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The PC And The Re-Rise Of The Shoot-'em-up

Contrail: Sky Light.

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Wasim Salman writes about videogames using short, mechanical sentences. He asked us to let him steer the RPS ship around the doujin game community and to aim his rhythmic sentence-bullets at the shmup genre.

Fashion.

Before the arcades died, they bloomed into obscene spectacle.

Cabinets grew bigger. Stranger.

They became experiences.

In the black sunset of that era, purity lost its place.

MvC2‘s brash neglect of its physical origins. Konami and their gimmicks.

Street Fighter III was pushed away.

Garou‘s silence had no place in the U.S. market.

The House of the Dead lost itself.

STGs disappeared.

Arcades ripped themselves apart chasing immersion.

It became unsustainable. Small arcades shut down.

Chains became birthday novelties.

Consoles fought in the ruins of the empire they helped burn.

The PC continued its experimentation on game design and narrative.

Consoles devoured the arcade dead and created approximations: Elemental Gearbolt. Einhänder. Guilty Gear. Jet Moto 2.

Consoles filtered the will of dark warmth.

They tunneled through the collapsed decadence.

They burrowed into the roots and gave the world a modern translation of action.

As the hardware evolved, the methods of translation evolved and new languages formed.

Games became larger.

Games became intricate. Closed. Complex.

Games became vast, brutalist structures gnawing on the bloated skies of the arcade’s final immersive whisper.

Visceral became the new chant.

It became the new lust.

Dead Space. God of War. Asura’s Wrath. Call of Duty.

Purity was no longer a part of this new aesthetic language.

This new empire had its own traditions hemorrhaging new classics.

But there were other, smaller institutions that re-examined the dead languages of the arcade heart.

And they reveled in the old ways.

And they gave the PC a third face.

Exhaust.

I didn’t have the tools to understand rRootage.

I didn’t understand that its modes referenced Ikaruga and Psyvariar.

I didn’t understand that each stage was a simulated boss fight.

I didn’t understand that it was a highly stylized STG training ground.

rRootage crossed my vision when my mind was full of the impressive, droning monoliths being built on the horizon of this new empire.

I gave up on the arcade.

I had no tolerance for revisiting its breaking.

Half-Life. Unreal. Blood II. Unreal Tournament. Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

The PC flooded the world.

It reached new levels of confidence and insight.

rRootage seemed like a waste.

I turned away.

Years later, the PSP released.

The promise was console-quality portable games.

It never delivered.

The DS glistened with smaller, lighter games.

PSP developers followed suit.

The PSP became about reliving the pinnacles of classic 90’s JRPGs and arcade action.

Desperate for something to play, I bought every fighting game.

I fell in love with them again.

I was tired of modern games after so many years of inflated slog.

I was tired and bored.

I moved to the PS2. I bought an X-Arcade.

I drilled every fighting game I could find there.

My mind opened to what I once walked away from.

I turned to the PC. I turned to the internet.

MAME was a revelation.

I plugged the X-Arcade into my desktop.

Raiden. Strikers. DoDonPachi.

It was my gateway to the small past.

The PSP led me to fighting games.

The PC brought me back to STGs.

Sphere.

rRootage was a prophecy I wasn’t ready for.

I ignored what it was trying to do.

It was only through time and a desperate, forced remembrance that I began to understand.

The main narrative of PC gaming in the late-90s and early-00s was power.

It was technology.

Rapid hardware and software development led to unique and surprising experiences, but it wasn’t the sole narrative.

The PC was a space of experimental design.

The PC was a space of emergent archaeology.

When I moved on from MAME, I discovered how large the PC STG community was.

Insert Credit and Shmups became powerful aids.

I sifted through the scene.

Cloudphobia was the first doujin STG I played.

Its music was electronic stoicism.

Its art was clean, bright, dark, and cold.

I rarely enjoyed side-scrolling shooters, but Cloudphobia felt so fast it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t just a rehash. It played with the formula the arcades left behind:

Bombs replaced with homing missiles.

Constant shifts in perspective.

Enemy alerts at screen entry points.

An offscreen mothership the player must protect.

Its innovations felt so new and obvious it was difficult remembering why or how STGs faded from arcade dominance.

Cho Ren Sha 68K was a back alley beneath Cloudphobia’s sky.

Cho Ren Sha was first released on the Sharp X68000 PC in 1995.

In 2001, it was ported to Windows and released by the developer at no cost.

At first, CRS is underwhelming.

The entire game takes place in the same endless level.

Vertical scrolling. Bosses. Mini-bosses.

It feels minimal. Empty.

But Cho Ren Sha dredges arcade purity and screams deep inside.

Cho Ren Sha has no waste. It is a direct assault.

The shooting is solid.

The music is heroic.

The movement is fluid.

The explosions stick.

The enemies pop.

CSR’s innovation is the ability to choose a powerup.

Powerups drop as floating, rotating triangles.

The player is forced to maneuver the ship to pick up a bomb, weapon, or shield.

The game pressures movement.

Cho Ren Sha does not allow players to hover at the bottom of the screen.

CSR is Russian roulette while barreling through an industrial cyber-nightscape.

CSR is fast and mechanical.

I considered Galshell: Blood Red Skies Cho Ren Sha’s other face.

I downloaded Galshell after reading the reactions in the Shmups forums.

I wasn’t ready for it.

Galshell’s aesthetic is an organic, surrealist nightmare fueled by Giger and Lovecraft.

It’s all grotesque nudity and blood.

The machinery beneath its skin is solid and oiled.

Like Cloudphobia, Galshell is side-scrolling.

It is a much slower game.

The shooting is light.

The electro-baroque music enhances the art.

The enemy attack patterns are engaging.

The bosses are stunning.

Galshell is a game about narrative through art.

The game’s aesthetic is unsettling.

No matter how long the player sits with it, it is difficult to get used to.

Galshell is the Dark Seed dream sequences.

Galshell is Berserk’s Eclipse.

Galshell is every awkward, terrifying interaction in Necronomicon.

Its aesthetic resonates.

There is no other STG that looks like it.

Galshell is a thought experiment: If the STG formula could be bent to accomodate such unique aesthetics, why couldn’t the arcades experiment with it?

Why did every STG have to look so similar with little exception?

Galshell is a challenge to the genre.

It is a question.

Between Cloudphobia’s innovations, Cho Ren Sha’s iteration on classic action, and Galshell’s aesthetic exploration: STGs could have flourished earlier outside the arcades.

They didn’t have to die in the labs that created them.

But could these mechanical and aesthetic meditations have occurred outside the PC?

Maybe not.

The current PC STG scene is exploding.

The Touhou Project is still going

Classics like Ikaruga and Raiden III have been ported to Steam.

Large, innovative STGs like Sine Mora have gained traction.

Indie devs are still experimenting with, reexamining, and torching the formula with games like eXceed: Gun Bullet Children, Jets ‘n’ Guns Gold, and personal favorite Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION.

The STG template is basic.

It doesn’t require much.

The major developers and publishers at the height of arcade ascendance took the genre’s blank slate for emptiness.

It’s because of their low barrier of entry that STGs have the potential to transform ideas.

Even companies like CAVE have stagnated with their latest entry in the DoDonPachi series.

The PC gave STGs a new world to thrive in.

STGs gave the PC a new place to experiment.

A new lens with which to examine its communal nature.

And while this genre is no longer thriving at the forefront of games today, it understands itself better now.

It understands its worlds better now.

It is blooming. Growing.

The PC, its soil and catalyst.

It has been transformed by passion and love.

The genre stands:

Drunk on fuel.

Draped in bullets.

Smiling in the wet clouds above the gasping tombs it left behind.

This article was funded by the RPS Supporter program.

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Wasim Salman

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