Thursday, December 3, 2009

How My Grandfather Won The War: Designing for One

Movies =/= Games
You can spend your whole life enjoying something made by others, but it's not until you try to make one yourself that you realize how much effort needs to go into it. This goes for any craft, job, or project. My main focus here will be on games, though all forms of entertainment are within acceptable bounds for my thoughts. I mean, it would be so cool to only have movie directors write reviews of their peers' works, but then they'd be talking about aspects that we, as an audience, wouldn't really appreciate/understand. That's why I will accept Rotten Tomatoes and my local newspaper for what they have to say, since they represent the common movie-goer. Though as with anyone's opinion, it's just an opinion.

There are a lot of factors that go into enjoying a movie or not. The experience of movie-watching has enough to do with the surrounding environment, people, and events leading up to that 2-hour moment as the movie itself. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the Super Mario Bros. movie each and every time I see it, despite the horrible reviews from critics and Bob Hoskins himself. I was a kid and anything magical that had to do with my Nintendo was a winner in my book.

But that's movies. One needs only a comfy seat and attentiveness to let the magic happen. At the very least, every person that watches a given movie is (more or less) watching the exact same thing (there are matters of screen size and audio fidelity, though insignificant at best). Such is not the case for games. Games are designed to follow a certain guideline of events and plots and adrenaline moments, but no two players are going to have identical experiences (or rather see the same series of events). That is precisely why a review of a game is more like one account of an experience out of many. I suppose you could count the different experiences that individuals would get out of a single movie, but at least they all watched the same thing. A novice to racing sims who constantly crashes into walls will dislike the game for entirely different reasons than a veteran who looks down upon the lack of tune-up features and varying strengths of snow tires.

The Competition
Thus we have finally arrived at what you came here to read: a brief peek into my mind when creating my recent entry for JayIsGames.com's CGDC6, How My Grandfather Won The War. I had been meaning to enter the prior competitions but had too much schoolwork on my lap to convince me I could complete whatever I designed. This time, school was summed up into a diploma on my wall, and my 9-5 job had yet to show its menacing cubicle-shaped face. The time was now (i.e. then).

The steps toward creating the game out of thin air were a matter of balancing two factors: the theme of the competition and what I could actually make. The theme was "explore" and I was in the mood to make a shmup (shocker, I know). I figured that the idea for scrolling across a plane wouldn't cut it for exploration, and an arena shooter would firmly leave the player in one area, so I decided to create a mechanic that would reveal an alternate vision of the world through which the player would travel. To simplify that thought: The player shoots something that opens up paths to survive. In essence, the player would both be exploring how to get past each obstacle, and would be uncovering some visual piece of information to make sense of the world.

I wanted this mechanic to not only be in the spotlight, but to also be one of the few things to even worry about. That's why I chose to not have the player be able to move horizontally, so that more brain power could be used to focus on shooting. I also removed many of the standard conventions of shmups, including bombs, scores, and upgrades. The only HUD in the game is a single bar that decreases as the player rapidly shoots. Otherwise, the gameplay itself is the star of the show. In essence, this shmup was more of a dodge-em-up, in that you cannot destroy obstacles directly with your shots. You can only evade.

This made for some very fun brainstorming. Each of the obstacles in the game were specifically designed to cater to a different type of necessity of avoidance: the spikes are static and only appear at the edges, the flames create a vertical wall, the swinging tentacles create sudden and immediate danger to their left and right, etc.


Stream of Consciousness
The story itself was loosely based after the emotions I felt as a kid when hearing stories from my grandfather. They were outlandish, unpredictable, and quite enjoyable. The build-up of the story was so fun that it oftentimes made the ending lackluster in comparison, perhaps because I knew it was over at that point. This retelling of my childhood emotions through stream-of-consciousness is why nothing in the game really belongs together: orange spiky bursts followed by ambiguous tentacles, followed by a wave of shurikens. It's also why I chose to go with a cardboard theme, to solidify the child-like feeling of the game, and to hopefully endorse an exploration. That, and I tried the style before and really enjoyed it.

There was just one problem: the game was really hard. And even worse, I had designed it exactly as I had envisioned, leaving me at those dreaded crossroads of changing the gameplay to find something of equal merit that would satisfy a more acceptable difficulty. Now, this type of dilemma is no stranger to me, as I spent 18 months revising my Computer Animation thesis at Ringling until enough people were satisfied with it (basically, just the faculty, as friends always "loved" it and my partner and I were concerned enough with meeting deadlines while making changes and maintaining our original pitch as much as possible). The point is, change is good, and it's especially good when you have more and more people test out your game before it gets sent out to the masses for rapid-fire rating and [dis]approval. My game most certainly succumbed to a lack of playtesting before submission, resulting in me taking the easier, less effective route: build around the difficulty and cater to the skilled.

I realized that eventually, the player would run out of "juice" for shooting and inevitably be forced to dodge the oncoming obstacles manually until the meter refilled enough. Since I had no way of knowing where this would occur for each player, I made sure to design the entire game so that it could be flown through without shooting once. That's where I got the idea to reward the player for beating the entire game without shooting (a feat that, one month after submission, has been achieved publicly by less than a dozen people).

The majority of players were getting stuck in the first few seconds of the game. The reason? A life system that starts at 3, cannot be replenished, and forces the player to start at the beginning of the game after 3 deaths. Couple this with a foreign shooting mechanic (new to me, too) and it was a recipe for limited progress. I at first found this "within acceptable bounds" since the game takes less than 6 minutes to play from start to finish. The community at JIG was overwhelmingly verbal about this issue, so I submitted an update that would only set players back to the latest checkpoint upon game over. On top of that, the first two deaths became freebies, as the player would continue from the point immediately after the obstacle that caused his or her death (sans the boss battles).

My Personal Bruce Willis
I immediately saw improved results from players who persistently attempted to get through it, and I appreciated their efforts that much more. I knew from the beginning that this game would not be enjoyable by all, playable by even less, beatable by less than that, and only "truly" beaten by a select few. For some reason, I liked it this way. It reminded me a bit of Mr. Glass from Unbreakable, a villain who would ceaselessly create national tragedies to find the one man who was his opposite, a man that could not be broken (oh, right... spoiler alert back there). Though I really shouldn't gloat about feeling like an antagonist, especially in a medium where people come to get away from the stresses of life. I did get hooked on the feeling. I even designed the music and sound effects to promote simple, enjoyable gameplay in order to lure in the masses until I would find my Bruce Willis.

I did eventually find my Bruce Willis, though he exists in any player who completed the game without shooting once. One JIG member even went so far as to make an entire walkthrough of the game, explaining the tricks to getting around every obstacle, by both shooting and by purely dodging. This intentional difficulty was a risky move by me, especially for a competition where you want to receive the best judgment possible, by both the community and the judges. I did end up winning 3rd place though, and almost every person was impressed with my visuals (thank you, BFA ♥), but very few could say kind words about the gameplay, which is the most important aspect of any game.

The good news is that I agree with them. One member pointed me to a fantastic post at RetroRemakes that basically says, "There is no such thing as too easy." Some games are intentionally designed to be as difficult as possible(nsfw). Others do it unwittingly. And then some games want it to be difficult, but not immediately apparent. I do know that there is a small niche of players who crave masochistic gameplay, but I probably had no business trying to find them at a casual games website.

Oh, and the bad news? It's actually good news for me, but bad for "fans" of my game (you do exist, you do exist...). I'm not going to make the necessary changes to this game, not going to make it more for the masses and ultimately enjoyable by many. It was a competition entry, it served its purpose, I finished it, and I have other games I'd like to create. The good news is that I've learned my lesson on catering to varied skill levels, and am more than happy to (and looking forward to) allow the casual player to jump in and enjoy my work as much as those few dedicated individuals who would not stop at "Try Again".

Feedback Is Everything
The positive, constructive feedback from the JIG community (and partially from ArmorGames, many of whom were from JIG anyway) has been a wonderful help in pushing me in the right direction for my future work. I've had some people applaud my efforts, many more explain why it needed much improvement, and some who are absolutely convinced that it does not follow the theme of "explore" one bit. They all have valid points, and I thank them all for voicing their meaningful opinions, but no comments have as deep an impact on my future work as the collective bunch of 13-17 year olds (I checked; a few are older) that have such helpful words to share as:
  • "3 words, I... hate it"
  • "terrible game. one of the worst I have encountered on this site"
  • "Did your grandfather program this too? 0,5/10"
  • "Sometimes 'original' doesn't mean much. Take this game for instance, sure, it's unique. A beautiful unique turd. 2/10"
  • "-99999999999999999999999999/10"
Seriously, if I can win over people like this, then I've gotten everyone else as well. Besides, If I can't look back and laugh at stuff like this, then no one will end up having enjoyed the game. ;]

Also, here's a review from JIG. Now, to work on something new.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ikaruga Pumpkin Carving: Halloween Harmony

I know this isn't exactly a post that breaks apart the inner workings of gameplay and interprets them while comparing against similar games in a category, but I figure since it has everything to do with shmups (more importantly Ikaruga), and because I spent over 6 hours from gutting to cutting - roughly the amount of time spent writing a decent-sized SHMUPtheory blogpost - then this is more than acceptable to share with everyone. Afterall, it's Halloween. Full video and images after the jump!



It was a pleasure to work on this pumpkin, doing my best to balance the blacks with the whites (or rather the bright oranges with the dark oranges), much in the way that Ikaruga is best remembered. Not only was this project a challenge, but I had an added challenge of trying to stay away from my new TE Fight Stick I got this week, which would have gone to use in the playing of... well, Ikaruga (and maybe some SFIV when I muster up the confidence in Focus-attack-dash-cancelling). However, it's all done and I'm happy with the results.

And to answer the question that didn't just come to your mind: No, none of the roughly 100 kids that came to my door had any clue what they were staring at when they saw this... other than the fact that it was a pumpkin. Enjoy the rest of your Halloween and remember not to eat that candy too quickly!







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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ikaruga: Line Graphs Don't Lie

Graph definitely not to scale.

I suppose this whole fascination came about when I checked the Xbox360 leaderboards for all players in the world who completed Chapter 5 on Hard Mode with a rank of Dot Eater. There is only one. Even on Normal Mode, there are about 14. Chapter 4 has just over a dozen people who have even completed the chapter as a Dot Eater. Don't even worry about score at that point; completion appears to be enough of a reward. Combine this with my curiosity from why I rank so highly in Normal Mode without even touching the last 40% of the game, and the question comes to me: Just how many people play Ikaruga?

The only method I could think of was to scroll through the leaderboards manually. You can't just press UP from the top of the list, so I had to take the long route, 100 scores per screen, for 832 screens. My wireless controller went into sleep mode three times, once every 24,000 players, while I passed the time watching this fantastic tool-assisted speedrun of Mario 3. Naturally, I jotted down some data along the way, as the path to finding the worst-ranked player also reveals all players' scores at the same time.

For the sake of being fair in my analysis, this leaderboard is not a comprehensive list of every Ikaruga player in the world. Obviously, we have people who only played it in arcades (the lucky ones), on GameCube, on Dreamcast, or on an emulator (missing the point altogether). Then, for the people who have the Xbox version, there are those who downloaded it and never logged back in to Xbox LIVE (thereby never uploading a score for the board), those who changed settings from default, or those who only played on Easy Mode, Hard Mode, or a 2-Player equivalent. There are also guest profiles on those 360s that cannot have their scores uploaded to the online boards. Bummer. The point is: Normal Mode through all Chapters using default settings is what most people will play, as it's what happens if you keep pressing the A button at the title screen.

Knowing all of this, with what little merit this list has anymore, we can safely assume this is a good ballpark figure for the community as a whole. After over 30 minutes of rubberbanding the controller (Thank you, Gran Turismo), I can say that there have been 83,279 unique active players in Ikaruga. And the curve for those scores was fairly predictable (see image above). Knowing how brutally the learning curve treats players, the top score of 34.4 million points is quickly cut in thirds to 10.3 million by the 500th player. At 10,000 players, the score is at 1.3 million. From there, it has a steady decline in scores until around the 83,000th player, who has 11,100 points. The dead last player clearly had one goal in mind - to be the very last player on the list - with only 10 points. It appears others have tried to get the lowest score on the board, but many failed with 20 points. So far, only two people know the secret to getting a game over with only 10 points (something I can't figure out myself).

And speaking of low scores, I understand that the game is a tough cookie to play, let alone master, but many of these scores are just horrible. I'm trying my best not to be cocky about this, but if you just shoot at everything that comes at you without switching polarities or using homing lasers, you'll have about 200,000 points in your pocket by the end of Chapter 1, a score that about 20,000 people failed to acquire. If you just hold the fire button down and stare at the screen, you get a game over with 40,000 points, a score that over 4,000 people failed to acquire.

The only reasoning I can think of for these lower scores is that Ikaruga just wasn't the game these people thought it would be. Hype or word of mouth made them get the purchase, but the game was too intimidating, or some kind of Tom Clancy game came out that weekend and swept them off their feet. Everyone dies very early upon first playthrough. And for the next 50 to 500 playthroughs. But the more you play it, the more adept you'll become at simply surviving. These people may have tried, but they didn't continue trying, which is really the key here. Again, not their cup of tea.

An interesting trend I found in the scores is that duplicate scores never really appeared on the list until around the 70,000 player mark. I suppose this is just probability, as there are fewer digits available at this point (five, actually), allowing for fewer possible point totals.

So what have I gathered from all of this? Well, I now know I'm in the top 1% of the leaderboards, but I still have a few hundred hours of practice left until I beat the game. I'd say I've put in somewhere over 100 hours so far in my life. And I'm enjoying every moment of it. There appear to be tens of thousands of people who are no doubt trying their best to get the hang of the game, learning how to chain, how to survive, etc. In perusing forums for the game, I've seen that many beginner/intermediate players are still a little curious just how to go about chaining in the game. I'd be more than willing to put a video together explaining it, so do let me know if you're interested.

I also learned that if you want to be one of the few proud Dot Eaters in the world, give it a go in Hard Mode. I just tackled Chapter 2 last night, successfully pinning my name up alongside 40-some other brave souls in the world. I dare not venture into Chapters 4 and 5, as I'd hate to be the guy that undid the current guy's sole achievement in the world (though we all know it wouldn't happen even if I tried).

And to finish off the night, here's a wonderful little piece of information from the former top-ranking Ikaruga player in the world (now at a discomforting 4th place), who claimed that the game "is a joke," due in part because of how the port of the game to 360 saw the change in direction of the rotation of lasers that spin around a miniboss in Chapter 3. Kind of specific to be upset at the whole game, but I suppose few others deserve to say it than him. I, too, have been plagued by this minor change, yet it remains in the same collection of unreachable hurdles that the rest of the game has been known to present.

So anyway, let me know if a chaining tutorial would be up your alley.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Blame Game: It's Not Me, It's You

So you're playing Raiden III, and you're just beasting it. You haven't lost a life, your bombs are out the wazoo, and that upcoming boss doesn't stand a chance against your maxed-out Crest toothpaste shooter. You're on top of the world, and then BAM-- You lost a life from some side-swiping peashooter, whose mere existence was dwarfed by your perfect run and blinding onslaught of explosions, medals, and hidden fairies. Was that really the way you thought it would all go down? You know you can't possibly continue this run knowing that you just let that happen to you. Your whole mindzone was destroyed by that one blind shot that snuck up from the rear, just when you thought the world was your bonus point.

I've come across very few shmups out there that result in both me seeing the pitiful end of a beautiful run and also have me blaming myself for the problem. I suppose there are people out there who, in all scenarios, will take a deep breath and say to themselves, "I will do better next time." For the rest of us, I think we've heard the phrase "Oh come on! That's just bullsh--" etc. time and time again.

Let's look at Raiden III. There's enemy ships designed specifically to shoot only horizontal bullets at you. In a game that's a vertical scroller, those familiar can attest that such a move is sneaky and grounds for punishment (to the game, controller, television, etc). It's hard for the eyes to judge whether collisions are going to happen horizontally (maybe one of the reasons the vertical line test in mathematics triumphs largely over any such horizontal equivalents). That's also why horizontal shmups have a pace that is slowed down, for more intricate observations that are much-needed in order to survive. This is also probably why Defender is so difficult. For anyone. And then there are those slow vertical shmups that suffer the opposite: unchallenging patterns in bullets and enemies that make you wish you had a reason to input your initials prematurely. I'm looking at you, Truxton II (but still, ♥).

So let's get to the games where I oftentimes keep blaming myself for a death. We have Ikaruga and R-Type. Both games are largely based upon memorization. Both of them definitely have unfair enemies that shoot horizontally. It's not like I'm warned any better about them coming. It's more about how predictable those enemies are. In Raiden (the series), I have a good grasp over how an enemy will shoot. The variable here is when that shot will be fired. That's really the key. Let's get Ikaruga out of the way and mention that everything is set to a rhythm that never disappoints, allowing you to know exactly when and why a bullet is coming your way. And even if you accidentally use your homing lasers, switch polarities, absorb all of the wrong color, die, and input your initials, whose fault was that? Well, you (okay, me. And it's always during Chapter 2-3). I've died hundreds (probably thousands) of times in that game, and not once have I blamed the game for a death.

R-Type follows loosely along the same lines. Scenarios are predictable enough such that you'll have a steady handle on what's going on around you. I suppose Gradius does some of the same, though sometimes the screen can become hectic enough for me to feel overwhelmed (dev's note: That was the point). I know these are supposed to vaguely simulate futuristic intergalactic space-travel against evil legions of badly-armored spacecraft, where randomness is the norm and dirty tricks are in. But seriously, twitch-based gameplay can really only go so far. If you've 1CC'd any of these unfair shmups, give yourself a pat on the back and go back to acing Death Smiles. I'll continue getting more than enough twitches with a game I have memorized from start to finish, but which I have yet to beat.

Perhaps it's personal preference, or maybe that I'm not fast enough for what those games demand. Whatever the case, I can only take so many doses of it until I've OD'd on failure. But then again, Michael Jordan missed over 9000 shots in his life. Which is why I get back on those horses, once enough time has passed to the point where I forget whose fault it was, of course.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ikaruga: Practicing Faith

For those of us who've gotten "A"s and "S"s at the end of each chapter of Ikaruga, this one is for you. For those who don't quite understand how to get past that ridiculous symmetrical bullet-dodging section of Chapter 2, this one is for you. For those who haven't gotten into Ikaruga (shame on you and your friends for not getting you into it), this one is especially for you. There's a quality in this game and few others that we've taken for granted. I haven't come across too many games in my time where varying levels of challenge, skill sets, and excitement can all be experienced from the same game without even changing the difficulty or settings. For the sake of simplicity found in Chapter 3: Faith, I'll use the entire chapter as an example of what you may have already forgotten (or soon will be learning).

Chapter 3 contains the longest intro of any chapter, which accounts for it being the most difficult to chain perfectly (Chapter 2 coming in a very close second). There are several pinpoint shots that must be timed accordingly with your position on screen in order to not get crunched by the oncoming enemies... but I think I'm getting ahead of myself. The real joy and pleasure of this game - at least for me - comes from three very distinct moments in realization and accomplishments.

First is becoming aware of polarities and consciously switching to anticipate a future action, whether it be for dodging debris, to absorb bullet fire, or to drain an enemy's health faster. Regardless of your reasons for fine-tuning this ability into the hard-wirings of your brain, there's a moment where you step outside of your body, take a look at yourself, and see how much you've grown adept at switching polarities without having to be told why. You're a shining star in the world - if only for that one moment. This one really only applies to the earlier chapters, as this skill naturally carries over into later levels. The other two are on a chapter-to-chapter basis.

The second moment in memorable Ikaruga milestones is in the feeling of taking down a boss. That doesn't just mean you took down a boss. That means you also successfully understood the majority of what was going on throughout the entire chapter, which is something that does not come on the first try. Even Chapter 1 has its hardships towards the end when two lanes of little guys fall from the middle while two large pods do a ballet about the screen's perimeter, with helpless little you trying to survive the crisscrossing of enemy bullet fire streams. Then there's of course, you know, all of Chapter 4...

The third and most important moment you can possibly have in Treasure's (♥) masterpiece is chaining a level from start to finish. This arrives in varying degrees, from knowing of the chains that should be tackled and how, to actually doing a full chain without losing a life. I don't know about some of you (okay, none of you, so keep in touch), but I never really understood chaining even after being shown the art by a friend. It wasn't until I watched a couple superplays that it at least made sense on paper. It's not until you go in and do it yourself that it'll really click and you'll begin to appreciate the work that was put into this game.

Many other shmups out there have a chaining system of some sort. While they, too, have a strict script of actors that appear on screen, strategically placed for the sake of a specific methodology for chaining, it's never more apparent and satisfying than in Ikaruga. Perhaps it's the simplicity of your firing that allows you to know for sure what it was you just blew up and what's left on screen. Maybe it's your ability to count to three in your head rather than space out your shots hoping that your meter doesn't run low (my fist remains clenched for DoDonPachi).

So let's get back to Chapter 3. Right off the bat, you're presented with a whole screen of dancing foes and these guys that run down the side and turn when at your position in y-coordination notation. Eventually I learned to do some backtracking on the screen in order to fake them out, but the superplay spoke of a different method. Watch the clip below and pay attention to how the double sets of three spinning enemies open up a hole just wide enough for a bullet to get through and destroy all three of the inside ones in a single shot. Also pay attention to how the side guys are tricked into coming for your ship as you lure them in prematurely. Pause at 0:17 and continue reading. We'll take a look at other sections soon enough.



And that's just how you start the intro. The whole screen was cleared, not an enemy was spared, and the chain is unbroken. Gorgeous. Keep in mind that this player is quite flashy with his movements and switches polarity for the sake of collecting a few extra pieces of enemy debris, making his final score a few thousand points higher than the rest of the handful of shmup gods out there who also go for the small details in life. Let's move on.

Below you'll see a section that comes up halfway in the chapter wherein the walls close in, making your area for movement quite tight. As if that isn't enough, gates start closing in on you at staggered positions, requiring you to watch your spacing even further. A series of enemies are found within these tight spaces, not really posing a threat as long as you're constantly firing. Upon the first few playthroughs, they're nothing more than an afterthought. Eventually, once you learn the method for chaining them, the whole sequence is seen in a new light. The formations of their arrival is no mistake, as you must fire a rapid shot at one column, then the other, for shooting straight-on will immediately break the chain. A few spherical stragglers break up the rhythm (our player here releases his homing shot as it yields more points in the long run. That and it's a lot safer than going past the destination hole to single-shot those guys). As for the second set of enemy columns, they may appear similar, but this time they need to be rapidly shot down the middle, as they're now approaching in even-odd formation. Take a look below and then pause at 2:30.



It goes by so quickly, doesn't it? That's probably a good reason why people have such a hard time getting into shmups, but I'll save that thought for another week. In the meantime, let's focus on the next segment. A miniboss appears behind you, rendering your past strategy of hugging the back wall useless (and putting all of your practice in dodgeball down the gutter. Well, at least I hugged the back wall). This forces you up a little bit and closer to a series of closing gates that each have a spherical friend (i.e. foe) waiting in place. Of course we all had enough to worry about, what with the closing gates and big metal thing chasing on our tails, so we just held down the fire button and didn't even worry about those bystanders. Little did we know that we needed to single-shot them all, in order, to achieve a full chain. The genius design of this section is that if you shoot rapidly, your line of fire will skip ahead to an enemy above the closest one, breaking the chain. This requires you to utilize the ability to change rhythms on the fly, weave through gates, stay above the miniboss (which really isn't that daunting. The fear factor is what makes him worth mentioning), and single-shot those suckers right before you have a head-on collision and have to tell Guinness to come back another day to see you hit that world record. Watch below. Then pause at 2:42.



As if that strict set of movements wasn't enough, you also need to remember to move out of the way because that thing that was chasing you before suddenly feels the need to scoot ahead and take control of the situation. Yes, memorization is key in this game, though there's a point at which you stop thinking about what's coming and your mind simply knows. It's hard to explain, but your fingers eventually do all of the thinking, allowing your brain to focus on other things happening on screen. Seriously, I can't be the only one who has a spectator ask, "How did you know to dodge that?" and my only response is, "I'm not too sure... I just knew."

Continuing along, once the miniboss is kaput, a series of seemingly randomly-spawned enemies appear on the screen. And when you shoot one, it only multiplies into two, until the entire screen is filled with a chaotic nonsense of bouncing sphere guys. Well, at least it was random to us at first. There's a very definitive pattern here, and our player below exploits it for all it's worth. He doesn't finish killing them off as this section is just a filler until the boss (or rather, a bonus section as a reward for killing the miniboss earlier than expected. Afterall, the entire game is synced to the soundtrack). Go ahead and watch to the end. We'll discuss the boss battle in a hot second.



Yes, so... a phenomenal performance on the final boss of Chapter 3. Our player's strategy was to weaken the outer units each to the brink of blowing up, then summoning a homing laser that destroys the bulk of them simultaneously. The remainder of them is finished off amongst some mighty angry laser action coming from the core, which is strikingly similar to one of the bosses in Chapter 3 of Treasure's previous shmup, Radiant Silvergun. And speaking of bringing back battles, that miniboss hearkens of another battle from Silvergun wherein you were chasing / being chased by a miniboss. That same battle seemed to evolve yet again in Sin & Punishment. One can only hope these foes make their spiritual reappearance in Project RS3 (or Sin & Punishment 2).

As you've seen (and hopefully experienced), there are quite a few layers of play packed into Ikaruga's deceptively simple design. Strategies change quite a bit once you play on the different difficulties, though the harder it gets, the more you have to achieve. It's design like this that really keeps me entertained, excited, and glad to be a part of the shmup community. Indie developers are constantly finding fresh ways to keep an old genre alive, while a few larger-scale companies out there are still dedicated to providing high-quality adventures in the skies (and seas!) that we've come to love.

And for those of you wondering why I never mentioned the fourth Ikaruga milestone - achieving a one credit full-game completion - I'm still working on that one. I've only been able to get halfway through Chapter 5 on one credit, so some of you may agree that I have a long road ahead :]

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Have All The Shmups Gone!?

Nothing saddens me more than to continually ask myself rhetorical questions, only to answer them with further questions that answer far less than I'd have hoped. In this case, I'm talking about the age-old question (more like the 15-20 year question), "Where have all the shmups gone!?" Yes, there are many answers I've heard / yelled to myself in the mirror at night, most of which I'll address below. Keep in mind that I'll be looking up no numbers, citing no facts from reference. This is all a fact of opinion, rather than an opinion of fact.

"What are you talking about? Shmups are released all the time. There hasn't been a year yet where no shmups are released. There's even more planned for the future!"
While this statement is completely true, it doesn't take into account the successful nature of said games. There's been a rather steady decline of shmup sales ever since the dawn of videogames. This in itself raises more questions, but I'll try to be brief.
It all started with SpaceWar! in the 60s, an arena shmup (in its most primitive of forms. Still fun to play today as I hear). The next videogame anyone even feels like talking about is Space Invaders, released in 1978. This is easily the game that jump-started arcades in the US and Japan. It became so popular over there that establishments called "invader houses" started popping up all over, specializing in only shmups. Oh, and it also caused a shortage of Japanese yen in the country. Awesome.
As we go through the 80s, we'll find countless innovations and explorations in gameplay that either started in or were done right in shmups: the highscore and life stock in Space Invaders, the bomb in Defender, co-op gameplay in Salamander, everything in Gradius...
There are dozens and dozens of shmups from the 80s that I hold high above almost all other games from the decade, both in arcades and in the home. Yes, it's a rather bold claim, but in good reason. Now, the interesting part is when you look at my personal list for the 1990s. I think there are four shmups I absolutely adore. Possibly three. The rest are first-party titles from Nintendo and a couple gems on Playstation. I really don't want to get into the list for the 2000s. There may be one shmup there, but I'm still deciding.
So, if I have any merit in your minds as someone who loves shmups with an undying passion, it should come as some shock to hear how quickly my list of loves diminishes over the decades. Yes, I've played and enjoyed lots of shmups made in the late 90s up until today, including the ingenius indie releases, but I don't think they even combine to equal the level of respect I have for titles like Galaga, R-Type, Gradius, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga. Yes, EspGaluda is fantastic. Yes, Guwange was a thrill. Yes, Galaga Legions is fun. Yes, Touhou games bring me joy. And yes, Thunder Force III is as exhilarating as it gets with 7 layers of parallax scrolling. But none of them capture that aorta of my heart that still beats wildly for the compassion that was both put into and that I get out of the classics.

"They've probably gone to hide in whatever arcades that are still open."
This is probably more of a commentary on arcades in the USA, as they are still quite alive and thriving in Japan (and possibly France, as I hear arcades are still bustling a bit over there). Most of the arcades I've been to recently do have at least one shmup cabinet set up (and 11 times out of 10, it's the Ms. Pac-Man / Galaga 20th Anniversary cabinet, oftentimes with an uncalibrated joystick). And I doubt that the same ratio of shmups in arcades can be found in the ratio of shmups in the home. Perhaps this is because shmups both gave birth to the videogame and also assisted in bringing it back out of the crash from the 80s (referring pretty exclusively to Gradius here).

"Those were just tests for new technologies in the 80s. We've all moved on to more sophisticated games."
This may be in regards to the graphics, the controls, the difficulty, or even the general idea of shmups. As far as graphics go, I can't say that they faithfully reenact a historical event from 1940s-era Normandy, but I can say they do more than enough to slow down even the most powerful home PCs (here's hoping it's more than a matter of inefficient coding on the developers' part).
For controls, I guess that can get tossed out, as shmups still retain some of the most simplistic controls out of any game. I can't think of any shmup that uses every button on current-gen controllers. Pacifism mode in Geometry Wars 2 requires the user to simply manipulate the left analog stick. Excluding the Katamari series, I'd say this genre takes the cake. Perhaps the statement claims that players want to have to press as many buttons as possible. I hope not.
For difficulty, I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that the Devil May Cry series and the Ninja Gaiden series aren't quite as difficult to complete as it is difficult to clear certain shmups on one credit. Yes, they're all hard, but you don't exactly get to keep retrying the same boss battle over and over in shmups, nor are your movements and actions allowed to be as freeform. Sometimes a militant eye and precision movement is the only way to defeat certain waves of enemies / bosses, as well as a healthy dose of 100s of hours of practice at a time.
As for the generality of the shmup against other successful genres, there's probably a reason why World of Warcraft has over 10 million active subscribers and why I can't even think of ten friends of mine that would enjoy playing / watching / hearing about a shmup. It all has to do with the ease of getting into it. World of Warcraft is a glorified chatroom, the pinnacle and epitome of the ideal virtual place to meet and do stuff. It's all a matter of clicks that aren't always necessarily dependent upon pinpoint precision (save for a few 144-man level-7000 teams that try to take down an invincible dragon).
Microsoft did a wonderful job marketing Geometry Wars into the success story it is today, and shmups appear to be some of the most successful casual games across multiple Flash portals on the Internet. Regardless, though, I don't see any of them becoming #1 on any future lists, including the sales report during the week that Project RS3 is released (as much as this opinion saddens me even further).

"They're still pretty hot in Japan. Go check there."
According to Brian Ashcraft in his book Arcade Mania!, that seems pretty accurate. There are arcades over there that specialize in exclusively housing shmups, and across multiple floors at that. The fanbase in the states is a quiet, underground collective of dreamy lovers stuck in a world that has long left us. We peruse the same forums, talk about our newest highscores, brag about recently-acquired PCBs of the latest Japanese releases, and complain everytime that a new shmup is released on Japanese Xbox360s with region-lock protection (which is just about every week).
In our little world, shmups are still very hot. We all dream of living in a place like Japan (or possibly Japan itself), where arcades are found every couple of blocks, and many of them tout the coveted, noble, and ever-popular shmup of the day. Instead of discussing the weather and the latest professional sports player in court, we instead discuss the politics of Cave's latest release, the joy of dog-hunting in Radiant Silvergun, or the ethics of shooting your own base in Space Invaders. Those of us who've travelled to or lived in such lands share our stories in front of digital campfires / forum threads, giving as many details as possible without saturating the experience.

"What's a shmup?"
A "shmup" is something you played when you were younger, but have forgotten about by this point. You had no greater pleasure each day than to play the latest one and learn all of the tricks to get you further. Your friends enjoyed watching you lose and would quietly admire your skills everytime you took down the level 3 boss without using any bombs. One guy in the back never understood why you didn't just pop in a few more quarters and beat the game, knowing you were so close to the end. To his confused countenance, you reply, "Then I wouldn't be beating the game."
The truth here is that the genre is only getting more difficult to appease the pros who have been long-time, money-dishing patrons. They are the reason the genre still exists at all today. However, this just further alienates those who are vaguely interested, but aren't committed to such dedication just to beat a 20 minute game. That's the real double-edged sword here, one that hasn't really been sharpened correctly yet.

"I don't know."
This is probably the most appropriate answer any of us can give. While we can all point fingers (not all at Madden, but a good amount), it's best to just realize that as of this writing, the glory days of the shmup have come and gone. I think it's just about impossible to bring them back to the status they once had (that being 50-100% of the "market" in the 60s), but they certainly aren't dead. That leaves me to simply look forward to the future of them. And not just shmups, but videogames in general. They're kind of hitting that point where the box needs to be broken and we need to move on to the next great movement in gameplay, interactivity, visuals, sound, feedback, connectivity, etc. I doubt the PS9 is right around the corner, but there's got to be something in between.

"Into our hearts, and there's no escaping."
Aw, isn't that sweet? ♥

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Boss Rush Mode: Boss Yes, Not So Much Rush

I'm pretty sure that every time I hear that a game has a boss rush mode, I become much more excited than I should be. Granted, learning that any additional mode is included with a game should raise the excitement bar if even by a small amount, but a boss rush is nothing really to be praised. For those of you who find no greater pleasure than to embrace the boss rush in shmups, I'd love to hear what it is that makes it better than any other mode (well, at least arcade and score attack). But first read through my rambles for some good dirt to fling back.

The basic idea of a boss rush is that you face all of the bosses in a game, in order, from start to finish, with limited to no breaks for refilling health, upgrades, lives, sanity, etc. At a glance, it's a true test of one's ability to face against the roughest sections of each level - the boss itself.

The term itself is either an oxymoron or a redundancy. A boss rush should be just that - a rush. What constitutes something as a rush? That would be the contrast of a calmer state of being elsewhere in a level / game, in this case that would be each level's travels leading up to each boss. Take all of that build-up away and you're left with just intense action with hardly any contrast (not exactly a complaint... yet). An analogy I always enjoyed is that there can't be a superhero in this world without a super villain to validate the other's existence. Contrast. Now, looking at the term from the other side, the boss is the rush. It's like asking someone to pass the red ketchup (please disregard and burn all memories you have of the purple and green ketchup from the 90s, for the sake of both keeping my point valid and letting you sleep at night).

Yes, there are a bunch of other games out there that have boss rush equivalents. I'm pretty sure every standard issue MegaMan has a mandatory reunion of -Mans during the final level (and -Womans, for those of you enjoying MegaMan 9). Klonoa has one, Rez has one, Metal Gear Solid too, and even Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Let's take Rez for example. How I love Rez. I heard there was a boss rush mode, I went and unlocked it, I played it with much glee (initially), and then I beat it. Something was missing. Oh, that's right - the rest of the game that was designed to build up to the bosses. I guess it's a cheap shot to use Rez as an example, as we all know by now that the entire game was designed to be played in one continuous session to allow Mizuguchi-san's personal message of l♥ve to flow through the bloodstream and cause a euphoric understanding of the inner workings of the universe, the predicting of the future, and knowledge of how to get him to actually make a sequel. My point is that the bosses, at least in shmups, were designed to push you that extra mile at the end of each level, when your supplies are diminished and you have little left to live for. Taking away that whole energy-draining build-up not only lets you perform much more triumphantly (at first), but it gives you less of a reason to be excited that you finally made it to the next boss.

One of my few counterpoints to the boss rush is in WARNING FOREVER. Those of you familiar know all too well why this stands as a combatant to the despised boss rush; it's because the game was designed from the ground-up to be just that - a rush of bosses. The idea is both executed and enjoyed flawlessly here, as the intent of each boss is to serve as a level that you work through. Blow off a wing here, dodge a vulcan blast there, and ultimately shoot the core for a fantastic explosion (abbridged version for post-level-5 scenarios).

And so, the next time you decide not to play the entire game, but only eat the candy at the end of each trail, I invite you to also go watch Luke blow up the Death Star, Lando blow up the other Death Star, and Vader toss the Emperor to his infinite doom all in a matter of minutes. Again, it's fun at first, but you'll begin to understand why you appreciated them in the first place when you rewatch Greedo shooting first or C-3PO piggybacking Chewy or Ackbar yelling something about tarps.

And here's video of a shmup with a boss rush. Raiden Fighters Jet, but who cares? I'd rather see the full game. Better yet, I should go play the full game. And I will :]


[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dual Play: When Playing With Yourself is a Gameplay Mode

Shmups have, at times, been credited as one of the most challenging genres of games as a whole, if not the most challenging altogether. The simplicity of controls and visuals allows for a heightened level of challenge on the player's part, requiring all of those awesome coordination skills of mind, body, and willpower. So it comes as a kind of surprise that a certain gameplay mode has been implemented into the community, both implicitly and explicitly, that at least doubles the difficulty of the genre's challenge, that mode being what is known as "dual play."

This is not to be confused with "double play," in which two chaps sit next to each other and discuss why their strategy for only being responsible for half the screen isn't working. "Dual play" is a style of playing wherein a lone player (being either exceedingly brave or blissfully ignorant) will take the reins of both of the ships / warriors / boats / schoolgirls / pig women that would have otherwise been piloted by two mortal humans. The mere sight of this spectacle is always a treat for everyone, including the player himself, the spectators who admire such bravery, and the corporate owners of things that accept quarters / tokens / yen.

It would appear hard enough to handle 8-directional movement, a fire button, a bombing button, and a couple thousand bullets careening towards you, but here we have 16 directions of movement, two fire buttons, and two bombing buttons. And a couple thousand bullets careening towards you. This requires many more fingers than one is used to, as the pinkies become the most reliable assets in arcade setups. I can't even imagine what added stresses the brain goes through. It's already doing its thing at maximum capacity for single play, as the right half controls movement and the left half controls firing (and wiping the sweat of victory from the brow). It's not like selecting "dual play" grants your brain an increase in activity (or even possibly 2 more halves for computations). You're stuck with the same two hemispheres of thought you had before, only this time they both control everything. At least to me, this sounds like quite a conflict of nerves upstairs.

It's not too bad for games on Playstation hardware, as the controller allows for the advantage of symmetry to guide control. The thumbsticks control the ships, the front shoulder buttons control firing, while the back shoulders control bombs. I suppose the same is possible with the Wii's classic controller (more notably the improved one that doesn't let your thumbs bump into each other), and the Xbox360 controller can certainly accommodate similar stylings, though breaking away from symmetry with the sticks. The real crowd-pleaser is in the arcades, where both sets of controls are in the same configuration, but your hands are not. With stick on the left and buttons on the right, this means an entirely different story depending on which hand we're talking about. The left hand's pinky and ring finger take control of the ship, while the index and thumb take responsibility of firing and bombing. The reverse happens for the right hand, which I assume has an easier time as the stick requires much more dexterity than pushing buttons.

None of this dual play hand placement interested me until I saw a particular set of videos on YouTube showcasing a phenomenal player (VTF-INO) tackling dual play in Ikaruga. The intriguing part was the inclusion of video of his hands synced to gameplay (and quite appropriately filling in those black gaps on the sides of the vertical display of the game). Oh, and even better - there's that extra button in the game that lets you switch polarity on the fly, furthering the separation of tasks within the ranks of the fingers.

What I'm most curious about is why this gameplay method hasn't been addressed directly. Sure, it's in the two latest installments of Raiden, but it doesn't feel like the game's been designed for this gameplay (which I'm pretty sure it hasn't). It's more of a tacked-on mode that's been added to appease the dual players from arcades who want a similar experience at home. Co-op features are just about as bland as dual play, but at least there was some effort made. In gunRoar, your two boats can connect a tether and fire bullets from the midpoint, requiring much coordination of formations. I believe that's also a feature in Battle Garrega, so the idea's been around for quite a while. And shooting behind each other in many games will create hybrid firepower, making for some fun combinations. However, I still don't feel it's been developed and built upon. At all. How sweet would it be if there were a co-op mode that actually required both players to work along with and depend upon each other? I'm thinking along the lines of the experiences found in Gears of War, Little Big Planet, and Four Swords Adventures. You work together to help each other out; not for the sake of just dishing out twice as much firepower (of which is oftentimes halved in strength, but don't worry about that), but for the sake of helping a player out who will soon be helping you out, only to have the two of you working together to fight a greater evil, the two of you with designated tasks that are required for a successful mission.

As much as I'd like that to happen in double play, I'm not as much asking for the same thing with dual play. It may provide you with guidance for where to place each ship at any given time, but that's just one more thing to worry about (or two, if you're still keeping track of all the elements at hand), let alone being in control of so much maneuvering, dodging, firing, bombing, dying, cursing, etc.

And now, an amazing man with amazing hands.

If you understand everything that's going on in the video, both visually and under the hood, then you must be the player himself. Otherwise, it's probably best to go my route and just smile, nod, and appreciate a spectacular performance.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Project RS3: I'm No Fanboy, I Just Appreciate Art


Project RS3 is the codename for quite possibly one of the greatest shmups ever created. It hasn't exactly been released yet, and the last I heard of it, production on the title has come to an indefinite halt. So why am I prematurely crowning the game for all of its achievements in areas of technicality, artistry, and gameplay? Probably because the other two original shmups they produced have also been deemed "quite possibly one of the greatest shmups ever created." I'm just following the pattern.

This all really amounts to what the company, Treasure (), did to the genre with each release. Simplicity is the ultimate theme here, as Radiant Silvergun abandoned the collectible powerups in favor of an RPG-like auto-upgrade system (use it more and it becomes more powerful over time), while Ikaruga tossed out the idea of powerups altogether (unless of course you consider your own personal, evolving skills as a powerup). True, Silvergun immediately gives you access to all seven (yes, 7) weapons from the get-go, but they're really just variants of three main ones (and there aren't any bombs, so I think it balances out nicely). Ikaruga went ahead and only gave you one kind of primary fire and a homing shot that you had to earn in order to use. There's a very fine line between gimmick and innovative mechanic, Treasure's games taking the latter due to their ideal application of usage. Though I do find myself enjoying the magnanimous sprays that other games can grant, there's something special about this table-turning back to the days of simplicity.

The layout of the levels - all of them - are beautiful pieces of work I sometimes regret blowing up as soon as possible, but then again, the act of blowing up those beautiful patterns of enemies and scenery was designed to be just as beautiful. And though these types of games generally need limited instruction and backstory, they provide it. This quickly adds a sense of reason, of why you're flying around shooting the things you shoot. It all starts to make sense why your final battle involves shooting (i.e. dodging) a crystal made of pure evil (something R-Type didn't quite nail the first time around). The story helps drive the action. I have no problem calling these two games a work of art. And in setting off that alarm, a new paragraph about art must ensue.

When I say art, I mean art. It's merely something that I find to be appealing. That's really it. We as humans have been discussing what "art" really is for, what, thousands of years? And no one really has a definite answer. I then question why "games as art" is such a heated topic, when "oil paintings as art" is just as unresolved. Oil paintings are just pigments on canvas. They aren't art unless someone thinks they are, at which point they are "art" to that person. This makes the subject a matter of opinion, which is more than likely my attempt to avoid participating in a since-time-began-long discussion about what makes art art. If Duchamp wants to make art, it's art. If I see a pattern of light coming through trees, it's art. Yet no human crafted that view. Who cares? If I find it appealing above other patches of light through trees, it's art. I could even find art in every patch of light ever. It's an art. And nothing more. So, back to Treasure. Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga are works of art.

Of course I've just branded a FANBOY label across my forehead, but that's really what Treasure does; they make people love their games (if only the general public would give them a chance). This post was originally going to be a review from the future for Project RS3. My feelings towards this non-existent game are so strong, I can almost sense the very things that solidify the game as another "greatest shmup ever." The story will enrich gameplay. The visuals will be simple, yet powerful. The music will be compelling. The controls will be spot-on. The driving mechanic, that "not a gimmick" element that they add will be ingenious, never-before-seen, and yet feel familiar. Gameplay will be easy to pick up, hard to master, and have quirks of design that don't start to create a symphony of gameplay until you really get into the depth of it all. It'll be out-of-print rather quickly, only cherished by those few in the world who really appreciate the art of Treasure's work. Did I just review RS3, or was that also congruent with Silvergun and Ikaruga?(Replayability Tip: read again) More importantly, if a boy creates a cardboard colossus in his living room and strikes its weak points with a poster tube, he is recreating the art that is Shadow of the Colossus. If I go and write a from-the-future general review of Project RS3, am I an impatient fanboy who thinks he knows what he's talking about, or am I an appreciator of art just the same as that boy who calls his dog "Agro?"

Knowing Treasure, I'm happy to announce that I can't predict what they will do with this game. Being unpredictable is their staple. They've consistently been pushing innovation against limitations (and accepted limitations) since the days of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, as I aim to please the international readers out there). They themselves probably aren't too sure what it is that will be RS3 - not until countless variations and experiments are carried out to see what works, what doesn't, and what will ultimately be something we've all been waiting for.

It's all very exciting, but in accordance with the mystery of the company (and all three of its interviews with the public in the last 10 years), the timelessness of patience is the real winner here. I believe the team for RS3 is currently finishing up Sin & Punishment 2 for Wii (the only reason for dusting off my white underdog in 2009), so at least we'll have something in which to indulge, other than lamenting the beast that is Longai-O.

For those out of the know, Project RS2 was later to be known as Ikaruga, though it shares no direct sequel status with RS1. The same goes for RS3, which will undoubtedly don a new title and feature something drastically different than what its predecessors offered. However, it was stated that the game would continue in the tradition of being top-down, vertically-scrolling, with 3D backgrounds, etc. Those are pretty much the backbones, while the rest of the game is a delightful mystery. Although I feel it's safe to say that this guy will make another triumphant return. That and the epitome of all crystalized evil there is in the world.

I have no footage to show, no screenshots, no mockups, no anything. All I can add to this post is a deep breath of fresh air (reader participation dependent), exhaled with a slight twinkle of thought that surrounds the fact that one of these days, the world will be graced by the beauty of Project RS3 (I sometimes wonder if Treasure developers read these kinds of things and take into account how much their pocket-sized community of fans adores their work).

Oh, and Gradius V is art, too.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sinistar: Things I just can't do.

Just before the end of the first videogame boom, right before everyone thought that "fad" of going to arcades and hooking up interactive video machines to your TVs was just about dead, along came Sinistar, a game designed to instill fear in the minds of children, young adults, and grown-ups alike (or designed to allow you to destroy the greatest entity of evil so-far discovered in the universe; whichever). The game has certainly been ringing in my ears ever since. And I hadn't even been born at the time.

Now, when speaking of "things I just can't do," I'm referring to two very important senses of the human body: sound and touch (thank goodness technology prohibited the scent of Sinistar's eager appetite for U.S. quarters). Let's get touch out of the way, as we all know what sound(s) play an important role in the world of entertainment (even more so than that Wilhelm scream found in every Star Wars movie / videogame / television show / comicbook / cardgame).

Sinistar was the first game to use the 49-way joystick. Holy cow. Fourty-nine ways. I tried really hard to think of any more directions than the standard 8-way joystick already provided that could benefit the player's maneuvering through a starfield. A little Googling and it turns out it's just a 7x7 grid that's more accurate in reading the standard 8 directions. Still nifty. Anyway, the only upright cabinet experience I have available at the moment is in one of those 5billion-in-one machines that seem to think splotching together marquee art from every game into one hectic collage of action is a great marketing strategy to get people to come over and play. Regardless, it uses one kind of joystick to allow control for a wide array of different games. I think it's only a four-way stick, as I can't seem to move diagonally in any game that should allow it (thank you, Galaga, for restricting me to one dimension of movement). For those keeping track, that's 45 ways of direction I'm being deprived of when playing Sinistar. Needless to say, for a game designed around precision movement, being able to move in only four directions makes for some challenging play. I doubt it's just me that's causing almost every sinibomb to collide with a planetoid instead of that glass-jawed mechanical life vaccuum.

And now onto sound.

There's really only one other scream in my life I can't get out of my head that makes me just feel bad on the inside whenever I hear it, that being the howl of becoming a wolf in Altered Beast. It might have been the sudden drop of music for the audio clip, or how the transition animation was just a flickering bird-in-cage setup to make me think the human and wolf were one-in-the-same. Regardless, the event was a positive one, as it meant the player had maxed out his or her powerups and was ready to go beat the life out of Fester Addams.

So, there may be seven very notable quotables to come out of Sinistar's planetoid hole, but the one I speak of is the yell he emits upon eating your ship. It's offensive; it's evil; it's blood-curdling; it's perfect. It makes me want to blow his face up (I love how grammatically incorrect that sounds, yet veterans may have trouble putting it any more accurately). His death call is even in stereo, another feature first seen in Sinistar. There's some dandy fansites out there, as well as an ingenius article titled "The Philosophical Revelations of Sinistar," referring to the character itself, though I must give credit to Noah Falstein for the work he did overseeing the game's completion.

And speaking of Noah Falstein, this here videoclip from ages past refers to an easter-egg hidden in the game. Deep in the game. So deep, in fact, that it isn't really documented anywhere that I can find. Well, anywhere except for an informal interview with Noah from sometime in the (I presume) 90s where he says, "There's an easter egg hidden in the attract mode, triggered by an odd combination of button presses that we've all forgotten, but soon I may have the chance to rediscover it..." I'm sure he's been bugged about this time and time again, but I feel the need to ask once more (because I have a good feeling he's reading this right now) - What is the easter-egg hidden within Sinistar?

There's a good chance this one will never be surfaced, much like the quest to find out what the common thread was between all of those Half-Life 2 teaser videos from 2003-04. It wasn't "the presence of broken toilets," and Gabe Newell's certainly not spilling the beans, so if anyone finds out, please do me a favor and fill me in.

Instead of just showing gameplay to the video, I'll link to a bunch of things - all surrounding Sinistar culture (yes, it's out there).
- Some gameplay (love those explosion sounds)
- The Seven Phrases of Sinistar
- Drum n Bass mix
- and another mix
- Sheena Easton music video where her boyfriend plays Sinistar?

And Noah, if you're reading this:
On the contrary; It was you who made my day.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Battle Garegga: More pink flamingos, please

I don't know about you, but when I play shmups, I hold the fire button down until I either get a Game Over or beat the game. I capitalized "Game Over" because it is most definitely a proper noun. It's the last thing you see upon every play, and all-too likely, the most visible memory you have when thinking back to certain experiences (I shake my fist at thee, Andross). In the case of Ikaruga, the way the game is frozen while you enter your initials (or "AAA" in a fit of rage from missing that 4 mil mark on Chapter 1) and then reanimates back into motion with a mechanical buzzing sound of defeat is all it takes to make me want to come back and prove the game wrong. At least in Ikaruga, I know it's possible to come back and do better and get a little farther. At least the game is beatable when I do my best. I wish I could say the same for Battle Garegga.

Developed by Raizing, the game is one of those pivotal entries in the genre that helped define all of that manic craziness that we know and love. It apparently was a heavy inspiration for DoDonPachi's golden joyride, so why not love it, too? Probably because it hates you. I speak of course of the rank system in the game, an invisible collection of algorithms designed to slowly deteriorate you from the inside-out. Sure, rank systems are in all kinds of games, not just shmups. GTA IV has a dynamic system that changes the difficulty of missions based on how many tries it takes you to complete them. Left 4 Dead heavily uses a ranking system that fluctuates difficulty in real-time based on how well your party knows how to avoid being vomitted on. So why point out Battle Garegga's rank? Because if you just hold down the fire button, dodge every bullet, and collect every power-up, the game will become literally impossible to beat. It simply cannot be done. And it's all thanks to the omni-present rank which oversees your every move.

Unfortunately, the dedicated community over at the shmups.com forums have collected a compendium of knowledge around this one aspect of the game. Unfortunate, in how I now know just what goes into deciding the rank (quick summary: everything). Let's start with collectibles. If you touch a power-up, rank goes up. That goes for weapons upgrades, options (helper pods at your side), bombs, medals, and auto-fire upgrades (big no-no on touching those). If you shoot a bullet, rank goes up. If you use special bullets, rank goes up. Using a bomb, gaining a life, beating a boss, simply existing; it doesn't matter. Rank goes up (Yes, simply existing without dying makes rank go up). The list goes on. Rank is even so evil that it will sneak its way into your next play session, requiring a reset of the ROM or PCB or whatever you may be using to play it in order to get it back to default. The only true way, in fact, that lowers your rank is to die (what a wonderful lesson this game teaches us about life and its hardships). The less lives you have when you die, the further the rank is reduced (excluding having 1 life left, at which point dying will inevitably give the game another chunk of your soul).

This may be bleak news, to find that anything you do in the game in order to survive and get ahead only pushes you further back. If I recall correctly, the final boss to Final Fantasy VII had a similar fate if you maxed out your characters' stats, rendering the battle impossible to win (making it even more ironic that the very final battle with Sephiroth is impossible to lose). I suppose on the bright side with Garegga, you don't have to invest dozens of hours into one game with no backup saves only to find that you can't beat it; that realization takes only a few minutes. The best way to play (i.e. complete) the game is to take your time collecting power-ups, avoiding certain power-ups altogether, only shooting when necessary, etc. Players going for score use this same recipe, though they incessantly dangle their fragile progress in front of the rank system, pushing it as far as it can go without causing an implosion of the game and its local universe.

Fortunately, as with almost all games in existence, there are a few tricks to getting an upper hand. There's a few sneaky ways to exploit massive point gain with some later bosses. My personal favorite is by hassling a flock of pink flamingos that found refuge in a castle, shrouded by a small forest, in the first half of level 2. Your fire disrupts their peace, forcing them to migrate north, at which point spraying them with more bullets / fire can cause your score to become an overnight millionaire. None of them seem to be harmed, so it's okay that I mention finding extreme joy in sending a flamethrowing special move into their haven.

I originally thought this game would be an ideal place to go for a good ole 1CC. Further reading made me not back off, but rather take my time with pacing if I ever wanted a shot at seeing some sort of credits roll. That rank system is just about as in-your-face as Sinistar's ego-centric taunts. At least Sinistar eventually shows his ugly grin.

Because showing a skillful run of this game is a slow and flavor-filled art, even under my respectful gaze, I'll just show you those awesome flamingos instead. They may be hard to see, but they're all flapping away from 0:28 to 0:38.


And finally, I wish the best of luck to Zakk from Hey Poor Player! in his endeavors to get a 1CC in Battle Garegga.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Squares 2: Is [not] a shmup.

It really shouldn't be a matter of opinion whether a game is a shmup or not. It either falls into the defined characteristics, or it doesn't. However, just like the many anomalies of the English language, so too do the rules of defining shmups (or any video game genre for that matter) delve into the realm of uncertainty.

First off, a "shoot 'em up" is more of what you do in the game, not what type of game it is. The same goes for "first-person shooter," which is simply a point of view and what you do. Calling Resident Evil a "survival horror game" is halfway there, though the survival part is just a tacked-on noun (and honestly, there are hundreds of other games that require you to survive, but don't mention it in the genre). I'm not even a fan of calling games "role-playing games," as I naturally enjoy playing the role of whatever character I'm playing, even Dr. Mario. I understand these genres put extra emphasis and dedicated TLC into their respective areas, but those same characteristics can be found in many other games. In these examples, it becomes clear that we can't simply use the literal meaning of a genre without getting into fisticuffs with ourselves.

That's why I find it interesting that there are games credited as - without a doubt - shmups, yet I can't help but disagree. And then there's shmups that shouldn't be deemed so, but have me welcoming them into the genre with open arms. Take for example Rez, which most definitely has you shooting things up. In fact, it's the only action you can do in the game other than moving across an X-Y plane. Yet I can't bring myself to call it a shmup. Something doesn't feel right about letting it into the genre, knowing all of the other fantastic characteristics that require mentioning. Calling it a shmup removes all of that effort made to hook up the soundtrack to your heartbeat; it makes us not wonder why there's so many different visual styles in which to play the game in one continuous sitting; it makes us not question the purpose of the hard-earned Trance Mission mode. To put Rez in a genre already occupied by so many dissimilar games would be inappropriate. I wouldn't dare place it somewhere it doesn't belong and I won't even mention the "s" word (but I'll gladly link to it). Also of note is how Space Harrier is near-identical in what you do, but I have no problem calling it a shmup.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Geometry Wars 2. How can this game not be a shmup? You play the role of an abstract ship that flies around, can shoot out what look like bullets, can detonate bombs that clear the screen, and have various enemies to shoot until you run out of lives. That passes my test. Now let's take a look at one of the six gameplay modes, Pacifism, in which you have no bombs, cannot shoot, and must simply dodge the never-ending swarm of quadrilateral foes while collecting multipliers for a high score. This cannot be a shmup, for you physically can't shoot anything, and yet it still feels like a shmup. Granted, it helps that you can shoot things up in the other five modes, but this example brings me finally to a look at Squares 2, by Gavin Shapiro, in which you play the role of an abstract shape that cannot shoot, has no bombs, and must simply dodge the never-ending swarm of quadrilateral foes while collecting black squares (and sometimes circles) for a high score. Sound familiar?

There have been games like this before, including the popular GBA homebrew game bulletgba, which is credited by the author as a "Bullet-Hell Simulator." However, those are bullet patterns right out of famous shmups, so it's too easy to associate the two. I'm focusing on Squares 2 because of how distant it is from the genre, yet it feels right at home. The game itself is not just my favorite addicting Flash game on the Internet (a simple search for "squares" in Google yields the game as the first result, showing a global popularity).

I find shmup charm in Squares 2 in how you have very limited time to react to on-the-fly patterns of things to dodge, all the while trying to collect as many black squares and circles as possible (thus giving you a reason to move and a motivation to survive, other than that shiny high score). And who cares if you have mouse-precision control over the shmup-traditional arrow keys / d-pad / joystick? Who cares if there's no end to the game? It's an endurance test (unless of course you're a cheater). The design of the game also helps out in its success: eye-catching red objects must be dodged, circular powerups / powerdowns stick out like sore thumbs, an annoying and undesirable buzzer sounds upon your failure, and the addictive audio crack that is Daft Punk plays on loop forever as you struggle to outdo yourself.

It's a beautiful formula that works to improve both your reaction time and how quickly you can interpret rapidly-changing patterns for the purpose of survival (a skill most definitely transferable to a traditional shmup and even reality). Keep in mind that the game is not perfect. The two biggest factors that take away from its appeal are how red squares sometimes spawn under black ones (quick fix: always have red squares at a higher depth than black ones) and how there are red circle powerdowns at all. If I had the choice to either touch a red square (knowing it ends the game immediately) or touch a red circle (knowing I'll continue with the game but suffer a minor penalty), I'll always choose the red circle. Why, then, are the red circles treated as these special-case "watch out for us!" entities, when it's the everyday red squares that are the real threats? I suppose only Gavin himself can fill us in.

The point I'm trying to make is that putting a game into one genre can be tricky and oftentimes unjust (a point also made by Mike Lopez from Gamasutra in relation to the racing genre). I like my shmups top-down, vertically scrolling, with lots of explosions, and a memorable experience that makes me wish I had more time in my life to perfect a playthrough... but that's just me.

Normally, I'd link to a video of the game at hand for those unaware of how it looks in motion. This time around, it's much more appropriate to just post a link to the game and have you play it yourself.

Speakers up, mouse area clear, and eyes alert: Here's Squares 2.

[cross-posted to Gamasutra]
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