A truly punishing shooter can feel like something of a dance - a series of carefully choreographed numbers that rely on you watching the steps of those around you and taking your own accordingly. Getting through without stepping on someone's dangerously explosive toes is more often a case of learning those steps rather than improvising.
Kokuga's no exception - and that makes sense when you understand its pedigree. Its director, Hiroshi Iuchi, created two of the greatest shooters of all time in Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, so he's pretty much up there with Louie Spence and the dude who invented The Monkey in terms of this simile. Strangely, however, it seems as though Iuchi - previously such a dynamic force - has opted for more of a slow dance this time around.
Kokuga's hook is in its measured approach. Centred on a sleek, mobile tank rather than the traditional ship, most levels allow you to dictate the pace of how you proceed around the map, ditching the auto-scrolling terror that genre fans will be accustomed to. To balance out that newfound control over the situation, said tank can only fire a single shell at a time, demanding a far more tactical approach.
Into The Unknown
It's more than a subtle twist on the expected formula and that's reflected in how you'll play through levels. With a top-down view restricting your field of vision, much of your time will be spent edging into unexplored areas, fighting off any attackers close to you and retreating once you understand what else awaits you.
You might then choose a power-up card from the randomly-selected hand that fills the lower screen - ranging from different bullet types to smart bombs to shield regeneration.
With 16 cards provided per level, luck might seem a defining factor, but cycling through them for a better situational fit rarely feels like much of a risk.
That's clearly deliberate, because where Kokuga does draw from its predecessors is in difficulty. Even at the easiest of four difficulty levels, different sets of enemy types appear constantly throughout the game's 15 levels
(12 of which can be approached in any order, with three Final levels concluding a threadbare storyline), end-of-level bosses are brutally imaginative and the constant struggles against your own vehicle's limitations add a further level of both things to think about and reasons to curse aloud.
Unfortunately, the latter point is also the game's most self-evident mistake. Slowing the pace might change how you play, but it clearly hasn't altered how Iuchi thinks you should be forced to deal with defeat and there's a disjoint between philosophy and mechanics there. Being destroyed always sends you back to the beginning of a level. Where this might have meant a few minutes of frenetic play in his older games, it can often be
an offputtingly large commitment in Kokuga, where trundling from one skirmish to another can take longer than the fights themselves.
So it's a slow dance; a gentle sway of steps with the occasional flourish. That can be far more enjoyable than the most energetic experience - but if you're getting things wrong, the wait to get it over with can be excruciating.