The end of the argument
Depressingly, of late we've still been at the stage in the development of the iPod as a gaming platform where the self-styled "hardcore" feel able to dismiss it as not being a "proper" games machine, claiming that it runs nothing but five-minute casual games. As of last Friday, that time is over.
That's because last Friday, after almost no advance hype (the first I even heard about it was just three days before), Espgaluda 2 arrived in the App Store. Previously the only way to play Cave's arcade bullet-hell shooter in the home was via a £50 import copy of the Xbox 360 version, but at the time of writing you can buy the iPod/iPhone version for £2.99 (soon to rise to £6.99).
Bullet-hell shmups (sometimes more picturesquely called "death-blossom" shooters) are about as hardcore as hardcore gaming gets. Oddly, though, the incredible outpourings of enemy fire aren't even the most forbidding or exclusionary thing about them. Most modern shmups have scoring systems so abstract and impenetrable that the average punter who isn't scared away by the tsunami of bullets will quickly lose interest over the seemingly random, illogical nature of their scores.
(Often with this type of game, your first attempt – when you just shoot stuff and try to stay alive – will garner a lot more points than subsequent ones when you've learned what you're "supposed" to be doing, and as a result get yourself killed going for fancy multiplier bonuses and the like. This is so counter-rewarding that it can quickly leave anyone but a socially-dysfunctional shmup obsessive frustrated and bored.)
And yet, the iPod port of Espgaluda 2 is not only a totally uncompromising and absolutely stunning technical achievement, but is also in several respects (friendlier, more accessible and more enjoyable) a BETTER game than either the arcade original or the enhanced 360 version.
And let's be clear here – we're NOT talking about "better considering the limitations of the platform". We're talking about just plain better.
(This is probably as good a time as any to point out that sadly, Espgaluda 2 currently only runs on the iPhone 3GS or on 3rd-generation iPod Touches*. Older hardware can't cope with it, though frankly it runs so amazingly well on the higher-end hardware that I can't believe a lower-powered version won't appear in the future. It seems to have plenty of spare oomph that could be trimmed down a bit for 2G units- 1G would probably be a stretch – while still outputting a totally playable level of performance.)
So let's talk about the game. iPod Espgaluda 2 comes with both a standard Arcade Mode, and a new iPhone Mode, which makes one pretty major tweak to the gameplay. Other choices to make before you get started include three different fighters with different abilities, three difficulty settings, three different fire-control methods, and whether you want the buttons up the left or right edges of the screen. You can (and should) also alter the screen size if you don't like having borders round it.
Kick the game off in Arcade Mode and you'll find that you have three types of attack. There's your autofiring normal shot, plus a Charge Barrier, which protects you from all enemy fire and builds up a devastating R-Type-style multiple beam attack, which is more powerful the longer you hold the button down. (When you trigger the charge you can still move your ship around the screen normally with the same finger – you just let go momentarily to unleash the attack.)
The Charge Barrier has a limited energy supply, which is replenished rarely and under circumstances I haven't yet worked out, except that it gets partly restored when you die, or when you collect a power-up icon for it – something you'll be lucky to see two or three times in a complete run through all six levels of the game.
(By default, depending on your attack mode the Charge Barrier also works as an emergency automatic smart bomb at a cost of varying amounts of its charge, though you can switch this off in Expert control mode.)
The key to Espgaluda 2, though, is your "Awakened Perception" attack. This is a variant on the normal laser, and is fuelled by collecting green Spirit Gems from destroyed enemies. When your character is Awakened, enemy bullets change from blue to purple and move more slowly, and destroyed enemies create gold bars instead of the green gems, greatly increasing your score.
However, if you stay in Awakened mode after your green gems run out, enemy bullets turn red and move faster than the normal blue ones. You still get the gold bars, but obviously you run a significantly higher risk of death. And basically that's it – you have to balance the big Awakened points against the safety of switching to normal fire for a bit to stock up on green gems and avoid having to deal with fast red bullets.
iPhone Mode changes Awakened Perception significantly. Now your Awakened character is unable to move, and rather than firing a variant of normal shots you have an Awakening Pulse, whereby you tap the screen to damage enemies and destroy (or "cancel", to use the correct shmup argot) bullets. You only get gold bars for enemy bullets that are onscreen when you exit the Awakened attack, and their value is determined by a multiplier based on how long you remained in the mode.
(Unlike in Arcade Mode, it's not possible to stay Awakened when you're out of green gems. However, because you're turning bullets into gems again rather than gold bars, it's possible to replenish your supply while you're still in the mode, and therefore prolong it for far longer to build up the bonus. But be careful not to kill the enemy before exiting Awakening and collecting the points, because if your Pulses blow it up when you're farming the bullets for fuel-gems, is no gold for you.)
Otherwise, the two modes are pretty much the same. Personally I prefer the simplicity of Arcade Mode, but iPhone Mode offers more scope for score-mining, and it's certainly excellent to have the choice.
But we still haven't really talked about why Espgaluda 2 is so brilliant, or why it's so particularly brilliant on the iPod. And the answer is that with the iPod version, Cave have taken the ultra-hardcore bullet-hell genre back to a place that's more accessible to normal people, rather than carrying on down the diminishing path of slavish fan-service that was in danger of leading shmups into the Sparsely-Populated Forest Of Nerdy Gloom, the way it did with fighting games until Street Fighter 4 came along.
Much of the reason for this are the controls. Games which would normally be played with a joystick have been a bit of an Achilles heel for the iPod until now, with onscreen virtual joypads often a desperately poor substitute for the tactile feedback of physical buttons. But Espgaluda 2 controls like the very best kind of dream.
Taking as its starting point the excellent "anywhere pad" of Space Invaders Infinity Gene (whereby anywhere you touch onscreen becomes the neutral point of the joystick), EGL2 adds the bottom-of-the-screen dead zone that SIIG so badly needed, meaning that now you can have your finger positioned naturally below your ship so that it doesn't obscure it, but still be able to get the ship all the way to the bottom of the play area.
Allied to this is superb precision response, enabling you to move your ship just a single pixel or sweep it halfway round the screen with equally flawless accuracy. I couldn't imagine how they were going to get sufficiently fine movement to make this genre work on a little iPod screen, but my doubts have been utterly obliterated. In several hours of play, I've yet to lose even a single life because my ship went somewhere I didn't want it to. Espgaluda 2 on the iPod is far MORE precise than playing the game with a joypad or even a joystick, and that's an astonishing feat.
It's this freedom of movement that makes the game so much more accessible, too. Most death-blossom shmups get savagely difficult , bordering on impossible, by the third level (sometimes sooner). But being able to zip around the screen as fast as you can point makes EGL2 substantially easier, in terms of purely staying alive. Maximising your score, of course, is still another matter altogether, and is where the skill lies.
Even players of very moderate ability have a decent fighting chance of getting through all six levels of this game in a single credit after a bit of practice, something which just isn't the case with most bullet-hell shooters. Novices won't be handing over their money for a game they only have a hope of seeing a quarter of, while shmup obsessives still have huge scope for nailing exponentially higher scores. Espgaluda 2 on iPod is the way forward for shmups – I hope and pray it's a huge and lucrative hit so that it can be followed swiftly by many more.
In the interests of professionalism I ought to mention the one minor fly I've discovered in the game's ointment too. For some weird reason, Espgaluda 2 maintains separate high scores for Arcade and iPhone modes, and within those it has separate high scores for each of the three fighters you can choose (making six separate high scores), but DOESN'T distinguish between scores achieved at Novice, Normal or Hard difficulties.
At first I supposed that this must be because harder modes feature more bullets and would therefore provide more point-scoring opportunities, but that only seems to be the case in iPhone Mode. (I've done what as far as I can tell are more or less identical perfect Arcade runs through the first stage with the same character on each of the three settings, using Awakened Perception the whole way and taking no hits, and ended up with scores separated by barely one or two percent.) The high score page doesn't even have a little mark showing which setting was used, which is an incredibly odd oversight.
The game could also do with Score Attacks for each individual level, because as it stands the increased ease of survival quickly leads to an average single credit lasting 20 minutes or more, which is a bit of a drag if you just fancy a super-quick blast while you're waiting for your train. Cave have shown such a grasp of what iPhone gaming is about with EGL2 that it's a shame they've slipped up here.
Hopefully those things will be easy to address in an update, but in any event it's the tiniest of blights on the face of a game that basically annihilates the previous standards of the App Store and raises the bar of iPod gaming by about three feet all by itself. THIS is hardcore.
So the next time anyone tells you the iPod is only good for shallow minigames, show them yours with Espgaluda 2 running, and then SMASH THEM IN THE FACE REPEATEDLY WITH IT UNTIL THEY'RE JUST A BLEEDING, WHIMPERING MUSH THAT NOBODY WILL EVER WANT TO LOOK AT AGAIN FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. (Then help yourself to their wallet, because you're probably going to need a new iPod.)
It's the only language these people understand.
* Due to an error, Espgaluda 2 currently won't install straight out of the App Store on 3rd-gen iPod Touches, only iPhones. Cave have promised an update shortly, however you can easily get the current version running on a Touch inside 60 seconds by performing this simple fix.
PLEASE NOTE: you do NOT need your iPod to be "jailbroken", or modified in any way, for this to work.
1. Go into the iTunes>>Mobile Applications folder on your PC (or whatever the equivalent Mac location is) and find ESPGALUDA.IPA.
2. Move the file out to another folder on your hard drive and open it using WinRar or similar.
3. Inside the file you'll see a folder called "Payload". Open that and you'll see another folder called "Espgaluda.app". Copy the "Espgaluda.app" folder onto your hard drive.
4. In iTunes, go to the Apps page – under "Library" down the left menu bar – and delete Espgaluda 2 from the list. If it asks you if you want to move it to the Recycle Bin, say yes. (It shouldn't ask, as long you moved the IPA file out in step 2 rather than copying it out.)
5. Now, with the Apps page still open, drag and drop the "Espgaluda.app" folder from your hard drive into the Apps page. It should appear there with no icon.
6. Sync your iPod, and that's it. Espgaluda 2 should appear (with its normal icon), and work perfectly.