When Cave announced that their beloved vertical shoot’em up – or shmup, as affectionately termed by aficionados – would be ported to the iPhone, my first thought was ‘... huh?’ I thought largely the same when Street Fighter IV and, to a lesser extent, GTA: Chinatown Wars were first announced for Apple’s touch screen family, and rightly so. Both turned out to be playable enough, sure, but were clearly compromised for the handheld(s) – severely so, in the case of SFIV.
So the idea of playing a hardcore shmup on teeny-tiny touch-screen device raised a bit of a smirk from me. I was intrigued by the idea, and interested to see how it would turn out, but my limited experience with existing shooters made specifically for the device suggested that the results would not be pretty. A few days later, the game was released, I gave it a try, and yes – I was proved wrong.
In fact, scratch that clichéd opening – Espgaluda II on the iPhone is awesome, plain and simple. I’ll try my best to explain why.
First, a quick rundown of the mechanics. You control your winged character (you get a pick of three, each naturally having their own strengths and weaknesses) at the bottom of the constantly-scrolling screen. You can move in all directions and basically have to try and obliterate everything that comes in your way, with help occasionally coming in the form of power-ups that increase your weapon strength. Enemies come in the form of humans, vehicles, turrets, flying creatures and... well, it’s actually hard to tell what you’re supposed to be fighting – mainly because you're trying to concentrate on dodging the hundreds of bright blue bullets that float across the screen. Espgaluda II, you see, is just another example of a ‘bullet hell’ shooter; a niche carved within a niche by Cave themselves back in the mid-nineties.
But if all of that sounds ridiculously hard, then fear not – the game is perfectly accessible to most while still offering plenty of depth for the high-scoring obsessives. There are three difficulty modes for a start, as well as three different levels of controls scheme – Simplified, Normal and Expert. Since firing is completely automatic, a trigger finger is not even needed for basic gameplay – all you have to do is move your protagonist around, avoiding enemy fire whilst keeping your own fire trained on whatever’s responsible for all those bullets, until they explode in a hail of green gems (more on that later). Naturally there are end-of-level bosses too, usually requiring a bit more skill and higher levels of concentration as you attempt to whittle their energy bars down to zero. Stick it on the ‘Simplified’ control scheme, on the Novice difficulty setting, and most people should be able to breeze through the first couple of levels once they’ve adjusted to the controls.
Of course, this is a genre that’s all about high-scores, so finishing a level is only part of the challenge – and this is where those green gems come into play. They power-up your ‘Awakening Perception’ counter, up to a maximum of 500. Press the special button to trigger Awakening Perception and all objects on the screen travel slower – including enemy bullets, which turn purple. Defeating enemies in this mode will create an explosion causing all surrounding bullets to turn into gold, which increases your score multiplier. You can switch out of Awakening Perception at any time, but if you let the gem counter deplete to zero then you will enter the Awakening Over phase, where enemy bullets turn red and everything travels faster than normal.
But that’s not all. If you have enough gold and green gems, you can hold the Awakening Perception button for a few seconds to enter ‘Absolute Awakening Perception’, which slows down objects and enemy bullets again but drops even more gold, thus allowing you to increase your multiplier even further. The catch however is that ‘cancelled’ enemy bullets in this mode spawn even more bullets, creating a chain reaction that significantly increases the difficulty as well as the opportunity for ridiculously high scores. Oh yeah, there’s also ‘Absolute Awakening Over’, where bullets travel even faster and... well, you get the picture. All this is briefly explained with in-game tutorial screens.
If you completely skipped the last two paragraphs, then I don’t blame you. Only dedicated fans will be concerned with all the intricacies of the scoring system and trying to make the most out of ever-increasing patterns of bullet hell. For those that are just interested in surviving, there’s a helpful Guard button that provides some respite when things get too intense. Holding this button will trigger a shield around you that absorbs all bullets – releasing it will then unleash an extra-powerful beam that can destroy most things in an instant. The longer you hold the Guard button, the more powerful the resulting beam will be. Of course, you can’t use Guard forever – there’s a meter that depletes whenever you use it and cannot, as far as I can see, be replenished during a level (at least until you lose a life) – so you have to use it very wisely. In Simplified control mode the Guard button is actually automatic; every hit you take will automatically trigger the shield and deplete half the meter, so you’re allowed two hits before losing a life. And with three lives and infinite continues, there are no excuses for not being able to see the game through to the end.
So that’s Espgaluda II in a nutshell. A game that first burst onto the arcade scene back in 2005, and released in enhanced form on the Xbox 360 just a few months back. For a game like this to be ported to a handheld so soon is an achievement in itself, but the amazing thing is that this version has barely been compromised. For starters, it’s an already great-looking game that looks gorgeous on the small screen. Whack the screen-size down to ‘Small’ in the options menu and the game will run in its native resolution, looking pin-sharp on the iPhone display. The default ‘Middle’ setting stretches the display so that it takes up about two-thirds of the screen, resulting in a blurred effect but still looking great. A larger screen option is there for those that really find it hard to see the tiny bullets, with a bigger trade-off in image quality.
Whichever screen size you choose, though, the game’s performance is bound to impress. It’s seriously smooth, running with minimal hitches – even in the midst of battle with a huge boss and hundreds of bullets flying around the screen. There is a tiny bit of slowdown in some sections, but any other frame-drops are barely noticeable on the smaller screen. This performance comes at a major cost though as the game only runs on the iPhone 3GS, with (official) support for the newest iPod Touch model due to come in an update. So if your iPhone/iPod Touch is more than a year old, chances are you’ll be missing out.
Finally, the controls – the one thing that could make or break the game. And they work fantastically well. Touch anywhere on the display and you’ll be able to move your character with a remarkable level of precision. Even with the largest screen-size option, it’s perfectly possible to play comfortably without obscuring any part of the play-area with your thumb. Quite simply, the movement controls are a revelation – wonderfully smooth and responsive, to the extent that many will find it preferable to a proper analogue stick. The on-screen buttons fare slightly less well; you can choose whether to have them on the left or right side of the screen, and the control scheme dictates how many will be on the screen – ‘Simplified’ has just the one button (Awakening Perception), whilst ‘Expert’ has four, including one to turn the autofire on/off. They’re not ideal, naturally lacking the tactile feedback of real buttons, but they work well enough... although I do find it odd holding the iPhone vertically with both hands, but that’s probably just me.
There’s a whole other game mode exclusive to the iPhone too, by the way. The levels are exactly the same but the Awakening Perception mode works slightly differently – this time you can’t move your ship, but can touch the screen to destroy bullets. I’ve barely played this mode, to be honest, as the standard Arcade mode is easily worth £5.49 on its own. The game is also Openfeint enabled, with separate leaderboards for both Arcade and iPhone mode and all three characters, and decent scores attainable even in Novice mode with the Simplified control scheme.
One caveat – the game currently does not save your progress, or high score, if you quit mid-game. So a phone call at an inopportune moment – whilst you're on your way to beating your all-time best score, perhaps – could ruin things somewhat. It’s a bit of an oversight, hopefully to be fixed in the forthcoming update.
The final verdict? If you’re a shmup fan that happens to own an iPhone 3GS, Espgaluda II is unmissable. Even if you’re not a huge fan there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had here for a relatively small asking price. Just bear in mind that there are only six levels in there, so technically it's a short game that's fairly easy to complete– but with two modes, three characters, a bunch of options for difficulty, separate leaderboards and achievements, it’s all about the replay value. Undoubtedly a jewel in the iPhone’s library, if you’re after a slice of 2D shooting heaven then Espgaluda II’s the game to get.