Umihara Kawase: Shun. The title certainly doesn't roll smoothly off the lips of most English speakers, but this obscure and unique Japanese import platformer is accessible to anyone, given a little patience. The title Umihara Kawase is derived from a Japanese idiom about fish, and it literally translates to "Sea Belly River Back." It's also the name of the main character of the game, a spunky young brown-haired girl with a pink backpack. The other important equipment she's got is a fishing line, and that's the core of this game's unusual play style.
The original version of Umihara Kawase: Shun was released in 1997 on the PlayStation. A sequel to a Super Famicom game (Umihara Kawase, of course) the game built a loyal, if small, fan base. The hook of this game is that your fishing line is the only thing you can use to maneuver around the obstacles between you and the remote exit doors in each "field," or level. You must swing to and fro, capture or avoid fish and other bizarre sea creatures, some of which have sprouted legs and hopped onto the land, and make your way to a door to pass the level. What makes it interesting is the fishing line - driven by basic Newtonian physics - which you carry with you. It's quite literally all you've got. There are absolutely no power-ups in the game, and Kawase's jumping skills are pretty pitiful.
The attraction of this game is not the graphics - while they're appealing in a low-key sort of way and very charming, they've received no upgrade since the original version of this game, which came out in 1997. The strange legged-fish and pictures of candy and road signs in the background are amusing, and the music is a relaxing mix of elevator tunes. It's a stark contrast to the game's difficulty and addictive capabilities. Umihara Kawase is the kind of game you play over and over not just because it's enjoyable, but because you're slowly learning, improving, and progressing ever further. Getting to a stage unlocks it in practice mode, so you can try as much as you like to pass it - but you won't achieve anything by doing it that way. The only way to make it through the game is by honing your skills and pressing onward in the main mode, with a limit on lives and time.
The idea behind this game is not really a prevalent one these days in the platforming or adventure genres. Most games try to provide an entertaining experience to play through perhaps a single time, and that's it. There is only one way to succeed. UKS hinges on the fact that you must hone your skill and become one with the game's play mechanics to win. Once you've got a hold on them, you are challenged to find hidden level exits and other paths though this nonlinear game. The idea that one would actually play this game to improve in skill and compete against oneself to better that skill within the same levels is not something we see often in platformers. These ideas are more at home in racers and fighters. However, it works surprisingly well in this context, and that's what drives Umihara Kawase: Shun. If you're especially proud of maneuvers you pulled off in a level, you can even save a replay to the memory card.
Umihara Kawase: Shun is a strange, unique, aquatic platformer with chiefly 2D graphics - it's hardly marketable anywhere in the world. But what it does possess is a rare thing: engaging gameplay that challenges you to challenge yourself. Perhaps it's not for everyone - in fact, it's most definitely not for most people. But for those of you who feel like mastering the unique play mechanics and who have the drive to work out the paths to victory, this is a chance to get involved with a game with real thought and character.