Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

DoDonPachi Series (Cave)

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Welcome to import week on Shmuppreciation and what better way to begin than with the quintessential Cave shooter that started it all: the DoDonPachi series.  Those that have been following our “shmup of the day” may have noticed that last week I regarded Raiden as being a primitive version of the “danmaku” (bullet hell) shmup, well the DoDonPachi series would mark the actual beginning of this genre.  You’ll notice with this game that big explosions, massive enemies and large pink bullets are just par for the course in this addicting and animated shmup.  While the story is not any more diverse than any series we’ve discussed, this was probably the first shmup where I followed each iteration’s story.  Although tough as nails, the DoDonPachi series (and pretty much all shmups by Cave) is just so fun and makes you feel so powerful at times that your drive overwhelms the difficulty curve.  You keep failing but you don’t seem to care.

Worldwide Arcade Distribution

DonPachi is the first game in the series, although all sequels carry the DoDonPachi name and thus is the true main title for the series.  It was developed by Cave, the first title since the separation of developer Toaplan (the only game I’ve played by them was the somewhat similar NES shmup Tiger Heli) closed down and spawned 4 smaller dev studios. DonPachi ran first generation proprietary hardware that appears to be specifically designed for dynamic vertical arcade games.  It released in 1995 to a crowded arcade space and thanks to Atlus (a known publisher for localizing and releasing Japanese games in America) even made it to the United States.

DonPachi is literally translated as “leader bee” but the title also comes from the term “don” being onomonopea for the sound of bullet fire in Japan.  In this first title you play a pilot on an 8 year training mission to be part of the elite “DonPachi Squadron”, known for being the best pilots in the galaxy.  As the game continues through five relatively long levels (about 10 mins apiece) you discover *spoilers* that your enemies are actually friendly fighter pilots that are sacrificing their lives to ensure you are the most elite among them.  As is common in Japanese culture, this type of sacrifice is extremely noble as opposed to the negative opinion it may elicit from American audiences.  The gameplay is based on continually shooting at both small single shot enemies and larger multi-shot enemies while weaving in and out of a barrage of pink bullets.  You can pick up power-ups that diversify and strengthen your weapons as well as the charge blast we’ve seen in shooters like R-Type.  Again, on the surface it just seems like more of the same (especially in 1995), but there’s something unique and addicting about this particular series that can only be described by playing it.

It was ported in Japan to the Saturn and Playstation, which fetch a decent price tag online, but no home consoles in the United States.  We did see a limited arcade release from Atlus that is identical to the Japanese version, but those PCBs are so rare these days that I don’t even see them on arcade forums or eBay anymore and when I did the prices were over $1000.  Nowadays a few of the DoDonPachi series will end up on arcade compilation PCBs (ie: Blue Elf) that are only a few hundred dollars.  This arcade is also famous for having poorly translated English (“engrish”) with boss battles that says, “This is not similation. Get ready to destoroy the enemy. Target for the weak points of f***in’ machine. Do your best you have ever done.”  It was also recently ported to iOS, but I have a hard time understanding how playable this title would be on a small screen with touch controls.

DoDonPachi is Born

The classic phrase is, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” which Cave seems to have heard loud and clear.  Like a classic game from the 8-bit era, DoDonPachi just expands on the original by offering more levels, harder enemies, a new story and more of the “bee” concept begun by the original.  The title literally means “angry leader bee” and continues to play upon the pun and now bees become both a collectible and a furious last boss Hibachi (whom I’ve never played).  This time around the game has seven levels, although I always thought it was six thanks to the ridiculous requirements you have to meet to actually finish the game.

Released in 1997, this was Cave’s second developed title, although its hardware format was being utilized in a handful of arcades by then.  This title continued the story of the main character in the first, now part of the DonPachi Squadron and has quite a few twists and turns (which I will not spoil moving forward).  In order to see the true ending and uncover many of the mysteries of the game, however, you have to complete the game with some strict requirements.  If you do not, you get the ending I always thought was the true end of the game after you complete level 6: a standard “thank you for playing” followed by credits.  If you manage to complete the first six levels on 1 coin and meet one of the following: lose no more than 2 lives, score 50 million+, collect all 13 secret bees or score a 270-330 hit count depending on your ship.  If so, you will be given access to the seventh level and battle the brutal final boss Hibachi.  Upon completing that, you still have to beat the game a second time in order to see the ending.  You understand why I have yet to actually see this ending by my own hands (thank you Longplay on YouTube).

DoDonPachi was again ported to Playstation and Saturn consoles in Japan, the PSOne port even making it to Japanese PSN (which is an amazing way to get it for only 600 yen/$6ish) and it of course premiered in Japanese arcades.  Altas did, again, bring it stateside but these are also rare boards that I can honestly say I’ve never seen for sale anywhere (but I’d guess about $500-$1000 would be a classic gaming expo asking price).  The Campaign Version (aka Special Version or DDP Blue ROM) was given out as a prize to the highest score one could provide in a 72 hour period to promote the upcoming Saturn port.  It was more difficult (of course) than the original, included a “Hyper Mode” (this is an activated power-up that makes the ship invincible and super strong for a brief period of time, but a permanent side effect is faster and more difficult enemies) and a blue title screen instead of a red one.  Only one is known to exist and Cave has stated that the original ROM has been lost and can not be recovered.  After this announcement a Cave event was held that featured two arcades playing the game, so it’s unknown how many actually exist and if it can still be replicated.  Since I do not have nor have ever played the Saturn port, I am unsure if the Campaign Version is on that disc.

DoDonPachi II?

Technically the game does exist, but since it was not developed by Cave (it was licensed to International Games System, or IGS, a Taiwanese company that hasn’t made anything I’ve played) so many fans do not consider it part of the series.  It’s also very difficult to get gameplay footage or play because it was only released in arcades in Japan and has never been ported nor does it work in MAME.  Basically the only way to get it is to purchase or find a working PCB.  Having said that the game looks super cool and seems to hold true to the tradition Cave started, although there are small instances where gameplay choices seem a bit under the high bar set by Cave.  There are videos of the game out there, but none of them really demonstrate the gameplay.  Like DoDonPachi I’ve never seen this board for sale anywhere and it’s much more rare than the first two games in that it never released in the US.  A copy of the soundtrack alone is so rare it sells for $150-$200 so I have no idea what the actual board would sell for if found.

DoDonPachi Modern

For most shmup fans, including Cave from what I can tell, the sequel to DoDonPachi is Dai Ou Jou, meaning “peaceful death”.  Watching gameplay, however, the deaths in this title appear to be anything but.  Released in 2005 in Japanese arcades only, the series completely abandons the US moving forward.  Most of the gameplay you are used to returns, the game is “shortened” to 5 levels (although they are all roughly the same length) and requirements have to be met for the true ending.  In order to play Hibachi after level 5 you must either: not die twice, use no more than 3 bombs or collect all 10 bees without dying.  This time around the hyper system, first introduced in the extremely rare Console Version of DoDonPachi has been fully integrated into the game as a mechanic.  In addition, you receive “doll” powers (elemental perk you select that was also featured in a different form in DoDonPachi).


The Black Label version of the game was a limited arcade release that also included the original and can be selected upon the PCB boot.  In this version, which seems more fair to be honest, you carry over your extra lives from your first loop instead of losing them like in the original.  You are able to continue if you lose your lives in stages 2-5 and hyper meter fills up faster.

The Playstation 2 port included multiple variants for the shooter including no bullet mode, simulation mode (training) with a replay feature and Death label mode.  Death Label mode is basically a boss rush mode common in several shmups and also integrates 2nd loop boss pattern changes and a final battle where you take on both versions of Hibachi at the same time.  In addition there is a photo gallery and a DVD playthrough of the current high score holder earning this record with a whopping 1.89 billion points.

In 2009 the game was ported to Xbox 360 in Japan (yes it’s region locked, yes it’s expensive and no it’s not going to release in the US).  This port contains 3 versions of the game: Old Version (original arcade version), New Version (Black Label) and X Version (a new enhanced mode that made the game easier).  This particular port was riddled with bugs that made the game near unplayable and it was later discovered that the port developers lifted the PS2 code by publisher Arika and improperly implemented it onto the system.  Eventually Cave and Microsoft stepped in to patch the game to the much more playable version that exists today – unless you don’t have access to the update patch.

Two more titles in the series Dai Fakkatsu (“Great Resurrection”) and Sai Dai Ou Jou (“Greatest Happy Death”) have also been slated for Japan, the former releasing in 2008 (arcades)/2010 (consoles) and the latter announced but no release as of yet.  Both titles seem to continue the trend of the original games, including tons of different versions and an exclusivity for Japan.  Since most of these games made an iOS/Android appearance in Japan it is rumored that Europe and US versions may someday release but my thoughts on this were clearly stated at the beginning.  As it stands this entire series is predominantly for hardcore import collectors and can set you back as much as $200 per title if you’re looking to get started now.  Thankfully MAME allows the first two titles to be played on any home PC and both are as addicting as shmups get.  Those fans of more modern Cave shooters, don’t fret, in the US we seem to still get the cute ’em ups so both Deathsmiles and Deathsmiles II were released in the US to give us some Cave shmups, even if they are horizontal shmups.

Tomorrow’s import series continues with my favorite series of all time: Parodius!

Written by Fred Rojas

March 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

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