Review: Cave Dodonpachi Resurrection
Despite their genre similarities -- and some others that are buried under the surface -- the differences between Cave's just-released arcade port Dodonpachi Resurrection ($9/$5) and Electronic Arts' similarly fresh iPhone/iPod touch port of the 1987 Irem shooter R-Type could hardly be sharper. R-Type is effectively the fountainhead of strategic "dodge and charge" side-scrolling shooters, a truly classic title with gameplay that merited our high recommendation despite graphics that looked every bit their age. The two-year-old overhead shooter Dodonpachi is the equivalent of being splashed continuously in the face by the same fountain, an assault on the eyes that brutally changes almost every pixel of the playfield multiple times a second as bullets, enemies, multiple layers of background artwork and your ship overlap one another. If your attention wasn't demanded to keep your ship "alive," it would be a hypnotic roller coaster ride -- no easy feat for a traditional 2-D shooting game.
Calling Dodonpachi Resurrection “traditional” might be a little unfair. Originally known as Dodonpachi Dai-Fukkatsu—“Angry Leader Bee Great Resurrection”—the 2008 arcade game is a thoroughly modern Japanese take on the shooter genre known as “bullet hell,” an evolution of games like R-Type that saw the risk of crashing your spaceship into a wall or enemy replaced with a far more intimidating threat: at any time, your ship could collide with any one of hundreds of moving bullets that constantly change positions in certain patterns. Different colors indicate different types of bullets; some can be scraped or deflected, while others may be destructive to your ship, depending on the weapon you’d selected. Simultaneously, the number of enemies you faced at once grew from five or six to dozens, maybe hundreds, often overlapping one another as they fly around. Gamers used to fishing around for points or power-ups will find both in such great abundance on the five levels here that you’ll hardly know at first whether you’re collecting golden treasures or getting bombed by futuristic jets and tanks. At some point, assuming that you continue to play, your brain starts to “get” much of what’s going on, even if there seem to be hundreds of moments where you survived what seemed to be certain death for reasons unknown.
That’s just one of the game’s examples of either reverse or merely confusing psychology. Here’s another: there’s a storyline here, namely a Terminator-esque travel to the past to save the future plot, but it’s basically irrelevant to the action, and revealed all at once when you finish the game, rather than when you start it. Old school gamers may well find Cave’s pacing of the gameplay to be similarly perplexing, as the game starts you with your choice of three fully powered-up ships, each filling most of the screen with energy from moment one. Your primary tasks are thus to switch between weapons, one of which has a narrower firing angle but more concentrated power while your ship slows down, and another that stops your ship but lets you rotate a super-powerful, limited use weapon on left and right diagonal angles, wiping out typical enemies and lifebar-possessing boss characters alike in the process. Just in case you run out of ways to lay waste to the onslaught of foes, you’re given a limited number of smart bombs that you can trigger manually, or just watch as they go off automatically in place of life bars, temporarily shielding you with a destructive expanding ring of power. There is a strategy to playing this game, but it’s undermined by unlimited continues and so much weaponry that merely moving around a bit can keep you progressing to the end—a sub-one-hour experience, even with occasional breaks to pause and blink a little.
Some people would argue that Dodonpachi Resurrection represents the height of something good in the shooter world, and we’d surely find common ground with them in discussing the game’s graphics engine and music. Voice samples and sound effects may only be modestly discernible, but Cave’s rocking soundtrack is one of the most energetic you’ll find in any iPhone/iPod touch shooter, and keeps you engaged in the action. Additionally, though the game is limited to Apple’s iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, third-generation iPod touch and iPad devices, there’s absolutely no question when you’re playing it why that is. The sheer quantity of action taking place on the screen makes the company’s earlier App Store release Espgaulda II look like a comparatively tasteful exercise in restraint, such that you’ll occasionally catch glimpses of background scenery here rotating in some sort of interesting way, or witness a huge jet-shaped boss transform into an oversized robotic woman, leaving you to wonder just how much time was spent crafting such quickly disappearing art. One level in this game has more artwork than the whole of R-Type, and more action—if not thoughtfulness—than two or three typical App Store shooters put together.
Also worth noting is the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad distinction here. We can almost forgive the fact that so much of this game’s screen space is wasted by border artwork because there would be no way to swipe to control your ship without it; a “large” screen mode reduces the size of the border to a bar at the bottom of the screen. Additionally, the game’s frame rate and intensity are both high enough to keep your eyes squarely on the action, regardless of the border’s presence. That said, a lot of the original arcade game’s pixel detail is lost to the older iPhone 480x320 screens and not preserved by Cave here for the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, or for the iPad, which at 2X size makes the game look chunky and less impressive.
On the iPad, in fact, we found the experience of playing Dodonpachi Resurrection to be sort of empty—like being given hours to eat your fill at an all-candy buffet, an overload of sugar and strong flavors that may make you just sort of want to be done before your time is up. Our first play-though felt overwhelming on the senses and underwhelming for the soul, less like a game than a low-resolution screensaver that we could swipe a bunch to change what was going on for an hour or so before getting to the ending. But on the iPhone and iPod touch, it’s more compelling, in part due to the higher pixel densities of Apple’s smaller screens, and in part because it was optimized by Cave to be enjoyed on these smaller devices. Support for OpenFeint will encourage shooter addicts and Cave fans in particular to post leaderboard scores, which may over time give this title the legs that its handful of stages would otherwise lack. Like Espgaluda II, Dodonpachi Resurrection isn’t for everyone, and only serious fans of the bullet hell shooting genre will find it to be worth the regular $9 asking price; our advice would be to grab it if at all while it’s being discounted, and enjoy it for the brief if blistering ride that it is. If the price or the visuals are too intimidating, R-Type offers a more thoughtful and nuanced experience for a much lower price.