xbox 360 port – and of course the illicit MAME versions available outside of the current official build of the emulator.
This version was checked against the Xbox 360 version,” Ogura added. Since we based it on the 360, it should be as faithful to the arcade as that version was.
Since MAME is not a legal way to play Mushihimesama, we'd prefer not to talk about it too much. That said, I do not feel that MAME accurately renders the framerate of the original arcade board. If you just want to play the game, it technically works, but it won't be very convincing. We feel this version will meet the expectations of users that care about a faithful port.”
GAMING AT ITS MOST BRUTAL: A taste of how hard it gets. Take a look at some in-game action from Mushihimesama's sequelMushihimesama Futari, in Ultra Mode of course
LICENCE TO THRILL
No sooner had Mushihimesama been announced than fans immediately started to ask what was to follow? Could the dream of a complete Cave shmup library on PC be real? Rumours immediately circulated that licensing complications would mean Cave's PC releases will be limited to the titles already released on Xbox 360, therefore ruling out the likes of Ibara, Ketsui and Progear.
The reality, however, is that financial success is far more of a limiting factor than licensing, with three releases current pencilled in for certain.
We do not wish to limit ourselves only to Xbox 360 titles, but porting games that were on 360 hardware is comparatively easy, so we're prioritising them for now,” Ogura explained. We developed Progear for Capcom, but they hold the license to the game, so we have no say in the matter. However, if Capcom wanted to create a port, we would certainly consider it.
From a realistic point of view, if we can prove that the business model works, we would love to do both more ports and entirely new games. We are already working on porting another next title, and have a plan to work on one more title, but haven't decided which one yet. The title we're porting should be decided soon.”
Much of the challenge depends on Cave's ability to settle on a business model that works in the modern market for the types of games it makes. Judged on the criteria of longevity and volume of content upon which many modern console releases are viewed, and even in comparison to free or 79p smartphone apps, Cave's games seem light.
However, the value of a Cave shmup comes both from the craft and replayability. These are high score games, designed to be played over and over and eventually mastered. Few fans who paid upwards of 60 or 70 to import one of Cave's region-free Xbox 360 import releases complained about value for money, but the same message does not carry as much weight for the casual obse