Castle of Shikigami (PC)
Developer: Alfa System, Cosmo Machia
Released: March 14, 2002 (Xbox), June 27, 2002 (PS2), June 16, 2017 (Steam)
Back when shmup stories were so sordid that the writers likely couldn’t even explain them, Castle of Shikigami‘s world is very similar to the setting of Shin Megami Tensei. It’s a near-future universe where demons are on the loose killing people, but in this case instead of befriending them and hacking your way to victory, our heroes can fly, shoot bullets, and wield magic (okay maybe it’s the same). One kid, who can summon a murderous ghost persona, even exclaims in this Steam localization, “I don’t like adults, but I hate maniacs who kill women.” Suffice to say the original script, which contains a lot of murder, isn’t much better.
The actual shooty bits are more of a concerted design effort. You can take six characters across five multi-part stages (a “part” might even just throw a boss fight at you), either solo or by way of co-op. Shikigami‘s biggest strength is that each character feels different enough, both in terms of bullet types and their special abilities. There’s a good split between offensive and defensive bullet formations, and each run with another avatar feels fresh.
Shikigami‘s tension mode was also rare at the time, granting you bonus points for getting closer to enemy bullets. As you can see in the video below I’m purposefully sidling up to bullets even during boss fights just to get that extra oomph. Many shooters have done it since, and it doesn’t make that feeling any less exciting.
Yet, the levels themselves never really rise to the occasion. Bosses, for the most part, have a wide array of mechanics and bullet formations to conquer, but the regular cannon fodder seems haphazardly thrown in at times with underwhelming attack patterns. Even on a higher difficulty setting (which mostly just increases their health threshold), many portions of a stage can feel like you’re going through the motions.
Given that PC shmup ports have been notorious when it comes to bugs and a lack of basic features, I had to put Shikigami to the test, and I came back more annoyed than angry. My main gripes are that controllers aren’t hot-swappable (you need to quit and reload if you plug one in), start isn’t mapped correctly to an Xbox pad by default (same with the analog stick for movement), and there’s no arcade display screen flip option. The opening anime cutscene also seems to be missing from this version. All of those are minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things, as I didn’t encounter any crashes and resolutions of up to 3840×2160 are supported.
Castle of Shikigami is an important piece of shoot-’em-up history, but at this point it’s more of a relic. Its own sequels stepped up the unique character loadouts and gave us more interesting bullet patterns and bosses, so this one is best left for the hardcore crowd to munch on.