Halfway through the third stage of Castle of Shikigami 2, a boss called “Freyr” shows up. With a name like that, shoot-’em-up genre conventions, and the few other bosses under your belt by that point establishing the game’s dark fantasy style, you’d probably expect some huge, threatening mech or a Norse god with a shōnen manga twist. Instead, the whole fight is a colour-matching game: a grid of coloured blocks floats down the screen, white ones vulnerable to your standard shots, red to your special “Shikigami” weapon, and yellow only able to be destroyed by lining up four in a row. (You can destroy red and white blocks by matching, too). Rather than shooting down some big ship or monster, you beat this boss by successfully destroying all the blocks–all while dodging the intricate bullet patterns you’d expect from a shmup.
Freyr is a particularly memorable example, but it’s emblematic of Alfa System’s design approach. This is a developer that knows shmups well, and the shooting fundamentals in Castle of Shikigami 2 are rock solid: smooth, fluid movement, weapons that feel weighty and powerful, varied and interesting enemy waves even for popcorn foes, a scoring system that rewards risky, skillful play, and bullet patterns that are chaotic yet intricate. From that strong foundation, Shikigami 2 finds plenty of opportunity to throw creativity into the mix.
This is most apparent in the character designs, which might be second only to Touhou in terms of sheer variety. Three different ships (speed, power, balanced) is a good baseline for a shmup, but Shikigami 2 offers seven different characters—all five from the first Castle of Shikigami, plus two newcomers—who each feel completely unique. Shikigami Attacks, the series’ version of focused attack that activates when you hold down the shot button, are where characters’ individuality, and the differing strategies and playstyles that stem from that, shine brightest.
With Kohtaru Koga’s ability to summon a familiar that automatically attacks the nearest enemy, you can get through much of the game by ignoring enemies entirely, letting the Shikigami do the work, and focus all your attention on dodging bullets—albeit at the expense of efficiency and score, at least until you learn how to use it more effectively. Fumiko’s orbital laser (fired by her butler, naturally) is a little trickier, requiring manual aiming that stops you from being able to move, but it hits hard, and used well, it can carve through a boss in seconds. Other characters have things like a (cat-powered) barrier that absorbs and reflects enemy shots, swords that spin around your character as you move, and bombs that scatter in front of you—each encouraging a different style of play and opening the door to new ways of dealing with the threats that Shikigami 2 throws at you.
Even the basic shots are impressive in their variety, going far beyond the familiar spread shot / frontal cannon shot dichotomy. Wave cannons, directional shots that bend in the direction of your movement, homing shots, and drones that you can manually reposition to alter your attack spread (to a certain extent) all feature, further giving each character a sense of individual identity and strategy. Gradually mastering the different mechanics at play and turning that into a winning run is one of the most enjoyable things in a good shmup, and with its varied cast, Castle of Shikigami 2 packs ample opportunity for that.
That focus on individuality extends to Shikigami 2’s approach to storytelling with every character, and every pair of characters while playing in two-player or the new Dramatic Change mode (which lets you pick two characters and switch between them at will), having a unique set of cutscenes. Individual character stories aren’t too uncommon, but it’s the paired stories that are particularly impressive, especially when you remember that this is an arcade game that first landed in 2003. Between the solo stories and paired ones, you’ve got around 30 different variations of Shikigami 2’s story, and while they’re not exactly deep–a few lines of dialogues each for the opening, ending, and pre- and post-boss cutscenes–they piece together into something that, if a little forgettable, is certainly enjoyable in the moment.
A big part of that enjoyment comes from a new English translation for the Steam release. The original localisations for Castle of Shikigami 2’s various console ports are infamously, comically bad, on an almost Zero Wing level, with such chestnuts as “I like girls, but now, it’s about justice” and (ahem) “Don’t come yet! Don’t soil your hands…”. The retranslation is far more cohesive and intelligible, while retaining some of the slightly eccentric nature of the original script. “I like girls just fine, but some things are more important, like justice!” still captures Kohtaru’s youthful sense of duty in the face of Arala Cran’s flirtations. It’s a little disappointing that the original translation wasn’t retained, for the sake of novelty if not much else, but the new one is a vast improvement.
The other big new addition for the Steam release is New Entry mode. Don’t be fooled by the name into thinking this is some sort of novice mode–it’s precisely the opposite. With revamped enemy placements, new bullet patterns, and various other tweaks, it’s closer to a Black Label version, and much harder than the standard arcade mode. Obviously, it’s designed primarily for Shikigami 2 veterans, but even for a new player, it’s interesting to switch between the two modes and see how New Entry mixes things up. Both modes also have a couple of different difficulty modes within them, too: the standard mode, an easy mode with auto-bombs (but limited to the first three stages), and an Extreme mode where defeated enemies fire suicide bullets.
Beyond that, the Steam port packs a fairly standard feature set: tate mode, button config, practice mode for stages you’ve cleared, an art gallery and cutscene museum, and a free play mode (albeit locked behind a playtime threshold). There aren’t any flashy extras, and the PC config options will feel limited to people who like to fine-tune their settings, but it’s got all the essentials for a port of a 20-year-old arcade game.
In true Alfa System style, Castle of Shikigami 2 sets a rock-solid shmup foundation and then builds on that with creative flair, unique character, and inventive twists–like a match-three style puzzle boss. The Steam port brings revives an arcade classic with the remixed layouts and bullet patterns of New Entry mode and a revamped translation that, if missing some of the comical nonsense of the original English script, offers a much more coherent take on a game that puts a lot of stake in its energetic, character-specific cutscenes.
Castle of Shikigami 2
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: Degica Games
Genre: Shoot-’em-up, bullet hell
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 7 December 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.