Version tested: Xbox 360
G.Rev's, Senko no Ronde was a curious shooter/fighter hybrid that was brought to the UK in 2007 under the pseudonym of WarTech. For those who've never played it - which, judging by the measly sales figures, is almost everyone - the gameplay can be loosely described as a top-down Virtual On with both players trading salvoes of projectiles.
While that may sound contrived to the uninitiated, it was this clever meshing of two classic genres which made WarTech such a breath of fresh air. And even for those with Street Fighter and Gradius one-credit credentials, its unique approach to competitive one-on-one fighting meant that, right from the get-go, everyone was discovering a new way to play.
But despite brimming with originality, WarTech's hardcore nature meant it was destined for obscurity in the West, and unfortunately it looks like no one's interested in publishing this recent sequel outside of Japan. But for those who'd buy a broken Japanese 360 off eBay in the hope of opening up the world of import shmups by repairing it (i.e. me), Senko no Ronde DUO is entirely worth the effort.
As before, the gameplay is akin to a fighting game, with each player controlling a Rounder (read: anime-style robot) over the course of three rounds, with a familiar garnish of health bars, super meters and timers. But rather than facing off at close range in a bout of mecha fisticuffs, the fighting system is built upon the premise of a bullet-hell shooter.
This means each player is locked to an overhead view and can use the analogue stick to move freely in two dimensions, just as you would in a Konami or Cave-endorsed shmup. After that it's just a case of familiarising yourself with each Rounder's arsenal of projectile attacks.
These are split between Main, Sub and Barrage attacks, with each type mapped to a face button. Main weapons are your primary form of attack and usually boil down to firing a stream of bullets in a straight trajectory. Sub weapons require more strategy to use effectively, but their versatility and damage output is often greater.
Lastly, Barrage attacks are a cross between Street Fighter supers and Defender smart bombs, as in addition to burning meter and requiring analogue flicks and 360 motions to execute, their effect can be anything from dosing the arena in laser confetti to projecting a purple-hued barrier that your opponent can't pass through.
However, while DUO often emphasises the "best defence is a good offence" mentality, surviving a heated round also requires methodical taps of the Action button. Holding and tapping Action will differentiate between your bullet-absorbing shield and lifesaving dash. When faced with bullet-wall situations - which, against a competent opponent, will be fairly frequently - mastering the nuances of the dash's invulnerability frames is still the key to survival. But just as in a Capcom fighter, your ultimate game plan will be a reflection of your character's strengths.
Here G.Rev has expanded the roster from eight to 14 with returning characters including Sakurako's combination of sticky mines and rocket barrages, and Chang Po's tricky payload of dual cannons and tracking lasers. But whereas some movesets have been subtly tweaked, fans can expect a revamped Mika with angelic wings, and an entirely new B.O.S.S. form that's less Silver Surfer and more Millennium Falcon for Fabian the Fastman - who, as his name suggests, still pilots one of the swifter Rounders.
DUO's select screen also offers many new faces, and the new Rounders are unlikely to disappoint experienced WarTech players. Highlights include a samurai Rounder with lethal close combat skills, exploding shurikens and a teleporting special move, as well as a slow but powerful tank Rounder with two turret-based stances that mix up its projectile ordinance. Each new Rounder also receives a new B.O.S.S. form with designs including UFOs, snakes and space-station tumblers.
B.O.S.S. mode was the feature which made WarTech stand out from even Virtual On, as once per round the player could morph their Rounder into a screen-filling missile frigate or battle mech, paying homage to the back catalogue of daunting shmup bosses. The purpose of this was either to give the losing player one last shot at clinching an epic victory, or alternatively, to allow the dominating player to drown their opponent in a sea of finely woven B.O.S.S. fire.
While that may sound a little OTT, competitively the game should be seen as no different from an accessible yet mechanically hardcore fighter. That said, if talking about dash cancelling and invincibility frames gets your hadouken senses tingling, then DUO's brand new Assist mechanic should twinge a "marvellous" nerve in your muscle memory.
After selecting a Rounder each player must now choose an Assist type. If this sounds like Marvel vs. Capcom to you, then you're on the right track, as each Assist offers one of four attacks and one of three buffs. The selected Assist can then be triggered once per round with both the attack and buff being executed simultaneously; as an example, one Assist will call in a squadron of bullet-spewing drones with a temporary buff to your defence.
So, DUO feels like a mechanically tight fighter, but one where the most rewarding combos revolve around discerning your opponent's movement and bullet patterns, and countering with dashes and projectile volleys that are both unpredictable and hard to evade. It has so much depth you could publish a phone-book-sized strategy guide detailing each character's most effective tactics. But at the same time, DUO isn't a game that demands you analyse frame data, because the frantic pacing of this refreshing hybrid can still be appreciated even in friendly competition with friends.
DUO's bizarre new Commander mode may prove an interesting - if brief - distraction. As far as I've been able to fathom, this mode has you assigning orders to an AI-controlled Rounder by moving both sticks in different directions, and if you help the AI to do damage, then a rectangular face at the bottom of the screen improves in its disposition. This gets old quickly.
Aside from Commander mode there's the usual fighter-themed selection of Arcade, Versus, Score Attack and Training modes. G.Rev has also furnished DUO with an expanded Story mode, but with everything in Japanese, including all the menus, I've no idea whether I'm listening to thought-provoking space opera or, probably more likely, sentimental shojo tripe.
Compared to WarTech's unique brand of epileptic disco, DUO feels like a noticeable step up graphically with less jagged edges and a subtly smoother veneer (the only slowdown I experienced was a few blips while taking on the new Mother Brain inspired end-boss). This, thankfully, also applies to the improved online functionality, which feels noticeably more stable. But unless you have some import-savvy friends, you'll be limited to ranked and player matches against Japanese gamers, which judging from my growing losing streak is likely to begin with a long period of ritualistic suicide.
Senko no Ronde DUO is a loving amalgamation of two hardcore genres which, much like Virtual On before it, transcends its premise by offering a genuinely different competitive framework. As a sequel to a game that has all the makings of a cult classic, DUO adds enough new tech and extra content to be considered a worthy follow-up.
Unfortunately, the chances of DUO being released in the UK are virtually non-existent. But if you're one of the few who remember WarTech with fond reverence - or perhaps just a fighter or shmup fan looking to try something else - then this is one import that's worth pursuing.
8 / 10