In late 2006, out of nowhere, Taito announced a PlayStation 2 sequel to their relatively obscure arcade game of twenty years earlier, Kiki KaiKai. The Western gamers who noticed, and who knew the game's SNES sequel as Pocky & Rocky, cheered, especially when the screenshots showed up, revealing a vivid 2D game that kept the same multidirectional shooting gameplay and top-down perspective as the original. And then Taito cancelled it.
Kiki KaiKai 2resurfaced in September of last year, from publisher UFO Interactive, with altered character sprites and a new name to reflect the severed Taito relationship: Kiki Kai World. At this point a Wii version was revealed along with the PS2 version. We then had to worry about whether the Wii version would actually show up, since not even UFO's own website mentioned it.
In November, UFO changed the name again, to Heavenly Guardian, probably to remove any link to a property that Taito (or, rather, their parent company Square Enix) could aggressively protect.
The possibility of this game actually coming out seemed so remote that I never dared get my hopes up. It had already been cancelled once, and it had gone through two name changes and a publisher change. It seemed a lot more likely that Kiki KaiKai 2/Kiki Kai World/Heavenly Guardian would quietly disappear. I am happy to confirm that, after repeated near-death experiences, Heavenly Guardian is real and available. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't played it myself.
Kiki KaiKai's shrine maiden, Sayo-chan/Pocky, has been replaced by a snow goddess called Sayuki, a member of a race feared by humans. Despite being unable to interact with them, she feels affection for one boy, which compels her to save him when he is cursed. The game follows Sayo-chan and her little snow-bunny friend as they traverse the world for the materials required for a healing potion. This story is delivered by a charming, retro sequence of hand-drawn images with captions. It does the job of providing minimal explanation for all the monster-shooting that happens, which is all it needs.
The graphics outside of the cutscenes are even nicer. Presented in full 2D, Guardian is all bright, vivid colors and thick black outlines on background elements. It's basically the power of the Wii (or PS2, at least), used to render 2D The enemy sprites are well-drawn, crisp and cute. There are no jaggies to be found, and the screen can, at times, be stuffed full of sprites. The presentation is well beyond what is expected of a budget game.
Sayuki can shoot icicles in eight directions, aimed in one of two ways. You can use the pointer to aim Toto the bunny in a particular direction, and shots will move toward Toto. It's basically the same aiming scheme found in Geometry Wars: Galaxies, but with a cute little white snowball critter that happily bounces around the screen. The other control scheme is activated when you move the pointer offscreen (or can optionally be set as the default mode, with Wiimote aiming activated by holding the Z button), and simply entails shooting in the direction you're pointing. Toto's ears turn from orange to green and it becomes a sort of "option," shooting at what you're targeting. Using the Wiimote to aim is even harder to get my mind around than aiming independently with a second stick, and I did have occasional problems with keeping the targeting reticle onscreen, but it didn't take me long at all to learn how to aim and walk independently. And after figuring it out, playing without the independent aiming seemed overly restrictive and difficult. The aiming is, in fact, sufficient justification for purchasing the Wii version over the slightly cheaper PlayStation 2 version.
Other attacks include a freeze move, done by contacting an enemy with Toto, a move that turns the bunny into a spinning shield, and a blizzard move that expends collected snowballs. The blizzard move uncovers hidden collectibles, but otherwise you'll just be shooting normally most of the time. The normal shot can be upgraded to 3-way, rapid fire, homing shots, or bombs, all in five degrees, by picking up crystals.
Enemies range from harmless top-hatted snowmen, which number in the thousands, to all manner of tengu, animate o-fuda, and other creatures based on Japanese tradition. Bosses are the kind of jointed-sprite skeleton monsters (in the case of the first boss) we know from classic gaming, though not always big. Like any shooter, dealing with them is a matter of understanding patterns. Enemies will appear from predetermined locations, meaning that you are only surprised by a Tsuchinoko popping out from behind a tree. The game keeps the numbers low at first, giving the first level a sparse feeling. But right around the area of the first boss, Guardian starts filling the screen with enemies who zip out at you and kill you. And starting with the first boss, the game goes from leisurely to brutally difficult. Complaining about difficulty in a shmup is like complaining about all the numbers in a Nippon Ichi strategy game, of course -- it's part of the point.
Footage from Japanese version, from YouTube user Choooo
Heavenly Guardian's difficulty doesn't lie entirely in numbers of enemies. The levels are long -- "four or five checkpoints per level," ten- or fifteen-minute affairs. And if you lose your lives, you continue from the beginning of the level. The epic length of the levels -- compounded by the lack of autoscrolling, which allows you to stop -- makes continuing much more of a penalty than it is in other action games, which tend to have very short levels. Careful play will get you to the boss, for the most part, but I went through multiple continues on just the first boss. That meant that I played through the first level for a good few hours.
And that's why I am complaining about the difficulty of a shmup in this case, because it's an irritating, insidious kind of difficulty. Replaying a few minutes' worth of a level and memorizing its flow is expected of shooters, but each level of Heavenly Guardian could probably be a short arcade shmup, in terms of length. This is made especially irritating by the fact that it's the last thing in the level, the boss, that is usually responsible for the return to the beginning. It's sad that the continue system doesn't let me restart at a later checkpoint (and I can't believe I'm even complaining about this, but it's that annoying!) because I admire the levels otherwise. It's really the only outright problem Guardian has, but it's a bad one, because it discourages replay and memorization, and therefore disrupts the whole nature of the game.
While I'm complaining, I'll note that you will have to play this with the sound off. The music is low-key, nice, and fits with the ancient Japan theme, but the sound effects are grating to the point of suspicion of sabotage. Every enemy you kill makes a cymbal-crash noise. The music doesn't matter at all because you can't hear it most of the time. Other annoying sound effects include a ridiculous musical flourish that is supposed to be a mermaid song, and -- I don't really know too much else, because I couldn't take it for very long and I turned the sound off.
I wanted to love this game, both as the spiritual successor to a wonderful old franchise and a new 2D shooter in 2008. And, for the most part, I liked it. The environments and characters are gorgeous, the controls work well, and the enemies are funny. But as much as Iwanted to see past the fatal flaw, I couldn't. The fact is that overlong levels with almost guaranteed restarts sucked the fun out of the rest of Heavenly Guardian and left me feeling both bored and frustrated.