So long, and thanks for all the fish

Sayonara Umihara Kawase

HIGH: The quick retry feature.

LOW: Unlocking quick retry on each stage by clearing it.

WTF: A sushi chef without a knife?

Umihara Kawase, a traveling sushi chef, is asleep and dreaming.

In her dream, mundane elements of the waking world—clothespins, canned goods, sake bottles—transform into a dreamscape of floating platforms.

Perhaps Umihara has fallen asleep while fishing, but she still holds her trusty rod, only now, in her dream, its line is absurdly elastic. She'll use it like Rad Spencer in Bionic Commando, parlaying momentum into heart-stopping leaps across patchwork terrain, up and downward, over icy surfaces and angry shards of broken glass en route to the door that will give her egress from this beautiful, hostile place…

…and into another one just like it.

Sayonara UmiharaKawase+ is the third (and possibly final) entry in a long-running series that first debuted in 1994 on the Super Famicom. It wasn't ported to the West until 2014, twenty years after the series's debut, under the title Yumi's Odd Odyssey (Nintendo 3DS).

The games have developed a cultic renown, particularly in the speedrun community, for their whimsy, for their mechanical depth, and especially for their difficulty. The latter is often a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, making Kawase a treat for platformer masochists. Make no mistake: this is a hard game.

But it's not impossible.

Kawase isn't broken, and it's not unfair, but its stages don't allow for much error. Often there are multiple paths to a goal, whether it's the exit door or one of the game's rucksack collectibles, which are located in hard-to-reach places. Regardless of how players choose to get around, it's done with the hook and line. 

Some players will swing to each field's exit with confident grace. Just look at the YouTube videos of super-player KawaseFan, for example. Others, like yours truly, will repeatedly engage in tense, stumbling, and hard-scrabble fights to the finish, emerging victorious 10, 50, or even a hundred deaths later. If practice makes perfect, then UmiharaKawase+ is a goofy but diligent piano teacher, running students through scales.

Everything comes down to the fishing line and what a player can do with it.

Place the hook, pivot in a pendulum arc, and let go before inertia interferes, or fly across a hazard by using the line as a slingshot. Kawase creator Kiyoshi Sakai delights in finding uses for the line's potential energy, and each is introduced in the manner of kishōtenketsu poetry, as described in a 2012 Gamasutra interview with Nintendo's Koichi Hayashida. A concept is introduced, developed over successive stages, and then put to a new and unexpected use. It surprises the player with unforeseen possibilities and new layers of complexity.

Whereas Nintendo occasionally coddles with explanation, however, Kawase is sometimes frustratingly oblique. The implied lesson: experiment, fail, and learn from the experience. But, there were times when I lacked sufficient insight into what I'd done wrong in order to develop a different strategy.

The game provides a handful of tips, but they fall well short of comprehensiveness. For me, this made YouTube walkthroughs indispensable, and though it doubtless marks me as a permanent amateur in the minds of Kawase purists, I recommend it without reservation, especially for new and curious players. In fact, I wonder if I'd have endured otherwise.

Boss creatures guard five endings, and the first, an ill-tempered tadpole, is easily bested. But completing 60 stages, unlocking the 70 doors that link them, and collecting all 45 rucksacks is a stout challenge destined to remain an ultra-rare feat. As of this writing I'm 15 stages short, I've cleared just three of the five bosses, and I'm stuck on Stage 33, which, to quote one player, "was the first level I hit that really felt like the gloves came off."

That said, every time I think I'm ready to quit for good, I come back again, evading bipedal fish, swinging crazily between platforms and (more often than not) falling to my watery grave. As a wise man once said, I've been beat up, I've been thrown out, but I'm not down. Whether to avenge my wounded pride or prove that, yes, I can climb that ledge, Sayonara UmiharaKawase+ has its hook in me, pun very much intended. Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The ESRB provides no content descriptors for Kawase, but there's nothing objectionable, unless you happen to be a fish.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Umihara's hook clinks when successfully anchored to a platform, and this is useful feedback indeed. I often played without sound, however, especially when the music grew repetitious. Careful players will do fine without it.

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