Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Anatomy of a Cute ‘Em Up

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By now you hopefully have the overall concept of a shmup down, if not then you probably missed our article on that very subject, so now it’s time to talk about the different facets (or genres, if you will) that shmups can take.  Enter probably the most popular contemporary concept: the cute ’em up.  No, they don’t have any clever nicknames like the shmup, but that’s mostly because shmup is a perfect definition of these games.  Cute ’em ups are for gamers that like a little aesthetic to accompany their hardcore shooter, even perhaps a little sexuality or titillation.  Bright colors, anthropomorphic animals and big bouncy breasts are just par for the course in a cute ’em up.  Don’t stray from these titles simply because you feel their gameplay or difficulty will adjust according to their look, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In fact, for the most part, cute ’em ups are some of the most challenging shmups one can find.

Just Kidding

As gamers it can be hard to pick up certain titles – the manager of my GameStop told me that younger guys were quiet about buying Catherine when it released and I’m sure titles like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball cause similar issues.  Not for me, I proudly walk up and purchase titles like this, Kirby games, Pokemon titles and anything else that I’ve heard is innovative or interesting.  After all, as a gamer I am subject to a great degree of ridicule for being both a dork and an immature adult, so why not at least purchase titles that assist the stereotype, no one notices anyway when I pick up something thought-provoking.  In addition, even import gamers sometimes have issues with Sailor Moon or Neon Genesis Evangelion titles, let alone the dating sims from our friends in the East.  It’s no surprise, then, that the cute ’em up can be discouraging with its typically anime style, the cute big breasted girls that dawn the box art and enough huggable penguins to get a three-year-old making fun of you.  I highly encourage you to give these amazing titles a try, especially from the stronger developers like Konami and Cave, because you might discover, like me, that it’s your favorite sub-genre.

inherently a cute ’em up will rarely take itself seriously and some titles, like Parodius, define themselves as a parody on a classic (in this case, Gradius).  When playing the initial title Parodius your selectable characters are a knight, an octopus, a penguin or the Vic Viper from Gradius.  The fact that an octopus and an interstellar space ship have identical function should be your first indication that this game is being cheeky.  Once you begin the first level you will notice that although it all feels quite familiar to Gradius, it doesn’t look anything like it.  Enemies are everything from vicious penguins to hissing cats, with bright and colorful worlds spinning behind you.  Once you get to the boss, you’ll find a cat pirate ship as your strong battle, complete with meowing depending on the version you have.  In sequels, like the much more ported and known Parodius Da! (Parodius in UK) you will notice a new focus on sexualized themes, the ones that make your parents and partners raise an eyebrow.  This won’t really be noticed by you, though, because by that point the action onscreen will be so frantic you’ll be desperate just to keep up with the enemies.

Not all cute ’em ups require you to have little naked cherubs or scantily clad ladies on the screen.  Fantasy Zone is a great example of a challenging and well-developed shooter that while cute and colorful, doesn’t employ any questionable material.  If you want something a bit more traditional and don’t mind a bunch of bells, Twin Bee is another solid Konami property that even Parodius takes some jabs at.  If you have an Xbox 360 Bumblepig is a great indie cute ’em up and on the Playstation side Flying Hamster is a solid mini that plays on both PSP and PS3.

Cute, but not Sweet

So now that we’ve established the aesthetic of a cute ’em up, what about the gameplay?  These titles are just as challenging and have just as complex level design as any shmup on the market.  In many cases, like with Deathsmiles on the Xbox 360, the same developers of addictive and complex shooters like DoDonPachi are also responsible for the cute ’em up.  Cave developed both titles and each can be seen as impressive additions to the genre.  In some cases, like the recent Otomedius, these types of shooters can be more difficult than any “serious” shmup on the market.  You may be playing in a pink and bubbly world but you’re going to be getting your ass kicked by these cartoon characters.

Contemporary Cute ‘Em Up

Like most other shmups, the increase in hardware merely allows more things at once and improves the graphics.  Fortunately for the cute ’em up, this can greatly improve the world as vwell.  In the case ofDeathsmiles lush backgrounds that interweave on multiple levels create a forest lush in minutia while a frantic battle between young girls and mythic demons wages in the foreground.  Furthermore, as a title that also falls under the “bullet hell” category, hundreds of little globs bounce around the screen, hoping to destroy anything they touch.  As complex as the shmup was back in the 80s, the cute ’em up has become exponentially more frantic in the modern-day.  It’s almost a shame – so much to see, but just not enough reflexes or attention to detail to appreciate it all.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 5, 2012 at 9:52 am

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