Insert coin: PC shooters and a discussion about them
* WARNING: A huge post is approaching fast! *
Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that the RPS readership has a heavy preference for RPG, strategy, turn-based tactics and similar my-brain-hurts-from-the-thinking type games. Rightfully so -- those seem to be the PC’s domain and, in my experience, those titles offer the most enjoyment per time unit spent. Unfortunately, I see neither much coverage nor discussion on a niche videogame genre close to my geeky, bespectacled heart -- the shmup.
Sure, more popular indie releases like Hydorah and Jamestown received coverage and general applause in the comments, but there’s no discourse on optimal scoring strategies, or uncovered secrets, or any of the delightful morsels that make these games unique. It it because few players find these games as engaging as I? Are your intrigueometers stuck at 0.0 when someone talks about a Gradius run? Do your eyes glaze over when bright pink bullets fill the screen? I’m curious if it’s truly a matter of disinterest or if the games’ surface difficulty is often too tough a nut to crack -- the most common complaint I’ve come across.
I wanted to establish the beginning of a discussion on and hopefully generate new interest in these games. Thankfully, the PC is the perfect starting point to access a vast library of excellent examples of the genre. The fanbase is well-established in Japan, where doujin (basically indie) shooters are released almost once a month. Many have demos, fairly high production values and even rival the huge arcade releases by arguably the most well-known developer, Cave. Then you have the seedy, dank world of arcade emulation via MAME. But we’ll get there in a bit.
For now, I’m going to break this post into three categories: background information, recommendations and resources. I’ll start with some basic concepts, philosophies and terms used in the overwhelming majority of shooters in the first section. The recommendation section will have a handful of, well, recommendations for beginning, intermediate and advanced players.
I can't display more than 4 images per post, so this won't be as exhaustive as I planned.
Part of the allure of these games is the almost uniform simplicity of the game mechanics. Quick crash course: Most often, you control some avatar -- a ship, a tank, a flying catgirl witch thing, whatever -- and you progress through a few levels of increasing difficulty, shooting the bads until they stop trying to kill you. So you have at a minimum controls for movement and attack. Most games have developed some ridiculous flexibility with this system, including toggling several firing modes (Espgaluda 2, Radiant Silvergun), holding the attack button to alter movement (Cave and Touhou titles) and activating shields, bombs and permutations of all these things (Hellsinker, Shikigami series).
The primary objective is to a) beat the game (ideally, on one credit, known as a 1CC) and b) get the highest score. The earliest examples were content to throw popcorn baddies at you, make you face off with a boss at the end of a stage, add up your score and call it a day. Most titles, however, have deeply elaborate scoring systems that require a good amount of multitasking, perfect placement of your character and a willingness to embrace a deadly risk/reward system. Jamestown, for example, gives a substantial point bonus if you destroy an enemy at a certain point in its on-screen lifecycle with a certain weapon. It’s certainly not obvious from the onset, but if you’ve played it, you’ve seen it happen. That’s really the tip of the iceburg -- games from the now-defunct Raizing usually required suiciding in order to maintain the game’s difficulty.
This section is going to take the longest to develop, so I’ll update it over time if there’s enough interest. Horizontal vs. vertical, Japanese vs. not very Japanese, more on scoring, art styles, music, etc.
// Recommendations: Entry-level
So you're fighting a single enemy that builds defensive modules onto itself based upon how you attack it. Attack the center/front only and it'll build stronger defense up front and add laser turrets. Attack at the sides and it'll fan out and add weapons. You get a lovely graph explaining why it's making these changes at the beginning of each stage. Controls are a bit strange at first -- you can rotate/spread your weapon when holding the attack button. It's been a while since I've played, but I think that's how it works. Everyone here should play this. Also check out Ray Hound and Shooter's Solitude, the latter I could never get to run.
A great starting point with lots of room to grow. Fairly basic, Japanese-style vertically scrolling goodness with lots of tweaks -- don’t like pink bullets? Go with green or blue or purple. I suggest starting on easy with the other settings at default. Default shot is Z and bomb is X, I believe. Hold Z to focus your shot, slow your character and display your hitbox. ~50mb; install text is in Japanese, but anyone who knows his/her way around a computer (you lot) will know what to do. The other games by the same devs are worth your time, too.
It’s everything you want -- great pixel art, great soundtrack, easy-to-understand scoring system. The first ship is the beginner’s best bet and it’s fairly easy to beat on the lowest difficulty setting. ~250mb and stupidly fantastic.
Likely the most well-known shooter on this list. Features a well-written storyline and some fairly heavy ship/weapon/shield customization. Tons of secrets in this one, too. Definitely from the 'Euroshmup' school as opposed to the hard-as-hell Japanese danmaku (bullet curtain) style. This was the first shmup I played on PC and I lost a boatload of hours to it. ~10mb & free, so get it.
// Recommendations: Intermediate
Only moderately sadistic. I recall there only being 3 stages, but they're tough. Fast bullets, insane boss battles and a nifty bullet deflect mechanic. Some of the best production values for indie stuff, too.
Haven't spent a lot of time with this one, but it's an enjoyable title in the Cave style of things. Difficulty ramps up fairly quickly. Not the prettiest doujin around, but a blast.
// Recommendations: Advanced
Personal favorite shmup for 2011. Stupidly challenging (though I am terrible at these games), incredibly rewarding and fantastic production values for a one-guy team. Probably the closest you can get to the Cave formula in Ketsui and the recent Dodonpachis on PC -- blockbuster action movie adrenaline at 600mph. Also offers unlockables like extra credits, alternate ships and a super-hard mode for fools, paid via earning points in-game.
Companies & games:
HC101: Cave: Ketsui | Progear | ESP Ra. De. | more...
HC101: Various Gradii
HC101: Ikaruga/Radiant Silvergun
HC101: Raiden series
BulletMagnet’s excellent post at destructoid
Rancor’s doujin store (free soft / demos at bottom)
Kenta Cho / ABA Games
Rancor’s doujin store