Version tested: Xbox 360
Otomedius Gorgeous! is essentially a game about penguins and cleavage. It doesn't show us any penguins endowed with boobs of their own, because that would be hideous, but still, I reckon these two elements probably constituted 60 per cent of Otomedius G's design document. The remaining 40 per cent is a Gradius-inspired love-in at the shmup ranch.
Otomedius began its curious existence in Japan's arcades in 2007, and a conversion of that coin-op forms roughly half of this Xbox 360 release. It's as perfect as 'arcade perfect' console ports get: no slowdown, no compromises, no silly 'editing'. It even benefits from a couple of additions - a choice of six jazzy borders to flank its 4:3 display, and a three-player (not two-, not four- but three-player) Versus Mission mode playable via either Live or the impractical-but-decadent System Link option.
Versus Mission alone should be reason for shmup-heads to look at Otomedius G and say "Mmm, wouldn't mind a bit of that!" It's unusual to find competitive play in this genre away from high-score tables or Senko No Ronde, yet the Versus Mission mode here provides direct, immediate competition with quick rewards. It's a simple trick, too: players simultaneously take on a sequence of bosses, including the likes of Rolling Core and BigCore Mk-II from Gradius II, for a period of ten minutes. Each player has infinite lives and literal tabs are kept to show how your rivals are doing. This continues until the timer hits zero, at which point the results screen appears to confirm who won, who finished 2nd and who finished 3rd/last.
Later, you can check how your score compares on a wider scale by perusing the Rankings option, which automatically collates data from online Versus Mission matches, but that's very much an after-dinner biscuit - the main course, live boss-fight action, is a real event. In a practical sense, this means there's satisfaction to be had from winning shootouts on Live, which is great news for mortals whose high-score aspirations are tempered by the knowledge that they're just not very good at shmups. Being involved and in with a chance of some minor victory is much better than being stuck in 537th position. (Actually, Otomedius would say "537st" because it's funny like that.)
The other half of this disc is the exclamatory version of events, which fills the entire range of your telly with its 16:9 ratio and does indeed look 'Gorgeous!' This remix (designated as 'Gorgeous Mode' to differentiate it from the straight port's 'Original Mode') presents its own spin on the three-player action with an old-fashioned co-operative style of play. It's nice enough but hardly as interesting as Versus Battle mode. The stakes are raised by the threat of GAME OVER, mind - should even one of the three players see the eight dreaded letters, the entire trio's journey ends with an instant crash. There are no continues and no survivors. (Incidentally, 'GAME OVER' is written in the Gradius title font; looks great).
In spite of its pretty face, though, Gorgeous Mode plays like a slightly botched version of the real Otomedius. Original Mode features so-called 'Burst' attacks, which ensure a healthy balance between offensive potential and enemies' own strengths. A Quick Burst, triggered by a tap of the B button, performs a screen-wiping special attack led by a high-res anime character overlay. A D-Burst, meanwhile, can be powered as you see fit (holding the B button initiates a charge meter) and when unleashed causes the game to pause while you guide cursors toward danger spots; then the action resumes and the targets you settled on receive some of that massive damage. Gorgeous Mode has none of this, and as a result presents a greater challenge but one that can at times seem a bit lethargic. One plus is that its six levels include two areas not found in Original Mode, but these happen to be the prime examples of over-difficult stages lacking proper player empowerment.
There's also some slowdown when things get too hectic in Gorgeous Mode, although the Original Mode is flawless and unaffected - so it must be the 16:9 ratio and increased Gorgeousness of everything that's causing the slowdown. Of course, as is often true of slowdown in shmups, these periods of Treaclevision can help you to extricate yourself from tricky situations. The slow-mo thing isn't a frequent occurrence, though the difficult passages of play certainly are: perhaps Otomedius isn't quite as tough a cookie as Gradius III, but you could still chip your tooth on it. Biter beware.
There are so many instances of Gradius homage throughout Otomedius G that you'll soon become sick of the word 'homage' (if you weren't already). There are giant comets of fire to circumnavigate and dart between - remember those? - while Gradius' trademarked blue-and-pink hoops and zigzags of laser fire tend to zip across the screen just when you think you're in the clear. Those arching dragons from Gradiuses III and IV reappear, too, and in the unlikeliest of settings - between the sails of an airship that looks a lot like the one in Super Mario Bros. 3, for example. One of the game's later stages even has grainy screenshots of various Gradius vintages (plus some Salamander and Parodius shots) appearing and disappearing inside hexagonal tiles across the background. I almost expected a Japanese Bob Holness impersonator to appear as a mini-boss.
Holness or no Holness, there are a lot of penguins in Otomedius G. Penguins have long been associated with Konami's 2D shooters, so it's logical that the Big K's latest features these cute creatures. Less logical are the varieties and vocations of Otomedius' birdlife: penguins piloting UFOs and driving ice cream vans in Tokyo, mummified penguins and construction worker penguins in ancient Egypt... the silly list goes on. Partly because of the volume of penguin matter on display, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what can be shot at (and is therefore part of the foreground) and what can't (and is therefore of no consequence). The higher the level you play at, the more this becomes problematic. The solution is to learn stages by design as much as by enemy patterns, so bear that in mind if you're an impatient sort.
Otomedius Gorgeous! has more personality - and more obvious idiosyncrasies - than any shmup this side of Choaniki (And really, who wants to stand next to Choaniki?). It uses clever animation routines to imbue kamikaze traffic cones with real menace; the cones don't have comedy eyes or teeth, but they still look well scary. Elsewhere, you can try hitting the 'Burst' button when you're all out of ammo and your young lady pilot character will quip (in Japanese): "What's that - no Burst attacks left?! Ah well, not to worry; we can make do without..."
They're quite charming, really, these otome (lit., 'maiden') characters... to a point. But while they talk a good game, they're the victims of Konami's overly imaginative/hopeful designers, whose art direction will likely relegate Otomedius Gorgeous! to your secret stash of guilty pleasures alongside DoA Beach Volleyball, Sexy Parodius and, uh, Wii Sports. Most worryingly, half of the game's Achievements are dependent on your willingness to use the right analogue stick to direct a cursor and thereby cop a virtual feel of characters' 'special areas' on the select screen. Yep!
Oddly, though, once you're into the actual game and away from the camp menu screens, the gratuitous borderline-hentai sketches (is 115 gratuitous enough for you?) found in Otomedius G's Gallery Mode are rendered irrelevant by the tiny stature of your player character, who sits astride a nifty Viper ship. Unless you're playing Otomedius G at a Multiplex cinema - which, let's face it, you'll probably never get around to doing - you'll have to squint and use a magnifying glass to find any sauciness here. In-game, Otomedius Gorgeous! is basically sexless.
Still, if that doesn't put you off, Otomedius G is easy to recommend. It looks daft, but is in fact tremendously challenging, and it seems to have digitised the entire penguin population of Antarctica for our shmupping pleasure. And now the comedown you've all been waiting for: it'll never be released outside of Japan.
7 / 10