Saturday, 2 March 2013

Kaikan (PC)

For as long as I can remember, a sure-fire way to get a smile on my face has been to sit me in front of a gamepad/arcade stick and a screen full of explosions and bullets. And Kaikan has left me grinning inanely, ear to ear.

Heavily inspired by Battle Garegga and other Raizing games, Kaikan is a joyous cacophony of pixellated fire and death. At times there is so much going on it takes on the appearance of a technical demo, with the computer spamming the screen with sprites to see how many it can vomit into your eyes during a single screen refresh. And despite its doujin shortcomings and non-intuitive design, I found myself sniggering away as I piloted my ridiculously over-powered fighter craft from one chaotic encounter to another. It's by no means the perfect shooter, but hot damn, I had fun beating it - and I confess that I even enjoyed the trial and error investigative experience of figuring out how the gameplay mechanics worked.

The first thing you'll notice when starting the game, aside from your fellow NPC fighters being blown away by giant lasers, is that enemy waves are launched at you pretty much from the get-go and that they drop these attractive looking gold bars when they die. These are key to the scoring system - if you miss any of these gold bars (letting them fall off the bottom of the screen) it resets your item grade back to 'G'. Thankfully, you needn't collect them all manually, as removing your finger from the fire button momentarily is enough to draw them all to your ship automatically - but be careful, any 'attracted' gold that you don't collect becomes null and void - so be careful with that trigger finger. Essentially, the important thing to remember is the more of these you collect, the higher your grade and the more valuable each score pick-up becomes. There are even these big bold arrows either side of the screen to show you the location of any off border bonuses. Simple.

Secondly there is the bomb. Note that this secondary weapon will trigger automatically if you are shot or rammed by an enemy fighter, so it kind of acts as a shield. When used or sacrificed via an enemy hit, another can be obtained by filling the pink bar on the bottom of the screen, and as you've probably guessed, this is achieved by a combination of blowing shit up and collecting lots of gold.

Later, as you reach the first boss, you'll probably find that although your hitbox is tiny, the controls are a bit too fast for successful and sustained bullet pattern dodging. But you know what? Not only are the typical Z (shot) and X (bomb) buttons employed, but left-shift can be held down to engage a special slow-movement mode that additionally concentrates your primary fire. On a gamepad these controls make a whole lot more sense, but even keyboard users can redefine these slightly non-ergonomic controls (and enable full screen mode) from within the 'keyconfig' executable supplied with the game.

I found the boss fights particularly fun, although my shmup-mentor ptoing pointed out that the game continues its Garegga-aping theme with a fourth boss who is pretty much a direct remake of Battle Garegga's Black Heart. Copied or not, I found the use of the slow-down button added depth, and I especially enjoyed the way that the screen rotates around you during some of the encounters - in fact, from a visual standpoint the game is really impressive. All the artwork appears to be original (or so the credits would suggest) and despite its short length there is a wide variety of enemies and backgrounds in Kaikan - although you'll only appreciate them for a second at a time, when you occasionally lift your finger off of the fire button to attract points, temporarily emptying the screen of explosions.

So what about the down points? Sonically the game is less impressive, with its mix of forgettably generic-1990's arcade background music and nondescript pew-pews and kabooms. There's nothing here to force you to turn the sound off, but equally you won't be cranking up the volume either. Then there is the enemy wave design, with attacks that often feel like they are randomly spammed at the player (although they are not actually random). Perhaps it was a design decision based on your surprise attack catching the enemy with their pants down, but one thing is for sure - their defence is not at all coordinated, and Kaikan plays like the computer is simply throwing everything it can at you, all at once with no regard for strategy or the safety of its pilots.

Probably the worst flaw however, is the fact that it took myself and ptoing several plays and a discussion over MSN to determine exactly how the game worked. Sure, you can play it blind easy enough, ignorant to what the arrows and bars represent. But stuff like mysterious flashing cursors and so on irk me, and really in a game like this - which is clearly a meant as a homage to mid-1990's coin-op shooters - it should be obvious what is going on and how the scoring works. After all, the high score is what it is all about.

Which leads me on to my final plus point - the high score table (accessed from the menu by pressing the 'slow-down' button) features all of your high-score achieving replays, saved automatically. Just select the name from the list with the fire button to watch your previous play-through, and you can even use the cursor keys to manage playback speed. It's great for seeing where you failed and for planning future attack strategies. This really is a feature that more games should include.

So the conclusion? Is the 50+ MB download worth it? Despite its faults, as you can no doubt guess from this enthusiastic review I really enjoyed playing Kaikan - although to be fair I was probably seduced by its over-the-top violence and arguably broken (yet at times amusing) pacing. After all, why kill only 10 enemy ships per second when a modern day PC can cope with 100+ bad guys on screen at once? The four different playable ships with varying weapon systems offer an incentive to replay, and as a freeware offering with a generous nine(!) credits included, the entire game is accessible to even average-skilled shmup players.

(Many thanks to ptoing for assisting in the writing of this review).

Download the game here (from Zakichi's website).
Download the game here (from the RGCD server).
4 out of 5