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Omega Five Hands-On Preview

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Known mostly in the U.S. for its American publishing activities associated with Marvelous Interactive's Harvest Moon series, Tokyo-based Natsume has a pretty impressive creative legacy as well. Though internal development at the studio has diminished in recent years, it will soon return with a vengeance only hardcore gamers can truly appreciate.

That is, the distinctly Japanese vengeance of a laser-toting thong-wearing whore-bride, a four-armed goo-shooting alien, and an attack-dog-equipped flying samurai in the studio's upcoming horizontal shoot-em-up Omega Five (X360).

Natsume's old-school development team has gone entirely back to its roots for the title--quite literally, as the game seems like a 19-year sequel to Natsume's nigh-impossible NES shooter Abadox, the company's first game. But in addition to being a more accessible experience than the gauntlet of suffering most shoot-em-ups entail, Omega Five refreshes the genre with pleasantly logical updates and a ten-ton explosion of creative flair.

I played through half of an essentially final, updated version of the game and observed three of the title's four levels at a recent Hudson event. It's a horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up, but you control one of four unusual characters rather than a spaceship. Although there's an unlockable one-hit-equals-death mode for the masochistic, the standard game grants your character three lives and a generous health bar, making it a bit easier to survive the onslaught of enemies and flashing projectiles. Natsume also eliminated the cumbersome control mechanics of the game's early builds, replacing them with a more natural-feeling dual-joystick, Robotron-style control scheme.

It's impossible to ignore the title's impressive visuals, even in the first few moments of play, as the developers made use of fantastic 3D visuals for the 2D horizontally scrolling action. Lumbering dinosaur-like robots steadily grow in size as they approach your horizontal plane of movement from the snowscape in the background of the first stage. The enemies throughout the game are a mix of organic and mechanical, with some sporting odd membrane-like coverings over pulsing organs, housed in machine-like chassis.

But what lends most to making each playthrough just as enjoyable as the previous one is Omega Five's freakish cast of characters. Each of the three main avatars (a fourth bonus character is essentially a powered up clone of one) differs from the others just as much in terms of gameplay as visually. Ruby, the aforementioned whore-bride, uses beam weapons like lasers, and has a special attack that latches her ever-present satellite helper onto baddies for automatic weapon-targeting and persistent damage.

The quad-armed alien known as The Tempest shoots blobs of gooey-looking metal or flames from a gun, with a secondary ability that changes his shot-type, depending on which weapon he's using. And my favorite character, the unlockable Sensei, is an aged prune-faced samurai who attacks enemies with his armor-penetrating sword, which can also deflect bullets. Oh, and he can send his magic dog to paint enemies with a target, making it possible to use ranged attacks like bombs or shurikens.

Adding further differentiation to the characters, the game features floating items that give one of three different weapon loadouts--A, B, or C--to each hero. And each weapon can be enhanced up to three levels by collecting more of the same type, granting significantly increased abilities. Ruby can swap her rapid-firing vulcan laser cannon for a reflecting laser beam, which splits into two when upgraded once, and bounces off walls when upgraded a final time. Each character also has a dodge move that works in a slightly different manner, with Sensei's actually hurting nearby baddies.

With a pretty intense amount of onscreen action at any given time, Omega Five feels a little more like a vertically scrolling bullet-hell shooter than a horizontally scrolling one. It's got the mechanics as well--shoot enemies fast enough and you'll keep your score multiplier high by chaining kills together. Nearly every downed foe also provides tiny pink triangles called p-chips, which give you the power to unleash an "ultimate burst"--essentially a screen-clearing nuclear blast--once you collect 100 of them. You'll need to make use of this power to avoid losing all three of your lives through the course of the game, as each stage features a classically designed boss battle at the end, characterized by nicely crafted combat patterns.

Although the game has two-player offline co-op, it doesn't support play over Xbox Live--its most glaring omission. The game also has just four stages, but an unlockable Challenge mode lets you try for the high score on each stage separately. And special Arcade++ and Challenge++ modes for the hardcore take away the energy bar and allow just one hit per life.

Like WayForward Technologies' Contra 4 (NDS) or Namco Bandai's Pac-Man Championship Edition (X360), Omega Five should prove that modern updates to retro gameplay can be a beautiful thing when executed skillfully. And a digital distribution platform provides the perfect delivery system for these lower-budget, smaller-sized packages of nerdcore nostalgia. When this game hits Xbox Live Marketplace sometime this winter, you're going to want to buy it. It's really that simple.

Omega Five will be available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace later this year or in early 2008.

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