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Name: DonPachi (Japanese for "Bee Storm", also the Japanese onomatopoiea for the firing of guns...)
Format: Arcade (later also released on Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation)
Developer: Cave / Atlus
Year: 1995

A vertically scrolling arcade shooter with an incredible amount of bullets on almost every screen.

After the demise of Toaplan, all the developers from the fairly high regarded arcade software house started up Cave with the intention of filling arcades with more bullets than have been fired in the entire course of human history. Well, that's the only hypothesis I can come up with which covers up the games which Cave have released - nearly all of them include one or two players duking it out with enormous numbers of enemies and bullets on the screen. For my money, if the above really is their goal, they have suceeded.

DonPachi begins by asking the player(s) to select between three ships to use for the entirety of the game. They can conveniently be described as "the red one", "the blue one" and "the green one". Each encourages quite a different playing style. The Red ship, my personal favourite, directs all it's shots vertically upwards, so quite a lot of maneouvring is necessary to hit different places on the screen. This is made up for by the immense power which is directed at whatever is right in front of the player. The Blue one fires shots both ahead and at a fairly wide angle either side - the total power of your shot is divided pretty evenly between the three directions of fire, so if you just want to hit something straight ahead (like a boss) then the Blue is not great. The Green is probably the one with the most potential for skill, as it is a ship with a movable turret on either side. Normally these point straight ahead, but when you move the ship left and right the corresponding side's turret will pan out. So if there is an enemy on your right, flying towards it for a bit while holding down fire will move your turret out to hit it. The intricacies in flying this ship are not to my taste, but I get the feeling it is probably the pro choice.

The standard fire (which you get by repeatedly hitting the fire button, one of two buttons which controls everything) is a pretty powerful rapid energy shot, but the innovative part of the attack system is the way you can hold the button down to create a forward firing laser (which is usually significantly wider than your ship). The laser can only fire forward, no matter what ship you are flying, but it is incredibly powerful destroying any enemy in much less time than normal fire takes. The problem is that while firing the laser the ship moves at a snail's pace meaning you are effectively pretty open to attack. The trick of this game is knowing when to alternate between the two modes of fire.

In addition to the above mentioned attack methods, the game follows the tradition before it of having a screen filling bomb on the other button, which deals a pretty hefty amount of damage to everything in sight. Generally this will clear the screen, except for bosses. A slightly more unorthodox feature of this bomb is that it also clears the screen of enemy bullets, which is incredibly useful in the game. If the bomb button is pretty while the laser is used, however, the result is all the force of the bomb being directed at the laser's path. This is a quick way to take down any boss, but since later bosses might withstand quite a few shots of this, you need to have pretty much full bombs.

Although by default each ship has pretty powerful weapons, the effectiveness of both the shot and the laser can be upgraded by picking up the "P" icons. These are often released by destroyed enemies, and then bounce around the screen until collected, usefully. There is, however, a maximum power and a good player who avoids dying will reach this limit pretty quickly, as the P icons are scattered liberally through the game.

Other pickups include golden stars and the characteristic Golden Bee icon. Stars give a pretty normal points bonus. There are a number of the bees every level, and they appear pretty much out of nowhere, although they are in the same place each time. There are probably secret bonuses for collecting all of them, but I know I've never managed that.

Levels and enemies are all set in the predictable shoot em up climes (sky, factory, etc) but generally the action is going so fast you don't have any time to notice. The enemies usually fill the screen, and wiping out each wave will mean the next is on the way and will arrive in seconds. Enemy bullets also usually take up most of the screen, but unlike some other games I can think of which seem to be simply unfair, DonPachi always provides a way through. You might not always make it, but there is always one there. My usual experience is dying because I was a handful of pixels away from the safe area. Weaving a path through bulletville is sometimes easier than it looks, and it's incredibly exhilirating when you pull it off. It's pretty obvious after playing for a while that the game is forgiving as far as hit area goes (it's smaller than the ship actually is) but that doesn't mean the game is easy. Far from it...

The bosses of the game are all fairly tricky, but a small point of cheapness comes in when if you have enough bombs saved up you can use the laser / bomb combo to do enormous amounts of damage while destroying the bullets in front of you. Generally, though, you will have run out of bombs first time through the game.

Also notable is that after completing the game's 5 (very tough) levels once, the game gives you a short bit of plot (complete with Engrish - these are the guys who brought us "All your base..." and ".. to the full extent of the jam." after all) and then puts you back into level one to play through the thing again. Problem is, the enemies now fire roughly ten times as many bullets, not to mention go on firing for a second after you kill them. Any complaints you have about it being a little two easy the first time are well and truly quashed.

A final, truly original addition to the standard shooter fare is the combo system. This is genius, to really appeal to the best players around as something to go for to prove their ability. Basically, if you destroy an enemy and then destroy another and another and keep the succession going, the game keeps track of successive hits. In the later levels, where the enemies come thick and fast, absolutely insane combos are possible (even by me) although I'm sure there are people who could improve vastly on my skill. It's worth mentioning that in DoDonPachi, combos became even more mental, with the sheer number of enemies allowing 3 figure scores.

As far as graphics and sound go, the game is pretty standard, although pretty good considering it's coming up to be 10 years old. I haven't played the Saturn or PSX ports, although I'd guess they have much the same graphics. Sound is pretty so-so, although the wiseass wingman deserves a mention. At the start of each level, he chips in with "This is it - show us what ya got!" or something similar, and the voice actor is perfectly suited to the purpose. I still crack up when I hear him say "Wingleader to base, wingleader to base". I'm not exactly sure why. Disappointingly, the sequel replaced it with a female computer style voice which had 100% less cockiness and 200% more boringness. As featured in EVERY OTHER GAME EVER. Bah.

The game was a great success, and prompted the sequels DoDonPachi, DoDonPachi II: Bee Storm and DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou (the first of those is emulated, but the later two are not, at the time of writing. They are available on the PS2 though). DonPachi is emulated in MAME and many others, but I find Final Burn Alpha provides the best playing experience, as it's faster. Anyone who enjoys it's sequel, or any similar games such as 19XX or Battle Garegga could do much worse than to download the ROM (pretty small, at 4.5 megabytes) and give it a go.


Sources:

Playing the ROM in FBA
MAWS - www.mameworld.net/maws/ An arcade information system on a par with mame.dk, using the history.dat and a bunch of decent scripts to link everything.

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