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Unlocking the thrill of one of gaming's most hardcore genres

Cave story.

Do you have to be good at games to enjoy them? I'd argue I'm living proof that's not the case: I'm abysmal at the things and I love them. Indeed, some of the games I love the most are from a genre with a reputation for being the most hardcore. Shmups, it would seem, are serious business.

Can you be a casual shmup player? Well I'm certainly one, drawn as much to the spectacle and strangeness of the genre. These things are so pure in their abstraction, and often so dazzling in their art and aesthetic, that I've always found them irresistible, even if I'm typically drawn to more stately classics such as Darius or Gradius which are more apt for aging players like myself.

Up until now I've never really dabbled so much in Cave's work, probably because I'd been put off by their own reputation: offering diamond-edged challenge and featuring arcane scoring systems, they've always seemed the preserve of the real purist. M2's Shot Trigger series seemed like a good point to jump in, though, especially now one of them's finally found its way to Nintendo's Switch (or at least it has in Japan, where it's still easily enough to grab a copy off the eShop if you can't be bothered with the hassle of importing).

Esp.Ra.De isn't the most highly praised of Cave's output, nor the most discussed - perhaps because it's had to wait until now to get a home release. It is, by the standards of Cave's later output, a fairly primitive game too, which only helps make it more accessible to newcomers - though M2 also does a fine job of that.

The Shot Triggers series, which so far have taken in Battle Garegga, Dangun Feveron and Ketsui Deathtiny, might seem tailored for the more serious-minded player. They're like Criterion Collections that fold in perfect recreations of beloved and often hard-to-source arcade originals and then fold in a staggering amount of increasingly imaginative extras. There are remixes, new characters, tweaks to old mechanics that have been exposed over time and all sorts of technical magic that gets these things playing nicely with modern screens.

The Shot Triggers games are perfect for chasing high scores, but I don't think it's disseminated widely enough that they're also perfect for newcomers curious about the genre. Indeed, it's part of M2's very MO.

"The purpose of Shot Triggers is to help players understand the joy of STG games," engineer and enthusiastic hobbyist Masayuki Fukui says in an insightful interview. "As for what that joy consists of, I think it's primarily their primitiveness, or abstraction, that allows them to be played and enjoyed very simply. In addition, I think there's a unique aesthetic and presentation. We hope the Shot Triggers series can communicate that excitement to players too."

This new version of Esp.Ra.De has certainly got me excited about Cave shmups more than any game before it. Partly it's because of the introduction of an easy mode - which in some parts is sacrilege, I'm sure - and partly it's because of the new challenge mode that breaks the entire game out into bite-sized chunks. Mostly, though, it's M2's fantastic gadgets that makes me love the thing. The more bountiful in systems a game is the better it is, surely, and there's no greater joy than seeing those systems fully exposed.

Esp.Ra.De's gadgets let you peer under the hood and marvel at all the whizzing machinery underneath, where you can see enemy types, the fully unfurled scroll of a level, chain counters, shot power and weak points. It's where the push and pull of the scoring system is fully revealed to less knowledgeable players, and where Esp.Ra.De's secrets are to be found. It's dizzying stuff, underlining this particular shmup's position somewhere between magic and science as it juggles its numerous parts. When you see all that come together, I don't think you have to be a pro player to appreciate the beauty of it all.

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