Umihara Kawase is a strange little game series about a girl and her fishing pole. It's a puzzle platformer revolved almost entirely around using her bouncing wire to navigate through obstacles and avoid enemies. The series has a very low budget, surreal feel to it, but the bizarre aesthetics combined with the unique mechanics and crushing difficulty have earned it a high level of cult popularity of the years. The series is largely the brainchild of one Kiyoshi Sakai, the designer and programmer, with artwork by Toshinobu Kondo. The name of the heroine is also Umihara Kawase, abbreviation of an old Japanese saying, "Sea fishes are fat in the belly, river fishes are fat in the back."
The crux of the game relies on the swinging mechanics, similar to Super Metroid or Bionic Commando. However, the physics don't really work the same way, particularly because of the bouncy, rubber-like nature of the fishing wire, allowing you to swing and propel yourself in crazy directions. Don't question why she has it or how it works. The play control in this game is the true reason why everyone shows it so much love - it's spring-pendulum physics for you Lagrangians out there. You can attach to nearly any surface and solve each level in your own way. There are a lot of different tricks that evolve out of this: hooking ground for momentum, scaling a straight surface, hooking around ledges, balancing your weight against a giant fish, the list goes on. Some people call it a "rubbering action" game and it fits.
In addition to the platforming, there are also enemies roaming about, usually giant walking fish. These can be stunned with your wire, and can also be reeled in and shoved into Umihara's backpack, permanently killing them. They tend to be a nusiance, especially since they respawn randomly, seemingly at the worst times. There are boss "fights", which usually just involve avoiding some gigantic enemy for a few minutes until it leaves.
The game is also draconian in difficulty. Everything kills you in one hit, bottomless pits haunt your existence, and the game demands incredibly crazy stunts just to barely survive. There's no continue or save game function, so once you're out of lives, you need to start from scratch. And yet it's all very possible with some practice; veterans can make this game look really easy, which seems a bit unfair to the rest of us amateurs, and it's a favorite amongst speed runners.
The presentation is certainly thin to the bone. It uses badly pixelated black and white photos for backgrounds, simplistic tilesets, and cheerfully dull music, which is immediately obvious to anyone who has played a Korean MMO. The surreal landscape, backgrounds aside, is also quite charming. You're a cute schoolgirl surrounded by gigantic vegetables and school supplies as you look for doors and dodge flying fish, oversized eels, walking salmon, and who knows what else. It's the very essence of "Cute on LSD". There's no real story or much of anything, not even an ending. You just walk through some door that looks like any other, and then the credits roll.
Many levels in the game feature branching paths, allowing you to follow an entirely different set of levels. Certain fields are accessible only through hard-to-reach secret doors. This coupled with a never-ending learning curve of the physics gives Umihara Kawase tremendous replay value.
Umihara Kawase is something of a fluke of the industry. It was produced out of thin air by a small unknown studio named TNN, then it was then published by NHK, a Japanese television station of all things. In the end, the game never sold that well. The studio itself quickly dried up after coughing out a boring soccer simulator. And that's where the tale of Umihara Kawase should have ended, if it weren't for its cult popularity.
Three years passed by quietly after the release of Umihara Kawase. TNN didn't last. They were eventually bought out by Japan Clary Business and changed their name to Jack Pot. With little money left, they decided to revisit Umihara Kawase with the support of their new publisher Xing. At first, they planned on a simple remake. That's certainly not how it went. Umihara Kawase Shun ("Shun" meaning "in season") is a completely different game and a fitting sequel.
It has brand-new levels which completely refocus the idea of the game. Instead of worrying constantly about enemies, the game has shifted to be much more of a puzzle platformer. Your worries don't come from a fear of fishy murderers, but rather "how the heck am I gonna get over there?" Don't think for a second this makes it easier.
The physics in the sequel have changed. It's much tighter and springier with a shorter line. Once again you must trust in your fishing pole to spring, bounce, pull, and swing you around every deadly corner. This game has more bottomless pits, more spikes, more stunts, and less mercy. In other words, the perfect update for fans of the original. The new gameplay challenges you to learn every old trick in a new way. Fortunately, once mastered, this game is actually easier for pulling off stunts. And that's a good thing too, because this sequel has no shortage of crazy challenges, especially if you take the more obscure paths.
The presentation is more polished now that it's on the PlayStation. The graphics look as if they've been hand-painted, featuring much brighter animated sprites and intricate foregrounds. The floors consist of polygons rather than sprites, for a subtle 3D look, though the game is still entirely in 2D. The slight shift in perspective does make platforming feel a little less precise though. Umihara, in particular, looks quite a bit different. She's lost the baby fat and has certainly grown quite a few years since we last met her. The silly photo-realistic backgrounds are still here, although they look a little less out-of-place, and aren't nearly as distracting as the giant fruits, vegetables, and school supplies that still permeate levels. The music is still as cute as the first one, but it sounds a little less "canned" which is nice. The ending song evenhas Umihara's voice actress sing along!
There are some minor drawbacks. The graphics are kinda repetitive. There isn't as much variety in the enemies. In the original release of the game, it's also a bit strange seeing the blatant product placement from Mitchell,a company that develops fishing supplies. Seriously, there are actually commercials in this game, with Umihara's voice actress gleefully pushing sales in the most ridiculous voice imaginable. It's jarring to say the least.
Fortunately there are some cool new features to offset any bad feelings. You can replay any field you've ever finished using Practice Mode. You can also record and replay your efforts with a memory card. The boss fights are also much more interesting, like a giant bucket with legs or a floating pufferfish.
A few years later, Jack Pot released Umihara Kawase Shun: Second Edition. It was the start of the Maruan series, a collaboration between studios for a series of indie Japanese games. It adds three new levels, fixes a few glitches, and deletes the voice work. The biggest difference, fortunately, is the removal of Mitchell's commercials, and replaces them with some much preferred artwork. The influence of Toshinobu Kondo is felt far more in Second Edition; the player receives full pictures of Umi-chan as a reward for unlocking certain paths and completing certain levels. This version can be found on the Game Archives section of the Japanese PSN, for play on the PS1, PSP and Vita.
After eight long years, a studio by the name of Rocket remade the game for the PSP and had it published through Marvelous Entertainment. Made without involvement of any of the original staff, this port is, frankly, terrible. The view is in true widescreen, better than the usual stretched visuals that usually appear on the PSP. But there aren't any new levels or obstacles at all. That's not so bad by itself, but it doesn't help that the game is so full of bugs that it's nearly unplayable. It seems okay from the outset, but upon playing it for any semblance of time, it's very noticeably that the the physics have been changed. When the game was released, fans of the PS1 games posted videos of all of the wonky ways the wire worked, giving it a bad reputation almost immediately. The game flopped.
Thankfully, Kiyoshi Sakai stepped back in to produce Umihara Kawase Shun ~second edition~ Kanzenban for the Nintendo DS. It includes ports of both Umihara Kawase Shun and the original SFC Umihara Kawase. For Shun, the visuals are a little blocky due to the lower resolution, but the stages have been slightly reworked to fit in the small screen space. The physics are reproduced perfectly, and there are even a few extra levels. For the original game, it's identical, other than losing a tiny bit of vertical screen space due to the lower resolution (224 of the SNES vs. 192 of the DS). It doesn't feature a map screen though, instead featuring various art on the bottom screen. It's easily the ultimate Umihara Kawase package.
After another few years, and a generally positive response to the DS re-release of the previous two games, a proper third title in the series was released for the Nintendo 3DS. Sayonara Umihara Kawase (or "Farewell Umihara Kawase", if you will) was developed by Agatsuma Entertainment, though series creator Kiyoshi Sakai was still heavily involved in its design. It retains much of the core platforming mechanics of the previous games, but updates the overall design of the game to something a little more modern.
The biggest change is that limited lives are no longer a factor in the main game. Instead, progressing through the game simply unlocks new levels on a map grid. Multiple exits are still present in certain stages, meaning that pathways from one end of the map to the other are sometimes a bit knotted and hard to follow. The different paths eventually lead to one of five endings, each of which closes out with a boss fight. Hidden backpacks can still be found along the way, though these are treated merely as collectibles. Once at least one ending has been reached (the path from stage 0 to stage 9 is pretty quick and easy), you unlock Survival Challenge, which starts the player off in stage 0 with 3 lives, as in the previous games.
Another noteworthy change is that there are more playable characters this time around.
Umihara Kawase (aka Yumi in NA)
The main character of the previous games. Has no special ability. There is also a childhood version of the main character, who can restart each stage from a checkpoint, but only once per try.
A childhood friend of Umihara's. She has the same checkpoint ability as childhood Umihara.
A future descendant of Umihara's, Noko is a time travelling police officer. She has the ability to move in slow motion.
Levels still consist of pretty much the same basic elements as the previous games, but it feels like a lot more thought and care was put into level design this time around. Enemies no longer spawn freely (outside of some specific stage gimmicks) and their placement is generally fair and logical. Much like Shun, much of the challenge here involves figuring out how to navigate some truly vicious platforming. There's no shortage of spikes and icy surfaces to be found, as well as the newly added trampolines, which have their own springy physics and are often placed at odd angles. You can press the left shoulder button to temporarily freeze time in order to get a read on your situation, as well as bring up a diagram showing which direction you're currently pressing on the d-pad. If you're playing as Noko, this ability is replaced with temporary slow-mo, which is far more useful.
The bosses will surely look familiar to series veterans, like the first fight against a giant tadpole, but they've been reworked to feel a lot more like an actual boss fight, so you need to figure out a way to get them to injure themselves while avoiding them. Unfortunately, they're kind of the weak link in the chain, as the limits placed on your abilities means you still end up fighting by somewhat indirect means.
One last notable improvement is how good a job this game does at tracking stats. A profile screen keeps track of how many stages you've cleared, how many exits you've reached, and how many backpacks you've found. Each individual stage keeps track of how many times you've succeeded and died in that stage (which can lead to some pretty embarrassing ratios, especially if you're not very good) as well as your best time for each exit on that stage. Best times are also uploaded onto a leaderboard, and since playing as alternate characters can make clearing certain stages easier, there's an option in the settings to filter out times wherein those characters were used.
Gone, sadly, is the hand-drawn sprite art, replaced with 3D character models. The enemies manage to survive the transition pretty well, but Umihara and the other human characters end up looking pretty strange. Being polygonal just seems to emphasize their odd proportions, particularly the large hands and pencil-thin arms and legs. Backgrounds and graphics in general are underwhelming, and the camera has this strange way of shifting around very slightly as you move around. It痴 indented to emphasize the 3D effect, though it just ends up being distracting. The framerate is also capped at 30 FPS, and in general the game feels slightly slower and more sluggish than its purely 2D predecessors. The music as as cheesy as ever, though many of the tracks seems to revolve around similar motifs, so the soundtrack as a whole feels a little more cohesive. The lack of a map on the bottom screen, like in the DS game, is also a bummer.
About a half-year after its release in Japan, Sayonara Umihara Kawase became the first game in the series to officially cross the pond, when Natsume released the game as a download only title in North America. It was released as Yumi's Odd Odyssey, a name they'd planned to use for the PSP port of Shun before the stateside release of that game fell though. Umihara's name was changed to Yumi, which is at least easier to pronounce in English, and while there's no mention of her original name, the game's text doesn't try to cover up references to previous games in the series. The only other change that's immediately apparent is that the North American leaderboards are separated from the Japanese ones. The European versions is the same but keeps the original title.
It's hard to speculate too much on the future of the series, since so much time and uncertainty seems to exist between entries, but the title of this game seems to at least imply some sort of finality. Of course, as many of us are more than aware, when you're talking about video games, rarely does "final" truly mean "Final."
The legacy of Umihara Kawase has yet to end. Many gamers have promoted the series to everyone they can find to keep it alive. Merchandise (in the form of phone cards, guide books, and posters) have been trickling into our hands for years. There was even a manga centered around Umihara Kawase, which is honestly pretty terrible. There was also a Japanese magazine (TECH Playstation Extra) which featured some new fields on a bonus disc.
Indie Before It was Cool: The Umihara Kawase Story An excellent interview with Kiyoshi Sakai.