Friday, October 21, 2022

Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by 5pb in 2009

When talking about bullet hell, the perception of value and excellence in the games developed by Cave is certainly unrivaled. I still remember all the fuss when a port including the Black Label variant of Dodonpachi Daioujou was announced for the Xbox 360, as well as the rage and backlash it received upon release due to porting company 5pb using the source code from the Playstation 2 version to complete their job, which resulted in a very buggy game with inadmissible loading times. A few months later 5pb calmed fans all around the world by properly patching the game, even though the disc is region-locked to Japanese consoles of course. Because, you know, country borders are absolutely no hindrance for a real shmup fan.

Despite the overlong title, Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra is still one of the best ways to experience this beast of a game at home. The "Extra" refers to an additional arrange variant called X-mode, which joins Black Label (here called New version) and also White Label (here called Old version, for all purposes equivalent to the port released for the Playstation 2 in 2002). For the regular bystander White and Black Label are basically the same game, that's why it definitely takes a certain degree of familiarity with both versions to discern the different nuances between them.

Ships and pilots are the basic common grounds between White and Black Label. Both available ships use three inputs: shot, rapid shot and bomb. Hold shot to fire a continuous laser stream that decreases the speed of the ship. Bombs behave according to the shot type you're currently firing: rapid shot (or no shot) results in a regular blast, laser gets a sudden concentrated boost with a brief ship recoil, both of them making you invincible and melting bullets when active. On functional terms ship A has a shorter spread and ship B has a wider spread, with firepower and movement speed also determined by the choice of pilots, or element dolls as the game calls them. Pilot selection is therefore synonym with shot type: S (Shotia) enhances shot, L (Leynian) enhances laser and E or EX (Exy) enhances both. Deaths reset laser power when using Shotia, reset shot power when using Leynian and take away one power level of each when using Exy. Deaths also add one or more bomb slots depending on the chosen pilot (Shotia gets the most bombs, while the most Exy can carry is two).

Bullet rings of joy bringing a blissful death

Every now and then carriers bring either power-ups (P) or extra bombs (B). As with most Cave titles, blowing up stuff and shooting down the enemy armada is extremely satisfying due to the relentless intensity of the game. However, the act of destroying targets and hitting stronger enemies with laser (“lasering”) in sequence sustains a vertical gauge below the score indicator that increases the chain/combo multiplier. A continuous high multiplier is the secret to higher scores, that’s why devising a proper route to kill enemies in succession is imperative for players who seek the top spots in the leaderboards.

The defining feature of DOJ – and main contribution to the gameplay inherited from previous chapter Dodonpachi – is the concept of the “hyper”. When the hyper gauge is full a hyper medal descends from the top of the screen and trails the ship as you collect it. Once at least one medal is taken (maximum of 5) press bomb to enter hyper mode, during which firepower is heavily increased as well as the overall enemy aggression. Aggression by the way is the name of the game for experts, for point-blanking and hugging the top of the screen not only fills up the hyper gauge faster, but also sends your chain through the roof. On the other hand, the bolder you play and the higher you score the quicker the game picks up in difficulty. And the only means to hold back the game's aggressiveness is by dying or bombing (which cancels an active hyper).

When a shooter is so brutal and punishing even in survival terms (this is definitely the hardest Cave game I played so far), dealing with rank is just one of the challenges that comes up with more demanding goals. One of these goals is the requirements for the loop, which are: die no more than twice, use no more than three bombs or collect all hidden bees without dying in at least three stages (the last bee appears with a large ×2 tag). Hidden bees are always in fixed positions and can only be uncovered with laser.

After entering the second loop you'll face an even harder game with way more bullets and threats, where true last boss Hibachi awaits at the end for an epic final battle. This is of course reserved only for the most brave and gifted shmup players, but in the case of Black Label there is a valid way to see Hibachi more easily, actually one of the main differences from Black Label to White Label as pointed out below:
  • at the start of the credit you need to choose between a 1-round or a 2-round game (in the single loop campaign you fight Hibachi at the end);
  • hyper gauge fills up faster, so you get hyper medals more frequently;
  • score-based extends are given with 20 and 50 million points (it’s 10 and 30 million in WL) - you can still get the 1UP by destroying the large cannon in stage 4 without using bombs;
  • remaining lives at the end of the first loop are transported to the second loop (they are all taken away in WL);
  • it’s possible to continue in the second loop (continues are completely denied in WL).
Besides what's mentioned above, Black Label also has slight variations in the density/speed of certain bullet spreads. Regardless of the game mode, an interesting aspect about Dodonpachi Daioujou is the further departure from the militarized design originally presented in Donpachi, of which the standout feature is definitely the advent of the element dolls and the associated loli aesthetics related to them (male voice samples replace the female announcer of Dodonpachi but are definitely more subtle). The contrast between the visually fragile nature of the girly dolls and the crazy bullet barrages is extreme and offbeat in a good way, while the vibrant mix of colors and sounds accentuate the destruction effect provided by the triggering of hypers. In a nutshell, if you fancy bullet hell shmups Daioujou is a lot of fun no matter how you decide to play it. I quite like the soundtrack and its ability to suck the player into the game during the first couple of levels while cleverly heightening the tension in later stages.

Release trailer for Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

Exclusive to this port, X-mode offers a single loop campaign that just like 1-loop Black Label ends with a showdown against Hibachi. It has score-based extra lives at 6 and 12 billion points and features a single difficulty level that's certainly easier than the base game. Players can block bullets with green hypers according to the selected pilot: Shotia with hyper shot, Leynian with hyper laser and Exy with both, yet Exy needs two medals to activate a hyper. A new element doll named Piper has a default attack in permanent hyper form, with her actual green hyper blocking all bullets just like Exy (her pilot designation in the high score table appears as HYPER). The caveat for all this firepower is that she cannot use bombs. Since you're always hypering, playing with Piper is a real spectacle, in what seems to have been the actual inspiration for Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu, the next game in the series.

At least for me one of the mysteries that still stand to this day is the extent of the corrections applied by the patch over the default game in the disc. I wonder what will happen when the Microsoft servers are shut down for good on the Xbox 360, so if you haven’t patched your disc just go and do it now. Nevertheless many claims have been made about it still not being reasonably faithful to the original arcade title. I don't really care about this though. Slowdown discrepancies and initial loading times aside, my only real gripe with the game is the fact that in Black Label the 3rd bee in the second stage is frequently absent in my runs. It's just inexplicably not there at times. Since bees were my strategy to access the loop, all I could do when it happened was restart the credit.

From all the available options, the most important ones in Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra are the ability to save replays (even though pausing denies the save), an exclusive arranged soundtrack, visual tweaks for all sorts of monitors (TATE included), a rudimentary stage select option for practice purposes and extra configuration switches (for the elimination of bullets/continues, wait control, etc.). Since I'm still missing a couple of them, I assume these extra option configurations are either unlocked once you've conquered specific achievements or after you’ve logged in sufficient hours into the game.

My objective this time was to loop Black Label with ship B-EX. The first time I got access to the loop I made the wrong choice at the question screen and finished the game by accident (you should always chose the left option for はい, which means "yes"). Then I did it again a couple of times and got the best result below, ending my run in stage 2-1 (Normal difficulty). As I mentioned above, my strategy to get into the loop was just to collect all bees in the three initial levels without dying.

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