Shmup Essentials: Cardinal Sins

As we’ve already established, Qute’s Eschatos is an absolutely fabulous shoot ’em up that every fan of the genre should have in their collection.

Its predecessors are still very worthwhile games in their own right, too; while technologically rather more primitive than the 60fps cinematic polygonal action of Eschatos, their 2D pixel art and chiptune soundtracks have a great deal of charm to them — and, most importantly, they’re damn fun to play.

Today I wanted to particularly look at Cardinal Sins, one of the two games that eventually begat Eschatos. Technically a freeware spinoff of Eschatos’ true predecessor Judgement SilverswordCardinal Sins is arguably the most interesting of the two games, for reasons that will become apparent.

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Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins have their origins on the forgotten (and Japan-only) treasure of a 16-bit handheld console, the Wonderswan Color. This system, today primarily known as the original source of the modernised versions of the first two Final Fantasy games, had a number of interesting features about it, but for shoot ’em up fans one of its coolest aspects was the fact it could be played in a vertical orientation. This was an option that hadn’t been present in a handheld since Atari’s doomed Lynx console in the ’90s, although the Wonderswan Color had a considerably smaller, more comfortable form factor than the grotesque bulkiness of Atari’s system.

Judgement Silversword was first released in 2004, and subsequently followed up by Cardinal Sins, which was released for free via the Internet as what the developers called a “Recycle Edition” of Judgement Silversword. It would be 2011 before these two games would come to a wider audience thanks to the region-free (but also Japan-only) Xbox 360 release of Eschatos and its two predecessors, and 2015 before worldwide audiences could enjoy the three games on PC without having to import anything. Lucky that they were worth the wait then, eh?

Judgement Silversword and Eschatos have a lot in common in that they’re vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups in which you proceed through a linear sequence of stages, defeating waves of enemies and battling bosses while attempting to score as many points as possible. The two even have rather similar scoring mechanics that reward skillful clearing of complete enemy waves without letting any slip by, and both are very much worth your time.

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Cardinal Sins is a little different, however. Building on the foundation of Judgement Silversword’s audio-visual assets, Cardinal Sins eschews the usual shoot ’em up structure in favour of a series of trials themed around both the Seven Deadly Sins and the planets of our solar system. Each of these trials requires you to do more than simply shoot all the enemies and survive: they all have a core objective, on which you are graded once the stage is over.

The “Sloth” stage, for example, sees you stockpiling as many 1-ups as possible while trying not to shoot them — an error that the game berates you succinctly for with a pixelated “NO!” on the screen every time you do it — while the “Greed” stage sees you gathering enemy data by destroying enemies, witnessing their different attack patterns and countering their attacks where possible.

The stages all reflect the sins they are themed around to varying degrees: in the aforementioned “Sloth”, for example, it is in your interest to not be quite as relentless as you might normally be in a shoot ’em up because you may end up destroying a precious 1-up; in “Greed” meanwhile, it’s easy to get carried away attempting to gather data from a hard to reach enemy and find yourself ploughing right into an oncoming barrage of bullets.

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Unusually, running out of lives in Cardinal Sins doesn’t mean the end of your game. Instead, it simply causes you to fail the stage you are on and proceed to the next one. However, failing a stage in this way does lock you out of the final boss fight and the actual ending of the game — reaching the “end” with at least one blot on your copybook in this regard simply rewards you with a “Thank you for playing!” message before inviting you to try again.

Make it through the “Wrath” stage, however — whose objective is simply “don’t die”, with your final grade being inversely proportional to how many times you disobeyed this rather simple-sounding instruction — and you’ll get to take on the strange “mirror” final boss, whose form changes according to how well you performed in the rest of the game. Successfully defeat it and it’s strongly suggested that your efforts throughout the game have brought about the Apocalypse, so good job if you get that far, hero.

Cardinal Sins is such an appealing game because it subverts a lot of the things you typically expect from a shoot ’em up. It’s not purely about trying to destroy as many enemies as possible — though a couple of stages do emphasise this side of things — but rather about first of all figuring out exactly what the game is asking you to do, then working out exactly how you’re supposed to achieve it.

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In some regards, it’s quite like Triangle Service’s Shmups Skills Test, only less obviously split into discrete, unrelated minigames; while each of Cardinal Sins’ stages has its own focus and set of core mechanics, the entire experience feels coherent thanks to its consistent audio-visual presentation and strong degree of polish — impressive when you consider the relatively limited power of the system that originally played host to the game.

In the end, Cardinal Sins is mostly noteworthy for trying to do something a bit different with a genre that often relies on rather safe conventions — and successfully creating an enormously addictive, compelling game as a result. Even now, all these years after its original release, it remains one of the most enjoyably varied, challenging and fascinating variants on the shoot ’em up genre that we’ve ever seen — and a great means of sharpening your skills if you feel like you might be getting a bit rusty.

Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins are available for Windows PC via Steam, and are also bundled on the Japan-only physical release of the Xbox 360 version of Eschatos.

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