Umihara Kawase (SFC)

Dora the Explorer meets Bionic Commando!
Dora the Explorer meets Bionic Commando!

Before I delved deep into the obscure world of Super Famicom in early 2006, I remember hearing rumblings about a strange Japanese game. Its biggest selling point was it played something akin to Bionic Commando. As a kid the grappling in Bionic Commando captivated my imagination, and I always wanted to play a Super Bionic Commando. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Umihara Kawase isn’t that, but it doesn’t need to be. Imagine a wacky world where you navigate through the levels with your fish grappling hook, latching onto edges and using momentum and physics to push yourself up or across, or even down. It’s a unique experience the likes of which few Super Nintendo games can claim. On top of all that, throw in a distinct minimalist visual style and all manner of ocean “enemies” and you have one weird but memorable game.







Bionic Commando was released on the 8-bit Nintendo in 1988. It became a cult classic to many and it was surprising (and sad) that Capcom never made a proper 16-bit sequel. The closest thing to this on the SNES is probably Umihara Kawase.







Although actually, in 1992 Capcom released Bionic Commando to the Game Boy. It’s a very respectable game and features a password system which the NES game did not. It can be played on your Super Nintendo via the Super Game Boy. I have a copy myself and definitely recommend it as it’s a fun game to play on the go or on your big screen TV using an actual Super Nintendo controller. I consider it a bittersweet experience though. It’s good enough to tease you and make you really ponder what a “Super Bionic Commando” might look and play like.


It's like an acid trip...
It’s like an acid trip…

Right away you’ll notice the game sports a unique look. Compared to other SNES games of the era, Umihara Kawase is not exactly what one would call “bright” or even “cheerful.” It’s sort of a drab almost dreary looking world. No one knows why this Japanese school girl is suddenly forced to navigate this bizarre world containing mutated sea life. All we know is there is an exit and you must help her reach said exit door safely.

To reach your destination, you’re going to have to master the use of your tool. Each level opens up with a short demo to give you a taste.







Right away you can see why people have long drawn comparisons to Bionic Commando. The difference is the physics of the rope allows you to manipulate the ways you can move her around. It’s less “stiff” than Bionic Commando because things here are, literally, much more flexible.

Here’s an example:



















Mastering and getting used to the physics of the rope is all part of the fun.







Level one literally gets your feet wet. Love the detail of the little splashes.







The core of the gameplay is firing your hook at various platforms and ledges, then using momentum and physics of the elastic rope to swing yourself over to the next desired platform. It sounds simple but it’s rather complex and I like how there’s more than one way to solve any given level. It makes replaying the stages a more worthwhile endeavor than your typical platformer.

Go Dora go!
Go Dora go!

The way she pulls herself up onto a ledge is rather adorable. She isn’t the most athletic girl around (her jumps don’t go very high), but she’s got a charm to her.







Enemies litter the stages. Sometimes they’re roaming about. Other times they will appear mysteriously out of nowhere — a quick swirling dust cloud is the only indicator as to where they’ll pop up. The randomness of these enemy placements go a long way to increasing the game’s longevity. Most enemies can be eliminated by firing the hook at them and then reeling them in. She puts them in her pink backpack so she doesn’t “kill” them. It’s very family friendly. It’s a nice game that anyone can play. But few will master. That’s the beauty of the game.







Sometimes reeling in an enemy causes the poor little girl to crash into a platform! I love the detail of her chin literally smashing against the ledge there. It doesn’t hurt her but it sure is a fun sight gag. Gives the game a subtle sense of (black) humor and definitely gives it some extra personality.







Don’t underestimate those little fish bouncing around in that bucket there. You can capture them for points, but be careful they don’t bounce off your head and send you spiraling to an early watery grave.







Some enemies are much tougher, like this octopus which can’t be killed. It can only be avoided. Watch out for its black inky cloud. If it touches you it causes you to be paralyzed momentarily. The worst part though is you wobble about for a few seconds. This can leave our poor heroine stumbling off a ledge to her demise.







Marine life isn’t the only hazard though. Similar to Elevator Action Returns, be careful you don’t get squished to death by the various floating platforms! There’s no blood or anything, but the way she gets squashed is still pretty gruesome looking. The first time I saw this it shocked me a bit to be honest. I just didn’t expect this from a “kid’s game.” When in reality it’s not really a kid’s game as the gameplay mechanics are rather complex!







The objective of each level is to locate the exit and reach it. Locating it isn’t so hard — reaching it may present a stiffer task. It’s so satisfying to finally reach the exit. I love the way she swings the door open. Hey, it’s the little things in life and video games, right?







Here’s a nifty trick. In order to reach that exit down there you can’t just jump down because the angle and law of physics doesn’t allow you to do so. Instead, what you can do is stand at the edge, kneel and drop your hook down. This allows you to use gravity and momentum to safely swing yourself down to the next platform until you finally reach that sweet exit. It’s little tricks like this that make it so much fun. It’s like learning the ins and outs of using a yo-yo. This is a bit like “walking the dog.” Good stuff.







This requires a bit of skill but nothing you can’t get the hang of [I see what you did there -Ed.] after a bit of practice and elbow grease. It’s these little moments that make this game such a pleasure to play.

Get the hang of it. Geddit?
Get the hang of it. Geddit?
Some stages have multiple exits
Some levels have multiple exits
It's fun working your way to the exit
Always a blast solving the puzzle
Look out for bonus items
Look out for bonus items
Pull yourself up and swing over
Pull yourself up and swing over
Close! Wait patiently there
Close! Wait patiently there
Who knows how they got so big?
This is one trippy game…
But it's loads of fun!
But it’s loads of fun!

The first boss you’ll encounter is this creepy looking thing. The way it moves and how abnormal it looks freaks me out a bit. It reminds me of Godzilla’s second form from Shin Godzilla.

It's just weird enough to be a bit creepy
It’s just weird enough to be a bit creepy







The thing lays eggs which quickly hatch. At which point little green frogs come hopping your way.

Oh, they look harmless...
Oh, they look harmless…







You actually can’t kill this boss. The secret to winning is making sure it doesn’t touch you. Eventually it just gets bored and goes away. But be careful its frog babies doesn’t knock you off.


Retro Gamer Magazine blurb
Retro Gamer placed it 10th on their top 10 SNES list


This game is weird and awesome
This game is weird and awesome

Umihara Kawase is one of the best Super Famicom games that never came out stateside. It’s a pure joy to play. Learning how to manipulate the elastic grappling hook makes it different than any of the 976 other platformers on the SNES. I can’t say enough positive things about it, and it’s best you experience it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s got an interesting soundtrack to boot. The sound effects, music and gameplay all combine to make it one of those nice relaxing and soothing games to play. The kind of game that you can fire up for 15 minutes after a long hard day at work and be completely satisfied by. Don’t let its looks fool you — Umihara Kawase is a true gem that belongs in any SNES recommendation list.

It's unlike any other SNES game
It’s unlike any other SNES game!

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