Japanese developer CAVE is almost singe-handedly responsible for keeping the shoot-em-up genre alive in modern times – they have produced over 15 such titles since their formation in 1995. CAVE’s very first game, DonPachi, has also proved to be the most enduring, spawning many sequels under the DoDonPachi moniker. None of the DoDonPachi console ports have made the trip to the US, but DoDonPachi Resurrection was at least released as a region-free Xbox 360 title in the UK. Thankfully, CAVE has taken to publishing their games on smartphones in the US – first releasing a handful of DoDonPachi titles on iOS, and now launching DoDonPachi Maximum for Windows Phone worldwide. Hardcore shmup fans will certainly enjoy Maximum, but the game’s esoteric design will leave some gamers scratching their heads, if not flinging their phones in frustration.
One man army
DoDonPachi Maximum is a 2D vertically-scrolling sci-fi shoot-em-up. To begin, players select from one of two available ships. The first has a wide spread shot, while the second fires a more powerful laser. That one’s my preference as it kills bosses much quicker. Two more ships are unlockable: the third by completing the fifth stage, while the fourth unlocks when you beat the fifth stage using the third ship. I doubt most players will ever see the third ship due to the final stage’s difficulty, but we do at least have some screenshots in our developer interview.
After choosing a ship, you’ll head to the Stage Select screen. Only the first of five stages is available initially, but beating it unlocks the next, and so on. More challenging versions of stages 2-5 can be unlocked by beating levels while meeting two of the following criteria: don’t die even once, kill every enemy, or don’t use bombs. If we include variants, there are a total of 15 stages – a lot for a shmup. Every stage is based on a classic level from either DoDonPachi Blissful Death or DoDonPachi Resurrection, borrowing the same enemies and their patterns.
Scoring and combos
CAVE fans love the developers’ games for their advanced scoring systems, and Maximum is no different. The closer you are to an enemy when it dies, the more points you get for it. This creates a risk-reward mechanic since getting closer makes for tougher dodging. Skillful players can also earn more points by maintaining long combos. As you blast enemies, the combo meter at the right fills up, multiplying your score. Go too long without shooting anything and the meter depletes, ending the combo. Honestly, I’m not great at maintaining huge combos or getting close to enemies, but dedicated players will enjoy working both systems for higher scores.
Touch screen bliss
While arcade sticks or controllers with high-quality d-pads are the ideal methods for controlling a shoot-em-up, Maximum’s touch screen controls work quite well. Touching the screen anywhere and dragging your finger moves the ship around. Naturally this allows for fast and nuanced movement as you weave between enemy fire. Keeping your finger directly on the ship would obscure it and complicate dodging, so CAVE has included a large blank space at the bottom of the screen. This allows you to keep your finger a bit below the ship, mostly avoiding covering up anything important.
The ship constantly fires its main weapon, so you don’t have to worry about that. Screen-filling bombs, which charge up over time, require manual activation. When a bomb is ready and the situation calls for it, pressing two fingers on the screen instead of one will use it. Easy as cake! I mean, piece of pie! Whatever. The ship also fires a less-damaging auto-bomb when you lose a life.
Welcome to bullet hell
Speaking of dying, players get exactly three lives per level. You can’t earn extra lives, nor is there mid-level continuing. You can choose to play on any unlocked level, which is good for a mobile game (and probably all games if you ask me). But that doesn’t make the game much easier. See, modern shoot-em-ups are extremely challenging. Most can be finished by any player, regardless of skill, because they allow you to continue whenever you run out of lives. CAVE titles tend to reward clearing the game on a single credit, locking away the true ending, etc., but at least an average Joe can experience most of the game. Since Maximum doesn’t let players continue, clearing even the regular versions of each level will likely be beyond some players’ skills.
That’s my one and only complaint about Maximum. It is unapologetically, frustratingly, groin-kickingly hard. There are just so many bullets on-screen at once, the safe path between them often difficult to find before your ship gets hit. Yes, I’ve been known to criticize games for their difficulty in the past – most notably Tentacles. But this game makes Tentacles look like Collapse, if you get my drift. And I’m no stranger to shmups – while I can’t claim to be a high level player, I have enjoyed them since the Galaga days. The genre was once fairly popular, but over the years it has dwindled to niche status.
There are many reasons for the decline of shoot-em-ups, but difficulty has to be the number one problem. Make no mistake, many shmup fans crave high difficulty, and they will love Maximum. But what about casual players who don't want to devote large amounts of time to perfecting each level? Do they deserve to be excluded? If the game had either continues or an easy mode, then more people could enjoy it. Instead, only high-caliber genre fans will even be able to beat the last stage, and that can’t be good.
Maximum’s Achievements are just as exclusionary as its difficulty. At the time of this writing, only a single player in the world has them all, and I doubt the number will ever go much higher. The Achievements fall into three main categories: beating each stage, beating each stage without dying, and reaching high score goals on each stage. The ones for beating levels are mostly reasonable, except that level 5 really is way too tough. I managed to reach the final boss once, but the level is just so frustrating, I don’t know if I ever want to play it again. As for beating levels without dying – I actually managed to do that on the first four levels. Level 5? Not going to happen. The score Achievements are also beyond me, but I’m hoping somebody will make some videos to show people like me how it’s done.
Finally, Maximum’s two secret Achievements are for beating all 15 level variants and for defeating the hidden boss, Hibachi. The method for reaching Hibachi hasn’t been made public yet, but in previous games it required beating the game on a single credit (at minimum). It’s safe to say that most players won’t get either of these.
I wish I could enthusiastically recommend DoDonPachi Maximum to every old-school gamer with a Windows Phone. The game sports an attractive dot matrix aesthetic with vector backgrounds, great techno music (other than the jazzy, anti-climatic level 5 tune), and excellent controls. And it can be fun, for a time. But once you hit your personal difficulty wall, whatever it may be (level 5 for me), the game goes from tempura-delicious to wasabi-yucky. Some folks won’t mind the grueling challenge and will happily practice to their hearts’ content... Nothing wrong with that. I just wish the developers had provided a way for everyone else to experience and enjoy the entire game too, instead of just preaching to the bullet hell choir.
DoDonPachi Maximum costs $4.99 and there is a free trial. Get it here on the Marketplace, shmup fans!