02/03/2011

UMIHARA KAWASE

The Ocean: mankind's most terrifying foe and home to evolution's most hideous freaks (I'm looking at you, Pelican Eel). Fortunately, the sea's roiling vastness can be defeated by a small Japanese girl with a stretchy fishing line. Oh, that's okay th.. wait a minute, what?

Umihara Kawase is the name of the game, as well as the name of the heroine. Released for the SNES in 1994, it's an obscure, Japan-only puzzle game with a vaguely anime-style theme. So far, so much like any one of hundreds of games that never made it out of Japan. Umihara is different, though, and it's different for a very simple reason: it's good.

It was developed by a company called TNN, which in a perfect illustration of the Japanese usage of English words apparently stands for "Think about Needs of Notice for human being", a sentence that feels like it could be used as a type of mental torture. Halfway through your interrigation of the prisoner, read them that sentence and ask them to tell you what it means; they'll break soon enough. It was then published by Japanese television channel NHK, which is a bit like the BBC releasing a version of Lemmings or something. TNN managed to make only one other game before they vanished, but they left us with a real gem in Umihara Kawase.

Earlier I said it was a puzzle game, and I suppose it is. However, a better description might be platform puzzler or physics puzzler or something. You control Umihara, the girl in the screenshot above with the bright pink backpack. You've got the d-pad for movement and one button for jumping. Jumping won't get you very far in Umihara, but luckily you also have one important piece of kit: your fishing line.

Pressing Y will extend your line in whatever direction you're pressing. It hooks onto any surface that it hits, and as long as you hold the button down Umihara will hang from the line, waiting for you to do something. The goal of the game is to get through the stages by moving Umihara across the stage and to one of the exit doors scattered about the place, and that's where your line comes in.
Umihara Kawase is all about the physics. Your line is rubbery, and you can reel it in and out by pressing down or up on the d-pad. The first few stages will see you needing little more than the basics to get past the various obstacles and pits between our heroine and the exit, such as hooking onto the ceiling and swinging over gaps. And then it gets a little more complex; say for instance you have to hook onto the floor and walk off the edge of a platform, dangling down to avoid the attacks of a large tadpole. And then a little more complex, and a little more, until you find yourself having to perform all manner of acrobatics and momentum-based catapulting to see you through the stages... and it feels great.

The presentation of the game is pretty basic; although the sprites of the enemies look pretty good, the rest of the graphics are perfunctory, and the backgrounds are just digitised photos:

The music is decent if nothing special, and there's nothing in the way of extra options or plot or cutscenes. Even the ending appears very abruptly and is little more than a credits crawl and a picture of a fish. This leads me to a dichotomy in how I feel about Umihara. One on hand, the joy of the game shines through despite the rather bland presentation, and it serves as a great reminder that all of that stuff isn't really important to the pleasure you can derive from a videogame that has an interesting and well-implemented gameplay mechanic. Tetris doesn't need whizz-bang graphics to be fun, and Global Defence Force remains one of my favourite videogames ever despite often looking rougher Amy Winehouse after a lock-in at a brewery.

On the other hand, it makes me wonder what could have been, if a company like Capcom had made it and given it a graphical makeover and quality music. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so overlooked, and that would have been great for a game that deserves to not be overlooked. Umihara Kawase did receive a sequel on the PS1, as well as a PSP compilation of the two games that was apparently so bug-ridden as to be almost unplayable. There is a DS compilation too, which apparently is much better, and as the DS is region-free and Umihara requires no knowledge of Japanese it's probably your best bet if you want to swing around on a rubbery fishing line.

Speaking of fish... as you might have gathered from the start of this article, I am not a fan of the sea. While it fascinates me endlessly, I can't swim and deep-sea fish creep the beejesus out of me, like they should creep out all right-minded citizens. At least in Umihara you don't have to go into the sea to meet these fish: they come to you! On legs. Creepy little fish legs.

Look at that goldfish, strutting around on land like he's not some horrible mockery of nature. All the enemies in the game are some variety of fish or amphibian, and they're the main contributing factor to the game's often punishing difficulty level. Octopuses cling to walls and stun you with ink, goofy sharks flap at you and eels spit what I think are supposed to be eggs at you. They always seem to spawn just as you're flying toward them, but it's a measure of the game's charm that I never found myself getting frustrated by them. There are also a few bosses, including GIANT ENEMY CRABS and this perplexed-looking tadpole:

"Why am I huge? I have legs! I'm firing small frogs out of some undisclosed orifice! That little girl is whipping me with a fishing rod I MUST CRUSH HER!"
So then, that's Umihara Kawase. One last thing: apparently the name comes from a Japanese saying about cookery that means "sea fish are fat in the belly, river fish are fat in the back", thus giving river fish a complex about their fat arses.

Umihara Kawase: an overlooked gem that you should definitely try out and then tell people you've been playing a game that's essentially Bionic Commando with fish.
BONUS: Here's a page from Hardcore Gaming 101 about the Umihara series as a whole. It's better than this nonsense, anyway.

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