Long-time readers of this website- all minus-five of you- may remember way-back-when, we reviewed Love Live: School idol festival! and Groove Coaster Zero on an iPhone 5S. Since then, we have upgraded our cellular phone technology! Not by much, mind you, but enough that the thing doesn't catch fire when trying to run Sonic the Hedgehog. Anyway, time has marched on and many apps have since been made incompatible with newer iOS firmware, and today's subject is one of them. Cave have been updating some of their old apps so they're available to buy again, but Mushihimesama Bug Panic is not one of them. As such, this review was conducted on the exhumed iPhone 5S, brought out of retirement for one last job, and you cannot legally obtain this game anymore. You'll have to resort to, shall we say, other methods, but we must document this now-lost game, for it is our duty. This one wasn't iPad compatible either, so 5S was the only option. As with other iOS games, click the screenshots to rebigulate them. Additionally, it seems there was an Android version but that, too, has been delisted and is no longer available. Also, shoutout to @Gosokkyu who sent us on the trail of this game's origins several years ago. You should follow them, they're good people.
Here it is, Gaming Hell finally talking about a game developed by shmup masters CAVE!
Just... You know, not one of their shmups. Why in the world would we do that? Don't be silly!
We're getting our smartphones out for this one, to play one of many now-sort-of-lost CAVE games, Mushihimesama Bug Panic.
Lost CAVE games? I'm afraid so, there's quite a few of them. While you'll mostly associate the company with their bullet hell arcade games, they did quite a lot of work on mobile devices in the early 00s too, presumably to keep the lights on, and I'm not just talking about their iPhone output that made it to the West- I'm referring to that dread spectre, the bane of all game preservationists, feature-phone-exclusive games. Indeed, Gaming Hell has crossed paths with this sort of thing before, as right at the top of our Miscellaneous Tat page is a flyer for Deathsmiles Gaiden: Lost Days, a game for which very little information remains, as well as Switch, another CAVE game lost to the ages, although there's a bit more out there for that one. Anyway, we're not going to linger too much here, but the one we're focusing on for now is Mushihimesama Gaiden: Shinju ga Mori no Mayoigo (虫姫さま外伝 シンジュが森の迷い子), released in 2004 with direct-feed gameplay footage over on NicoNicoDouga (and here's that same footage on YouTube) and a release article
over on Dengeki Online (which is where our screenshots come from).
Distributed via the mobile site Ge-Sen Yokuchō available via i-mode, Vodafone and EZweb, Gaiden is surprisingly the first Mushihimesama spin-off, being released the same year as the arcade game (compared to Puzzle! Mushihimetama which was 2005) which sees Reco going around bombing rowdy bugs as she is wont to do, just in a different format. Rather than a shoot-em-up, Gaiden has you walking around a map freely, locking onto bugs and throwing Burst Seeds at them to beat them up, with the goal being to find the required number of golden bugs to make the goal appear. There's only so much to glean from rather shoddy-quality footage of a feature-phone game I won't be able to play anytime soon, but what you can see here is a Mushihimesama-themed game with a Commando-style take on the action and a chibi-style sprite for Reco herself.
This idea would be revisited six years later, 2010, when CAVE released their first original iOS game that wasn't a port of one of their arcade games, Mushihimesama Bug Panic. The similarities are mostly surface-level, of course- it's top-down, Reco's sprite seems to be taken straight from the mobile ancestor, and even early on it was called Mushihimesama Gaiden: Bug Panic!- but the execution is radically different, ditching four-way movement for touch-based analogue control and lots of other things. Still, it's nice to trace the origins of stuff like this, isn't it?
So, how does Mushihimesama Bug Panic tackle the exploits of our favourite insect princess? There's two modes, so let's start with the main mode of play, Adventure Mode, and set the scene for the story about to unfold. Princess Reco and her buddy Palm (she's killed his mom and his brother but water under the bridge, right) must solve the mystery of the rowdy Koju (read: big insects) going hog-wild and figure out who the enigmatic flute-playing girl Sora is, making their way from Shinju Forest to the farthest reaches of their world including the scorching-hot Kuchihate Desert, the chilly Shimotsuki Ice Shelf, the roaring Hibachi Volcano, and the ominous Tamayura Path. Each world starts and ends with cute little cutscenes to advance what little plot there is, so if you want to see completely unique art of your bug-lovin' buddies Reco and Palm, you can get it all here. Anyway, every world consists of four normal stages which take the form of a top-down shooter with completely free movement, plus a separate boss fight in a closed arena, so there's quite a lot of bugs to blast before you'll make it to the end!
It's a twinstick shooter of sorts but with touch controls, with your left thumb acting as a joystick to move Reco around and your right thumb aiming a target reticle that, under the settings I played with and recommend, locks on to up to three enemies with Reco lobbing her Burst Seeds at them when you let go. These are more like bombs than actual bullets or stuff you'd normally fire off in a game like this, and if the explosion catches other bugs in its wake, it'll take them out too if they're weak enough. Charging your reticle briefly by holding your right thumb down will change the Burst Seed from green to yellow which will create a bigger explosion when you let go, and if you have any bombs in stock (replenished by grabbing items dropped by enemies, to a maximum of three) then continuing to hold will change the Burst Seed to red which will drop a huge explosion when you launch it- even better, launching bombs this way only uses one bomb stock but you still throw three of them! Similar to Arrange Modes in other CAVE shmups, there's also an auto-bomb mechanic (this can be toggled on and off but is always disabled in the unlockable Hard difficulty) where you lose your entire stock of bombs when hit, but don't lose a life. Your mercy invincibility is much shorter when this happens though, so you can't rely on it for too long. And, well, that's it for mechanics, there's not too much to it. That's probably for the best, given the control method, but you can't help but feel there's something missing, like extra weapons or some kind of roll mechanic. Some games, like Robotron: 2084 can get along without that sort of thing just fine, of course, and I wouldn't ask of this kind of thing of a more fleshed-out shmup, but then again, this ain't a shmup.
Now, of course, touch controls are a big bone of contention in some circles, which is fair, but honestly they mostly work better than you'd expect here, being fairly precise especially for movement. There is something of an issue with dropping inputs at first, which can happen if either of your thumbs goes beyond what the game considers 'their' side of the screen- you'll have your thumb on the screen but you won't end up doing what you want to do, and the lack of tactile response can stall you just enough to take a bullet to the gut. This is most dangerous with your left thumb of course, because when you need to move in this game, you need to move and so you have to train yourself not to move your thumb off the screen too much, as difficult as that might be. It can also be a little cramped to play and still effectively see everything on-screen, especially if you've got bigger hands than lil' ol' me. When the controls are working though, they're very precise with regards to movement, and since you can always see your hitbox, weaving through bullet storms works out really well. If CAVE did nothing else on smartphone platforms, they absolutely mastered the art of touch movement as evidenced by their arcade ports, and it really shows here.
The structure of the Adventure Mode stages is somewhat at odds with the score mechanics. A lot of them are surprisingly large with multiple pathways, but not all of these are available when you start the stage. Instead, defeating mobs of bugs unlocks orbs that make these paths available to you when touched, indicated by little Grand Theft Auto-style arrows around Reco when they're not on-screen. Most of these advance you closer to the exit, while others lead to areas with lots of amber goodies and others still hide the Golden Kabutans (there's at least one on every non-boss stage and give you a jigsaw piece for a puzzle), but a structure like this means you'll be exploring and not just blasting bugs all the while. Speaking of bugs, there's a nice variety of them spread across the game, with each new area introducing unique ones to fight (eventually every type of bug you've fought across the game returns for a rematch in Tamayura Path) and the different types often require different strategies- the tunnel worms can only be attacked when they're above ground, shell bugs can similarly defend against your Burst Seeds, and there are even mini-boss encounters later on. The bullet patterns are typical CAVE, with some enemies being more shot-happy than others, but the control scheme (when you don't fluff up) allows you to weave between them quite well. Each world also tries to have unique environmental traps too, like shifting sand in Kuchihate Desert that moves you like an conveyer belt and exploding rocks in Hibachi Volcano, but the stage designs themselves don't particularly stand out somehow- lots of tile reuse especially, which becomes a problem later on. All that said, for me the stage design falls into the hole that games like Bullet and Total Carnage also fall into- I always feel that twinstick shooters are best when they're intimate, single-screen affairs, with no scrolling and no room to breathe. The bullet patterns do their best to hem you in, and they sometimes work, but there's often points where you can just... Walk away, meaning the tension you'd get in a single-screen game, or something else by CAVE, evaporates. This isn't always an option- some stages are more mazey and labyrinthine- but generally the further you get in the game, the more open the stages are, which is to the game's disadvantage. This also plays into the route system, as sometimes to spawn the bugs necessary to unlock another path, you have to trawl around and find the right spawn point, which lead to me wandering around poking my head into every nook and cranny just to find all the spawn points!
As for the score system, it's pretty simple and probably familiar to players of games like DoDonPachi- every bug you successfully defeat adds to your multiplier which increases the points you get for destroying bugs but is on a timer, topped up by grabbing amber gems or defeating enemies- let the timer run out and you drop the combo. Having a high enough multiplier will make Reco collect items without having to be so close to them, so you want to keep it going as long as possible. While this system works fine for a linear game like DoDonPachi, in one like this where you're encouraged to explore, you'd think keeping that combo going would be basically impossible. Bug Panic has a solution to this issue, albeit a rather inelegant one. Throughout each stage, small mites will spawn out of nowhere frequently. While they can hurt Reco and don't add any score or multipliers when killed, they do reset the multiplier timer. Thus, the key to keeping combos going is to keep swatting these little mites to keep it going while you mill around the stage. Now, when it comes to CAVE scoring systems- not that I should ever, ever talk about scoring systems in shmups, or CAVE games in general- I'm more of a Mushihimesama Futari or DeathSmiles kind of person, so I'm a little biased against this system to begin with, but as we'll see later, Bug Panic can implement this system in a neat way... But it's absolutely not in Adventure Mode. Having to rely on these little mites to spawn can make it infuriating to try and keep a combo going (sometimes they just won't show up) and it's also far too easy to lose track of where they are when you engage other enemies and bumble into them, ending your combo and either taking a life of dumping your bomb stock.
This is where the problem with Adventure Mode lies, it wants to be two things at the same time. You are actively encouraged to explore every inch of these stages to find all the secrets for more points, but there's also a big emphasis on score and keeping a combo going throughout the stage for massive multiplier boosts. Obviously, the intent is to learn each stage off-by-heart to know exactly where to go so you can keep a combo going while also finding all the secret amber and points opportunities (so, basically DoDonPachi) but these levels are honestly pretty big and so the two design philosophies never seem to gel together, they're at odds with each other. Compare this with CAVE's own shmups where, because of their linearity, learning their layouts feels a lot easier, more natural and ultimately more conducive to developing that 'one more try, I can get a higher score' itch. It doesn't help in Bug Panic that, well, my sense of direction is notoriously terrible (who's the dingus constantly opening the map in survival horror games? Me, it's me, right here) and the lack of landmarks is deeply unhelpful. Some of the later stages are also really long, with the fifth stage of Hibachi Volcano being at least twenty minutes long which is pretty rough for a game like this without splitting things up! Especially since you can die from time over. As a result, while the encouragement to go for high-score runs is there with leaderboards, achievements and saved high scores... I never felt that urge to really bother.
Honestly, the game fares a lot better in the Score Attack mode, where that multiplier and the surprisingly serviceable controls get to shine a little brighter. These are arena-style battles where you're either fighting against the clock in Timed (you have infinite lives and defeating bosses grants you extra time) or surviving for as long as possible with limited lives in Endless (you can keep going by earning extra lives through score extends), in either mode doing your best to get a big fat score by the end, with arenas themed on each of the main Adventure Mode worlds. To keep things interesting, like in the unlockable Hard Mode of Adventure Game bombs won't automatically detonate if you have them when you're hit, regardless of your settings. You're encouraged more, then, to use them to begin combos as they'll clear things out for you and give you a head start on a big multiplier number, but they're no good for extending combos- they take so long to charge up that you'll most likely drop the combo before you get to throw one out- although if you know the combo's gonna drop anyway, you may as well charge one up for bosses to get time extensions in Timed or just to help you out in Endless. Here, the level design is a non-factor and runs tend to be fairly short so I found them a bit more engaging. The simplicity of the actual game mechanics was the bigger issue here, as there's not really enough attack / movement options or a more frantic pace to keep me coming back for more (that's what '80s twinstick shooters are for). In any case, I find it pretty telling that the early version shown at CAVE Matsuri 2009 is just a score attack game, perhaps suggesting this is where the game started with its development. It's definitely the better of the two game modes. There is also a multiplayer mode of some kind, but alas, there was absolutely no way I'd be able to test it out, sorry!
In the end, Mushihimesama Bug Panic is alright. The Adventure Mode is definitely the weaker of the two modes as a lot of the levels are too sprawling and lengthy to really dig into for scoring purposes, and even for casual play some of the later ones feel like they drag on for a while, plus finding all of the secret bits can sometimes feel like you're having to bonk your head against every wall. The mechanics are also a little simple but at least they work with the touch screen controls fairly well, and I dunno, I never got that drive to really get stuck into the score mechanics because of the problems its design has. Not that it's a turd, mind, it's just sort of there really, not doing anything particularly offensive or particularly great either, which is something you might say about a lot of mobile games if you were perhaps deeply cynical. Probably fitting that the game doesn't stand out in any field, given that there's a bit of an identity crisis at the core. Still, it's alright if you have the opportunity to play it, with the Score Attack being the mode to play more of out of the two, but, well, unless CAVE decides to update the game for 64-bit devices- and when they last had the opportunity, they chose to only update some DoDonPachi games and DeathSmiles so Bug Panic is clearly low on the priority list- you won't be able to find out, at least not properly. Oh well! That's digital distribution for you, ain't it, honk honk.
For being lost to the mists of time, Mushihimesama Bug Panic is awarded...
In a sentence, Mushihimesama Bug Panic is...
And now, it's that time, folks!
Just very quickly, let's rattle off a few extras in the game.
First, the jigsaw. The Gold Kabutans you find in each stage give you a jigsaw puzzle piece each, and you can assemble them to unlock an exclusive art piece made by Haccan (artist for Mushihimesama Futari, best known for working on the Mana series for Square-Enix) which is a cute prize for the really dedicated folks. Beating Story Mode once unlocks a Hard difficulty which massively increases the number of enemies and bullets as well as removing the auto-bomb feature, and a History menu item that documents all the other Mushihimesama games, their plots and characters (although this is also available, without any unlocking requirements, in the iOS port of the first Mushihimesama, in English as Bug Princess) in case you need the deep lore. Finally, there is GameCenter support for unlocking achievements and leaderboards (contrary to what other websites say, as of October 2020 those leaderboards are still online and viewable, although I can't say for sure if they're still updated) if you're into that kind of thing.
Someday, someone may experience bizarre delisted video games like this one.
Hopefully, they will find my notes useful.
Hey, sometimes these ending bits are hard to write.