Release Date: February 27, 2008
In the 1990s, there was a huge renaissance in the realm of the scrolling shoot-'em-up, colloquially known as the "shmup" by the fans who embrace them with all the zeal of a brainwash cultist. It's an insane group of fans who love them some shmups, and I happen to be one of them. Toward the end of the '90s, as the U.S. arcade industry collapsed on itself, the shmup died a quiet death and faded into general obscurity. The genre kept exploding in Japan, though, reveling in huge brands like Cave, Psikyo and Raizing, and spin-off styles like abstract shooters, boss rushes and bullet hell. It's been a fabulous decade, and Triggerheart Exelica gives us a taste of the wonder.
Triggerheart Exelica doesn't bother itself with a story. Sure, there's a bit of obligatory blah-blah-yakety-yak that sets up the Triggerhearts as some sort of superheroic cybernetic thingamajigs who head out to defeat a rogue Triggerheart, Fainttear, before she can do something evil that's not really spelled out very well. Our heroine Exelica or Crueltear (the player picks, but the only difference is that Exelica shoots in a spread and Crueltear shoots straight forward) go out to shoot everything that's shootable in the name of saving the world, one bullet at a time. It's not an elaborate story by any means, but like many of its ilk, it's not designed to be. Instead, the focus is on the action and lots of it. While it's a mere five levels long and not catastrophically difficult, you'll really whiz through this without much of a sweat, thanks to the benefit of solid controls and infinite continues. While it's disruptive, it's also simply an 800-point Xbox Live Arcade game, so expectations can easily be dropped down a notch.
But we're not to the end of the review just yet ? we've still got the gameplay and engine to go over! If you've never played a shmup before, then you might not know what one entails, and you also probably live in a very sheltered area of Outer Crapsylvania, so you're excused and I'll give you a primer: Shmups earn their name from their general gameplay. You shoot, and shoot a lot. Virtual tons. Shmups are all about firing quickly while dodging enough bullets to make a hardened Marine cry on his shotgun. At its base, your Triggerheart of choice will go from the bottom of the screen to the top in a fixed scroll, dodging things flying at you while sending your own munitions back toward the top. It's a very simple formula, but the amount of reflex and awareness required is something that the die-hard superfans spend whole days trying to perfect, finding "lanes" and swinging around clouds of bullets on pure instinct.
Triggerheart Exelica does not quite require the insane reflexes of the legendary "bullet hell" shmups, going for a slightly easier feel in the name of, I suppose, fun. Every enemy, including bosses, also drop what the game refers to as Weights, little golden panels that are worth points based on their size. Here's an interesting mechanic for those out there who want to blow out high scores and dominate leaderboards: Weights gain size as they stay on the screen, but they're constantly threatening to go off the bottom. Releasing the fire button brings every Weight on-screen right to you, but that means A) you have to stop shooting and B) the Weight will no longer grow. Correctly timing your grabs is essential, and remember that dying costs you some Weight, while using up a continue takes them all.
Triggerheart Exelica introduces one element as a bit of a gimmick: the grapple cable. With a tap of the button, either Triggerheart will launch her cable out at the nearest ship and begin spinning it around like some sort of great Olympic hammer. The now-captured ship acts as three things: a short-term shield against most bullets, a spinning weapon of mass destruction, and. with the tap of the grapple button. a most unwilling projectile. The ship itself determines how effective it is; big ships are heavier, so they can stop more bullets, annihilate ships smaller than it is without so much as flinching, and wipe out whole waves when you let go of the winch. These ships are harder to grab, though, with the biggest requiring you hold on for a while to overload their systems. It's almost always worth it, though, as some of the later sequences become desperate struggles to keep ships on the winch to deflect bullets and plow through solid walls of spacecraft. Ikaruga it's not, by any stretch of the imagination, but the whole grapple mechanic is fun and implemented well enough that it never feels clunky or tacked-on. It's actually useful and can be applied to great strategic benefit or ignored, if you don't think it necessary.
The engine is little to write home about, but shmups are very rarely commended for looking beautiful and sounding like orchestras (unless it's from Treasure, anyway). The characters and environments are large, well-animated, and certainly colorful, with an acceptable level of variety and few issues with bullets uncontrollably blending into the environments. The music is a short list of what you'd expect from a Japanese title, featuring too-loud techno beats with enough explosions and crashes to make your eardrums rattle and the neighbors complain. Sound effects are simple, with your requisite shot sounds, random voice effects, and lots and lots and lots of booms as things go up in fireballs all over the land. It's admirably coded nonetheless, with nary a skipped frame in sight. For those of you with nicer monitors, you'll also have the option of TATE mode, which allows you to turn your widescreen display on the side and play the game in full-screen modes.
There's isn't much in Triggerheart Exelica in the way of rewards for your effort, other than four rather simple endings and the standard smattering of Achievements. Getting lots of Weight in certain levels may unlock an optional set of bosses, and some of the Achievements are insane (for instance, finish the game with 100,000,000 points, which means you can't have continued, ever). This is perfectly acceptable, though, as XBLA games are generally not considered on the scale of their disc-based brethren. Shmups have a tendency for fast and unvaried experiences that pride speed and violence over depth, and at a whole 800 points, you certainly can't argue that you aren't getting your money's worth. Triggerheart Exelica is one of the best XBLA games I've played on the 360, so if you like vertical shooters of old and new; if Radiant Silvergun, Parodius or Do Don Pachi mean anything to you; or if you enjoyed the recent Omega Five, you'll be perfectly at home with Triggerheart Exelica. It's a great use of your points, so spend 'em if you got 'em.