There’s always been some sort of mysticism from japanese shmups for me. Back then, I would watch videos about super plays on these obscure titles I had never played, but feel mesmerized by the movements of the players and the savagery of the bosses. I never had a chance to play one myself, until the beauty of the NDS’s region free gaming let me try Ketsui Death Label. Now I’m doing the same with ESP Ra.De.
Back then I discovered 2 things: japanese shmups are amazing and japanese games are very hard to understand. While menus and system messages are hard to interpret without a guide on hand, it is very easy to get lost in the gameplay and end up with a smile. I’m still lost at the menus and get bombarded by system messages that I don’t understand, but I’m definitely smiling!
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: December 19, 2019
ESP Ra.De. is a vertical shmup originally developed by Cave in 1998. It follows the story of 3 psychic power users and their battle with a sweet old lady and her Yaksa country club.
This game is actually set in 2018
The first thing that came to my mind when I played ESP Ra.De. was: “I can’t believe they made Akira into a shmup!”. I mean this in the best possible way, as the setting of the game reminds me of the premise of Akira to a certain extent. Although the stages seem to be more traditional locations, the mixture of conventional scenery and psychic people is truly a delight.
One other aspect that I really enjoyed was the fact that you don’t pilot a typical ship. Instead, you control one of 3 (or 4) characters with their special abilities. What struck me the most was the fluidity by which these characters fly on screen and attack the enemies. I guess I’ll get at the animations later (this is me from the future doing spell checks, I didn’t actually talk about the animations later but they are very good), but let’s just say that I fell in love with the motions. So many games just feature simple ship movement and tilting, so seeing a fully fleshed out animation was a breath of fresh air.
The power of ESP
Despite being powerful psychic users, the combat in ESP Ra.De. is surprisingly simple. The controls boil down to a main shot, a power shot and your guard barrier.
Your main shot is your run of the mill shmup shot. It has the added benefit of slowing you down while you hold the button, so it also becomes your de facto way of treading through enemy bullets.
The power shot is a little more interesting. It works as a secondary fire, but you can only fire 16 shots at any given time. Over time, these shots will regenerate on their own. You don’t need to wait for all of them to recover, as you can fire an incomplete barrage without much issue. What’s fun about the power shot is that it is momentum based. Think about it as a whip of sorts. If you fire while moving to the right, then the shots will slowly fan out. It really works as a neat way of controlling screen space of quickly getting rid of enemies outside of your reach. The characters also do a really cool animation when firing, so I’m definitely a fan of the motion!
Finally we have the guard barrier. In many ways, this assumes the role of your bombs on shmups. When you activate the barrier, you become invincible and begin charging energy. When release, it will fire a devastating beam that deals heavy damage and destroys bullets on contact. Unlike the other shots, these does have a very limited energy gauge, so you have to be very careful with its usage. You can fire ~3-4 minimum charges before running out. It is possible to recover it, but it takes a lot of work.
ESP Ra.De. features 5 different levels of power for your shot. By collecting 15 green power-ups, you will be able to increase your level by 1. These levels are lost on death, so try not to die in order to reach full power.
Once you are fully powered up, the green items will become red items. In the standard arcade mode, collecting 200 red items will trigger a countdown and make all enemies drop energy capsules instead. These capsules are the only way of recovering your barrier other than dying. Once a countdown has been triggered, it will increase the required items needed by 100, so you would need 300 to recover energy again.
The key to obtaining these items is, like most other games, to destroy the enemies. Timely destruction and activations of your skills is key to maximizing your item collection. This is where one of the M2 trademark features can help you tremendously: the gadgets. One of those gadgets helps you keep track of items on screen as well as enemy bullets.
The game versions
Included in the game is the original ESP Ra.De. as well as a brand new Ψ version in collaboration with the original author Junya Inoue! The new version contains an Arcade Plus version which features new art, new voice lines and even a new playable character. It is your choice whether you want to play the original arcade experience, or the new 21st century edition by its original author.
The one thing that confused me from the overall package at first was that it contained way too many modes that it felt overwhelming. From the very first screen where you choose the version you want to play, you can see that the original version has Arcade, AC Challenge and AC Osarai modes, while the new version has Arcade Plus, Super Easy, Custom and esper’s room. Thankfully, there’s really only 2 main modes and the others are extra modes.
Ultimately, the separation boils down to whether you want to play Arcade or Arcade Plus. Much of the other game modes have their own specific purposes and overall are their own thing. You’ll probably end up playing all of them and just picking either of the arcade modes.
Classic Arcade gameplay
Arcade is the main way of playing ESP Ra.De. It is your standard stage based progression where you need to beat all of the stages before being defeated yourself and achieving a high score. There are several stages to play (I won’t say the number in case anyone enjoys the surprise of not knowing how far the goal is), each of them divided into 2 halfs. The end of the first half features a mini-boss, while the second half has a full boss fight.
One of the things I liked the most about the Arcade modes is that they feature pseudo-progression. At the beginning, you can only add a single credit (or maybe a couple? It’s been a while). You lose that credit and your run is over. However, upon finishing a session, you will be able to add an additional credit next time. This goes on until you can add 9-10 credits.
The reason I like this progression so much is that it gives you time to learn the game and appreciate the nuances. Any free play shmup just leads to having people brute force their way through credits and put down the game after half an hour. ESP Ra.De. at least shapes the strategy like a curve and encourages you to give it your all with the promise that next time you will be able to do it for longer.
If your style is more about getting the highest score possible, then you should learn how to use and abuse the multiplier rates in this game. Scoring is mostly tied to your power shot. When you fire your power shot, it leaves small expanding explosions on the enemy that keep damaging it. If you destroy an enemy with your main shot while these explosions are over it, it will explode and give you a rate multiplier that goes all the way to x16. After triggering this, any subsequent kills will me multiplied by that same rate for a period of time. You can keep track of this time with the p-shot gadget.
As you can imagine, scoring in ESP Ra.De. is about ignoring the small fries and finding a big enough enemy to unleash a full power shot barrage to trigger that x16 rate multiplier. Then it’s time to clean up the smaller enemies while the multiplier is still active. Although by doing that, you give more chances to the smaller enemies to shoot you down. It’s a dance between maximizing your score and staying alive.
Personally, I don’t tend to go for the insane scores, although I do try to play for score a couple of times to get a hold of how the game changes. It’s also in these hardcore runs that you start to appreciate the design of the game and how it was created with high scores in mind. Unfortunately, the only place where the scoring techniques are taught is at the esper’s room and that mission is in japanese, so I spent more time not knowing about the multiplier than knowing, and that’s because I looked it up online.
The slices of the cake
AC Challenge is a game mode where you can play each segment of the game individually and attempt to earn a gold medal. Out of all the modes, AC Challenge quickly became my favorite because of it’s mini achievement systems and bite-sized gameplay.
As previously mentioned, each stage consists of 2 halfs and 2 bosses. In AC Challenge, each of this segments is a different challenge. For example, stage 1 would have the following 4 challenges: stage 1a, stage 1 mini-boss, stage 1b, stage 2 boss. Additionally, you can do an All Play challenge and play the entire stage for a total of 5 challenges.
What is your profession?
At the end of these challenges, you will gain a medal based on your performance. Your medal can be bronze, silver or gold depending on the number of retries you had per challenge. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention something, all these challenges are secretly 1CC challenges. Although you have a large amount of retries, when you are hit you don’t just respawn. Instead, time rewinds 5 seconds and it challenges you to survive and correct your mistake. There’s no brute forcing your way through the challenges.
You can take it one step further and opt to do SPARTAN training for the challenges. The difference is that if you are hit during spartan training, the game will still rewind but this time you have to survive the same scenario 3 times before you are allowed to continue. This really encourages you to learn from your mistakes and prove that you are good enough to keep playing. Your guard barrier is also disabled during spartan training. If you ever wanted to train for a 1CC on arcade mode, then this is your best friend and your worst nightmare.
If you need an incentive to become 1CC-worthy, I’ll just say that there is a secret character that can only be unlocked by beating the game in a single credit. No mode requirement (*wink wink*), but it definitely has to be on a single credit.
On the topic of rewinding the past, Arcade Osarai takes the concept of fixing your mistakes one step further. Arcade Osarai is a mode that gradually collects the moments where you made mistakes while playing Arcade mode and challenges you to right your wrongs. Similar to AC Challenge, you can earn medals while beating these challenges, as well as earning ESP points.
What’s funny about AC Osarai is that it records your mistakes and logs all the information such as the date and game state back then. I believe it even records your choice of BGM. Getting transported back to these moments is hilarious, but also a great way of revisiting your past mistakes and seeing if your skill level is finally beyond that to survive where you previously couldn’t.
I was happy to see some of my earlier memories had me falling at the beginning on stage 3, while more recent ones make it all the way to stage 4’s boss.
ESP for all
The rest of the modes are nothing special and mostly self-explanatory.
Super Easy let’s you play a significantly watered down version of the Arcade mode. It’s the way to go if you are starting out or not as good at shmups. You can play the entirety of the Arcade mode while experiencing a reduced challenge. It’s also good practice if you want to get familiar with the scoring play style.
Custom, on the other hand, lets you change the parameters of the game as much as you want. You can change the difficulty, you can change how often you gain extra stocks, you can change how often you can recover barrier, you can even toggle auto-barrier and reduce your hitbox. It’s a fun mode to play around if you like playing by your rules. For me, I like earning extra stocks, so I usually lower the point threshold and fight for my survival.
My little ESP Ra.De. gacha
There is one mode in particular which is quite unlike the rest and that is the esper’s room (or Irori’s room). This mode doesn’t really have much to do with being a shmup. Instead, it is an extra mode where you have your player and are tasked with decorating your room, as bizarre as that sounds.
You can customize several things in your room such as the walls, the floor and even the border of the room window. Furniture can placed in any arrangement you desire within your room, as long as you own the furniture.
You can also feed your several pets with feeding tickets. Leveling them up does have an actual effect though, as each of them is linked with one particular stat. The pets can enhance your main shot, power shot, guard barrier and hit size. I’m a little unclear as to when and how these pets provide you with the effects, but I still keep them well fed.
To earn the necessary currency to pimp your room, you must clear different game missions. These missions can be played inside the esper’s room and task you with completing sections of the arcade mode with constraints. Some will task you with eliminating all enemies, some will be just about surviving. Some even implement fun rules like making your power shot erase enemy bullets. I wish I could have more fun on this mode, but again, I can’t read japanese.
The language barrier
Ever since people actually starting reading my reviews, I’ve been asked to review ESP Ra.De. The reason I waited so much was to see if there ever was a western version. I figured it would be more likely as M2 worked on more western releases, but it never happened. I’m still waiting and I would definitely repurchase if it meant having an english version.
The reason I mention the language is because ESP Ra.De. is extremely robust in terms of features. Being M2 ShotTriggers you already know to expect a bunch of improvements over the original version, as well as endless ways of customizing the experience. However, ESP Ra.De. goes above and beyond that by including extra modes and notably the esper’s room as bonus content. While bonus content is always nice, a lot of it is mission based, and stumbling trying to figure out what the game is trying to say is always a hassle.
Then there are the status messages which contribute to the confusion. There is one that regularly appears and the only discernible word is OFF. While I don’t really know what it means, due to the context I’m assuming it’s saying to not turn the game off while it is saving or uploading data. This is a game that is great to play, but would be amazing with a proper localization.
M2 seal of quality
To wrap up this package, we have the M2 ShotTriggers staples. In terms of quality you can expect all versions of the game to feel like the authentic arcade experience. No one creates arcade fidelity as well as M2 and it shows! You can also be sure to have the best audio (both arcade simulation and stereo) as well as having reduced input latency to make this the definitive edition.
For the actual gameplay, you can always expect M2 to deliver on using the available screen space in the best way possible. This is always accomplished by using gadgets, and Esp Ra.De. has some of the best in the business! Be it having stats for score specialists like your average rate and multiplier indicators, boss gauges for more casual players and even a scrolling representation of the entire vertical level, you can always count on having something for you.
Additionally, you can customize your controllers and even tweak the rate of auto-fire. You can modify the size of different gauges and even the one for the screen. Yes, this also includes screen rotation for tate in case you can to use your trusty flip grip! Unlike other shmups, I opted not to go tate on this one because I loved having the gadgets on-screen!
So much (porting) power
Save states are also fully supported and allow players to practice as much as they desire. The only caveat is that leaderboards are disabled when using save states, but that was expected given its competitive nature.
Leaderboards are fully featured for each of the 4 main modes. You can see the rankings and filter out the criteria to find the highest scores. If you wonder how some of these players get these crazy high scores, then you are in luck because you can download their replays and see their entire run for yourself.
Speaking of replays, they are fully supported for both your local runs and online runs downloaded from the leaderboard. As is tradition, you can see the player inputs during these replays and use playback options such as advancing or rewinding a scene and changing the playback speed.
Drive Waves 2019
Last but not least, we have the music. To keep it short, I absolutely love the soundtrack of ESP Ra.De.! I might not love every single track, but the package as a whole delivers and stays on par with an already outstanding game.
You can opt to listen to the soundtrack in the Stereo sound or in Arcade sound. There isn’t anything as reminiscent of the arcade as hearing the sounds produced by the cabinets. There’s also an additional soundtrack calles Drive Waves 2019 that features an alternate BGM for each stage. Unlike the original soundtrack, Drive Waves also has a “Ragind Deicide” remix for every boss, so the extra variety is greatly appreciated!
The best shmup so far?
With all I’ve said so far I think it’s only fair to say Esp Ra.De. is a fantastic shmup. It is a game that is easily recommended and a definite must-play for any shmup fans. You know when you see M2 ShotTriggers that the quality is going to be through the roof, and this game definitely delivers!
The base game was already a gem, but the additional features and modes elevate a classic into legendary territory. I might not have the best cadence when it comes to releasing reviews, but you know that when the gaps between entries are wider, it means it is a game I’m spending more time playing. It actually makes me a little sad because now I have to move forward into a new shmup, but I still want to keep playing this one.
There are 2 things which I think might be holding the game back: the language and the price. You don’t need to understand a shmup to enjoy it, as I said with Ketsui back when I played it, but with a release as feature rich as this one, it becomes cumbersome to track down translations and even then it’s just having references on hand.
The other one is the price tag. While I definitely concur that the quality of this port is deserving of its price, it’s a hard sell when pitted against the average shmup prices. It saddens me a little to see the hesitance to purchase costly shmups, because higher production releases would benefit us all. The fact that this isn’t a western release makes the situation worse by requiring workarounds to get a japanese eshop card or paying for a hefty import price.
This puts us at a very delicate conundrum at the ranking: is this game better than Crimzon Clover? Personally, I’d say no. At the end of the day, I think the level of refinement from the shmup genre brought by Crimzon Clover surpasses ESP Ra.De. The real point of debate would be with all the features brought by ESP Ra.De., which I consider to be very heavy hitters in terms of overall packaging. Sadly, this is something that is brought down mostly by the language. Maybe some people are ok with it, but the extra layer of abstraction is detrimental to my enjoyment.
All in all I’ll leave this with an incredibly respectable second spot. I’d love it if we could get a western release, and I would be happy to revisit the ranking when that time comes.
THE RANKING SO FAR:
- Crimzon Clover – World EXplosion
- ESP Ra.De.
- Psyvariar Delta
- Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade
- Rolling Gunner
- Blazing Star
- Raiden V: Director’s Cut
- Darius Cozmic Collection Console
- Super Hydorah
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- Strikers 1945
- Black Paradox
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Sine Mora EX
- R-Type Final 2 (Switch version)
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- Freedom Finger
- Ghost Blade HD
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Q-YO Blaster
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Red Death
- Task Force Kampas
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)