Genre: Shoot-em-up | Developer: Cave | Year: 2003 | Platform: arcade

Why is it that Ketsui is Cave’s finest game? Why get this excited about a shoot-em-up that doesn’t even have a polarity gimmick?

A long time ago, Ketsui was the game to be excited about in the anglosphere because you couldn’t have it. It would be a long time indeed between Cave’s first generation and second generation being playable in MAME, with no (generally incredibly expensive) PS2 port for Ketsui making it a bit of an oddity in the second generation. There was always a bit of mystique around Ketsui – real arcades being continually thin on the ground, the only actual way to play it was to know a guy with an arcade board, or worse yet be the guy with the board. My first paycheck from my first actual programming job bought me a Japanese 360 and a fresh copy of the (good, but not Deathtiny good) port.

But even free of an environment that asks you spend ridiculous money to play a game even once in most of the developed world, Ketsui is still a perfect shooting game. Why is this? It’s probably not the art – which is nice pre-rendered near-future military industry, but not quite as nice as ESP Ra.De. It can’t be the soundtrack – which is immortal, and easily some of Manabu Namiki’s best work; but spend a little time playing Cave’s classics and you’ll be falling over many, many banger tracks across a great many games.

The reason is simple, pure aggressive gameplay which fully understands how good the feeling of “commitment” in games is. There’s nothing gamers love more than committing to big actions. This is why we love ironsights, drifting and spindashes. Ketsui’s lock-on system turns out to be a lot more than “hold fire for increased damage” – to get the much-desired 5-chips for score, or even just to get the most efficiency out of both of the Tiger Schwert’s fire modes, you are forced to take aggressive positions on screen and hold them. You hold these positions, pixel by pixel, with your heels dug in and your gunship in a slow focused mode – you can’t stop holding the fire button until every rotten murder machine on screen but yours is dead, the lockon tone rattling off beep-beep-bee-beep-bee-beep-beep-beep. Full commitment.

The enemies are uniquely aggressive, too. Even as early as stage 2, certain enemies can very quickly overwhelm the player if not handled immediately – their fire patterns are neither pretty nor elegant. This curtain fire is simply how enemies deny you more and more space, how they cover their advance down the screen until you’re stuck in a corner waiting to die. So, we have to be proactive – we must get as far up the screen as we can, we try to control everything using the feel-good shot type1 of the century, we yield as little screen space as we can with bombs to relieve the pressure now and then. This design where we dig our heels in, hold the line and meet aggression with yet-purer aggression is not new, but is truly taken to its limits in Ketsui – making it a hell of a macho game even if you ignore the four fairly gay main characters.

As for the bosses, Ketsui and Dodonpachi Daioujou are where Cave’s boss patterns really started to get special. Daioujou is a truly wonderful game, but I feel that Ketsui has the stronger bosses – less reliant on soupy patterns, more directed, more variety in how they push and pull the player. There is particularly no small pleasure in how much of a paper tiger the final stage boss can feel like, especially after you’ve just proved yourself in surviving the reverse-scrolling segment just a minute ago.

Ketsui is a perfect shooting game. The PS4 Deathtiny M2 release happens to be a perfect version of a perfect game, but whether you’re playing it in an emulator, on a console or whether you travelled halfway around the world to Taito HEY to get the clear as I did, it stays perfect.

  1. I’m a lifelong Tiger Schwert player. Never touched the other ship. Why would I? It doesn’t have a shot pattern that feels like like holding a teaspoon under a running tap.