Umihara Kawase ReviewKyle Stepp
"Sea fish are fat in the belly, river fish are fat on the back."
It's from that Japanese idiom that the titular Umihara Kawase derives both her name and her theme. Lost among a few dozen mysterious fields, the chubby 19-year old schoolgirl must traverse dangerous platforming stages filled with evil fish and backed with grainy jpeg backgrounds that would look at home in your grandmother's email forwards.
Each stage--known as a field--tasks you with finding the door that leads to the next. You accomplish this by using Umihara's only item and the game's defining characteristic: her fishing line. Not only can the line be used as a weapon to incapacitate or completely eliminate her aquatic adversaries, but she uses it to swing all around in what the game's developer billed as a "Rubbering Action Game." The line can attach to ledges, ceilings, and just about everything else--provided it's in the foreground--and she can use it to not only swing herself great distances in a particularly impressive early display of physics calculations (particularly for a Super Famicom game) but she can also lowerherself to ledges below her, or can use the line to literally climb up vertical walls.
Unfortunately, it comes ar a price. While the controls themselves are fairly simple, getting the hang of how to control Umihara's line is a learning curve all on its own. It doesn't help that one of the more common uses for the line--reeling in and pulling out--have their controls reversed so that when you want to reel in while hanging from a ceiling (to pull yourself closer to the end of the line), you'll instinctively press up... and then you'll go down. Until you get the hang of it (and it can take a while), you'll awkwardly fumble through each field, wondering how people could ever perform the acrobatic feats that appear on Youtube and look like some sort of mysterious sorcery.
And then suddenly, something just "clicks."
There's no definable moment that it happens... But you'll notice yourself getting better at controlling what was once uncontrollable. Silly mistakes like slipping off the edge of a cliff seem like ages ago, as you latch your fishing line into that same cliff and swing yourself around, taxing the Super Famicom's processor so hard that the physics calculations are causing the game to skip frames.
For me, I noticed it when I was fighting against a massive tadpole boss early in the game. As it bounded toward me, it launched an army of baby frogs after me (actual small frogs, not tadpoles). As I ran to escape their amphibian wrath, I leapt to a nearby platform and launched my line into the underside of the long path housing the massive tadpole. I constantly swung my way to the right as I I hoped to escape, and found myself on a small island with a small pink backpack... A 1-up item as a reward for successfully escaping!
There's more rewards in store after that. Nearly every field is packed with alternate exits. Some send you forward, some send you back, but there's always an efficient route to each one. In one stage, the exit door is located on a pair of platforms that slowly fall along with your weight, so you have to hop across and instantly enter the door before the next platform can fall. Doing so sends you ahead a handful of stages and even allows you to skip that troubling tadpole I faced earlier.
With tons of alternate routes, charming, if unimpressive graphics, and a unique physics engine that rewards skillful play over anything else, Umihara Kawase is a great title that's far more addictive than its simple premise has any right to be. The learning curve serves as a giant hurdle, but should you brave the jump, you'll find a diamond in the rough.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.