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Sayonara Umihara Kawase + Vita Review

Before social media became a global link to the various voices and cultures throughout the world, it was harder for gamers to learn about the hidden gems that remained exclusive to their respective countries of origin. Printed magazines of the 90’s would often talk about Japanese exclusive classics and the (typically expensive) ways to import them. but it wasn’t until the online rise of fan translations and forum endorsements that we started to really get a sense of all the potentially great titles that failed to cross over to the West.

Ironically, most of the growing awareness of the Umihara Kawase franchise came from a source that has also remained largely exclusive to Japan; the cult hit TV series Game Center CX (which has seen limited release in the West under the title “Retro Game Master”) is a routinely fan-translated series that has its host play through several classic titles on retro consoles including the NES, SNES, Playstation and many more. These segments include globally recognizable games such as Mario, Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, but one of the most popular episodes is about the Japanese exclusive Umihara Kawase on the SNES. Featuring a unique gameplay concept that has yet to be recreated in modern games today, the physics-based platformer with a distinct and charming Japanese aesthetic has enjoyed several sequels while staying on its side of the international pond.

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It may be thanks in part to Game Center CX’s overseas popularity (albeit through unofficial and legally dubious means) that Natsume has decided to publish the latest entry in the Umihara series westward. Sayonara Umihara Kawase was originally released on the Nintendo 3DS, localized under the name “Yumi’s Odd Odyssey”, but the Vita re-release has not only kept its original name in the West (with an added + to indicate further improvements and additions), but also predate the Japanese release by a few weeks. It is certainly a strong indication that Umihara is finally finding a dedicated fan base overseas, and Western gamers have good reason to celebrate the privilege.

The story concept of Umihara Kawase is virtually nonexistent in the game itself, with a vague description in the manual giving the briefest bit of context; a 20 year old sushi chief, young girl Umihara (who is in fact much older and notably more endowed then her child-like character model in-game may suggest) finds herself in a warped version of reality where various fish-life have expanded in size, some even sprouting human legs, while various everyday objects such as sake bottles, rubber duckies and ice cubes have also grown to bizarrely gigantic proportions. The Alice in Wonderland-inspired aesthetic is far more whimsical then it sounds, even though the grotesque realism of the fish enemies may recall similarities with the famous horror manga/film Gyo, serving as nothing more as backdrops and obstacles for the dozens of stages that Umihara must clear in order to reach her goal (which, presumably, is to simply find her way back home).

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The most unique gameplay mechanic is the same one introduced in the original SNES game; using a fishing lure, Umihara can latch onto various parts of the stage Bionic Commando style, which in turn can lead to various actions such as swinging, pulling herself up, and so forth. Unlike most games that feature a grappling hook, the lure in Umihara Kawase is much more dependent on physics, specifically the force of which players can contract and pull themselves. Time it right, and it is possible to fling Umihara several feet in the air; though several stages are large enough to allow multiple paths (and occasionally, multiple exits), it requires a bit of practice and perhaps a bit more of luck in order to swing past the tricky platforms and stage hazards. More often than not, failure comes from the players themselves either by negligence or poorly-planned pole vaulting.

This latest sequel in the Umihara Kawase franchise has added a bit more tricks to help level the playing field in the form of additional characters. You have the titular character who comes in various forms (including a child version, though once again there is little aesthetic difference with the already child-like character models), but there is also Umihara’s childhood friend Emiko and her future descendant Yokoyama. These characters all share the same lure physics, but some possess additional abilities; playing as Emiko adds a checkpoint system in each stage that allows for an immediate retry after failure, and Yokoyama has a time-slowing ability that can help for more precise lure shots.

Despite the move to 2.5D, Sayonara Umihara Kawase’s gameplay is just as fluid and fun as its SNES original, featuring a cute and distinctly Japanese aesthetic that’s as refreshing as its platforming. Typically, there will be lots of deaths and retries for many of the stages, which goes double for completionists looking to collect the hidden backpacks found in several of them. On the downside, the game only allows for instant retrying on stages that have already been completed; for uncleared stages, failure means being sent back to the map screen and selecting the level again. The process only takes a few seconds, but it would have been much more convenient to allow for instant retrying right from the start. There is also the occasional boss battle that requires specific platforming to actually damage the hulking monstrosities, which tend to prove more frustrating than fun.

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Minor gripes aside, Sayonara Umihara Kawase + is a refreshingly retro platformer at a budget price that even includes the SNES original as a bonus, no doubt further acknowledging the newfound recognition for the series from its Game Center CX appearance. The charming aesthetics and its combination of momentum, memorization and muscle memory culminates at an oldschool challenge that is a welcome addition overseas even years after its original release.

8 out of 10