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Mushihimesama - Cave - PS2 - 2005

Let's face it -- Cave now technically owns the shooter genre. They've created their own unique brand of shooter which combines a highly stylized sense of art form with relentlessly applied bullet patterns which come in just about every form, wave and motion possible. And as the gameplay, forget it. They're masters at what they do, and so it comes as no surprise that Mushihimesama is levels above and beyond what most other shooters have to offer. What's interesting is that there are different groups of shooter fans who adhere to particular styles, some of whom don't care for one kind of shooter but will love another to death. Case in point: myself. While I can dig a shooter such as Ikaruga, I do not find myself drawn to the white/black play mechanics. In the case of Mushihimesama, however, I'm immediately drawn in by the intense 'normal' shooter experience which it has to offer. But Mushi isn't really normal by conventional terminology. Had this game come out ten years ago, people would be freaked out by the astounding array of firepower being displayed onscreen at any given time.

Released for the Japanese PS2 by Taito (Akira helped port some of their others...), Mushi is, in a nutshell, kickass. It's one of the most fun games I've played in quite some time. Yes, it's probably better than every X360 game thus far, not that that would be an accomplishment, but that still has to count for something, ne? It seems as though everybody and their mothers clamors for other Cave shooters such as DoDonPachi and the like. The reason I prefer Mushi over those others is because it feels like a tribute to shooters of the years gone by with its perfect medling of old-school vertical shooter mayhem with newer gameplay concepts such as holding your shot button to create a concentrated attack (which will slow down your speed) and rack up your counter for increased score. I usually don't play shooters for the score. Here, not only is it acceptable but an added incentive to help you perform better.

Seeing the game in action paints the truest picture. If you've ever seen a DoDonPachi or ESP title in motion then you have a good general idea what to expect. There are two modes in Mushi: Original and Arranged. There's quite a big difference between them. In Original mode, after you've selected your preferred shot type (which can be changed during the game...), you then select from three difficulties (excluding the difficulty level set in the options screen) and these will have an effect on your counters, the difficulty (duh) and the final boss fight. Plus, you're given infinite continues. In Arrange mode you don't select a difficulty and are given only one chance to go through the game in its entirety, without continues. There are different bullet patterns, more counters, you begin with full firepower (two more options than Arcade), can switch between modes, and whenever you take a hit with a bomb in your inventory it will set it off until you've got no more left.

The graphics are excellent with highly detailed backgrounds and lush CG-rendered enemies. As you'll immediately notice, the main motif is bugs and plants. Very organic. There are just five stages BUT there's an insane amount of replayability. Think Strider for Genesis and you'll know exactly what I mean. Playing through Mushi is a blast and it never gets old. I mentioned the insane amount of enemy firepower onscreen before. The character designs are by Tomoyuki Kotani who also did the artwork for Guwange and, I think, Ibara. (Ibara, btw, is an insanely difficult shooter, perhaps the hardest I've played to date.) I like what a reviewer for had to say about Mushi ~ "Paradise for shoot-em up fans, hell for everyone else." That's as accurate a description as you'll probably find.

As good as Cave's visual prowess is, it's the music which takes it to a whole new level. Right off the bat you'll be pumped by Stage 1's music, "Shinju heading into the forest," Shinju being the lady you control throughout the game. It's very upbeat music with pulsating harmonic changes and a rhythm section that's just "alive." Stage 2's music, "Furthermore, the desert must as be crossed," isn't as good, but Stage 3 and particularly Stage 5's music is exceptional. Stage 4's music reminds me of Sega's Astal soundtrack (new age). The true final boss' theme "Requiem of the Sky" is a nice choral piece, unusual to hear in a game, much less in a shooter, but fits in perfectly here. Speaking of the true final boss, I've fought with it about five times and couldn't figure out how to destroy it. I could get down to about 1/6th of its life bar and then had to wait--read: keep dying--until it self-destructed. Hmmm. The sound effects are great except for when you use a bomb which sounds a little weak. (Note that you can adjust the volume levels for the music, sound, and voice). Shinju's voice, which you'll hear at the start of every stage and just before every boss battle, is kind of whiney and demure. In a word, annoying. But it's no big whoop.

If you have the means, please, grab yourself a copy of this gem of a shooter. We desperately need more games of this calibur. As of today, Cave is one of the frontier developers of shooters, the people who are inspiring a new generation of shooter fans and carrying the genre into the 21st century. Here's hoping they keep 'em coming for many years to come.