Review – 式神の城 (Shikigami no Shiro 2)


Release date: March 25, 2004
Developer:  Alfa System
Genre: Shmup (Vertical scrolling)
Current retail: £70-75 (eBay)


‘Right, number one, fuck you Jeff! Number two, yes Neal you are right as ever, a shoot-em-up necessitates a fucking spacecraft and three, if I hear another fucking teenager saying that Sine Mora is the best shmup ever...’ – Steve, Super Red Green Blue


Depending on how much of a shmup purist you are – in my case I would say I'm now a kind of Guardianista shmupper – either one or both of the latter two assertions in the quote above will resonate with you. Technically speaking, at least according to some of the more hardcore areas of the genre fan base, a shmup has to have a flying craft to be considered cannon.  No ifs no buts. If you aren't flying some hunk of heavily armed metal then that’s fine, we can hang out and enjoy blowing stuff away, down some beverages and chase score, but that title is never going to enter the historic halls of the shmup guild. You either have it or you are dead to the genre.
Each character has a primary and secondary attack. They vary in usefulness.
At one time I counted myself among these chosen brethren. The purity of the ideal was powerful. You either have it or you are dead. It helped reaffirm my gaming identity, putting down a marker that separated those who were in-scene and those who were casual, pretenders, far younger than me and had missed the shmup golden years. No fucking wanna-be hipster teenager was going to gate-crash my party and start expounding how Sine Mora was the best shooter ever. How could this moron understand? When you've ridden the fever dream dragon of Radiant Silvergun and drunk the milk of paradise, how do you even explain what you once saw? Far from bullet hell, it was bullet heaven.

Warning! Warning! Warning! Brutally obvious fact incoming!

Sine Mora is not the best shmup ever. Repeat – Sine Mora is not the best shmup ever.

Warning! Warning! Warning!

Today, the fire of adolescence has gone and now I’ll play anything and class it as a shmup, spacecraft or not. Chasing unique shmup experiences is now the name of the game and, if I'm to be honest, it’s been more rewarding than I ever thought it could be.
Learning to not only avoid  bullets but to graze them down screen is how to hit big score.
So, introducing Shikigami no Shiro 2, a real gem of a shooter that – brethren I'm sorry, please forgive me! – hasn't got a playable spacecraft in sight. A Jap exclusive on Dreamcast, Shikigami no Shiro 2 (which translates in English as ‘Castle of Shikigami 2’) is a vertical scrolling shmup that sees a team of magical warriors storm the titular castle in order to combat its overlords, god-like beings intent on world domination. Each of these characters utilise the game’s base mechanics in roughly the same way, with one primary attack and one special Shikigami attack rounding up a classic twin button shoot/bomb shmup set-up. Each character’s primary attack however differs in spread, rounds and speed, as to do their secondary, and it is in these which the player must master to go for score.

For example, Niigi G.B.’s (the G.B. stand for ‘Gorgeous Blue’) Shikigami attack is actually a shield, which she can throw out for about five seconds and absorb all incoming bullets. How can this help chase score you ask? Simple, it allows you to not only blast out of bullet hell, driving up through the  screen like a snow plough, nullifying  bullets, but it also allows you to exploit the game’s second key score chasing mechanic, the Tension Bonus System (TBS).
The Tension Bonus System allows for up to an x8  multiplier on score. Coin drop is effected too.
Oh boy! The TBS is the stuff of shmupper wet dreams.  Simply put, the TBS multiplies score up to x8, and is actuated by the player grazing incoming bullets. Basically, the game rewards you for playing on the edge, it encourages you to strafe graze rounds down the screen, with any enemy taken out in the process effected by the modifier. So, for example, if you take out an enemy on screen without any multiplier then you’ll get score but not much. Strafe graze a bullet down the screen and take out the same enemy and, depending on how far you've pushed the multiplier, you score up to eight times its base value. Not only that, but when the enemy goes down, the coins it ejects will also be affected by the multiplier, dramatically improving score potential. The beauty of this system though, of course, is that grazing is hard to pull off, with a few on-screen pixels separating you from either an x8 multiplier or a fast and embarrassing death. The TBS is pure tension, bottled.

Each of the game’s playable character’s special attacks therefore kind of dictates how you play. If you want to do a survival run then a character like Kim de John is an excellent choice as his secondary Shikigami attack, a move where he summons a pair of swords that can be held out in front of him, deals colossal damage and makes taking out some bosses a walk in the park. On the other hand characters like Niigi G.B. and Sayo Yuki are arguably better for chasing score. And, what’s more, each of these characters has a couple of iterations of their secondary attack, again adding to their mechanical play depth.
Niigi G.B. is a very useful character thanks to her special Shikigami shield.

As a product released super late not just in shmup history but also in the Dreamcast’s lifespan, as you would expect there are a dump truck load of options and modes for the player to tweak. Everything from overall game difficulty through to number of player lives and even the amount of pixels allowed to initiate a bullet graze are tweakable, making the game really very approachable to the shmup novice. As with most shmups of this type, easy mode cuts the game in half, finishing after the first three stages. It also tweaks in-game mechanics slightly, turning on things like bomb-usage on a bullet hit rather than taking a player life (only if you have bombs in reserve of course). Naturally, in the harder extreme mode, typical tweaks like bullet ejection on enemy deaths is turned on, adding a taste of bullet hell to this weird anime-style Japanese offering.

The story, dictated by the player character and their conversations with the enemy bosses, is definitely on the high side of the fucking insane, only-found-in-Japan scale. If anything though, it adds to the game’s quirky weirdness and insouciance. The game is no Sexy Parodius parody of the genre, but at times it does feels like it delivers just a little of its rebellious, stick-it-to-the-hardcore double fingers.
There are six stages in the game, each with an eclectic mix of enemy types and movement patterns to master.

Overall though, what impresses me most about Shikigami no Shiro 2 is Alfa System’s attention to detail. The devil is always in the detail and here it is arguably what makes the game not only very replayable but what also separates it from other auxiliary generation shmups. Things like a white glow appearing around your character during bullet hell to provide an extra visual cue of your hit box, re-mappable buttons, the ability to turn off story mode, two soundtracks and alterable game speed and life regeneration score counts all help add a level of tailoring and playability that the player can utilise, no matter their skill level, to have a great time with the game. It’s not a perfect shmup and the price on Dreamcast is high, however as a fan of the genre, a genre which I grew up with and for all its hostility and difficulty I still enjoy immensely, Shikigami no Shiro 2 not only proves that the genre has plenty to offer almost all gamers but should, and on this I am decided, take itself a little less seriously.

Verdict: A polished package that offers solid base mechanics, an excellent score system, and great replayability. Just prepare for some eastern insanity if you take the plunge.

Score: 8

6 comments:

Tom Charnock said...

I Great review Rob. I haven't played this personally but from the sounds of it, I think I'd enjoy it.

Robert Jones said...

Hey Tom. I'm going to bring it to the Play Expo, so you can get a couple of runs in then.

Robert Jones said...

One thing I forgot to mention in the review was that this has been competing for my time with Metal Black on the Saturn. In the end this won out. The beam duells in Metal Black are fun, as too the tripy aesthetic, however it offers little else of note. From the little I've played, its reputation as good not great seems well earned. Damn cool spaceship though!

Mr. Peter Stevens said...

Nice review. Love shooters, but not a fan of grazing. Maybe if I have $80 burning a hole in my pocket..

Also Sine Mora blows:D

Robert Jones said...

"Also Sine Mora blows:D"

Love it Peter!

doceggfan said...

I think I got this around the same time as Under Defeat, and I absolutely fell in love with the simplicity and gradually eased difficulty curve in that, so Shikigami didn't stand a chance. I can't remember if I gave up on the higher difficulties, or breezed through on easy and assumed that's all it had to offer. I should definetely give this another go when I finally get my DC out of cold storage.

Incidentally, I loved the music in Shikigami so much that I traded up my regular version for the limited edition with OST