Back in 2011, the global shmup community was filled with complaints about new creations in the Japanese “doujin” enthusiast game development scene. It’s called Crimzon Clover, and after the full version first appeared at a fan convention in Japan in late 2010, plenty of rumours suggested it was really something special.
Fortunately, the guess turned out to be correct. Crimzon Clover takes the form of a typical insane bullet hell shmup — or in more traditional terms, a shooter — and it does it well. Like many of the best shmups, it blends hyperactivity, overwhelming speed, and massive scoring depth, and is equally challenging, rewarding, and exciting. If you’re imagining sweeping, terrifyingly dense bullet patterns realized in neon colors, intersecting as player ships pass through small hard-to-achieve gaps while shooting a barrage of enemies, you’ve got the right type of game in mind.
It can be played again. Late last year, the creation of fan studio Yotsubane landed on Steam under the title Crimzon Clover: World EXplosion – with a thorough polish and a slew of new and tweaked modes. Its return makes it hard to resist thinking about the mystery of the original, and how this hobbyist antique turned cult hit is doing today.
It’s worth noting that Crimzon Clover’s unique origin story was a big part of its appeal, all those years ago. But surely that element of the game’s appeal will fade over time? Or maybe not…
Developer Yotsubane, better known in arcade circles as CLOVER-TAC, is a longtime serial shmup world record holder and certainly one of the best players in the genre. Before making his own games, he worked as a game tester for the pioneering bullet hell studio Cave, known for the difficulty of its games and the pocket depth of its fan base. CLOVERTAC has the skills to test the upper limits of these games – and now he’s applying what he’s learned as an elite player and tester to his own creations.
There’s something else to this amateurish homage to genre superstars like DoDonPachi that makes it atypically appealing. Conventional wisdom says that for maximum credibility and authenticity, shmup should start with an arcade version.
Here, however, is a shooter that was initially only available as a boxed PC version; a PC version that was popular with genre fans, achieved incredible feats, and was ported to arcade cabinets in 2013. There have been other doujinshi shmups on Japanese PCs before, including the popular Touhou series. But these games are so different in design and gameplay from arcade shooters that they are arguably a distinct subgenre in their own right. Meanwhile, Crimzon Clover plays like a thoroughbred arcade shooter; it’s pretty obvious today.
Even trying the game can be tricky for Westerners – usually a contact in Japan is required to get it directly from CLOVER-TAC at the convention or from one of the four official retailers.
My first exposure to this mysterious shooter was when a player bought a laptop and copied it to London’s confusingly named casino arcade; then it was shooter heaven, with an enthusiastic group of regulars who would Own arcade PCB lent to the much-loved geriatric cabinet collection. Laptops are placed on the pool table, and we pray that the arcade owner doesn’t quickly evict us for evading the need to spend money at his establishment.
Everyone who squeezed into the basement was quickly hooked. Despite all their efforts, the surrounding arcade taxis spewing demo mode amidst flashing neon lights and screeching beeps couldn’t take their attention away from what was happening on the pool table. That ordinary machine, brought over from Japan, has broken into the inner mecca of arcade gaming, and it quickly proved that coin slots aren’t essential for high-quality shmup games.
old school taste
All of this made Crimzon Clover feel so special at the time. After all these years, it’s worth noting that the story behind Crimzon Clover still brings something out of the ordinary. This becomes apparent when you start it up again.
Loading up the game today, I reminded myself of the difference between warm nostalgic memories and timeless game design. However, Crimzon Clover continues to defy expectations given 2022. As the work of a hobbyist against a seasoned shmup studio, 2011 simply shouldn’t feel so good; let alone ten years later.
Launch the game’s vanilla mode, and it’s had an immediate visual impact over the years. Despite moving with remarkable speed and energy, Crimzon Clover is still full of detail, which goes a long way to proving that the scene can really be a whole, live place, and more “off-camera.” Of course, in 2022, modern shmups tend to trade in nostalgic currency. All the freshly produced crisp pixel art and crunchy retrospective audio coming out today probably means we’re used to a decidedly modern version with a deliberately old-school flavor. This may have worked in the original Crimzon Clover’s favor – today’s retro gaming art can feel very modern. But make no mistake, the Crimzon Clover’s visual elements don’t absolutely limit it to the past.
With the original game’s three modes, it’s clear that Yotsubane offers something beyond the quality of many fandoms, including those made today. That’s where the origin story comes in. As a seasoned game consumer, TAC spent five years developing games in his spare time, creating a shooter game that is hard to resist clichés. It is a “love letter to the same type” game.
However, even by his own admission, this is something Sigen has worked hard to build. After all these years, his letter reads like a heartfelt dedication to how good a 2D shooter can be, with the screen constantly flooded with enemy fire, hordes of score-boosting “gems” and cascading numbers. Crimzon Clover has collected the best of games like DoDonPachi, Mushihimesama, Ketsui and Espgaluda and reimagined them from a player’s perspective. The results still feel different, and there are expectations for how these games will work.
As an avid consumer of shooters, understand the appeal behind the most obvious gameplay, in every part of the game; dodge and shoot. It also implements what the best shmups usually fail to do.
what’s lurking below
To be addicted to shmups is to love what lurks below the screen—a dance with tangled multipliers and combos, all tied to a deliberately vague scoring system, weapon behavior, and playstyle. That’s the magic of form – and the element that makes it so difficult for many to understand.
So Yotsubane’s greatest achievement in Crimzon Clover has been to craft an authentic and challenging shooter that’s good enough for genre fans, but doesn’t exclude everyone who just wants the bullet hell thrill and doesn’t want to give up playtime. Player of the moment. Development of practice or scoring strategies.
For example, Crimzon Clover’s approach to player life stock remains impressive and effective. In a genre that’s purposely limited to extra lives, Crimzon Clover lets you choose between score boosts or lives at the end of each level. Making it possible to get so many lives shouldn’t work at all. Such an abundance of extra attempts arguably spoils the drama and challenges of life as an extremely precious currency.
But, by exploiting the perspective of his players, Sigen found an opportunity to deliver a true shmup to satisfy both audiences. To top the leaderboards, you need to choose the scoring option every time, limiting lives and making the experience a masochistic challenge.
But if you just want to experience a true bullet hell dash without relying on the easy mode, choosing so many lives provides a good balance of intensity and accessibility. The fact that, in retrospect, we haven’t seen more shooters with such cunning and understated innovation makes us rather curious. It may not be unique to Crimzon Clover, but it feels like it should be more common.
At the end of the day, Crimzon Clover follows a familiar design philosophy in a genre deeply constrained by tradition. However, the best shmups stand out by being creative and nuanced within these constraints – something Crimzon Clover does with aplomb. It’s still as exciting and dynamic today as it was when it was released.
It has a wealth of abilities to develop different play styles and approaches, and has huge scoring depth. When you get a little decent, it makes you feel like a better player than you – and that feeling never gets old. And if you’re just passing by the genre and enjoy the taste, keeping things popular can go a long way.
It’s hard not to love the fact that this hobbyist version brings the PC to arcade gaming and wins. Purists might tell you that the 2013 Japanese arcade version offers the best way to experience Crimzon Clover. If you like arcade games, it’s an easy job to do.
But today, so many arcades in the West are sadly closed. Casino was in the same year that the creation of Four Genes came into the cabinet. Frankly, Crimzon Clover is first and foremost a PC game. It also happens to be one of the best shmups you can play on any format – just as it was when it was released, as it is today.