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]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Raiden III: That poor, hapless driver

Having much more to do with the morals and decisions of warfare than those of shmup mechanics and the did-you-ever-notice spiels I usually blurt out (although this entire post is about something I'm wondering if you've ever noticed), I'm interested in just what was going through the heads of the developers at Moss when they decided to allow you to kill an innocent bystander (actually a driver, but keep reading) in Raiden III for a rather uneven compensation.

The whole scenario unfolds within only a minute of starting your first mission. You begin soaring over what looks like a desolate and war-torn city, already in the midst of destruction and chaos. The only movement on the ground comes from tanks that are quite aggressively firing at you. All of a sudden, atop one of the highways, a red compact car blindly roars by from left field, entering the crossfire. Naturally, you'd just want to blow up everything in front of you, but on this specific occasion, you're blowing up much more than an enemy; this driver was trying to save his own life.

You may be wondering why I even care about that car. For all I know, it could have been driven by one of the generals of the opposing force, or even be a pilot running late to the hanger bays that morning. However, since it fires no bullets at you and simply wants to use the highway as it was originally designed, I can't help but feel guilty whenever I destroy it. The payoff is certainly not worth it, a measly 1000 points in exchange for his death. I eventually played through with the intent not to blow him up, and guess what? The car swerves out of the way of an oncoming tank before exiting the screen. He clearly was in a rushed, panicked confusion during this battle. And you just went and blew him up.

This begins to make me wonder why I don't care about blowing up other by-standing things. In DoDonPachi, entire warehouses of who-knows-what are destroyed, simply for the pleasures of watching explosions and collecting stars (and possibly uncovering a fragile skeletal bee). In Guwange, the player sometimes blows up entire wooden watchtowers in 14th Century Japanese villages (while at a casual strolling pace, mind you). However, in none of these situations do the presumably destroyed individuals bare a soul, a will to live, or even a rather dashing vehicle.

I couldn't help but compare this fascination with the destruction of life to the 1996 movie Independence Day. Though destruction of innocent life goes on throughout the whole film, I feel quite differently when those immature alien-inviting New Yorkers are decimated as compared to how compassionate I am for the survival of Jasmine's dog Boomer when escaping a flame-engulfed tunnel (yes, I know - I'm just as shocked as you are that someone actually uploaded a screenshot of the very moment to which I'm referring). The point here is, we as an audience were swayed into having little-to-no emotion for the New Yorkers (though still just as innocent as those who weren't inviting the aliens) and had much love for a dog trying to escape fire alongside co-star Vivica A. Fox. Why did we feel this way? Because the dog wasn't a bad guy at all. He wasn't twisted or evil or filled with even the slightest hint of bad intentions. And neither was that red car.

For the sake of tying things back to shmups, here's actual footage of someone blowing up the unfortunate vehicle (@ 0:53). Note how an entire condo is blown up immediately afterwards and how little I care about it.

Know what's even worse? In Dual and Double modes, there are two cars careening to their doom atop that highway. A moment of silence for the blue car, too.

[cross-posted to Gamasutra]

Monday, March 9, 2009

Warning Forever: Your own personalized Frankenstein

There's no questioning that you are solely responsible for the personal Hell that you put yourself through when playing Warning Forever, my favorite entry from Hikoza Ohkubo's glorious (yet still in its infancy) library of experimental shmups. And rather than pay hundreds of dollars to legitimately play the games I've covered earlier (Radiant Silvergun being worth more eBay dollars than the number of max chains I can ever get in Chapter 2 of Ikaruga), this baby is free of charge and worth every second of your time. To get back on topic, Warning Forever (or in homage to Mr. Ohkubo's lust for the caps lock, WARNING FOREVER) is really the masochist's shmup, as it equally gives back what is put into it (and unfortunately for us all, there's no "give hug" button).

The real charm of this give-and-receive relationship with the boss (which happens to be the only enemy you fight in the game) is how your direct actions influence how it decides to evolve for the proceeding stage. Shooting its legs out makes it come back next time with fancy shin guards; demolishing its arms finds its return with a mighty thorax; and should you happen to be killed by a certain type of weapon, you can be sure it'll beef those bad boys up next come-around. There's always a fearful joy that comes about when the next boss presents itself, slightly upgraded, with just a little bit more mascara around the edges (a continuously-despised-yet-you-still-admit-to-enjoying it presentation paralleled only by the timeless Madonna). It's interesting, then, to note that it's never quite known how the boss will evolve its form, yet you just witnessed yourself perform every dodge, shot, and hit that influenced how it would go shopping for new body parts in between the last level and the current.

In this regard, you're essentially creating your own personalized Frankenstein that has no other pleasure in life than to destroy its maker (and for you bookworms, I realize I should be referring to the boss as a "personalized Frankenstein's monster," but for the sake of what Hollywood did to the name and how much more pleasing my version slips off the tongue, you'll just have to make the best with what you've got). Irony sets the tone with the coming of each stage, as the boss continually becomes better and better at pinpointing your strategies and weaknesses, all while your ship is never upgraded, save for your fingers' abilities in dodging and shooting the core.

And on the topic of finger precision, there's more to the innovations list than the player-driven boss evolutions, that being the alternate firing method. Falling into the category of an arena shmup (wherein full 360-degree movement of player and enemies are integral to gameplay), it would have been ideal (and comfortably cliche) to have a set of four keys controlling cardinal direction of movement and an additional four designated for direction of fire. This has been simplified to four keys controlling all of the above via simple, intuitive gestures of the ship; moving forward and back widens and narrows the cone of fire, respectively, while strafing left and right rotates the cone. Firing locks it in place so you can keep your configuration while maneuvering through what inevitably becomes a dance around some heel-lickin' bullets. The design is simple, quick when needed, and long-lasting when working perfectly (though it does take a few run-throughs to get the gist of it. I suppose simplifying something more complex that's already accepted has that associated nature).

Another way to think of this game is that it's really just a "shmup boss designer" with a very interactive interface, that being your ship getting blown up more than you'd like to mention. The countdown timer, incessantly ticking in the corner, is certainly no aid in calming your nerves upon witnessing each grandiose rebirth of your recently-defeated foe, though it does add to how many beats per minute your heart reads when watching the title screen fade back into its mesmerizing flight across an abstract grid (Easter Egg Alert: The grid in the background can be controlled with the arrow keys, giving you a third entity to control with the same four keys. Nifty.).

Here's a run that shows the meaty mid-section of the game (bypassing the slower beginning stages and not spoiling how vastly large that sucker really gets). And if you look closely, you'll see that cone of fire I was talking about. It eventually blends in seamlessly.

[cross-posted to Gamasutra]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ikaruga: Eating dots for a healthier life

For a game like Ikaruga, the concepts of meticulous memorization of movements, skillful execution of polarity-switching, and perfected timing are but a few of the many necessary ingredients for a successful playthrough. I don't know about you, but doing all of this is as stressful to my body as it is thrilling to succeed in (I can't be the only one with shaky wrists and a few beads of sweat on my brow after completing Chapter 4 on one credit). It then comes as a sort of shock to find that there's a hidden method of implicit play that comes from not firing a single bullet. For those familiar (I can sense a few heads nodding with a grin), feel free to relive your experiences in this post; for those new to the idea, I invite you to learn about one of the most calming and soothing times you'll ever have in a shmup. This is all about becoming a Dot Eater.

In similar fashion to collecting dogs in Radiant Silvergun, there's a secret ranking that is achieved upon fulfilling the requirements of never firing, but rather absorbing enemy bullets of your current polarity, appropriately named Dot Eater!. Because your score would be so pitiful compared to your score if you had gone for max chains, it's nice that the Dot Eater! ranking takes the place of the standard grading system (of C through the makes-you-look-good S++).

The way in which one plays as a dot eater is entirely up to that person. You could try and collect as many dots as possible, or see how seldom you need to move in order to survive. The first (of multiple) times my jaw dropped into self-discovered realization was in finding that the entire intro to Chapter 1 can be played without moving, or even changing polarity for that matter. The true beauty of enemy patterns and bullet fire comes out in full choreography, blossoming across the screen and exiting with as much grace as your involuntary arcs and passive dodges throughout each wave. Boss battles must be played out for the entire time limit, allowing you to appreciate the balance and harmony of bullet patterns (minding the oscillating swiftness of the bosses as they dance above you). Though you're still required to pay attention and act accordingly when needed, the fact that you only have to press one button to play greatly simplifies each chapter, effectively allowing your brain's extra processing power to see what you've actually been dodging all these years.

I've even noticed that my breathing patterns are rhythmically tied to the ballet of maneuvers, a detail only apparent during the scoring screen following each chapter. The constant portrayal of the yin and yang throughout the game (can't forget that sweet tattoo on Buppousou's main body) shows its true form when everything from the game is kept intact, as if you were a passive entity moving through a balanced world, which is pretty much what it boils down to anyway. It feels as if there are equal parts of black enemies, black bullets, white enemies, and white bullets.

And speaking of passively moving through the world, there comes a point in Chapter 2 wherein there is a wall of impenetrable and polarized blocks, none of which can be destroyed following the way of the dot eater. The solution is ingenious, involving the precise positioning of your Ikaruga in between the cracks of any two blocks - a feat with a grace window of only a few pixels. The result? You effectively grant yourself a joyride through wall after wall of obstacles, as if you're behind the scenes, watching the play unfold from backstage. Demonstration here. I still wonder what it would feel like to dot-eat through Chapter 5, but something seems to continue stopping me every time.

Below is a complete DotEater run through Chapter 1, executed pretty nicely. Keep in mind that the experience I described above won't be seen in this video - you really have to go play for yourself. Not to worry, as the game is available on Dreamcast and Gamecube as a collector's item, as well as on Xbox Live Arcade for the why-don't-you-own-this-already price of $10.

We'll meet again someday soon :)

[cross-posted to Gamasutra]