Friday, September 2, 2011

Omnicron: Think Less; Do More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download Omnicron!

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Monday, August 1, 2011

Inferno Means Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Friday, July 1, 2011

June Happenings and the Final Theory

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

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

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

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

Moving On Up (Highscores, I Mean)

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

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

Until next month, keep those shots comin!

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Eschatos: Forcing Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, April 30, 2011

[Not Your] Everyday Shooter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...Okay, maybe second most fun.

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Friday, April 1, 2011

That Was The Sound Of You Winning

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

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

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

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

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

Radiant Silvergun

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

ESP Galuda II

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

Death Smiles

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


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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Difficulty: Way Too Hard To Be This Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hydorah trailer, complete with lovably cheesy voice work:

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Geometry Wars 2: My 2009 New Year's Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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