Saturday, June 19, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Sunday, May 9, 2010

One Credit Completion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone needs to 1CC something in their life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Full YouTube playlist here]

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Treasure: The Thrill of The Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Novice Ultra Mode: An Oxymoron For Us All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Anatomy of a Shmup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ikaruga: The Art of Chaining

Chaining. I've touched on this before, but I've wanted to do a video version for a long time. And, as it just so happens to be the one year anniversary of SHMUPtheory (Happy BDay, little guy), I felt like celebrating with something special. Below you'll find a 10+ minute video guide on how to chain the first chapter of Ikaruga, or at least how I do it. I spent quite a bit of time putting this thing together, especially when compared with how long it takes to type a regular post, so I hope you guys enjoy. Also, I realized it would probably be helpful to see the entire run without interruptions, so an additional uncut version is provided even further down.

Enjoy and happy chaining!

Below is the uncut version, since I realized it would make things a lot easier if the gameplay didn't pause every two seconds. This way it's much easier to learn timings (and sound cues).

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lag, Control, and You

Talking about control isn't something that should be new to you. It's not some aspect of game design that slipped by your critical radar all these years and suddenly has been given new light. I'm sure you can still remember your thoughts when the Wii's controller was first unveiled; how impressed you were (and still are) at the SNES controller's simple, yet refined curves; how weird it was to see the Virtual Boy's double D-pad; how happy-yet-disappointed it was to see the Playstation controller evolve only under the hood - rather than on the outside - as each successive console was revealed. This is something that doesn't need to be said at all, as you should already know all of this. All of it. Still, though, I have things to say about control in relation to shmups. I'll try my best to stay on target.

First off, let's define something here: "control". Control is comprised of any and all aspects in games that allow you, the player, to interact with the game. The most prominent factors are some sort of input apparatus (e.g. a controller) and a monitor/television/Tiger Electronics LCD screen for viewing the status of a game. The factor I'm most concerned about is lag, which is no stranger to almost all other genres of games, especially fighters, racers, and FPSs.

Lag in itself means different things. We have:
  • 1. Lag from human response time - This is how long it takes you to see something, calculate what you want to do, convert that to controller inputs, and make your body carry out those actions. This takes longer for more complex inputs (such as the infamous "The Mohawk").
  • 2. Lag from controller-to-console-to-monitor - This is easily the shortest lag of all, yet it tends to gain the most hatred for ever existing. This also includes the online gaming route of controller-to-console-to-server-to-console-to-monitor.
  • 3. Lag from game-related issues - Intentional slowdown, intense calculations, etc. This technically takes place during lag #2, but it deserves its own recognition.
  • 4. Lag from Light - The time it takes for light to reflect off the monitor, travel through space, and into your retinas. I think I'll ignore this one.
And since we're all so visual nowadays, here are those same 4 kinds of lag, presented in one cohesive diagram:

Human Response Time Lag
In regards to response time, I don't have too much to say. This is the easiest lag to alleviate, though it takes the longest to achieve. The only way to make this lag go away is to keep on practicing until pressing buttons becomes second-nature. Luckily, practice in one game usually rolls over to other games, and even to other consoles. It varies from person to person. Some people are super quick at reacting, but aren't too accurate. Other people may take a few extra milliseconds to realize what's going on, but usually pull through. And of course there are people who are unfamiliar with their input device and have to look down at their hands more often than they look at the monitor.

Electronic Limitations Lag
Lag from the controller to the monitor is some kind of new-found beast in this generation. Back when we all had wired controllers and CRTs, no one even mentioned this. Now we've got Street Fighter IV vets who talk down upon wireless controllers' inferior speeds for sending input signals. There are forums dedicated to finding the right HDTV so as to minimalize the time it takes to process a composite signal into a digital format. Many HDTVs come with an option to switch to "Game Mode", which sacrifices cleaner visuals for less processing time.

As an avid fan and tournament-goer for Super Smash Bros. Melee, I can confirm for those out of the loop that pros will only play serious matches on CRTs. This is a fact across the United States and in international countries (I know you're there, Sweden, France, and Japan). Any HDTVs at a tourny are often used as the "just messin' around" TVs, the ones that are ignored during serious gameplay. Almost all players choose not to use the wireless Wavebird, despite its high review marks, to avoid any channel-switching shenanigans / battery-related tragedies. Does all of this attention to the saving of milliseconds make that much of a difference?

Yes. This is why MadCatz's billion-selling fight sticks have wires. They don't want any potential customer to doubt for a second that he or she will witness electric lag before purchasing one of these bad boys... especially when he or she will be dropping 150 big ones (i.e. dollars). Using HD cables on an HD console with a newer HDTV has become less of a problem. It's still there, but I feel technology is closing this short-lived chapter soon enough.

Intentionally Programmed / Intense Calculations Lag
When we press a button, we expect to see a result on the screen immediately (or rather, in such a quick manner that it feels instantaneous. Can't ignore physics after all.) If we press a button, wait, and then see the result appear on the screen, there had better be a good reason for it. Going back to Melee: if you try to jump, your character will first duck down and prepare for jumping, a Principle of Animation known as "anticipation". It makes the jump more believable, and only takes a few frames to accomplish. The game runs at 60 frames/second, so we're talking about a very short amount of time it takes to finally see your character leap into the air. This kind of lag is short enough to be ignored (...well maybe that's a poor example, as pros love to exploit this moment to wavedash all up and down their opponents' grills. It's hardly ignored at all and many players love to count frames to calculate how to achieve an added boost in--

Oh... right, shmups.

Intentional Lag in Shmups
The kind of input lag without immediate result that can really mess up gameplay can be found in many shmups. Let's look at Irukandji by Charlies Games. I hate to use this as an example, as I just love Charlie's other shmups to death, including the so-well-done (and 100% nsfw) Space Phallus, but I have a point to make here. The game takes place underwater. When you try to move, your ship takes a few frames to get up to speed, to simulate the water friction that would be found in such an environment. When you let go of movement inputs, the ship takes a few frames to slow down. This means if you want to move in a completely opposite direction than you currently are moving, then it takes about twice as long as usual to come to a stop, then start from rest and build that momentum back up to go the other way. The bullet patterns never get too complex to require intense weaving, and I totally understand that it's underwater and should feel like we're under water. But come on... this is a shmup.

I guess it makes little sense for a ship to be able to stop on a dime in any direction, but sometimes it's just needed. In shmups, it's almost always needed. And they're still tough as nails without any momentum lag. Plus, ya know, we have far more important things to complain about...

Here's a quick and dirty graph of the time it takes to reach full speed as compared with how much we should be tolerating it. I picked these games off the top of my head, so I can't exactly say they're accurately placed (especially since there are no numerical values for the axes). This graph is based simply off of my personal experience with them. Also note that the red bar exponentially reaches intolerability very rapidly.

Faster than Fast
It makes even less sense that most shmups allow your ship to move at full horizontal and vertical speeds when moving diagonally. The X and Y-axis movements are separate forces, so if you move diagonally, you actually end up combining their forces. Following Pythagoras, this means you'd technically be moving at ~1.414 times your normal movement speed. Ever wonder why speedrunners in FPSs move diagonally through worlds? Ever wonder why bunny hopping works so gosh darn well? Now you know.

That's all fine and dandy, but why don't more shmups force you to only move at your maximum speed? Many arena shmups impose this limitation, such as in Geometry Wars, but it's unheard of in vert and hori shmups. Why? Well, just think about it: As you wiggle through a swarm of pink death candy, you continuously hold [up] and sometimes press [right] to sneak through when an opening arises. If you could only move at maximum speed when moving in both directions, your vertical speed would slow down momentarily until you let go of [right]. This can very quickly become annoying and ultimately spell both your doom and a non-braggable NO RANK status at the leaderboard. It's cool with me to find this in arena shmups, especially when using analog sticks, since both your ship and the input device move in similar circular fashions.

Compensating for Something Small
It's possible to get used to sudden bursts and halts in speed as you weave in and out of certain death. It's possible to compensate for your ship's inability to change direction faster than in 0.2 seconds. It's possible for the mind to calculate everything happening on screen, tacking on an additional 0.2 seconds of leeway knowing that this one game was designed to feel more believable.

Back in the 56k modem days (33.3 for moi), we had to know when to let go of our sniper rifles' triggers in TFC, assuming the intended target would continue his trajectory and land under that big red spot just as the lag caught up and registered a hit. That was unnecessary skill, but we compensated. My point is, we shouldn't have to make that compensation, especially if the reasoning is because the developer(s) decided to make things not as responsive as they could have been.

True, there are plenty of instances where a little bit of intentional lag is passable, but when input-results become too delayed, the game isn't even worth getting good at. An exceptional exception is found in Mushihimesama Futari 1.5 (gazuntite) for Xbox360. The game intentionally creates gamespeed lag when too many bullets/killer insects are on screen (so as to emulate the arcade version). Your beetle-ship still responds faster than Lassie at an unsupervised well, but the whole game is slowed momentarily, allowing you to make even Neo a bit jealous.

Shameless Plug
And for those of you who were patiently waiting this whole time to make a comment about my own shmup's ship taking a little too long to move back and forth, I know. Trust me, I know. I obviously had my reasons, but I don't think they really make a difference at this point (especially after having rambled for much longer than was needed for something you already knew). If I ever make another shmup, rest assured you'll be stopping on dimes and moving at ~1.414 times your maximum speed all day.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]