Doujin games, or titles that are fan pieces for other games, are a phenomenon that is not often experienced in the West. In Japan, the doujin scene has largely taken hold over the shooter genre; most players are more likely to think of Touhou Project than any shooter made by major companies in the past several years.
While there are many finer categorizations, the introduction of direct and indirect versus gameplay to the shooter genre has been a fairly popular way to innovate. Even mainstream games like Mega Man Battle Network play with the idea of a shooter in versus mode, but among fans of the genre, the top-notch games are primarily doujin efforts. Touhou Project has explored this from two directions, with a fighting game where danmaku (bullets) are a centerpiece of play and a game where two players battle indirectly. Each plays his own board in the traditional shooter format, indirectly influencing each other's fields to force the opponent to make a mistake.
Suguri — or rather, its sequel, Acceleration of Suguri — lies somewhere in between these efforts and has gained some popularity for its direct, shooter-tastic versus play, pitting players against one another in a direct versus shoot-'em-up with one-on-one fights. Both games are now available in English from publisher Rockin' Android and hold up solidly in their crowded field, especially given the quality of the established publisher's collection.
The original Suguri serves as a primer to the gameplay of Acceleration of Suguri in many ways. Casting you as the titular Suguri, a super-powered girl with various armaments (often far larger than she should be able to carry), you are sent to investigate a series of strange robots that have shown up on Earth, which is still recovering from ancient environmental disasters. Unfortunately, all the robots — and the other super-powered girls leading them — have been ordered to exterminate all sentient life on the surface so that they can live there. Suguri has to shoot them all down and figure out what's going on.
Fortunately, Suguri is armed with a few more tricks than your typical Hakurei (Reimu Hakurei is the main character of Touhou Project), including a health gauge instead of the typical lives system of this genre. In both games, she will automatically lock onto an enemy and aim her weapons. More significantly, she can dash out of the way of, or right through, enemy fire. Successfully doing so is the primary way to charge up her super meter. In the original Suguri, she also has the benefit of a wide array of weapons in the tradition of Einhänder. You select two from the options screen before beginning play to fine-tune her attacks, and you unlock more by playing the game. Weapons have a little more subtlety to them than in many similar games; different shots have different wind-up and cool-down times, only a few will let you move as you fire, and each has a unique special shot that rapidly drains your super meter in return for wrecking almost anything short of a boss in one shot.
This game is pretty difficult, following rules that are more similar to classics like Gradius than the modern danmaku subgenre. Relatively few shots are on-screen at once, but all they need to do is graze you to drain some of Suguri's precious life bar. Worse yet, when you dash, a "heat" gauge builds up, increasing damage taken. The more you dash, the higher it goes, with no upper limit, so a long, intense series of dashes to evade challenging shots can turn a single ball of energy into instant death if you don't think ahead. The result keeps things nicely challenging and makes the dash a vital tool for survival. Combined with bosses who will fire complex patterns onto the screen and surprisingly elaborate stage layouts, the first game is easily the more difficult title in the collection.
The original Suguri is ultimately a pretty standard, simplified Einhänder with cute girls and a doujin game style. However, it provides an excellent setup for its sequel, Acceleration of Suguri, which admittedly seems to be a little light on the plot. The same cast of girls from the first game is all playable, and the game essentially pits you against every other opponent.
Acceleration of Suguri's matches take place in a circular ring, much like the shooter pattern of the original. From here, using nearly identical controls from the original game, you try to blast the opponent with your respective arrays of skills. With both players armed with the same basic options, but highly distinct weapons (and plenty of special moves that will better fill the field), gameplay quickly becomes a slightly simplified form of many advanced fighting games: a persistent mind game between you and your opponent as you try to land a positional advantage to get in a hit. Unlike most fighting games, the slowly-ticking timer is a serious threat, with matches often ending before the losing player's life bar has been reduced to half. If anything, the results are even tenser because of this. Theoretically, you can take the game online with a Network Match option, but sadly, I couldn't figure out how to make this work, which can be common with some doujin titles.
Acceleration of Suguri X-Edition is an expansion pack for Acceleration of Suguri, and it also adds some bonus content to the original Suguri. It adds two new characters (one a variant of Suguri), many patches and, most entertainingly, two story campaigns. One modestly serious campaign stars Suguri, and the other is utterly absurd and centered around first-stage boss Saki's efforts to enjoy her pudding — in a world where pudding is deadly serious business that has destroyed civilizations and even has its own deity. This content may not be the largest expansion pack, but it adds significant entertainment value to the game.
All three games share a highly consistent graphical and audio style. Many elements of the first game's interface and character and weapon sprites are reused wholesale in the sequel. Unfortunately, this can represent both a strength and weakness of gameplay. Weapon and generic enemy images are consistent and look just fine, if not necessarily superbly inspired. Character sprites, however, are very small in size, and what detail you can see often feels a little off. Character portraits, which are used in cut scenes, are similarly a little off-putting, although thankfully, the artwork quality is better than some of Touhou Project's more infamous results.
The audio also fares much better. While sound effects typically sound pretty odd, the game's music is an excellent series of trance-influenced tunes that deserve to be fully enjoyed. Fortunately, Rockin' Android provides for this with a much-appreciated special feature, by offering high-quality MP3s of the soundtracks for both games; you can easily slide the tunes into your music player of choice, right from the installer. In case you declined and want the soundtrack later, each time the disc is slipped into your CD-ROM, you'll see an option for "I want the MP3s!"
Two minor caveats to note: Game configuration is handled solely through external programs. This includes setting up two game pads in case you wish to battle online. The game doesn't always play nice with many graphics cards, either. My desktop's GeForce card refused to load the game, while my laptop, with integrated graphics, ran it smoothly and without the slightest hiccups. System requirements are very low, but some things do glitch out.
Suguri: Perfect Edition is a collection for doujin game fans who want to see more of the quirkiest and most interesting games to come out of Japan's indie scene. With a near-Atlus level of care in translation and special features, Rockin' Android's effort shows a strong publisher and decent game product. Here's hoping that the group will find more solid games to release over time, so that a facet of gaming not often explored by North American players can gain wider appreciation.
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