The harrowing of bullet hell.
Few game genres summon the sounds, sights, and downright stink of the good old arcade days more than shoot-'em-ups. Back before the days of teh Haloz, these were the real “shooters”. But over the years, the genre’s been pushed further and further to the fringes of the gaming landscape, where shmup fans now have more in common with elderly shuffle-board players than with the youngsters pwning them in Call of Duty.
[image1]Luckily for us shmup fans, Treasure—along with bullet hell evil geniuses Cave—have been keeping the old-school shooter torch burning. While Treasure is best known for classic console shooter Gunstar Heroes, they’ve also made their fair share of insanely technical shooters (yes, I’m looking at you, Ikaruga). Treasure’s latest, Sin & Punishment 2: Star Successor, is the Wii follow-up to their Japan-only release for the Nintendo 64. Regularly cited as one of the most sought-after imports in its day, the original Sin & Punishment was remarkable for its bizarre blend of 2D and 3D shooter gameplay.
Star Successor builds on the original’s unusual approach to the genre but finds a perfect fit on the Wii. The nunchuck moves your character on a 2D plane, allowing you to dodge, jump, and fly around bullets and enemies all while shooting them down using the Wii remote’s pointer. You’ll spend the majority of the game balancing your attention between each of those two focal points, one eye on your character and the other on your bullets. In effect, it’s like you’re controlling and managing two different cursors at all times, one dodging bullets and the other killing things.
It’s the only game of its kind that fully justifies the Wii’s unique controller. Rather than shoehorning the game to fit the controller or vice versa (or copping out altogether and using the Classic Controller, like in Monster Hunter Tri), Treasure has made a game that feels like the only so-called “hardcore” title on the console that was designed with Wii controls in mind from the get-go—even more so than games developed internally by Nintendo.
At its best, Sin & Punishment 2 is console shmupping perfected. As you get a handle for the game’s fast-paced action and its bi-focal divide between character movement and aiming, you’ll hit some amazingly sweet spots. There are sections of the game where you’ll fluidly weave in and out of enemy fire while independently taking aim at baddies, making for some seriously blissful badassery. Some of the boss battles feel like something taken straight out of Treasure’s classic Ikaruga and force you to carefully navigate between narrow bands of lasers and bullet streams. Most promising of all for score-hungry leaderboard junkies, the combo system gives you something to master for the long haul. Toss seamless co-op into the package and Star Successor has some substantial lasting value.
[image2]There are some major letdowns, though. For starters, Star Successor’s pacing is all over the place. Some levels consist of little more than a series of boss battles. Some levels are short. Some are long. Some are ridiculously easy. Some are ridiculously hard. The overlong cutscenes are distractingly bad and bring the game to a screeching halt whenever they appear. Overall, Sin & Punishment 2 is too irregular in its structure to hit that Zen-like plateau indicative of the best shooters, and it’s often too busy and manic to feel gripping - the way a good action game should.
But even less forgivable is the way scoring works. As any fan of the genre knows, a shmup is only as good as its scoring system. The fact that a Wii game has a fully functional online leaderboard is great news; however, the length of most of the levels runs counter to the spirit of score hunting. Chasing a score ordinarily depends on quick turn-around, and a long play session should only happen if you’re exceptionally good. But in Sin & Punishment 2, you’re forced to play for at least 20-30 minutes with each repeat shot at a high score.
I consider myself a dedicated score junky. I’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours aiming for higher and higher scores in dozens of shoot-em-ups over the decades. I’m even a sucker for time trials in racing games (and in genre hybrids like Mirror’s Edge). But Sin & Punishment 2 is just plain hostile to score hunters. It’s as if it’s trying too hard to be two different games at once: an action game where the goal is to progress the story and a shmup where the goal is to replay endlessly in pursuit of the “perfect game”. As an action game, it’s too short and lacking in plot; and as a shoot-em-up, it’s too long and poorly paced.
However, as a demonstration of how control mechanics can be designed for the Wii, Sin & Punishment 2 is pure brilliance. And in those moments where everything comes together, there’s really nothing quite like it. In brief bursts, you’ll swear it’s the best shooter ever made, but taken as a whole, it’s simply too much of a hybrid for its own good. It may not be the be-all end-all Wii shmup it could have been, but that doesn’t make it any less exhilarating while it lasts.