Well, it’s finally happened. A year and a half ago I asked for some games like Pocky & Rocky as my introduction to the forum. Since then, I’ve been able to pin down what exactly I thought was so appealing about the Kiki Kaikai series: compared to more standard shmups, the player-dictated screen scrolling allows for more unique level design layouts and a more personalized experience, and the contextualization of shmup-flavored gameplay without any use of real firearms or weaponry is frankly much more creative and appealing (to me) than games that are interested in projectiles but can’t imagine anything other than guns. Don’t get me wrong – I always love an R-Type, I’ll slurp up some Darius any day of the week, but once we get in the realm of Metal Slug or Shock Troopers it’s a little tough for me to enjoy myself. Those are undeniably incredible games and I respect them very much, but I just think playing as a dude with a gun kind of sucks!! So, I’ve gone on a journey to hunt down as many games that fit this Kiki-Kraiteria as I possibly could, and now it’s time for me to give back and share my findings – and then for everyone else to offer their insights on these games or share games I haven’t touched on yet!!
I’ve been compiling my findings on this list. Below I’ll write about most of the games on this list, except for the few I don’t really have much to say about. I recommend checking out that list for a more comprehensive catalogue of games in this style (that I’ve been able to find) or for a quick tl;dr of this thread introduction.
1984 – Itazura Tenshi
Whenever talking about the overhead run-and-gun, it seems like the conversation starts around 1985 with Commando. While it’s clear that game did help establish the overhead run-and-gun as its own distinct genre, here’s Itazura Tenshi a full year earlier with that classic 80’s creativity that doesn’t feel beholden to any genre, but rather just does whatever it decides it needs. It’s mostly about exploring the map and connecting the related stars to form a constellation, and incidentally there is some shooting involved to help clear out any enemies that can’t be evaded. It’s made by Nichibutsu, who shmup fans will recognize from the Cresta games, which I found to be quite a surprise since it’s not nearly as “exciting” or strategic as those, but it sure is a unique and creative game! What we’ll find going forward is that a lot of these overhead run-and-guns without guns tend to be more relaxed affairs than their sisters, the shmups and overhead run-and-guns WITH guns, and we can see this starting all the way back even a full year before Commando hit the scene.
1985 – Ninja Emaki
Some of you may be thinking: “Hey, wait a minute! Ninja Emaki, 1985? Isn’t this a lot like Mister Viking, which released in 1984? Why is Ninja Emaki here but not Mister Viking?” to which my immediate response would be: “Wow, you really do belong on the Insert Credit forums,” and then I would go on to say: while Mister Viking certainly is an overhead shooter that contextualizes its shooting without firearms, and the screen does scroll in more than a single direction, that scrolling is always automatic and never dictated by player movement. It’s for this unfortunate reason Mister Viking is relegated to only a footnote in this post. This is the first example of an adjacent game style that I think just barely misses the mark on being relevant to this thread. I’m sorry to all the Mister Viking fans. But enough about Mister Viking!! That game sucks and Ninja Emaki rules!! Aside from being the game that acted as catalyst for this thread in the first place, it also seems to be the first instance of an overhead run-and-gun using traditional Japanese folklore and mythology as basis for its setting and characters (well, contested with Ninja Princess, the next game on this list… Release dates for arcade games beyond just their release year are tough to find). This is a trend that will only continue to grow as this subgenre flourishes, and while that’s undoubtedly because of the Kiki Kaikai games, it’s interesting to note that at least two games to my knowledge had already experimented with this exact combination before Kiki Kaikai popularized it.
1985 – Ninja Princess
(Also released in 1986 for the Sega Mega Drive; I will not be covering that release separately)
Ninja Princess is the best game in this subgenre until the 90’s start coming along. I’m just going to say it. Obviously my heart lies with next year’s Kiki Kaikai for eventually spawning some of my favorite games of all time, but Ninja Princess is so chock-full of unique ideas that I still have not seen developed on to this day. The key to its excellence is the game’s weapon of choice both for its hero and its enemies: the kunai. This isn’t any old shmup where the player and the enemies are shooting all sorts of different projectiles at each other; everyone’s got the exact same equipment. What this means is that Ninja Princess can go insanely hard on making this weapon as deep and versatile as possible. The most important feature of the kunai is that two will cancel each other out when colliding, which makes it both an offensive and defensive tactic for both sides to use at any time – well, “any time.” The game’s scoring system is founded on the number of shots fired versus the number of shots landed, meaning it’s always in the player’s best interest to only throw a kunai when it’s certain to hit. This means players who choose to play more defensively will live longer but maintain a lower score, and the more aggressive player will have to be more strategic with their throws – not just in terms of lining up their shots with constantly moving enemies, but also watching their behaviors to predict when an enemy’s kunai might come out as a deflection. All this, on top of the absolutely genius decision to have bosses chase the player backwards through the stage rather than just sitting at the end of it makes for one of the absolutely most uniquely engaging overhead shooters I’ve ever played, with or without guns. Too many people are sleeping on this one. An early masterpiece of the genre.
1986 – Kiki Kaikai
(Also released in 1986 for MSX2, 1990 for PC Engine, and 2004 for Windows PC; I will not be covering these releases separately)
Here we are baby… Where it all began (obviously a lie). Looking back at the games leading up to this, it’s actually pretty easy to tell how a game like Kiki Kaikai would come to be. Not to mention all the other influences outside of this incredibly specific subgenre, including the inescapable Commando which released the year prior, along with the medium-wide omnipresent invisible hands of inspiration like Xevious. By 1986, we’ve got a rock-solid foundation of incredible shmups that have been released, the overhead shooter is coming into prominence, and several of those overhead shooters have already adopted the traditional Japanese mythos into gameplay systems. The workings are all here for someone to simply learn all the lessons these games have been teaching and wrap it up in a more appealing package than anyone else has done so far; enter, of course, Kiki Kaikai. Maybe this sounds cynical, but it’s true that the game’s presentation, and particularly the charm of the main character Sayo-chan, is historically what dominated the conversation around the original Kiki Kaikai. Games like Twinbee started introducing cuter elements to shmups, and Kiki Kaikai was quick to get on the “cute-em-up” trend at the ground floor. Enemies like the Puka Puka could be front-and-center mascots for any other game, but in Kiki Kaikai they hardly even stand out against all the delightfully charming depictions on Japan’s mythological yōkai. The game itself may not be especially impressive compared to the magnificently thoughtful Ninja Princess or the abstract, dreamy Itazura Tenshi, but it made up for its simple gameplay systems with exceptional character designs and an addicting level of self-imposed difficulty. This success allowed Kiki Kaikai to venture onward as a beloved series of games; the only game on this entire list to get such an opportunity.
1987 – Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen
You would not believe how often I see people refer to Dotou Hen as a Famicom Disk System port of the arcade game, like what would later release on the PC Engine. This is 100% a completely new game with wildly different systems!! I have no idea why people keep saying it’s a port when watching just a single second of gameplay would obviously indicate that’s not true!! And as far as we’re concerned, it’s easily the single biggest development on the overhead run-and-gun we’ve seen up to this point, and will remain as such for a couple decades: we’ve got an open world where all locations are open from the start and any boss can be fought in any order, we’ve got a day/night cycle, we’ve got a limited supply of ofuda to shoot which means more strategic reliance on the ōnusa for offense, we’ve got shops where ofuda can be exchanged for items and power-ups, it’s the first Kiki Kaikai game to introduce the ability to play with two players, and all the bosses require paying an ofuda toll before entering the arena which requires players to consider if they should charge right in with low ammunition or to grind some more before entering. This game… Is wildly ahead of its time!! It’s more open world than the contemporary Zelda games!! How could anyone in their right mind call this a port?? What is the world coming to where nobody knows the difference between Kiki Kaikai (1986) and Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen (1987)??? Well, lucky for you, Insert Credit Forum Reader, you will never make this mistake ever again. Now you know that Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen is actually one of the coolest games in the world. This was the secret purpose of this thread all along. I have never seen a single overhead run-and-gun innovate so much in a single entry, and I have no idea why we’re not seeing more open world overhead run-and-guns.
1987 – Ku Gyoku Den
Hilariously, Ku Gyoku Den does a lot of the same things Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen does, and in the same year! It clearly apes the protagonist-monk-fighting-spirits shtick from Kiki Kaikai, but given its proximity to the release of Dotou Hen, I don’t believe they had enough time to copy the innovations that title introduced. The similarities between those two particular titles must be a coincidence then; Dotou Hen simply got to the punch quicker and more effectively. Despite Ku Gyoku Den sporting a similar open world and item shops, it had the unfortunate fate of only releasing on personal computers that simply couldn’t scroll the screen smoothly enough to make the game manageable to play. I truly believe that if this game released on something like the Genesis or PC Engine it would have had some guy like me out there singing its praises, but in our reality it’s just kind of a nauseating mess. Interestingly, it did somehow spawn a single sequel, Shin Ku Gyoku Den, which foregoes its overhead run-and-gun roots in favor of more traditional RPG gameplay. I guess I lied earlier when I said Kiki Kaikai was the only game on this list to get sequels. Surely you’ll forgive me for forgetting about Ku Gyoku Den…
Speaking of personal computers, at this time I should probably address another game style I’m omitting from this thread: dungeon-crawlers. Someone could make a case for games like Gauntlet or The Binding of Isaac being overhead run-and-guns, but I think the focus is too different and the gameplay isn’t shmup-like enough to qualify – and in the case of The Binding of Isaac, let’s also just go ahead and discount all the indies that procedurally generate their level design. Let’s not forget that one of the reasons I loved Pocky & Rocky was the thoughtful level layouts – it’s hard to get that when a computer is just putting stuff down wherever it wants!
This dungeon-crawler rule also includes games like Toy Pop, which feature overhead shooting but no screen scrolling at all. I’d like to apologize exclusively to Toy Pop for this. That game also rules but I will not be talking about it here (anymore than I just did).
1988 – Märchen Maze
It’s hard to believe this only came out a single year after Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen and Ku Gyoku Den! Märchen Maze feels so much more colorful and refined compared to those games, and is the first on our list to introduce two notable qualities: an isometric perspective, and a complimentary jump. It also loosely follows the Ninja Princess shooting philosophy of “less is more,” rewarding more deliberate charged shots rather than spamming tons of small uncharged ones. This game feels a little fiddly in its imprecise preciseness compared to its forebearers, but its place in the overhead run-and-gun canon is significant for two heavy-hitters we’ll see very soon. I’m also just noticing this now, but Märchen Maze is the only game we’ve seen since Itazura Tenshi that hasn’t used a traditional Japanese setting for its gameplay, being loosely based on Alice in Wonderland. That’s interesting!
1989 – Valkyrie no Densetsu
Well, would you look at that! Finally, a game the Insert Credit forum goers have already extensively explored. Looks like I get a break for this one and can simply direct you to the conversation that’s already going on in that thread, and I don’t have to be the one to tell you that this is actually the second game in the Valkyrie series, or how Valkyrie is a playable character in Card Sagas Wars, or anything like that. What I will say is that Valkyrie no Densetsu took the jump out of Märchen Maze and started actually using it to incorporate verticality into its level designs – another first for our humble little subgenre!! How wonderful is it that each new entry gives us some new aspect to appreciate? People tend to call this game a Zelda clone for some reason, but I think anyone familiar with its gameplay at all will agree it plays much more like Kiki Kaikai than any Zelda game. I guess they just say that because the game is top-down and she has a sword…? Maybe after the whole Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen debacle it’s best to stop trusting someone trying to compare these games to something else.
1990 – Fray in Magical Adventure
(Remade in 1994 for the PC Engine CD; I will not be covering that release separately, but it is strictly the better version of this game, and have linked its longplay here instead of the original MSX version)
If Kiki Kaikai: Dotou Hen introduced run-and-guns to RPGs, Fray in Magical Adventure is the beautiful marriage that eventually came out of it. Fray herself is a character from Xak, an RPG by Microcabin, so it stands to reason that her spinoff game would retain some of what the dev team is already familiar with. It features a more fully-developed plotline than any game on this list has ever attempted by miles, complete with towns to stock up on equipment and lots of dialogue, even during combat encounters. Don’t tell this to Sayo, but Fray is actually my favorite protagonist in any of the games on this list… She’s an incredibly expressive and charming character!! As a run-and-gun on its own, this game isn’t especially impressive, but as an exhibition of some cute character designs and silly dialogue, Fray more than carves out its own lovable niche in this already hyper-niche subgenre. I have no idea why Microcabin decided to make a spinoff game in this style, but I’m glad they did so it had some way of wiggling its way into my radar.
1992 – Twinkle Tale
In stark contrast to Fray, Twinkle Tale flips the growing adorableness of the genre on its head by maintaining a chibi art style, but putting them through the most grim, self-serious scenario we’ll see on this list. The color palette of the game squeezes out some of the muddiest grime the Genesis can output, and all the bosses and enemies are fairly realistic depictions of Western mythological creatures, complete with a chimera on the first stage which requires each head to be defeated individually, leaving behind a bloody stump where the neck used to be. I’ll never forget a patch for the game I found which changes its colors to be brighter, since its current palette “does not match with a Cute ’Em Up game.” Twinkle Tale is supposed to be a Cute ’Em Up…? This kind of feels like telling a woman unprompted that she should smile more.
1992 – Penta Dragon
Heheh… I wonder how long we can stall in 1992 without getting to Pocky & Rocky? I guess something was in the air for devs to start pumping out overhead run-and-guns without guns!! Or maybe that’s too specific for something that can be in the air. I’d like if it could be in the air again, though. Anyway, Penta Dragon kinda sucks. Despite being very similar to a dungeon-crawler, it narrowly avoids the ax by having just enough shmup-adjacent gameplay gimmicks to satisfy me, personally, for its inclusion on the list. There’s some neat shot types the player is capable of, but constantly being closed in by walls makes the game feel extra-claustrophobic on the Gameboy’s already-tiny screen real estate, and makes choosing a shot type feel less significant since there’s only so much room to utilize them anyways. I guess it’s still better than Ku Gyoku Den, at least.
1992 – POCKY & ROCKY!!!!!!!
POCKY & ROCKY!!!!!! YES!!!!!! THE BEST GAME!!!!!
Pocky & Rocky is the best overhead run-and-gun game ever made. This is because the diving is fun and the shot upgrades feel great and the level layouts are creative and the music rules and the enemies are cute and Pocky and Rocky are my best friends. Thank you.
1993 – Étoile Princesse
Interestingly, here we have a game that seems to find its lineage not in Kiki Kaikai, but in Fray in Magical Adventure. It sits somewhere between Fray in Magical Adventure and Twinkle Tale with how interested it is in its own narrative, but it does borrow the RPG-like structure from Fray in Magical Adventure, and the main character is about as shameless a copy of Fray as the monk in Ku Gyoku Den is of Sayo. I haven’t played as much of this as I’d like to yet on account of the X68000 being a bit tricky to emulate, but what I have played was thoroughly enjoyable. It really does feel so god damn much like Fray in Magical Adventure though – which if I had to choose one game off this list to get such a blatant imitator, I would not have guessed that one!!
1994 - Pocky & Rocky 2
Maybe you can tell by the lack of exclamation marks that I’m less interested in this game compared to the original. It just kind of muddies the waters too much with all kinds of new systems… AI buddies that can be swapped out, it brings back the shops from Dotou Hen but without nearly as much consideration into how they’re implemented, a lot of the upgrades come in the form of visible equipment on Sayo which ruins her design, and every time she fires a shot she lets out this raucous yawp that gets horribly annoying very quickly… There’s no denying that this game is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, even compared to the already-beautiful entry two years ago, and the new somber tone in the soundtrack is delicious… But for my money, Pocky & Rocky 2 is too interested in building more on top of the Kiki Kaikai framework instead of continuing to perfect what Pocky & Rocky started perfecting. It doesn’t feel like it has a clear vision of where it wants its focus to be and just isn’t nearly as good of a game as the first one.
From here on out, there’s only three games where I have anything especially interesting to say (this is a lie), and I’ve said them around the forum already: those three games are Deae Tono-sama Appare Ichiban, Purikura Daisakusen, and Pocky & Rocky Reshrined, which you can read my thoughts on by following those links. I gotta stop talking to myself eventually though, so other people can start sharing their thoughts, too!! Surely this is enough to get a conversation rolling. I’m sure I’ll share my thoughts on the other games on this list once they start becoming relevant, but now it’s your turn!! What do you think of these games, and are you aware of any that I haven’t found yet?