Editorial | 5/21/2012 at 1:39 PM

Co-Op International: Espgaluda II Black Label

If a frog had wings and a gun...

Welcome to the latest edition of Co-Op International. Here I discuss co-op games that have not been released in the US. This will include current gen games as well as classics. We hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Japanese games – please let us know in the comments section!

Last month’s Co-Op International column focused on Dodonpachi Resurrection, a popular shoot-em-up among import enthusiasts. This time we look at another vertically-scrolling bullet hell shmup from CAVE: Espgaluda II Black Label for Xbox 360. While the Espgaluda series is lesser known than Dodonpachi (and less populated with sequels), fans of the genre will find just as much to love here.

Espgaluda II’s setting and story feature an appealing blend of science fiction and fantasy. For years, an alchemist has experimented on young people with ESP powers, enhancing their abilities and giving them artificial wings for flight. These individuals are known as Galudas. Three Galudas: a brother and sister pair and a 12 year old girl escape from the program, wanting only to return to their normal lives. To maintain their freedom, they’ll have to fend off their military pursuers and defeat the royal family’s own Galudas. It’s a setup fit for an anime, though like Dodonpachi Resurrection, the story is told pretty much entirely during the ending rather than introductory or mid-game cinemas.

Vertically scrolling shoot-em-ups tend to fill only tiny portions of the screen with actual gameplay, unless played in tate mode (turning the screen on its side). The active screen area in Espgaluda II feels smaller than usual - the 2005 arcade original ran at a fairly low resolution, and the graphics haven't been updated. That’s not so bad if you’re sitting close to the screen, as it reduces the need for detecting bullets with your peripheral vision. I wouldn’t want to sit too far away, though.

Tiny window or not, Espgaluda II actually manages to look more impressive to my eyes than shmups like Ikaruga thanks to genuinely strong pixel art and background design. Locales include Victorian-looking towns, castles, and even an alchemic lab where Galudas are cloned. Enemies include steampunk tanks, dragon-like flying machines, and even tiny soldiers on foot who leave little blood splatters when killed. Though the game is two-dimensional, levels often have a feeling of depth to them thanks to clever camera tricks. The world is surprisingly detailed and well-realized for a game whose genre usually prioritizes cramming ridiculous numbers of bullets on-screen over depicting memorable scenery.

Espgaluda II is also a bit easier than standard CAVE fair, at least on its two Novice modes. Like most of the company’s shmups, this game packs a number of different modes (seven in all), each with subtly different mechanics and scoring mechanisms. No matter which mode you pick, your Galuda has two firing modes: standard (A button) and rapid (X button). The Right Trigger usually activates a Guard Barrier, provided you’ve collected enough energy pickups for it to work. The Guard Barrier eliminates most bullets on-screen, doubles as an attack, and can be a real life-saver.

The B button triggers one of three (!) Kakusei modes. These generally slow bullets down as long as you have gems collected from enemies to fuel them. When the gems run out, bad guys’ shots speed up, unless you toggle Kakusei off. In the Arrange game mode, Kakusei can also cancel out colored bullets, but it’s kind of a headache. The differences between Kakusei modes, as well as the systems that determine gem collection, scoring, etcetera (outlined here) read like stereo instructions to me, but I guess they make sense to proper genre aficionados and warlocks.

Espgaluda II is a bit more co-op friendly than Dodonpachi Resurrection, supporting drop-in, drop-out multiplayer in all the main game modes. Co-op still disables Achievements, which boggles the mind, but nobody buys CAVE games for the Achievements. The general impossibleness of the Achievements are actually an argument against buying these games, but I digress. Espgaluda II’s six stages (no second loop here) won’t take too long to blast through with a fellow fan of shooters.

Shoot-em-ups are an acquired taste these days thanks to their sadistic difficulty and overly-complex scoring systems. Espgaluda II doesn’t really break from that mold, but at least the Novice modes are actually easy enough to be fun for casual fans like me. Plus the game’s enchanting setting and artwork and peppy music instill it with the personality that most sci-fi shmups lack. If you’re looking for another trip to bullet hell, Espgaluda II Black Label is a fine way to get there.

Cultural quirks: Manga-style art and a story that could easily support an anime series are the most telltale signs of Japanese development. Also, the protagonists all have male and female versions for some reason.

Chances of coming to the US: Low. Espgaluda II is an older title and lacks true high-definition graphics that many western gamers would expect from a retail title. Perhaps CAVE will revisit it with an HD release as they’ve just done with Mushihimesama HD. Such a revamp would have a better chance of being picked up by an American or European publisher.

Language barrier: Medium. The menus are all in English, though prompts for saving and the likes display in Japanese text. The bosses’ voice samples, Achievements, tutorial mode, and ending texts are in Japanese as well. Simply playing the game won’t present a problem to non-Japanese speakers, but Achievement hunters will definitely want to hit up TrueAchievements or Xbox360Achievements for a guide.

Difficulty of importing: Low. While the Limited Edition of Espgaluda II that includes an Xbox 360 faceplate is region-locked for some reason, the standard version is not. Even better, the Platinum Hits version is both region-free and relatively affordable to import – YesAsia sells it for $39.99. If you’re an Apple user who’s not worried about the co-op, CAVE publishes an iPhone version ($7.99) and an HD iPad2 version ($13.99) in the US.