This isn't something that black-beret-wearing, dark-coffee-sipping pretentious indie gamers are supposed to come out and admit, but doujin games can occasionally be a bit of a crap shoot. It's true that there are a few really impressive products out there - but for every Touhou or Melty Blood, there are a dozen that are utterly unremarkable. Ether Vapor is a shooter of the former variety - a solid game with production values that rival some early PlayStation products and a perspective-changing gimmick that gives the game a unique feel which is at once cinematic and satisfying.
Unlike many shooters, Ether Vapor switches between several different perspectives rather than marrying itself to a single one - there are standard horizontal and vertical-shooter sections, behind-the-ship rail-shooter style sections, and a handful of Rez-esque bonus segments wherein your ship follows a fixed course and you target incoming attacks with a "lock-on" cursor. While the first few stages are fairly straightforward horizontal or vertical runs with the occasional bonus area in another perspective, the game's imagination comes alive about halfway through and stages begin to feature multiple perspective shifts and bonus areas. Perhaps the best of these is an assault on a huge battleship halfway through the game - a series of side-view battles with enemies punctuated by swooping, whirling attacks on the battleship itself, destroying it bit by bit while literally flying circles around it, culminating in a Starfox-style attack on its' engines. These perspective-switches are fairly smooth and less disorienting than one would expect - the PlayStation launch title Philosama did something similar, though Ether Vapor handles everything much better - and turn what would otherwise be straightforward, been-there-done-that shooter levels into a thrilling, cinematic experience.
Mechanically, Ether Vapor takes a maximalist approach to the genre, providing your ship with a large number of different weapons in contrast to the minimalist style preferred many modern developers. The game eschews powerups entirely; right from the start, your ship is equipped with three primary weapons, each of which can be charged up for a different special attack. Your loadout consists of a forward-firing machine gun which fires a massive laser when charged, a pair of wide-angle guns which create a sphere which absorbs enemy bullets when charged, and Raystorm-style homing lasers that can be used to target enemies in the background or charged to create a large area-effect attack. All three of the primary weapons are useful, and knowing when to use each weapon is often the key to success. The charged attacks are, by and large, just gravy; while the laser attack can be useful for destroying grouped enemies, the others simply aren't damaging enough compared to your primary weapons to replace them. There is also a second unlockable ship called the Overdrive, which has three different configurations of simultaneous gatling/laser attacks. There's not much in the way of scoring systems, although there are "Bonus Mode" areas where you manually target the lock-on laser to shoot down a barrage of Itano circus-style missiles barrages for extra points.
While there are only perhaps a dozen different enemy models, some effort has been put into unique enemy designs. While the backgrounds are often sparse and the enemy designs are simple compared to many professional products, they look better than many competing doujin products. Explosions in particular look very nice, and the curving homing lasers that many ships in the game fire are worth noting, too. There has been a lot of attention to detail; enemies produce vapor trails and bullets release a shower of particles when hitting an enemy target.
The game's plot is fairly generic shooter material. Two countries - Lydia and Caldea - are at war, with the latter having a huge advantage in numbers and technology. When hope seems to be lost for Lydia, a mysterious pilot named Luca (that's you) appears in a prototype fighter and begins attacking Caldea's forces. Before long he meets up with Sana, a Lydian pilot who acts as his sidekick for most of the game. As the two of them blaze a trail of destruction through Caldea's military, Luca's identity and the origin of his fighter - the Ex-Tio - are eventually revealed. While it's not particularly deep, some effort has been put forth towards giving the various enemies and supporting cast some speaking lines and personality- certainly more effort than many shooters employ.
Ether Vapor has unforgiving collision detection and a ship with a large hitbox, but most enemies have patterns and attacks with large "safe spots" in them - it is a game that focuses more on pattern recognition and memorization than on raw twitch-shooter skill. As such, while it is difficult to improvise your way through, the second or third trip through any given area is much easier - the key is simply playing enough to know which weapons and tactics to be using in what areas.The game is also fairly generous with shield points (which function as extra lives) and continues. While you begin with only a handful of continues and shield points, more will be awarded nearly every time you play the game.
Despite Ether Vapor's virtues, the game does have a number of weaknesses, the most pronounced of which is that it's often easy to "lose" your ship onscreen. Dark areas in particular seem to exacerbate this; the fourth boss is particularly bad in this respect. As in many polygonal shooters, some areas include enemies attacking from the background; it is frequently difficult to judge when and where these attacks will pass through your ship's movement plane. The controls are also occasionally awkward - each of the Ex-Tio's weapons is mapped to a different button, and a fourth allows you to adjust the aim of the spread-gun or the target of the homing lasers. While this is all well and good, in the heat of a dogfight it's easy to accidentally hit the spreadguns when you want the lasers and vice-versa, and the "adjust" button probably could have been done away with entirely.
Somewhat surprisingly, Ether Vapor does not include a difficulty selection and also lacks the "extra" stages that appear fairly frequently in doujin products. There's not a whole lot of reason to continue playing after you've finished the game, other than an unlockable ship, but the game's credits do provide a link to a webpage with a lot of background information about the game's development, including screenshots and video from early versions of the game and draft designs for many of the characters and ships.
Ether Vapor was originally released only through Japanese doujin channels in 2007. It was re-released in 2011 under the title Ether Vapor Remaster, with a number of enhancements. The first release only supported 640x480 display, while the remastered version includes several higher resolutions, including stretched widescreen, along with other improved graphical options like anti-aliasing, improved textures and models, and better lighting effects. Also included are welcome additions like hitbox displays, online leaderboards and an option for 3D using anaglyph (red/blue) glasses. You can also unlock the Overdrive by beating the game once, rather than requiring that you beat the game without continuing. There's an English option for the story scenes, of course, though there's a new mode to completely disable them as well. Perhaps most importantly, Ether Vapor Remaster was localized by Nyu Media in 2012 and released worldwide through digital distribution, making it quite easy to purchase a copy of this standout title.
Ether Vapor is a solid shooter with a lot going for it. Its production values are abnormally high compared to a lot of doujin products, the action is solid, and its shifting, whirling, perspective-changing levels provide a welcome change to the normal shooter formula.