words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by TNN and Studio Saizensen for Super Famicom and PC, originally released in Japan in 1994, and released in the US in 2015.
UmiharaKawase began its life as a Japan-exclusive Super Famicom title. The game stars the eponymous Umihara, a young girl carrying a pink backpack and fishing gear as she travels across the world contending with a variety of sea life, most of which wanders about on land. What truly sets the game apart from its contemporaries – and most other games in general – is the use of Umihara’s fishing line as a grappling hook. There are very few games with grappling mechanics, and even fewer where the player is free to grapple any surface he likes… but no other game takes things to quite this extreme.

Instead of the rigid grappling line seen in games like Bionic Commando or Ninja Five-O, Umi’s fishing line is elastic, causing her to bounce around wildly when she leaves the ground. This makes her movements less predictable and more difficult to control, while simultaneously opening up a number of opportunities for advanced gameplay. Advanced techniques involve retracting the grapple with the proper timing to send her flying through the air, grappling the floor for a speed-assisted long jump, wrapping the grapple line around corners, and performing some wild last-minute grabs.

Since its release, the game’s unique mechanics have garnered it a cult following, leading to a number of 2.5D ports and sequels, including Umihara Kawase Shun and Sayonara UmiharaKawase (also known as Yumi’s Odd Odyssey in the US), and eventually a re-release of the original Super Famicom game.

When the player begins a new game, a short tutorial is displayed, showing Umihara as she grapples a distant point, moves toward it, and then falls down into the gap between platforms. Then she retracts her grapple to mount the platform. There are several between-level cinemas displaying a number of basic grapple techniques to help the player better understand the tools at his disposal. That said, the learning curve for this game is extremely steep.

Umi has a nonvariable 1x jump and very little midair direction control, which means that she must rely on grappling in order to navigate most environments. She is able to grab ledges and climb up or down, although this occurs more slowly than other genre representatives, with multiple frames of animation for ascent or descent.

Umi is able to fire her fishing line in eight directions, including straight down while she is ducking, allowing her to grapple herself in place and walk off a ledge in order to hang from it. The line may be retracted by pressing DOWN or extended by pressing UP. This is meant to mimic the motion of the fishing line where the fisherman is pulling back on the line to reel it in, but in practice it is a bit counterintuitive – especially in mid-swing – as you need to press DOWN to move upward.

It is important to note that the default firing direction for the grapple is straight forward in the direction the player is facing. This is an important distinction as it impacts the ease and speed at which players are able to navigate complex environments. In contrast, the grapple in the NES version of Bionic Commando fires upward at a 45 degree angle by default, allowing for very quick movement, particularly when traversing the undersides of platforms (a frequent action in any grapple-based game).

In UmiharaKawase, on the other hand, the player must press diagonally upward when attempting to grapple at an angle. This makes it more difficult to move speedily through the environment, especially considering that the player must often press DOWN to retract the grapple, and then quickly disconnect and press diagonally upward to make a new connection.

The grapple line is long, allowing the player to hit distant targets, and the player is free to extend or retract the line as he likes to adjust his swing. When standing on a flat surface and connecting to a point above, retracting the line will cause Umi to shoot into the air and bounce madly about. The player is able to slow this bouncing by carefully pressing LEFT or RIGHT to move against the swing, but very often, the player is expected to use this bouncy movement to his advantage.

Basic grapple techniques involve crossing gaps or swinging down under overhangs, but very often the player must use the proper timing to retract the grapple line while Umi is bouncing around in order to get her up onto a ledge or fling her into the air. The player is expected to execute a number of advanced techniques even in early levels, making the first few stages quite challenging, and dangers are abound and aplenty.

The game features a number of nontraditional obstacles, including conveyor belts that go straight up walls and around corners, allowing Umi to grapple to them and be dragged along. In many cases, the player must fling Umi around corners to mount platforms while being mindful not to overextend the fishing line and break it, causing her to fall. Sometimes the player must contend with conveyor belts that send Umi toward spikes or enemies as well, further adding to the challenge.

Many levels feature moving platforms, but these are also handled in a nontraditional fashion, as Umi must often grapple them from below and work her way around on top of them. Some platforms sink when Umi grapples them or stands on them, setting up challenges where she may need to jump onto a platform and jump away quickly, or swing away from a grapple before the platform descends too far. Piston-style platforms can actually squish Umi if she is caught between them and the floor or ceiling.

Later levels add in extremely slippery clear blocks that are difficult to navigate and cannot be grappled, as well as moving panels that create disappearing/reappearing grapple points that require players to move quickly. Fortunately, players are able to pause the action and take a look around the environment, allowing for a bit of planning (or searching for doors that are placed off the beaten path). Skilled players will learn that there are loads of shortcuts that allow them to take a considerably shorter but more difficult route through the level, which usually involves performing a complex series of grapples with little margin for error.

Every stage has water along the bottom of the area, supporting the aquatic motif, and falling into the water spells death unless you’ve managed to connect your fishing line to something on the surface. Enemies are plentiful and they can spawn on almost any flat surface, and they continue to spawn forever. So, even if you have cleared a platform of enemies, one or more new enemies may appear – sometimes overlapping one another – so you must contend with them again, or wait for them to disappear after they have made a couple of laps across the platform.

Large enemies kill Umi on contact, sending her back to the start of the level. These enemies may be temporarily stunned by hitting them with the grapple line, or killed by reeling them in and chucking them into Umi's backpack. Small enemies and projectiles stun Umi but knock her back very far, often bouncing her back off the edge of a platform and into the water, or up against a newly-spawned enemy coming up from behind. Fortunately, the player can still use the grapple line during this time, allowing him to stun enemies or rescue himself from a deadly fall.

Squid ink – which is pumped out in clouds from squids and (strangely) seahorses – cause Umi to become dizzy and spin around, during which time the player has no control over her. Once the dizzy spell ends, she then goes into her stunned knockback (returning grapple control to the player), and the combined effect means that players can easily be pushed back by half a screen. Since these enemies emit ink clouds frequently, it can be difficult to navigate between the clouds when platforming or grappling.

Ink clouds and constantly spawning enemies can play havoc on your strategies, especially when you are trying to take your time to learn the core mechanics or figure out how to properly navigate a level. In addition, you can’t take too long, as each level has a countdown timer, and failing to reach the exit before the timer runs out also means death.

The individual level timers are fairly forgiving – usually offering around four or five minutes to complete each level – but there is also a hidden 30 minute timer that warps the player to a terminating level (more on these in a bit) if he takes too long, thus cutting off access to certain levels. When starting out, it can be quite challenging to even reach the end of a stage, but to truly see everything the game has to offer, most levels need to be completed in under two minutes… and with a limited stock of lives.

The player begins the game with 10 lives. A few additional 1UPs can be found by exploring the environment or completing a tough sequence of grapples, but when all 10 lives are lost, the player must start the game again from scratch. Given the tough level designs, constantly spawning enemies, and generally challenging gameplay, it’s easy to lose a few lives with some simple mistakes, especially on your first visit to a level, so players should expect to see the Game Over screen quite frequently.

While the player cannot resume his progress from where he left off, he can practice any previously-visited level from the main menu. As such, the only way to complete the game is to master its mechanics and find ways to eliminate mistakes, as the player only has 10 chances to make it to the end of the game.

However, players are not required to play the same levels on every attempt, as the game offers a branching level structure, allowing players to try new routes if they find themselves stuck, and offering something new to returning players who have already completed one of the branches. There are a total of 49 stages in the game, but it’s actually impossible to visit all of them in a single run…

Each level has at least one exit door, but some levels have two or three. In the early going, most doorways simply lead to the next level, but some warp the player ahead by several levels, and there are even some doorways that warp the player to a previous level. The player is not given any indication as to which door leads where, although it’s a safe bet that harder-to-reach doors will send the player further forward.

The game also features multiple terminating levels, where reaching the exit door causes the end credits to roll. There are four possible end points in the game, each requiring the player to move through a series of branching paths, although a simple credit scroll awaits at the end of each. In a nice touch, the Practice Mode interface shows which doors lead to which levels (and which levels have 1UPs), allowing players to plan out different routes.

Depending on which path the player takes, he may encounter one or more bosses, although they are not engaged in the typical fashion. In fact, the player is often required to simply avoid the boss’ attacks in order to leave the stage. For instance, the first boss (chronologically) is a giant tadpole that, strangely, gives birth to tiny frogs. All the player needs to do is avoid getting killed, and the tadpole will eventually just jump into the water and disappear. Some bosses can be avoided altogether, with players moving directly to an unlocked door and never even scrolling the boss onto the screen.

This is not to say that boss encounters are easy, however, as players must still contend with tough environmental obstacles in addition to the challenge that the bosses pose. The player can still be knocked back and fall into the water below or be killed outright. There are six bosses in all, but it’s rare to encounter more than two of them in any given gameplay session.

From a presentation standpoint, the game is about as bare-bones as you can imagine, with basic tile designs, a few theme-specific objects, and washed-out backgrounds that are just black and white photographs stretched across the dimensions of the room. The HUD is placed well into the playfield, occasionally interfering with gameplay by obscuring objects and enemies.

UmiharaKawase was developed for the Super Famicom by TNN. The re-release is attributed to Studio Saizensen, based in Japan, with credits to programmer Kiyoshi Sakai and character designer and illustrator Toshinobu Kondō. Kiyoshi Sakai was the main programmer on the original Super Famicom game – in addition to developing the original concept and core mechanics – and he was also the main programmer on Umihara Kawase Shun and Sayonara UmiharaKawase. Studio Saizensen is also known for Code of Princess and Glory of Heracles.

The game was published by Agatsuma Entertainment, based in Tokyo, Japan, which also published Glory of Heracles and Sayonara UmiharaKawase. The studio was dissolved just weeks after the PC release of UmiharaKawase.

After Agatsuma Entertainment closed its doors, Degica took over publishing responsibilities for the UmiharaKawase series. Degica is known for publishing a number of RPG’s, including Code of Princess, Skyborn, Deadly Sin 2, and the RPG Maker series, as well as a number of shmups, including the Mushihimesama series, Deathsmiles, Crimzon Clover World Ignition, and the Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours series. In addition, the studio published Pharoah Rebirth+.