I suck at games: PEW PEW LASERS

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[It’s time for another Monthly Musing — the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. — CTZ]    

There are many genres of games I can’t call myself adept in, but still enjoy with a reasonable amount of competence. I’ve lost my timing for platformers since the days I used to rock Mega Man 2, but I find myself plummeting into the abyss only occasionally. Sports games aren’t really my thing, but I can still hold my own in some of the less stringent titles, such as Ice Hockey and Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES, or “gimmick” sports games like Mega Man Soccer and SEGA Superstars Tennis. Racing’s never been completely my forte, though I will rock your face in Mario Kart (so long as snaking doesn’t come up, as I’ve only got a 70% success rate on that) and ground my way through the first three Gran Turismos by repeating early races with a crappy car over and over for money.

One genre, however, has taken hold of my heart in many ways, despite (almost) never letting me get past the first stage in any of its games without burning a continue. Oh, scrolling shoot-em-ups, how I wish I could quit you. 

It’s a condition, of sorts, that’s plagued me since childhood. My first particularly memorable experiences with scrolling shooters were Taito and Konami’s faults, respectively. One of my best friends in kindergarten had an NES, and even before I got my own and started swapping games with him, I’d hang out at his house over the summer where we’d play the hell out of those two games in particular.

was a top-down shooter where you were a helicopter, which was badass enough in the early 80s, but by collecting certain power-ups, you could pick up two smaller helicopter buddies to help you rip through the already not-to-difficult warscape. Who doesn’t want to be three helicopters? I would love to be three helicopters. If there is a way I can be reincarnated as three helicopters, please tell me whatever I might need to do to alter my karma and make this happen. This one, I could beat in co-op, but it wasn’t nearly as fun as Stinger.

Yes, those are coat hangers in the background. You are fighting to prevent back-alley abortions, or something. Stinger was the only Twinbee game (Moero Twinbee) to see a US release, but the hell if I knew that as a kid. All I knew was that Stinger was fun and zany. While not the most coherent narrative, the game sends you flying off, between side-scrolling and top-down stages, to save a certain Professor Cinnamon from aliens or something. I think he got abducted by a UFO. I dunno.

All I know is that after a few minutes of shooting random, flying household objects to keep them from killing you, and round bells to make them change color and then catching them in mid-air to change your weapons loadout, you find yourself facing down a giant hunk of watermelon, firing a bullet-hell lite storm of seeds at you.

And this is just level one. Needless to say, I was five-years-old and I was hooked. Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.

At some point, probably thanks to a Nintendo Power article, I got it into my head to borrow a copy of R-Type on the Game Boy. Oh, neat, there’s this pod I can attach to either side of my ship? And I can back up to the edge of the screen if it’s on my rear, and detach it so it flies back from the right side of the screen? And then I die? RAD. Yeah, that didn’t pan out so well.

The roller rink where many a birthday party, and the occasional field trip, was hosted had a pretty respectable arcade cabinet spread. Rampage, all the Donkey Kongs you could eat, Rush’n Attack … but one game captured my heart and ate more of my quarters than any other.

I’m not sure if it was my love for the A-10 Thunderbolt or for the sweet, flame-maned unicorn logo on the opening splash screen that got me hooked, but yeah, I don’t think I once made it to level two in UN Squadron, given my short attention span and wanting to play as many different games I could with the quarters I had. Granted, the sequence tended to be UN Squadron-something-UN Squadron-something else-UN Squadron-etc, but hey, I had ground to cover.

It wasn’t long after that the SNES came and went, and I took a brief hiatus from the genre while I was getting more heavily into RPGs (which I did not suck at), so I missed some of the greats, like Axelay. But once PlayStation showed up, the fever returned, with a vengeance.

By the time Einhander dropped, unnecessary umlaut and all, I’d been sucking at the Squaresoft teat for plenty of years. Final Fantasy’s numerous iterations. Mystic Quest? Check. Secret Of Mana? Check. Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger, even just reading stuff on the early iterations of the web about Bahamut Lagoon and Live A Live? Check-a-rooney! Tobal No. 1 was even palatable for Square’s first real shot at a fighting game, so imagine my delight when I found they were continuing their genre branch-out by doing a shooter.

This game, fortunately, was kind enough to let me get to level two, and even level three a couple of times, but you know what? I actually loved the first stage just fine, with most of the sub-weapons being available to play with, and all the street signs and what have you to blow up along with the enemies. That, and the music was perfect. That quick build as you zoom into position, jumping quickly to a throbbing backbeat as you raised some serious hell? Delightful.

The PS2 kept me a bit hooked, despite another drift back towards the RPG realm, as well as a revived love of fighters given Capcom’s versus series was getting into swing, along with Street Fighter Alpha and sequels, and 3D fighters were coming to the fore. I only played a smattering, but it’s hard to forget a late introduction to the Parodius series on a modded system and a copy of Sexy Parodius, my first real bullet hell in the form of Castle Shikigami II, and what’s been called one of the best shmups of all time, Gradius V.

Let’s take Treasure, one of the greatest game dev crews of all time, and have them make sweet, sweet, pixelly love to Konami, the kings of the console shooter. Whoevers idea this was should be knighted. Everywhere. Any country that has knights, make that guy one. I don’t care that I couldn’t get past the thing in the picture. What counts is that I had to change my trousers after every time it handed my ass to me.

Dreamcast was just as merciless, mind you; Sega were no slouches when it came to keeping their last system well-supplied with scrolling shooters. Bangai-O had some control issues, but once again, the Treasure goodness shone through. While not as exciting as Treasure’s offerings, Psikyo’s Gunbird 2 was still fun, and had some great unlockable characters. And, well, Ikaruga hardly needs an introduction; if you didn’t have the Xbox Live Arcade version, you really should have picked it up on discount a few weeks ago. I did, and I still can’t get halfway through the first stage. The only DC shmup I had any decent success with was Twinkle Star Sprites.

And by “decent success,” I mean, “I won a round against a guy once or twice.” I think the only thing that saved me was the fact that it was more of a competitive puzzler, where your successful shooting dumped more and more enemies on the opponent’s half of the screen, even dropping “boss” characters if you really managed to rock the house. At the time, I had a pretty solid background in Puzzle Fighter and Puyo Puyo, so I had something to work with strategy-wise.

The addiction continues to this day, if a bit more relaxed. I loved Nanostray on the DS, after tracking down one of the few copies of the initial release, despite only being able to squeeze through two planets with mediocre grades. I have Triggerheart Exelica and Omega Five, as well as the aforementioned Ikaruga port, from Live Arcade, neither of which I am any good at and both of which I paid for the day they released. I think I’ve beaten Exelica, but it was on a pile of continues if I did. I even liked some of the bullet-hell elements in WarTech: Senko No Ronde, even if the final boss did consistently hand my ass to me, even on Easy. I’ve got Aegis Wing, too, but all my friends got it before me and cleared all the achievements without me, so I’m up a creek on that one.

Why keep coming back, you ask? I’m really not sure. There’s a sort of masochism in it all, but even short bursts of getting pummeled in the face still have some redeeming elements. Here are some things I love about shooters, that keep me coming back despite all the abuse:

Music – Good soundtracks tend to be par for the course, for good, and sometimes even lackluster, shooters. I already mentioned my love for the Einhander soundtrack, but I can’t really complain about any of the other games I mentioned, especially not the Gradius series. I have no shame in admitting that Burning Heat! Third Option Mix is one of my DDR staples (though I should, perhaps, have some shame in admitting I play DDR with any regularity).

Atmosphere – Despite having a rather formulaic base to work from, a lot of shooters manage to build just enough story and background into their games for them to be unique, while avoiding distraction from the business at hand. Einhander had you fighting for some revolutionary faction on the moon after repression from its Terran controllers, if I remember correctly, and Ikaruga had a whole storyline featured in its manual. A lot of work for just one little ship. And, speaking of background, the literal stage backgrounds in a good shmup tend to be just as well-rendered as the protagonist ship and the enemies, which makes the games just as much fun to watch.

Constant Innovation – Again, even with the formulaic nature of the beast (shoot things, don’t get shot, shoot a big huge thing with your big huge things, rinse and repeat), someone’s always introducing something new, or at least twisting things a bit so they feel new. New tweaks on bullet hell patterns, the fact that I’ve probably seen (someone else get to) a new idea for a boss in every shoot-em-up that’s released, or new mechanics like the light/dark element in Ikaruga; things like that keep the genre alive and moving forward while other games have a greater tendency to stagnate.

So there you have it, my abusive on/off relationship with one of the oldest game types in the book. I don’t see the genre dying anytime soon, so chances are, neither will my love for it. For the time being, all I can say is, “Hurt me more.”

1) I did not include rails shooters like Rez, Panzer Dragoon Orta and Starfox on this list because I don’t suck nearly as much at them, despite a similar level of love. I do suck at Geometry Wars, but games of the Asteroids ilk like that are a separate animal for me.
2) More on the Lego Einhander ship can be found here. I only wish I could take credit for something that sweet.
3) While I forgot to mention it above, if you are into shooters and still have managed to avoid Tumiki Fighters, I do not know what is wrong with you.

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