Finding Depth in Clownish Comedy

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Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground

There are plenty of ways to muck up a shmup. Most upsetting is when its flaws boil down to poor pacing and disorienting difficulty spikes. These tend to translate to the least satisfying experience possible. The shoot-em-up genre is still inundated with titles covering the same ground as Space Invaders, so when adventurous games like Shütshimi break the status quo, their creative merit can’t be dismissed.

Ironically, Shütshimi is precisely the sort of shoot-em-up that could be dismissed for fitting in with a niche, parodist crowd due to its protagonist; a goldfish toting beefy human arms. The image recalls an age of run-and-gun heroes with brash masculinity. I kind of wish they were puffer fish, so I could call them “buffer fish,” but alas…

Shütshimi loves bending rules aesthetically – allowing the muscly fish to light cigarettes underwater, for pelicans to be besties with poisonous jellyfish – and its consistent inconsistency feeds into the game’s structure. Adopting a frenetic WarioWare-meets-Fantasy Zone-esque style, the game rotates between assault and preparation. Survive a 10 second wave; peruse the shop for 10 seconds. It takes the tradition of limited-time pick-ups and turns it into a transitional gameplay phase. It’s unique, and ends up playing more like a nonsensical party game than a traditional shoot-em-up.

It can come off as facetious, but these quirks have meaningful gameplay implications. Some items are only active for the next wave, others stay with you, provided you don’t take a hit. In either case, you don’t have time to fully process any losses, as the need to make snap decisions remains constant. Shütshimi uses this as a compelling antidote to keep gameplay from stagnating, as well as preventing players from becoming overpowered and bored.

When visiting the shop, you need to speed read through vague descriptions and seemingly irrelevant stories that don’t disclose the effect of the item in question. There are subtle suggestions, but you’re trying to process these in the space of 10 seconds while also contemplating two other options. It’s a design choice that smartly gives back to experienced players on repeat plays.

Items offer a slew of effects, from flipping the screen, to what I can only describe as a “friendly mode” that plants a bouncy castle in the next scene. Then there’s the ability-granting hats; some just for show, others that offer an alternate means of attacking.  All totaled, the constant item recycling paired the alternating structure prevents this initial wit and charm from being sucked dry.

Shütshimi’s greatest accomplishment is its ability to play to short attention spans without succumbing to shallow delivery. Its humor jackknives from being surrounded by a wheel of protective fish, to launching cats from your head, but still allows for depth. In the end it gives a sense that the accelerated design is more forward than its arcade philosophy should normally allow for.