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By Evan Norris 23rd Nov 2020 | 1,039 views
Although Umihara Kawase began its life 26 years ago on Super Famicom, it's hardly a household name. Umihara Kawase BaZooKa!, the latest in the franchise, won't do anything to change that. One, it's a spin-off from an already niche series; two, due to a short running time, repetitive gameplay, and an underwhelming competitive multiplayer offering, it's just not very good. There's some fun to be had, particularly with a group of friends hunting for high scores, but overall the flaws are difficult to ignore.
While BaZooKa! exists in the Umihara Kawase universe, and reuses many of the assets from Umihara Kawase Fresh!, also on Switch, the game plays differently from the mainline series. Instead of a side-scrolling platform game with a large map and quests, BaZooKa! falls more in line with a screen-clearing game like Bubble Bobble.
The heart of the game is Challenge Mode, where up to four local players clear stages one after another. Controls are simple and approachable. Players can jump, double jump, shoot their fishing lure, fire anything caught with the lure (hence the BaZooKa!), and perform three different skills. Just as it was in Umihara Kawase Fresh! and other earlier games, the lure is central to the game. Players will deploy the lure to stun and catch oceanic enemies, which are then converted into a bazooka projectile.
While you could certainly defeat most enemies and clear all stages using your skills, the lure and bazooka combo are essential to racking up high scores — the modus operandi of the game. By defeating enemies in succession with the bazooka, you'll create a "Chain", which grants a score bonus. If you generate a particularly large Chain, a Chain Ball will appear; and if you immediately use the Chain Ball as a bazooka, your combo will continue.
Shooting for high scores is an important part of BaZooKa!, because the game is woefully short. There are four worlds, each with nine stages and a climactic boss battle, for a total of 40 levels. That sounds like a lot on paper, but remember these are Bubble Bobble-esque single-screen stages. You could beat the entire Challenge Mode in 60-100 minutes, depending on whether you're playing solo or with a group.
While the game's initial value proposition is low, it does offer some options in terms of replay value. As mentioned before, you can leverage the lure & bazooka mechanic to earn high scores, logged in an online leaderboard. You can also tackle Challenge Mode solo or with 2-4 players locally. What's more, multiplayer mode is divided into two sub-modes: Friend Mode and Rival Mode, the latter supporting friendly fire.
Additionally, the game boasts 22 different characters, each with a separate page in the online leaderboard. Just as with the game's 40 levels, this number is a bit misleading. Yes, there are 22 characters, a few from the Cotton series, but many of them are physically and mechanically indistinguishable. What's worse, some are clearly better than others, which introduces a major problem in Battle Mode (more on that later).
Still, you could re-attempt Challenge Mode with several different characters. The problem is that the core gameplay isn't interesting or engaging enough to bring you back after you've finished all 40 levels. You'll move rather stiffly through a lot of samey environments, reeling in bad guys and shooting them out. Some levels have unique hazards and fixtures, like spikes and jump pads, but nothing especially creative or complex. After finishing the game, it would be difficult to accurately describe any one of the levels; they tend to blur together.
The big exception would be the four end-of-world boss stages. While these aren't great, they do eclipse most regular stages by relying more on the franchise's signature fishing lure mechanic. Where you can survive the majority of levels by spamming your skills, during boss battles you'll need to be more strategic, using the lure to stun the boss and thus weaken it, or to grasp on to platforms and walls to avoid the boss altogether.
When you've had your fill of Challenge Mode, you can retreat to Battle Mode, although it's noticeably inferior. It's essentially a simplified, clumsier version of Smash Bros. You can play locally with 2-4 players or challenge others from around the world in Online Play. There are a few problems here. First, there's no way to add bots, so you can only play locally with a friend by your side. Second, online lobbies are mostly empty, so don't rely on a big pool of virtual combatants. Third, as mentioned previously, some characters are simply better than others, leading to some very imbalanced battles. Fourth, the action is clunky and unfulfilling; Umihara Kawase is simply not designed with PvP brawling in mind.
BaZooKa! has a plain, bright aesthetic that's serviceable although not at all visually impressive. The backgrounds are simple, the textures are basic, and the animations are on the wooden side. The soundtrack is appropriately upbeat, but not nearly long enough; the game ends up relying on the same handful of songs, repeated again and again. One song per 10-level world is not sufficient.
Umihara Kawase will probably continue to linger in obscurity, despite this brand new spin-off. BaZooKa! brings something new to the franchise — arcade-like party gaming — which is admirable, but ultimately unsuccessful. Challenge Mode is short and samey, and the PvP side of things is clunky and imbalanced. There are some opportunities for local multiplayer score-chasing, thanks to multiple modes, characters, and online leaderboards, but the core action is insufficient to keep players hooked.