This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 367 in March 2022, as part of our 'Reinstall' series. Every month we load up a beloved classic—and find out whether it holds up to our modern gaming sensibilities.
Back in 2011, the global shmup community was awash with murmurings about a new creation within Japan's ‘doujin' hobbyist game development scene. Its name was Crimzon Clover, and after a complete build first appeared at a Japanese fan convention in the closing days of 2010, a swirl of rumours suggested that it was very special indeed.
Fortunately, it turned out that the speculation was spot on. Crimzon Clover takes the form of a typically frenetic bullet hell shmup – or shoot-'em-up, to use the more traditional term – and it does it very well indeed. Like many of the best shmups, it blends a hyperactive, overwhelming pace with tremendous scoring depth, and is challenging, rewarding and wildly exciting in equal measure. If you're imagining sweeping, terrifyingly dense bullet patterns realised in neon colours that intersect as a player ship weaves through unfeasibly small gaps while gunning down a barrage of enemies, you have exactly the right type of game in mind.
And it is available to play once more. At the close of last year, doujin studio Yotsubane's creation arrived on Steam under the title Crimzon Clover: World EXplosion – given a thorough polish and a range of new and tweaked modes. Its return made it hard to resist pondering the mystique around the original release, and just how well this hobbyist curio turned cult hit holds up today.
It's worth noting here that Crimzon Clover's distinct origin story was a huge part of its appeal, all those years ago. But surely that element of a game's appeal fades with time? Or perhaps not…
The developer Yotsubane is better known in arcade circles as CLOVER-TAC, a longstanding serial shmup world record holder and certainly one of the genre's best players. Before making his own game he had previously served as a playtester for Cave, the pioneering bullet hell studio, famed for the difficulty of its games and the depth of its fanbase's pockets. CLOVERTAC had the skills to test the upper limit of those games – and now he was taking what he learned as an elite player and tester, and applying it to his own creation.
There was also something else about this hobbyist homage to genre greats like DoDonPachi that made it atypically alluring. Conventional thought states that for maximum credibility and authenticity, a shmup should start out as an arcade release.
And yet here was a shoot-'em-up initially only available as a boxed PC release; a PC release so popular with genre devotees that it achieved the unthinkable, and was ported to arcade cabinets in 2013. There had been other doujin shmups on Japanese PCs before, including the popular Touhou series. But those games were so distinct from the design and playfeel of arcade shoot-'em-ups they can arguably be classed as a distinct sub-genre in their own right. Crimzon Clover, meanwhile, plays every bit like a purebred intense arcade shooter; something strikingly apparent today.
It was also rather tricky for Westerners to even try the game – typically requiring a contact in Japan who could get it directly from CLOVER-TAC at a convention, or from one of four official stockists.
I first came across the mysterious shooting game when a fellow player bought a laptop and copy to London's confusingly-named Casino arcade; then a shoot-'em-up haven with an enthusiastic crowd of regulars who would lend their own arcade PCBs to the collection of aggressively well-loved, geriatric cabinets. The laptop was placed on a pool table, and we prayed that the arcade's owner wouldn't quickly eject us for evading the need to spend money in his establishment.
Everyone packed into the basement was quickly captivated. For all their efforts, the surrounding arcade cabs spewing demo modes in slashes of neon and rasping bleeps could not drag attention away from what was happening on the pool table. That modest machine brought from Japan had broken into the inner sanctum of arcade gaming, and was quickly proving a coin slot isn't essential for quality shmup play.
Old school flavour
All of that made Crimzon Clover feel so special back then. What is remarkable all these years on is that the story behind Crimzon Clover still brings something distinct. And that becomes apparent when you fi re it up once more.
Loading up the game today, I braced myself to be reminded of the difference between warm nostalgic memories and timeless game design. And yet, here in the light of 2022, Crimzon Clover continues to defy expectations. As the work of a hobbyist going up against deeply experienced shmup studios, it quite simply shouldn't have felt so splendid in 2011; let alone a decade later.
Firing up the game's vanilla mode, it immediately packs a visual punch all these years on. Despite moving with significant pace and energy, Crimzon Clover remains bristling with detail that does much to convince that the setting really could be a complete, living place with much more going on ‘off camera'. Of course, here in 2022, modern shmups tend to very much trade in the currency of nostalgia. All of the newly made crisp pixel art and crunchy retrospective audio present today might mean we've grown used to decidedly modern releases bringing a deliberately old-school flavour. That might work in the original Crimzon Clover's favour – today retro game art can feel very much contemporary. But without doubt, Crimzon Clover's visual elements do not absolutely confine it to the past.
Working your way through the original game's three modes, it is evident that Yotsubane delivered something that transcends the quality of a great many doujin works, including those made today. This is where the origin story comes in. Coming from the position of being a deeply experienced consumer of the genre, and spending fi ve years working on the game in his spare time, TAC built a shooter that makes it hard to resist the cliché that is a game being ‘a love letter to its genre'.
And yet, even by his own confession, that is what Yotsubane endeavoured to craft. All these years on, his letter reads like a heartfelt devotion to how wonderful 2D shooters can be, written in screens that are consistently packed with enemy fi repower, clusters of score-boosting ‘gems', and torrents of cascading numbers. Crimzon Clover scoops up the best of titles like DoDonPachi, Mushihimesama, Ketsui and Espgaluda, and reimagines them from the player's perspective. The result is something that still feels distinct, and that toys with expectations around how these games work.
It is every part a game informed by being an avid consumer of shooters, and understanding the appeal that hides behind the most apparent gameplay; dodging and shooting. It also achieves something the best shmups commonly fail at.
What lurks beneath
To be besotted by shmups is to love what lurks beneath the screen – a dance with entangled multipliers and combos, all tied up with deliberately obscure scoring systems, weapon behaviours and playstyle. Therein lies that magic of the form – and the very element that makes it so impenetrable to so many.
Yotsubane's greatest achievement with Crimzon Clover, then, is in making a shooter that is authentic and challenging enough for genre obsessives, without ostracising the great many players who simply want to experience the thrill of bullet hell without giving over every moment of their gaming time to practice or scoring strategy development.
For example, Crimzon Clover's approach to player life stocks still feels striking and effective. In a genre where extra lives are a deliberately limited entity, Crimzon Clover lets you pick between a score boost or a life at the end of every level. Making it possible to gain so many lives simply shouldn't work. To be so well stocked in additional tries is arguably undermining the drama and challenge that comes from lives being a tremendously precious currency.
But, by employing his players' perspective, Yotsubane identified an opportunity to deliver a true shmup that would satisfy two audiences. To place highly on the leaderboard, you'll need to select the score option every time, limiting lives and keeping the experience a challenge for the masochistic.
But if you want to just taste an authentic bullet hell rush without relying on stripped back easy modes, the option to pick up so many lives delivers a fine balance of intensity and approachability. In fact, on reflection it feels rather curious that we haven't seen more shooters adopt such a cunning and understated innovation. It may not be an exclusive feature of Crimzon Clover, but it feels like it should be much more common.
Convention at its best
Ultimately, Crimzon Clover obeys a familiar design philosophy in a genre deeply constrained by convention. And yet the best shmups stand out by being creative and nuanced within those constraints – something Crimzon Clover does with aplomb. It remains as exciting and dynamic today as it did at launch.
It boasts a generous capacity for fostering different playstyles and approaches, and has tremendous scoring depth. When you get even vaguely decent, it makes you feel like a much better player than you are – and that sensation never gets old. And if you're just passing by the genre and fancy a taste, it does a great deal to keep things welcoming.
It's hard not to love the fact that this hobbyist release took the PC to arcade gaming and triumphed and then some. Purists might tell you that the 2013 Japanese arcade release provides the best way to experience Crimzon Clover. If you've a love for arcade gaming it's tempting to take that position.
But today so many arcades are sadly closed in the West. Casino went under the same year that Yotsubane's creation made it to cabinets. Frankly, Crimzon Clover is a PC game first and foremost. It also happens to be one of the best shmups you can play on any format – as it was on launch, and as it is today.