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When is a shmup not a shmup? When it's Pawarumi

Aztec camera.

A fun little trick some really smart people like to pull is observing that the game you love maybe isn't necessarily in the genre you thought it was. You thought Sonic the Hedgehog was a platformer? Oh my poor deluded child - it's a racing game, where you're speeding from one point to another as fast as you possibly can while you seek the path of least resistance. You really thought Pikmin was a real-time strategy? Well, darling, I think you'll find it's actually a survival horror game. And an essay on the fears and anxieties of a doting parent. And Pikmin 3 was all about what a monster Britanny is. Never forget.

Pawarumi? It's a shmup on the surface, and a fairly interesting one at that, with a sci-fi Aztec aesthetic that feels entirely its own. It's a handsome thing, complete with some top-tier production values, and absolutely full of colour. And colour's the big thing, as Pawarumi is a shmup built around colour-matching, asking you to pair up one of your three weapon types and three enemy types, with each different combination having a different effect - be that charging your shield or unleashing extra damage. It all makes for a deep, satisfying alchemy.

Cover image for YouTube videoPawarumi - Release Trailer (Europe)

Yes, Pawarumi is a shmup that's also really, not-so-secretly, a puzzle game. It's not the first to pull off that particular trick, of course - and Treasure's 2001 Ikaruga is an obvious one that springs to mind. You could, if you're feeling a little cantankerous, argue that there's a puzzle game at the heart of every shmup, and point towards the scoring mechanics at the heart of every good example of the genre - so let's just say that, in Pawarumi, that puzzle element is brought to the fore.

It's a more fluid, more flexible type of puzzling that Pawarumi offers - indeed, with its broader palette than the binary black/white shooting of Ikaruga, this is more like Ikaruga's predecessor (and the superior of Treasure's shmups, in my opinion at least), the exquisite Radiant Silvergun. Pawarumi shares a little more with that Sega ST-V marvel, being a vertical shooter played non-tate, with a wide play-space (in this instance, it's a 16:9 screen that's being filled out, and the added room sometimes feels like it hasn't properly been accounted for in enemy encounters - all of which can make Pawarumi feel a little lethargic at times).

What Pawarumi does, and what it does exceptionally well, is introduce an element of improvisation to its action. There's no clear critical path - or at least, if there is, I'm no way near finding it - and instead there's a thrill in mixing and matching different weapon types, coming up with new approaches on the fly depending on context and how close you are to carking it. That sense of urgency when you're near death is given an added intensity by the fact that, in Pawarumi, you have a single life and no continues. This game means business.

The Switch version might cut the frame-rate, but it does include a cute feature which has your ship colour matching those of whatever Joy-Cons you have attached. It's that kind of detail that lets you know you're in safe hands with Pawarumi.

It's far from perfect, mind. The popcorn enemies can feel flaccid, so it's up for the bosses to pick up a lot of the slack (something they do with aplomb, I'm pleased to say), and the Switch version which launched recently, and which was my first taste of Pawarumi, sees the frame-rate halved to 30fps, with a handful of stutters along the way. It's a small shame, though it only made me turn to my PC to sample it at a smoother frame-rate - and while it's no doubt better, the Switch does offer a fair approximation of Pawarumi's brilliance.

Is it the best shmup on Switch? Not really, though it's got more than enough style and smarts to recommend it. And, for that matter, is Pawarumi a shmup, or is it a puzzler? You know what, it really doesn't matter. Pawarumi is a damn fine video game, and that's all you really need to know.