Version tested: Xbox 360
There's something oddly poetic about the fact that, on the same day that Microsoft cast its arms wide to embrace a new audience of casual players and non-gamers, its console witnessed the release of one of the most ferociously challenging games it's ever likely to host.
Cave's 1999 arcade shooter Guwange has been buffed up very slightly for its Xbox Live Arcade debut, with three distinct game modes and an array of options but it's still the same dizzyingly difficult bullet hell blast it was eleven years ago. Put it this way: it's not likely to get a Kinect control patch any time soon.
As with Cave's other maniac shooters, the screen is filled with a curtain of bullets 95 per cent of the time, and it's up to you to find the gaps. Absolute precision is required to navigate through these increasingly complex patterns and that's before you take the topography of the play area into consideration. Unlike DoDonPachi, you're not flying above the environment but walking across it, and so you've got to negotiate the bridges, hills and winding pathways of feudal Japan as you try to concentrate on the never-ending swarm of projectiles headed your way.
In theory, this adds an extra layer of depth, but sometimes it just feels like an inconvenience: as in life, you've got enough to worry about without having to think about where you're standing (which might explain me having to scrape the world's biggest dog turd off my shoe on the day I got my last tax bill). It's a bit like getting stuck on scenery in an FPS; when you're running backwards to safety, you don't always have time to check whether you've got a tiny fence or rock blocking your retreat.
Once you're past that particular obstacle, you've got another decision to make, and that's how you're going to destroy the soldiers, tanks and assorted mutants who want you dead. There's a rapid-fire mode which allows you to move around freely, and a limited number of bombs (which aren't really bombs in the strictest sense of the word) that temporarily offer a significant boost to your bullet damage.
But the ace in the pack is the shikigami, an invulnerable spirit guide who you can move into position with the control stick when you hold the fire button down. Naturally, this restricts your own movement, but the shikigami can collect power-ups and slow down enemy fire, turning their blue bullets a rather fetching shade of pink.
Not only does this allow you to dodge more effectively, but any projectiles remaining on-screen when your foe explodes transform into a shower of coins (as if the screen wasn't quite busy enough). You also earn coins from destroying enemies in quick succession, and it's when you start successfully chaining coin drops that your score will start to increase more rapidly.
At least, it will until you inevitably have to use up one of your infinite continues, at which point your score resets to zero. You have three lives per continue, though thankfully a single bullet won't take one of them away, instead gradually chipping away at your life meter. Despite the fact that the action rarely pauses for breath, you're never left in any doubt as to when you've been hit, each blow heralded by the sound of two swords clashing. A sound which occurs with increasing and depressing regularity by the time you hit Stages 5 and 6.
If Guwange is a fearsomely tough game, its difficulty curve is, for the most part, well-moderated. The first stage will lull many into a false sense of security, and clearing it within a single credit or even life on your first go is far from impossible. By Stage 4, you're contending with enemies above and below and repositioning your shikigami more frequently. But by that stage you're more confident with the nuances of the firing system and everything feels more natural. The final multi-form boss represents a pretty hefty spike, certain to destroy many a single-credit run and reduce even the most dexterous and patient of gamers to bitter tears but advocates of this particular genre will be more than familiar with such tribulations.
Those masochists will no doubt relish the opportunity to make the game even harder, with Blue mode offering an even steeper challenge. A larger percentage of players will likely prefer the new Xbox 360 mode, which allows you to control the shikigami independently with the right analogue stick. This makes the game quite significantly easier, as the ludicrous scores at the top of that particular leaderboard demonstrate.
Though the graphics haven't been improved, there's plenty of creativity in the enemy design, not least in the boss battles. A cat/spider hybrid is disturbing enough, but it's easily topped by the crawling monster with the baby-doll head, which will likely be haunting my dreams for the next few nights. The now-mandatory 'smoothing' option smears the rough edges, removing some of the character from the sprites in the process, while the TATE display takes up barely a third of the screen, though there are options to change the wallpaper to a number of attractive 2D art designs, and those with the facility to turn their telly on its side can zoom and rotate the display to fit.
There are leaderboards for every mode, a training option (which curiously doesn't seem to offer any kind of assistance whatsoever), various transparency and RGB settings to tweak, and a set of Achievements so tough that it'll take even seasoned shooter fans some time to get the full 200 points.
Despite the wealth of options and the addition of infinite continues which will no doubt lead some to complain that it can be completed in 20 minutes Guwange makes few concessions to a modern audience, and as such, Cave has almost certainly restricted its game to a niche crowd. But that's an observation, not a criticism and as the Xbox 360 suddenly receives an army of new, limb-flailing converts, it's heartening that the fans of one of gaming's most hardcore genres have something to give their thumbs an equally exhausting workout.
8 / 10