By KeiraNinlil

Umihara Kawase - Super Famicom (1994)


Japanese Cover

Umihara Kawase

Umihara Kawase

If you've never heard the words "Umihara Kawase" then you are certainly in for a treat today. It may not be a mainstream franchise, but every cult gamer knows it and loves it. Now it's your turn to pick it up and cherish it just as so many have before you.

Honestly, this game is a random fluke of the industry. It was produced out of thin air by a small unknown studio named TNN (ie. Think about Needs of Notice for human being.) It was then published by NHK (a Japanese television station of all things). The odds against it don't end there. Let's face it: the game is certainly thin to the bone on presentation. They used badly pixelated photos for backgrounds, simplistic tilesets, and cheerfully dull music (this is immediately obvious to anyone who has played a Korean MMO.)

The story is about a little girl named Umihara Kawase. In this game she-- Okay, fine there is no storyline to this game. And the ending credits just sort of randomly appear after certain levels without warning or cause. 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.

But this game did not disappear forever into obscurity. Perhaps this is proof of a Gaming Deity watching over us all. Yeah, the game doesn't look like much, sure it's frustratingly hard, and okay the gameplay is pretty simple. So what? This game is as fun as hell.

The titular main character. She sports a fancy pink rucksack and summer shorts. She was designed by Toshinobu Kondo, who would provide us with more illustrations in the sequel. Her name is a redux of an old Japanese saying, "Sea fishes are fat in the belly, river fishes are fat in the back."

Picture the swinging-arm action of Super Metroid or Castlevania IV or Bionic Commando. Got it? Okay, now make it real bouncy-like. Your fishing line is made out of rubber, 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.

It's also draconian in difficulty. Enemies randomly spawn at the worst times, everything kills you in one hit, bottomless pits haunt your existence, and the game demands incredibly crazy stunts just to barely survive. 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.)

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.

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.

With every passing year, this game gains more notoriety. If you hang out in an indie games circle, you've heard somebody mention this title at least once. It seems like every retro gaming site has a review of it. Every platforming geek has it in their favorites list. It was even featured for an episode on the ever-awesome Game Center CX. For me personally, the cartridge fell into my naive hands many years ago with no clue as to its content. And I've never let it go.

MP3s Download here

Kawanabe: The River Theme
Hatoba : The Wharf Theme

Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Umihara Kawase Shun - Playstation / Playstation Portable (1997)


Original Edition PSOne Cover

Second Edition PSOne Cover

Japanese PSP Cover

Three years passed by quietly for the franchise. 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.

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 certainly 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 has more polish 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. 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 even has Umihara's voice actress sing along!

There are some minor drawbacks. The graphics are kinda repetitive. The game has 3D platforms, making it a bit difficult to jump and climb ladders without concern. There isn't as much variety in the enemies and they are far less imposing this time around. 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, they released the Second Edition. It was the start of the Maruan series (a collaboration between studios for a series of indie Japanese games). It has some new levels and they fixed a few glitches with the gameplay. The biggest difference, fortunately, is the removal of Mitchell's advertising. Second Edition takes out the commercials and replaces it 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.

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 non-hentai manga centered around Umihara Kawase, which is honestly pretty terrible. There was also a Japanese magazine (TECH Playstation Extra) which made some new fields on a bonus disc (although I'm unsure if any copies still exist.) Also, let's not forget that Kondo's drawings of Umihara were 'provocative' to at least a few doujinshi artists. Umihara has way more hentai devoted to her than any sane person would expect.

And after all that, it seems the efforts of the fanbase has paid off. After eight long years, a fan studio by the name of Rocket remade the game for the PSP and had it published through Marvelous Entertainment. Okay, nobody is going to pretend here. The PSP remake is frankly not that good.

For starters, it offers almost nothing new. The view is in true widescreen - better than the usual stretched visuals that usually appear on the PSP - and some of the levels have really minor changes that make them better suit the resolution. 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. They also changed the physics, making a few secret levels actually impossible to complete. The game is not an experience I recommend.

Apparently there might be a patch that makes everything better; let's hope so. It would be nice if they cleaned up the game and localized it for North America (an Umihara first!) I, for one, would love to finally have some Umihara on-the-go (that sounded way better in my head.) In the end, all this renewed interest for the series can't be a bad thing. And it certainly gives hope that we'll get a true sequel sooner rather than later. I can dream, can't I?

Links

Youtube - Playthrough showing one of the hilariously bad Mitchell in-game commercials.
Umihara.org Fansite with music, fanart, ROMs, walkthroughs
Rocket Studio's PSP Remake Official site.
1up Preview A look at the PSP port.

If you're looking for games similar to Umihara Kawase, they are few and far between. Probably the two best known are Ganbare Natsuki-San and Meril. Neither is even remotely close, but they're still quite fun in their own right.

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Umihara Kawase Shun (2nd Edition)

Comparison Screenshots

Playstation

PSP

Back to the index