6 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
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Developed by Cave
Published by Atlus in 1995
Getting exposed for the first time to the shooting genre these days can be a traumatic experience, simply because the bulk of the games being released is of the bullet hell type. Within this style, Cave is undeniably the master developer, and every neophyte WILL eventually come across one of its offers. For those who think they're too over-the-top and their games are impossible to get into, let it be known that the scenario wasn't always like that. Donpachi, Cave's first title, is a fine transition between the shooter of old and the dawn of a new era, namely the so-called "danmaku" or "bullet hell". Imagine the overall style of Truxton or Grind Stormer and spice it up with new elements and more dense bullet patterns. The similarity isn't a coincidence, for Cave was one of the offshoot companies to arise from the ashes of then defunct Toaplan.
As I wanted to warm up for Dodonpachi (the sequel), I returned to Donpachi two months ago on the Sega Saturn but I had an unpleasant surprise: my Action Replay cartridge died on me as I was about to reach my goal of 10 million points. After weeks of waiting for a new cart I was finally able to resume play, rejoicing to the massive lasering and the fantastic destruction rush this game is capable to provide. You only need to overcome the inexcusable loading times of the port, by far the biggest letdown of an otherwise great package.
There are three ships to choose from: type A (red) has a forward shot and is the fastest one, type B (green) is a helicopter with medium speed and a pair of side turrets whose fire bends when you move, whereas type C (blue) is the slowest ship and comes with a spread pattern (all colors change for player 2). I adopted type B as my favorite because the turrets are great to take down enemies that arrive from the sides, plus its laser bomb is devastating, probably the most powerful one from all ships.
With this game, a legendary series and a trademark gameplay style was born. The basic concept is that you use only two buttons to play. One button is used to fire your weapon, and the other to drop bombs. Tapping the fire button results in the regular Shot, while holding it slows down the ship and makes it fire a concentrated beam of energy we all call Laser. Bombs behave according to how you're firing your weapon: combined with shot, what you get is a regular screen-clearing powerful blast; combined with laser, the result is that the laser beam is boosted for a brief while for an even greater destructive effect. Take the P icons to increase power and B icons to increase bomb stock, die and you're back to the starting power level. When you're maxed out, surplus items are worth 10.000 points each. And that covers the basics! Playing the game on a console gives you better controls because you can map shot and laser to different buttons, with laser overriding shot for a smooth gameplay experience.
I mentioned above that Donpachi is a good example of the transition between old school shmups and the more cluttered, fear inducing danmakus of today. In the first couple of stages there's nothing really taxing about enemies and bullet count, but stage 3 starts giving some trouble. By the time the player reaches the 4th stage it's necessary to combine memorization skills (enemies come from below and from the sides without notice) with techniques such as tap dodging and bullet herding, with a growing concern about correctly placing the ship, squeezing that tiny hitbox between clouds of bullets and taking out some of the enemies as fast as you can if you want to stand a chance at surviving. In my opinion it's a perfect difficulty ramp, suited to those who're willing to get into Cave's portfolio without burning out on an overwhelming challenge level. But wait, don't go thinking Donpachi is an easy ride. You also have to consider its famous scoring system, which starts showing itself when those big numbers appear close to the score display.
The chaining system in Donpachi and its sequels is extremely simple yet hard to master: kill enemies in succession (intervals of approximately 0,5 seconds max) and the combo multiplier will rise. The first enemy killed is the most important in the chain, because its value is the one that will be multiplied by the combo counter. In busy sections the "aura" that surrounds the ship when you're firing laser becomes very important, since it kills all popcorn stuff and doubles the damage inflicted if you stay pretty close to the enemy. Unlike its sequels though, Donpachi doesn't have enough enemies to allow the player a stage-long chain, so it's mostly a matter of getting a series of combos in every level. That's why chaining in Donpachi is a lot less frustrating than in the sequel Dodonpachi, a game that almost made me peel my skin off in disgust whenever I tried to play for score years ago.
Other scoring possibilities are related to end-of-stage bonuses, collecting stars for points and uncovering/collecting hidden bees by hitting their spots with laser (it's possible to get a glimpse of them by using shot). Get all 13 bees in a stage without dying to amass a bonus score of 266.500 points. Bonuses at the end of a stage are based on bomb stock and items collected. Refraining from using bombs is great to boost the score, but be warned that when you reach the 4th stage on one life and no bombs the game shifts to the HARD difficulty, making things even more hectic. On the other hand, using bombs will eventually grant you more bomb slots, however with much lower bonuses. The only extend comes with 2 million points, and a 1UP is obtained by destroying the central turret on the platform of stage 4 without using bombs.
Wing leader to base! Commencing operation! 3... 2... 1... Go!
(courtesy of YouTube user Madroms)
Besides all the innovation in the gameplay field, Donpachi is also a significant shmup as far as graphics and animations go. There's a great use of colors, an abundance of explosions and an overall sense of design that must have taken people by surprise back in the 90s. Another great asset is the bossy announcer and all his spoken messages, such as "keep your finger on the trigger, rookie" and "fire at will, kid, fire at will". I love it when he shouts "bomber" whenever I get a B item. He's the perfect match for the nice soundtrack, which has some of the best military-driven BGMs ever and highlights the gritty feel of the action. Unfortunately, as the series evolved the emphasis on manly military design would be left aside thanks to the loli characters introduced in the storyline.
By the way, the story has something to do with playing the game again once you beat it because the whole first loop seems to be a kind of simulation. Unlike further games in the series, there are no special criteria to fulfill in order to go to the second loop. This comes with increased difficulty, suicide bullets for everything you destroy and a true last boss (Hibachi) awaiting if you manage to beat the game again. The only way to avoid suicide bullets from appearing is to point-blank enemies, which means playing as close to them as you can.
Besides the problem of the loading times, the Saturn port of Donpachi is known to have a bit of slowdown (negligible) and more pixelly explosions, making it supposedly inferior to the Playstation version. However, it still kicks ass and is the best choice if you are restricted to playing in YOKO. Sure there's a TATE option included, complete with the possibility to rotate the d-pad and turn the game into a horizontal shooter. Lastly, a Score Attack mode makes it possible to practice specific stages.
The default difficulty setting of the game is "LITTLE EASY", so I switched it to NORMAL prior to playing. I was able to surpass my goal of 10 million, beating my old score by 17% and reaching stage 2-3, with a maximum combo of 54 hits.