Remember back when shoot-em-ups weren’t all impossibly hard bullet hell shooters? Konami’s Gradius series got its start back then, first as an arcade game and then a multitude of console ports (including the fine NES version). Gradius was so successful, it spawned numerous sequels (Gradius V on Playstation 2) and a spin-off series: Parodius. That brings us to Otomedius, the successor to the Parodius series.
Otomedius Excellent is the sequel to Otomedius Gorgeous, a game that sadly never saw release outside of Japan. The story unfolds through a beautiful fully-animated introduction as well as bits of dialogue during levels. With the prominent anime-esque character designs from Mine Yoshizaki, creator of the Sgt. Frog manga, Otomedius Excellent clearly appeals to Japanophiles. As such, Konami elected to subtitle the game’s dialogue rather than dub it. Subtitles and twitch-based shooting go together like ketchup and rice, but you can always ignore them when things get hectic. Oddly, a lengthy mid-game speech from the final boss goes mostly unsubtitled.
The Otomedius series’ claim to fame is the wide variety of playable female characters, all of whom reference other Konami games. We’ve already covered their provocative designs and referential origins, so let’s talk about how they affect the gameplay. Each girl has her own default weapon loadout. Most weapons can be swapped out with others from the same category, allowing any character to be customized to your own play style.
Besides their appearances and voices, the main differentiating factors between characters are their Burst Attacks. Quick Bursts work like bombs, filling the screen and briefly protecting the player from attacks. But you only get a few per continue, so save them for tense situations. Holding the burst button until the meter fills up releases a Charge Burst. These special attacks tend to do severe damage to bosses. Even better, they aren’t limited use, so you can charge one up whenever the action lulls.
Just like Gradius, certain enemies drop powerups when defeated. These fill the power bar at the bottom of the screen by one increment. Every position on the bar activates a different powerup – speed ups, missiles, lasers, options (floating orbs/etc. that fire alongside the player), and more. Without a force field, you’ll die with one hit and lose all of your powerups – except for the options, which can be grabbed before they scroll off the screen. As a result, keeping a force field active at all times is an important strategy.
Excellent consists of 8 side-scrolling stages, the last one only appearing on the Expert difficulty level. Each stage ends with a boss fight, many with multiple minibosses too. The gigantic boss ships resemble typical Gradius bosses, but they’re piloted by ladies from other Konami games (Parodius, Tokimeki Memorial, and more). Bosses always have at least one core that you have to knock out in order to beat them. Take too long and they’ll fly off, robbing you off the points a win would have bestowed. That’s annoying at first, but play the game enough and you’ll discover how to properly beat them (usually by combining a good weapon loadout and Charge Bursts).
Otomedius Excellent is dramatically easier than bullet hell shmups, the swarms of bullets usually quite manageable. Setting the difficulty to Expert (necessary to unlock several characters) certainly increases the challenge as enemies fire a lot more, yet it never feels impossible to survive. Serious bullet hell fans may be put off by Excellent’s reduced need for memorization and superhuman reflexes, but normal people will have fun with it. Even the Achievements are within the grasp of regular humans. The only annoying one, ‘Top Gun,’ requires players to earn a score that takes about 4 hours of continuous gameplay to achieve. With the right settings it’s doable, but what an unfun thing to ask of someone.
Whereas the first game only featured competitive multiplayer, Otomedius Excellent has both online and offline co-op for up to three players. I appreciate the addition of co-op, but its implementation leaves much to be desired. On the plus side, offline multiplayer lets players choose the starting level and wave, an important option when looking for unlockable weapons. Now the bad news: the second and third players get unlimited lives, but when the first player runs out of lives, the game ends. This means you’ll need to not only make the best player play as first, but he’ll also need to pick up most of the powerups and keep a force field going if you hope to get anywhere. Naturally, only the first player gains progress towards Achievements too.
Local co-op also suffers from an annoying bug in certain levels. Whenever a level scrolls both horizontally and vertically, the second and third players can’t move past a certain height. If the first player scrolls the screen down, his partners will get stuck and disappear until the level returns to the standard height. This only happens a few times throughout the game, but it really shows how little thought and time the developers put into multiplayer.
As if the local co-op wasn’t haphazard enough, online multiplayer fares even worse. When the second or third player dies, they are sent back to the lobby. Only when the host player reaches a checkpoint can the other players respawn. Should the host run out of lives, the game simply ends. How could anyone botch co-op so badly in a shmup? Perhaps the guy who designed Excellent’s multiplayer component resented being forced to include it so much that he intentionally sabotaged it.
Otomedius Excellent is something of a budget release, with simplistic but adequate 3D graphics and the aforementioned lack of English vocals. As such, it comes in both a value-priced standard edition ($29.99) and a special Collector’s Edition ($49.99). The Collector’s Edition includes the standard game case, a 2-sided pillow case, art book and CD soundtrack, all housed in a flimsy (but pretty) cardboard box. The book contains a variety of production art from both Otomedius games, whereas the soundtrack’s 37 songs are mostly taken from Gorgeous rather than Excellent. If those items sound good to you, go for the nicer edition.
Shoot-em-ups are a rare breed these days, with non-bullet hell ones practically extinct. That alone makes Otomedius Excellent something special. The cute, distinctive character designs and abundant Konami references lend the classic gameplay some extra charm. I wish the developers hadn’t botched the multiplayer so severely, making it difficult to recommend Excellent as a co-op game. But if you love side-scrollers and don’t mind flying solo, it’s still a must-buy.