Guwange is a scrolling shooter that was first released in Japan all the way back in 1999. It's now being re-released on the Xbox 360, and it's - pardon the pun - one hell of a time.
Despite being more well-known in the West for games like DonPachi and Deathsmiles, Guwange is one of Cave's most revered shooting titles in its native Japan. This is for two reasons: its medieval setting is a nice break from the usual science-fiction fare found in the genre, while its unique "shikigami" mechanic turns what could be a tedious shooter into an enthralling blend of frantic action and delicate positioning.
While the game is pitched squarely at the hardcore fan of Japanese scrolling shooters, there's a new difficulty mode that's so easy it gives casual observers the chance to sample the game (and the genre) without fear of punishment or death.
Cave, one of Japan's two most famous developers in the genre (the other being Ikaruga's Treasure), have a reputation for being the masters of the punishing shooter. And Guwange, despite its relative obscurity in the West, is one of their best works.
Will this game kick my ass? That depends. This Xbox Live Arcade port ships with extra difficulty options. If you select Xbox 360 mode, you'll be finished in 20 minutes. If you select the regular mode, as found in the arcade original, then yes, you're in for a rough ride. If you select the new "Blue" mode, you are a masochist, and need help.
How does it shape up to the arcade original? It is the arcade original. This is no HD remake, it's the exact same game ported over to the Xbox 360, 20th-century sprites and all. So don't go expecting fancy 3D polygons. The only significant changes other than display tweaks for your TV size are the inclusion of the difficulty modes mentioned above, of which Xbox 360 mode is not only easy, but allows you to control the shikigami as though the game were a twin-stick shooter (which it's normally not).
Take THAT, stupid giant cat
So what makes Guwange special? It's the inclusion of the shikigami. A Japanese guardian spirit, the shikigami is part-shield, part co-op partner, as they can not only be sent around the screen shooting in all directions and backing your main character up, but they more crucially can slow down the hellstorm of bullets sent your way, allowing you to stay alive during Guwange's more taxing boss encounters. It's a brilliant facet of the game, which not only gives the player a lot more to do than just shoot at everything, but makes progress through a level feel a lot more satisfying, as you really feel like you've done something special controlling two characters at once.
Should I play this if I don't normally play scrolling shooters? I'm going to say that, if you don't normally play these games but have an interest in games and game design in general, yes, you should. Xbox 360 mode, with its infinite and instant continues, turns you into a tourist, where you're able to admire the skill required to beat a "bullet hell" game like this without having to actually beat it. It's the only mode I could actually finish the game on, and even then, it was one hell of a ride.
I'll be honest, I'm not a specialist in this genre. I've finished Ikaruga, sure, but for reference, my time spent in Japan is spent drinking and buying sneakers, not playing obscure shooters in a musty arcade. After polishing off Guwange, though, that may have to change, as I had a blast; it's tough enough to make you break out into a sweat, but the fact you can slow the bullets down and dance through them, Matrix-style, makes this fun where in many other games of the type it would just feel like punishment.
Guwange was developed and published by Cave for the Xbox 360, released on November 10. Retails for 800 Microsoft Points. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Completed game on "Xbox 360" mode, got nowhere near it on the other two difficulties.