Bug Princess 2 reigns supreme among iPad shooters

, | Game reviews

It’s pretty exciting to discover a new genre, which is what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing with iPad shooters (shmups, bullet hells, STGs, danmakus, or whatever you’d like to call them). It’s something else entirely to discover what may very well be the finest instance of that new genre. The act of playing Bug Princess 2 is the act of gradually realizing, “Ah, so this is why these games are a big deal…”

After the jump, if you get just one iPad shmup…

You can play shooters just to get to the final boss and be done with it, as if you’ve beaten the game once you’ve seen all the content. Aren’t you cute? But once you buy into the fact that shooters are all about trying to get a high score, Bug Princess 2 is an ideal primer into the gameplay aesthetic of these things.

The first thing you’ll learn is that these games aren’t really about reflexes. I don’t feel like I’m dodging so much as I feel like I’m searching. I’m peering into patterns, trying to anticipate where the empty space will unfold and how I can get to that point. It’s oddly serene. When I play a first person shooter, especially online, that’s dodging. That’s twitch and adrenaline, and goddamnable bastard frustration and elation in rapid succession. It’s exhausting. A good shmup is no such thing. You watch the screen fill with bullets and you learn to navigate shapes and trajectories in search of negative space. It’s about chasing shifting slivers of emptiness. In the zone, it’s as mesmerizing as paint spilling, as transcendent as stars exploding.

If I were more accomplished with these games, I could probably articulate why Bug Princess 2 is better than any other shooter I’ve played. As a dilettante, I’m going to have to fumble around to explain. For instance, on a superficial level, the setting helps a lot. These aren’t anime robots or spaceships. These are children merrily riding bugs through a perilous garden, occasionally chirping Japanese dialogue. In the cutscenes, which are just concept art, they frolic or nap.

The graphics are clean and easy to read. The beams you shoot, the bullets you dodge, and the pale gems you collect are all distinct from the colorful backgrounds and the beetles, flies, worms, and birds. It’s not as razor distinct as HD shooters, including Cave’s Espgaluda and Dodonpachi, but I don’t feel that it needs to be. As much as I think I’d love an HD Bug Princess, I wonder if some of the cheerful Miyazaki of it might be lost if the lines were sharper. Perhaps this is just a silly rationalization, but it all comes down to the fact that Bug Princess 2 is no less beautiful or playable for not being an HD app. Because that was a concern for me. I came into these games fully expecting that I would settle for no less than the full effect of the iPad’s retina display. And I discovered that it’s not necessary.

Furthermore, I prefer shrinking the screen down a bit so I can control my bug rider by placing a finger in the margins outside the actual gameplay. Bug Princess 2 is nothing if not accommodating to various screen and control options.

Bug Princess’ scoring system is based on using one of two firing modes as you play. In one mode, you have to move around the screen to pick up points. In the other mode, your ship sucks up the points. As anyone who’s played a shmup knows, each of these makes for a different experience. Shmups are always about 1) avoiding bullets and 2) shooting things. But when you have to also 3) pick up dropped items to increase your score, your workload has gone up 50%. This raises the level of challenge and therefore adds tension. And since Bug Princess 2 is all about alternating between these two modes, the result is one of the classic tenets of good drama: tension, release, tension, release, tension, release.

But Bug Princess 2’s maniac mode is where it really comes into its own. The regular mode has a steady tension/release progression. But maniac mode uses the two firing modes in a classic risk-reward scenario. In one firing mode, you gather gems to increase a multiplier, which you’ll lose if you get hit. Then, when the multiplier has reached as high as you dare go, you can switch to the other firing mode to go gunning for an enemy that converts every bullet onscreen into points equal to your multiplier. So if you chicken out at x1000, you’ll still get a nice score bonus. But if you dare go to x2000, or x3000, you’ll get that many more points. Real men go to x9999. Or, more often, lose the whole multiplayer because they’re too pig-headed to switch before things get too crazy.

One of the brilliant touches in maniac mode is how Bug Princess 2 literally fills the screen with your score. When you convert bullets into points, the number appears on the screen where the bullet used to be. When you pull this off correctly, overlapping 9999s fill the screen. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences you can have in a videogame (Cave’s Espgaluda works similarly, but it’s no Bug Princess).

I should further point out that I’m mostly speaking from the perspective of someone who finds this genre perfect for the iPad: the short bursts of play, the demands of meticulous control, the splashy graphics, and the social element of competing with your friends on a leaderboard are all ideally suited to the iPad. And they’re all an integral part of Bug Princess 2. But this is a game that began in arcades. I don’t doubt that some purists object to the iPadification of Cave’s shooters. I’m glad I’m not one of them.

However, I should warn you that Cave’s iOS releases are a mess of confused titles, high prices, and in-app purchases, all of which are an obstacle to newcomers. In the case of Bug Princess, you have a few options. You can try the “lite” versions, but these time-limited demos won’t show you anything meaningful about the game. You might as well skip them and take a leap of faith, in which case you have three options:

1) Bug Princess 1 is Bug Princess 1. I haven’t tried it, but given how sequels work, I suspect it’s less awesome than Bug Princess 2. It is, however, much cheaper. So there’s that.

2) Bug Princess 2 is Bug Princess 2.

3) Bug Princess 2: Black Label is Bug Princess 2 with a revised scoring mode and some crass in-app purchases that you can — and should — ignore. The revised scoring mode is both friendlier and more flexible than Bug Princess 2 vanilla. Furthermore, it plays a musical trill whenever you should switch firing modes. These things could have been patched into Bug Princess 2, but Cave has apparently decided that making awesome games is secondary to milking their fans for cash. But if you’re going to get a Cave shooter in general, and a Bug Princess in particular, Bug Princess 2: Black Label is as good as it gets.

5 stars