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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
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Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Welcome back to my “Forgotten Essentials” series, wherein I take a little time to discuss what I consider to be the “not-so-obvious” things that developers in a given genre ought to make a priority if they want their product to make the vital leap from “competent” to “classic.” The series’ first entry, dealing with RPGs, was, well, about as popular as my articles usually are, but, eternally unable to take a hint, onward I press, not only chalking up another one of these, but focusing on a far more obscure gaming genre, albeit one near and dear to my heart (in case my username wasn’t a big enough indication by itself).
Yes indeed, this edition is all about the scrolling shooter, or “shmup” – everyone’s played a memorable title or two which features a little spaceship or jet plane bearing a ridiculous array of weapons. Your exposure was probably even more prolonged if you frequented arcades through the mid-90s or so, perhaps to the point where it became hard for a non-aficionado to tell the differences between the various shmups on offer at a glance. Naturally, a good shooter is especially dependent on a steady difficulty curve, lack of “dead spots” where nothing happens, and the ability to quickly get back on track after dying – but what else truly gives an old-school shoot-em-up the ability to inspire awe even among modern gamers? The following are my best attempt to chronicle exactly what those things are – if you’re game for it, suit up and follow me, as we Blast Off and Strike the Mediocrity Empire!
Encourage the 1CC – Now here’s a concept that’s all but vanished from the modern gaming populace at large – the One-Credit Clear (“1CC” for short). Yes, Virginia, this means that, to a shmupper, you can’t say that you’ve truly “beaten” a game just by credit-feeding through it – you’ve got to become good enough at the bugger to get through the whole thing on default settings, using only one credit, without continuing at all. While few shmups outright require players to spurn additional credits to get to the end of the game (wanting to practice or preview later levels or the like isn’t cheating, after all), more needs to be done to tell players up front that just because you’ve spent a half-hour pumping quarters into the machine, the game isn’t “finished” (and, in turn, deserving of sneering mockery, even by professional reviewers, as “too short” and/or “too easy”). Yes, there is some discipline required on the part of the player here, but it also puts into perspective exactly what is required to master one of these games – when the developer includes a provision to reset one’s score upon continuing (or at least adjust the final digit to mark how many credits have been used), or denies players access to extra levels, loops, or endings unless they soldier through on a single coin, those who are willing to play the game on its own terms are separated from those who simply want to blow things up (granted, there’s nothing wrong with the second perspective in and of itself, but such players do miss out on a lot, especially if they’re unaware that there’s “something more” to shooters to begin with). The shmup, to a far greater extent than most gaming genres, is built on replay in its purest form – the drive to improve one’s scores, figure out new tricks, and finally clear that balls-hard final boss, all on one measly credit. And then do it again, trying to pull off even more taxing and more lucrative tricks this time around. The clearer and more self-evident this fact becomes, the faster the genre will make some much-needed headway in gaining long-overdue respect from a wider range of gamers.
We Need to See It Coming – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a guy walks into a bar, smoothly saunters his way around the tables and wandering customers, and has his sights set on the girl at the counter. He knows exactly what he wants to say, exactly what to do – oh, but he forgot that exactly 5 feet, 7.3 inches away from that spot, a random guy always comes up behind him and smacks him over the head with a two-by-four. Doesn’t make sense, you say? Well, the same applies in a shmup, when you’re focused on the bevy of potential threats and rewards floating around in front of you, trying to make sense of it all, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, from off-screen comes a stray small fry or bullet, right up your tailpipe, with no warning whatsoever. Granted, memorization is always a factor required for success in a shmup to some extent, and shooters are hardly the only genre to over-utilize this “challenging” (i.e. quarter-munching) mechanic, but seriously, by now we’ve had more than enough “WTF” deaths that we had no chance of avoiding unless we’d already known in advance that they were coming. Not like it needs to be repeated, but the arcade scene is all but dead, at least here in the West – you’re not getting any extra coinage from us, just a whole lot of grumbling. We do understand that having every enemy come from directly in front of you can get repetitive – if you want to force us to deal with stuff at odd angles, by all means do it, but give us a chance to react to it! It doesn’t take much – just a quick “warning” icon or other such indicator to let us know that hugging the bottom or sides of the screen isn’t going to be safe in a second or two, or that a screen-filling boss laser o’ death is on the way. The feeling of constant danger and keeping on one’s toes is an integral part of any great shmup – but please, don’t chop off said toes before we’ve even had a chance to be light on them.
Keep Things Visible - Priority number one for any shmupper is Avoiding Nasty Things, like, oh, bullets aimed at your face – to be perfectly frank, this is difficult enough on its own, to the point where it really doesn’t need anything else to “help” it. The most obvious item here is to make enemy shots immediately visible, most notably by giving them brightly, garish colors that immediately stick out – “but,” some might say, “that’ll ruin the game’s aesthetic!” Fine – if some players are willing to sacrifice ease of visibility for artistic reasons, let them, but at least include the option for the rest of us to put our demands for visual integrity aside in the name of practicality ruling the day. Don’t you dare stop there, however, - while every shmupper loves a nice, big, fiery explosion with lots of shrapnel flying all over the place, again, give us the option to tone down some of the extra frou-frou if it starts obscuring enemy fire and messing with our eyes. More directly on your end, please make every effort to make it easy to distinguish our waves of gunfire from theirs (there are few things more frustrating than dying thanks to the obscuring properties of your own weaponry), and while we appreciate all those lovingly detailed backgrounds, be sure to mute them enough (or, again, at least include the option to do so) that foreground elements are able to easily stand out. The shmup battlefield is a crowded place no matter what – that said, a little extra effort to add some method to the madness can go a long way in improving the experience.
Don’t Make Us Guess – By their nature, shmups are relatively simple games in many aspects – for instance, generally you don’t have to worry about more than 2 or 3 buttons to push, and of course the plot is usually completely throwaway. Beneath the surface, however, there is frequently much more going on than might appear to be the case at first – especially for modern shooter players, these are the aspects of the game that add depth and uniqueness to a title, and keep the fans coming back for more, months and years later. I encourage the remaining shooter developers to continue to tinker with the inner workings of their products, and explore ways to continue to make new entries different and interesting – at the same time, however, I would also strongly urge them to not bury these elements quite so deep as they sometimes do.
Raizing’s most famous title, Battle Garegga, is what I consider to be the premier example of a developer too obsessed with secrecy for its own good – most passers-by would judge the game as just another nice-looking World War II-style shooter, but anyone who knows what makes the game tick will quickly set them straight. Most strikingly, the game employs a very strict “rank” mechanic which steadily increases the innate difficulty level, and does it especially mercilessly if a player plays the game like a “traditional” shmup, namely powering up to max, hoarding bombs, attempting to never die. To counter this, players must take care to get by with as little in reserve (lives included) as they possibly can – it’s jarring to get used to at first, but once you “get it” the game becomes an engrossing challenge like no other. The game also rewards players for varying their attack methods – some enemies give up more points when destroyed with certain types of shots, and certain background elements can only be torched via a well-placed bomb. Shmuppers who have been playing Garegga for a long time will swear by it to their dying day, and not without reason.
There’s just one problem – absolutely none of the stuff I just mentioned to you is ever demonstrated (or even hinted at) to any real extent by the game itself, and official word from the developers as to how to play their game properly is also as rare as chickens’ teeth. For a long time, even professional players were forced to guess as to exactly why certain things were happening onscreen, and false rumors were everywhere – some of them worked directly to the detriment of the game’s reputation, and are a pain to refute down to this day. The truth, as it turned out, was only discovered in recent years, when a handful of intrepid gamers took it upon themselves to hack the arcade ROM – pardon me for sounding ungrateful, developers, but when your audience needs to go to lengths like these to figure out what in the world is going on with your product, you need to open up a little more. Especially in this hemisphere hard information can be difficult to access, but these days, in the internet era, you don’t have many excuses – if you’d rather not include a demo movie or some such thing in the actual game, at least put the vital info up someplace for us to have a peek at. You don’t need to tell us in detail about how to utterly destroy everything, but at least make it your mission to not leave us in the dark as to how basic scoring and survival work – the means, and there are many avenues to choose from, are up to you. Seriously, it’s VERY much appreciated.
Show Us Your Special Spot – This could almost be considered a sub-item of the previous entry, but I deem this particular bit of information particularly vital. Just to make sure non-shmuppers have some idea of what I’m talking about here, a “hitbox” is the area within a player sprite that actually registers damage – if you’ve ever watched someone play a shooter (especially a recent one) and thought “Hey! That bullet went right through his wing, but he didn’t get hit! He must be cheating!”, you’ve merely witnessed the marvel known as the modern shmup hitbox. Many particularly bullet-heavy games of this type give the player a very small damage-able area to work with, enabling them to weave in and out of seemingly inescapable situations – that is, IF the player knows exactly which spot he has to keep an eye on. On this front, developers have been a bit lax over the years, forcing players to extrapolate as to precisely how large, off-center, or elongated their damage zones are – in the heat of battle, as you can imagine, it can be a bit difficult to keep track of this when you don’t have any real visual reference at your disposal. Some games include a quick look at where your hitbox is when you first start up the game, though I prefer the all-too-rare ability to have your hit zone visible during actual gameplay, either by default or at the press of a button (and again, if any players are so aesthetically offended by this that they can’t stand it, why not include and option to turn it on or off?). Though honestly, heck, even an official reference image or two posted online is better than nothing – whatever you guys care to come up with, just make sure you don’t completely leave us hanging.
If you’ll pardon a quick bit of shameless self-promotion, if you need more help in recognizing shmup-specific terminology in general, click the “Unofficial Shmup Glossary” link in this blog’s sidebar.
Make Us WANT To Get Better As with anything else, improving one’s performance in a shmup takes some practice – and nailing the aforementioned one-credit clear is just the beginning. Devoted players want to raise their numbers far beyond what’s needed to get that second life extend – and they’re more than willing to do it, no matter how long it takes. IF, that is, the rough edges of the scoring system have been smoothed out. For one thing, progress and scoring should remain mostly separate – it’s far less frustrating to get familiar with the ins and outs of racking up points when you know messing up isn’t going to kill your chances of even getting to the end (Radiant Silvergun, you know I love you, but this isn’t one of your strong points). At the same time, scoring well should be flexible – insofar as it’s possible, there really shouldn’t be too dominant a route or technique to render all others utterly irrelevant, no one-time “trick” should all but completely negate the totality of your effort on each run, and no single scoring mistake should be impossible to recover from. Also, as a personal favor, please minimize “milking” – a.k.a. repetitive “harvesting” of respawning enemies or other targets for points, one agonizing bit at a time (seriously, is a boss timer THAT hard to implement?). Of course, racking up high scores shouldn’t be easy, but it should be, well, fun – and well-constructed enough that the seams don’t show as soon as you start to delve into it. One botched or overlooked mechanic can screw up everything else about an otherwise captivating system (Exhibit A, ESP Ra.de), so take the time to get it right – and don’t you DARE use the ability to patch as an excuse not to, like so many other developers these days. That’s the lack of care that could cost you even the few remaining fans you have – show that you’re truly invested in your product, however, and more and more will start taking notice.
Let Us Know the Score – Again, I could almost have listed this as a side note under the previous “scoring” entry, but in terms of really showing off how much care has gone into a product I consider this bit important enough to deserve its own paragraph. Enough has already been said about how a scoring system should be tweaked and tampered with to ensure that no “loose ends” are left when it comes to the central mechanic of the game and the source of much of its replay value – if this has been done, that’s great, but we’re still not finished when it comes to truly polishing a shmup’s scoring. After all, once you’ve learned it, experimented with it, practiced implementing it, and finally managed to produce a number big enough to be proud of…then what? Especially if you can’t tell which high scores on the game’s one and only list are from your practice sessions on “Easy” mode and which are “legit,” or which character you used to get them, or how far you progressed on each attempt. Oh, and what if you’re working on improving your performance for a particular level - are you able to tell what your best runs on those specific areas have been, and thus which techniques have served you best? Moreover, what about those fancy new online leaderboards – just how accurately can you compare your own scores to those of others? To sum up, the days of having to scribble our top achievements down on pieces of notebook paper because the tables would reset as soon as the power went off should be finished – in EVERY way possible. High scores are important to shmuppers – as such, please, go the extra mile and have the game record the important stuff. ALL of it. Keep incompatible scores separate, allow us easy access to relevant info, and bestow upon us one less potential headache when it comes to gauging our progress.
Non-Vestigial Multiplayer – Once more, despite having been standard-fare sightings at arcades way back when, dedicated shmuppers are something of a rarity these days – in fact, though it pains me to say it, sometimes when you try to talk to a “regular” gamer about shoot-em-ups, they’ll react (after you clarify that no, you’re not talking about Halo) with genuine shock, i.e. “Whoa, people still play those? I didn’t even know anyone still made them!” Part of this is simply due to the evolutionary path that “mainstream” gaming has taken over the years, but the genre itself is also partially to blame – while many shooters have become increasingly complex and long-lived as their audience has become smaller and more devoted, this has frequently come at the price of having anything to offer to more than one player at a time. Scoring systems are frequently built solely around the single-player experience, and all but completely fall apart as soon as someone pushes the “2P” button – it’s difficult enough to convince friends to try out such an “old-looking” game in the first place, but once you’ve finally been consistent enough in your pleas of “it’s FUN! Seriously!” to get them in on it, the appeal kind of falls apart when you have to comment “Oh, there’s this really cool trick to pull off here, but it won’t work because you’re playing” every few minutes. Granted, making a game work for both lone wolves and teams is tough, and all but impossible to do optimally (Ikaruga is about as close as anyone has come to that…unless you count Twinkle Star Sprites or other shooters built pretty much exclusively for multiplayer), but is it too much to ask that enough effort is made to ensure that a game doesn’t completely lose what makes it fun and different once a second player joins in? Arcades might not be coming back, but that doesn’t mean that their communal aspects need to die out completely – we’re trying our best out here to tell our pals how cool your games still are, please lend us whatever aid you can muster!
That’s all for this installment – I hope that, the next time you feel the inexplicable and irresistible urge to bust out your old shooter favorite from back in the day (c’mon, everyone has one!), you’re inclined to take a closer look at exactly what gives it such appeal after all these years, and perhaps look into which shooters you’ve missed in the meantime have done the best job of carrying the torch into the modern gaming era (believe me, they’re out there, if you look!). And of course, if there’s some item not on this list that you feel should be there, I’m all ears. In any event, thanks as always for taking the time to read and comment.