G. Rev's 3DS shoot 'em up Kokuga hits an immediate tactile sweet spot. If you wait to press the start button, some brief words describe a conflict between two countries, but simply jumping into the Kokuga tank at the heart of this game offers a portable title that hooks the fingers over any concern your brain might have toward the reasons behind the action.
From a bird's eye view, players can use the circle pad or directional keys to glide their Kokuga over the environment with something akin to the smooth moves of a Tachikoma from Ghost in the Shell. While gliding around the screen, the shoulder buttons allow players to rotate the single shot turret, able to move in any direction whilst firing at any angle they please. I suppose Kokuga is a twin stick shooter making due on a single stick device.
The bulk of the game's missions take place as military simulations on a Tron-like grid, leaving players to push through a mix of narrow pathways and open spaces against enemy forces largely consisting of tanks and turrets. Though these generic environments quickly become familiar, save for some subtle terrain differences between stages, the constant push forward only to encounter resistance and fall back while swiveling the turret finds a need to use the environment for defensive aid. The levels appear very simplistic, but you'll need to hug walls and use every bit of cover while dodging enemy fire in a game where the force of the opposition makes the entire affair as hard as coffin nails, and this did quite a bit to endear an otherwise boring environmental design.
A lot of this opposition is made up of the aforementioned tanks and turrets that will use various fire patterns to push you back, though a few clever enemies spice the conflict at times, such as smaller craft that jump between shots to throw off your aim. And while you can make a slow grind through a level with the Kokuga's default turret, the game has something else in mind to augment your offensive abilities.
The start of each mission will find the touchpad showing four power-ups, which players can activate by simply touching them. The selection mixes offensive and defensive abilities, offering force fields and stealth at the same time as it might offer dual cannons or more powerful weapons that can clear everything on screen. Each of these power-ups is time based, so as soon as you activate one there's a clear emphasis on getting your money's worth by moving as quickly as possible. These power-up 'cards' are not limitless however--each time one is selected another will appear in the empty slot, but only sixteen per mission will become available.
Control schemes are always an important question on the 3DS. A game like Liberation Maiden had me smitten at the same time that it pained my mittens to hold the 3DS and reach for every necessary button. With that said, Kokuga's initial controls fit the hands rather well, with the fingers only needing to handle the circle pad, shoulder buttons, and one face button to fire. However, while using the touchpad to activate power-ups makes plenty of sense, it also required me relinquish control over a shoulder button to do so, which means I was often pulling back from battle to buy myself that moment. It's just a little awkward and bites into the tight window of time allotted to each power-up.
The missions appear on an alphabetical grid, with 12 of them that appearing as simulations labeled with letters from A-L, and 3 final missions that replace the simulator aesthetic with actual military maneuvers in more defined battle environments. Players can select any letter on the grid at the start of their game, but after completing a mission must choose adjacent missions on that pyramid grid. Completing a mission adjacent to a final mission allows you to play it next.
Each time you play Kokuga you'll start from scratch with that grid, which will make more sense to oldschool shoot 'em up fans, but the portable nature of the game wants for some type of save feature with a reset option.
The goal of each mission is to reach the end boss area, a mix of moving weapons and stationary battle stations that take the player's mobility into mind while still offering challenging patterns to overcome. But few of these bosses top the real difficulty of the stages that lead to them, and managing to carry a laser and final weapon card into battle will find most of them a pushover compared to the opposition guarding them.
The real challenge is the crawl to that boss zone in each stage, which simply comes from an overwhelming amount of opposition between you and your goal along with the limited number of power-ups allotted per mission. But despite how many times I failed within these stages, I was continually drawn back by simple controls that offer that tactile pleasure at the same time that they feed into tactical sessions of play.
The absence of time restraints further feeds the ability to play with the controls to find a mix of defensive and offensive tactics. While the force of opposition encourages an initial level of defensive movements, the weapon power-ups encourage players to rush into battle and use those simple controls to break enemy lines ' bolstered by the ability to create explosions that take out multiple enemies for those brave enough to rush in at times.
I've used the word 'simple' an obscene amount of times by now, but Kokuga was an important reminder for me this week that you can make a good game without hooks if you build it around simple and tight controls. And the result is that Kokuga's the most fun I've had with a G. Rev title since Under Defeat, which I recollect enjoying for much the same reason back on the Dreamcast.
Food for Thought:
1. As simple as the stage designs are, it's a bit easy to get lost at times looking for the colored squares that mark the entrance to a boss zone. There were more than a few times I cleared every enemy on a stage and then needed to drive around the neighborhood looking for it.
2. While Kokuga lacks the flash of an eShop release like Liberation Maiden, it does have an excellent musical score worth a nod.
3. At the time of writing this playtest, Kokuga still seems to be unavailable in Canada for reasons unknown. In order to write this playtest I learned that you can switch regions to access a different eShop and then switch back and still keep the game, which may not be news to everyone and is far from an ideal solution, but hey, I learned something!
Read more stories about Kokuga & Nintendo 3DS & Playtests on Siliconera.