Friday, September 2, 2011

Omnicron: Think Less; Do More

Always on the hunt to satisfy fresh shmup cravings, I recently came across this short little gem called Omnicron. The visuals and audio are deliciously retro, while the controls are a bit more modern, employing command of the WASD keys over the traditional arrows. Of course every shmup needs a gimmick to stand out from the pack, and this title is no outsider. In addition to moving around with WASD, you have a separate reticle controlled with the mouse that can destroy blue bullets with the left mouse button. The right mouse button summons a screen-clearing seizure-inducing bomb that requires a meter to fill up before each use. Combined together, these two mechanics constantly fight each other for attention, requiring you as a player to play two games with one mind.

Two's Company
At first the struggle to focus on movement, dodging, mouse aiming, and proper clicking is overwhelming to the point of declaring impossibility. This harkens back to the days of thinking you're able to tackle dualplay without seriously considering dropping the rest of your hobbies. It's only until you assign priority to the mechanics that they begin to pay off.

Movement and dodging are king. The movement of the reticle is needed only in times of need (or compulsive score hounding). Dictating this front-and-backseat authority not only makes the game playable, but allows your mind to work on multiple levels without knowing it.

Involuntary Success
Soon enough the reticle will seemingly target anything blue on its own; your ship will weave through the upcoming traffic of pain with confidence. This is the point at which you stop thinking and start doing. It happens in any game once your body has adjusted to its demands. Ever zone out during Tetris (or in my case, Lumines)? Same thing here, except losing happens more often and way more easily.

This of course doesn't immediately spell victory. The final boss, whose final form is hard to predict with how its forms transition, is the centerpiece of the game, asking you to utilize all of your recently learned skills in a flurry of fulfilling challenge.

Here Today, Bomb Tomorrow
Unfortunately, the game is a rather short one. Aside from one final boss and an introductory level seemingly included as a training sesh for said boss, there is little in the way of something to keep you busy. I would naturally cite this as a shortcoming, as it's clear the full potential of this unique mechanic wasn't even close to being wholly exhausted. However, what little time I had to explore the world of Omnicron was enough to warrant a closer look at the memories and experiences it immediately creates.

The good news is that gems like these come around all the time. There are always crazy game developers, many of whom need only wear a pair of underwear to be "ready for work", churning out a vast array of mindful explorations of the world of game design. Luckily many of these games end up being shmups. Personally, I find many shmups pass through the radars at IndieGames and ShmupsForum, though they can really be found anywhere if you simply look.

Download Omnicron!

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Monday, August 1, 2011

Inferno Means Hot

Despite the general feeling that there aren't as many shmups coming out as frequently as we'd like, the truth is that many are slipping under our radars - far more than I'd like to admit. And I'm sure there are even more that have slipped past me, hopefully to be discovered in the future at a time when they can still be appreciated. Luckily, I stumbled across a little gem late last year, a game that few had heard of (and, according to its sales, not too many had played). Usually I'll try out a game, give it its chance, and then move on when I get the idea. This shmup, however, had me (us, actually), playing from start until finish without pause. I speak of course about Inferno, an Xbox Live Indie Game.

Part of a monthly series of releases from developer Radiangames, Inferno is the standout title among the herd, designed less as a screen of stuff to shoot at, but as a journey through spaces requiring strategy to survive - an adventure shmup, if you will.

Geometry Wars Meets... Something Else
I had to convince one of my friends to play the game with me, as it supported co-op up to 4 adventurers. In doing so, I did my best to nail the concept by marrying two well-known titles: Gauntlet and Geometry Wars. Lo and behold the developer himself cited these games as his own inspiration for mashing up genres.

While this specific genre-blending convergence is no stranger - the idea appearing previously in Geometry Wars Galaxies for Wii - the execution has been fairly lacking, feeling like the same ole arena, but with a few walls in the way. Inferno is indeed just an arena of walls and enemies, but the layout of the levels harkens back to a day of battling from room to room, inching closer to the goal with every successful enemy slain. I would say it's close to the claustrophobic progression in the dungeons of Diablo, though with far less clicking.

Co-op Circles
Working together with my friend was just as integral as understanding the importance of saving that last bomb. He and I discussed the best plan of action to take on each room. We chose complementary weapons sets so that both of us could look out for each other in different scenarios, or sometimes both chose the same brute force and mowed down walls of circles together.

It was a fun experience, to simply communicate and understand the dangers, their weaknesses, and deliver an exacted attack to progress forward. The levels are designed to teach you and to scare you. For example, a wall of hundreds of weak enemies are piled against the other side of a door, trying their best to hone in on you. It's not until you willingly unlock the door (by going right up to it) that you can progress, in effect releasing them as well. The tension that builds up before that door is opened is delivered with great effect.

Not a Corner In Sight
The aesthetics to the game greatly helped extend the playability of the experience. Actually, all of the shmups in Radiangames' series have a unified visual and aural motif, reenforcing circles (i.e. radians) in the enemies, player, weapons, levels, effects, and menus. Meanwhile, sound effects have a distinct lowpass filter and grunge to them, making the games almost identifiable by audio alone. These stylistic choices were no doubt made for efficiency to get a new shmup out each month, but they also provided something both pleasing and easy to digest as more advanced input was introduced in later levels.

Inferno is of course not without its faults, though they are few and far between the successes that stemmed from this Indie Game. The weapon upgrades are a bit linear, allowing little trial-and-error to find the ultimate combination to address any situation. Also, the final boss, while extremely powerful, has a flaw in its behavior that allows the player to constantly attack with little consequence. However, these hardly put us off during our journey.

The $1 Night
Inferno is a game that I wanted to play because I miss the old days of going through a game co-op with a friend, and also because I like shmups a lot. The sense of adventure, strategy, challenge, surprises, secrets, and rewards were more than enough to keep us glued to our seats, a length time I'm pretty sure went over 5 hours. We played on the hardest difficulty ("volcanic"), which at times we regretted, but later found pride in once we accomplished seemingly impossible odds.

When all was said and done, the two of us had spent 10 man-hours dredging through an unknown indie shmup, enjoyed ourselves the entire time, and created a night of fond memories. All for $1. One dollar. If you like shooting things and moving around through spaces as much as I do, I invite you to play Inferno and create your own experiences, too! (though I believe the price has increased a little since I purchased it)

Here's the release trailer, which is sadly one of the few videos floating around of some of the more intense moments in the game:

For a more uncut look at gameplay, here is a playthrough of the demo:

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Friday, July 1, 2011

June Happenings and the Final Theory

When I first created this blog, my intent was to get out a few ideas I had surrounding shmups. I wrote them all down in my sketchbook one particularly motivating day in February 2009. Back then I was posting once a week, eager to get all of these ideas out before they went stale. To my surprise, the blog took off, gaining readership by hundreds of people from around the world. Simon Carless himself asked me to crosspost my words of bullety wisdom to the then-new Gamasutra Expert Blogs. Things were great (i.e. chains were high), but then I started to run out of ideas. I slowed down to posting every two weeks, then to roughly every month, until I stopped posting for the latter half of 2010.

The Final Countdown
To this day, the site has gotten 20k+ views, excluding any feed readers out there (untrackable), so I'd say this has been pretty successful, especially for a blog without any ads, marketing, or under-the-table networking deals. I had gotten a few requests here and there during my lull to write some more SHMUPtheories. So I decided to make it my New Year's resolution to post a new something or other on the first day of every month in 2011. So far so good, but I don't see much of a future in 2012.

I'm not exactly saying this year will see the end of my writing about shmups and their theories. I see myself only writing from that point on when I think of something profound once again, something that captures my thoughts and doesn't let them go until I reason with them and walk away with a greater sense of understanding about the world revolving around bullets and superplays. Or maybe to boast about 1CCing Ikaruga ( day, my old friend). Or maybe to get all giddy about RS3. Or maybe to continue touting my love for Treasure (♥). Who knows!

Around The Arena
This month, instead of focusing on some quirky quality about an element of a piece of a whole that makes up some obscure shooting game that only a handful of us have heard of, I'll instead give a bullet buffet of things happening in the world of shmups. Time to spread the love:
  • A chap by the name of BulletMagnet - a much respected aficionado in the shooting-things-up world - has lovingly put together a *FANTASTIC* write-up on everything shmups, appropriately entitled "Shmups 101: A Beginner's Guide to 2D Shooters". It's long, thorough, accurate, and filled with more nostalgia than the sound of inserting another quarter into a Galaga cabinet.
  • Cave, continuing to get hot and steamy with their love for porting arcade classics to the small screen, is getting ready to release Death Smiles for iPhone and iPod Touch. There's apparently some kind of live stream going on today (July 1) to show off some deathly gameplay (7:00am EDT, 8:00pm Japan), with the game releasing July 7th at a temporary discounted price. Get it.
  • Child of Eden came out. You've already played it. I haven't completed it yet, so no spoilers. I'll likely be covering this bad boy later in the year once I can pick my jaw up off the floor and collect my mental euphoria into coherent internet babble.
  • Eschatos and MuchiMuchiPork/PinkSweets combo pack are both still sold out or expensive everywhere. Does anybody know where these gems are available to a boy in the USA for less than $80? I've already accepted that importing is expensive, but maybe somebody knows of a secret shop somewhere I haven't heard of (worth a shot!).

Moving On Up (Highscores, I Mean)

I think I might have something special planned for the final scheduled [SHMUPtheory] of the year / ever (???). I've decided to not keep my posting intervals regular because, frankly, I've already said what I wanted to (and that was 2 years ago!). Even though more things will come to me that I will certainly want to talk about, there is an entire world out there of other things I'd also like to be talking about (referring to either videogames in general or life itself; can't decide).

I'm working fulltime on videogames, and making indie games in my freetime. Needless to say, games are still very much a significant part of my life, and will continue to be as such until basically the end of time. If I'm not making them, I'm playing them. If I'm not playing them, I'm discussing them. And when none of that is happening, I'm probably sleeping (which means I'm dreaming about them).

Until next month, keep those shots comin!

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eschatos: Forcing Perspective

It's great to see a team come together and try to push shmups to new limits, allowing us to enjoy the same old formula but with a splash of vanilla to keep it fresh. Many styles and choices in gameplay have worked really well over the decades, making such a game that much more respectable for trying something different. Eschatos is not that game.

For what it's worth, Eschatos is a buffet of past successes combined together to not only impact a sense of nostalgic charm, but to also show us why we love what we love, with style. Besides the obvious audible nods to soundtracks of the 90s, there are a few humble design principles employed that are finally able to be appreciated thanks to technology catching up with ideas. My main focus is on the game's occasional forcing of perspective, bringing a much-feared depth to those bullets.

This may sound a bit familiar to my post about a forced perspective for bullet-dodging in Sin & Punishment, but this time things are different. For one, there is no gravity to worry about, so the working plane is strictly two dimensions. This makes maneuvering much easier to calculate, knowing there are still just four possible places to which to move in order to survive.

However, with this sudden perspective change, bullets closer to you move faster. This is good. It's exhilarating and pumps adrenaline when you need it the most. The problem with this is that you get less brain power to keep an eye on where the boss/enemy is located at the top of the screen (who, because of perspective, is slightly smaller than intimidating). Luckily (and smartly), the developers made the decision to angle your shots generally towards the center, to kind of mimic shooting into the distance. The result causes your bullets to gravitate towards the boss, missing at times, but sink into its meandering mantle much more accurately than you'd think when you aren't paying attention.

This is nothing new to us, of course. This was one of the selling points of RayStorm back on Playstation (and now in HD on XBLA/PSN). However, RayStorm's forced perspective wasn't extreme enough to cause any additional thrills the game would have had in flat mode. Coupled with the added difficulty in judging if bullets were on a collision course, and this was simply a novelty execution that would need some time for refinement. I'm not saying it's been perfected here, but I am saying it was a step in the right direction.

To say that Eschatos executes past designs with style is an understatement. Knowing its audience, the original Judgement Silversword (a WonderSwan gem) is included in full with the game, satisfying the player's palette to a point of contentment. The price tag might be a bit steep for those outside of Japan, but a region-free disc means that it's money that would definitely be well-spent.

Here's the middle chunk of gameplay from Easy Mode. Headphones recommended if you like hearing what you listened to when you were 15 years younger than you are now.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, April 30, 2011

[Not Your] Everyday Shooter

A few obvious releases aside, most indie shmups - especially western releases - tend to fall a bit short from being noteworthy entries in the grand timeline of shooting games. Many are too slow, or too lackluster, or too much of an intensity plateau, or something else that prevents them from standing out. They aren't something you'll remember, a game that allows you to take experiences with you when you're not playing anymore. Nostalgic games aside, a long-lasting shmup needs to know exactly where it's coming from and exactly where it's going. One such title is Everyday Shooter by Jonathan Mak, a delightful breath of fresh air to come to PS3 and PC.

Seriously, Abstract?
Described by its creator as an "album of musical abstract shmups", it's... well it's basically that. But there are hundreds of "abstract" shmups out there, many being created in such a style because their creators aren't quite sure what to do with visuals, or feel they can't create something more tangible, or perhaps they legitimately want to push the medium and visual style to complement the gameplay.

Kenta Cho's games immediately come to mind, a marriage of abstract colors, shapes, and sounds combined with an overwhelming array of lights, movement, and good ole fashioned bullet dodgin'. In Everyday Shooter, Mak takes things in a different direction, instead using his visuals and audio to create a narrative that is told in the space between the bullets.

To start things off, the player controls a square. It kind of warbles around as you move, but it's more or less a square. The real treats come from how enemies present themselves, how they attack, and how you can make them all blow up. There's a hidden trick in each of the 8 levels to chain together an explosion or combo to both destroy many enemies and to get a score boost (in later levels you'll end up saving your life as well). These instructions are not provided, their solutions all the more rewarding when discovered without the aid of the all-too-tempting Internet.

On top of each level having different enemies and chaining patterns, they also are played almost completely differently, as if the player is jumping from one game to another. And yet they're all tied together because of the soundtrack, consistent controls, and the on-going unspoken relationship between the player and the environment.

He Had One Guitar
The music and sound effects themselves need special mention, as they all come from a guitar. Distortions and other tubular effects are applied to create some variety, but from start to finish, the only sound you'll ever hear is a 6-stringed plank of wood with some holes here and there. The dynamic range of tracks and sound effects clearly demonstrate the versatility of a guitar as the end-all device for which to craft our audible experience.

Simplicity for Simplicity's Sake
The controls are your standard twin-stick duo, two pairs of four keys on the keyboard if need be. There are no powerups, no bombs, and no continues. The only things to collect are energy bits, left behind by destroyed enemies. Collect enough and you earn an extra life. It's simplicity like this that only echoes the charm and transparency of the game and its message. Your focus is clear and your goals obvious, thus allowing you to make your mark and perform without unnecessary distractions.

Story Through Experience
The ways in which enemies and bullets are used to tell a story are just ingenious, in each level. I would think that personal interpretations will vary from player to player, but here are a few elements that I personally enjoyed:

Level 2 is a network of hubs. They connect to each other, working together to put an end to your dominance. Each time you destroy the main HQ, they rebuild their community, only this time more powerful, with new weapons and a more tightly packed neighborhood. Not to say that you're the villain destroying their creation, but this simple visual representation of connectedness demonstrates motivation, willpower, determination, and (my favorite) hustle.

Level 3 is a level without bullets. In their place are robots, all controlled by an all-seeing eye. The reversal of the robots' directions halfway through the level is mirrored by the guitar's chord scheme being played in reverse. It's this subtle touch that helps guide the narrative along. By the level's end, the eye's vision is blurred, its reign diminished as it makes its final blink.

Level 7 is such a stray away from the rest of the levels that it feels like a calm before the storm (more on that below). It's a serene world of worms and raindrops, bringing the scale of your world and the tensions involved to insignificant sizes. Despite quite a few hectic moments to be found here, the experience captures the soothing repetition of a light drizzle.

Level 8... what do I say about this? You fight the wind. Spoilers, folks, but the final boss is wind. I don't think I've ever seen that before. In any game. The way to know where it is is to pay attention to how it affects the objects around it. The fact that you can fight the wind and win is more than enough incentive for me to want to play through the game again just to exact my justice on that invisible foe who so often prevented my deserved victory.

Review Score:
I really didn't want this to come off as a review, but rather an incomplete list of reasons why this game excels at what it set out to do. Calling it "Everyday Shooter" was just another tongue-in-cheek decision to help set this game apart from the constant flow of mediocrity we too commonly put up with.

If you haven't played, and if you like shmups, then you owe it to yourself to buy this gem and just enjoy yourself. Everyone else should either buy it too, or load it up again and re-experience what you already knew was enjoyable. It's by far the most fun I ever thought I could have with a square.

...Okay, maybe second most fun.

Here's a low-res clip of Level 3. It's kind of sad to only see low resolution captures of this game from 3+ years ago. Alas.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Friday, April 1, 2011

That Was The Sound Of You Winning

I recently read through this plea to Roger Ebert in defense of videogames being art, despite his popularly permanent claim that they never were, nor will they ever be. I really don't want to get into that discussion, not only because no one has ever made a good case for it either way, but because humans are still having trouble figuring out what "art" is in the first place, let alone if a videogame can be considered one. I bring this up because of a mention of Radiant Silvergun in that letter, noting the change in audio during the final battle against the human-like mass of all evil in the universe (if confused, please go play). At that point, I was again reminded how important sound is to an experience like that. It's probably the most important factor in a videogame's success.

What Did I Just Listen To?
As I've heard in many places, "The best sound design is transparent." That is, a sign of truly successful audio engineering in an experience is when the audience/player doesn't complain about it afterwards. Listening is passive. You can't focus your ears like you do your eyes to something visual; you can only pay attention to it more (and to other senses less). It's this reason why sound is the easiest way to subliminally get into a person's head without him or her knowing. And if that sound was meaningful for play? Then it'll not only enrich the experience, but make you remember it well after having played.

We should all be aware of how sound is used in movies: Orchestras tell us how to feel at any given moment, regardless of on-screen content. A lack of music lets us know that the current moment is important (or someone is about to appear in the mirror behind the supporting character who's about to die). The hero's gun is always louder than the enemies' guns. All punches and kicks are amplified so you can hear how they feel to the recipient. I could go on, but I wanted to address audio in games.

Hearing Is Fun Again
Games today look pretty cool. They have a way to go before we finally say, "Sweet, graphics can no longer improve." As for audio, the surface has barely been touched. It's pretty easy to make music for a movie, since that movie will play out identically every time. You can shape the music specifically to make every ounce of the movie stronger through smart sound decisions. Games, however (obviously), will not be the same experience between any two people. This is why it's so much more complicated to create that perfect experience. While one player may get a pretty good string of audio in his playthrough, another may get stuck in an area and hear the same segment loop over itself to the point of disgust. This is why scrolling shmups are the closest to being able to control an environment, as the developers will know exactly where in the level you'll be at any given time.

So I'd like to take a closer look (listen?) to some of my favorite levels from shmups I'm sure I've linked to far too often by this point, pointing out areas that help improve the experience through audio. I'm not saying that these following examples are the height of human accomplishment in audible excellence. I'm also not saying that other games never even tried. Most AAA games today have so many fancy audio techniques going on that I'm proud to see (hear?) so much effort being put into something we'll never visualize. However, they're not shmups so I'm not talking about them.

Radiant Silvergun

As mentioned in that argument for games as art, this segment of the game makes a drastic change from epic synth orchestra to a choir of sadness. It was a perfect switch to cement the fact that the rest of humanity and existence is gone by this point, and only you are left in this world to destroy that which created hatred (spoilers? Seriously, just go play). This is the only one of my examples that is just a looping sample, but in contrast to the rest of the game's soundtrack it makes a deep impact. Also of note is how certain audio motifs from the main theme are still buried within the harmonic schemes heard here, avoiding a complete sense of disconnect.

ESP Galuda II

The way the music starts in the first level was actually a selling point for me importing this game for lots of money from Hong Kong. I know this genre of electronic JPop-y music isn't up everyone's alley, but there's some smart stuff going on. The beat doesn't really kick in until the player gets his first powerup. The music takes a breather just as the first large enemy explodes, creating a sense of wonder in what was just accomplished. The finale of the piece doesn't conclude until the player has finished off the miniboss. The most complex portion of the music starts when the screen floods with enemies/bullets for the first time. All of these cues to the gameplay hidden in the audio have been a staple of Cave's games in recent years, so not only do these practices exist throughout the rest of this game, but they can be found in almost everything they've put out in the last 10 years.

Death Smiles

This one is just weird. Though to be fair, this is a game centered around Halloween and general ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. The final boss, closely resembling Death (complete with scythe), is accompanied by Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The song has always been an icon of grim times, so it's no surprise that it's used here. I'm only pointing this out because the rest of the game's soundtrack was totally original in composition. This kind of took a gamble to break the 4th wall and remind you that these developers have been doing homework and researching how to make your experience better. And I know this has been done many times in games over the decades, even with this piece in particular. I'm just saying it worked well. It made the experience creepy. It's possible they tried to create something original, but similar to Bach's piece, failed, and just used his since it's in public domain now. Either way, it successfully creates the perfect mood against a pretty menacing final boss.


I would have to say that all of Ikaruga's tracks are beautifully composed to match the experience going on. The music here not only helps to enforce emotional connections to what's going on, but also plays a vital role in providing cues for when certain patterns are going to appear (for score hounds like me, naturally). This level is by far the most complex (visually), and the score here does an excellent job of capturing that chaotic nature of movement, interaction, frustration, and hopefully success.

Listen Up
So the next time you recall a game you love, try thinking about the music that went along with it. It's likely you'll immediately be whistling main themes and boss battles. This is not only because you heard them so many times, but because you enjoyed those experiences. You've heard a lot of annoying commercials in your life, many times, but to ask you to recall their jingles would be a little more difficult (thank goodness).

And the next time you play a game, don't bother paying any more attention to the audio than you already do. After all, it's supposed to be transparent. It's likely you won't even be able to spot the best uses of the medium. And for that, I'm glad.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Difficulty: Way Too Hard To Be This Easy

A Challenge of Choice
Shmups are one of the few kinds of games out there that are, from the start, as easy or as hard as you want them to be. Sure, you could make up your own implicit rules for any game to make things more interesting (my favorite new way to play a game being the Green Demon Challenge from Mario 64), shmups are naturally a bipolar beast. The question is: Would you rather beat it right now, or get a highscore later?

If you don't care about score; if you aren't interested in rank mechanics; if you don't want to earn your power-ups; if you don't care about second loops; you are probably one to want to simply beat the game. Fortunately for you, most shmups grant infinite continues, allowing a fairly uninterrupted session from title screen to final boss upon first playthrough. Some games, like Ikaruga, require you to earn your free credits through extended playtime, but the point is that they're eventually available.

Going Back for Seconds
And once you beat the game on your first shot by blazing through those continues? Maybe twenty minutes passed by. Over an hour if you were playing Radiant Silvergun (♥). Then what? If you didn't like the experience, you'll just move on to something else. If you liked it, how many times more will you play until you're tired of pressing Start to your heart's content? I would love if someone at this point realized the true potential of playing that same game with the intent of using less continues (preferably zero), but I am just a dreamer.

The truth we'd love to ignore is that once you get to see everything you'll be getting in a game, there's not much drive to go ahead and get good at it. Conversely, if you were only given as much of the game as you had earned, many people would be turned off by such strict filtering of game to the point of giving up (or "moving on to something else").

The Little Shmup That Could
Hydorah, a free and AMAZING game, does precisely this. I say amazing (nay, AMAZING), because the developer chose to keep some shmup rules from several decades ago: If you get a game over, there are no continues. The only way to get far in the game is to get good at it. How does one get good? This requires many plays through the game, starting with the first level, until the game has been beaten. What this amounts to is becoming exceedingly skilled at the beginning of the game, being fairly competent through the mid section, and being a vulnerable wanderer of hope in the final stages.

If you had the ability to replay stages you've unlocked, that would be great. If you had the ability to gain continues as you progressed through one session, that would be great. However, these great things are not in the game. In fact, there is a warning screen preceding the title screen - not to inform about the potential of seizure-inducing visuals, not to let us know about the relationship between winners and drugs, but to tell us how hard and unrelenting the game is going to treat us.

So, to say that this game is AMAZING is simply saying that I am amazed that this type of game was both created in modern times and accepted as rightfully as it would have been 25 years ago. To be fair, the entire game is a love letter to shmups of yesterdecade, namely the horizontal quarter-fests Gradius and R-Type. I'm glad this game exists. For every Hydorah that comes out - a polished, fine-tuned, intelligently-crafted game that harkens back to the days of dedicated skill-gaining power-hungry leaderboard overtakers - there are always dozens of relatively easy freeware/browser shmups that lack any sense of direction, challenge, flow, etc. Those games, unfortunately, have no hard method to play (unless they're poorly designed and are hard without reason or the ability to gain the necessary skills to overcome specific obstacles).

Why Try
This choice-driven difficulty is something special. You could be attempting a world record, get blind-sided by a strangely-generated bullet pattern, and then merrily give up and play the rest of the game using continues, no switch needing to be flipped. You could also do the opposite I guess, but your score wouldn't be all that impressive by the end (and wouldn't have any such notation on your ranking).

And let's not forget that score is only one drive to get to the end of a game on few credits. Simply beating any of these giants on a single credit is enough of a self-confidence boost to keep one feeling exceptionally proud for much longer than would be deemed healthy. There's also bragging rights, being able to play the true last boss of a game, getting all of the Achievements/Trophies, etc.

A True Man
The only thing stopping you from truly sitting down and dedicating yourself to a shmup and showing it how much of a man you are (ladies - you can be men, too) is if you want it. It's as simple as that. If you wanted to get to the top of that leaderboard, you'd be watching YouTube superplays and buying a new arcade stick instead of reading this. You'd be turning your monitor sideways and RSVPing regrets all weekend long. You'd know that you can do it, and you will do it, with enough perseverance, dedication, and energy drinks.

Or, if you just want to see what the rest of the game is like, if you've given up hope for the night and just want to shoot things, if you suddenly realized that leaderboards don't hi-five you back, then you can just press Start and use a continue. Just make sure you know what you're missing when you're granted another chance.

Hydorah trailer, complete with lovably cheesy voice work:

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cave + iPhone: Pocket-Sized Anxiety (The Good Kind)

It was only a matter of time until one of the current leaders of the arcade and console shmup world would delve into the untapped pockets of iOS device aficionados. Of course there have been many shmups on the iPhone ever since the App store opened up, but many of them were either homebrew experiments or ports of golden oldies from yesteryear. While those both have their place in the market, it wasn't until Cave decided to step into the game with ESPGaluda II that we would really see what the devices are capable of.

I would imagine the hardest part of porting this mammoth to a handheld device was to maintain the same level of intensity, challenge, and skillset we all know, love, and dream about from the arcade and console versions. While there have been several cutbacks in the art department (explosions appear to have half of their animation frames removed), the game for the most part looks just as I remember it, albeit at a lower resolution.

Most importantly of all, the framerate maintains a beautiful consistency of smoothness and the bullets are just as easily recognizable as I've come to expect from Cave games. These two factors very rapidly kill my enjoyment of a good shmup when poorly executed, but to be honest, the most important factor is of course controls.

So Much Touch!
Without a proper / well-implemented way to control a game, it's just not going to do well because people can't become amazing at it. Luckily for Cave, they've allowed other shmups to come and go (figuratively, since the App store is everlasting), finding out what input methods work the best for a device that has no buttons. The three major players have been:
  • On-Screen Buttons - These are cool if you are allowed to take your eyes off the gameplay every time you want to change direction. A shmup is usually not one of these games.
  • Accelerometer Control - This would be useful if you both lived in a glareless world and didn't have such precise movements to make in order to weave through your pending bullet grave. For more simplistic shmups, this is tolerable.
  • Touch-And-Drag - This breaks down into two categories for how the touch is registered:
    • Absolute - No matter where your finger is on the screen, your character will be right under it, or at least at a predetermined distance away from it. Some people like to call this cheating. It also doesn't let you see the hit zone of your ship since your own body part would be in the way all the time.
    • Relative - The character is moved the same distance and direction that your finger moves, no matter where you begin touching and dragging. This allows you to touch where there is nothing of importance, giving you a clear view of your character at all times. Cave went with this one.
The Difficulty Lump
Going with this control method immediately alters the feel of the game. Originally, the three playable characters had varying move speeds which correlated to their shot types (e.g. slow and powerful, quick and weak). It was a balance that made sense and didn't immediately cater to any one character. It fit play styles of the different kinds of players in the world.

Now, on the iPhone, all characters move as fast as your finger can. Technically, there is a maximum speed, sometimes causing a delay before the character arrives at its destination, but the point is that they all move the same speed. Now, the only differing factor is their shot types, which immediately makes the more powerful ones the obvious choices, unless you like a challenge or something (or want to dominate with a lesser-used character on the leaderboards).

And then they went and messed with the difficulty of the game itself. I have absolutely no problem with making tweaks to things with which people were already generally in love. After all, it's a drastically different device with different needs and circumstances. From what I understand, the hardest difficulty setting on the iPhone version is identical to the easiest version on XBox360. This can mean either the iPhone version gets way too easy, or that the XBox360 version gets way too hard. The answer is both.

Is the hardest mode on the iPhone still challenging though? Of course. However, I managed to beat it on a single credit within a few tries. For those that know me well, I usually don't do that. Ever. Especially with a Cave game no less. Did I still have fun? Definitely. I still come back and play it during downtime or unnecessarily long load times on another nearby device.

Despite these interesting choices and changes made for the portable version of one crazy shmup, the game still holds up. It still feels like a Cave game. The soundtrack certainly hasn't taken a hit one bit, which is a significant reason why I still play (with pink headphones, naturally).

Here's a crazy promotional video of the iPhone version. It's a bit pricey compared to most Apps, but if you're an importer, you know this is a steal. And it's in English this time ;]

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Geometry Wars 2: My 2009 New Year's Resolution

Catching Up
I've been getting enough requests over the months from friends, fans, and strangers for more SHMUPtheorizing. The reason I haven't posted in over six months is not because I ran of things to say. Nay, I still have much to share, probably more at this point. I've simply been busy. Since my last post, I've moved across the country, gotten a professional job making videogames at Namco, competed in two Flash game competitions (sorry, not shmups), and took part in various other activities that pushed this blog further down the priority lane. HOWEVER, the mere existence of this post should be more than enough evidence to convince you that [SHMUPtheory] is in no way dead. In fact, I'd like to release a new post every first of the month, and so I will. Starting today (Happy New Year, btw).

The celebrate, I'd like to share a milestone in my little world, a New Year's Resolution that I set for myself over a year ago. Actually, I think I made this promise to myself in December of 2008...

The Purchase; The Promise
I got my XBox360 a little late in the game, first signing into Live in December 08. My first purchase - without even debating it - was Geometry Wars 2. I had played the first and frothed over videos of the sequel. Though I also had Mirror's Edge (♥) at that time, I had to jump into the world of geometric bullet lust ASAP.

The achievements in GW2 were actually pretty quirky, usually requiring the player to pull off unorthodox playstyles (as was done in the first game if I recall correctly). The one that immediately captured my heart (i.e. time) was "Wax On, Wax Off", an achievement requiring the player to hug the entire perimeter of the gameplay walls in Pacifism mode not once, but twice. This was an ingenious way to trick the player into learning some advanced techniques of enemy manipulation fairly early into the experience. Once I got that achievement, I was hooked. There really wasn't a reason to play the other 5 modes (hyperbole, but still...).

The Challenge
Simply playing Pacifism for chuckles is not enough incentive to become obsessed. The true drive, as you all well know by now, is the Leaderboard. At the time, the highest score was just under 3 billion points (:O). My best was 300 million (._.). Needless to say, I had a ways to go. I decided at that point that if I surpassed one billion points, I would be content with my success, being placed comfortably among the top 100 players in the world. To attempt to get any higher would be to aim for first place, a feat that would never end as players continually gain skills over time.

For those unfamiliar, Pacifism mode sees the player not shooting, but dodging endless waves of blue rhombuses that spawn from the corners. To combat their growing forces, orange dumbbell gates appear randomly throughout the playfield, creating a proximal explosion when you fly through them. As vets know, the real challenge is in trying not to die by flying into the dumbbells and not so much getting swallowed by a sea of blue predators (though that is usually how the top scorers meet their end).

False Positive
I had spent almost a year working steadily on my dream score, only managing to come up with 478 million. The thing to keep in mind with this mode is that the score increases exponentially as your multiplier increases more linearly, so I was actually only a few more cycles away from my goal. The only problem is that after 100 million points, the amount of enemies spawned each time is significantly high enough to warrant a change in strategy, resulting in hurried movements, snappier decisions, and less time to react to sudden gate appearances.

One day I couldn't connect to Live, so I played around for funsies offline. Lo and behold, I had a shot at the title; However, I got a little too excited at my accruing success which led to my demise at roughly 780 million points. How did I almost double my score out of nowhere? It's a combination of both that exponential increase in score as well as my lack of pressure, thinking this was "just a practice run". There apparently is never just a practice run. Unfortunately for me, offline scores couldn't be uploaded to the Leaderboards upon reconnection, but who cares since it wasn't even a billion? If it were over a billion, I would have sold my Xbox and taken up a life of fly fishing. Okay, that's not true.

Really? Like this?
So then one day, sometime in October 2010, I broke not only my record, but my goal I had set almost two years earlier. And what was I doing? Chatting with a friend on Skype. Not paying attention. Not stressed. Just messing around with an analog stick while I talked long-distance with an ole chum. And yet I scored 1.2 billion points? Sometimes I don't understand how the mind concentrates and behaves under varied conditions. It's an accomplishment like this that tends to force one to reevaluate the training regimen required to accomplish a taunting task. Perhaps the next time I want to pull off something amazing, I should not even be focusing on it, instead relying upon chance, fate, ease of mind, and the warmth and positivity found through comradery.

What Now?
Well, I'm about done playing Geometry Wars 2, at least Pacifism mode. I may not be in the top 100 like I had planned - as players' scores have surpassed the 9 billion mark - but I still feel more than satisfied with my accomplishment. As of this writing, the top score is trailing the rest of the world with 9.123 billion points. Second place is at 7.819 billion, while I am #296 with 1,274,579,875 points. To be in my original goal range of the top 100, I'd have to surpass 2.162 billion points. While that would just be awesome, it's probably best to smile, enjoy the moment, and move on to something else.

I still really want to beat Ikaruga on one credit, though. Once I accomplish that, I won't have any more reason to say there is something in this world I cannot do. My success in Pacifism mode has rewritten what I had originally thought was the ideal state of mind and body in which to attempt a highscore/perfect run. It looks like I'll have unpredictability on my side to help me complete the game, namely Chapter 4.

Because the game has no replay mode, it's pretty cool that this guy recorded himself getting one of the highest scores in the world. Note how he swoops into his gate explosions to collect as many multipliers as possible, tempting the Game Over Gods. Great stuff:

Next Time, on [SHMUPtheory]
As I mentioned earlier, I plan to have a new [SHMUPtheory] post every 1st of the month, so hopefully I'll be able to keep up for a good while so you don't have to be disappointed when any given 2nd of the month rolls by without an update. Let's call this one of my New Year's Resolutions of 2011 :]

Also, for those interested in playing my Flash game competition entries I mentioned earlier, here they are, including my game [Yesterday] which recently won 1st place!
[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Bosses are entities that have been in shmups since the beginning (okay, early '80s). Almost every scrolling shmup since then has had at least one by the end of the game, at the end of each level, or sporadically throughout the entire game. If a particular game ended a level without a boss, it would immediately feel as if something were missing, some challenge - a test - to prove one's worth to be able to continue to the next section. And then, sometimes, a boss has issues - it's easy, it's weird, it's unfair, etc. As I've learned in the world of story telling, the ending is the deal breaker. It can make a poor experience tolerable, make an amazing experience mediocre, and in some special cases, turn a waste of time into a reason to live.

The important thing to keep in mind when dissecting what exactly makes a good boss is that there is no universal answer. The boss must be dynamic in both design and execution, tailored specifically to the level in which it resides. Generally speaking, there are five main factors to consider when designing a boss: difficulty, variety, length of battle, pay-off, and character.

If this is the first boss of the game, make sure anybody who's at least trying will beat it without losing all of his or her lives. Losing on the first level - even if there are only a handful - is a buzz kill for even the most seasoned of veterans.

The types of attacks don't necessarily have to mimic the same enemy types seen earlier in the level, but they shouldn't be so vastly different that the boss and level feel separated in function. A level with homing rockets can have a boss with homing lasers. This is a simple evolution of what trials the player has already passed. You can also have the boss use weapons that won't be seen until the next level. The key is transition. If a boss uses attacks completely unrelated to both the theme and enemies found earlier in the level, it will feel unattached (and so will the player).

The player is going to want an intense battle. Intensity is not found through force, but through dynamism. The more varied attacks from the boss, the better. Many shmups visually separate the boss's health bar to show when the current attack pattern will end and a a new one will begin. However, within each of these sections of the boss's health, multiple different kinds of attacks can be cycled on a loop until the player dwindles enough health.

The weapons themselves can be the same, but the ways in which the player is to both dodge and attack should be different to some degree. If a player needs to find a sweet spot to camp and shoot, then find a different sweet spot for the next pattern, there wasn't a change in strategy. Thusly, the player won't be as engaged upstairs to feel as if he or she is up against something of challenge. Keep them on their toes, even when they know what pattern is coming up next. If they don't have to think during battle, then they won't think much of the boss when it's gone.

Length of Battle
Relatively speaking, if you know what you're doing to a boss, it's okay to defeat it in half the time it should normally take. On the other hand, if you have no idea what you're doing, it shouldn't take four times longer than expected to defeat it. The sense of accomplishment from grinding a tedious and unfulfilling battle is quickly diminished, no matter how great the pay-off (discussed below).

Globally speaking, the time it should take to defeat a boss should be relatively proportional to how long it takes to get through the level. Radiant Silvergun takes over an hour to complete not only because the bosses have such lengthy battles, but also because the levels themselves are lengthy. The durations of boss battles in Touhou games follow this same formula, as do most R-Types, Gradiuses, and Cave shooters. There are of course exceptions, such as having all or most of the final level be a boss battle, because the player expects to have one grand finale at the game's end. Consider this the one free pass you get.

As far as mid bosses go, they should never take longer to beat than the end boss (obvious yes, but still apparent in some shmups floating around online). This not only lets down the player with more battling after the mid boss, but the end boss is already considered a push over before the battle even begins (given previous playthroughs). Having an easy decoy boss that leads into a surprise harder boss is great, though the effect is only successful the first time around.

The pay-off isn't necessarily just about the bonus points, collectible gems, bonus life, piece of triforce, or even a granted entry to the next level. The pay-off is what the player has gained by defeating the boss, whether it comes from programming within the game code or an experience that's been developed within the player's soul (too deep?).

This one is probably the hardest to explain, mostly because it's a different experience with every player. There's a rush that can be created through clever pacing of attacks and a false sense of impending doom.

Recent Cave shooters (Mushihimesama, ESPGaluda2) love having bosses that spit out everything they're made of immediately before being killed off. This creates an immediate thrill and sense of danger for the player, but it doesn't last so long as to erase his or her extra live stock within seconds.

Ikaruga's boss in Chapter 3 does the same thing, except instead of filling the screen with bullets, the whole boss spins radically faster and fires its lasers at a higher frequency (all while you're trapped inside).

In this sense, the boss battle intensity itself is a diagram of the level's difficulty leading up to and including the boss. To put it simply, the end of the boss battle should be more intense than the beginning.

This kind of ties in with the thematic connection of attacks between the boss and the level in which it resides. Here, character is meant to describe the purpose for the boss being at the end, the reason why your progress is being halted by this dominating force. Everything is under subconscious scrutinization by the player: the reason that it breaks apart the way it does, the way in which it explodes (loyal readers must know by now how imperative it is to me for there to be a satisfying explosion for everything), the way it reacts to obvious flaws in its armor system, the sounds that are made when it charges up an attack / releases a final blow / gets angry at your skills, etc.

The villain is always the most important character in any story. Obviously, without him, there wouldn't be a hero (or anti-hero), yet there can still exist a villain without someone to combat him. It's in this sense that the villain is the source of there being any conflict (i.e. a hero cannot create a conflict, only solve it).

Great villains in cinema are tied very closely with movies that are successful. Biff from Back to the Future. Jafar from Aladdin. Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. Captain Hook from Peter Pan / Hook. Agent Smith from the Matrix. Darth Vader from ...yeah. I could go on, but these villains aren't just bad guys. They have a story behind why they turned out the way they are. And in turn, they behave in their worlds in response to whatever it is that ticked them off in the first place.

The same goes for videogames, although [unfortunately] they hardly ever seem to be as developed as those found in the movies (and to be honest, there really is no excuse). Sometimes a boss is never seen until the final battle. Sometimes we only know about the boss through cutscenes. Every story has two sides, and it's a bit unfair to the player to only see one side and not have the opportunity to enjoy what's going on behind the curtain.

Some excellent bosses in videogames would be GlaDOS from Portal, Donkey Kong from Donkey Kong, and the Stone Like from Ikaruga (and Radiant Silvergun?). All of these bosses / villains made themselves present throughout the player's gameplay experience, providing both a motivation to move forward as well as a satisfying pay-off at the end. To be fair, the Stone Like never was seen until the end, but everything that it put the player through was a marvelous final exam of everything that the player was supposed to learn throughout the game.

Putting It All Together
So what have we learned here? I, for one, know that I expect a lot when it comes to a good boss battle. However, I don't consider my expectations to be set too high. After all, we're talking about a boss battle here. This is the final challenge standing between the player and what the player set out to do: play the game.

The boss is a summary of what came before. It's a vision of what to expect next. It's the whole of the parts (which in turn shoots parts of the whole back at the player). It's the element by which to judge the entire game, as the boss itself is what the game eventually leads to.

So, the next time you play against a boss and feel remarkably underwhelmed, perhaps this attempt at categorizing the reasons will assist you in understanding why. Or, if you're developing your own boss to terrorize others, hopefully you've learned something along the way that you can implement into your creations (or at the very least, disagree with me hardcore and set out to prove me wrong :D)

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Sunday, May 9, 2010

One Credit Completion

Within the circles of those who continually test their mettle against the forces of constantly scrolling antagonistic affiliates (relatively speaking), there at one point or another comes into discussion a mention of the one credit completion, the 1CC, the accomplishment for which there is no reward other than the drive to keep pushing forward to gain another (conditions permitting). The 1CC is the friend of the challenge-seeker, the foe of the casualite, and a distant cousin of the credits screen.

I've mentioned this little thing before, but for those who enjoy caressing their eyes over its description, a one credit completion, in shmups, is the art of playing an entire game from start to finish without ever losing all lives, thereby not using any continues. Yummy. It gets a bit more complicated when you break down how to accomplish this in any given shmup, but the general strategy is the same: Get a lot of points, earn a lot of lives, abuse systems to maintain a possibility of survival, and fail... over and over.

Failure Is Only An Option At First
There are of course variations to the methods for gaining such a title, which include playing for survival (dodge everything), or using tool-assisted software (a demonstration of a different caliber altogether). The real treat that we've all come to see is to witness a human putting his all into one joystick, a set of buttons, and doing what countless others before him could only hope to accomplish.

The issue I have with the lore surrounding this skill is the slew of misconceptions surrounding its existence. I've read many attempts to cleanse the reputation of the 1CC and its achievers. They all do a good job of clearing up some air, but it's hard to convince someone from the other side that something once thought to be a waste of time is actually something worth fighting for. Opinions are just opinions I suppose.

There are people out there who buy/try a shmup, play it in its entirety one time, credit-feed the countdown whenever necessary (sometimes dozens of times by the final levels), beat it, and walk away with a cheap sense of thrills from various arrays of bullets and boss designs, never desiring to understand what greater accomplishment lies just beneath the surface. Something was lost along the way.

The 1CC and Me
What's my personal drive for attaining the 1CC? Pulling off a 1CC means that I fully understood the rules by which a game is bound. It means I have control over what was designed to be impossible at first glace. It means I overcame the obstacles that stopped me countless times before. It means I understood something fully and could actually perform the necessary skills when the time came for it.

Is this not the same feeling that people get when they build a car from scratch by themselves? The same feeling of building a house from the ground up? The same feeling of winning the final round of Hold Em on national television? All of these people worked hard to get where they got. They learned from their mistakes, from others like them, pushed passed the point where others gave up, and went the distance.

Other kinds of people would have just given the car-in-progress to a mechanic, or the second floor's completion to a group of construction workers. A shmupper would have pressed start to continue. There's nothing wrong with this. The car gets to drive; the house gets to be lived in. But what do you tell the kids to teach them about motivation, personal drive, and self-worth?

Okay, those may be a bit dramatic, but the ideals behind these accomplishments are the same. People want to do things entirely on their own, without the help of a continue option, to prove to the world that they are not spineless drones to challenges that give up and never try again.

Never gaining a 1CC is fine, too. It's even okay to stop trying on one particular game. The point is that you should always be pushing yourself to learn, to grow, to gain something from your experiences that you can take with you. Sure, you could live in that house that you built, but you could also take what you've learned from 1CCing a shmup and apply it to managing your personal business more efficiently, to driving on the highway both more efficiently and safely, or to composing that concerto the world's been waiting for (the one that looks easy, is difficult to play, is fun to listen to, and takes generations for people to dissect and fully appreciate).

I know there are various Achievements and Trophies given out for 1CCing a game, but those aren't worthy of representing the blood, sweat, and blisters associated with going those extra 100 miles. The real reward comes from within. It can't even be shared with friends who don't know about its roots without sounding like a cheap brag. Those friends need to experience it for themselves, and I don't mean having them only play one credit to see how challenging the game really is. They need to experience the thrill of gaining a title few in the world have ever held in their hands.

Everyone needs to 1CC something in their life.

A Plumber's Dance
Take this guy for example. He beat Super Mario Bros. by playing on a dance pad. Granted, it took only a week of practice, but he has a sense of accomplishment that no one else in the world can feel. The best part of all is that his joy is shared in raw form on camera, especially during the final level where we hear his yearning to touch that axe and solidify his journey to that point. And what does he do after the credits? He asks the community what game he should beat on a dance pad next.

He's taking what he gained, what he earned from pushing himself to achieve this goal, and applying it to something new. Personally, I think he just enjoys the thrill of that final moment, where it all comes together and he knows that he pulled off what he set out to do.

On the subject of shmups, it's fun to know that there are people on the other side of the spectrum that are not satisfied with the 1CC alone. They yearn for an even greater accomplishment: to both 1CC a game and to hold the highest score in the world for said game. Granted, a higher score implies more bonus lives which in turn implies an "easier" time 1CCing a game, but the added dangers and challenges of going for those higher scores is more than enough to warrant the quest for such an endeavor.

Rocky Said It Best
My point is, the 1CC is not a worthless art and a sign of someone having no life. Everybody does something in this world. Everybody is striving for something. However, not everyone will be able to continue after having failed. It's those that can push themselves to their limits and keep moving forward that are deserving of what they've earned. Some of those people play shmups. But this way of thinking goes for anyone and everyone.

I respect anyone who doesn't give up, and I look up to anyone who can get up after having fallen down. Whether or not any of them are trying to 1CC is irrelevant. I just wanted to let some open minds understand why the 1CC is not a goal exclusively for the elite; it's a waypoint for anyone desiring better things, a stronger being, and something onto which to grasp in order to find value and meaning in this chaotic world.

You and I both know it would be tough to have a dedicated post to the 1CC and not end with a video of courage and strength. Below is part 1 of an 8 part video of someone recently 1CCing Gradius III on Very Difficult mode. This game is one of the hardest of them all to 1CC, especially on the highest difficulty. Has it been done before? Yeah. Has it been recorded before? Probably. Does this guy feel any less accomplished? Will he continue pushing himself to accomplish great things in life? I think actions here speak louder than words.

[Full YouTube playlist here]

Additional Links:
- The 1CCers of the Shmups Forum
- Shmups Forum discussion on how to practice shmups
- SuperPlay! A database of videos of people being really good at shmups.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Treasure: The Thrill of The Chase

Patterns in gameplay have existed since... well, since the first two videogames were released. They both had visuals and most likely interactivity as well. However, I'm talking about a pattern much more specific. In fact, I've only seen it done three times, and from the same company at that. Oh, Treasure (♥), how I unceasingly find intrigue in your existence. Read below to learn (and hopefully relive) "The Thrill of The Chase!"

The chase to which I refer can be found in Radiant Silvergun, Sin & Punishment, and Ikaruga. Though these games contain dozens of bosses, midbosses, subbosses, and minibosses, this chase occurs but once in each. Over the course of the three games, it has changed shape to accommodate both the mechanics of the game it's within and the undying thirst we have for a knowingly-conquerable challenge.

The basic recipe for this thrill chase is that you are either chasing or being chased by a subboss while avoiding both enemy fire and environmental hazards at a brisk pace. It's a workout for both the brain and the fingers, forcing the player to utilize all the mechanics of the game to not only win the chase, but to survive in general.

Radiant Silvergun: Stage 2 Midboss
Silvergun's is the most complex of the three, though it's probably the most manageable after a few go-arounds. There are sometimes split paths offered that are a win-lose situation: You may have an easier time surviving for the next 3 seconds, but the boss isn't losing health any faster. Consider this the pit-stop to give your rubber some time to cool off. This is also the only boss of the three games that attacks from both behind and in front of the player. I'm not counting Ikaruga (below) because the boss just sits down there, though you can still collide with it (and probably will the first few times).

Sin and Punishment: Stage 2-1 Midboss
S&P's version of the chase is the easiest to complete, though it's still no walk in the park. Besides the fact that there are split paths to follow in order to kill the boss quickly (time limit here this time), the game has bonuses littered throughout the chase to coax players into going for the major points at the risk of falling indefinitely. On the plus side, this boss doesn't fire back at you; he's kind of just concerned with running away from you, which makes you look like the killer. Regardless, the boss's actions give the player just enough split seconds to follow en route for a quick finish. This is the only chase of the three to also employ gravity as a mechanic, so timing [double] jumps is combined with strafing left and right, while of course collecting bonus points, firing a gun, and slashing floating bombs into the boss's rear end.

Ikaruga: Chapter 3 Midboss
This one is the killer. By this point, this is Treasure's third pass at making a chase that can really make the sweat drops glisten. Not only does this boss sway back and forth, but it constantly vomits out sprays from four companions as well as its own ugly mouth. On top of that, the sprays are alternating in polarity, so when one is crossing your path, you have to be ready to cut through the center stream and survive against an oncoming stream of the opposite polarity. I apologize for the skill level of the player in the video below. He actually does so well, you don't have much of a chance to appreciate anything (other than his dedication to turning a chase into t-ball practice).

This boss is known as one of the hardest sections in the game, which makes it all the more enjoyable to know that of all the changes Treasure made to the game for its XBox Live Arcade port, this boss had the most significant change. That change is that its companions spin in the opposite direction than they did in the arcade, Dreamcast, and Gamecube versions. Nothing too complicated for the pros, but you almost have to relearn this section from scratch, creating all new digital nightmares for your scoreboard to be plagued with when the console is turned off.

I hope I haven't missed other chase sequences in Treasure games of past. I'm relying on memory for Mischief Makers and Gunstar Heroes (which had a close call with the underground mine level), so if anyone can think of others, do share!

[Update: It's been brought to my attention that this chase can be found in two additional newer games: Gradius V and Sin & Punishment 2, both of which were also made by Treasure. Awesome. However, I can't offer too much insight on these, despite being able to easily find them on YouTube. I have this thing where I like to play Treasure games firsthand before spoiling anything online. I haven't gotten that far in Gradius V and S&P2 hasn't been released in the states yet, so I'll just have to assume that both of these chases are nothing short of thrilling. Thanks Evil_Toaster!]

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Novice Ultra Mode: An Oxymoron For Us All

Too Easy, Or Too Fun?
It's a well-established notion nowadays that the shmup - particularly the vertically-scrolling danmaku shooter from overseas - is a genre of gaming best reserved for those with determined hearts and as many quarters as they have reasons not to go easy on themselves. With that in mind, it's a breath of fresh air to see that Cave, the head honcho in professional modern shmup releases, has introduced a Novice difficulty into their home port of (deep breath here) Mushihimesama Futari 1.5. For a game that's popular on YouTube based solely upon its difficulty, it's wonderful to learn that the developer didn't want to shy away those who would otherwise use this game's existence as a reason to stick to their Mario RPGs (don't hate) and actually have a chance at completing a game. But then they made an Ultra version of Novice mode. Yes, this is where it gets fun.

Novice Original mode by itself is the tamest out of... thirteen possible modes there are in the game. It features very few slow-moving bullets and plenty of ways to milk your lives out. Auto-bomb is included here, granting you another chance to live in exchange for one bomb. This is a step up from Ketsui for DS, which would clear your entire bomb stock upon being poked by a pink dot. Take into account that the beginning of each boss will net you a bonus two bombs and you effectively have dozens of lives at your disposal (and no need to even hover over the bomb button).

Don't be fooled, though. The tweaked mechanics of the game don't hold your hand the entire way. If someone is playing a Novice mode, it's likely that he or she feels that it's the appropriate difficulty at which to play. Novice Original is great for people to get into the jive of playing a bullet hell shooter altogether. For those who have some shred of confidence, but not enough to be on bomb duty the entire time, Novice Ultra is the way to go (I am ignoring Novice Maniac, the in-betweener, as it's pretty much the average between my two points of interest).

Novice Ultra also spews few bullets at the player, also at a slow pace, but these comparisons are in relation to the original arcade release, found elsewhere on the disc. There's plenty of bullet weaving to be had, and even less hand-holding present (perhaps only a few fingers are gripped at this point).

Suddenly You're Amazing
The thing that makes this mode so thrilling is the illusion of you being awesome. The developer went through a lot of trouble to revise every single bullet pattern to create immediate dotted chaos on the screen, only to have it fall into a recognizable pattern with wide gaps for escape. There are very few moments of overlapping patterns, some of which come from the same enemy, effectively keeping your focus at maximum (and your sweat glands dry). On top of this, larger enemies' bullets disappear upon destruction, giving you a break just before your eyes dilate to their maximum. Once you get used to this little feature, you'll quickly go from Marty to Doc in expecting immediate danger to just disappear.

Just to prove how helpful this mode is, I 1CC'd Novice Ultra on my second try, having gotten to the final form of the final boss my first try. And the best part of all? It was a complete joy to play through from beginning to epic end. Though I didn't have too much difficulty lasting the entirety of the game, I had my mind gears churning out some finely-tuned calculations. This accomplishment is one of my two legitimate 1CCs, the other being a full 2nd loop clear in Star Prince in Retro Game Challenge (that counts, right?).

This Is Not A Review
So, the real question is, "Does Novice Mode really allow beginners/novices to get into the shmup club?" The short answer is yes. The long answer is no (I know, that's actually one letter shorter). It's definitely a step in the right direction, but I'm sure more can be done to help out those who aren't accustomed to bullet herding, max chaining, multiplier maximization, etc. Just what those things are, I am uncertain. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what evolutions of an old genre will pop up in the future.

I tried to keep this post away from becoming a review, but in all honesty, this is a fantastic port of the original. And the fact that it's region-free means that anyone with an NTSC Xbox360 can join in on the fun... for about 70 smackers. If you're interested in learning more about the game, BulletMagnet from Dtoid has a ridiculously detailed article covering every single aspect of the game.

Below is part 1 of a 4-part run in Novice Ultra. The rest can be found from related videos, but I suggest you discover the rest of the game with your own two thumbs.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Anatomy of a Shmup

If I haven't made it clear yet, I'm working on another shmup. This time, since I'm not restricted by a competition deadline, I've been paying close attention to the art behind creating shmups, both commercially and online. The big boys appear to be doing everything right. I only ever have a few nitpicks about them. If I ever feel like I don't like one, it's because of personal preference, not something that I can point out as being done poorly.

As for the indie shmups available for free or for a few bucks, they are hit or miss. Sometimes the design is ingenious, but the presentation is lacking. Sometimes the visuals are spectacular, but the gameplay is uninspired. Sometimes the game is pretty good, but could have been pushed further in various areas. There's a different reason for each game, but the importance here is that I'm taking notes on all of it.

Below I've gathered together a list of what I've observed over the months and years of playing. The ideas are in no particular order and only represent a fraction of my records. I thought I'd share them so you, too, can pinpoint a reason for any given game not being quite what you had hoped.

Keep in mind that not everything I say is required for every shmup. They each have their own place. Most of these notes are for scrolling and arena shooters, while some apply to any game or piece of art.
  • Enemy bullets should always be visible. The bullets shot by enemies should be visible on top of explosions, power-ups, other enemies, etc. The point here is that those bullets are your primary reason for not beating the game. Any time not spent being able to see them is time not spent preparing to engage them. If a foreground object is going to obscure the view of play, it's a good idea to make sure no bullets are on-screen. The only exception for hiding bullets is the HUD; for this reason, the HUD should be kept to a visual minimum.

  • Off-screen enemies should not be able to shoot. If the enemies aren't visible to the player, then how can a player even have a chance at feeling good about himself when dying from one of these bullets? This causes too much confusion, anger, and force quitting.

  • All bullets should have a ricochet/splash effect when hitting something. Without some sort of "splash" or "pop" effect to show contact, it makes it feel like either the bullets have no effect or they're passing under the enemy/obstacle in question.

  • Bullet collision should be accurate. This goes for any game where you can shoot and be shot at, but it's just a shame to be shooting something and having your bullets pass right by, or meeting the all-too-familiar death from a bullet that wasn't even in your area code.

  • If the player's ship has a small hitbox, make it obvious. I seemed to miss this point with my last shmup. The key here is to let the player quickly know his boundaries of death when in a crunch. Sometimes only a few frames of opportunity are available, during which time it's essential to be able to see where your sweet spot is.

  • The contrast between bullets and backgrounds should be high. This is something that's very important for survival, let alone for aesthetically pleasing visuals. An indie game for Dreamcast, Last Hope, had a special edition released that featured a higher bullet contrast. When Cave releases black label editions of their shmups, they oftentimes feature "darker background palettes". Also of note is that Cave has stuck with pink and bright blue colors for the bullets in all of their games. I guess they found the magic palette to make identifying bullets easiest.

  • Enemies should show some sign of being hit. If an enemy doesn't flicker or shake or shoot sparks when being shot, I can only assume that it is invulnerable to attack. The whole thing doesn't need to flash white (it really hurts the eyes with bosses), but there needs to be some indication of it taking damage. On that note, if an enemy is invulnerable (shields are up, boss hasn't settled yet, etc.), don't change a thing about it. Some games let your bullets pass through during these times, which is also fine.

  • Everything that is destroyed should explode. I'm almost completely serious when I say explode. As in fire and smoke. It doesn't seem to matter what the enemy is made out of; humans by nature love to see explosions and there's nothing more satisfying than watching something dangerous go up in flames. The Mushihimesama series gets around its insect/prehistoric theme by coloring its explosions blue, which in turn makes it look like a release of natural gas... or something. The point is, if you spend all that time pumping an enemy full of bullets, all of Newton's Laws say that it should explode into a fiery ball of satisfying pixelated splendor. And as far as boss explosions go, they better be a spectacular light show of gaseous fulfillment, including a screen-flooding flash of brightness that slows down gameplay.

  • There should be a sense of flow to each level. If you fast-forward through superplays of various commercial shmups, it becomes very clear that the design of each level is structured to force you to want to zig and zag all over the place. It not only keeps your wrists happy, but it never leaves you waiting in boredom. Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga both reward quick killers with additional enemies to shoot while waiting for the next section to arrive. It's okay to have nothing to do while being warned about a boss. For one, this gives your eyes a chance to focus on the text. Second, it allows you to build up whatever fear/confidence that its presence concocts in your body. Even arena shmups like Geometry Wars and Echoes provide a flow in where the enemies spawn.

  • The visual style should be consistent through all levels, enemies, effects, menus, etc. The fact that this is something that every artist ever in history should be considering, it's sad to see it ignored so often. It's as if every 14-year-old with a wicked idea and limited freetime has used the same animated GIF of an explosion in his game. I was one of them. It's great as a placeholder, but if the rest of your game is composed of clean vector gradient fills, your explosion will not only look out of place; it will break gameplay. This happens a lot with uninspired menus as well, where a generic font is used without proper formatting. The end result can only make a player frown, no matter how spectacular the rest of the game looks.

  • There should be "popcorn" enemies in every level. These are enemies that blow up (with an explosion) after being hit once (or very seldom). The key here is quantity. Popcorn enemies not only fill in empty holes of time between waves of more viable forces, but they also make the player feel like he's the coolest kid on his block (and if he's playing a shmup, he automatically is).

  • There should be a way to save yourself in times of need. The most obvious method of saving one's life is the bomb. DoDonPachi also has a super/hyper beam. Ikaruga has homing lasers. Radiant Silvergun has a sword that slices everything in its path. The key here is that the player should be able to get out of a sticky situation. Most of these moves make the player invincible for a short amount of time, which in turn allows him to get out of physical obstacles as well as enemy fire.

  • If an enemy appears out of thin air on-screen, allow time for the player to ready himself. Never have an enemy appear in the middle of the screen and fly off at full speed shooting everything its mother taught it. It's okay for it to accelerate to its destined speed, or wait a second before firing. There can even be an indication of its arrival before it even appears. Geometry Wars does this with particle splashes. Works wonders. Believe me.

  • Enemy health should be either shown or predictable. Ikaruga shows the health of every enemy you start shooting at via a thin bar on the HUD. For games that show you nothing, you should be able to tell how long you need to be firing at an enemy before it's destroyed. Things like relative size or the presence of armor are usually good indications. If an enemy takes way too long to die, or if it explodes rather quickly, it will feel off, break gameplay, and your bewilderment over the developer's choosing of its health will put you into a stumper just long enough to be swallowed by an oncoming sea of bullets.

  • The coming of a boss should be made clear. This can be done through a large warning sign, the sound of a siren, the sound of nothing at all, or simply a lull in enemies, signifying the coming of something large. If you don't know that you're fighting a boss, then you won't try as hard, and you also won't be as enraged when you come close to defeating it and ultimately die. Think of it this way: If you told Mr. Magoo that he just walked through a construction zone that failed its last safety and security inspections, he probably wouldn't be as emotionally struck as Lando Calrissian would feel if you told him that he just blew up the second Death Star and narrowly avoided being engulfed by its own flames (see? everything explodes). If you think that's a silly argument to make because Lando would have already known what just happened, you're right. That's the point. He knew the whole time that he was escaping certain death. The stakes were high and his adrenaline was pumping in return. The whole experience was a ride. And that's what a player needs to feel before the boss even shows its ugly mug.

  • An unwanted sound should be heard when the player is hit/destroyed. The thought of losing a life and having to insert another quarter is enough to make a player avoid death, but the more that enforces that feeling of dread, the better. I think Squares 2 does this the best. The sound of that buzzer is the last thing I'd want to resonate in my ears, especially after having heard a looping sample from Daft Punk. Daft Punk!

  • There should always be a way out of every situation. Here, I'm talking about designing the enemies and bullet formations such that there is definitely a way to get through, at least by the developer. I know players can lose focus and corner themselves into a tight circle of pain, but that's going to happen in any game. If you dodge the wrong way, you're only setting yourself up for failure. Half the "fun" of bullet hell games is learning how to manipulate the enemies into shooting such that you will have a measely crevice through which to escape failure. This is sometimes called bullet herding, which is kind of awesome. Even Space Invaders had this in the form of being able to hide behind your bases. That counts, right?

  • Separate simultaneous bullet patterns should have different-looking bullets. The human brain is a beautiful thing, capable of recognizing complex patterns faster than any super computer today could ever hope to match (note: computers do not yet have hope). However, given the added sensations of stress, danger, and really fast bullets in large numbers, it would be such a great help if separate patterns had varied bullets. This can be achieved through color, shape, animation, and even rotation. The Touhou games are especially known for having hundreds of bullets on screen, each pattern distintively careening towards you at varying paces of fear induction.

  • Camera-shake is a privelage, not a right. The effect always looks cool. Let's get that out of the way. The problem is when camera-shake is used when every enemy is destroyed, every piece of gold is collected, and every bullet is fired. Not only does this make for too much visual noise for the player's eyes (Cloverfield was under an hour for a reason), but it also dampens the effect. The less it appears, the more it'll mean for the player when it does happen. Trust me - less is more.

As I've said before, all of these suggestions are optional and in my opinion. They're all things that I've seen implemented beautifully in console/arcade releases and miserably emulated in free online Flash games. Since I'm making a free online Flash game, I'm going to do my best to maintain a level of polish and attention to detail that allows the game to stay together as a whole. Even a single out-of-place sound effect can ruin the entire experience.

To kind of drive these points home, I'd like to use the same identifying features from the screenshot of Ikaruga above and apply them to Space Invaders. Ya know, for fun.

It would be mean to point out the games that I feel could have been more successful, even by just following my suggestions above, so I'll just talk about the free shmups that did a lot of things right.

- Arcanacra: Excellent flow of gameplay, superb use of sound (The enemies/attacks are synchronized with the music), enemy bullets stay visible, enemies show signs of taking damage, there are popcorn enemies, and the boss explosion is worth the trouble. This is the best free shmup that I've seen do so many things so well.

- Cube Colossus: Excellent visual style (nice explosions), unique and useful control mechanic, bullet contrast against backgrounds, engaging sound design (especially when buying upgrades), ample warning before bosses and spawning enemies, and enemies have visible health and show signs of taking damage.

- Death vs. Monstars: visually and audibly unique explosions, a simple control mechanic that allows for quick and accurate aiming, popcorn enemies, a spectacular boss explosion, and enemy bullets that stay visible.

- Heavy Weapons: Great use of sound (especially of enemies spawning nearby), effects and menus match visual style of the game, and of course there are many popcorn enemies.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]