Original image via Flickr user Daisuke Matsumura.
I spend a lot of time in arcades whenever I find myself in Japan, or as they’re called in the comparatively squeaky-clean, politically correct local parlance, game centers. I just barely missed the 80s, but I did grow up in the 90s, so while I’m not necessarily lacking in personal life experience in visiting them in general in my own motherland of the States, suffice it to say that by the time I became literate, both in games and in English in general, I had missed out on a lot of the big zeitgeists as they were happening. I can go back and play them retrospectively via emulation and whatnot, but the appreciation then comes from a purely mechanical and perspective, rather than being more pleasantly tinged with memories of it also appearing at the right place and time in my life. Going to a physical arcade, I feel, helps establish a specific context for each game I play, reminding me of how they’re supposed to play and feel outside the coldly sterile environment of running them on other, newer hardware and immersing me within a setting that’s hard to find in the States anymore.
Rarely has this point hit closer to home for me than when I once tried my hand at playing Ikaruga, a game that very much so deserves to be heralded as one of the medium’s all-time greats, in its native arcade setting at the Taito Hey in Akihabara. I put in my 10, 50, 100 yen, whatever it was, and sat down, its simple controls quickly coming back to me, even if it was my first time ever playing it with a proper arcade setup. Having played the GameCube version in the comfort of my own home for years and years, I thought I well and truly knew the opening of the game like I knew few others, only to promptly die and run out of continues before I had reached even the first boss. The loudness, the smoky air, these things weren’t a part of my formative playing years when I obsessed over the game and as such, I lacked the means to concentrate and play the game well on its own terms, where it was most meant to be enjoyed.
The scrolling shooter to me, then, has mostly been a genre of games that I’ve enjoyed much like a person enjoys centuries-old paintings in museums. I get that they’re a hugely influential part of a medium I hold dear to my heart, but since I wasn’t there when they mattered most and were most vivacious, it’s hard to completely comprehend their impact and influence on games that have followed in their wake. To be certain, I remain fully aware that the scene is hardly dead in Japan. I have a functional knowledge of Touhou games and find it admirable that developers like Cave keep on trucking and putting more of them out even long after the bubble has burst for the Japanese economy. But, if I might be frank, even if those sorts of newer entries often feel like quality experiences in a sort of functional sense, speaking as someone who didn’t have the pleasure of growing up with the genre, it’s hard not to feel left out, like there isn’t necessarily a lot there for me to grasp and appreciate without deep, intimate knowledge of that history. It’s not wrong per se to make a game like that, not all games have to or should be for everyone, but at the same time, they don’t necessarily feel overly inviting either, especially to someone whose personal game-playing history is more spread out over a wide swath of diverse experiences.
Knowing that, it’s perhaps nothing short of a minor miracle that Revolver360 Re:Actor, a game made by one-man developer Cross Eaglet save for the music, stirs within me feelings that surely must be akin to when people were obsessed with the classics in their heyday and actively picked them apart for their own betterment as players. Here’s a really new contender from the Japanese indie scene and it’s still so fresh, especially outside Japan, where it’s only gotten a Steam release this past week, and playing it brings such pure joy and fun regardless of whether I succeed or fail that I actually feel motivated to keep playing it and compete with other players for a decent spot on the leaderboard, a lust for high numbers that only gets reinforced as the percentile of my high scores starts to creep into the single digits.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here because it’s the raw mechanics and their expert execution that ultimately draw me back. Put simply, in most regards, Revolver360 Re:Actor plays in familiar terms. You’ve got two bullet types, a laser, and your bomb-tier powered up state that can either get you out of dangerous jams or help you kick even more ass than you already are depending on how fluent you are in the game’s level layouts and mechanics. There are some other auxiliary features worth caring about if you get into the rabbit hole as deeply as I have, but for practical purposes, much of the basic gameplay seemingly treads upon well-worn, practically universal territory. The big thing that separates it from the rest of the genre, though, is the fact that you can rotate the stages 360 degrees along the z-axis, rotating both enemy and, more importantly, bullet formations.
This one major twist does a lot to infuse the game with a sense of genuine newness beyond the typical “flavor of the week” sense all games attain to some degree and though it only lasts four stages, it makes the most of them. Indeed, while the initial position and velocity of enemies and bullets might be set, the fact that you can manipulate their orientation relative to your own ship is extremely liberating. Suddenly, you have a lot more control than you do in many other games for how much havoc enemies can wreck on your ship; survival, then, is much less immediately about sheer pattern recognition and memorization as it just exercising basic spontaneous geometry. For once, as a result of this unique paradigm in player-enemy/bullet relations, you’ll be expected to make use of most all of the screen real estate at times and not a small fraction of whatever part is farthest away from the immediate chaos. Nevertheless, when things go your way, they conjure up feelings of satisfaction and pride not unlike what you might get out of a character action game like Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta in that the game is all too happy to let you turn the tables on it, but only if you give it everything you’ve got first.
Let’s outline a practical example of why the rotation is so critical to the game and what makes so uniquely enthralling. Oftentimes, Revolver360 Re:Actor throws enemies at you that will fill the screen with bullets in a circular pattern without a second thought for your well-being, giving you little lateral room to safely negotiate them. You ship has shields that can very slowly recharge, so it’s not inherently the end of the world if you get hit in the short term, but it’s still ideal to figure out how to get out of the way to ensure you have good prospects in the long term so that you can be ready for when the real stress appears. Whereas a more conventional bullet hell game will just force the bullets on you anyway and tell you to deal with it within your limited means of mobility, here, you can rotate the screen so all of the bullets occupy a small horizontal space and then use your weapons to swiftly clean them all up and be on your way. Similar principles can naturally be applied to enemy waves, where rotation remains key for both picking off large swaths in a timely manner and racking up the maximum amount of points in the process. Of course, given that it’s a shooter, you don’t have a lot of breathing room between bouts, meaning that you’re always having to think on your feet in terms of how to best engage with the enemy, as well as the background scenery, which can also often be shot at for various beneficial perks. But because you have much more room for discretionary improvisation, there’s joy to be derived simply from making it out of hairy-looking situations in one piece, even if it’ll take a lot of subsequent practice runs to get down pat.
Although the rotation mechanics in tandem with the ship’s diverse offensive and defensive options can initially make for an overwhelming game to completely comprehend in the early stages, Revolver360 Re:Actor does an excellent job of helping you learn how to process everything you see on the screen and quickly get up to speed. During normal gameplay, this is predominantly accomplished by positioning all of the relevant information on level topography (ie: where enemies and objects of note are along the z-axis) and ship status close to your main center of focus on the screen so your eyes don’t have to wander far in the middle of chaos. But the game also includes a straightforward digital manual and a challenge mode that, in spite of its name, actually serves as an excellent tutorial, breaking down each of the game’s major aspects into small, digestible chunks that can be replayed instantly that are further backed up by hints that reveal themselves over time if you get especially stuck on something. Get to know the basics for how the rotation system and your ship’s functions work in isolation and soon enough you’ll be able to use them in tandem without breaking a sweat in short order. With that insight and practice in hand, no challenge, no matter how intimidating-looking at the outset, is inherently impossible, as you’re given all the tools to ably cope with them however you see fit and the game practically goes out of its way to ensure you really understand the true extent of your capabilities for maintaining a level playing field.
This impressive amount of generosity in Revolver360 Re:Actor‘s attempts to make you a competent player is most readily felt during the game’s boss encounters. True to genre form, each of the four major bosses is huge and they aren’t afraid to throw hordes of bullets and lasers at you like they got them in bulk on a clearance sale somewhere. But so long as you remain cognizant of how nothing is absolute and how you’re readily capable of negating most any threat with careful, deliberate use of each of your ship’s small array of abilities, you’ll be able to take them down and even beat the game without necessarily being a traditional savant with bullet patterns. While it only took me a handful of hours to reach the credits sequence of the main game, making it superficially, at least to me, one of the easier shooters in recent memory, the fact that there’s so much latent strategic potential in my being able to maintain constant control over battlefield conditions is what’s ultimately compelling to go back and keep replaying those levels ad nauseum. The game has simply fostered this raw, primitive drive for validation, a desire to prove to myself and others just how much I really grasp the game’s inner workings. If this were a review on a dating site and said reviews didn’t somehow come across as weirdly creepy and voyeuristic, I might say, “She might be a little mean and hard to understand at first, but get to know her and she’s actually a pretty nice, easygoing person with a lot to offer.”
It’s also worth taking a moment to commend the visual and sound design in Revolver360 Re:Actor. As you’ve likely noticed by way of the included screenshots already, the game employs a limited color pallet, defined mostly by a lot of shades of blues and reds and accented by only a handful of other colors. It’s a striking choice, one that, alongside the player and enemy ship designs, evokes an intricately beautiful and Tron-like appearance. And surprisingly, the game deftly avoids the typical pitfall of having critical elements of the game blend together; I’m only occasionally not able to immediately discern some types of power-ups floating around on the screen when I’m occupied with other things, but given their limited variety, it’s easy to infer with a simple review of your ship’s status what actually happened if you don’t get what you predicted. More importantly, however, I never once had any trouble finding my ship and those of the enemy in even the most visually intense situations, an achievement that’s worth lauding consider how many other games can still manage to run into that problem with a much wider selection of colors.
Beyond that, while it’s not as pronounced as the visuals themselves, the sounds in the game effectively compliment what’s happening on screen, especially with respect to your ship, giving you prominent, but unobtrusive audio cues when major things such as laser charges happen so you can still grasp the full situation without taking your eye off of whatever’s currently the center of attention. The music, meanwhile, is also appropriately ambient and fitting for the visual design, pleasant to listen to in isolation, but without being a distraction once it’s time to get to work. Likewise, though it’s not normally at the top of anybody’s list of things to commend when it comes to a shooter, it’s worth point out that the English localization is impeccably written, as it goes to great lengths in the game’s challenge mode and manual to keep lessons accessible and comprehensible without prior genre knowledge nor a degree in Engrish grammar, as has often been the case in past decades with other arcade shooters.
As I’ve already clearly alluded, I by no means consider myself a particular expert on the art of arcade scrolling shooters. I have my historical favorites for sure. I’m not completely out of touch with the genre’s developments over the years. Still, I know my limits and I couldn’t possibly hope to tell anybody who’s actually knowledgeable whether or not Revolver360 Re:Actor has what it takes in its meta-level scoring mechanics and the like to be more than a flash in a pan in a scene that, like most other, very understandably pays prolonged heed mostly to the establish classics, to the games that have long proven their enduring merits. Speaking from my own experience, then, I can only say that Revolver360 Re:Actor feels fantastic in its own right because it wells up feelings within me to improve my skills and more effectively dominate the game’s challenges in ways that usually only games of other sorts manage to conjure up. There’s a rush that I can’t deny feeling when I capably handle a huge wave of bullets or enemies unscathed that’s akin to, say, mastering and applying a complex combo in a fighting game for a character I love or overcoming a tricky moment in a notoriously hard action game with nothing but brains, reflexes, and a lot of persistence. It’s a feeling that I experience a lot less as I get older and see more and more of what games have and have had to offer, but it’s one that I cherish now more than ever precisely because it’s so rare. That, in the end, is what’s going to compel me to keep playing Revolver360 Re:Actor even after I’ve published this review and it’s why I feel so comfortable recommending it, even if it’s not in my normal wheelhouse. If I just so happened to one day find it sitting inside a meek, decrepit generic arcade cabinet at the Taito Hey in Akihabara like most other proper classics these days, you know, I’d probably sit down and pay for the privilege of losing immediately again and again, content in knowing that even for me, the day can still come well after the highs of the 8, 16, and 32-bit eras for shooters that I’m willing to be a little poorer simply for the pleasure of being able to try and master a game of its ilk in its genuine prime.
Revolver360 Re:Actor is available in English for PC on Steam and directly via Playism’s official site, with a PlayStation 4 version currently in development. Additionally, a Japanese-only demo can be downloaded on the developer’s website. Gematsu’s copy of the game was bought and paid for with its own money on release.