The last time SNK Playmore released a shmup on Xbox Live Arcade, it was the abysmal King of Fighters: Sky Stage, a game that provoked an outpouring of abuse in the comments thread of this very site. While those comments never saw the light of day, it did serve to illustrate just (and how can we put this delicately) `fanatical` some Shmup fans seem to be about the genre.
SNK have seen fit to release another title in the genre, Trouble Witches Neo! (TWN!) on XBLA. Spread across six different levels, TWN! is a horizontally scrolling shmup that seems intent on appealing to those who might ordinarily run screaming at the mere mention of the genre. Taking control of one of up to eight different witches, the player must guide them to the end of each level with the aim of defeating another witch who has been causing, yep you guessed it, trouble. It’s flimsy to say the least but plot isn’t why you come to a game like TWN! – it’s all about the action therein.
It wouldn’t be a Japanese shooter without what appears to be a complex layer of game mechanics atop the main action, but in TWN! it feels incredibly accessible and, above all, approachable for the layman. The standard shot is accompanied by the ability to activate a barrier effect which soaks up bullets from enemies, but drains quickly. If opponents are dispatched in time they will turn into coins which add to the overall score. In fact everything destroyed converts into coinage, which can then be exchanged for magic cards at the various floating shops dotted around the levels. These additional magic cards provide another layer of attack but their effect is nominal and has to be used sparingly since they wear off quickly. Any enemies destroyed during their use converts into Star Coins, which adds another level of scoring into the mix.
To begin with, the player will gingerly use the barrier, to help them dodge the various bullet patterns heading their way and realise just how useful to their arsenal it is. Activating it on and off during levels, they’ll undoubtedly feel more comfortable with the mechanics as they progress and see their score improve accordingly. It’s this which helps to draw in those whose previous experience in the genre might have been off-putting, but also assuages those who look for depth in their Shmups. The difficulty levels included also help with the accessibility, but those who might fear a lesser experience will be cajoled along by the `Mind Blowing` difficulty setting that can be unlocked by finishing the game with one credit.
The visual fidelity is a real boon in TWN! as everything really pops on the screen and has a nice hand drawn feel in parts. Backgrounds are full of detail and the enemy types are typically Japanese in style, fantastical and downright bizarre in places. Nothing quite beats level three’s snow theme and while it features snowmen in fez hats throwing snowballs as projectiles at the player, the real joy is its flying Whales with chalets perched atop their heads, smiling beatifically as they pass on their merry way. It’s an oddly charming mixture that will surely elicit a smile from even the most stony-faced of players.
When the main run-through of the six stages wears thin, there is a fairly comprehensive list of alternate modes to contend with. Challenge mode comprises of Score Attack and Boss Attack, which charge the player with amassing the highest score possible and fending off wave after wave of boss fights respectively, with the prize being a position on the higher echelons of the leaderboards. Add in the ability to play online with a friend via Xbox Live and you have a full suite of options to keep people amused well past the main game.
If the slightly saccharine characterisation and presentation can be overcome, Trouble Witches Neo! provides a smart and colourful addition to the ever-expanding shmup library currently residing on Xbox Live Arcade. More importantly, it shows you should never pre-judge a studio on their previous, sorely lacking work.