Shoot’em ups are a super niche market. They’re the kind of games that require practice, patience and precision to master, and tend to favor only the most score-chasing minded players on the planet. Typically speaking, there’s also little to no story in them, the graphics are traditionally 2D and they’re overwhelmingly difficult by design. Oh, and usually they need to be imported, and thus are not only in a foreign language, but come stamped with a hefty sticker price to boot. If one can’t tell, sometimes the barrier to entry for these arcade shooters is simply too steep for the average person to overcome, hence resulting in decades of the genre remaining coveted by only the most hardcore a gamer. Over the last several years, though, we’ve seen STGs (just another term for the genre, similar to the oft mainsteam term ‘shmup’) pull back from traditional retail releases in favor of more grassroots efforts funded independently and released digitally on a studio’s own terms.
Furthermore, we’ve seen the Japanese doujin scene really explode using this method, and along the way we’ve been privy to titles smaller in budget, but bigger in heart. Sadly, though, this isn’t always the case, and depending on who you ask, the indie scene has all but destroyed the genre thanks to developers creating projects that are only STG in name, and not in fundamentals. Sure, it’s easy to create a bullet-hell shooter; but these games are more than how many projectiles a programmer can put on-screen for a single player to dodge — there’s a method to the superficial madness — but not everyone who embarks on forging their very own shmup understands that philosophy.
But, just like ZUN’s much adored Touhou franchise, there are some doujin titles that have come along and rivaled even the very best, most financially-backed shooters out there. Often folks pair the name CAVE with the genre of shoot’em up; after all, CAVE has been one of the most instrumental companies in putting STGs on the map. And while their approach to the genre isn’t for everyone — not every person in the world, casual or diehard, digs danmaku shooters — they have nevertheless released unto the masses some of the most cherished titles in the shmup realm. Names such as DoDonPachi, Mushihimesama and Espgaluda are just a few that have come to define the genre, for better or worse really, and thus made the whole classification of games synonymous with bullet-hell. Hence, when an indie developer (someone, or a grouping of people far less able to support their development financially) comes along and manages to out-shmup the King of shmups, people stop and take notice. That’s the case with Crimzon Clover.
Crimzon Clover, while only just releasing on Steam last June, has been available to audiences for a few years now. Originally launching through digital and independent means almost four years ago exactly, the one-man project lit up the STG scene when it first arrived, igniting a fire that had seemingly dwindled since the mid-2000s. Not only was it aesthetically impressive for an indie, one-man show, but it played just as well if not better than some of the more recent affairs. Fast-forward to June 2014, and developer Yotsubane (again, that’s just one guy, not a team) is able to get his masterpieces into many hands thanks to the game’s Window’s release via Steam. Though, this wasn’t just the vanilla version that came out in January 2011; this was enhanced, and given a new subtitle to denote such a change. Crimzon Clover: World Ignition was the updated, 2013 NESiCAxLive arcade version, and looked to make an excellent game that much better.
Gameplay-wise, Crimzon Clover finds a nice harmony of merging tried-and-true mechanics with small refinements rooted in newer concepts to create a product that feels familiar, yet also like its own thing. Essentially players have two attacks — a rapid-fire shot which covers the area directly in front of them, and then a lock-on shot that expands outward from the player, targeting and homing in on enemy ships with a powerful laser attack. So far, things are sounding pretty conventional — but they need to in order to have a sturdy foundation off which to build. To this end, the two-shot setup is enough to keep stages interesting, but not so complex that the player can’t focus on blowing things up and weaving in and out of bullet-hell death. Thankfully, this is all done with controls that are responsive and tight; there’s nothing worse than a STG that controls either like a Tank or a 19-year-old college girl driving herself home after her first bender at the local sorority house. Crimzon Clover always makes the player feel in control of their ship, their destiny — they get killed? It’s on them, not the game.
But, to ensure that folks don’t die as much as they probably should, World Ignition adds a third button: the Break button. It, too, is straight-forward, but necessary to the cadence of the gameplay. Taking out baddies fills up a gauge, and depending how much that bar is full dictates the status of that meter. For instance, once it fills beyond a certain point, players can press the Break attack to fire off a bomb that clears the entire screen of projectiles. That being said, if folks can practice patience and wait for the entire gauge to top off, then Break Mode is entered — this increases attack power and the scoring multiplier exponentially for a period of time. In essence, this is how landing at the top of the now integrated leaderboards is possible. But there’s another caveat here; during Break Mode, there’s a chance to enter Double Break Mode, which enhances everything yet again, basically turning folks into even more of a massive killing machine. This all is so fluently implemented that it practically rolls off players’ minds without added effort. Some STGs get caught up in trying to reinvent the wheel, only to give folks something that isn’t as lean as it should be. Feature bloat is one of the worst things that can befall a shmup, but at the same time, a barebones game comes off just as unsatisfying. Crimzon Clover seems to understand this well, and in turn, manages to find that happy-medium with its local co-op, local and Internet rankings, Training, Novice, and Arcade modes, in addition to specialty setups within Arcade mode.
Where a shoot’em up can also go wrong is in the department of overstaying its welcome. I’m thinking back to certain games and cringing at having to sit down and play through an initial run, then a second, third, and maybe even final loop, and having to dedicate more than an hour. The best STGs can find a way to have enough meat on its bones for players to sink their teeth into, but not so much that it takes them an entire evening to finish their meal. A dinner reference in a STG review; what the hell is happening. Anyway, the point is, it has the right number of stages, that last just the right amount of time, and can be tackled with multiple ships. The stages aren’t distracting either. In CAVE’s last console shooter, SaiDaiOuJou, we found ourselves struggling to discern bullet from background due to the vibrancy of both — they would just meld together, making an already super hard game, all the more challenging and thereby infuriating. Crimzon Clover, while at times looking like a bag of Skittles was blown up with dynamite and turned into pixels, pulls off beautiful, colorful backgrounds and enemies, but never at the expense of the gameplay experience. This is especially impressive considering the game borrows from CAVE games in that stars fall from destroyed enemies, which seems like it would further clutter the screen. But with how the color palette is used, it shockingly doesn’t.
Thus far, we’ve spoken highly of how well Crimzon Clover finds equilibrium in its play, features, and presentation. What we haven’t talked about is, despite the fact that this is STG through and through, undeniably able to scratch that shooter itch for even the most hardcore player, it doesn’t scare off newbies. It’s an argument that often takes place within the shmup community; can these games even be mainstream? Some will say no, and that they shouldn’t cater to the casual — others will say that for the genre to last, it needs to. We won’t sugar coat it: STGs are dying. They have been for maybe two decades. Hell, some will say they are already dead. We don’t go that far; but we will say that everything that exists must adapt to continue to do so. This is especially true with video games, and even truer for a niche market. Therefore, the fact that anyone, of any skill level or history with the genre, can jump in, enjoy themselves, and be challenged is a triumph that most developers of these games simply can’t attain. This is the kind of thing that can help keep the genre afloat and, at some point, may help it thrive once again.
Lastly, we want to touch on the soundtrack. Anyone who has played a STG will tell you that the soundtrack is nearly as crucial to the experience as the gameplay trappings. Bad music can make for a lousy play — this applies to all forms of the medium, but it’s specifically front and center for a shoot’em up. Once again, World Ignition doesn’t disappoint. It’s soundtrack is verbose, unafraid of showcasing wailing guitars, driving percussion, and even some 80s synth-revival. It makes for a killer, pulse-pounding experience and ratchets the intensity up just a notch.
You may have noticed that we didn’t have much to say about Crimzon Clover: World Ignition that was negative. That was by design, though, as we can’t fault a game for flaws it doesn’t possess. If anything, the only flaws it may have are the ones intrinsic to the genre, not the game. If we were hard pressed into nailing down an area that needs improvement, we’d point to the graphics. As they stand now, they look like a PS2 title. It’s understandable, though, given that this is a single-person project; when taking that into consideration, the art assets are quite magnificent. But even still, with the genre looking better and better lately (here’s looking at you Bullet Soul and SaiDaiOuJou), Clover is unmistakably behind the times. Nevertheless, if you’ve been wanting to check out a STG, this is the place to start. Contrarily, if you’re a longtime fan, or veteran of the genre, and want a new one to occupy the next few months of your life as you try to top the leaderboards, well, this is also the game for you. In fact, this is just a title for people who simply like video games. There’s a wealth of content to see, as well; and with planned DLC, it’s easily worth more than its price point, so consider this a steal no matter the cost.