M-KAI began his game development life on the MSX with RPG Izumic Ballade, before moving into the shoot-em-up arena with Kanzen Kouryaku Kyokugen and Pleasure Hearts. The distinct design hallmarks of these early works — leaning toward lightweight, unpretentious fun — have remained present throughout his commitment to the genre.
Qute Corporation released the Wonderwitch in 2000, a game development device for Bandai’s Japan-only WonderSwan handheld. To encourage sales, a software coding competition was held with a 500,000 Yen cash prize and the promise of a commercially published game. M-KAI’s Judgement Silversword — a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up — took the crown, thus beginning a long-term collaboration with Qute to produce his future games.
To understand Eschatos’ heritage means examining Judgement Silversword and its sister title, Cardinal Sins. Standing tall as bonus extras on the opening selection screen of this Switch release (as they did in the Japan-only Xbox 360 release back in 2011), they’re so utterly brilliant, that, to the right parties, they could justifiably command a release all of their own. Moving at breakneck pace, they constantly evolve with music and motion, enemy formations and life drops; tied together with a simple array of weaponry and dazzling explosions. Cardinal Sins introduces quick-fire rounds based on the Seven Deadly Sins, implementing different rules and play styles for each. Sloth, for example, doles out extra lives constantly, but one misplaced shot and the icon is easily destroyed; while Gluttony is geared around hoovering up shiny gold point icons from converted enemies.
Eschatos takes the blueprint of these WonderSwan entries and revs into a higher gear. It uses the same design tenets, the same uncluttered, unbroken cavalcade of ideas, and brings them to dazzling fruition. A direct descendant of M-KAI’s WonderSwan projects — and to the keen historian his MSX works, too — it retains the underpinnings of rampant, untethered action, while transporting the material into a 3D field.
Structurally, everything still operates on a 2D plane, but Eschatos cleverly uses 3D to elevate its dynamic range. This is achieved by utilising the camera in ways not many shoot-em-ups ever have, moving around your ship to create unique perspectives, sweeping segues into new terrain, and drawing back to cinematically impose giant adversaries spewing lasers at a miniature craft. It’s a risk, frankly, to toy with the genre in such a way. It can — as seen in titles like Silpheed or Nanostray — hamper accuracy and spacial positioning at critical junctures; yet Eschatos pulls it off with extraordinary aplomb. Rather than confuse or constrict, the movements of the camera create an increased sense of dimension in a game already moving like a gale-force wind. That said, it’s not an exact science: the occasional odd angle can confuse, forcing you to adjust quickly lest get caught out by lasers or scenery collisions — but on the whole it works far better than it rightly should.
M-KAI stated that he dislikes increasingly complex scoring systems bogging down the modern shmup. Eschatos, then, puts less into scoring and more into raw intensity. Despite this energy, it maintains the same ease of entry for newcomers as its WonderSwan predecessors. A brisk 30 minutes in length, it positions itself as a rollercoaster ride: a constantly soaring, ever morphing series of events not punctuated by set stages, but instead just one long, explosive race against an onslaught of minibosses and giant motherships. As it travels from land, through the clouds, and into space, it achieves an inspired sense of journey on par with Taito’s Layer Section.
The faster you dispatch enemy formations increases your score and allows something for leaderboard diehards to work toward. Extra lives drop regularly to keep you motivated, and your ship commands a straight shot, a wide shot, and a shield that can be deployed at will. Neither Bullet Hell nor traditional shoot-em-up, but instead landing somewhere in between, the core of Eschatos is how straightforward it is to pick up and play. There are no power-ups to worry about, and flitting between shot types to negotiate encroaching enemies and missiles is all the strategy you need. When incoming bullets become too dense, your shield — able to soak up a generous amount of fire before needing time to regenerate — allows you to comfortably push through; while frequent item drops can be tactically pinged to erase on-screen bullets and popcorn enemies.
Your alien adversaries walk the line between 1950s, B-movie-styled flying saucers, and typical Japanese tech armada. It makes for an unusual aesthetic; colourful and slightly cartoony, but bringing with it a sense of levity that suits the action perfectly. You become so at ease with its colourful orbs, spheres, ovals, and reckless use of the colour purple, that its graphical characteristics become quite enchanting.
Commit to the game long enough and it cleverly rations out continues, ensuring you need to actually play it and improve before you can see the whole thing through. By the time you’ve managed that, you will be unlocking option screen bonuses that dole out game parameter adjustments, wallpaper, and other little rewards.
Special mention must go to the exemplary score by Yousuke Yasui, who also worked on the Dreamcast’s Under Defeat. His upbeat, long-form soundtrack is married perfectly to the game’s pace and flow; an inspired, toe-tapping buzz that captures a sense of the old-school with its dreamy synth and punchy arcade ditties.
Eschatos is a culmination, of sorts, of everything M-KAI (and long-time collaborator Mach) strove to achieve with the shoot-em-up medium. It offers purity in a genre that often muddies itself with complex frippery. It initially seems relentless, demanding, and near out of control, hammering you with ever-changing enemy formations, lasers, and bullet showers; smartly disguising the fact that it’s an exercise in design harmony that doesn’t require an education to get into. At heart, it’s still an ’80s Famicom game, just reengineered in such a way that you’ve never played anything quite like it. And, when you’re in the midst of its maelstrom and it seems like it’s never going to let up, when it does finally end it seems altogether too soon.
For all its virtues of simplicity, spun together with such exciting, action-packed spectacle, many point to it as the best shoot-em-up in recent decades — but it isn’t quite fair to hand it that distinction. Superb, certainly, but there are still levels of detail and depth in titles like G-Darius HD or Ketsui Deathtiny that hold their own on entirely different terms. While its thrilling, unique, fat-free gaming experience is like little else, there are some who may still prefer a little more to chew on.
That said, with three titles that stand toe-to-toe in stature, and an all-new Eschatos ‘Advanced’ mode that blasts everything up a notch with power-ups and point-drop rushes, you owe it to yourself to experience what is essentially a revitalising victory for a dangerously played-out genre.