There is so much that can be said about the legacy that Kokuga brings with it to the 3DS. We can talk about the illustrious Hiroshi Iuchi, and how his work is seminal is shaping the modern shoot ‘em up genre, or we can talk about Ikaruga, the under-sold yet much adored bullet hell shooter that fans will remember fondly. Instead we’ll just say this: for those of you reading who think you’re interested in this game, go buy it now. For those of you reading who have no idea what to expect, this game is not easy.
To be fair, refering to Kokuga as “not easy” is like saying that winning the lottery is “a modest challenge.” If you play this, you are going to die many times, you are going to become frustrated, and you are going to want to throw your 3DS out the nearest window. We advise you not to do this. As difficult and frustrating a game as this may be, once you’ve mastered it – or even once you’ve stopped dying so much – it becomes a very rewarding experience.
As a top-down shoot ‘em up, Kokuga falls somewhere between being reasonably paced and being an all-out bullet hellstorm. The trick is that your ship can only shoot one bullet at a time, and you can only have one bullet on screen. These rules do not apply to your enemies. To help illustrate how this plays out, imagine that you’re having a snowball fight with some neighborhood kids. Now imagine that all of the kids have turned against you, leaving you to fend for yourself. Also, all of the other kids are taller than you, stronger, and they each have eight arms all throwing snowballs. Some are shooting lazers at you. It’s definitely fun, but it’s an almost absurd challenge. Thankfully you are also equipped with a series of weapon and defense cards that appear on the 3DS’s bottom screen, easily being activated with a simple tap. These cards provide upgrades such as triple shot, rapid fire, or stealth, but as they only last for a short period of time and you’re limited to 16 cards per stage, your single shot is still going to be your primary weapon.
There are 15 stages, all of which are laid out in a grid and can be selected right from the beginning. Stages can be played in any order, but once you complete a stage you are limited to only playing those immediately adjacent to the one you have completed on the grid. You can also select each stage’s difficulty level right from this screen, making it easy to jump from Normal to the appropriately named Ultimate mode.
Though the layout and enemy locations are different in each stage, they all tend to look very similar, featuring a simple path for you to traverse framed by differing walls that are meant to indicate you’ve entered a new location. Work your way through the enemy littered avenues and you’ll end up at a boss battle that will make the stage itself seem like a cakewalk; despite the stages all being similar in layout and design, Kokuga is a very good looking game. The character models and bosses all look like they’ve been ripped out of a sci-fi thriller, and the 3D effect helps add a sense a depth that makes your enemies pop out and seem larger than life. The soundtrack is also fantastic, full of booming riffs that help add to the intensity of the game’s action.
Your ship is controlled using the 3DS’s Circle Pad while L and R rotate your cannon from left to right respectively; the B button fires your cannon. This control scheme can be a challenge to manage and master – especially in the more enemy-heavy portions of the game where quick actions are necessary – but enough customization is available in the controls allowing you to choose an input method that works best for you.
There is also support for local multiplayer via download play, allowing for up to three friends to join you in a stage. Co-op play is really great for overcoming particularly difficult stages, or if you just need someone to hold and cry with after being brutalized together by enemy drones. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
Kokuga looks great, plays well, and provides a devilish challenge that will leave even the most seasoned shoot ‘em up veterans scratching their heads. The stages may lack a little variety, and the controls take a bit of getting used to, but overcoming these challenges makes for an incredible payout. If you’re a fan of the genre and you’re looking for a new challenge, then this is definitely the 3DS game you’ve been waiting for.