Posted November 7th 2012 by Oliver Chen.
Time has not been kind to the shoot-em-up genre. The decline of arcades worldwide combined with a shrinking playerbase has forced companies who specialized in making these kinds of games to look for new outlets for their craft. One of these developers, CAVE Interactive, happened upon a new niche a few years back releasing ports of its famed arcade shooters on iOS and other smartphone platforms. It seemed all too certain that CAVE would eventually develop an original shmup game for mobile platforms. Enter DoDonPachi Maximum, a new bullet hell shooter in CAVE's venerated DoDonPachi series, which was released worldwide on Windows Phone 7 earlier this year and on iOS in late October.
While DDP Max itself is a new entry in the series, saying the game is completely original is a bit disingenuous. The game presents itself as a simulator located in the DoDonPachi universe, featuring enemies, bosses, and other assets from past DDP games rendered as translucent holograms and pixel grids. In fact, the only sprites rendered as solid objects are your ship and the innumerable bullets that fill up the screen. This is both a blessing and a curse - the high contrast between the bullets and everything else make it super easy to tell the difference between bullet and background, but on the other hand the low contrast enemies can get lost in action. Nevertheless, it all looks very pretty on the retina screen, despite really hairy moments causing choppy framerates and slowdown on my smartphone, an iPhone 4.
Speaking of taking advantage of the iPhone, CAVE has clearly built upon its earlier releases and streamlined the shooter experience in DDP Max for the smartphone format. Unlike CAVE's previous arcade ports, this game has no on-screen virtual buttons to press nor any byzantine scoring mechanics to learn. Movement occurs relative to wherever you first place your finger on the touchscreen rather than being dedicated to a certain portion of the screen. Your ship moves fast enough to track your finger no matter how quickly it moves across the playing field, yet is responsive enough to minute shifts of your finger to weave through complex bullet patterns with surgical precision. Shots fire automatically without any user input, and the screen-clearing bomb can be activated simply by either multi or double-tapping the screen. There's no need to collect powerups and bombs during the course of play; your ship remains at full power throughout the game, and you earn your single bomb only after slowly charging up a meter by destroying enemies.
Rather than challenge players to tackle a series of increasingly difficult stages using one credit, Maximum allows them to replay any stage as soon as they unlock it with a fresh stock of three lives. This lends itself well to the pick-up-and-play sessions that typically occur in mobile settings. Not to say the game becomes any easier - the game implements a dynamic difficulty system to give players challenges appropriate to their skill levels. Clear a stage with any two out of three accomplishments - not losing a life, not using a bomb, or destroying every enemy - and a harder version of the subsequent stage unlocks. This is similar to the setup in the Space Invaders Extreme series, although unlike SIE only the density of enemies and bullets change between branches of the same stage. Seeing actual variety in enemy waves or bosses as the stages got progressively more difficult would have been great.
An Easy mode also exists for less experienced players, and even features a unique and very awesome final stage not found in the regular difficulty. It's a piece of fanservice which does a lot to prevent newbies from feeling like second-class citizens compared to more "hardcore" players. Speaking of fanservice, DDP Max is positively dripping with it. Each stage features a catchy techno remix of a classic DoDonPachi track. While the majority of the game's content is sourced from the DoDonPachi series, other titles in CAVE's library both classic and recent are also represented. They even went so far as reproducing the sound effects and voice clips from the games each of the pilotable ships originated from. It adds a neat touch of charm to the otherwise sterile simulator environment and hits all the right nostalgia notes for longtime fans.
The optimizations DoDonPachi Maximum makes for the mobile and touch formats combined with a smart aesthetic and addicting fun makes this game CAVE's best smartphone offering to date. The app is practically a steal at $2.99 on the Windows Phone store, and while the price is harder to swallow at $11.99 on iOS, the game is still definitely worth the price. Hopefully the title does well enough to spawn a bigger and better sequel, because there is a lot to like in Maximum.
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