CAVE needs no introduction when it comes to Japanese 2D scrolling shooters (shmups). Walk into any arcade in Japan, and chances are you will still find CAVE arcade cabinets with legendary high scores, waiting for someone worthy to etch their legacy within the annals of the offline scoreboard. CAVE shooters have rarely had quality console ports, with the SEGA Saturn being perhaps the first system to house authentic ports of games like CAVE’s seminal DoDonPachi, among others. The PlayStation 2 briefly housed some titles, but it wasn’t until the Xbox 360 that CAVE’s extensive catalog finally reached home audiences in Japan. In 2010, fans were able to play the legendary Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi, which first released in arcades back in 2002.
There is a reason why CAVE shooters take such a long time to get a console port, and that is the fact that these games are incredibly demanding and require some serious hardware to pull off all the bells and whistles. Sure, these are 2D sprite-based video games, but as we have learned from the 32bit era, high-end 2D can place quite the strain on gaming hardware, especially when there are layers of sprite animations on top of sophisticated game design. Perhaps it is not so much the case anymore with flash-based 2D animations we see in video games, but when it comes to 2D graphics built pixel by pixel, then it certainly helps to have the right hardware.
There was no shortage of big games for the 2019 holiday season. Still, if you happened to be in Japan during that time, then there was a pretty significant release with all the marketing bells and whistles you’d expect from a major launch. Along with receiving an attractive spread in Nintendo Dream magazine, gamers would see the oddly titled shmup Esp Ra.De. which we will refer to as simply Esprade moving forward.
This release was a pretty big deal, with a couple of retail editions for gamers to choose from, and it just so happened I was around during the time when the game was front and center on Japanese store shelves. Having not known anything about the game, the stellar cover artwork and mention of CAVE were enough for me to fork out 6,000 Yen (plus taxes) for my own copy, which came with a brief strategy guide. There was a pricier limited edition too with soundtrack and art books, but for me, it was refreshing to pick up a major Japanese release that hadn’t been on my radar at all.
Esprade first launched as an arcade cabinet back in 1998, and even now, this is hard to believe, given the gorgeously detailed and animated 2D graphics. It’s crazy to think that this was only CAVE’s third shmup release ever because it looks and plays like something they would create years into the time as a studio. There was absolutely no way Saturn or even Dreamcast were going to handle a faithful port, and so over 20 years later we finally have one for PS4 and Switch thanks to M2 and SEGA, with plenty of extra modes and features to boot.
M2 have slowly been porting over CAVE’s library with the likes of Battle Garegga, Ketsui, and now Esprade. These ports are much better than previous releases, with efficient menu design to complement the remastering for modern platforms, along with other quality of life improvements. It’s great to see games that were once fabled finally reach a mainstream audience, although there are still no signs of Esprade receiving a global release at this stage.
The base arcade game holds up exceptionally well; in fact, it feels like something that was made just recently for the current gaming generation. The immediate attraction is, of course, the artwork where the modern sci-fi character designs shine through, mainly thanks to the involvement of Atlus, who brought their signature Shin Megami Tensei style over to bring the characters and game world to life. The graphics look pretty incredible, with intricately detailed sprites and backgrounds that animate flawlessly with high fluidity. The rest of the presentation shines through with a slick menu design and a modern score suiting the game’s neon aesthetic. Going back to the point earlier on how advanced these games were for their time, it’s still amazing to see that even on a current-generation console, Esprade takes a fair while to boot up initially (at least with the Switch version).
As a game, Esprade showcases the kind of grand design and pace lacking in most modern shmups, especially given how saturated the genre has become. Esprade was part of the initial influx, which would set the foundation for the genre as we know it today, and yet it never quite enjoyed the same exposure with the general gaming populace until now. For now, it is still a Japanese exclusive, but importing is an option, and you could always create a Japanese account.
In Esprade, each of the main three characters offers a slightly different campaign structure with a unique arrangement of boss battles. The original arcade game is challenging no matter which character you stick with, but the console versions come with an Arcade Plus mode, as well as a Super Easy mode, which is a pretty good way to start if you want to learn the levels and patterns early on.
Variants of the main game aside, there is also a simulation mode of sorts where you manage the schedule and living space of a character (think Princess Maker). It’s a simple little extra that is a bit difficult to get the hang of without knowing Japanese, but it shows how developer M2 has gone above and beyond when it comes to making classic games feel brand new again for a modern audience.
The console release of Esprade is a reasonably significant deal, and it feels like something worthy of being on the shelf with other major game releases. It may be some time before this gets released outside of Japan, but if a digital version happens to pop up, that would be more than welcome. Japanese shmups are increasingly becoming more accessible than ever, and a game like Esprade deserves to reach a wider audience as one of the premier titles of the genre.
This post may contain Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate Noisy Pixel earns from qualifying purchases.