Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cho Ren Sha

Year: 1995
Rating: *****

This is one hell of a videogame.

I'm working on a theory, it's pretty half formed at the moment but bear with me. All single player games (and most multiplayer games) are puzzle games. Regardless of whether they get called strategy, FPS, RPG every single player game is basically about finding solutions to problems. Mario is about solving problems with jumping, Doom with bullets and Portal with portals. Sure action games require twitch reflexes but so does Tetris and no one is calling that an action game. Why? Cause it's not about a dude (or dude analogue) with a gun (or gun analogue). Contrary to accepted wisdom videogame genres are named more after their narrative elements than their ludic. Can anyone really explain the differance between a strategy game and a god game without reference to the games narrative? For that matter can someone explain to me the difference between a strategy game and an RPG? Now the FPS looks easy to define cause that's about games played from the first person perspective. Except that ignores a whole host of RPGs that play from the first person perspective that arnt considered FPSs (Ultima Underworld, Oblivion) and then there's Portal which most would describe as a puzzle game. Yet you're still shooting in the first person.

Anyway something to think about.

I bring this all up because regardless of what genre you want to place Cho Ren Sha in I'm pretty much calling it the omni-game. I guess if you want to be acurate it's a 2-D vertical scrolling shmup from the Doujin scene (which is to say it's a Japanese indie game). Thing is that label hardly does it justice. It's got more strategy than C&C, more action than Doom, and can make me feel more God-like than Populous. All while exercising my thinking muscles more than most puzzlers. How does it achieve this feat? By being balls to the wall hard.

I assume we all know what a vertical scrolling shump is they're an ancient genre. As a child the fish and chip store near my house had one. I vaguely remember playing it but I was never any good. Nor did I care, that thing was there to suck whatever worthless change I found lying around. In return it amused me for the few moments it'd take for my order of chips to be done. I don't remember the name of it but I do remember it kind of sucked. Here in the west when 3D graphics hit the scenes and the arcades closed shop the shmup died. I couldn't care less, to me there wasn't anything special about them. Over in Japan the shmup morphed mutated and matured into an entirely differant monster. And I do mean monster. These are games that will rip you up and tear you apart. They mean business. Or maybe they always had shmups this good but they were just holding out on us. In which case, not cool Japan. Why do you have to force crap like this down our throats but you won't share your really awesome goodies?

Recently these new hyper shmups have been gaining traction in the west. My first exposure to this shmup renaissance was Ikaruga a truely wonderful game with a super clever colour matching gameplay hook. Cho Ren Sha is like Ikaruga but not as clever. Which is fine by me, because it feels more pure. It's freeware so you can get it here. I don't really consider myself an expert with these games. The true fans will be able to wax lyrical about the relative merits of title X's bullet patterns to title Y's chaining system. I can't and won't. All that really great devotion and love can be off putting to new people. But it really is simple to play, arrow keys move, press z to shoot, hammer it like a crack addicted school child to maintain rapid fire. Oh yes and X drops the bomb. You now know everything you need to know in order to play Cho Ren Sha. No tutorial level required. You might see a video like the one I posted earlier and think "That's impossible, no one could play that and still have a life. What kind of loser would devote so much time to one game". Lets set the record straight it will take you much less time to get 'reasonable' at Cho Ren Sha then it would to complete Baldur's Gate. The difference is when playing Cho Ren Sha you're constantly honing and improving your skills and Baldur's Gate is a whole lot of wandering and grinding (By the way I really like Baldur's Gate but call a spade a spade).

For the most part the game's mechanics are exactly the same as the terrible old shmups of our childhood but by being arse bitingly hard it makes us (for perhaps the first time) appreciate how truely great those mechanics are. At one point I was using my bullets as sonar, not looking at what I shooting, using the sound of them hitting their targets to guide my aim. Why didn't I use my eyes like I normally would? Because there were a million missiles coming at me and I needed to focus on those. Or take the bombs. In most games that involve some sort of super weapon you just save them for the boss fight and they become fairly uninteresting. Cho Ren Sha gives you no luxury, you will need to use them during the level, because if you die and you had even one bomb left it's like losing of a valuable resource, you're not getting that bomb back, you wasted it. Often just after wiping out the thought crosses mind "well at least I died without any bombs". It's like the ultimate "I gave it my all", to do any less feels almost dishonorable.

Cho Ren Sha has one new trick, it's power ups. They appear in groups of three: shield, bomber, and (the imaginatively named) power up. Shield places a shield around your ship essentially giving you a get out of jail free card good for one cock up. Bomber gives you one of the previously mentioned bombs, which is a one use weapon that deals tremendous damage to everything on screen. It also cancels all the on-screen bullets which means that it's useful as both an offensive and defensive tool. The Power Up power up increases the spread and rate of fire of your primary weapon basically making you stronger. This gives the game a strategic dimension as you constantly need to decide which of the three to grab. Until you get really good you'll always be in short supply of all three so all three are reasonable choices. Eventually you'll get good enough that you can maintain your shield for long enough to grab powerups and bombs at will eliminating the strategy element. This is when the game throws and interesting spanner into the works. If you stay in the middle of the three power ups for a short period of time you get all three. It's much harder than it sounds, even positioning yourself in the middle of a moving target for the required time is hard enough, doing so in the face of bullet hell requires balls, skill and luck. Of course if you screw it up you may end up grabbing something you don't need, but if you can grab all three you're in a much better position than if you just grab one and in the later levels you'll need every advantage you can get.

So yeah that's really all it takes to make a genuine masterpiece of a game. Take an old genre no one's really playing with anymore, refine the shit out of it till it shines and throw in one interesting idea that makes the experiance feel fresh. Actually wait that sounds a little cynical let's try that again.

So yeah that's really all it takes to make a genuine masterpiece of a game. Take an old genre no else really gets, love it with so much heart you'll throw away years of your life relentlessly perfecting your homage to it and after all that have the humility to only reinvent one aspect but make sure it's something so brilliant that it will ensure you'll truly leave your mark.

That sounds about right.


  1. This game is fucking wicked, but if it doesn't give me carpal tunnel I will be very, very surprised. I'm holding you personally responsible.

    How far along can you get, out of interest? I managed to get up to the end boss of level three before I got my shit ruined.

  2. Yeah this is one of the best games I've played in ages.

    I'm up to level six but can't finish the boss (not yet at least). This is annoying because there's only one level left after that. Well of the first looping at least. Once you beat the game once you can play through through it again but every thing is a bit harder. I don't think I'll ever pull that off though.