Like many of Japan’s very best shmups, Trouble Witches is heading to Steam, hooray! This will be the fourth version of a game that’s gone from being a little doujin title, to a proper arcade game, to a been-and-gone Xbox 360 release, to its latest Valve-time ‘soon’ HD remake incarnation. All Trouble Witches are very slightly different from one another, but more in a NiGHTS-vs-NiGHTS: PS2 Edition way than… Resident Evil-vs-Resident Evil 4, shall we say? So the same levels, same bosses… Studio Siesta got it more-or-less right on their first go, why fiddle too much with a winning formula? So while this blog post’s technically (OK, actually) only about the original 2007 doujin PC version of the game (with all patches applied) in all its 640x480 resolution glory, just about everything said below can be applied to every other version of the game and should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect from this magical cute ‘em up.
The basic setup involves picking your preferred witch from a selection of four and then taking them and their very strange animal familiar through six stages of horizontal shooting action – so far, so Deathsmiles. Thankfully there are many things that make Trouble Witches stand out from the Cave-crowd, and its fantastic offensive/defensive/coin-producing magical circle ‘gimmick’ is probably the biggest one. What this allows the player to do is command the witch’s familiar to generate a magical ward on-screen that slows, but does not stop, enemy bullets caught inside its area of effect. The fun starts when the player shoots down the craft/flower/weirdy thing that spewed the bullets in the first place, as all ‘caught’ shots turn into glorious coins that can be spent in the magical flying pumpkin shop – more on that later. What this simple-sounding system does is create an obvious and easy-to-read defensive option for new players while tempting those with more experience into dangerous games of ‘chicken’ – more bullets means more coins and more points, so it’s better – if you dare - to encourage enemies to fire and then place yourself in a position where you can easily hoover everything up! Further depth comes from player-decided barrier sizing (dab for a teeny-tiny one, hold for a huge one), learning how to manipulate the recharge system (do you want to do an emergency life-saving barrier now, or let the gauge fill to max and wait for an extended bullet-guzzling opportunity?), and it all just comes together as an interesting but easy to understand risk/reward system.
Speaking of things that are easy to understand – your witch’s hitbox is a very obvious little star that’s always visible on their sprite and enemy bullets in all shapes, sizes, and speeds are easy to see and never get lost in the action whether there are giant snow-whales flying through the background or a talking fish with a bowtie’s generating an enormous magical seal. It’s the sort of thing we all take for granted with a quality shmup but it’s very easy to do wrong, especially at the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ of this doujin release.
Right, let’s talk about that magical shop I mention earlier! Like all good shmups Trouble Witches has an in-stage floating store that allows players to exchange coins earned for an ever-changing selection of temporary and permanent power-ups. Mystic cards are the cheapest and most common item you can buy and these give your witch a new time-limited shot; ranging from the usual wide spread to ricocheting balls and surprisingly effective bubble blasts. When these are used is entirely at the player’s discretion, although once a card’s been activated it’s in-play until its time’s up, as cards can’t be stopped or suspended. Three different cards can be held at any one time and it’s not a good idea to do the obvious thing and cling onto them until you reach the boss as these special shots generate special star medals when used, and medals mean… more points! Who doesn’t want to try and earn more points in a shmup? Well… maybe you, and sometimes me, but the main thing is it’s a good-enough nudge towards using things up rather than miserly clinging on to every last thing ‘just in case’. Also occasionally available to buy in the shop – if you can afford them – are permanent barrier-gauge increases and extra lives, as well as a purely defensive mystic card that makes the player invincible for a short time.
If you’d like a change from the standard arcade mode’s fast-n-furious action there’s a story mode on offer which is almost exactly the same as regular Trouble Witches, just with the enjoyable flow of the game completely destroyed by overly-long dialogue sequences. This chatter’s about on the level you’d expect of a game where cute witches find themselves in mild peril but as some of these conversations literally take longer to listen to than the stages they’re found in take to finish, they never feel welcome. You can speed through or skip lines entirely, but if you’re going to do that then you may as well play arcade mode, no? It’s the sort of thing that you’ll try out once or twice just to see what it’s like, then rush back to arcade mode’s warm embrace and never select again.
But other than that minor blip Trouble Witches is an easy game to recommend: it’s a well-balanced shmup with a good range of modes and difficulty settings that allows it to be accessible without sacrificing the depth long-term genre fans go looking for. Everything’s made clear simply by observing what happens in-game – while there’s a lot of learning and experimentation needed to rack up the really big scores there’s never any doubt about what does what, or a nagging feeling that the game’s holding some esoteric knowledge from you. It’s not the sort of shmup you’ll finish in your first day’s play (the three credit limit will see to that) but you won’t want to either – a session with Trouble Witches feels like an enjoyable afternoon’s mischief, not a harsh lesson in game mechanics that must be endured before the game lets you get to the fun bits.